By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
Sorry, but Rome is not a great place for little kids. Parks are rare. Kid-friendly parks are more rare. Most of the museums are low-tech and lack hands-on fun.
But there is some good news. Rome's many squares are traffic-free, with plenty of space to run and pigeons to feed while Mom and Dad enjoy a coffee at an outdoor table. Italians are openly fond of kids, so you'll probably get lots of friendly attention from locals. And you won't get many complaints about the cuisine: pizza and gelato. Buona fortuna!
Take advantage of local information. Roma c'è , the periodical entertainment guide (sold at newsstands), has a children's section in English. Ask at Rome's TIs (tourist information offices) about kid-friendly activities. It's often have a helpful "kids' pack."
Don't overdo it. Tackle only one or two key sights a day (Vatican Museum, or Colosseum and Forum) and mix with a healthy dose of fun activities, like exploring Rome's great public sites (Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and Villa Borghese).
Rome's hotels often give price breaks for kids. (Air-conditioning can be worth the splurge.)
Eat dinner early (around 19:00) and you'll miss the romantic crowd. Skip the popular restaurants. Look instead for self-serve cafeterias, bars (kids are welcome), or even fast-food places where kids can move around without bothering others. Picnic lunches and dinners work well. For ready-made picnics that can please adults and kids, try the rosticceríe (delis). Pizza Rustica shops sell cheap take-out pizza; kids like margherita (tomato and cheese) and diavola (similar to pepperoni).
Public WCs are hard to find: Try museums, bars, gelato shops, and fast-food restaurants.
Follow my guidebook's crowd-beating tips to a tee. Kids don't like standing in a long line for a museum (which they might not even want to see).
Any person under 39 inches tall travels free on Rome's public transit.
Rome's Top Sights for Children
Rome's many squares are traffic-free, with plenty of space to run and pigeons to feed while Mom and Dad enjoy a coffee at an outdoor table.
When visiting the ancient sites, have some fun with Rome: Past and Present, a book with plastic overlays showing how the ruins used to look. It's available at stalls near the entrance of ancient sites.
Explora, the children's museum in Rome, is a hands-on wonderland for kids 12 and under. The exhibits are in Italian, but kids probably won't care (the helpful staff speaks English).
Bocca della Verità , the legendary "Mouth of Truth," draws a young crowd and parents with cameras. Stick your hand in the mouth of the gaping stone face on the wall. As the legend goes, if you're a liar, your hand will be gobbled up. (On the porch of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, on Piazza Bocca della Verità, near the north end of Circus Maximus.)
Rome has a big water park called Hydromania (pronounced EE-dro-man-EE-ah), featuring a giant wave pool and what is billed as the "fastest slide in Italy." There is another water park called Aquapiper near Tivoli, a 15-minute drive east of Rome.
The Vatican Museum comes with mummies and cool statues of animals. (There's an entire hall of statues with their penises broken off that my kids found entertaining.) Nearby, Castel Sant' Angelo — with Vatican views and weapon displays — appeals to young knights.
The Villa Borghese Gardens are Rome's sprawling central park. The best kids' zones are near Porta Pinciana, where you'll find rental bikes, pony rides, and other amusements (Metro: Barberini or Spagna). Summer activities at the gardens, sure to be a hit with kids, include hot-air balloon rides — a great way to get the lay of the land and a life-long memory — and classic Roman puppet shows at Teatro dei Burattini (weekends only). Rome's zoo, Bioparco, in the northeast section of the park, houses about 900 animals — including the endangered black lemur, pygmy hippopotamus, Gila monster, and painted hunting dog.
The spooky tunnels of the Catacombs and the ghoulish Cappuccin Crypt (crypt may be closed for renovation) are goblin pleasers. The Church of St. Ignazio, with its false dome, fascinates kids and adults.
Your children can visit Egypt by visiting Rome's funky little pyramid (free and always viewable, Metro: Piramide).
Budding soccer stars could enjoy a local match at either of the stadiums: Flaminio (Metro to Flaminio) or Olympic (Metro to Flaminio, then tram #225 to Piazza Mancini).
Older children might like exploring Pompeii but it makes for a long day (allow about 3 hours each way by train, via Naples). Another option (and another long day) is a train ride to Pisa (also 3 hours one-way by train) to visit its famous tipsy tower. It's open for climbing, but you need to reserve a time slot when you buy your ticket — and you might have to wait a few hours. For an extra charge, you can reserve online ahead of time.