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Rome with Kids

There’s an ancient myth going around that says Rome isn’t family-friendly, especially those with small children. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the city is one big playground for adults, thanks to its ancient ruins, Baroque churches, and abundance of museums. Rome has an array of child-oriented activities; you just have to know where to look.

Blast from the Past

Hurtle through 3,000 years of Roman history on the four-dimensional flight simulator ride at Time Elevator Roma (Via S.S. Apostoli 20, near Piazza Venezia www.timeelevator.it). Through phenomenal special effects, the one-hour ride takes you on a tour of the city and its monuments as Caesar knew them.

You start with a Jeopardy!-style quiz on Rome, then head into a movie theater with roller-coaster seats. Once the safety bar drops, lights dim and you're off to the founding of Rome with Romulus and Remus. Chased by wolves, you dip into a time tunnel to the Ides of March to see Julius Caesar meet his untimely end before your eyes. Then you hurtle on to the gladiator combats in the Colosseum, watch Michelangelo work in the Sistine Chapel, dash on to Bernini's Baroque fountains, and continue right up through Italy's modern history. This ride is air-conditioned—a real plus in the summer—and the narration comes in English and other languages.

Another similar 3-D simulator ride near the Colosseum is the 3-D Rewind Rome Tour (Via Capo d’Africa 5 www.3drewind.com), which takes tourists on a 3-D tour of Ancient Rome in AD 310 that lasts 15 minutes. Visitors can also check out the second-floor museum for all sorts of fun exhibits, including its “Be an Ancient Roman” exhibit, where children can try on togas, armor, and other ancient garb that the ancient Romans once wore.

Say "Cheese," Spartacus

Taking a photo with one of those kitschy gladiators (who aren't Italian by the way) in front of the Colosseum will win some smiles—but maybe some frowns, too. Many of these costumed gladiators pounce on tourists who simply aim a camera at them and then proceed to shake them down for a "photo fee” (usually around €5 a photo). Others have a craftier approach: before you know it, one may envelop your eight-year-old in his red cape and say "Formaggio."

Indeed, this may turn out to be the greatest souvenir back home in fourth-grade class, so if interested, step right up, shake hands, and exchange some euros. But pick your Spartacus very carefully: some sloppy guys wear a helmet and cloak but have sweat suits or sneakers on. Others have helmets and swords for tourists to try on. The police try to crack down on these “gladiators” but so far it is caveat emptor.

Playing with the Planets

After roamin' around Rome for a couple of days, your little ones may have had more history than they can handle. If that's the case, you can always switch it up a bit by giving them a bit of science. Taking a trip through outer space is always an easy winner for kids, so head to the Planetarium of Rome (Piazza G. Agnelli 10). From Martians to falling stars, the folks there always put on special programs for children on the weekends.

Talk to the Animals

For some fun on wheels, consider renting bikes (Viale dell'Orologio, on the Pincio hill, or Piazzale M. Cervantes) before heading over to Rome's zoo, Bioparco, both set in the massive Villa Borghese park. The zoo (Piazzale del Giardino Zoologico 1), which is one of the oldest in Europe, is home to more than 1,000 animals.

For those uniquely Roman critters—i gatti (the street cats)—kids can go on a free guided tour of the ancient Largo di Torre Argentina, for it has been made into a sanctuary and home for hundreds of once-homeless Roman cats—Mom and Dad, meanwhile, can ooh-and-aah at the relics and remains of one of the oldest (300 BC) temples in Rome.

Truth or Dare

Long before the advent of lie-detector machines, and even before there were Bibles to swear on, there was the Bocca della Verità—the Mouth of Truth, the famous gaping mouth that so successfully terrified Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Legend has it that people suspected of telling lies would be marched up to the Bocca and have their hand put inside the mouth of this massive stone relief (originally an ancient street drain cover).

If the suspect told the truth, nothing to fear. But if lies were told, the grim unsmiling stone mouth would take its revenge and clamp down on the person’s hand. This is a great spot for kids to get the truth out of their brother or sister, so have your camera—and your probing questions!—ready.

Adventures in Learning

Kids love hands-on activities and Rome has one museum that encourages them to do just that. The Explora Children's Museum (Via Flaminia 82, near Piazza del Popolo 06/3613776 www.mdbr.it) is a miniature realistic cityscape for children under 12 whose exhibits take them—and their bodies—through life in the big city. Though the exhibits are mainly in Italian, the visuals, effects, and touchy-feely stuff seem to hold the children's attention whatever their language. Elsewhere, kids learn about the workings of a post office, a bank, and the ABCs of recycling. Also fun for kids are the workshops and readings at the Casina di Raffaello (“Raphael’s House”) in Villa Borghese (Viale della Casina di Raffaello, Piazza di Siena). Tuesday through Sunday, they offer all sorts of activities from painting to games.

The World on Strings

Looming over Trastevere is the Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo), famed for its panoramic vistas of the Roman skyline and for its colorful, open-air Teatro di Pulcinella puppet theater. Shows here run weekdays from 4 to 7 pm and from 10:30 am to 1 pm on weekends. A small donation is expected.

Over on the Pincio hill in the Villa Borghese park (usually accessed via Piazza del Popolo) is the Teatro Stabile dei Burattini "San Carlino," which puts on live puppet shows on weekends (Viale dei Bambini Villa Borghese).

Don't forget to take a stroll through the pretty park over to the Cinema dei Piccoli, the smallest movie theater in the world—with all of 63 seats (Viale della Pineta 15)—and children's movies shown daily. Shows are in Italian, but most kids are amused by the images. After these puppet shows, the perfect souvenir awaits at Bartolucci (Via de' Pastini 99, near the Pantheon), where you'll meet not one Pinocchio but hundreds, still or animated, from life- to pocket-size, all crafted by artisans.

Updated: 10-2013

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