Rome for kids

Though Rome is not “the” city  for kids here’s a list of suggested places.

Villa Borghese an historical  and very central park that houses the Zoo, train rides,  bike rentals and the Casina di Raffaello (a museum, playground and area for exhibits. Most of the activities are in Italian).

Villa Pamphily the largest city park, with hills, ponds, fountains, and a lot of room for all outdoor activities. Inside the park  there is a restaurant Vivibistrot which also offers  kid’s  menus and picnic boxes. Wide variety of special menus including organic food.

Castel Sant’Angelo first built to be a Mausoleum for emperor Hadrian and his family, then became a papal fortress  where the Pope would take shelter and also imprison his  enemies in gloomy dungeons. There is a section with ancient armoury and a stunning view from the highest terrace. Walk all around the walls to the different bastions, see the firing chambers with cannons!

Saint Peter’s Dome climbing the dome of Saint Peter’s basilica (550 steps) could be  also fun. You may take an elevator and climb only 430 steps. stunning view inside the Basilica and city view.

Vatican Museums If you plan to go to the Vatican Museums then do not miss the Carriage Pavillion  (Padiglione  delle Carrozze) with  gorgeous 19th horse carriages, Pope’s mobiles and a model of Vatican city’s  first train engine . In the Egyptian section instead you can see  two mummies from Thebes dating around 1000 b.C.

Crypt of the Cappuccini this weird cemetery was created by the Cappuccini monks starting from the 17th century by arranging  the bones of the dead monks in an artistic manner along the walls of this crypt . It is located on via Veneto and it is rather creepy but children and teenagers seem to love it.

The Planetarium

Janiculum Hill this could be a fun thing to do. At the top there  is a nice park with great view over the city  and everyday at noon the famous cannon   fires (blanks) once in the direction of the Tiber river to signal the exact time. On the left of the square there’s also a puppet theatre with shows at certain times of the day.

Explora a museum designed for children where they can explore the  aspects of daily life.

Puppet theatre in Villa Borghese

Bioparco Rome’s Zoo is a fairly old fashioned park. There is a small gift store and cafeteria. It is also possible  to do a train ride through the zoo.

Mouth of Truth this ancient  marble disk representing the  face of a river god was probably used as a drain cover. Tradition has it that if a liar puts his hand into the open mouth will have his fingers bitten off! Go early morning or expect to find long line ups to catch a picture.

Giolitti Ice cream splurging! If you want to treat yourself order the mouthwatering  Coppa Olimpica or simply take  a marvelous cone to go! Large selection of flavours to choose from.


110 Open bus:  hop on the red double decker  for a ride through the city.


Travel tips: the Vatican city


Dress code and photography

If you are planning a visit there prepare yourself to go through security checks as you leave the country! (Italy)

No sharp objects (pocket knives, scissors and the like). Water is allowed as long as it’s in plastic, positively no glass bottles. Restrictions for long umbrellas with tips (you must check them!).

You should bring your camera, pictures are allowed (with a few restrictions) but no tripods.

There will be a dress code:  shoulders and knees must be covered so no tank tops, mini skirts or  very short shorts. Sandals, flip-flops are fine, no restrictions for the shoes.

Pictures are allowed  on the outside with no restrictions, while inside the Museums cameras and videos are fine without the flash. In the Sistine Chapel positively no pictures or filming whatsoever. In St. Peter’s Basilica pictures are fine with the flash, while down the Vatican Grottoes pictures are again not allowed. Confused? Well the signs in the different wings will remind you the rules.


Best time to go. Prepurchasing tickets.

Museums are generally busier on Saturdays and Mondays since  they are normally closed on Sundays.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays are much slower.

On the last Sunday of the month the Museums are open and free but from 9 to 12,30  only so the lines are generally very thick ! Inside there is a lot of noise and confusion which is the reason why I’d avoid a visit to the Vatican Museums  on Sunday unless you have no other possibility.

What about Wednesdays? In springtime, summer and fall the Holy Father gives a morning  audience in St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica won’t be open to the public until the end of the audience (approx. 1 pm). So if you intend visiting the museums there won’t be large crowds  since many will attend the papal audience but if you want to see the Basilica exiting from the Sistine Chapel it will be closed. In the  early afternoon instead a lot of the groups attending the papal  audience will go to the museums.

It is true that it is difficult to predict lines, on a cruise day for example there will be  busloads of visitors from the cruiseships or in case of religious ceremonies.

Are you visiting Saint Peter’s? (during the busy season)

If  you decide to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica only, without the museums, expect to wait in line in the square if you get there too late. I suggest going to the Basilica before 9 am or after 4 pm. Normally guides can give tours in the Basilica from around 10 am to 5.30 pm so this is when the line in Saint Peter’s square gets very long.

Do you want to see Raphael’s Rooms?

Well then don’t do the mistake many do!

When you exit the Gallery of the Maps, there is another short gallery with some tapestries and then if you turn LEFT you’ll go to the Raphael Rooms. If instead you’ll go STRAIGHT you’ll take the stairs that lead directly inside the Sistine Chapel. At that point once you get in the Sistine Chapel  it will be impossible  to climb up the same  stairs and go to Raphael’s Rooms since it is a one way stairway. So if you do not want  to miss Raphael’s masterpieces in the Vatican remember to turn left (there is a small sign). After  the Raphael Rooms you’ll be able to reach the Sistine Chapel with a rather long itinerary  through the collection of Modern Religious Art in the Borgia Apartments.

The Basilica of San Clemente

It begins, as so many things in Rome begin, with a stout foundation of antique travertine, and rises high, in delicately quaint mediaeval brickwork – little tiers and apertures sustained on miniature columns and adorned with small cracked slabs of green and yellow marble, inserted almost at random. Henry James, Italian Hours

The quotation from Henry James does not refer directly to the Basilica of St. Clement but  to the nearly unique recycling of architectures in Rome, where every building springs from a previous one, thus creating an overlapping of architectures. One of my favourite expressions is that Rome can be considered a “huge  architectural  quiltwork” .
One of the most extraordinary examples of a layered city  can be found in the Basilica of  Saint Clement, a church located in the Colosseum area. Unlike other churches or buildings where you can visit only one level below, this basilica has two  underground levels open to the public!

This basilica is dedicated to  St Clement (92-101 AD) who is considered the third successor to Saint Peter in Rome. Unfortunately very little is known about  this pope, and the  story of his life is often combined  with colorful  legends.

Saint  Clement was a  martyr under emperor Trajan: he was exiled to Crimea and  forced to work the mines, but since  he stubbornly persisted in his  missionary activity the Roman soldiers bound him to an anchor and threw him into the Black Sea.  Sometime later, his body was  recovered  at the bottom of the sea when the waters miraculously receded . The remains were later brought to Rome and buried under the main altar of this church.

The visit normally begins with the upper basilica (built in the 12th century) which was for a long time mistakenly considered the only  church dedicated to Saint  Clement built originally in the 4th century. In 1857 Fr Joseph Mullooly,  Prior of Saint Clement’s, began excavations under the present basilica, uncovering not only the original, 4th century basilica directly underneath, but also at a lower level, the ruins of  1st century buildings.

To enter  the present day basilica I prefer the entrance on Piazza di  S. Clemente rather than the one on via di S. Giovanni in Laterano. Once you walk through the little gateway you’ll find yourself in a little and peaceful  medieval courtyard: when I am here I always like to think about the pilgrims of yesteryear, resting, drinking the water from the fountain or massaging their sore feet after a long day walking or on donkeyback.

The present day church  repeats the plan of the 4th century church below but it is smaller on one side. As you enter the first thing that will catch your eye is the superb mosaic on the apse: the crucifixion of Christ in a feast of gold and green acanthus spirals. Christ’s cross is no longer a symbol of torture and suffering but  the new Tree of Life planted on the hill of Paradise restored by Christ. This mosaic is probably a faithful reproduction of the one in the 4th century basilica.

The richly coloured floor is a typical example of cosmatesque floor which can be found in several Roman churches. It is a style that was devised in medieval times by a family of craftsmen, the Cosmati, who often used recycled materials for their ornamental geometric patterns.

If you look at the columns and capitals you’ll notice too that they are all different: due to marble shortage it was customary in the Middle Ages and also later on  to dismatle other buildings such as  temples to recycle their columns and other materials.

On the right side is a little door that will take you to the ticket office for the excavations below: the upper basilica has no admission fee but there’s a 5 euros ticket for the levels below.

Descending the stairs to the 4th century level is like travelling in a time machine: a dark subterranean area that was once the 4th basilica. At the bottom of the staircase you’ll be in a corridor with some openings overlooking the church naves: it was the narthex, a porch where  penitents and catechumens could hear mass. Here we can find some of the frescos regarding the legendary life of Saint Clement.

Upon entering the 4th century basilica one has a slight disappointment: the low ceilings, the rubble walls instead of the ancient free standing columns and a   few frescos only survive from  the obliteration done around 1100 when the church, considered  unsafe, was filled with rubble and the new one built on top. It takes a few minutes before you realize this was a church!

In the left nave a stairway will lead you to the other levels: humidity increases as you descend and the stairs metal railings are moist. Before excavations reached this level this entire area was flooded: you can still see and hear the water stream that once flooded all this area now  flowing  in a tunnel dug by the archaeologists.

This 3rd level, which is also the most ancient, shows ruins of two different buildings separated by a narrow alleyway (once in the open air!) and both dating from the 1st century AD: one is a brick building maybe a Roman house with a Mithraic temple of the end of the 2nd century installed in it; the other is a  larger structure, constructed around a courtyard, probably a warehose
In the 4th century, the ground-floor rooms of this structure and the courtyard were filled in to the level of the first storey so to provide  foundations for a church in memory of Pope Clement.

Mithraism  was  religion of Persian origin imported in Rome probably by soldiers. Mithra was  a god born out of a rock  to bring salvation and most of the time is portrayed in the act of slaying a bull. The places of worship dediated to  Mithras were normally  built below ground and windowless. In cities, the basement of an apartment block might be converted; elsewhere they might be excavated and vaulted over, or converted from a natural cave or grotto.  A considerable number of mithraic temples came to light in Rome during archaeological excavations. In this temples  most rituals were associated with feasting: initiates reclined on stone benches arranged along the longer sides of the mithaeum  and animal sacrifices were made too.

Snow in Rome!

Normally Rome is not a city where we experience snow very often. We are some  20 miles away from the coast and we have a typical Mediterranean weather with mild winters. Snow is an exceptional event.

Last time we had some snow for a few days it was  1986: it was general chaos!!!

Cars, buses and scooters were not snow equipped and the traffic went mad. Schools were closed and it looked like Doomsday!

This morning started snowing seriously and the snow was sticking on the streets, but now it is raining again and the snow will melt quickly probably: this could be a real disappointment for the kids  coming out of the schools at 4.30 pm! They won’t be able to  play with snowballs or make a snowman.

The adults driving back home from work instead will be relieved, since Rome is a already extremely chaotic when it rains, guess what could it be with some snow inches on the road surface!

Here are some pics from our window taken this morning, we  live in a suburb so there aren’t spectacular views:

umbrella pines in the snow

Here instead is a picture of the Colosseum in the snow from the news website:

Villa d’Este in Tivoli

The Villa d’Este  is  a stunning Renaissance palace and garden set in the little town of Tivoli some 20 miles away from Rome.

Tivoli was the  ancient Latin city of Tibur which by  the  4th century b.C.  fell under the Roman control. Surrounded by a lush countryside and abounding in  water streams the Tivoli area was  soon chosen by many wealthy  roman families  as the place for their villeggiatura (holidays ). Emperor Hadrian  built here his magnificent residence  away from Rome’s intriguing politics, and where he could practice his favourite sport: hunting.

Today before arriving to Tivoli and driving through an unattractive countryside dotted with ugly industrial buildings we are tempted to think “where  the heck am I going ?” but the doubts are soon dissolved when we arrive at villa d’Este. Unfortunately Tivoli suffered hard bombing during World War II  so some of the town architecture was hastily rebuilt  at the end of the war. Also the idyllic  Campagna Romana (Roman countryside) as narrated by the 18th/19th century  writers and painters does not exist anymore: erased  and violated by modern industrialization.

Once we cross the gate of Villa d’Este is like entering in a different world or century especially after the recent restorations.

fountain of the dragons

This Villa is the brainchild of the cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and his architect Pirro Ligorio.

The Cardinal d’Este was the son of the duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and  Lucrezia Borgia (the pope’s daughter ). He was one of the richest men of his age driven by an overpowering desire to succeed to the papal throne which he never did.

In 1550 he was appointed by pope Julius III as Governor of the hill town of Tivoli. Many would have despised such an assignement but the cardinal d’Este found the climate of Tivoli particularly salubrious and  the territory also offered him the opportunity of satisfying his passion for antiquities since the area in his control  was littered with ancient roman ruins.

The governor’s palace at Tivoli  consisted of an old medieval benedictine  monastery attached to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The cardinal, being a very refined man, could never accept such a modest dwelling and this is why he spent 22 years in refashioning the palace and creating his own garden of Eden.

Pirro Ligorio was probably the architect who inspired the whole project to which participated a large number of artists, gardeners, craftsmen,   painters and sculptors.

An enourmous quantity of water was needed for all the fountains so two acqueducts were to built to ensure enough water supply.

250 water jets, 50 fountains, 100 basins, 35.000 sq.metres of gardens: these are some of the impressive numbers of Villa d’Este.

Visitors enter nowadays  through the former side entrance  of the villa.  After the ticket office you’ll find yourself in a large courtyard with a small fountain of Venus.

The palace is on two levels: the level of the courtyard is where the private quarters of the cardinal where; below was the Appartamento Nobile where the guests would arrive from the garden.

Furniture pieces and scuptures  are all long gone. The wall and ceiling  decoration instead is still visible and particularly interesting is the one of the appartamento Nobile which was carried out by artists such as Girolamo Muziano, Livio Agresti e Cesare Nebbia . In the  1980’s during the floor renovation of the rooms some mosaics of a roman villa  on which the medieval convent had been built were found and now are visible through a plexiglas floor.The main Salone was the dining hall, on the ceiling Federico Zuccari painted the Banquet of the Gods where  the trompe l’oeil columnade   on the vault  and the  the side walls fake views of the villa and  other cardinal’s properties all contribute to the illusion of being in an open loggia.

Exiting the dining hall is a loggia with a panoramic view of the villa, just descend the loggia steps and the visit of the  garden will begin.

In the past the cardinal’s guests would arrive from the entrance located at the foot of the hill and then slowly they would climb up so to gradually enjoy the delights of the garden.

The extreme symmetry of the garden plan  is typical  of Renaissance Italian gardens: a series of  terraces run up the hill along  a central axis.

Here water was moulded  to express a variety of  visual forms, but it was also controlled to convey a variety of sounds.

Just choose the itinerary you prefer, take one of the many alleys that run perpendicularly, simply enjoy the delights of  this garden and abandon all  worries : the fountain of the Ovato is one of the most spectacular with its roaring waterfall and the oval basin and certainly it refers to the Tivoli territory. From this fountain, one of the earliest, water is conveyed to  many other fountains of the villa.

Fountain of the Organ, it originally housed and hydraulic organ now completely rebuilt which plays late renaissance music! Normally concerts are every two hours (check times at the ticket office).

Alley of one hundred fountains: a long  basin with three levels of water jets, the moss and vegetation growing on the stucco panels have  left very little of the former stuccoed bas relief decoration, but they certainly add a picturesque patina .

The fountain of the Rometta is a symbolic reproduction of the antiquities of Rome.

fountain of the Rometta

The fountain of the Owl,   had once twenty little bronze birds tweeting but  suddenly an  owl would arrive and scare the little birds which would cease singing . The birds tweet was created by a complex hydraulic  mechanism. The original decoration is all lost now  and instead is a modern reconstruction.

The Peschiere are  three large pools some 12 ft deep which  were built to house fish and fowl

The fountain of the Neptune is probably the largest and most spectacular though it was created in XXth century only by remodelling  the former Bernini’s Waterfall.

A visit to Villa d’Este can surely be satisfying, especially in the summer when it gets sweltering in Rome. The only drawback  being there’s only one exit so once you arrive at the bottom of the villa you will have to work your way up again, but you will agree it was really worth it!