The expression may be “Rome wasn’t built in a day” but the same is certainly not true for seeing Rome! This past summer we took our kids on an epic tour of Europe – 5 countries in 2 weeks – and naturally Rome was one of the stops! However, for this part of our trip we were actually passengers on the Celebrity Equinox – and docked for only a single day in Civitavecchia, Italy. This experience made me realize that many of you may be doing the same thing this summer so I wrote this Family Travel Guide to Rome in hopes that it will help your trip to Rome to run more smoothly!
After many, many (no seriously like. so. many.) hours of research on my travel bible, Trip Advisor, we settled on using a tour company (Driver Guide Service) to get us to and from the ship, and to arrange a private tour of Rome. We could have done this by booking a shore excursion on the cruise, but what we really wanted was to be able to see Rome our way – and not be stuck on a tour with a hundred other people. Of all the companies available I chose Driver Guide Service because they have over 1,300 reviews and FIVE STARS on Trip Advisor. Do you know how hard it is to have that many reviews and have a perfect rating? Being that we had an 8 and 9 year old in tow I also wanted a guide who could keep all 4 of us entertained, and who would not only not mind, but actually enjoy our children, and all of the reviews seemed to indicate that DGS would be the perfect match.
When we stepped off the ship in Civitavecchia we met our guide, Pietro–a super energetic, welcoming, hilarious, lifelong Roman who was excited to get our day started. He promptly showed us to our private, air-conditioned van and we began our 1.5 hour journey into Rome. Pietro didn’t waste any time, he took advantage of our time driving into Rome to talk to us about the history of Rome, and find out exactly what we wanted to see during our time there. The biggest benefit to hiring a private guide and car service in Rome is that they can pull right up in front of the attractions – they are allowed to stop and park where others can not. This means we were able to see much more in a day than we could have on our own!
Our first stop was Piazza Navona – a place I had requested to show the kids because it is a beautiful traditional Roman Piazza that was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian dating back to 1st century AD. The shape of the Piazza follows the open space of the stadium, and though the stadium is no longer there it contains other gems, such as Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. If this fountain sounds familiar to you (aside from the fact that it is famous in it’s own right) it is because it was featured in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons as one of the Altars of Science.
Don’t worry – our tour wasn’t all history and art. Thanks to Pietro’s tutoring, Banks had a great time learning to drink from a Roman water fountain–much to the delight of his sister and dad!
After our stop here we hopped back in the van with Pietro and he took us over to to the Pantheon which is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings. Pietro wowed us with the knowledge that to this day it is still unknown exactly how the dome stands – it is actually the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome – and it is spectacular. The current building was finished between 126-128 AD and is still currently in use as a Catholic Church. Can you imagine having your wedding in something so beautiful and so steeped in history?!
Next we moved along to the famous “Spanish Steps” or as Pietro taught us “The Steps of The Trinity”. These 135 famous steps connect the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Square) at the bottom with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top which includes the church of the same name. If you’re an Audrey Hepburn fan you’ll recognize these famous steps from Roman Holiday.
The Piazza di Spagna also includes the famous “Fountain of the Ugly Boat” which is presumed to have been built by Bernini’s father, Pietro Bernini. The water in the fountain is drinkable, and as Audrey Grace learned, is also wonderful for cooling off on a hot summer day (It was 95 degrees on the day that we visited. I know, in all of these photos we look like we are melting. We were.).
After this we found Pietro waiting for us at the bottom of the steps and we gratefully climbed into the air-conditioned van for a short driving tour of some of the other smaller monuments before making our way to the world-famous Colosseum. Pietro had purchased tickets for us earlier that morning (at a better price than we could have bought them for ourselves, might I add) but we were absolutely crushed when we walked up to discover a 2-hour-long security line. Pietro, however, had a plan – and he taught us to be “Roman” as he called it. While engaging with the children and showing them parts of the Colosseum he just sort of backed right into the line near the front — and we were then waved through by the guards!
At this point Morgan looked at me and said “Worth EVERY penny”.
The Colosseum was a big hit with the kids – even though everyone was hot and sweaty it was hard not to be amazed by the gritty and somewhat gruesome history of the Colosseum. We learned about the spectacles put on by the Gladiators as well as the mock sea battles that were staged here by flooding the bottom of the giant amphitheater. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or an adult, the stories are pretty mind-blowing.
After our time at the Colosseum (and of course in the Colosseum gift shop) Pietro suggested a few options for lunch. He gave us a choice between a slow sit-down meal or a quick sandwich or slice of pizza and the chance to see a few more things. Our kids don’t sit down for long anyway so we opted for the on-the-go meal and I’m so glad that we did.
Pietro took us to this little Piazza called Campo de’ Fiori in the middle of Rome where he said that typical Romans (read: not a tourist trap) would grab lunch. There were two options – both owned by the same people – one sandwich shop and one pizza shop (where you ordered your pizza by weight!!).
You guys. Seriously this was the best food I have ever eaten. The best sandwich, the most amazing pizza. My taste buds were in heaven. I had no idea food could taste so delicious – and I’m from New Orleans! If you ever find yourself in Rome you MUST run, not walk, to Il Forno Campo de’ Fiori. I had the famous pizza bianca (white pizza) and later discovered that this is the spot that made it famous.
After lunch (and a quick stop for gelato) Pietro whisked us away to Vatican City, where we met our private guide who would be giving us a tour of the Vatican for the next 2 hours. She had already purchased tickets for us so that we didn’t have to wait in-line, and after going through security we walked right in!
Having a private guide that takes you through the Vatican, especially if you are traveling with kids, is a splurge that is well worth it. Our guide was able to customize our experience to our interests, and that of the kids, too. Unfortunately there is no photography allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but when I saw our kids look up at the ceiling for the first time and stare in awe, I had to wipe tears away from my eyes. I was so grateful to share this experience with our kids, and that they were able to experience it at such a young age. (I was 31 before I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time!)
Our final stop before leaving Vatican City was St. Peter’s Basilica (so named after Peter – one of the 12 apostles of Jesus who is believed to be buried beneath the church), which never ceases to amaze me. The dome of the church was designed by Michaelangelo, and it is believed that St. Peter’s is the largest Christian church in the world – covering over 5 acres and able to hold over 60,000 people. Audrey Grace was particularly enthralled by the fact that there is a room in the church that contains the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. In the photo below you can see the room on the right hand side of the photo – the entrance is on the 2nd floor and you can spot it by the balcony with the cross above it.
After we wrapped up our private tour and thanked (and tipped!) our lovely guide, we met back up with Pietro who had cold waters waiting for us and was ready to whisk us back to our cruise ship. You may have noticed that we did not see the Trevi Fountain on our visit – when we were in Rome it was covered with scaffolding and under restoration – but as I told the kids that just gives us another reason to go back! However had it not been covered at the time of our visit we most definitely would have made a stop to see it.
I hope this travel guide helps you if you are considering a visit to Rome with kids. If you are traveling to by cruise ship to Civitavecchia like we did, I cannot recommend using a private tour service to see Rome highly enough. It was pricey but it was worth every penny – we would have never seen as much of Rome as we did in 6 hours without Pietro and the help of DGS. (I’m not saying that because we were sponsored in any way – to be clear we booked and paid for this entire trip ourselves. I’m just super impressed with the service and would happily recommend it to anyone!)