Two single moms from Virginia are off to Rome with their kids. They're looking for playful takes on the classic sites, along with the best places for pizza, gelato, and finding cute boys.
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DEAR TRIP COACH...
My friend Simone and I are single moms, and we're taking our kids—an 11-year-old boy and two girls, one 15 and one 16—to Rome. All three are at an age when ancient ruins, historic sites, and art are a bit of a hard sell. Can you offer some advice to make it fun for all of us? Tamar Abrams, Arlington, Va.
We're renting an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood. How do we get from there to the best sights? Great choice! Trastevere is a lively neighborhood characterized by narrow cobblestoned streets and an open-air market. It's across the Tiber River from Rome's historic center, about a 15-minute walk from many of the top spots: the Forum, the Pantheon, Campo de' Fiori. You can also take the bus. Tickets are $1.25 and good for 75 minutes, and the system is superefficient, with stops near every major site.
Do you have any suggestions for captivating this crew? With a fountain and a gelateria around every corner—not to mention some of the best clothes shopping in the world—we guarantee everyone will be into it from the get-go. That said, it's wise to get your kids invested in the itinerary by having each of them create a list of must-sees. Liven up museum and church visits by keeping a running tally of the Caravaggios—how many can you see in a week? Pre-trip, gather ideas by watching travel shows and movies together (it's impossible to watch Roman Holiday and not fall in love with the city). The teens will also love reading Lindsey Davis's Falco series, in which detective Marcus Didius Falco and his wife, Helena, solve crimes in 1st-century Rome. And for the 11-year-old, there's Caroline Lawrence's page-turning series, The Roman Mysteries.
What are some specific spots the kids might enjoy? Rome's most famous sights, such as the Sistine Chapel's ceiling and the Trevi Fountain, are sure bets. The Crypta Balbi museum is less well-known, but no less enthralling. It's built around the ruins of an ancient theater, and you get a close-up look at layer upon layer of civilization (via delle Botteghe Oscure 31, 011-39/06-3996-7700, $9.25). Of course, you'll all want to do some serious pizza research. Locals love Pizzeria Baffetto, where the Volpetti family serves pies baked in wood-fired ovens (via del Governo Vecchio 114, 011-39/06-686-1617, pizzeriabaffetto.it, pizza from $6.50).
And when they've had a culture overload? You can rent bicycles from the rack at the north end of Ponte Milvio, the bridge north of the Pantheon, and follow the path that runs along the Tiber. You'll be amazed by how quickly you'll escape the urban hubbub—fields and trees replace all the buildings in no time. For an easy day trip, hop on any northbound train from Roma Trastevere ($3.25) and get off 45 minutes later at Santa Severa, a village with long stretches of sand and a fairy-tale medieval castle on the beach. The inside of the castle is being renovated, so you won't have to drag anyone in.
Shoe shopping is a must for us. Any great places to find Italian leather shoes at decent prices? Nuyorica (piazza Pollarola 36, 011-39/06-6889-1243) and Loco (via dei Baullari 22, 011-39/06-6880-8216) carry designer collections, but the prices are high enough that you'll want to look but not buy. A few blocks away, Borini looks like a hole in the wall, but the shoes are fashionable, well-made, and start at less than $100 (via dei Pettinari 86, 011-39/06-687-5670). For real bargains, head to piazza Testaccio's morning market. In the northern aisle, beyond the fruit and vegetable vendors, there are stalls with huge piles of shoes with minor defects, catwalk cast-offs, and last year's models at cut-rate prices. During the week, you'll find mostly women's and children's shoes; men's designs dominate on Saturdays (8 a.m. to about 1 p.m., closed Sun.).
Can you recommend how to explore the Jewish history of the city? Rome is so connected with Catholicism that few people realize its Jewish community is among Europe's oldest. The bustling Jewish quarter is full of cafés and restaurants. Museo Ebraico di Roma, in the Tempio Maggiore synagogue (or La Sinagoga), chronicles the history of the community, including harrowing reminders of the deportation during World War II (Lungotevere Cenci, 011-39/06-6840-0661, museoebraico.roma.it, $10). Take a walk along the main pedestrian street, via Portico d'Ottavia, and stop for a bite at Sora Margherita, known for its simple but delicious renditions of classic Roman-Jewish dishes, such as fried artichokes (piazza delle Cinque Scole 30, 011-39/06-687-4216, entrées from $19.75). And don't miss Forno del Ghetto. The miniscule bakery is run by a handful of women who couldn't be grumpier, but the pastries are some of the best in the city; at least one of you should get the torta di ricotta con le visciole, a tart made with ricotta cheese and sour cherries (via Portico d'Ottavia 1, 011-39/06-687-8637).
We want to visit Pompeii, but we're not sure if we should make it a day trip or stay the night. The trip from Rome to Pompeii takes about two and a half hours total thanks to the new high-speed train service to Naples (011-39/06-6847-5475, trenitalia.com). But getting there and back in one day is a little ambitious. Consider breaking up the outing by stopping in Naples for the night, but keep in mind that the noisy city isn't for the faint of heart: A stroll along Spaccanapoli, the main drag that cuts straight through the center of town, will leave your ears ringing as you dodge weaving motorini and battle the crowds, all against a backdrop of gloriously crumbling baroque masonry. Keep your hand firmly on your purse, be prepared to use your elbows, and plunge in. Take refuge at Hotel Europeo. The rooms are a bit sparse, but the convenient location—right in the center of the city, near the Spaccanapoli—is ideal (via Mezzocannone 109, 011-39/081-551-7254, sea-hotels.com, from $70).
Pompeii is the perfect historic destination for older kids—who wouldn't be mesmerized by an ancient city preserved by lava? You'll see fully intact bakeries, casts of bodies frozen in time, and furnished villas, all from A.D. 79. Pay particular attention to the frescoes in the shops that line the main via dell'Abbondanza; several of them have recently been restored (entrance to the ruins $14.50).
OK, our daughters are making us ask: Where can teenage girls meet—or at least watch—Italian boys? During the evening, Campo de' Fiori is a tame hangout, but after midnight it resembles a frat party. The San Lorenzo area is a favorite with the alternative crowd. Don't be scared by appearances: Most of the kids are high school and university students. In the same neighborhood, your 11-year-old will love Said, an industrial-chic chocolate factory. It's worth starting with a round of the tasty pastas and salads before diving into the chocolate selections (via Tiburtina 135, 011-39/06-446-9204, from $8).
Unasked-for advice All 18 flavors at Il Gelato di San Crispino, including the signature, made from Sardinian honey, are preservative-free (via della Panetteria 42, www.ilgelatodisancrispino.com).