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Our family recently had the opportunity to spend three days in Rome, Italy on our journey between Malawi and the US. We crammed as much as possible into those three days, and it was amazing and exhausting! Having only spent three days there, we are far from experts on Rome, but I (Stacy Leigh) might be a bit of an expert on planning trips! So today I want to share my best tips for planning a visit to Rome. Many of these tips are general and could be used for planning a visit anywhere, and some are specific to Rome itself.
Resources for Planning
I did a ridiculous amount of planning ahead of this trip. We had spent two days in Istanbul without kids in the past, and we just flew by the seat of our pants the entire time. We had zero plan and knew nothing about anything until we got there and learned about it on-site. It turned out perfectly, and I wouldn’t change a thing about that trip. But with five kids in tow (and a dog!), and SO MUCH to do and see in Rome, I knew we needed a carefully (read: obsessively) planned itinerary.
If you don’t take anything else away from this post, please know that the blog Mama Loves Rome is your BEST FRIEND, especially if you’re traveling with kids (but even if you’re not). Marta is a born and raised Roman who has put so much work into providing every possible resource you could need for planning a visit to Rome. She also runs a sister blog Mama Loves Italy, with travel information about other parts of Italy.
She even has a facebook group you can join and ask all of your questions or search to see if others have asked the same question before (hint: they probably have). And she shares there about upcoming events in the city and any relevant news that might affect travel plans like pandemic restrictions or planned public transportation strikes.
I also found The Roman Guy blog helpful, as his articles popped up many times in my Google searches for specific places or questions.
Things to Consider
Everyone is going to have different primary considerations when traveling. For some it may be your toddler’s nap schedule, and for others it may be your teen’s interests. You don’t have to care about doing all the same things that others care about doing, and you’ll all enjoy it so much more if you consider your own family’s interests and limits.
We are a family of history nerds, especially church history, and so we wanted to see as much history as possible (which is a tall order in Rome, and not at all something we could do adequately in just 3 days). So besides the main attractions, some of our wishlist included Mamertine Prison, the Chiesa del Gesu, and the Scala Santa.
Some of the other biggest things I considered when making our plan were crowds and our family’s energy levels. Wherever we go, we always want to avoid crowds as much as possible. We planned to do the most crowded places (St. Peter’s Basilica, Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Vatican Museums) first thing in the morning. That plan worked out pretty well for the Basilica, not great at all for Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum, and perfectly for the Vatican Museums. I’ll discuss more details about each of those in later posts.
I knew that with so much walking, there was no way we would make it to the end of the weekend without daily afternoon rests. It turned out that even with these planned rest times, we still barely made it! We were all SO EXHAUSTED by the end of the third day.
We did take the metro to and from the Vatican, but I wish I’d familiarized myself in advance with the city’s cheap and efficient bus system so we didn’t have to choose between walking on our exhausted legs or paying more than we’d budgeted for a taxi. The metro system is awesome and will get you to a lot of places, but it doesn’t go into the very center of the city because there’s just too much ancient archeology underground.
Mapping Places of Interest
The first thing I did was head to Google maps. Any place I found interesting or wanted to visit, I would star for easy reference later. This proved invaluable for finding our way around the city when we were actually there! Below is a screenshot of my Google maps. I obviously starred a lot more places than we actually visited, but I was really glad to have them all to choose from and be able to see how close or far things were from each other and/or public transportation.
Making the Itinerary
To plan our three days, I created a spreadsheet of the days and times we’d be there, and began inserting the things I absolutely knew we wanted/needed to do. In the screenshot below, under the solid line at the bottom was where I listed everything we wanted to do. I just put all of my ideas down there, including times the places were open or other relevant notes. I cut and pasted things from there into the itinerary as I went, and as you can see, there were a few things we didn’t get to do on this trip.
I did my best to group things by proximity, which is where my Google maps came in super handy.
Any time you’re traveling, especially with kids and especially in this somewhat-post-pandemic world, you have to consider an itinerary as more of a loose plan than something written in stone. My plans didn’t work out perfectly, and we didn’t even get to do some of the things on the itinerary, but it was a great loose plan for what we wanted to do when, and I strongly recommend having some kind of plan or you will waste precious time wandering around, trying to decide what to do next, and waiting in lines.
Besides your accommodation, obviously, there are a couple of things in Rome that you absolutely need to book in advance if you plan to do them, so start with placing those on your itinerary first.
The Vatican Museums take walk-ins, but the lines get ridiculous and it is absolutely not something I would put myself through. We’d heard from friends who had been before that the crowds were miserably thick. So we booked to have an early morning breakfast at the Vatican before our admission to the museum, and it was the best possible choice. We waited in zero lines, had a delicious and filling breakfast on an outdoor patio to start our day, and were some of the first people in the museum when it opened, therefore avoiding the crowds.
The Colosseum and Roman Forum (it’s a joint ticket) also have to be booked in advance, and tickets are timed entry. If you show up without a ticket, you will be turned away. We booked the earliest spot here as soon as they opened hoping to beat the crowds, but unfortunately so did hundreds of other people. A 9am ticket also meant we ended up out in the Roman Forum at noon on a very hot day, which was not fun. If we could do it again, I’d go for an evening tour here to beat both the crowds and the heat.
Lastly, the Pantheon is free to visit, but you have to book in advance on the weekends and holidays. We went on a Saturday right before it closed, and almost had the place to ourselves. It was amazing!
Depending on when you arrive in Rome, you may or may not be able to check into your accommodation right away. Our flight into Fiumicino airport landed at 4:00am. We knew we weren’t going to be able to check into the apartment we’d booked until after noon, so I also booked in advance a place near the Vatican on Nannybag to store our luggage while we hit the ground running on our first day. It is kind of like an airbnb for your luggage, in that they are just private locations (ours was a small hotel, and I think that’s pretty common) who contract with Nannybag to store luggage. You pay per piece, and book your drop off and pick up times. They have locations all over the city, so you can find one convenient to where you are staying or sightseeing.
You could also store your bags at the end of your visit if you need to check out early but have a few hours before your flight or train leaves the city, or if you just have a long layover and want to spend a few hours exploring the city. We were very happy with our experience with them, and would definitely use them again if we needed to.
Meals and Snacks
Since the kids and I are gluten and dairy free, there were a few specific restaurants and gelato places we wanted to visit. If you don’t have any food restrictions, you can pretty much just wander around for about 30 seconds and find somewhere awesome. But for us, I needed to plan to eat at places that had options for us. So most people’s itineraries probably wouldn’t have to include specific restaurants for each meal, but if there are certain places you don’t want to miss, you might want to include them. If it’s a very popular restaurant, you may need to make advance reservations on The Fork, but for most places you can just walk right up.
Using my starred locations on Google maps, I planned for us to visit restaurants near where we would already be to avoid much travel time when we were hangry. The biggest hiccup we had was that the internet said Mama Eat Lab opened at 11am, but when we arrived it didn’t open until 12. We’d already been killing time waiting until 11, and definitely did not want to wait around for another hour. Thankfully, I already knew that La Soffitta Renovatio was just a few blocks away, so we were able to pivot and have lunch there instead.
I knew that my people (especially my youngest) would need plenty of snacks in order to make it through each day. On our first day, I planned to buy extra gluten-free croissants to have as a snack on top of St. Peter’s Basilica, which was fun. For the other two days, I put “pack granola bars” on my itinerary so I wouldn’t forget. We brought a lot of granola bars with us, but there are little grocery stores everywhere (yes, I starred a few on Google maps) where you can buy snacks.
I also made sure daily gelato was a priority. Even if you aren’t traveling with volatile little people, if you aren’t eating as much gelato as possible when you’re in Rome, you’re doing something wrong. Especially if it’s hot.
Whatever you decide to do in Rome, it’s really hard to go wrong in such a charming, historical city. Be sure that in the midst of all of your sightseeing, you make some time to just sit and enjoy the atmosphere in its many beautiful piazzas, which will also help with your aching feet.