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Is traveling to Rome with little kids a good idea?

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Caitlin Bootsma - published on 04/09/24

My husband and I brought our kids -- including an infant -- on a spring journey to Rome. Here's how we survived and thrived as a family.

For Catholics, Rome is a sort of homecoming, a return to a place that you may have never visited before. The Eternal City will always feel familiar because it is the heart of the Catholic Church. Years ago, I lived in Rome for several years as a student at a Pontifical University. At the time, I was a young, single adult. Sixteen years later, I returned with my husband and five children, including our infant!

There’s no doubt that bringing so many kids on any international trip can be a challenge, but it’s doable and worth it. Allow me to share a little bit of the wisdom my family and I gained from our trip.

Make Rome familiar ahead of time

You may have dreams of seeing every single major Catholic site during your time in Rome. Even for an adult this would be difficult; with kids, it’s important to recognize that goal may be impossible. What you can do, however, is familiarize your kids with the major sites and prioritize your “must-sees.”

It was important for my husband and I that our whole family spend time at St. Peter’s Basilica. My big boys (11 and 10) know all about ancient Rome and were fascinated by the catacombs. Our 7-year-old girl has had some art education, and we knew the Vatican Museums would have something for everyone, so that also made it on the schedule.

Depending on the time of year, Rome can be very crowded, so if there is a site you really want to see, try purchasing tickets online ahead of time. In the case of the Vatican Museums, pre-purchasing tickets will also allow you to skip an enormously long line! Most churches, of course, are free to enter, but if you want to visit the Pantheon (now a church) or the catacombs, buy your tickets in advance if you can.

Make your trip personal

Rome truly has something for everyone. Even my little girls who aren’t very into history were really excited when I mentioned that there is a cat sanctuary located in the Roman ruins of Largo Argentina (they spotted 12 cats). After choosing our top destinations and pre-booking, when possible, we thought of other spots that could be individually special to different members of our family or our family as a whole.

Patron saints are a great way to connect to Catholic Rome. Our Peter loved the fact that he shared a name with the Vatican. We prayed for their Grandmom at a church that shared a derivative of her name. I have a devotion to the Divine Mercy and took a special walk to the “Divine Mercy Church” (actually called Santo Spirito in Sassia) with my 5-year-old.

The writer and her kids in Rome

What saints are important to you as a family? Which saints are your kids familiar with? We have found that making these connections are a great way to make a lasting impression on kids.

Once you have a picture of the basic sites you will visit, I suggest choosing your hotel or rental location based on where you’ll be spending the majority of your time. Rome is a big place, so if you can position yourself near a metro line or bus hub that will help. I personally recommend looking for accommodations near the Vatican in the “Prati” area or in the center of the historic area of Rome, near Piazza Navona or Piazza del Popolo.

Make your trip experiential

There is so much to see in Rome that sometimes all the churches and historic sites can blur into one another. And since most activities are “hands off,” I recommend seeking out as many hands-on activities as you can.

At Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, pilgrims can write prayer intentions on slips of paper and leave them on St. Catherine of Siena’s tomb. Among them can be found my 7-year-old’s heartfelt prayer for a friend and my 5-year-old’s drawing of her buddies at home. Lighting candles (have some Euro change for an offering) and counting angels in churches have been popular with my girls. For older kids, consider climbing the Holy Steps (Scala Sancta) on your knees with other pilgrims or trying to visit all four major basilicas (St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls) in a single day.

Make it to St. Peter’s

No trip to Rome is complete without going to the Vatican. To visit the interior of the church, plan on getting there early to avoid a huge line. At the time of this article, they open at 7 a.m. unless there is a major event going on. If you stay nearby, take an early morning walk (perhaps with a pitstop for cappuccinos and cornetti) to the Vatican. There is nothing like the early morning light on the piazza and inside the church.

There is so much to see at St. Peter’s, but don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pieta on the right immediately when you enter. Many popes, including St. John Paul II, are buried there, so look out for stairs leading to the crypt if that’s important to you. Older kids might enjoy taking the (500+) stairs to the cupola and soaking in the amazing view (there is a small fee to do this). Kids won’t want to miss a look at the Swiss guards and their incredible uniforms!

If you’d like to attend an event with the Holy Father, it takes a little more planning. If you are an American, I suggest visiting the website of the North American College (the Roman seminary for Americans) as soon as you know you are making the trip. You can submit requests to attend Papal audiences (usually Wednesdays, so leave room on your calendar), Papal Masses, and more. There is no cost for any of these things, but you will need tickets.

If you are attending a big liturgy, as my family did for Palm Sunday, keep in mind that there are big crowds and that people arrive hours early to get good seats. We found, however, that we were happier arriving only 20 minutes ahead of time. While we didn’t have seats, we had room to move around and -= and there was no way of predicting this — we actually ended up being at a fence where the Holy Father passed by and so we had a close-up encounter with him. On a practical note, the Vatican has clean bathrooms on the left side of the piazza and also a good post office for helping the kids write notes to friends and family at home.

Make your journey to Rome a Pilgrimage

My final advice is to think of your trip as a pilgrimage. Visit the Eternal City with your prayer intentions and soak in whatever the Lord blesses your family with. You will miss some sites and have unexpected graces in others. It may — as it did for us — rain for several days and you’ll have to bring out the ponchos and the back up plans (my kids loved the Children’s Museum).

Expect the unexpected, accept whatever comes, and grow in holiness together as a family during your pilgrimage to Rome.

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