Ah, the City of Love! The Eternal City. The Ancient City. Rome has many names, and there is a reason. Rome is vast, colossal, monumental! Literally. Rome has an energy unlike anywhere else in the world. It has the hustle and bustle of one of the world's largest cities, but turn your head and you will see the evidence of a civilization long past and of ghosts long put to rest. In the midst of a modern epicenter, ruins of times past lay everywhere. It's unlike any experience I've ever had. For an American who has only seen history as far back as the beginning of the USA, it was astounding to be faced with that level of history.
We came to Rome after a small stint at the sea, so we hit the ground running! After a ride in on a regional train, we entered through the Roma Termini along with backpackers, honeymooners, commuters, and locals. We raced to the taxi stand and grabbed a car to take us to our apartment. Drivers in Europe are no joke! If you get stressed out watching people drive, just close your eyes. It is bedlam. We thought about renting a Vespa while in Rome, but there was no way we were going to drive amongst all of that crazy. If you're comfortable driving with no lanes, many pedestrians and bicyclers, and mad taxi drivers, you'll be fine!
Only having 2.5 days in Rome, we planned quite a few tours to make sure we saw the most famous sights. Since it was our first time in Rome, we wanted to see the iconic landmarks and experience history. I always make a point to go beyond the tourist-y, and experience the place I'm in as a local would. With only 60 hours in The Eternal City, that was difficult. So if you only have a small amount of time here, these are some of the things you should make a point to see!
1.) The Colosseum
I mean, this one is obvious, right? I'm a huge history-lover, and this ancient stadium was a must for me. As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colosseum is a must on many people's bucket lists. Officially dedicated in A.D. 80 by Titus, the originally named "Flavian Amphitheater" opened with 100 days of games. Wild animal fights, gladiators in combat, hunts, and even mock naval combats were all things you could see at the Colosseum. This massive stone theater has seen everything from bloody battles between man and beast (gladiators were mostly criminals, prisoners, or people stolen from other lands and made into slaves) to destruction from natural disasters. Restoration projects to the famous landmark began as late as the 1990s, and efforts to restore the structure still go on today. It is a must-see for sure. You can't imagine the massiveness of it until you see it in person.
1.) Book a tour in advance and try to get a morning slot. Crowds are not as big in the morning, and you'll get the most fantastic light. You even get to see the Arch of Constantine without hoards of people around it.
2.) Get a bundle on your tour and see the Roman Forum as well. (more on this below)
3.) Our tour included going underneath the Colosseum, and that was pretty cool. You get to see what the stalls looked like, but you really don't get to roam around very much. It was just a hallway, basically, and I wish we could have seen more.
2.) The Roman Forum
Ok, so I guess I didn't realize how huge this place was. I've seen plenty of pictures of the Roman Forum, but none of them do it justice. Legend has it (widely accepted legend, at that), that Rome was founded in 753 B.C. by two brothers: Romulus and Remus. Basically they got in a fight, Romulus killed Remus, became king, and named the city after himself. So much for brotherly love, right? Tradition states that Romulus made up with his rival, Titus Tatius, and made the Forum a neutral zone. It then became a marketplace, but because of its open-air structure, it quickly became the place to be. The rise of public events in the Roman Forum started around 500 B.C., and it only grew from there. This was the heart of Rome and the place where social, political, and judicial events took place for years. It fell to pieces as most historical things to do, was reduced to nothing more than field at one time, and then was "rediscovered" in 1803. It wasn't fully excavated until the early 20th century, and many projects to preserve the area are ongoing today.
1.) Like I said, bundle your Colosseum tour with this one. They are right next to each other and you can walk easily between the two.
2.) Make sure you visit the Palatine Hill. It's a bit of a climb, but so worth it! The view is incredible, and you can see the whole of the Forum from the top. There are also restrooms and a delightful freshwater fountain at the top. Take a minute to rest with some cold water in your reusable water bottle (that you should definitely bring with you as Rome has many of these safe-to-drink fountains all around the city) and take in the view!
3.) Expect to spend a few hours here alone if you want to walk the entire Forum. It's massive. We only chose to look at a few sites (the view up top satisfied us) and then we were on our way. But if you plan to look at everything, it will take quite a while.
3.) The Spanish Steps & Trevi Fountain
We came into Rome in the afternoon and had time to explore a bit before our nighttime tour, so I started walking. Our AirBNB was not that far from the main shopping streets and the Trevi Fountain, so I took off in that direction. We walked down the Via dei Condotti, past Louis Vuitton and Hermes, and ended up staring straight at the Spanish Steps. BEWARE: Going in the afternoon to major tourist spots is a guaranteed way to run into a ton of people. But 2.5 days, here, people. I had no other choice. Since there were so many people, we took a quick pic and left to find the Trevi Fountain. Some very nice Canadians helped point us in the right direction. Follow the signs, and the throngs of people, and you will find yourself at the famed fountain. As with mostly everything in Rome, the fountain itself was much bigger than I thought! The area around it was much smaller-- it is just in the middle of a bunch of random streets. I guess I had other expectations, all which came from constant viewings of The Lizzie McGuire Movie. But it was absolutely breathtaking! Sooooo many people. I hear the best time to come and get great pictures is around 6 am. I didn't have time, but I'll try it on my next visit!
1.) Map out where you want to go in your AirBNB or hotel room BEFORE you leave. We don't have an international cell phone plan and we did not buy any SIM cards while in Europe, so we only used the wifi provided at our AirBNBs. This is a good tip no matter what, and you can even use Google Maps without wifi or data. But planning my route before really helped me out. I also carry a map with me as well!
2.) Go in the morning for lowest crowds
3.) There is a McDonald's right by the Spanish Steps--I know what you're thinking, "I'm in Italy! The last place I'm going to go to is a McDonald's!" However, we were at the very end of our trip, and I had had prosciutto, cheese, and bread for every single meal basically. I also hadn't had French fries in two weeks. We mainly went in to see how different it was from America. It was amazing! It had a cafe with tiramisu, croissants, and cheesecake! It had statues and ritzy decor. It could not be more different than what we have in the USA. By the time we went in to look, it was actually lunch time. So we ended up eating there. Tip: ask for salt packets. Italians don't salt anything, I swear.
4.) The Vatican
Our tour, that we booked in advance (do it, trust me), started at 7 pm. We ate a lazy dinner outside of the Vatican in a quaint cafe, outside, during sunset. I had a famous Italian dish of cacio e pepe which is "cheese and pepper" pasta. Delicious! We then proceeded to the Vatican, and ended up just missing our tour group. They said they emailed us the changed time (they didn't), and took off without us. No matter, with a bit of all-out sprinting, we caught up. Our English-speaking tour group proceeded to be led around just one of the Vatican's museums. Our tour included seeing King Nero's bathtub, inner rooms the Pope uses, and the famous Sistine Chapel. Our tour guide gave us a lovely history of the making of the ceiling, and hilarious stories about Michelangelo and his antics. Unfortunately you cannot take any pictures while in the chapel (in the name of preservation), so I don't have proof. But it is absolutely magnificent. I could have spent a few hours just staring up at that ceiling. We were left to roam the rest of the museum ourselves after we left the chapel, and there was plenty left to see. However, the tour had already been 3 hours long!! WARNING: if you take a tour, just know you'll need at least 3-4 hours. We had been traveling all day and it was getting late, so we just rushed out to the end after seeing the chapel. You could spend 2 days exploring just one of those museums. So see what you can, and take pictures to look at later!
1.) Know that different times of the day are better than others to see everything, but if you choose a later tour time like we did, you might be there until late at night.
2.) You're literally going into another country when you enter the Vatican. The smallest country in the world, in fact. So that's cool!
3.) Our AirBNB wasn't too far from the Vatican. A mile and a half or so. But my feet were killing me and I couldn't walk anymore. So we tried to get a taxi right outside of the exit. DO NOT DO THIS! There are tons of cab drivers (who are all friends and standing in a circle talking) waiting to rip you off. They wanted to charge us $30 for four people to travel a mile. Umm, NO! So we waited a little while for an Uber. Much better.
5.) St. Peter's Basilica
This. Place. I still feel like I have no words. As I walked up the Via della Conciliazione, all I could see was the enormity of the Basilica before me. There is an expansive space before the actual building, called St. Peter's Square. Unbeknownst to many, this is actually where King Nero killed many Christians. Word has it that it happened in the Colosseum, but this square is where Christians were killed in droves and tortured in front of the masses. I stood off to the side and gazed out in quiet disbelief. I couldn't even speak with the weight of history I felt. We then made our way into the church, and had a self-guided tour through the church. The inside is exceedingly ornate, with gold and marble covering every inch. The church is full of relics, art, and history, and is a must on your list. I just can't do it justice with my words. Make you sure you check out the alter, the alleged opening to Peter's burial place (underneath the alter), and Michelangelo's famous Pietà directly on your right when you walk in. We were actually lucky enough to be there on a Friday night, so we saw mass taking place. They brought out large barriers to keep us back as the religious leaders walked through with their elements, and the voices of the choir rang out through the hall. It was absolutely beautiful!
1.) You absolutely want to book your tickets beforehand, because the line to get in snaked all around the square outside. It would have taken us hours to get in. Instead, we met our tour guide off to the side and were ushered directly in.
2.) We downloaded Rick Steve's self-guided audio tour for the Basilica to our phones before we left, and we were able to hear all sorts of wonderful historical facts for free! Totally worth it. Just download Rick Steve's Europe app and search for the Basilica tour.
6.) Villa Borghese
If you love parks and gardens, you definitely need to check out this park. One, it's huge. Two, it has many different monuments and things to see! At Terrazza del Pincio, you can have a great picture opportunity as you look out across Piazza del Popolo and beyond. Make sure you check out the Tempio di Esculapio or "Temple of Asclepius" (pictured above). It is a beautiful 1700s temple built on a lake (it's more like a pond), and it is a perfect place to listen to music, have a picnic, or read a book! You can even rent a boat to go out on the water. Lots of boats were out when we were there, which was early June. There are many historical things to see in this park, and it is a lovely place to stroll through on a Sunday afternoon (which is actually when we went).
1.) You can enter the park easily from Piazza del Popolo, which is a short walk from the main shopping area. If you're at the Spanish Steps, just go down Via dei Condotti, take a right on Via del Corso and go alll the way down that street and you will hit a large open space. Welcome to Piazza del Popolo. From there, the park is to the right, up the stairs and across the street. Then up more stairs. and tada! You made it.
Other Notable Places/Things To Do
Yea so we kind of cheated on this one. My husband and I decided to walk around on our last day in Rome, so we thought we would stop by and see the Pantheon. The line was ridiculously long, and there were people EVERYWHERE. We thought we would just get up close, take a peek inside from the sidewalk, and snap a few pics of the facade. Yea. As soon as we did that, they opened up the Pantheon to the public and people started rushing in. Since we were right at the front, we kind of just got lost in the crowds and moved with them. So we totally cut everyone. Oops! Oh well! We literally went in, took a few pics and left. Worth it!
2.) Ristorante Alfredo
If you want amazing fettuccini Alfredo, from the ORIGINAL place where it was born, you have to stop by Alfredo's. Opened in 1914 in Via della Scrofa, Alfredo di Lelio started his restaurant "Alfredo". Now moved to Piazza Augusto Imperator, 30 in 1950, he donned the new location "Il Vero Alfredo" which was run by Alfredo's son until 1982, and now run by his son (Alfredo's grandson). We tracked this place down and were foaming at the mouth to try the original alfredo. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The walls are covered in pictures of famous people eating the notable noodles, some of my faves including Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis! We were seated at an outdoor table, with lovely music playing in the distance. We ordered a meat + cheese platter (my favorite, and a staple at almost every one of our meals. Their's was particularly delicious), and enough alfredo for four. They have this wonderful ceremony of handling the final preparation in front of you, and it builds your anticipation in an exceptional way. The alfredo was light, lemony, and creamy. If you're a fan of fettuccini alfredo, you simply must add this place to your list.
3.) Just start walking
After the Pantheon, we just wandered the streets to find something to eat and to explore. There are so many wonderful photo opportunities just walking the streets, and you'll never know what you will stumble upon. We found a delightful made-on-site gelateria! We could actually watch them making it, with pounds of fresh fruit surrounding them, so we knew we were getting the real thing. It was incredible! They say you have to be careful choosing gelato in Italy. The brightly colored, piled-high stacks of gelato is the fake stuff-- normally found near tourist-y spots. A trick is to look at the color of the pistachio and banana flavors respectively. A fake gelateria (meaning they have it shipped in) will have a bright yellow banana flavor and a bright green pistachio flavor. In reality, the handmade banana is more of a grey. The pistachio is a gray-is green as well. This place we found was legit, because we could actually see it being made!
Gelato place in Rome: Gelateria del Teatro
If you're staying in Rome, I suggest AirBNB. We have used it in most of our travels and we love it! A good tip is to get something as close to the main stuff as you want to see if you plan on walking. We walk everywhere, so having a place close to the main attractions makes it easier on our feet. Here's our beautiful apartment!
If you have any questions, feel free to email me!