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Roman Stopover: Visiting the Eternal City with a 3-Year-Old

How to make the most of a long layover with a toddler.

It takes about 24 hours – three flights, a drive, and a ferry ride – to get from my home on the West Coast of the U.S. to La Maddalena, the tiny island off Sardinia’s northeast coast where my husband’s family lives. It’s a journey I’d never want to endure in one go, let alone with our daughter in tow – a beautiful, moody 3-year-old on her first big international trip.

My proposed solution for a late-spring pilgrimage: On our trek to the homeland, we’d break up the long haul by bookending our vacation in Rome, a city I’d (embarrassingly) never visited and had always longed to explore – the history, the bougainvillea-draped storefronts, the creamy mountains of fresh cacio e pepe. Sure, the primary goal was to stave off jet-lag-induced breakdowns, but while we were there, we could make the most of it too.

Advisor Tip

“My favorite family-friendly restaurant in Rome for Sunday brunch is Enoteca Ferrara. Kids have a dedicated place to hang out, with two entertainers who engage them in activities ranging from cooking classes to story time."

Katie Stewart

I asked my friends with children, colleagues who’d already conquered toddler travel, and Virtuoso travel advisors who are family-trip experts for their takes. Their advice ran the gamut from “Don’t worry about a thing” to “Don’t do it” (not kidding). “Italy is one of Europe’s most family-friendly countries,” Jessica Griscavage, a Virtuoso advisor, told me. “But be aware of pace and packing in too much. Kids want to have free time just like adults. Enjoy a park, go for a bike ride, or have a picnic – it’s always great to slow down and take in the local culture.”

The park idea was already at the top of my list. As we zipped past ancient ruins and slipped down narrow, Fiat-packed streets on the morning we arrived, Eleanor shouted from her booster seat in the back of the van: “Where is the playground?!” That’s exactly why we checked into the Sofitel Roma Villa Borghese, a seven-minute walk from the Villa Borghese, a sprawling, shady park in the middle of the city. It’s like Central Park, but with adults dribbling soccer balls past crumbling colonnades and kids filling water guns from the mouth of a 500-year-old stone sarcophagus fountain. Eleanor joined the teeter-tottering elementary schoolers and laughed as she watched the big kids chase their friends and drench each other.

Pizza-making success.

Amy Cassell

It turns out those super-soaked theatrics were in celebration of the last day of school. It’s a Roman tradition, known as gavettoni, to splash and play with water at the end of the year, our guide, Valentina Falconi, told us the next day. “When I was a kid, we used to get water from the Trevi Fountain,” she said. “But that’s not allowed anymore.”

We found Falconi through Access Italy, one of Virtuoso’s tour connections in the country. They knew the kind of kid-geared day of adventure we needed: hands-on, filled with variety, and featuring enough changes of scenery to appease a short attention span. Oh, and an air-conditioned van for respite from the heat and crowds. And there were crowds during our early-June visit: The start of Rome’s peak season continues to creep earlier and earlier into the year. If it isn’t possible to travel in the off-season, it’s a good idea to come in with a plan.

In a private, sunny kitchen off the Via in Arcione, we got our hands doughy and learned how to make Roman pizza. We threw coins in the Trevi Fountain before Falconi led us to even more fountains in the Piazza Navona. She’s a seventh-generation Roman and has been a tour guide for over 20 years, the past two with Access Italy, where she works exclusively with families – which meant she was ready to pivot when Eleanor did, and she understood that no 3-year-old wants to hear a ten-minute speech about the Pantheon’s oculus. Eleanor loved the one-on-one attention, warming up when Falconi taught her how to sip from the city’s nasoni, or ancient water fountains. There are 250 of them across Rome, and the water is refreshingly fair game for drinking, thanks to a centuries-old spring-fed aqueduct system.

Every lesson we’ve tried to instill about not cutting in line went right out the window at Giolitti, Rome’s oldest gelateria, as we skipped past the dozens of people outside and into the old-school space, which has been open since 1890. The staff ushered us to the back of the shop for a true crash course in gelato making. They put us to work: We peeled dozens of bananas, mashed them in a bucket with milk, egg yolks, and sugar, then poured it all into an 80-year-old stand mixer that was taller than Eleanor. After our batch of gelato came out of the blast freezer, Eleanor went behind the counter to hand out samples of her creation. It’s an experience very few people can replicate – Access Italy CEO Simone Amorico told me it’s because his dad and the owner of Giolitti are old friends. The final treat: Eleanor got to pick out any flavors of gelato she wanted. A kid in a candy shop’s got nothing on a piccolina in a gelateria.

Sugar crash in full effect, Eleanor fell asleep in her stroller as we arrived at the Colosseum, which gave Falconi the opportunity to switch into adult-tour-guide mode and tell us about Emperor Commodus’ tiger- and gladiator-filled spectacles in the nearly 2,000-year-old arena, and how its underground tunnels had only recently been restored and made accessible to the public. Eleanor woke up just in time to race off with Falconi in search of Nero, the Colosseum’s resident cat.

Villa Agrippina

A week later, back from beach-hopping on La Maddalena, we headed to the place that would help our tiny trouper cross the finish line of her first big trip: the rarest gem of them all, a Roman hotel with a swimming pool. The pool at Villa Agrippina was a beauty, an oval surrounded by cabanas, gardens, and cypress trees, with chaise-side snacks, the distant sound of the bells ringing in Vatican City, and a few other kids splashing quietly in the shallow end. The hotel had even just launched a summer kids’ club. Eleanor flew solo there for a full 12 minutes – just enough time for an adults-only Aperol spritz.

On our final night, we shared plates of pasta Bolognese, cacio e pepe, and mozzarella di bufala at Osteria Nannarella in the Trastevere neighborhood, then ambled the 30 minutes back to our hotel, stopping for Friday-night street concerts, impromptu dance parties, and maritozzi (cream-filled brioche rolls) along the way. People say vacationing with a toddler is the same chaos, different city, but when you’ve got the right guidance, the best connections, and endless gelato, it can absolutely be a sweet little getaway.

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