Rome would not be easy, especially with three children.
But with high school on the horizon for Angelina, my firstborn, the remaining school breaks until she would be off adventuring without us were dwindling. Rome was high on our family's travel bucket list, especially to see with her, our talented artist named for her Italian great-great-grandmother.
As we plotted our week's stay in the Italian capital we focused on the great memories we would make: eating gelato on the Spanish Steps, strolling through the ancient Forum and seeing Bernini's marble leaves sprouting from Daphne's fingertips at the Borghese.
With the traffic, pollution, balky public transportation and risk of pickpockets, this would not be a relaxing trip.
But travel, as I've often reminded my passport-wielding children, is not about relaxation. It's about adventure, and it's one of the best ways to help prepare them for the unexpected twists and turns — and opportunities — they will encounter in life.
Rome was sure to have all of these.
Leaning into the shoulder
We timed our visit for the April school break. With pleasant temperatures, a reasonable amount of daylight and fewer tourists, a spring visit also helped us dodge the higher cost of summer travel to Italy.
Thanks to an airfare sale, our tickets were about half what they would be in summer. Yet anything within our budget that could sleep five people was far from the tourist center.
All the better for us when I discovered a three-bedroom apartment through VRBO in a quiet neighborhood, where we shopped at the local market each evening and strolled among the school kids in the mornings.
A short ride on the RMVT connected us to the Metro, and live transportation apps showed us when buses were the more efficient route (RomaBus and Probus Rome are both free). The Metrebus Roma card, available at ticket counters and from vending machines in major metro stations, let us move seamlessly from RMVT to Metro to bus (24 euros, about $27, for a seven-day pass; kids younger than 10 years ride free).
Rendezvous with a Roman
One of our better moves was booking a private tour our first morning in Rome through With Locals. There was no telling how rested we would feel, but with a nonrefundable reservation and the promise of gelato and pizza included in the tour, nobody dared miss it. The afternoon remained flexible in case anyone (or everyone) needed a nap.
We met our guide, Valeria, a Roman, at Piazza Navona. As a trained architect with a passion for Roman history and more than enough enthusiasm for the kids, she was just the person to get us off and running with a tour of Rome's most famous neighborhoods.
She went beyond the likely suspects and led us through intriguing places I doubt we would have discovered on our own. Before we knew it, she had taught the kids the Italian for "big nose" and showed them how to transform the characteristic free-flowing spouts found throughout the city into drinking fountains..
"What's the one Italian word you promise to remember from this trip?" she said, wrinkling her nose.
Fueled by Rome's traditional pizza bianca, double scoops of gelato and samples of truffle spread, limoncello and more at Campo de' Fiori market, Valeria led us to what quickly became my son Theo's favorite attraction in Rome.
Largo di Torre Argentina is the site of four temples where Caesar met his fate. But of greater interest to the 9-year-old, it's a sanctuary for more than 100 of the city's stray cats, who roam the ruins as they please. The Torre Argentina shelter is open seven days a week and free to visitors.
I was glad to have two more With Locals guides lined up for our week. The rates were among the best I found for private tours (from $12 to $15 per person).
Plus, kids age 10 and younger are free, and tours featuring major sites such as the Colosseum include skip-the-line privileges, although in this case, skipping the line means queuing up with everyone else who is skipping the line (for best results, reserve an early time).
Villa Borghese bliss
Families can easily spend a day in Villa Borghese, one of Rome's largest parks. It's home to multiple museums, a boating lake, replica Globe Theater and zoo.
Simple enough. Until we realized the park entrance from Piazza del Popolo was a steep staircase across what appeared to be a race track for Roman taxis. Babies clung to their parents and parents to their children as honks and hand gestures were exchanged. Eventually, we climbed up to a pedestrian-friendly paradise with a glorious view over Rome.
For my husband, there was only one sensible way to see the vast Villa Borghese, and that was by bicycle. Bici Pincio rentals, just inside the park entrance, offered the ideal solution for a family of five: the surrey-style Risciò Max ($22 first hour, other bikes from $4.50).
Once thoroughly pedaled out, we collected our tickets at the Galleria Borghese an hour before our time, as recommended. No hurries, no worries. We enjoyed cold refreshments and cartwheels on the lawn before lining up for entry.
Pompeii in a day
Attempting a day trip from Rome to Pompeii with kids is ambitious. Yet it became more enticing when I discovered the Frecciarossa high-speed train from Rome to Naples made the journey possible in 2½ hours.
With Trenitalia's Bimbi Gratis offer, children younger than 15 can ride Italy's high-speed rail for free with a paying adult. In our case, that meant three kids traveling free — and fast (restrictions apply).
Benedetto, the guide for our three-hour Pompeii tour, is also an archaeologist who spends six months a year on active digs at the site. He met us at the Naples station, where we bought tickets for the local Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. On the way, he set the scene for our explorations.
After Benedetto led through excavated public baths, apartments, bakeries, a villa, a Roman fast-food restaurant, amphitheater, and the well-worn stone streets of Pompeii, we bid him a fond farewell.
We had managed to check off nearly all of our wish-list experiences: exploring the Colosseum, strolling through the Roman Forum (one child had to be carried) and posing beside "Big Head Constantine" at the Capitoline Museums. But an officer stopped us when we began ascending the Spanish Steps with our gelatos.
"No food allowed on the steps," he said in well-rehearsed English. We settled for gelato near the Spanish Steps.
Our final morning, we leaped out of our bus, afraid we'd missed our stop in the Vatican and last chance to visit the Vatican. We dashed through the rain, grateful to be seeing St. Peter's on a day the guidebooks advised should not be too busy.
"Not too busy," in this case, meant a line encircling nearly all of Piazza San Pietro, which at 1,049 feet long and 787 feet wide is impressive. My husband escaped to a nearby cafeé and returned with hot chocolates and cappuccino, which we had plenty of time to consume.
The three kids, in their highly absorbent jackets, huddled beneath my travel umbrella, teeth chattering, as their father and I took the brunt of the rain. Purveyors of ponchos and umbrellas passed by as my husband assured them, "We are not buying an umbrella."
It was just as well. The rain soon fell sideways, rendering umbrellas useless.
Water sloshed inside our sneakers with our first steps into St. Peter's. Instead of staring in awe at the ceiling above, my kids stared at our puddles below.
We made slow progress among the pilgrims packed into the left side of the church, when I noticed the church appeared less crowded on the opposite side of the barricades preventing us from meandering crossways through the building. That's when I remembered, vaguely, the passageway I had found on my visit years ago. I looked for the stairs — and found them.
"Follow me!" I whispered, leading my family beneath the basilica's floor, past the tombs of several popes and on to glass doors, which were promptly opened for us. We hurried down the next hallway, but instead of stairs up to the less crowded area, we arrived at another door. On the other side of it: rain.
The guard at the glass doors assured us he could not let us back through. So ended our visit to the Vatican.
We spent the afternoon at our apartment, wet clothing drying on every heater, trying not to think of other ways we might have spent our last morning.
"I told you we should have gone back to see the cats," my son said with a groan.
Angelina's pencil paused in her sketchbook as she gave a knowing smile. "On the bright side, Mom, it was the most beautiful church I've ever seen — in the Vatican."