Family fun in Rome

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New research suggests the Italian capital should be a Mecca for families. Luke Rix-Standing investigates…

Planning a family holiday can be a complicated business: Backpacking is out, extreme sports are off the board, and even long-haul flights can pose serious problems.

Step forward, the city break. New research by Play Like Mum has looked at the common factors parents seek when finding a family-friendly foray, and totted up the top 50 European city breaks. Props to Lisbon, Madrid, St. Petersburg and Zagreb, which all snatched a spot in the top five, but leading the pack was Italian capital Rome.

You only have to walk down the street to see that Rome is kid-friendly - endless gelaterias and an astonishing quantity of cats - but the city is overflowing with ageless attractions if you know where to look.

Here are just a few of the reasons Rome should be a shoo-in for your next cross-generation holiday...

1. Explora Children's Museum

A lot of establishments claim to be both 'educational' and 'fun', but the Explora Children's Museum actually follows through. A lifesaver on a rainy day, but still worth it in the sun, activities are split into 0-3, 3-6 and 6-12 age ranges, so exhibits are tailored perfectly to their audiences.

The lower floor features temporary exhibitions, while the upper offers up an avalanche of interactive activities. Elaborate contraptions that demonstrate hydraulics, a simulator that puts you in charge of Italy's fastest train (the Red Arrow), and a sphere of miniature wind tunnels - think the Launchpad at the Science Museum, but bigger and broader.

2. Gardens and greenery

Rome has a slightly unfair reputation for fume-choked roads filled with overly-enthusiastic drivers, but if you know where to find it, there's some outstanding green space.

The Botanical Garden features bamboo forest, and the Orange Garden yields fabulous views, but first prize goes to the gardens at Villa Borghese. Blessed with a horsetrack, temple, boating lake and meticulous landscaping, kids can burn off excess energy without getting bored.

Alternatively, swing by the Circus Maximus - once Rome's premier chariot racing arena, the grassy remains are now a rather pretty public park.

3. Explore the history

Yes, we know, piles of rocks and pottery shards aren't known for enthusing the young ones, but Rome has perhaps the most kid-friendly past on the planet.

The Colosseum is tailor-made for childhood imagination (kids will dig the subterranean hypogeum that hosted the amphitheatre's wild animals), while the forum is the perfect place for some well-supervised hide and seek.

The kids may or may not care about the Trevi Fountain's Baroque heritage, but they'll enjoy throwing a penny in it all the same.

4. Investigate the catacombs

Rome's terrestrial attractions tend to take the headlines, but beneath the city streets lies another world of darker, spookier history. Rome is a world capital of catacombs - giant underground morgues that bore the bodies of the city's burgeoning population.

Discovered in the 16th century, the first man into the catacombs nearly joined the dead himself, when he got lost in the miles of dark, narrow tunnel. There are 40 different 'combs in total, and, depending on which you visit, you'll be greeted with ancient inscriptions, shadowy grottoes, and even a macabre collage of skulls.

Not advised for children with claustrophobia, or those whose imaginations are just a little too active.

5. Gladiator School

Being a gladiator was not for the faint of heart - near-certain death, baying crowds, and dreadful holiday pay - but we're yet to meet the 10-year-old that doesn't dream about it all the same.

At the Roman Gladiator School, kids can learn the tricks of the trade with instructors from the Historic Group of Rome, who mete out fighting tips in traditional garb with historically-accurate training swords. Hugely popular among tourists, we recommend booking in advance.

6. St. Peter's Basilica

There are many reasons that children love St. Peter's Basilica. The interior is encrusted with mesmerising opulence; it's in the Vatican, so you can stand with your feet in different countries; and the view from the top of the dome is breathtakingly panoramic.

It's the world's largest church, in the world's smallest state - enough to arouse the curiosity of the even the most recalcitrant youngster.

7. Rome Zoo

Though not the most inherently 'Roman' sight you'll be seeing, kids love lions and tigers wherever they reside. They're joined here by bears, wolves, monkeys, giraffes, zebras, kangaroos and more, making Rome Zoo one of Europe's most complete menageries. Throw in a petting zoo and play area, and this so-called 'biopark' has something for all ages.

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