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Family City Break in Rome

Those about to sightsee, we salute you! Touring Rome with kids requires a gladiatorial effort. It’s a hot, sprawling, chaotic city packed with ancient monuments, museums, churches and galleries. Throw in the Vatican and it will feel like two city breaks rolled into one. But before you sidestep Italy’s vibrant capital, just think what you will be missing: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum... kids will feel like time travellers as they explore these historical icons. Just make sure you don’t enslave them in a non-stop history lesson – Rome’s lighter side (gelato, fountains, parks, shopping, etc) will help to ensure your conquest of the city is enjoyable as well as informative. 

Day 1
Start with the Colosseum. It opens at 0900 and can be reached by Metro Line B to Colosseo station, as well as by bus or tram. It’s not only big and impressive, but it’s the one sight in Rome that children are most likely to relate to – especially teenagers who have watched Russell Crowe strut his stuff in Gladiator. You can join an organized tour or explore the ruins on your own. Be sure to stand centre stage where warriors, slaves and wild beasts engaged in deadly combat nearly 2000 years ago. Try to imagine the roar of the 70,000-strong crowd, and don’t miss the maze of tunnels and pens where lions, tigers and other animals were held prior to the slaughter. About 200 cats still prowl the Colosseum – challenge your kids to see how many they can spot.

Now that your children are fired up about ancient Rome, take them to see the adjacent Roman Forum (Foro Romano), a patchwork of ruined triumphal arches, basilicas and temples that once formed the city’s civic and ceremonial heart. You can access it from Via dei Fori Imperiali, but kids will grasp the layout better if you walk up the small hill behind the Colosseum and enter the Forum by the Arch of Titus on Via Sacra – the street along which victorious commanders paraded their spoils of war. Don’t even attempt to see everything in the Forum.

By now it will be approaching midday and you’ll be getting hot and hungry. Make a beeline for the House of the Vestal Virgins and the vaulted Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius, then hop in a taxi or bus (or walk if you have the energy) to Piazza Navona. Built around three flamboyant Baroque fountains, this beautiful square is lined with palaces and pavement cafés, and is usually bustling with street performers and artists. It’s a great place to boost your children’s energy levels aided, no doubt, by tartufo, a chocolate ice cream, fudge and cherry concoction served at Tre Scalini. From Piazza Navona, it’s a short walk to the Pantheon, the best-preserved ancient building in Rome, where kids will be intrigued to discover an 8.3m-wide hole (or oculus) in the dome. From the Pantheon, take bus route 116 to Villa Borghese, a large park where kids can rent bikes and boats or ride ponies – just rewards for all that sightseeing earlier in the day.

Day 2 
By now, the Vatican City will seem irresistible, but you’re risking cultural overload (and rebellion) by taking kids to the city state straight after a day hotfooting it around ancient Rome. Save the Vatican for your third day and keep day two relatively laid-back. Teenagers may want to check out the big names in haute couture along Via Conditti or scour Via del Corso for anything from CDs to shoes.

Nearby is the famous Trevi Fountain which is particularly beautiful when floodlit at night. Don’t forget to toss a coin into the fountain, throwing it over your shoulder to ensure a safe return visit to the Eternal City. A little further north, the Rococo monument of the Spanish Steps (ablaze with azaleas in May) is another popular spot from which to soak up the city’s atmosphere. The best gelato in the Trevi neighbourhood is at San Crispino on Via della Panettaria, while pick of the pizzas can be found at Pizzeria da Ricci on Via Genova.

Afterwards, assuming you can stomach it, wander over to the Capuchin Crypt on Via Veneto where the bones of dead monks adorn the walls. Alternatively, for something equally macabre, head south along Via Appia Antica to visit the Catacombs – a labyrinth of cemeteries where roughly hewn, dimly lit corridors are lined with tomb niches. Some, like the Catacombs of San Domitilla, still contain human bones.

Day 3 
The Vatican might only cover 43 ha, but what the world’s smallest state lacks in size it more than makes up for with historical, cultural and religious esteem. The quickest way to get there is by Metro Line A to Ottaviano San Pietro, from where it’s a short walk to St Peter’s Square. This vast papal-audience ground is flanked by the 284 columns of Bernini’s Colonnade (great for hide and seek) and punctuated at its centre by an obelisk brought from Egypt in AD 37. But inevitably you will be drawn towards the massive façade of St Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church. Doors open daily at 0700, but you won’t be allowed inside wearing sleeveless tops, shorts or above-knee-length skirts. Suitably attired, steer your children towards the first nave on the right where Michelangelo’s exquisite marble carving, Pietà, depicts a grief-stricken Mary cradling the crucified body of Jesus. For children, one of the highlights of a visit to the Vatican is to climb St Peter’s 136.5m-high dome from where there are superb views across the rooftops of Rome. You can take a lift part of the way, but that still leaves you with some 330 steps.

By now your kids will be developing a healthy respect for Michelangelo (St Peter’s dome was his design), but if there’s one Michelangelo masterstroke that you’ve simply got to show them, it has to be the ceiling art of the Sistine Chapel. To reach it you need to navigate the immense art treasury of the Vatican Museums. It’s a 20-minute walk from the entrance of the museum complex to the Sistine Chapel without even pausing to admire the wealth of Roman antiquities and Renaissance paintings. What, if anything, you decide to linger over will depend on how your children are bearing up and how much queuing you’ve had to endure. Ultimately, though, those nine colourful scenes from Genesis (which took Michelangelo four painstaking years to complete, mostly while lying on his back at the top of a scaffold) are usually enough to lift the eyes and the spirits of even the most jaded child.