Italy has a special place in my heart. I studied Italian in college and attended an Italian university in Siena my sophomore year. I’m sending my son to an Italian immersion preschool. And it has long been my dream to take my entire family there to help them better understand my obsession (I have no Italian heritage to speak of – I think I just must have been Italian in a former life). My dream finally came true this summer with a nearly four week trip that took us to Puglia – a dream destination – and also took me back to Rome, a city imprinted on my soul even though I hadn’t visited in 20 years.
Rome has changed in a myriad of ways, but also remains the Eternal City. Large, noisy, hot and potentially overwhelming, Rome is also just…magic. You just have to know how to break through the crowds to discover the city’s heart and soul. Keep scrolling for my best tips on how to take an Apartment 34 approach to Rome (read great design and delicious food!).
TIP 1: Find a Home Away From Home
They say that Rome has turned into the land of vacation rentals and while this causes many a problem for the Romans who still attempt to call the city home, it offers you a plethora of wonderful places to stay. Traveling with a pres-schooler meant I wanted an apartment with at least two bedrooms, a terrace to enjoy adult time in the evenings, a good kitchen for easy cooking and a convenient location to return to for afternoon naps. Enter onefinestay.
Onefinestay prides themselves on offering private homes with unique features and design-forward style that help you feel like a local, even if only for a week. You’re greeted at your rental by a onefinestay staffer who helps walk you through the house – already stocked with initial provisions – pasta, coffee, sauce, vino – all you really need to survive in Rome. It makes the arrival process so smooth.
We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood – once a hotbed of artists, traditional Roman eateries and coffee bars – it has now become a bit of tourist haven, yet the neighborhood still features a raucous night life, plenty of delicious food and a lovely location next to the Tiber river. It was a nice jumping off point to explore and I would gladly return. And onefinestay is now going to be my go-to for international travel!
TIP 2: Stick to One Iconic Sight Per Day
Visiting Rome’s major tourist attractions have certainly changed since I last visited. But of course the iPhone had yet to be invented! These days most ancient attractions have massive security checks, timed tickets you need to purchase in advance and still plenty of long lines. But if you’re strategic you can take in all the ancient sights – even with a four-year old in tow – and everyone can have fun. You just have to plan in advance.
Start out at the official website of what you want to visit – for example, the Colosseum. You can purchase skip the line tickets for 19 euros. Not too bad. Children under six are free, but take note – they still need a pass to enter (which is another line). Even with skip the line tickets you still have to go through security and at places like the Vatican and Colosseum can have waits of an hour (or more!). You can also purchase combined tickets for things like the Coloseum, the Forum and the Vatican Museums but I don’t recommend those for smaller children. They can be overwhelming and extremely crowded.
The earlier you head out in the morning the shorter the lines. Make sure you pack water, snacks for the littles (Italian breakfast cookies proved a strong motivator), fans and wear hats if you’re visiting during summer’s peak heat. You’re often standing in direct sun. After an hour or two ooohhing and ahhhing over the world’s antiquities each day, we’d be ready for a long leisurely lunch (keep scrolling for food recommendations), a gelato and a good afternoon nap in blessed air conditioning.
We also bought tickets for the Hop On Hop Off bus for one day – you know those obnoxious double decker tourist buses. But in a city already obnoxiously teeming with tourists, you might as well see it from a leisurely seat that also offers historic commentary while you ride. It’s a great way to help you get your bearings without have to drag your kids from one corner of the city to the other. Tickets can be purchased in advance (you’ll bet the best deals this way) or right on the bus.
TIP 3: Enjoy that Piazza Life
Piazzas are the center of Italian culture. Every neighborhood has their own square, sometimes multiple, where everyone gathers – be it in the morning for the farmer’s market in Campo di Fiori, or to hang out around the fountains in the afternoons, or watch street performers as the night begins. Most often car-free they are designed for socializing. The piazza is where you can go for a Spritz, where you wander during the evening passeggiata (the daily evening walk around 7pm) or hang out late into the night – Piazza Navona (seen above) is one of the many wonderful options. Yes, you’ll be surrounded by tourists but also locals. No one is on their phones. Everyone is enjoying themselves and the piazzas are spectacular (and free, without security or lines!).
TIP 4: Wander Aimlessly and See What You Discover
Rome is simply a sight to behold. Its architecture, obviously, its ancient monuments and treasures, but also its grit, its rough edges, its living, breathing underbelly is just as interesting. This is a city to get lost in. Sadly, less easy to do with a four year old, but we still tried to stroll and simply discover whenever we could. Monti is the next neighborhood I want to explore when we go back (someday!).
TIP 5: Get on Italian Time
The Italians know how to live my friends. Their pace of life is slower. More deliberate. More intentional. They appreciate delayed gratification. If the good mozzarella doesn’t come in until Thursday, you don’t get the caprese salad until Thursday! Traditions and beliefs are deeply rooted and time honored. So why fight them? Ditch your American expectations of lightening fast service, 24/7 availability and a go-go-go pace. Wake up a little later and enjoy a cappuccino and a sweet pastry standing at the local coffee bar (no one sits fyi). Enjoy a multi-course lunch with wine – but not until 1pm or later. No one eats lunch before then. Plan to take a siesta in the afternoon – many shops are closed from 2pm to 5pm. Dinner doesn’t begin before 8pm. That offers ample time for the passeggiata, an aperitivo, and a Spritz before dinner.
We fully embraced this lifestyle and it worked wonderfully for our family. Our son often slept in until 9am everyday, would take 2-3hour afternoon naps and then had an average bedtime of 11pm! We had zero meltdowns, only a few tough moments. It felt bizarre and wonderful. We all got to enjoy Italy the way Italians enjoy it.
TIP 6: Don’t Expect Young Kids to Walk
I wasn’t too keen about hauling a stroller all around Italy but had heard from many a friend that a four year old would not do well hiking around Rome. I got away with it in Puglia as villages were relatively small and we often drove from place to place. But thankfully I found the ultimate fix – Travel Baby. The site rents strollers in major cities and was my savior.
Upon arrival at our onefinestay, a Babyzen YOYO stroller was already awaiting us. Sometimes we went without it. Short walks to restaurants or evenings that had substantially cooled. But it went with us more places than not. While I may have gotten some weird looks pushing my rather oversized preschooler down Rome’s cobblestone streets (the stroller held up very well btw), it saved us in the intense heat, in long lines and late at night. Couldn’t recommend this service enough.
TIP 7: Be Picky About Where You Eat
It’s possible to eat extremely well in Rome, but it’s not exactly easy. The city is filled to the brim with restaurants, trattorias, coffee bars and gelaterias but not all are made equal. Many are tourists traps selling quick food with cheap ingredients that are….mediocre. But you’re in Italy! There is no excuse to eat bad food. You simply need to know how to hunt out the special stuff.
The first trick? Look for restaurants without sidewalk seating. While there’s a rare exception to the rule – don’t worry I have a list below, you can keep scrolling – most truly good Roman restaurants are tucked-away holes-in-the-wall that you would never know where there unless you knew where to look. I think they kinda like it that way. That’s where you’ll find truly authentic Roman dishes – the best cacio e pepe, the best pizza or the most amazing amatriciana.
The second trick is to get off the beaten path. It’s fairly obvious, but bears repeating that you are not going to find good food around the tourists attractions. They just want over heated, hungry customers and they’ll even approach you on the street to try to get you to sit down. Keep walking. The extra few hundred steps is worth the effort and gives you the additional calorie burn you want for your daily scoop (or two!) of gelato. It’s down the lesser known streets and little alleys where some of the best restaurants reside.
TIP 8: Don’t Eat the Poofy Gelato
Friends, I know it’s tempting. Those picture-perfect, brightly colored mountains of gelato seem to call to you from every corner of Rome, but you must resist. That gelato is usually made with a mix, filled with artificial ingredients, colors and preservatives. Sure, it’ll taste ok, but you’re missing out on the true gelato experience. You want to look for gelato served straight out of round metal canisters. You have to look down into them to see what the flavors look like. No – the display isn’t spectacular, but that’s where you’ll find the traditionally made gelato that only uses real foods and fresh ingredients. And you’l find amazing out of the box flavor combinations like gorgonzola with hazelnuts!
So there you have it. My quick survival guide to Rome. I can still hardly believe I was wandering its streets, my son dunking his head in the public drinking fountains that pump crystal clear waters up from the ancient aqueducts, eating gelato two times a day and fantasizing that we would stay forever.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten many a tip so if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask!
Next up – Puglia…but there is so much to see and do there..that one might have to be a 10 part series.
How I packed for my four weeks of travel in a carry-on is right here.
My Top 10 Roman Restaurants
(this is only a small sampling – I bookmarked over 40 spots. You should also note you need reservations at most restaurants in Rome so be sure to plan your meals ahead of time!)
Trattoria al Moro – our most authentic meal – filled with Italian businessmen in suits for lunch!
Fatamorgana Gelato – a small chain with multiple locations serving artisan gelato with spectacular flavors