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No series of travel guides would be complete without a taste of the most visited city in the world! It may no longer be the capital of a vast empire, but Rome still has a firm hold on all of us. Whether you are captivated by the Colosseum, bedazzled by all things Baroque or simply passionate about pizza, ‘Roma’ can offer a slice of something for everyone.
I would best describe Rome as a contradiction wrapped in an enigma: It’s frantic yet placid; chaotic but ordered; it’s stylish and chic yet vehemently traditional. It challenges all of your pre-conceived notions, but at the same time breaths life into everything you’ve seen, read or heard. And frankly, that’s why I love Rome!
In this travel guide to Rome I feel that I simply have to show you the traditional tourist hot spots- they are, after all, such a huge part of this beguiling city. However, I’d also like to pull back the curtain on all the exquisitely gilded Renaissance glitz and gladiatorial glamour to show you the raw, and often forgotten, side of Rome.
But before we begin our journey, I wanted to offer you a few pointers. Preparation is the key to Rome, so before you leave home plan your trip and pre-purchase tickets for all of the top-tourist sights you’d like to see. Most of these can be done online, and take a few minutes; doing this will not only save you time, but also, in most cases, money. As we go through the guide I’ll provide links for tickets for all relevant attractions. You may also want to consider purchasing the ‘Roma Pass’- this will give you free entry to several museums, concessions and discounts on a variety of services and free use of the city’s public transport network. http://www.romapass.it/
On the subject of preparation, there are some cultural points I’d like to draw your attention to:
Vatican City (a separate country within Rome) is of course the heart of the Catholic faith, so it is no surprise that the hundreds of basilicas in this part of the world impose a strict dress code. I’d urge you to be respectful to this and avoid exposing your shoulders and midriffs or wearing short skirts or shorts when visiting the beautiful religious buildings Rome has to offer.
Italians always say ‘hello’ (‘buon giorno’ in the day or ‘buon sera’ in the evening) and ‘goodbye’ (‘arrivederci’) in most social interactions, e.g. when entering and leaving shops, restaurant and bars. If you have met the person on several occasions, ‘ciao’ is a more appropriate greeting, which can also be used as ‘goodbye’, as this is reserved for friends, family or young people. Another linguistic tip is if someone thanks you, by saying ‘grazi’ respond to this with ‘prego’ (‘you’re welcome’). Trust me, these small but polite gestures will get you far in Rome!
Tipping is practiced in Italy, but is often done in relatively small amounts, for example 5% of your bill; however, more often than not, people tend to simply round their bill up to the nearest 5 or 10 euros. Again, in the interests of reaming polite, it is advisable to tip to show your gratitude.
Drinking alcohol in the streets of Rome is an absolute no-no; as is going bare-chested in public.
Rome is a generally safe place to visit, but, as with most of the world’s popular tourist spots, pickpocketing is prevalent. Be cautious on crowded buses, particularly near the Vatican, and be wary of groups of children waving cardboard to divert your attention, as their ‘colleagues’ take your wallets and valuables. If you do find yourself a victim of pickpocketing in Rome, call the Polizia on 113.
When to Go
I visited Rome in February for a short break, which for me was the perfect time of year. The weather was mild and tourist numbers were low, which meant that I had ample time to see all of the sights and amble through the fascinating back streets. The hotel rates were also lower than in peak season (March-October); we got a great deal with our hotel called ‘A. Roma Lifestyle’. This gorgeous spa resort was located on the outskirts of the city, but only a 30 minute tram ride from the centre. The relaxing spa was perfect for soothing tired feet after a day of pounding the pavements, as was the exclusive roof-top bar that provided an incredible vista of the city.
August is another good time to go to Rome, as most of the Italian locals escape the city at this time of year and retire to the beach. However, the temperatures are often in the 30s, so sightseeing is possibly not the most appealing of activities to do.
Now we’ve covered the ‘ground rules’ I’m excited to take you to one of the most incredible cities in the world, where history permeates the air, art sings out to your from every glorious rooftop and culinary delights await you down every winding, cobbled street. So, ‘lascia andare a Roma’- let’s go to Rome!
Catholic or not, you can’t go to Rome and not see Vatican City! Not only is this the world’s smallest country and home to the Pope, it’s also the site of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Square. With so many sights to see here, purchasing tickets in advance is a must, as queues even at 0900 are vast! I bought mine from here: http://www.rome-tickets.com/vatican-museums.html Personally, I would dedicate at least 6-8 hours, i.e. a whole day, to explore Vatican City, as there is so much to see and experience.
St. Peter’s Basilica, and Others
Built on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Peter the Apostle, St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the world’s most iconic architectural feats. It is not only breath-taking in its beauty, it’s overwhelming in its size. The intricate carvings, paintings and abundance of gold and marble will leave you speechless, as you marvel at the works of Michelangelo and Bernini and walk in the footsteps of religious and artistic figures from history.
St. Peter’s Basilica receives over 20,000 visitors a day, so be prepared for the crowds. However, if the thought of jostling hordes brings you out in a cold sweat, I’ve got some great news that will mean you don’t have to necessarily miss out on Rome’s basilicas.
From Vatican City, jump onto the Metro for a few stops to San Paolo Fuori le Mura, where you can not only see the third largest church in Christendom, but also enjoy it in peace. This basilica boasts original architecture dating back to the 5th –century and beautiful medieval mosaics.
If this sounds more up your street, another superb example of religious architecture can be found in the university district of San Lorenzo. The basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura doesn’t look that impressive form the outside, but first impressions can be deceiving; the interior of arguably Rome’s most enchanting church is touchingly beautiful. It’s actually quite sad that this overlooked jewel is rarely frequented.
The Sistine Chapel
If you are a fan of Renaissance art and history, or just appreciate beauty, seeing the frescoed walls painstakingly crafted by Raphael, Bernini, and Sandro Botticelli, and that ceiling by Michelangelo, will blow your mind. The sheer delicacy and intricacy used to create this magnificent piece of Rome’s history and culture will immediately strike you when you enter the chapel. I could have spent days staring at the incredible art that those fortunate walls have been blessed with, and still not had time to admire it in its entirety! See it for yourself- it’s an experience that will stay with you forever.
The Vatican Museums
The Sistine Chapel is actually the climax of the tour of the Vatican Museums and I can understand why. But, that’s not to say that the other attractions in this museum should be overlooked. On the contrary, a walk through the museums will expose you to a wealth of treasures you have only dreamt of! Aside from the Sistine Chapel, the highlights for me were:
• The Spiral Staircase– designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1832, it is one of the most photographed staircases in the world, and it’s easy to see why!
• The Raphael Rooms- 4 grand rooms which act as an entrance to the Vatican, ornately decorated by the Renaissance greats.
• Gregorian Egyptian Museum- home to ancient Egyptian artefacts, including sculptures, statues and bronze curios.
• Vatican Historical Museum and the Portraits of the Popes- also includes a chance to see the ‘papamobili’ or Pope mobile vehicles.
• Papal Throne- an incredible throne of red marble, adorned with mosaics and frescoes
• Gallery of Maps- a gallery 120 metres in length that dates back to 1580
• Sala Rotonda- a homage to the Pantheon, complete with statues and mosaics. The Statue of Hercules in the centre of the room is a star attraction.
• Gallery of the Statues – if you admire sculpture, this long corridor will bowl you over.
• Pinacoteca Vaticana- the Renaissance art lover’s Mecca, with paintings such as Raphael’s ‘Oddi Alterpiece’ and ‘Transfiguration’ to Leondardo da Vinci’s ‘St. Jerome in the Wilderness’.
However, a lesser known attraction are the Vatican Gardens. You will need to pay for a separate tour and book a week or more in advance, but this exclusive peek into the Vatican’s best kept secret is well worth the prior preparation. You’ll feel like you’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole and landed in the Queen of Hearts’ immaculate garden; the box hedges have been groomed to perfection and the flora and fauna exhibit almost unearthly colours. However, the main attractions for me were the Tolkeinesque grottos and the sense of complete serenity away from the throngs of people in the museum. It’s a welcome rest before you head back onto into the buzz of St. Peter’s Square!
The Main Attractions
Juxtaposition is the name of the game in Rome, where the ancient world echoes through the backdrop of the modern day. This idea was firmly cemented in my mind during my walk from Vatican City to another iconic landmark, the Pantheon.
I decided to put my legs to good use in Rome and opted to walk all over the city in pursuit of the cultural and historical sights. As I idled through the cobbled streets, centuries passed before my eyes; I moved through the Renaissance back to the modern day, only to be transported back to ancient Rome. The beauty of this city is that history, new and old, sits side by side in a sort of timeless melting pot. Personally, I feel that walking was the best way for me to be exposed to and enjoy this incredible ambiance, and I’d recommend you opt to walk too. However, just be careful when crossing roads- the rumours are true, the driving in Rome is something to watch out for!
As you leave Vatican City head along the ‘Borga Santo Spirito’ and you will come to Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, this famous attraction was built between 135 and 139 AD. Up until 1870 it was used as a prison, but now plays home to a museum. For the film aficionados amongst you, you may also be interested to learn that this landmark was the setting for the film ‘Angels and Demons’. It also provides an incredible 270 degree view over the city.
Once you’ve had your fill of the castle, continue your walk across the river Tiber along the ‘Ponte Angelo’. This ancient bridge, built by Emperor Hadrian, comes complete with ornate carved angels and great views of the city.
It also leads you towards the Piazza Navona. You can purchase tickets for Caste Sant’Angelo from here: http://www.rome-museum.com/castel-sant-angelo.php
One of Rome’s numerous squares, Piazza Navona gives visitors a chance to admire some beautiful baroque buildings and three impressive fountains, whilst relaxing in one of the many café’s and bars which surround the square. For those interested in history, you may be intrigued to hear that Piazza Navona once was the site of a Roman stadium that was larger in area than the Colosseum.
If you’ve now had your fill of the ‘old’ Rome and want to get a feel for the modern city, I’d recommend heading south from Piazza Navona down to the Campo de’Fiori. Amid the modern, and somewhat rugged, buildings sits ‘the field of flowers’. This lively market will give you a real glimpse into modern Roman life, where you can buy some local produce, soak up the atmosphere in one of the local bars or cafes or party with the local students in the evening. I must confess that it is not one of the most ‘glamourous’ parts of Rome, but it does have a lively atmosphere and shows you the real, modern Rome.
After you’ve recharged your batteries, it’s time to travel back in time and west across the city. One of the most iconic and well-preserved Roman buildings in Rome is the Pantheon. Built in 126 AD as a temple for the Roman gods, the Pantheon is now a Roman Catholic Church.
Architecturally, the Corinthian columns and large circular portico make this building of specific interest, as does the Pantheon’s concrete dome, which is still the largest unreinforced dome in the world. However, for me, the interior is where the magic really lies. The Pantheon is also free of charge to enter, so no need to pre-book.
The Trevi Fountain
Roughly an 8 minute walk east from the Pantheon will take you to another of Rome’s most famous landmarks: the Trevi Fountain. Completed in 1762, this world famous Baroque fountain is renowned for its depiction of the god Neptune, god of the sea, flanked by two Tritons. The location of the fountain is also significant, as it marks the terminus of the Roman Aqua Virgo aqueduct. Remember to take some coins with you, as legend says that anyone who throws a coin into the fountain will return to Rome, and believe me, you’ll want to!
For me, the real attraction of the Trevi Fountain cannot be seen from ground level. Hidden beneath the fountain is the ancient Roman street of Vicus Caprarius. Although the Vicus Caprarius no longer remains intact, a large amount of ancient ruins do. The entrance to the so-called ‘La Citta dell’Acqua’ (City of Water) is just around the corner from the Trevi at Vicolo del Puttarello 25. It’s open on Mondays from 4-7:30pm, and from Wednesday to Sunday from 11am – 5pm. Tickets are only 3 euros and just 1 euro for students! You can even get a guided tour (make a reservation in advance at 339 7786192) for 5 euros.
The Spanish Steps
Walk ten minutes north of the Trevi Fountain and you will find another of Rome’s more ‘modern’ monuments. Built between 1721 and 1725, the Spanish Steps were designed by architects Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi in the 18th century, and links the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti. As you ascend the 135 steps, you can enjoy some stunning panoramic views of the large square below and the city beyond.
However, once again, this attraction is densely populated with tourists, so go early in the morning. I also found an interesting museum nearby called ‘Museo Missionario di Propaganda Fide’, which showcases an interesting array of artefacts brought back to Rome by priests, offers a glimpse into Bernini’s wood-lined library and Borromini’s Chapel of the Magi. Best of all, it was very quiet, as most tourist were still admiring the Spanish Steps!
For most visitors to Rome there is one attraction that is a must. The Colosseum, situated 25 minutes (walking) from the Spanish Steps, is guaranteed to give you a true taste of the ancient Roman heritage that this city is founded upon. Started in 72 AD by Emperor Vespasian, and completed by his son Titus in 80 AD, this ‘colossal’ amphitheatre was once the hub of Roman entertainment: a sort of circus, meets sports arena. However, the Colosseum’s history is saturated with the blood of murdered Christians, slain Gladiators and butchered animals, making it a slightly more sombre attraction. For me the Colosseum epitomises Rome: a juxtaposition encapsulated in one exquisite example of ancient architecture. Its sheer scale and the history that seeps from its ruins have to be seen to be believed.
The best time to visit the Colosseum is early morning, before the crowds pile in. As I mentioned earlier in this guide, purchasing your tickets in advance is a smart move, as it will save you time and money. I purchased mine from here, the official site: http://www.coopculture.it/en/colosseo-e-shop.cfm
The Roman Forum
Approximately 1 kilometre from the Colosseum is another slice of Roman history. Once the heart of Rome, the Roman Forum used to be the site of triumphal processions, political debates, public speeches and the hub for commercial affairs. Sadly the majority of the buildings have since turned to dust, but several important features still remain, such as ‘The Arches of Septimus Severus and Titus’, ‘The Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina’ and ‘the Temple of Saturn’. It’s a fascinating place, especially for those interested in Roman history.
If you purchase your Colosseum ticket from http://www.coopculture.it/en/colosseo-e-shop.cfm entrance to the Roman Forum is also included.
With so much to take in, and a fair way to walk, you shouldn’t feel bad about indulging yourself in the incredible cuisine that Rome has to offer. As a general rule, I’d recommend veering off the beaten path and trying the quieter side streets, where you’ll not only find authentic Italian food, but a much more reasonably priced meal. There are thousands of eateries in Rome, but here are a selection of my favourites.
This is part of the Capitoline Museums, but you don’t need a ticket to use the café. It’s accessible via an independent entrance on Piazzale Caffarelli (door number four) and provides a beautiful and quiet spot for lunch. The café also offers wonderful views across the city’s rooftops and is reasonably priced. We really felt like we’d discovered a real secret gem amongst the expensive chain café s that line the main streets below!
Located in a side street in Centro Storico, this unique restaurant is virtually undiscovered by the tourists! The restaurant décor boast transparent flooring, which not only bathes the eatery in light, but it also gives you a great view of the ruins of the Terme di Agrippa below. The food here is traditional and the atmosphere laid back, which is the perfect combination in my eyes!
Set amid the chic Tridente district, where designer clothes and boutiques take pride of place, there are several undiscovered, cheap spots for lunch. My personal favourite is ‘Pastifico’ on Via della Croce. On Monday through to Saturday, from 1-3pm, you can pick up a freshly prepared pasta dish for as little as 4 euros. The fact that you can often see the locals waiting outside for the restaurant to open, says it all in my mind!
Whilst in this area, visit Pelle Vives on Via delle Carrozze 16, where you can have a custom-made handbag, wallet or belt made out of incredible Italian leather for a fraction of the price you’d pay in the high-end boutiques that litter the main streets.
After your pasta, why not try something sweet? And when in Rome, it would almost be rude not to sample the local tiramisu. Bar Pompi is legendary in Rome, but few tourists ever discover it. Whether a marketing gimmick or not, Bar Pompi claims to make Rome’s finest tiramisu, which they produce in a variety of flavours: from classic coffee to pina colada. You can’t miss this place, as it’s often surrounded by young locals, all enjoying this iconic dish.
If tiramisu is not your thing, then maybe try Italy’s second desert- gelato. Set on Viale Aventino 59, Claudio Torce is allegedly the ‘master’ of Italian ice-cream making. I loved the gelato here, but decided to opt for a traditional vanilla flavour, rather than the inventive celery, carrot and gorgonzola flavours that Claudio had produced!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to Rome. Truth be told, a guide to Rome should, if comprehensive, would take me years to write and reams of paper to produce. There is so much to see and to experience, that I would recommend revisiting this magnificent city as often as you can.
Arrivederci for now.
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