I am a planner. I’ve been making to-do lists since I learned how to write, and I love the thrill of really researching a place before I visit. So it wasn’t until recently—when I was in the throes of prepping for a monthlong trip to Italy with my four- and six-year-old kids—that I wondered for the first time: What would happen if I just didn’t plan part of the vacation? Would everything fall apart?
Because I love experiments just about as much as I love planning, I decided to try it. I took two cities on our itinerary—Venice and Rome—and made them the test cases. For Venice, I’d do my usual research and planning. But for Rome, I wouldn’t open a book or do a single Google search. Instead, I would book one tour a day through SmarterTravel sister site Viator and trust the local guides for suggestions of what we should do with the rest of our time in Rome.
For our three days in Venice, I researched and planned—about 11 hours of online time stretched over a series of days. For our three days in Rome, I did no advance planning beyond browsing on Viator and booking one tour a day—choosing the tours took about 40 minutes total.
The Control: Venice
For Venice, my research skewed a little more toward what I was interested in and slightly less toward kid-pleasing activities. Happily, Venice helps parents and kids strike a balance by offering up endless squares (just look for “campos” on the map) where parents can sit at a café and have a drink and snack while kids play tag or soccer with other kids.
I knew my children were too young to deal with long lines and big crowds, so we steered clear of Venice’s most touristy areas. Instead of spending time in Piazza San Marco, for instance, we hung out in Campo Santa Margherita and Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. Rather than braving the crowds at the Doge’s Palace, we explored the hands-on Da Vinci Museum and the elaborately decorated but totally uncrowded ballrooms of the Ca’Rezzonico. And we opted for a round-trip traghetto (a stripped-down gondola offering passage from one side to the Grand Canal to the other) ride to get the feeling of being in a gondola at a fraction of the cost of an actual gondola ride.
The Experiment: Rome
It wasn’t until we hopped off the train at Roma Termini that I realized just how underprepared I was for Rome. While it had been a luxury to skip the hours researching, I felt uncomfortable arriving in a city without a long wish list of activities, meals, and sights. What if the local guides gave us bad advice? Worse yet, what if they didn’t even have advice to give?
Our first tour—a family-focused excursion around central Rome that included pizza and gelato—started just a few hours after our arrival, so I didn’t have to wait long to put my plan into action.
Wandering into Piazza Campo de’ Fiori in the early evening to meet our guide Maria, we were greeted by the waning moments of the daily open-air market and a bustling square lined with packed terrace cafes. Maria waved us over, introduced herself, and immediately swept the kids up in stories of what surrounded them. Through Maria, Rome suddenly came alive. “Imagine this square 600 years ago as a field of flowers; this statue above us with a seagull on its head is a famous philosopher; look down at the ground, do you see the letters SPQR? That stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus and is the official sign of Rome even today. Let’s start a treasure hunt and see how many we can find. Do you think we can get to 100?”
We were off, kids and Maria leading the way, grownups close behind to discover the stories of nearly every major square in Rome. We gazed up at Remus and Romulus, learned how to drink out of a Roman fountain like a local, marveled at places where ancient and modern Rome knitted together in a single building, and then made our first stop: pizza.
Maria expertly wove us through a crowd of locals at a beloved local bakery and pizza shop, ordered us a sampling of kid- and adult-pleasing pieces, got us drinks, and found us a comfortable spot to enjoy our dinner. She told us the story of Pizza Margherita and of Rome’s famous pizza rossa—a crisp crust topped simply with tomato sauce.
After dinner, we continued our unhurried wander, soaking up the stories that surrounded us. We stood next to the fountain in Piazza Navona and learned to read the intertwined figures as rivers and continents, and we discovered that Rome has the most Egyptian obelisks of anywhere outside of Egypt. Along the way, Maria gave us great ideas of more spots to explore all over Rome. By the time we arrived at our gelato stop, I had gathered a week’s worth of activity ideas.
As dusk faded into night, we ended our tour at the packed Trevi fountain. But Maria had one final trick up her sleeve: We followed her as she threaded her way through the crowds to a quiet corner of the fountain. There stood a smaller fountain, the “fountain of the lovers.” It’s said that those who drink from the twin cascades of the fountain at the same time will remain forever in love. We all took a sip, and as I looked around after the tour, I realized that I was seeing Rome in a new way, one that focused less on the crowds (of which there were plenty) and more on the stories Maria had told.
Tour Travel Takeaway #1: If you can, find a small group or private tour. Your tour guide likely has a lot to share with you and your kids, but if you’re in a small group or on a private tour (rather than on a larger group tour), you’ll have more time to chat and discover their favorite haunts around the city.
Through advice from our guide, we discovered neighborhoods we wouldn’t have found on our own, parks where kids could get a much-needed break from sightseeing, unmissable gelato, and hole-in-the-wall pizzerias serving up some of Rome’s best—and least known by non-locals—pizza.
We spent the morning and afternoon of our second day checking out some of the spots Maria suggested. And then we headed to Viator tour number two: a pizza-making class geared to kids and their grownups.
When in Rome … you should learn to make pizza, right? I once interviewed Tim Winkworth from Intrepid Travel about how the company creates its family trips, and something he said really stuck with me. He suggested making sure that family vacations include activities that allow kids and parents to be on “a parallel track, where everyone is learning about a place together.” Making pizza in Rome seemed like the perfect chance to do that, and to pick up some eating-in-Rome tips from the experts along the way.
Our class started with a briefing on the science behind great pizza dough. This was geared more toward older kids and adults than younger kids, but the explanation was short and useful, and gave us something to visualize as we kneaded our dough a few minutes later. In front of each of us were all the ingredients we needed to make the magic happen: double-zero flour, room-temperature water, salt, a bit of yeast, and a little olive oil. Two teachers rotated around the room, offering more help to younger kids and guidance and encouragement to the rest of us.
Since pizza dough takes hours to rise, once we had all tried our hand at dough making, our teacher traded us our dough for some that was ready to become pizza. We hand-stretched and patted our dough into a pizza shape, swirled on tomato sauce just the way we were instructed to, and each added our own toppings. A veteran pizzaiolo then scooped up the pizzas and slid them into the wood-fired oven. A few minutes later, we were seated around a restaurant table enjoying our creations.
Since we were all engaged with the pizza-making process, we didn’t get much advice from our teachers about what else we should see in Rome—though we did get a few ideas about where else to eat.
Tour Travel Takeaway #2: I learned an important lesson here: Don’t ask specialists for general advice. Each guide or teacher, I realized, was a person who was so passionate about their way of seeing Rome—whether it was through the lens of history, culture, or food—that they wanted to make a living sharing it with others. Once I understood this, I adjusted my technique and instead of asking for general suggestions, I talked to each person about how to see Rome through their eyes.
Early next morning, we headed to a skip-the-line tour of the Colosseum and the Forum. As we arrived and met up with our guide Veronica, I caught sight of the line snaking its way around the Colosseum even at 8:00 a.m. “It’s not just one line, explained Veronica. “There’s the line to get through the metal detector, that’s about an hour long right now, and then a second line to buy tickets, and then a line to enter the Colosseum.” Noted. And while we breezed through all of them, we did need to stand in a short line to prove that we were indeed bringing children in on pre-purchased child tickets.
I had chosen this tour because it was different from the first two: Rather than featuring Rome in a general or a specific activity, it focused on one of the most famous sights in the world. I hoped we’d learn a lot that we would have missed otherwise, and I was also curious to get tips on cultural and historical sights from the guide.
As an edifice, the Colosseum is impressive. But it was the stories that kept us there for nearly an hour, exploring the different levels and imagining a time when more than 50,000 people would funnel through the many entrances and exits (fun fact: these pathways in and out were called vomitorio). Veronica told us stories of the arena’s elaborate basement, which housed gladiators, prisoners, wild animals, and more—and of how they would flood the arena to recreate Roman sea battles in a bloody blend of entertainment and history come alive.
We walked to a shady part of the Forum to continue our tour, and learned about eternal flames, vestal virgins (a good job if you could get it), and the social hub of early Roman public toilets. The Forum is enormous, and we only saw part of it, so at the end of our tour, Veronica gave us our tickets so we could come back and continue to explore later. As we wrapped up, I realized we had all been so absorbed in the stories of ancient Rome, I hadn’t pumped the guide for information about what else we should do. When I did ask, almost as an afterthought, she was ready with great suggestions about where to eat and what else to do.
Tour Travel Takeaway #3: An unexpected benefit of small group or private tours geared to families is that tour guides engage with kids for the length of the tour, keeping them entertained and answering their (many) questions. That means parents can take a breather and just relax into the experience—which, if you have a kid who’s always asking questions, can feel like a mini-vacation within a vacation.
Don’t have time to plan activities on a trip? Booking tours based on interest—and on what else you’d like to know about a city—can be a true alternative to researching on your own. You run the risk of missing out on something you would have found through your own planning. But it also opens up opportunities to discover cool spots suggested by local experts who know the destination better than most.
More from SmarterTravel:
- I Hated Group Tours … Until I Tried One
- 11 Secret Italian Villages to Visit Before the Crowds Do
- Editors’ Choice Awards: Best Family Destinations of 2018