Planning a city break with teens? We headed to Italy: here are our top tips on seeing the best of Rome
- World famous historic sights
- Classical ruins, palazzos, fountains
- Warm Mediterranean weather
- The Eternal City with a sense of theatre
- Pizza and ice-cream!
Who went, where and when: Nancy with Nick 15 and Ed 13 in October 2012
Why Rome: Of all possible European city breaks I thought Rome was the best bet for teenagers. Even so I was worried we might have missed the boat. The boys had already ‘done’ the Romans at school a few years earlier. They’d been keen to visit then, but now? Not so much. But once we got there, just walking the cobbled streets and spotting the iconic curved wall of the Colosseum was pretty magical.
Rome with Teens: our top 8 sights
We spent three days in Rome: here are our top finds – and the ones that got away….
Toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain and according to legend you are sure to return some day
If you do nothing else in Rome, grab a gelato and visit the fountain. Maybe it’s a cliche but somehow the spectacular Baroque sculpture (gods, leaping horses, crashing waves) and the cheery buzz of tourists in the sunshine adds up to the full Roman Holiday effect.
There’s a famous saying that visitors who toss a coin in the fountain are sure to return someday. Plenty of people must want to – around 3000 euros a day are collected from the water and given to a charity for Rome’s needy. To do it right you need to turn your back, hold the coin in your right hand and throw it over your left shoulder. A newer version of the legend says you should throw three coins – the first to ensure your return, the second for a new romance and the third for marriage. All easier said than done in the daytime crush of selfie-takers. But the Trevi fountain is lit up dramatically at night and there’s less of a crowd then too.
Piazza di Trevi
The Colosseum and Forum
See where the Romans watched the games and ruled the world
We all agreed, in advance, that we might as well do this properly so we bought combined tickets for the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine Hill. They work well together – but to do them properly is properly tiring and all three of us were visibly sagging after a morning’s walking in the sun. To help you decide how to tackle these epic sites yourself here’s our feedback. We’d suggest you don’t plan anything else for the day!
Visiting the Forum
The Forum is a bunch of ruins scattered around a large terraced site. They are indeed venerable but they’re ruins nonetheless and it takes a bit of effort to figure out what kind of buildings they represent.
Buy the guidebook We recommend that you nip into a souvenir shop and buy the spiral bound guidebook called Ancient Rome Past and Present. It has photos of the present day sites and acetate overlays showing how they once looked. Yes, it is slightly heavier than you might prefer to carry around with you all day! But armed with this you can settle down at a vantage point on Palatine Hill, identify the buildings as they are now and turn the pages to see what they once looked like. Suddenly it all makes sense and the lost grandeur of the Forum is revealed.
Book your tickets before you go We didn’t and wasted about 20 minutes in the queue. The Palatine entrance on Via di San Gregorio does have a shorter queue than the main entrance but it wasn’t short enough on the day we visited! You may also need proof of age/nationality of children for a reduced rate. I had photos of our passports on my phone but the real thing would have been better.
Bring water and snacks There are no snack facilities and not much shade either once inside the complex. On a warm day bring bottled water – the mobile vans outside are eye-wateringly expensive. You might want to take snacks too. If you forget or run out there are water fountains to be found inside, also loos.
Take a break Determined adults could do the Palatine plus Forum and Colosseum in one take but it’s still a big ask. We took a pit stop between the two, at a touristy café just across the road, with a close up view of that famous façade. Copying the Italians at the next table, we skipped the burger menu and ordered tramezzini – sandwiches – from a chalkboard on the bar which were a lot cheaper and delicious.
Inside the Colosseum
Personally, and given its bloodthirsty history, I find the Colosseum rather grim and menacing. The massive amphitheatre, built in AD 70
was the scene of regular barbaric ‘sport’ in which wild animals, gladiators or criminals fought and were killed. The exterior is magnificent but inside it looks a bit of a wreck – it was basically used as a quarry for centuries – and leaves a lot to the imagination.
With hindsight I think a guide could have helped bring it all to life for us.
The Past and Present book – see above – would have been a bonus here too. It’s possible to book, well in advance, for tours of the underground areas and the third ring of the exterior wall. However for those who don’t plan ahead there’s museum-style info and displays to browse including (my personal highlight) ancient Roman graffiti – with translations.
Finally watch out for the centurions! They add historical colour but photos with them are not free so check the price before you pose.
Piazza del Colosseo 1
Some of the glory that was Rome is still intact
Surrounded by tourist shops and restaurants it’s hard to comprehend at first that the Pantheon is a truly Ancient Roman structure built by Emperor Hadrian in 118 AD.
We visited on our first night when it was closed but it was still an impactful start to our trip. By day it is equally impressive with its vast concrete dome and central oculus (opening) to the sky.
Worth a look if you’re ever there in a rainstorm, just to see it raining indoors – the water drains into ancient Roman pipes. Try visiting in the evening just before it closes and then have supper in the square beside it. It’s free to enter too!
Piazza della Rotonda
Visit the Vatican
The Vatican Museums house one of the greatest collections of art in the world. Classical statues, frescoes, Old Masters and modern works plus Michelangelo’s Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
This is another epic outing! The Vatican City is the smallest state in the world, residence of the Pope and nerve centre of the Roman Catholic Church. St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are the must-sees, as well as the distinctive Swiss Guard who wear uniforms that were originally designed in the 1500s.
The Museums complex includes the Sistine Chapel so we booked our Vatican Museums tickets from the UK to avoid the very long morning queues click here for a link to the Vatican Museums website.
Once inside there are over 50 rooms and most of them are full of visitors. We had planned in advance to skip many of the galleries and concentrate on reaching the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s globally famous fresco of God and Adam. However this is easier said than done. There are no real short cuts to the Sistine Chapel and I think it’s unlikely that you could reach it in less than an hour. A one-way system for visitors led us remorselessly through a long series of rooms and museums.
There were plenty of highlights on the journey though! In the Octagonal Courtyard we searched for…
…the Laocoon and also tracked down the Apollo Belvedere…
It’s in the Museo Pio Clementino.
…This was obviously going to happen.
We loved the Room of Animals, Sala degli Animali, a zoo of carved marble with handsome hounds
When we needed a breather we had a minute’s rest in the beautiful Gallery of Maps.
Much of the art is heavy on suffering and martyrdom – though we also found images we recognised from Christmas cards. But it’s a lot to take in and as time went by we speeded up. We hurried through the Egyptian rooms and bypassed many statues until we eventually arrived at….
The Sistine Chapel. By the time we got here we were all tired. But we were also a bit underwhelming despite the presence of the world’s most famous ceiling. This awe-inspiring space is carefully protected – no talking, no photos, no loitering – and the constant shushing of the Sistine’s guardians as tourists of every nationality suddenly find themselves adjusting to this new set of rules creates an uneasy atmosphere. It spoilt the sanctity of the place for us and we were quite glad to get out.
We passed three hours effortlessly in the Vatican – whilst still missing out whole tracts of breathtaking art. It’s really not something that can be digested properly in one visit.
To manage your visit better than we did our top tips are:
Get a guide Pack a decent guidebook if you don’t take an audio guide or a real live one with you. The Vatican lets the art speak for itself: labelling is unpredictable and sometimes missing altogether.
Go to the post office early We did this! We went at the start of our visit and there was a long queue by the time we left.
At the end of the tour We were relieved to find that the cafeteria is airy and spacious and the loos are also a highlight.
But – there’s a theory that you can take a short cut from the Sistine Chapel straight into St Peter’s Basilica, bypassing the long queues. It’s a route taken by tour guides but we weren’t able to test it as we forgot at the crucial moment and exited along with everyone else.
It was too late to go back and the entry line to St Peter’s Basilica snaked around Bernini’s wondrous colonnades in the piazza.
Long queues aren’t an option for us so we re-grouped and headed elsewhere. To be honest I don’t think any of us, teens or mother, would have had the stamina to manage another site straight after the Vatican. Some winding down was required.
This is where we walked after failing to get into St Peter’s Basilica. Built in Roman times as the mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, over the centuries Castel Sant’Angelo has been a fortress, a prison and a refuge for Popes in hiding.
It overlooks the Tiber and there are lots of souvenir stalls along the river bank with a selection of human statues too when we visited.
Just when we were all feeling rather hot and grumpy, Ed paused at the square in front of the castle and said thoughtfully “I’ve been here before!” Thanks to Assassin’s Creed (and I’d never thought I’d say those four words) it turned out that Ed had already explored Renaissance Rome thoroughly via PlayStation and had climbed most of its principal buildings. With renewed interest we walked around the castle and found the other side was surprisingly peaceful and shady.
We didn’t feel up to it after our marathon walk through the Vatican but there’s a museum of weapons inside Castel Sant’Angelo which Assassin followers might find interesting, as well as a terrace with fabulous views of Rome and the Tiber.
Lungotevere Castello 50
The Leonardo museum
We arrived here at the end of a long day when Piazza del Popolo was bathed in warm late afternoon light. We had a coffee bar stop and decided one small museum was still do-able. This is an excellent space for anyone interested in how things work. Lots of Leonardo’s inventions are on display and many are life-size working models that can be tried out! The machines themselves are beautifully crafted. We didn’t spend long there but it’s worth a visit.
Piazza del Popolo 12
Gianicolo Hill and Trastevere
After a second shot at St Peter’s Basilica, arriving at 10.15 am and finding the queue already an hour long, we changed our plan once again. Instead of viewing the city from the dome of the Basilica we walked up (there are buses too) Gianicolo Hill. This is under-publicised in tourist guides – at the top there’s an airy terrace with a wonderful view of the sprawling city and, for once, no crowds. Apparently at noon each day a shot is fired from a cannon by the Garibaldi statue which does attract an audience! We managed to miss this but instead spread out the map on a balustrade, identified all the landmarks and then strolled on down into Trastevere.
This really does feels like a different country after the tourist hustle of the Vatican. Dogs bark, locals argue, and instead of St Peter’s we investigated the hushed and peaceful Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere with its astonishing glowing mosaics and golden coffered ceiling. It was almost empty, an antidote to the crowds of the Vatican City and in its own way just as awe inspiring. Then we went for lunch in a neighbourhood pizza restaurant. Which brings us to:
Pizza and ice-cream
Pizza and gelato are a big feature of Rome and just as important on the itinerary as any of the ancient sites
We had three different pizza experiences on our short trip: touristy pizza in the centre of town by the Pantheon (which was still good), authentic locals-eat-here type pizza in Trastevere and pizza slices from a hole in the wall takeaway where you pay by weight (mine was €1) then eat in a sunny spot in the street. All were delicious.
As far as ice-cream is concerned Gelateria Della Palma, Via della Maddalena 19-23, taps into the Roman Holiday vibe yet again with its 50s décor and huge black and white posters of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck whizzing round Rome on a Vespa. The 50s nostalgia was largely lost on my boys who were more interested in the 150 flavours. There’s a new wave of artisanal pizza and ice-cream makers in Rome using organic ingredients – but for nostalgia alone these old-school purveyors are still worth seeking out.
We didn’t have time to:
St Peter’s Square and Basilica – we saw the beautiful square and uniformed Swiss Guards but chose not to join the long queue into the Basilica. If we had we’d have seen Michelangelo’s Pieta and – after a lift and a lot of stairs – the wonderful view from the dome.
Bocca Della Verita the Mouth of Truth is a huge marble disc with a human face that was possibly once a manhole cover. Legend has it that if a liar puts their hand in the mouth it will be bitten off! Obviously a great photo opp but it isn’t particularly near any other landmark except Circus Maximus so you may have to make a special trip to see it.
Capuchin Crypt – the bones of 4000 monks arranged in decorative patterns around the underground chapels of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Not something for the faint of heart.
Cycling on the Appian Way – the Via Appia Antica is the quintessential Roman road that stretched all the way to Brindisi. Outside the city it is lined with the tombs of the rich and famous of ancient Rome as well as Christian catacombs. It’s a short metro/bus ride away from the centre and bikes can be hired to explore.
Sundays are best as it’s closed to private vehicles but there is still traffic and as it’s a very bumpy road this is one for teens rather than younger children.
Glass Elevator – Romans rather despise it and call it the ‘wedding cake’ or the ‘typewriter’ but the massive white marble Vittorio Emanuele II monument is difficult to miss.
Now it offers the Roma dal Cielo glass elevator to whisk you up to the top terrace for panoramic views of the city.
What went wrong
You’ll have noticed I haven’t recommended any restaurants. We had delicious meals everywhere but, back in the UK, I found out my credit card details had been hi-jacked. I only used the card three times – in three different restaurants. We had great food and friendly service at all of them – which makes it even more irksome.
Rome with Teens: Top Tips
Getting around: the boys did all the navigating with maps and apps. Teenage eyesight is an added bonus when street names are often carved in stone and twenty feet up a wall! We did a lot on foot but there is a metro (subway) system that forms a roughly X shape across the city which we also found useful.
Rome felt pretty safe to walk around in the evening – if in doubt take advice from your hotel reception. If you stick to the main routes it’s a great way to see the sights with fewer crowds and atmospheric lighting.
Be flexible with itineraries: I thought I’d researched quite well but the itineraries I’d planned were too optimistic.
You need to reconcile yourself to the fact that there is way too much to see in a few days. It’s especially true with children and teens that it’s always better to stop, take stock and have a gelato than plough remorselessly on to the next destination on the itinerary.
We hadn’t left it too late to enjoy the magic of Rome – it’s there whatever your age. As long as you’ve tossed your coins into the Trevi fountain there’ll always be another time!
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We flew British Airways from London Heathrow to Rome Fiumicino and caught a train into Rome
Our hotel was booked through agoda.com
Photos, unless otherwise credited, by Nancy and family, all rights reserved. Photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent.