The alarm doesn't go off.
Forget about our plan to leisurely stroll through Rome's famous Borghese Gardens to get to the Borghese Gallery in time for our reservation to see the fabulous collections of paintings, sculptures, mosaics and bas-reliefs from the 15th to 18th centuries. Reservations typically are needed at this small gem of a museum.
But even for the experts, touring Europe doesn't always go as planned. So, instead of a leisurely walk (not to mention a much-needed cappuccino), my daughter Reggie and I race to a cab from the apartment we are renting and to the museum where we get in line with all of the other tourists with reservations.
It was worth the effort and so was getting the English audiofone so we could hear an explanation of what we were seeing — Bernini, Corregio, Titian, Raphael ... even without having had coffee first.
Afterward, we stroll through the park (the little kids in the family, we decide, would love the zoo here and the chance to run and jump). Rome is the first stop on Reggie's college graduation trip that will culminate with a weeklong hiking trip along the Amalfi Coast with U.S. company Backroads.
But first some culture and history at the Vatican for my history major. No matter how you try to engage kids at the Vatican (counting the dragons in the paintings, for example), confesses Monica Saab, an accredited Vatican tour guide, kids seem to most like seeing the dead popes in St. Peter's Basilica. (If you want to tour St. Peter's on your own, go late in the afternoon and avoid Wednesdays, unless you want to be there for Pope Benedict's audience.)
Help from tour guides
Some families prefer to have someone else sweat all the details when traveling to Italy, planning the entire trip with the kids and grandkids in mind, albeit paying for the privilege with companies like Adventures by Disney, Abercrombie & Kent Family Holidays, Tauck Bridges family tours with kid-friendly guides and unique activities such as after-hours tours of the Sistine Chapel, chats with "real" gladiators, making pasta and more. Exploritas (formerly known as Elderhostel), also offers some well-priced Italy tours designed especially for grandparents and grandkids.
Certainly such trips are easier — I never had such a stress-free time as when exploring Vienna and Prague with Adventures by Disney with my youngest child and her friend, and you are sure to encounter other kids along the way so that you are not entertaining yours 24/7. But there is also something to be said for discovering a foreign city on your own with your kids, showing them that on vacation — as in life — things don't always go as planned and that as long as you work together, you can navigate just fine.
In Rome, I was glad to have a guide. We connected with Saab via Rita Clemens, a Minnesotan now living there and running a company that takes all the stress out of touring Italy for American families, albeit at a hefty price. The biggest mistakes American families make when touring Rome is trying to do too much, she tells us. "One thing a day is plenty," she says. And if you are cruising in Europe — as many families are these days — Clemens says for less than many cruise/land tours, she can customize a tour for your family and guarantee you get back to the ship in plenty of time. "And you won't be walking around in a group of 50 people," she says.
But even Rome's most spectacular sites are no match for severe jet lag, we discover. We were supposed to spend four hours touring the Vatican; we last maybe half that. After a much-needed gelato break we make our way back to our apartment located on a tiny cobblestoned street called Via Del Gambero, a short walk from the Spanish Steppes, for a nap.
Later that night, we meet up with Jill Kammer, who with her husband runs the company that rented us our apartment (cheaper and more space than a hotel! Cherubs above our bed!) She and her daughter Ava lead us to dinner in the Trastevere section of Rome across the Tiber River. Once an ancient working-class area, it's now hip. (If you want to stay here, check out the Hotel Santa Maria.)
At Trattoria da Lucia, which has been here since 1938, a few tables are set out on the cobblestones, and we feast on salad, pasta, and the most tender beef stew and freshest green beans. I never would have been able to find this tiny restaurant on my own. I'm glad we didn't have to.
The sightseeing battle
The next day, we head to the Coliseum, one of Rome's top tourist attractions — especially for families. Before hitting a place like this with kids, it helps, of course, if they understand what they are seeing. A book can help too — like "National Geographic Investigates Ancient Rome," which was published three years ago and will answer a lot of questions that the kids and you will have — like why Rome is called the Eternal City. (The book suggests it goes back to the Emperor Caligula, who ruled from 37 to 41 AD, who wanted to be worshipped as a god.) The book is also small enough to fit in a backpack.
Sometimes sightseeing with kids, especially when it is hot, can feel like a battle too. Flexibility, even when touring great sites, is key. On one trip to Rome with a 13-year-old niece, for example, we left the Forum to go shopping. The Forum will be there in a few years when she will appreciate it, I reasoned. Meanwhile, it wasn't worth both of us being miserable.
Clemens says, "If you are in the middle of the Coliseum and someone is hungry, go get a gelato!" The idea is to have fun, after all, not torture yourself. Spend time at a playground or park or the hotel pool, if you are lucky enough to have one. (Just Google Rome hotels with pools. I found more than 40. The deluxe Rome Cavalieri, part of the Waldorf Astoria collection, is on a hilltop in a park with a big pool and touts a free shuttle service to Rome's historic center. Got a soccer ball or a Frisbee?)
We even stop at a cat sanctuary — that's right — Romans it seems are crazy for cats and several years ago, all of the stray cats were picked up and brought to the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter for homeless cats (of which Rome has many) set amid ancient Roman Ruins at Largo Argentina.
By the end of the day, we're so tired from sightseeing — and full from lunch — that we forgo dinner plans for cheese, bread and wine curled up on the couch in "our" apartment.
But we're leaving Rome tomorrow, I complain, and we didn't make it through half of my "must-sees." Even the best itineraries, I realize, need to accommodate kids, no matter what their ages.
"We'll be back," my daughter Reggie promises.
For more on Eileen's trip to Italy and hiking along the Amalfi Coast read her trip diary at and also follow "taking the kids" on , where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.