Rome Tours with Kids

Rome Tours with Kids

We are a traveling family, but we do not travel extravagantly. We don’t do fancy resorts, will spend an hour studying local transport options from the airport to our budget hostel, rather than hopping a more expensive taxi or private shuttle, and definitely don’t do guided tours. This last habit is directed as much by our frugality as it is by our failure to ever find a guide that added much value to the historical sight we were seeing.

But after a decade of my wife and I dragging our 14-year old daughter and 12-year old son to various parts of the globe and trying to instill in them the same appreciation for differences in time and place that we have, we’ve come to know what they like – ice cream – and what they don’t – anything having to do with learning, especially learning directed by mom and dad about architecture, art, or history. So when we decided we were going to take them to Rome, we knew we had to do something different.

Rome Tours with Kids turned out to be a great solution. Our kid-oriented Colosseum tour satisfied my wife and me because it was a tour with a knowledgeable guide who spoke good English and introduced our kids to the wonder of ancient Rome in a fun and educational way. It satisfied our kids because the guide was engaging and conveyed the right amount of information to pique their interest without boring them with details and the tour lasted just long enough to keep them entertained without tiring them out. And because Rome Tours with Kids employs only guides who have passed a rigorous certification test administered by the Tourism Department of the Italian government, our guide was able to draw from a deep-based knowledge of many areas that added to what my wife and I had already learned from our own research.

Rome Tours with Kids also offers kid-friendly tours of the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, and although we arranged to be reimbursed for the cost of our tour in exchange for publishing this review, we are not biased in whole-heartedly recommending any of the tours offered by this company based on our experience with the Colosseum tour. We would have taken advantage of their expertise for another tour if we were in Rome for a longer period of time. Fortunately, we threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so it is guaranteed we will be returning.

Colosseum tour for kids

THE COLOSSEUM TOUR

We were scheduled to meet our guide, Francesco, at nine a.m. in front of the Colosseo metro entrance, but we showed up 30 minutes late. We were certain he would already have left since we had pre-paid the tour cost, but Francesco was there, waiting and ready to go. After friendly introductions, he led us past the lines of those “unguided souls” who were waiting to purchase tickets and through the “vomiturium:” the portals that allowed 50,000+ free Romans, foreigners, and slaves to enter the arena and find their seats in less than 15 minutes. ”They didn’t have to go through security,” Francesco quipped in explaining how quickly folks could be seated. It was just one of the ways he easily contrasted ancient Rome with real-life experiences that are familiar to our kids.

Our first stop was the upper level of the arena and a view from the balcony over the streets leading to and the piazza in front of the Colosseum. Francesco explained the significance of the nearby Constantine Arch and pointed out buildings from ancient Rome, the Renaissance and Reformation, and contemporary construction – in explaining Rome’s nickname of the Eternal City. The kids remembered that point as we strolled the streets several days later and found the ancient ruins where Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death in 44 B.C. parked next to a taxi stand.

After viewing history outside the Colosseum, we wound our way back down to the lower bowl of the ampitheater. We stood for a moment gazing with wonder at the magnitude, in both size and legend, of the structure, Francesco said, “I come here just about every day and still feel the same awe. This place does that to everyone on sight, I only add the words.” He then entertained us with stories that combined myth and fact and compared them to modern realities. For example, he pointed out the similarity of the design and capacity of the nearly 2,000 year old Colosseum to most current football stadiums and noted how the seats closest to the action tended to be occupied by the more wealthy.

The original floor of the arena was constructed of wood and is long gone but a reconstructed section gives us an idea of how it may have looked in gladiator times. Most of what is visible now is the underground labrynth of passages where animals and slaves were kept before it was their turn to take part in the games being played above their heads. The basement looks bright and somewhat inviting as a refuge now, with moss growing on the brick walls, but Francesco drew a vivid picture of the damp, dark, and desperate conditions that existed in 80 A.D. He explained how slaves worked the trap door system to bring animals and gladiators to the arena floor to surprise the audience and combatants, or as a complement to one of Rome’s foreign conquests that was being reenacted as entertainment.

In a more philosophical moment, Francesco asked us to imagine what it would be like to have your homeland conquered by the Roman army, then be marched in chains to the magnificent and opulent Rome – which you had likely never seen anything like before. You would be thrown into the dark cells under the Colosseum floor for days or weeks, and then have to listen to the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd as you waited your turn to be forced into a life or death battle. He asked us to think how many thousands of souls had left a piece of themselves behind.

The kids actually responded to this with due solemnity. But the highlight of the tour, especially for a family as competitive as ours, was a trivia contest proxied by Francesco that pitted parents against kids and required us to tally the points we scored for correct answers in Roman numerals. Hint – know your Greek and Roman gods!

We spent most of our time with Francesco in the Colosseum but also visited a few sites within the adjacent sprawl of ruins that is the Roman Forum. It was in the Forum, in front of the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate, that the kids were awarded their prize for prevailing in the contest: a mini-replica Colosseum and gladiator helmet keychain. It was here that we parted ways with Francesco as my kids, glowing with the exhilaration of victory, placed their gladiator helmet keychains over their pinkies and drew smiling faces as if they had just prevailed in a battle to the death.

Kids Tour of Roman Forum

DETAILS

Our Colosseum tour lasted two and one-half hours and cost €200. This did not include the cost of the entry ticket that allows access to the Colosseum and to the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill complex.

We really enjoyed this tour and feel it is worth the cost. It was a high-quality tour with an engaging and knowledgeable guide. It was probably the highlight of our time in Rome. This is an introductory level tour, however. I consider myself an armchair historian and at several points during our tour we passed by informational signs or sights where I ordinarily would have stopped. I realize this was the trade-off I made for a fun and enjoyable experience for our family. The company does suggest the content of the tour is tailored to the level of the tour participants, which suggests that the tour can be as deep or shallow as your family wants. Our own guide, Francesco, was always willing to answer any questions I had about sites or things that were not part of our tour specifically, which is evidence that the engagement level of your family will dictate how the tour proceeds. As a bonus, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill entry ticket can be used on consecutive days (but not for the same attraction), which allowed me to go back the next day to Palatine Hill and linger over this amazing time in history.

Rome Tours with Kids

Hosted

The writer of this piece was hosted by the destination, which means that they did not pay for their experience. They also were not paid by the destination, which means that they are free to express their honest opinion of the experience, which they do here. We just thought you should know.

What museums are open in Washington DC during the federal shutdown?

What museums are open in Washington DC during the federal shutdown?

The U.S. Capitol showing the words "Closed. Call your Congressman." A list of family activities in DC that are open

So you’re in DC with kids with plans to visit the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, and all the memorials around the National Mall, but those dag blasted legislators in the Capitol building have managed to shut them all down just in time for your visit. So what can you do? What’s open?

[EDIT: As of Sunday, January 21, there has been no budget agreement and most of the federal government is shut down. HOWEVER, the Smithsonian and National Zoo will remain OPEN on Monday, January 22, 2018]

  • The Newseum, Washington’s museum of journalism, is a great place to go to reflect on the news of the day. In front of the museum is a display, updated daily, of the front pages of newspapers from around the world, showing just how ridiculous the U.S. government shutdown looks to people around the world. The Newseum is open from 9 to 5 daily (10 to 5 on Sundays).
  • The International Spy Museum currently has an exhibit of James Bond villains, which is rather cool, and its permanent collection is a favorite of kids and their trailing adults. Open 10 to 6 most days.
  • The National Building Museum has an amazing show of paper building models, some as small as matchboxes. And there are interactive indoor play areas for building with foam blocks while it’s freezing outside. Open 7 days a week.
  • National Geographic‘s current show is an immersive 3D experience about the Tomb of Christ. Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
  • … and speaking of Christ… the brand new Museum of the Bible sure wasn’t funded with taxpayer money, so it will be open through the shutdown. There’s a reconstruction of an ancient city that kids might enjoy.
  • Hillwood Museum and Gardens is a spectacular place to visit any time of year, though in winter the museum is much more so than the gardens. The permanent collection of the museum includes more Russian imperial art than anywhere outside of Russia. If it’s warm enough, kids will enjoy running through the grounds and spotting the “dacha” cottage, a pet cemetery, a putting green, and the lunar lawn. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 5.
  • The Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle is known as the first modern art museum in America, with an impressive collection of impressionist and modern art from the 1920s onward. Admission to the permanent collection is by donation on weekdays, $12 on weekends. So perhaps you furloughed feds should hit it up mid-week.
  • Artechouse, a massive underground art space with the feel of a dance club, has a brand new exhibit just in time for the shutdown. Parallel Universe features swirling light projections from the Turkish art studio Ouchhh. Open for ages 6 and up during the day; 21 and over after 5:30.

Of course, none of these (except the sweet mid-week deal at the Phillips) is free, which does change the family travel budget quite a bit. To save money, check on some of the local promotional sites, like Goldstar, Groupon, and Living Social to find last-minute deals on entertainment and dining. We’ll be adding more ideas as we find them, so keep checking back, and send your suggestions to editor [at] alloverthemap.net. And don’t forget to email your representatives to tell them what you think of the shutdown.

Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Hotel Review: Hotel Casa Blanca Mexico City

Overview: While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for.

Hotel Casa Blanca
Lafragua 7
Colonia Tabacalera
Delegación Cuauhtémoc
Mexico City, Mexico
+52 (55) 5096 4500
reservaciones@hotel-casablanca.com.mx

While Googling places to stay in Mexico City, I was surprised to find a five-star hotel (according to its website and Google, at least) for just $54/night. After reading decent reviews, I booked four nights at Hotel Casa Blanca.

The first thing that struck me about the lobby was how dark and, frankly, ugly it was. The marble floors, brown paisley benches, and giant abstract sculptures looked like they’d been put up in the 50s — and not renovated since. One consolation was that they gave out water flavored with pineapple and watermelon. The jugs were the nicest-looking things in the lobby.

I hoped my room would be more attractive, but it kept up the theme of old-looking wooden furniture and pasty, porous white walls. One window-covered wall let lots of light in, but I had to keep the sheer curtain up over it because it faced the courtyard, so people from the other rooms could look in. The mattress was firm, leading me to wake up with back pain, though the pillows were squishy. Instead of a comforter, there were two thin blankets, one woven and one softer. The atmosphere felt kind of depressing, so I turned on some TV in Spanish to lighten the mood.

hotel casa blanca mexico city

The bathroom was adequate, with bar soap, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner, but the shower was small and a bit dark, since there was no light in there. There weren’t any electrical outlets by the bed, so I had to work from the desk if I needed to plug anything in. The WiFi was decent but a bit slow when I uploaded images and watched videos.

The lobby wasn’t well-suited for work either: The benches got crowded as guests trickled in, and the tables were low and far away from the seats. I snuck over a couple times to work from the Meridian next door, which had nice furniture, a conveniently located outlet, quicker WiFi, and a Starbucks downstairs.

My first night, I ate from the buffet at Hotel Casa Blanca’s restaurant thinking I’d get to try authentic Mexican food, but most of it was actually not Mexican: The main dishes were a confused mix of penne alla vodka, fish fillet, fried rice, mashed potatoes, and refried beans. There were a few good Mexican desserts, though, including flan, plantains with cream, and rainbow jello. Still, I’d recommend that anyone seeking good Mexican food go across the street to the restaurant in Sanborns.

Many of the hotel’s online reviews talked about its location, but other than its proximity to the Plaza de la Republica and a bunch of restaurants and food stands, I didn’t find the area to be anything special. Most of the surrounding buildings were other hotels or touristy restaurants. (At one, I got enchiladas with barely melted cheese slices on top and liquidy guacamole.) With heavy traffic and many streets missing crosswalks, just crossing the street was stressful.

While it may be fitting for those traveling on a budget, this is most definitely not a five-star hotel. Don’t let the advertising fool you: You get what you pay for. If I could go back in time, I would’ve paid twice as much for a bed I could sleep well in and an interior I liked to look at.

Rooms:

Family rooms with two double beds and two pull-out sofas available.

Uncomfortable beds.

Tech:

No outlets by the beds.
Wifi adequate but slow for video.

Family-friendly amenities:

Swimming pool on the terrace.
Bike rental available.

Food options:

Two restaurants and two bars on site.
Many restaurants and food carts nearby.

Deals and Activities Nearby:
Parking:

Free covered parking available.

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra in Houston, Texas

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra in Houston, Texas

Overview: Chic five-star hotel in downtown Houston with luxurious rooms and attentive staff.

Hotel Alessandra

1070 Dallas Street
Houston, Texas
+1 713 242 8555

I spent the majority of my last visit to Houston in my hotel room, and I’m not even sorry. The moment I arrived in Hotel Alessandra, located downtown in the city’s “GreenStreet” shopping and dining center, I knew I was in for a treat.

Hotel Review: Hotel Alessandra Houston

Guest Room at Hotel Alessandra in Houston (Photo courtesy Hotel Alessandra)

My room had mistakenly been booked for two days later, but the front desk clerk found me a room right away, and the butler made conversation with me as he showed me up. The room had a giant king-sized bed, a couch, a table and chair, two bedside tables, two lamps, a TV, and walls completely covered in windows for views of the city.

As I got ready to go out, someone brought up a bottle of wine and a cheese plate. The rainfall shower helped me recharge after a long day of travel, and with a table and bench inside, I could even bring my food and wine in. The travel-sized shampoo, conditioner, and body wash lasted me two showers, which is rare for someone with hair as long as mine.

The vicinity of the hotel was home to dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops, with attractions including the Discovery Green, Toyota Center, Downtown Aquarium, Market Square, and the Downtown Historic District within a mile. As I mentioned, though, I didn’t take advantage of that as much as I could’ve. I stayed in and ordered room service twice during my stay, with food ranging from a peanut butter and jelly smoothie to lobster mac and cheese. The food was great but expensive — I paid over $50 for the mac and cheese and a caesar salad.

Hotel Alessandra Fitness Center

Hotel Alessandra Fitness Center (Photo Courtesy Hotel Alessandra)

Even though I was traveling alone, I didn’t get lonely. Every time I left and returned to the hotel, the staff by the door greeted me. One even accompanied me to the gym and chatted while I worked out. My favorite part of Houston is the people’s friendliness, and staying at Hotel Alessandra reminded me of that.

Rooms:

Large king size bed with white washable comforters and sheets and four pillows. Small fridge. Minibar with a large variety of drinks and snacks. Coffee machine.

Rooms can be reserved for up to five people.

Separate sections of bathroom for shower and toilet, table and bench in shower, good-sized shampoo, soap, and conditioner bottles.

Tech:

Wifi – Free fast easy

Plugs – Charging plugs built into bedside tables on each side of the bed

Family-friendly amenities:

Pool – Outdoor pool open until 10pm

Minibar/snack options for kids – Kids menu in room service

 

Food options:

Restaurant on site, room service you can order on a tablet next to the bed

Breakfast included? Available? In-room possible? – Available both in restaurant and in-room

Nearby food options – lots of bars and restaurants

Parking:

Garage with valet service

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor currently serving as a contributing editor for Teen Vogue and a regular contributor to Glamour, Bustle, Vice, Refinery29, Elle, The Washington Post, and more. She authored a chapter of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World and frequently discusses gender, sex, body image, and social justice on radio shows and podcasts. Whoopi Goldberg cited one of her articles on The View in a debate over whether expressing your desires in bed is a feminist act. (She thinks it is.)

Istanbul in Transit

Istanbul in Transit

While tentatively searching for fares in deciding whether or not to attend the World Travel Market in London last month, I came across this offer–$700 on Turkish Airlines would let me fly into London and out of Brussels on the dates I wanted. The catch? Spending a total of an extra seven hours on the plane since I had to stop in Istanbul both ways. BUT for the same price, I could choose to spend the night in Istanbul.

I was in Istanbul with John last March celebrating our twenty (!)-year anniversary. The city’s exotic charm, sensuous smells and tastes, and rich culture were the perfect setting for our weeklong kid-free romantic getaway. Boarding our Turkish Airlines flight home, we felt like we only scratched the surface and vowed to return one day. Two things in particular I wanted to see: the arms room at Topkapi and whirling dervishes.

I didn’t dream that I’d be back later that year. Alone.

 

True to form, I bought the tickets, then spent the next few weeks second-guessing my decision. I rarely travel alone and some well-meaning friends and relatives (OK, and maybe some CNN reporters) planted a danger bug in my ear that was hard to shake off. Was I being an irresponsible mother? As I debated changing my flight, John persuaded me to go—this is why I have never regretted marrying this man.

Here’s how I spent my 21 hours in Istanbul.

4:25 Land at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul

After a great flight gorging on Asian romantic comedies (my guilty pleasure on long flights–when I can find them) and the surprisingly decent Turkish Airlines food, I bought my visitor permit ($25), sailed through customs as only a 40-ish woman with a Belgian passport can, and hopped in a cab.

ist sea

6:00 Arrive at Premist Hotel

Twenty dollars and 20 minutes later, I arrived at Premist Hotels, a small hotel on a narrow cobblestoned street just down the hill from Sultanhamet’s famous sites, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi.

As I checked in at the tiny dimly-lit reception area, a number of guests were settled in drinking tea and eating pastries. I struggled not to take a photo of the short-haired elderly British woman that seemed to have transported out of a Merchant and Ivory movie. She held court in a dwarfing black hooded chair sipping tea and telling a long tale of her day’s dreadful road trip that was stalled by a donkey on the road.

Energized by the tea, I rushed to my room for a quick shower before heading out into the night.

7:00 Head out on the town

A quick climb to the top of the hill from the hotel put me right where I wanted to be for my pre-dinner stroll. I stared open-mouthed at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia lit up against the chilly evening sky.

IMG_0005

I wasn’t in a souvenir-shopping mood (for once) but lots of shops were still open at that hour selling the ubiquitous rugs, spices, scents, and fabrics.

As I rounded the corner from the market stalls into a small square, I heard musicians playing some traditional-sounding tunes before a small crowd. That’s when I saw him. In a twirling wisp of white fabric gently spinning as though above the air itself, was a magnificent Dervish.

ist video

9:00-ish Dinner

Just around the corner from the Premist and recommended by the concierge, Cafe Rumist specializes in pide, a flatbread pizza topped with meat, onion, or vegetables, as well as Turkish mezze and grilled meat. For less than $20, I ate enough to embarrass myself (the picture below is my appetizer).

ist food

Early the next day…

I woke up early, had a quick breakfast (included in the $73 room price, btw) and headed out for a morning walk.

ist topkapi resized

By 8:30, I was standing on line in front of the Topkapı Sarayı ticket window, which opens at 9:00. And here’s where things would have gotten very Griswold if I hadn’t been there before and had a good game plan. The place is huge. The first time, John and I strolled around for hours visiting both the palace and the harem and still didn’t see everything (thus the repeat visit). This time, I skipped the harem, took a brisk walk around the palace, and lingered in the arms room and the treasury. I was there for an hour before heading back to the hotel to grab my luggage and a taxi.

11:00

Leave for the airport for my 1:40 flight to London

Looking out the window, before settling in to another Asian romcom fest, I vowed once again to return to this wonderful city. I would love to share it with the kids.

And look what I just found–$900 fares to Europe this summer! But here’s the catch…

 

 

Raleigh: A Big City Getting Bigger

Recently rated the fastest growing city in the U.S. by Forbes, Raleigh is known mostly for new construction, urban sprawl, and general lack of personality. But scratch below the newly-built surface and you’ll find a city with a vibrant arts scene, live music, and homegrown brews.

The Visual Art Scene

The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) is the one of the leading art museums in the American south. Its collection spans over 5,000 years of world art. The museum’s 160-acre outdoor Museum Park is a great place to see some unusual oversized sculptures and enjoy a picnic, especially nice if you’re traveling with kids. The museum offers free admission to its permanent collections.

If smaller art galleries are more your speed, make sure you visit ArtSpace at City Market, a gallery space with a chic industrial look. In addition to the six or so changing gallery exhibits, there are activities for every age group, from art classes to special events.

Local Brews

Chatting with folks over a pint of home-town brew is a great way to get to know the locals while you travel. Raleigh has lots to choose from. A good option is a visit to the taproom at Raleigh Brewing Company, North Carolina’s first female-owned brewery. If you’re looking for more danger in your beer, try the Lonerider, which serves up some tasty brews with names like Shotgun Betty, Peacemaker, and Most Wanted.

Maybe you’d like a gourmet burger with that ale? Take a short drive to nearby Durham, and Bull City Burger and Brewery will hook you up. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, including the pickles, the buns, and even the hot dogs.

Live Theater

You can catch a traveling Broadway show at the gleaming North Carolina Theatre, but if you want to see local talent in a more intimate setting, try one of Raleigh’s smaller live theater venues. Raleigh Little Theatre is one of the oldest community theaters in the country and stages about a dozen shows a year. If you’re there in the spring or summer, make sure to visit their enchanting rose garden.

A bit on the edgier side, the acclaimed Burning Coal Theatre Co tends to perform modern plays or overlooked classics. Located in a former armory building on the edge of Pullen Park, the Theatre in the Park performs a mix of original productions and beloved classics.

Bluegrass

North Carolina has a rich bluegrass tradition, and Raleigh is no exception. From days-long festivals to intimate shows, you will most likely be able to catch a show during your visit. Irregardless Café has live music and dinner service nightly, including lots of bluegrass shows. The city is also host to a number of bluegrass festivals, including the mammoth international Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, which draws over 140,000 people annually. If you’re traveling during the Festival, make sure you book your hotel room far in advance.

You don’t have to go far to find local flavor and personality in Raleigh, a town that is buzzing with newness and growing larger by the minute.

This post was created as part of Hipmunk’s #HipmunkCityLove project.