When in Rome …

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Imperial splendor, religion, and Renaissance art give Rome deep and enduring meaning to adults. The very same things can speak to children (bambini in Italian) who find hidden treasures throughout the city.

Going Down in Time

Escape underground in Rome where it’s satisfyingly spooky with a cool climate year-round. On the cypress-lined Appia Antica—blissfully closed to cars on Sundays—the tombs, tunnels, and secret Christian symbols of the catacombs tell how early believers sacrificed for their faith. The Scavi Tour at St. Peter’s Basilica is an unforgettable adventure for teenagers (15 years and up), descending deep below the basilica to explore the burial place of St. Peter, and kids of all ages can climb 551 steps (or take the elevator) to Michelangelo’s dome. There are mummies in the Egyptian collection and a gallery of Roman animal sculptures at the Vatican Museums. A little off the beaten track but near the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is an archaeological layer cake; enter through the postcard shop, then take the steps down to an early Christian church and, below that, an even older pagan cult room from the end of the second century A.D.

Il Colosseo

Kids do a double take when they get their first look at the enormous Colosseum, and they can’t get enough of the gladiators—the modern-day ones pose for pictures at the entrance. Tour the amphitheater, which had seating for 50,000 spectators when it opened in A.D. 80, then cross the street to see Ludus Magnus, a partially excavated training camp for the Colosseum warriors with a practice ring and sleeping cells. Kids can play Spartacus and learn to wield swords at the Roman Gladiator School, led by members of the Historic Group of Rome.

Head for the Hills

The beautiful, green Aventine—least known of Rome’s famous seven hills—has a park on top and an ancient church, Santa Maria del Priorato; look through the Aventine Keyhole by the door for a framed view of St. Peter’s across the Tiber River. Watch the colorful changing of the guard at the Italian President’s Palace on the Quirinal Hill, or climb the Pincio overlooking Piazza del Popolo; when the view palls, kids can work off steam riding pedal cars. Just below the Capitoline in the center of Rome, a glass-lined elevator takes imperial eaglets to one of Rome’s highest aeries atop the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. Pick out the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps from the viewing terrace up top.

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