Venice at Dawn and Piazza San Marco

The downside of taking the night train from Rome to Venice is that you arrive very early, around 05:30. That's also an upside: you can admire Venice at dawn (the other advantage is not losing a day of vacation).

We rented a lovely apartment in Venice, right across from where Marco Polo lived long ago (which made for good educational opportunities with our sons :-). Fortunately the landlord was able to meet us early on a Sunday morning so we could drop off our bags, then it was off to Piazza San Marco, the principle square of Venice, to show the boys some of the beauty of the city.

One of the great things about Venice is that just going somewhere is an adventure given the novel boat-based public transportation system. Our sons enjoyed the trip down the Grand Canal, esp. lovely (and quiet!) in the early morning. We had fun trying to spot as many winged lions as possible, the symbols of Venice.

At the Piazza we admired the architecture, walked around, climbed the campanile (tall bell tower) to get a panoramic view of the city, and visited San Marco Cathedral's museum. All hits with young and not-quite-so-young :-)

Travel tips:
  • A travel pass is expensive but if if you're going to take a vaporetto (a "bus boat") more than twice a day, it's worth it. We paid 33 Euro for 3 days, the cost of a single ticket is 6.5 Euro
  • Pay attention to tides (and this site) if you want to see Piazza San Marco partially flooded, the most you're likely to see, but be ready to stand on crowded walk ways
  • The museum in San Marco's cathedral is well worth seeing for its view of the Piazza and its beautiful mosaics
  • Time your visit to the campanile with the top of the hour and you'll be treated to nice bell ringing (loud too!)
  • FYI, Sunday mornings the cathedral itself is close to tourists until 14:00 due to mass being held, though the museum is open
  • It's easy to get a little disoriented in Venice's streets. A GPS or GPS enabled phone (or in our case, iPad) is easiest, a compass can be quite useful, but just paying attention to signs saying "Per Rialto" or "Per San Marco" can often be good enough when navigating the city. Besides, it can be fun to get lost!

More of Rome: Castles, Temples, Fountains, and Baths

We packed a lot into our last day in Rome. First off: a visit to the Castel Sant' Angelo, located near the Vatican. Originally Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, it was turned into a castle and intended primarily to defend the Holy See. The castle is many leveled and a fun visit with kids. The boys particularly liked the balista, the old weapons on display, and the view from the top.

A walk across the Ponte Sant' Angelo brings you to the center of Rome. Be on the lookout for clumps of "wishful" padlocks people have attached to the railings, their version of throwing pennies in a fountain.

The Pantheon was next on our list. A temple to all the gods rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in AD126, it's another example of astounding Roman architecture. Its dome is huge, perfectly circular, and is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Its oculus (the open hole at the top) provides a surprising amount of light. Once you're at the Pantheon, it's a quick walk to famous Trevi Fountain (better than I expected) and Trajan's Column.

Our last stop took us south on public transportation to the Baths of Caracalla. These are a little off the beaten path but very interesting nonetheless. Completed around 216AD (thanks to 9,000 people working for 5 years!) the baths are huge. A center of Roman life, these were used to business and pleasure. What impressed me most is that Romans built these baths at all. They must have cost a pretty packet at a time when funds were needed across the empire to repel invaders, shore up defenses, build critical infrastructure, etc. Clearly Roman culture was a lot more than blood and gladiators.

Travel tips:
  • Though fairly packed, you can easily see these in a day (as always, bring water!)
  • You'll find many opportunities to grab a bite to eat around the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, etc. just avoid picking a place right next to the monuments or you'll certainly be paying for it
  • The Baths of Caracalla are south of the Colosseum, but not much. Check bus routes before setting out and you'll be fine getting there and back

St Peter's and the Vatican

It's not everyday you can visit a country within a city. The Vatican is one of the world's smallest states with its own post office, gas station, supermarket... And, of course, church!

This was one of my favorite visits in Rome: the Vatican museum is stuffed with jaw-dropping artwork, primarily from Renaissance and Baroque periods. We took a guided tour and our guide was talented enough to (mostly!) keep our boys' attention on the art and its many backstories. St. Peter's was also impressive: not only is it the biggest cathedral in the world, it's also home to much art. One letdown: the Sistine Chapel. It may be an amazing work of art but it was way too dark in there to properly appreciate it.

Next time we're in Rome, I'd definitely put the Vatican museum on our list of activities, there's a ton to see.

Travel tips:
  • As with the Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum, plan on spending a whole day (and bring water)
  • Make sure you send a few postcards from the Vatican's two post offices, one on each side of St. Peter's
  • The post office on the right of St. Peter's as you exit has tables you sit at to write your postcards. While you're there, check out the Vatican bookshop next door
  • Postcards are much cheaper in the Vatican and there are pictures of sites all over Rome
  • Visit the Vatican museum first: this will avoid standing in line to see St. Peter's as you end up inside the cathedral at the end of your museum tour after the Sistine Chapel
  • Get a guide for the museum: you'll avoid the lines and it's money well spent. There are precious few signs & explanations in this huge museum, a good guide will increase your enjoyment tremendously
  • I liked climbing up to the top of St. Peter's: it only costs 5 euro and the view is great. You also get a view of the inside of the copula and afterwards you exit inside the church, so you may avoid 

The Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum

At these three sites, all very close together, I finally got a good feel for the might of Rome. The sheer scale of the constructions, the engineering needed to build them, the beautiful art work, and the fact that so much is still standing after 2,000 years, is just amazing. 

Having just watched Gladiator with the boys, we were most excited by the Colosseum but the Palatine, and esp. the Forum with all its temples, also captured our interest. If you have kids, I strongly recommend you watch programs about Rome before you visit. Firing up their imaginations is one of the best things you can do. We also watched one of Rick Steves' videos, and the decent Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. Hunting for Roman numerals turned out to be a surprise hit: the boys really enjoyed learning these concepts and still make up their own Roman math problems.

This was the first area we visited in Rome and made for a great start.

Travel tips:
  • To take pictures of the whole Colosseum, visit at midday so one side isn't in the shade
  • A guided visit may be nice but you can learn a lot just through the extensive explanations and exhibits (though this will likely be long for children)
  • If you buy a Roma pass, which gives you 3 days' unlimited travel on public transportation + 2 free museums, the Colosseum / Palantine / Forum counts as one visit and you can bypass the lines at the Colosseum
  • Bring food & drinks: you can easily spend the whole day here and the nearest food stalls are very expensive (in the summer bring lots of water!)
  • The Colosseum's bookstore has a great selection of books on Roman history, mythology, games, customs, etc. including an excellent children's section
  • Contrary to the Colosseum, there aren't many explanations / signs to read at the Palatine and Forum, so get guide or buy a book to help you better appreciate what you're seeing
  • You rent audio guides at many sites in Rome though we did see people listening to guides on their iPods (something to investigate...)

Terrific Eiffel Tower

Visiting the Eiffel tower was one of the high points of our Paris trip: the boys were really looking forward to seeing it and they weren't disappointed. Its beauty and size overwhelmed them initially and, once recovered, they clamored for a trip to the top. We asked one of the soldiers guarding the tower if we could take a picture of the boys with them. That wasn't allowed but they went one better when one of the soldiers put his beret on Daniel's head. The weather was rainy but the view from the top was nonetheless breathtaking. I was interested to see you could already rent your own iPad for a self-guided tour.

Travel tips:
  • Take the stairs to the second level instead of the elevator: You get a great view all the way up and a better feel for the tower itself. Though 43 stories sound like a lot, it's actually a pretty easy climb and you'll stop halfway anyway
  • Make the most of the exhibits on the first and second floors, esp. those showing the history of the tower and how it was built. The boys enjoyed learning that it takes 2.5 million rivets to hold this monument and 40 tons of paint to cover it from tip to toe
  • There are many street vendors around the Eiffel Tower, you can pick up souvenirs pretty cheaply esp. if you haggle a bit

Visiting Notre Dame de Paris

We visited Notre Dame de Paris with the boys. Probably the best known cathedral in the world after Saint Peter's in Rome, it took around 200 years to finish. There's lots to admire but my favorites are the stained glass windows.

Travel tips:
  • Entrance is free, always nice!
  • We arrived around noon and got to witness a sermon, including a priest singing the liturgy. It was nice to experience the cathedral being used as a place of worship, and not just a tourist attraction
  • Personally, if there's a long line to climb up to the towers, I wouldn't wait. You're going to see the Eiffel Tower, right? You'll get a better view up there
  • It's worth taking the short walk around the outside of the cathedral: you can take some nice pictures in the gardens and there's a small playground for kids who need an outlet for their energy (after all there's only so many architectural marvels kids can take :-)
  • Walk all the way around the inside of the cathedral too, the stained glass windows are exquisite!