My Travel Intentions for 2018

I read somewhere recently that one should set intentions, rather than make resolutions for the beginning of a new year. I don’t know that I’ve ever actually held onto a resolution long enough to see an impact in my daily life, so I’ll get on board with setting intentions for 2018. These won’t be about my health or finances, though those will likely come too. These will be travel- and human-related. Better to write them down, if they’re actually going to happen, right?! Hopefully I’ll come back to these, and update my progress, for my own sake!

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy 2018!

  1. Take advantage of at least five new cultural/historical experiences right here at home. Thinking about starting with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the Mill City Museum (which I still can’t believe I’ve never been to!), and the top of the Foshay Tower.
  2. Make concrete plans to get to South America. Find a travel partner for Machu Picchu, find a company for my Trail trek, and start saving! Doing responsible, adult things means less disposable income, but this particular site seems time-sensitive, as travel on the Inca Trail is being limited by the Peruvian government.
  3. Be more open to new people when I travel. It’ll take work to make this happen, especially when I eat, as I often eat alone, but this also applies generally. I usually have my RBF on in full-force when I’m in situations that could turn precarious, but especially as the image of Americans around the world is changing, I will try to smile more often, and experience things that will find me in communion with other travelers I can learn from.
  4. Be more open to spending money when I travel. I’ve been really conscious about spending money on experiences, rather than souvenirs, but I’m also still a product of my mother (who I’m convinced actually grew up during the Depression). I think I often miss out on cultural touchstones in an effort to be frugal. That €4 to sit and sip espresso at a cafe in Roma that I can never justify, the Czech Pilsner at dinner overlooking the Charles Bridge that I hesitate in ordering, the three or four meals it takes trying to find the best schnitzel in Vienna. None of those are necessary, but everyone needs to eat, and all of those choices enhance experiences. I need to remember that. And dang it, when you want an Aperol spritz in Piazza del Popolo with people you haven’t seen in years, spend the €11!
  5. Plan my 2018 to include at least one road trip and at least three new cities.
  6. Connect with at least five current and former students about study abroad options at the college of their choice.
  7. Write an actual letter once a month to someone I’ve lost touch with, but want to keep in my life.
  8. Actually write more here too–this blog is largely self-serving, but if I can convince even one person of the importance of travel (or reinforce what they already know!), it’ll be worth it! Once a month might be tricky in the doldrums of early spring, but it’s a pretty minor commitment to make.
  9. Help at least two people who have the desire to travel (but lack the practical planning tools) to take their first trip, domestic or international.
  10. Be the best ambassador I can be for everything I represent. Minnesotans, Americans, teachers, women, sports fans, politically-engaged individuals, travelers, etc. Life today is challenging enough; we should all try to do the best we can to represent ourselves to the world with integrity, virtue, and value.

That sounds like a pretty valuable way to bring in 2018. Hopefully, I’ll update this list as the year goes on, but until then, hope we’ll all find fulfillment and challenge in 2018. It’s gotta be better than 2017, right?!

MC Lean


10 years as a traveler: my love letter to the world.

In front of my apartment at Via XX Settembre 49. Leaving Roma in 2007, returning in 2014, and our mini-reunion in 2017 (after a full day of biking the Appian Way!)


On December 22, 2007, I met my family at MSP in international arrivals, after requiring that they pay crazy amounts to park and come in to greet me. I had been gone for four months, after all.

I had spent those months visiting London, Salzburg, Munich, and Berlin, living in Athens and Rome, traveling around Greece and Italy, and finally, stopping in Paris and London again on my way home. I studied history, art history, theology, culture and language, and took my senior seminar on ethics and morals. I lived in a hotel with 27 other students, and shared an apartment with eight other women. I ate out for every meal in Athens, and cooked lots of pasta and ate lots of cheese in our tiny Italian kitchen in Rome. I learned the dangers of walking in Athenian traffic, and the stop-on-a-dime habits of Roman drivers. I wandered through political protests in the cradle of democracy and endured countless transportation strikes in the Eternal City.

I came home from that adventure on December 22nd, 2007. I distinctly remember sitting at Christmas celebrations feeling off. I was happy to be home, and even happier to be eating all of my favorite foods with some of my favorite people, but I just couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t entirely happy. That December 31st, instead of seeing friends I hadn’t seen in an entire semester, I sat at my parents’ house. Alone. On New Year’s Eve. It was then that I knew that reverse culture shock was real, and that something just wasn’t the same as it had been the previous three Christmases of my college career.

It was a slow burn, but over the next several months, it became clear that it was a permanent feeling of different-ness at home. I didn’t know what or why, but something had changed. I re-adapted to life in central Minnesota as I finished my senior year and prepared for student teaching. Adult life awaited, but I just wanted to get back on a plane. Turns out, that feeling doesn’t go away either.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

Bill Bryson

Before I left, I wasn’t sure I’d survive the semester. When I got home, I knew I’d never be the same. Ten years later, the wanderlust that was implanted over that four months in 2007 has grown into more numerous and diverse interests than I could ever have anticipated. It has led to trips all over the world with dear friends to share experiences with, and adventures by myself, discovering the joys of solo travel. It has taken me to five continents, and provided me a lengthy list of future trips to be taken. It has shown me who I am and what I value as a human, and has made me a better teacher and person. It has cost me thousands of dollars and enriched my life in ways I can’t explain. And it all began with a semester I didn’t know I would survive.

My mom gave me a little business card-sized quote that I’ve carried in my wallet every day since. I certainly didn’t realize the power of that quote at the time, but I come back to it often.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

― Mary Anne Radmacher

There’s so much of the world to see. Get out there and do it.


MC Lean

Road Trip Thoughts

It’s been a long, cold winter already (at least it sure seems that way, though snow’s only been on the ground for 5 days!), and I’m always eagerly anticipating whatever flight comes next. However, until another transcontinental plan is in the works, I’m thinking frequently about where and when another road trip might take place. There’s so much of our country to explore I have to get used to the fact that buying that plane ticket might not always be the most practical (or cost-effective) option!

I realized that my last road trip post was written before I went on my 3500 mile, three week journey. So, for those of you who are planning cross-country adventures of your own, here are some suggestions to get you started off on the right foot!

  1. Get your car taken care of before you go–and DON’T wait until the last minute to do so. Don’t put off changing your oil, or replacing that filter, or whatever it may be. Your road trip becomes MUCH more expensive if you need immediate help getting back on the road, and your whole trip could go up in flames if the repairs are severe.
  2. Use Do Not Disturb and/or Airplane Mode on your phone while you’re driving. It is incredibly easy to pick up your phone to scroll through social media when on a long and boring stretch of a freeway. It’s not safe to do while driving period, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re in an area where the terrain, the speed limit, and the wildlife are unfamiliar to you.
  3. Bring good music (or good podcasts)–make sure you’ve got a good variety, and make sure there’s A LOT of it. The radio stations you may encounter will probably not be to your liking, so have SOMETHING that you’ll enjoy listening to. Make sure to download the podcasts, rather than using data to listen–I got stuck without my most recent episodes because I failed to download them before I left in the morning! This also keeps you from flipping through stations endlessly, which is a serious buzzkill (especially out west where country music is 98% of what you’ll hear anyway).
  4. Make sure to also have a playlist specifically for keeping you awake. Even if you’re well-rested and relaxed on the road, doing the same thing for hours on end tends to lull people into a false consciousness. Keep sing-along jams readily available just for the purpose of alertness! (My go-to is the Original Broadway Cast recording of Rock of Ages)
  5. Think about your route before you leave–are there natural breaks in your drive? If not, find ways and places to plan for stops. I decided that I needed to get out of the car every four hours–sometimes it was to eat, sometimes it was for gas, and sometimes, it was just to not be in the car anymore. It’s even better if you can plan it around attractions that are important or interesting for you. I stopped at a lot of roadside historic sites and local/state parks when I could, and at an outlet mall or two when I just couldn’t read any more about the first stagecoach station in Wyoming.
  6. Have paper maps with you, keep your rough itinerary on paper, and get a general understanding of your route on the map. In more rural areas of my last trip, my phone wasn’t able to help, and I had to guess/use old-fashioned map-reading skills to make sure I was heading in the right direction.
  7. Don’t rely on gas stations for overpriced food and drink–bring a variety of things you know you’ll enjoy, and keep a little cooler in your car. Especially if you need fruit, veggies, or non-sugary drinks on a regular basis. Keeping your own in a cooler keeps the stops to a minimum, and saves you some cash along the way!
  8. Keep your car snacks to things that a) won’t make a huge mess, b) won’t melt if left in the car, c) will stay edible for days at a time. Fresh fruit is great if you’re planning to eat it shortly after you acquire it. Don’t bring things that will go bad if you don’t plan on eating them! Also be careful with things that need to be refrigerated. Ice makers at hotels are not universal, but gas stations can be good options for ice.
  9. Don’t expect that there will always be gas stations when you need them. The state of Nebraska was devious here–a sign for an exit would indicate gas, which would then be FIVE miles off the freeway! When you have the chance, get gas, especially if it’s cheap, and even if you don’t NEED it at the time.
  10. Try to research the driving conventions of the places you’ll be driving so you know ahead of time what to expect. In the state of Wisconsin, if you get angry at people going under the speed limit in the left lane, you’ll spend a lot of time fuming. Figure out what you can control, and worry about that (this is PARTICULARLY hard for me to remember, but maybe saved me some road rage).
  11. Sometimes, those road side attractions you see signs for hundreds of miles prior to your destination are worth it. Sometimes, those stops are Wall Drug. If you have time and desire, always stop and enjoy the kitsch. If you don’t, you’re very rarely missing a unique experience.
  12. In any case, you’re likely taking a road trip to savor the sights, sounds, and people you’ll meet along the way. Remember that though road trips are not always the quickest, least-stressful, or even cheapest way of traveling, always take advantages of the bonuses driving provides: quick detours for historic sites, stopping on the side of a country road for a sunset photo, seeing bison roam through a state park, and going at your own pace, both on and off the road. Keep an open mind, a flexible itinerary, and some

The Oregon Trail: 21st Century version

While in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful humans who also happen to be teachers. Two of them gave up an entire day to take me through the dirt roads of central Wyoming so I could experience the Oregon Trail in the same way the original Pioneers and the freshmen of Natrona County High School did/do. Rather, I should say, using the same route. My method of transportation was an air-conditioned car, rather than my feet, a covered wagon, or a hand cart!

Previously, we had driven by Fort Caspar, the former Platte Bridge Station, and heard the stories of this important site. The morning of our excursion, we started at Bessemer Bend, where one of the Mormon Ferry crossings was located in the late 1840s/early 1850s. In the first several years Mormons were venturing across the overland trail, Brigham Young decided to keep a convoy near Casper to run a ferry across the North Platte River; it was thought to be the first commercial ferry on the river. The iron ore-filled hillsides that give both Red Buttes and Bessemer Bend their names were also the location of the Battle of Red Buttes, which was a significant conflict between settlers and native populations during the 1860s.

Next on the trail was Willow Springs, the site of the first fresh water along the trail since Bessemer Bend, 25 miles earlier. Many who passed through on the Trail remarked about the importance of this site in their diaries. The lone tree at the site (and for miles around) has since been struck by lightning, but the foundation of the Pony Express station, that was turned into a telegraph station after the Pony Express went defunct, and the remains of the tree are still at the site. The water is also still apparently drinkable, though we didn’t test it out.

The foundations of the Pony Express stop-turned telegraph station and the remains of the cottonwood that was struck by lightning.

Not too far beyond Willow Springs is Prospect Hill. Its elevation rises 400 feet in the span of a mile, and was a very difficult portion of the trail (which NC teachers make their students walk!), though pioneers and students alike were rewarded with quite a view. It is the highest point on this part of the Trail, and one from which you can see Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and the Sweetwater Valley.  Wheel ruts can be seen so clearly here that you can almost imagine the wagons rumbling by., struggling to make it up Prospect Hill. Though there are only four interpretive signs put up by the Bureau of Land Management at the top of the Hill, this is a site definitely worth stopping at and walking around for a while.

“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s

‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’

… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”

Our last stop on the Trail for the day was Independence Rock. Supposedly the destination Pioneers needed to reach before July 4th to make it to the Dalles before winter fell, Independence Rock is an important landmark on the actual trail and in the game. It is a massive sight to behold, and we were able to climb it, and walk across it that afternoon, which took about 20 minutes. Still visible are some of the initials and names of the Pioneers who reached the rock 170+ years ago. The Sweetwater River was high while we were there, so part of the area was flooded, but it made for some pretty cool photos.

My last Oregon Trail stop on the road trip was en route while I was driving from Salt Lake City to Sioux City, Iowa. I stopped briefly at Fort Bridger after the interpreters had left for the day, but the grounds were still open. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established this trading post in the early 1840s to service the trails that came through the area. He also established the first school in Wyoming for his children, who lived with him at the Fort for a while.

And the Pièce De Résistance: my last Wyoming Sunset around 9:30p, and my last Wyoming sunrise, only 7 hours later! Driving across the state of Nebraska was torturous, but at least I had that sunrise to start my day.

If you’re driving through central Wyoming, and aren’t lucky enough to have personal tour guides, the Casper paper put together an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself Oregon Trail tour. The National park Service has also put together a more extensive 84-page Auto Tour Guide that covers all three Trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon,  as they wind through Wyoming. Check them out!

WY not? Wyoming beauty that ISN’T Yellowstone or the Tetons

I had never been to Wyoming. I can’t say that I had any particular desire to go to Wyoming, and on this trip, I even completely avoided the several things that EVERYONE knows Wyoming for–Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (another trip for another summer!). BUT, the few things I was able to experience in my several days were awesome, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience natural wonders and historic sites in the Cowboy State (…or the Equality State. I think Cowboy is more fitting).

My Wyoming adventure started out with a journey to Devils Tower. I really can’t adequately show you in photos how beautiful the setting is, and I certainly can’t convey how spiritual the experience and the environs were. A sacred place to many plains Indians, Bear Lodge, as it is known by native tribes, helped me feel more connected to nature and Mother Earth than I had been in a while. It’s not the best known highlight of Wyoming, but it is definitely worth a stop! Enjoy some photos of the brilliant blue skies and incredible landscapes that surround Devils Tower.

The Oregon Trail deserves a post of its own, so that will be coming–Devils Tower was such a fun adventure to begin my experience in Wyoming!

Great Places AND Great Faces?! Count me in.

For those of you who aren’t in the geographical target market for the South Dakota tourism campaigns, the way they attract non-Dakotans is with a catchy tune that ends…“Great Places…Great Faces: South Dakota.” It seems a little ridiculous, but as I was reminded at the beginning of my road trip, the places and faces are certainly great. Mount Rushmore is a bizarre way to honor four of our presidents, but it is a site that attracts over three million people a year, which is quite a feat. It’s also surrounded by incredible sites on all sides. Wall Drug not withstanding, southwestern South Dakota is chock-full of national and state parks, historic sites, wonderful vistas, and lots and lots of buffalo.

I started my trip (after seven long and very straight hours and TWO severe weather delays!!) at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Phillip, SD. Because of cuts to the National Park System (don’t get me started…), they only offer tours a few days a week in the summer, so I had to be on the road bright and early! My interest in this particular site stems from an incredible weekend I had in Green Valley, Arizona, learning about the Cold War, but also visiting the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona. If you’re ever in southern Arizona, MAKE A STOP!

The Minuteman Missile Silo, Launch Command Center, and Visitors’ Center are all definitely worth seeing–they are tangible, scary remnants of the Cold War that seems so far removed from our lives today, but are less than a generation removed in our collective memory. What a world we lived in less than 30 years ago.

Second stop: Badlands National Park. The turnoff to enter the park is right off I-90, and until you’re in the midst of these incredible landscapes, you see almost nothing at all, making the incredible beauty of the park all the more wonderful and surprising. Exploring the Badlands could take two or three hours, or a full day, depending on what you decide to do. I hiked a little bit, visited the Visitors’ Center, and stopped at 8-10 different vistas to take photos, and it took me about three hours. The park also has a star-gazing program at night that I didn’t stay for, but looked incredible.

The second day, I made a few more stops in southeastern South Dakota. Early morning at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. All incredibly lovely, all full of families doing the same thing I was–it’s so easy and convenient to do in a few days with squirrelly kids, you’d think Mother Nature planned it JUST for road trips! Mount Rushmore is worth a stop for everyone driving through South Dakota, and if you get there early enough in the morning, you don’t have to contend with crowds or people staring at smart phones.

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I took very few photos at and in Jewel Cave, as I was on the lantern tour, and we had to behave as though we were transported back to the 1940s, technology and all. BUT, before we got into the cave, we took a tour of the caretaker’s cabin, built by the WPA in the 1930s. The rangers also dressed in 1940s NPS gear, which was a fun touch.


As I was driving to my hotel that night in Wyoming, I thought a lot how much beauty and history exists in the world that I have yet to see. Turns out a solo road trip provides many opportunities for introspection. Excited to keep on traveling!

Travel in an Age of Terror

The makeshift memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in front of the American Embassy in Berlin.

Written 3/4 June 2017

Tonight, there were three separate incidents in London. What began with London Bridge soon made its way to the Borough Market, and before we knew it, the Vauxhall area was in danger too. Though it quickly became apparent Vauxhall wasn’t a terror-related incident though the others appear to be, three acts of violence were committed in the capital of the United Kingdom last night.

And two days ago, there was a terror attack in Kabul, Afghanistan that no organization has claimed, as of yet. It got news coverage, for sure, but it seemed to be a passing piece of news in a region of the world where we expect those things to happen. There are plenty of examples that compare the coverage and treatment of terror incidents in western countries with countries elsewhere (linked articles are just several among many, both liberal and conservative sources), but from here, a week removed from an attack at a concert in Manchester, four days after an attack in Baghdad, and only 72 hours following an attack in Kabul, this article about the varying coverage between western and non-western terror attacks from the am hours of June 3rd, before the attacks in London, seems especially prescient right now.

How do we reconcile these incidents? On a broader level, I struggle constantly with how to prioritize what to teach my kids. Is it what is required by Minnesota statute, or is it a more comprehensive understanding of the world we live in? Is it the information that will be most proximate to their daily lives, or is it what will actually help develop a broader perspective of the world, one in which an attack in Afghanistan is equally important to an attack in England? How do we keep kids from developing preconceived notions of large populations of people, based on the actions of a few, if adults with fully developed prefrontal cortexes (and significantly large amounts of power and influence) can’t seem to do the same?

Plenty of rational, thinking people I know are less comfortable traveling today than they ever have been. They don’t want to risk the possibility of something happening while they’re abroad. I certainly can’t tell them they’re wrong to feel that way, and it doesn’t really comfort anyone to think that it could happen in the nearest American metropolis just as easily as it could happen in a major European capital. So, what do we do?

I don’t have many answers, but I have more questions by the day. How can I simultaneously desire to help kids learn about and experience the world, and live in a world that kids feel less safe in by the day? How do I try to embody tolerance and acceptance while teaching about current events that seem to stem from intolerance and non-acceptance of those different from ourselves? Most importantly, how can we live in and raise children in a world where things are becoming more peaceful and tolerant, and not more dangerous and more closed-off?


Road Trip Necessities

I haven’t taken a road trip that has lasted longer than my 5.5 hour drive back to school in Milwaukee since I was 7. In the early 1990s, my family drove to Mount Rushmore in our Volvo, listening to Raffi for approximately 8.5 of the 9 hours it took us to get there. We stopped at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, my brothers and I had matching sunglasses, and we took the obligatory photos that prove I was cuter, blonder, and more stylish when I was 7 than I am today.

This summer, I’m undertaking a pretty massive road trip that will last 3 weeks and 3300 miles for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t before, and that’s a good enough reason to do anything.
  2. I have to get to Salt Lake City for a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Seminar on Manifest Destiny and the Mormon Trail somehow.
  3. Along the way to SLC, there are people to see and places to visit. I get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and experience parts of the country that I’ve never seen!

My entire road trip will keep me within “fly-over country;” the crassly-named, non-descriptive way to categorize an entire HALF of our country. I’m a proud midwesterner, and though Minnesota’s topographic features may be lacking, I’m excited to share the beauty and diversity of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains with my kids and my friends.

In preparation for this undertaking, I’m trying to populate a list of road trip basics:

  • A road trip playlist: needs to be upbeat and singable enough to keep you awake, and diverse enough not to become repetitive. Though I’d love lots of suggestions, some of my go-tos are: anything John Legend has ever sung, the original cast recording of Rock of Ages (the stage production, NOT the movie!), which is a nonsense story, but a GREAT soundtrack, and Hamilton. Because duh.
  • Road trip snacks: portable, not messy, and won’t make me feel like death as I’m driving through Wyoming. Also will keep me from spending hundreds of dollars (and gaining hundreds of pounds) on soda and chips at gas stations, hopefully!
  • Road trip-themed reads: though I’m glad to be visiting friends and seeing and doing fun things, I’ll also spend quite a bit of time alone. Good books with themes about travel and adventure, self-discovery, or nonfiction about nearly anything are always appreciated!
  • Pit-stops: I don’t sit in cars well, so having sights to stop and see will make the drive significantly more pleasant. It just so happens that a large portion of my route will take me along the Oregon/Mormon Trail, and will give me plenty of historical sights to stop and see (and parts of my childhood to reminisce):

On the way from Salt Lake City to Madison, Wisconsin, with a pit stop in Sioux City for a family wedding, I’ll also be stopping in Kearney, Nebraska, at another Oregon Trail highlight, the Field of Dreams movie site, and the New Glarus brewery, for the best Wisconsin has to offer.

I’ll be chronicling my trip during and after, in hopes of highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of this region of the country, but first, let me know: what else do I need to know about road trips to make this enjoyable, rather than painful?

Safe travels to all who have summer adventures on the horizon! MC Lean

La Città Eterna: A first-timer’s guide to Rome

I’ve been back from Rome for over a month, and think about how soon I can return on a daily basis. I’ve been asked many times why I have such an affinity for Rome, and all I can articulate is that I think it stems from my opportunity to get to know the city as a temporary resident of it. I didn’t cram weeks or months worth of history and sites into a few days. I didn’t have to stop at the most convenient or most English-friendly restaurants, and I didn’t have to wait in long summer lines to see (but not really get the significance of) famous Roman landmarks. It is definitely a city that needs to be experienced, not merely seen.

So, here are some tips for the first-timer (or return-tripper) to Rome. I love this city, and want everyone else to experience the same love, so I’ve put together some thoughts on what made the trip more special and worthwhile for me. I broke it up into four sections: the Centro Storico, general commentary on other sites in Rome, Roman Churches, and Vatican City. My must-dos (of which there are many) are in BOLD, but I think everything listed is worth the effort. At some point, I’ll create a post about just gelato, but for now, the sites will be my first priority! Truly take the time and energy to get to know the city, and the payoff will be unforgettable. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it probably shouldn’t be seen in just one day either…😉
CENTRO STORICO (The Historic Center)
  • If you want to make sure to visit the “big sites,” the first one on many people’s list is the Colosseum. However, if you have the time and energy, the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum are now covered by the same ticket. To save time, you can go to the Forum first to get the ticket, as there is often a shorter line there. If you’re into Roman history, take some time on the Palatine Hill. I think it’s the most under-rated part of the Forum and Colosseum area; it’s where Romulus and Remus were, when they were found by the she-wolf who kept them alive. If you’re not getting a guided tour, I would suggest using an audio guide–Rick Steves is usually my go-to. For most people, it’s meaningless to wander around these spaces unless you can get some kind of tour to orient yourself. Cross the Via dei Fori Imperiali and see the Imperial Fora too–you don’t need a ticket, but you can see Trajan’s Column, and the back side of Trajan’s market (a fancy mall in its day), which is really cool, and you can actually go into the market if you buy a ticket on the other side.
  • The Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill (right by the Forum), has a really wonderful museum, and the square itself was designed by Michelangelo, and is beautiful at dusk. Get a gelato and ponder life here while the sun sets over the hills of Rome.
  • Piazza Venezia is the square in front of the monument to Victor Emmanuel. If you’re interested in WWII history, Mussolini’s headquarters was the building on the right. From the balcony on that building, Mussolini declared war on Britain.
  • If you go behind the building with the balcony, there is a secret garden, hidden in the busyness of Rome. The courtyard of the Basilica di San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio is a great place to sit and enjoy gelato, rest your feet, and get away from the noise and bustle of the city.
  • If you want one of the best free view of Rome, and a good walk too, climb the Aventine Hill. Go past the Circus Maximus (circo massimo metro stop) up the hill to Giardino Degli Aranci on the Via de Santa Sabina. it’s awesome, though only open until 6 in the spring and fall. It’s also close to a pretty special spot in Rome, if you want a neat, kitschy experience at a keyhole–looking through it, you’ll see a perfectly framed St. Peter’s Dome, and you’ll be standing in Rome, looking through the sovereign state of the Knights of Malta, and looking at the Holy See.
  • The Giardino Degli Aranci is also really close to La Boca della Verita, which is pretty cool, but doesn’t mean much if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday. You should definitely watch it before you get to Rome; it’ll make everything better. Plus, Gregory Peck.

Other sites in Rome

  • Campo de Fiori isn’t just a tourist draw–it has great fruits and veggies, and one of the best bakeries I’ve found in Rome. Il Forno Campo de Fiori is in the back of the square if you’re facing the Giordano Bruno statue. It’ll be behind you on the right side–get some pizza by the etto (hundred grams), and sit by the French Embassy, Palazzo Farnese, just around the corner.
  • The Trevi fountain should be seen during the day (reaaaaaally early if you want it mostly to yourself), and at night, pretty late for the same reason. It’s SO much better with no tourists and fewer people harassing you with neon light up balls, or selfie sticks, or whatever is being sold at the moment. It was one of the most pleasant surprise of my first trip to Rome; turn a corner, hear moving water, and there it is: La Fontana di Trevi!
  • The Spanish steps are not as cool as you’d hope, especially because you can’t sit on them and drink copious amounts of wine anymore, but head down the Via Condotti to window-shop at some of Rome’s most expensive stores, that extends straight out from it. Immediately on the right is Antico Caffe Greco, where Keats and Byron drank coffee. Stand, or sit and pay a bit more, but it’s worth a stop if literary history is your thing.
  • If art history is more your thing, the Villa Borghese is awesome. The gardens are beautiful and romantic, and good for a bike ride or walk, and you can get a good view of Piazza del Popolo from Pincio if you walk to the far west side of the gardens toward the river.
  • If you’re not sick of art yet, the Villa Farnesina is another beautiful home full of great art (lots of Raphael here), and well off the beaten path, for those of you who don’t like crowds.
  • The Pantheon is SO incredible. A functioning Catholic Church, and a burial site for many famous Italians, including Raphael, and Umberto I and Vittorio Emmanuele II, both Kings of Italy. This is another site you should see during the day AND late at night with fewer people around. Get some gelato, and sit outside of it by the fountain thinking about life (notice a trend developing?). I had some pretty profound thoughts by that fountain, and seeing snow fall through the oculus in on my bucket list.
  • San Giovanni in Laterano–the Papal Basilica. It’s kind of out of the way, but a really cool church, and significant for pilgrims. In a building across the street is the Scala Santa, which people will climb on their knees seeking repentance.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore–another papal basilica, close to termini, and different architecturally than a lot of churches in Rome.
  • Chiesa de Sant’Ignazio is one of the Jesuit churches in Rome, so I’m a fan, but also close to Campo de Fiore, and has a really neat dome–I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but go if you’re close. Once inside, look up. Walk toward the sanctuary and keep looking up.
  • St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura) is another papal basilica, and a bit out of the way, but supposedly built over the tomb of St. Paul. Very pretty if you’re in the area anyway.
  • Santa Maria in Trastevere gets raved about, but I’ve never been. I would guess that many, many people can’t be wrong! Check it out.
    Vatican City
  • I suggest taking a full day or two half days at least if you’re planning to see the Cathedral and the Vatican Museums. If you want to go to Castel St. Angelo, which is nearby, make it at least a day and a half.
  • St. Peters: make sure to walk around the piazza and Bernini’s colonnade. It’s a pretty spectacular sight. There’s a papal audience on Wednesdays that you can get tickets for the Papal Audience at St. Peter’s from Santa Susanna on via XX Venti Settembre, which is pretty close to Termini, if you’re going or coming through there.
  • There’s also a brief Papal Angelus on Sunday mornings if the Pope is in town. He largely doesn’t speak in English during it, but still worth doing in my opinion, though I’m Catholic, and a fan of this Pope. The schedule for this varies more widely than the Papal Audience, but it occurs at noon.  There’s also mass multiple times a day in English, Latin, Italian, and other languages as well, if that’s something you’re interested in.
  • Definitely climb the dome of St. Peter’s. It’s worth it regardless of the weather, but make sure to do it if it’s a beautiful day. If you’re able to, I suggest you hike all the way up. Save the money the elevator would cost for gelato–it doesn’t take that long, and along the way, you get to walk around the inside of the dome, seeing the incredible mosaic work that makes up the art of the interior dome.
  • Regardless of whether you’ve had your fill of museums, make sure to spend time at the Vatican museums–most people spend 2-3 hours, though it’d be easy to spend significantly more. I would suggesting getting your tickets beforehand so you don’t waste time waiting in line, which you can get through the Vatican (not any of the heinously obnoxious people selling tickets as you wait in line!). Use Rick Steves’ audio tour, or if you prefer, get a guided tour, which are available from lots of companies, and from the Vatican itself (they also recently started doing adults-only happy hour and evening tours–if you can get in on that, it sounds pretty spectacular!). It’s frustrating to wander around without something or someone guiding you, so have some sort of plan or guide. Make sure to mail something from the Vatican post office at the exit to the museum–it’s the only place in the world you can get a Vatican postmark! (plus, your family and friends will feel like you’re extra thoughtful when you tell them that tidbit!)
  • If you have the time or interest, I suggest taking a Scavi tour too–it’s the necropolis under St. Peter’s, and will take you through the more modern parts of the crypt as well. It’s more of a Catholic pilgrimage, but if you’re into religious history, or history generally, it’s still worth it. The information on the website isn’t up-to-date, but if you email, they respond quickly. You need to reserve ahead of time, and it does book up weeks in advance, particularly around holy seasons like Lent and Advent.

So, here’s the first draft of what will likely be just one of many posts about my favorite city. Get in and enjoy the grit and well-worn nature of the place and its history; it will grab a hold of you and never let go. I can’t wait until I’m back in La Città Eterna!


Roma: non basta una vita

I can’t adequately put into words why I love Rome the way I do. The city is a series of contradictions. It doesn’t mesh with the things I usually am in life; rational, pragmatic, largely drama-free, and often in a hurry. Rome is none of those things. This city is messy, loud, and dirty. It is history piled on top of more history, and it tries to account for it in different ways, or sometimes, not at all. No one is in a hurry (except every Roman driver!), Italian time is a real phenomenon, and from the traffic to stores closing in the afternoons, very little makes sense to those of us who appreciate the orderliness and practicality of daily life elsewhere in the world.

However, the infuriating and wonderful thing about Rome is that for every event, person, or thing that frustrates me to no end, there’s another that makes me wish we could all be a little more Italian. Italians truly believe in living ‘la dolce vita’. The sweet life is one that most Italians strive for on the daily. They speak, love, gesture, eat, drink, and live with passion. There are so many words and phrases in Italian that focus on enjoying life; passeggiata (a leisurely evening stroll), meriggiare (to escape the heat of the midday sun by resting in the shade), abbiocco (the drowsiness that follows eating a big meal), il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) just to list a few…

A three hour meal is a regular occurrence, and you can enjoy the city by doing everything you’re supposed to as a temporary Roman, or by doing nothing at all. Just being in this city is an experience in itself. You’re always walking through some record of human history whether you realize it or not; imperial history, republican history, art history, literature, modern history, and current events. You’re drinking water straight from the Italian Alps carried by millennia-old aqueducts, and some of the best wine in the world produced only kilometers away. Coffee becomes an art form and the best pasta is made lovingly by someone’s grandma from a family recipe that is older than the United States. The tomatoes just taste better in Rome, and the gelato, obviously, can’t be beat.

Where else in the world can you accidentally happen upon the Pope addressing the people of the world, walk past art and through buildings produced by the masters of the Renaissance, see one of the modern wonders of the world, or see none of the above, and still feel the weight, import, chaos, and passion of a city?

So, if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Rome, indulge in an overpriced Aperol spritz of a café all’aperto at a restaurant in one of Rome’s many piazzas where people watching is more than a hobby, enjoy some cacio e pepe, and revel in la dolce vita.

On Its 2770th birthday, this is my love letter to Rome. It’s one I think I’ll be adding to for quite a while. Rome keeps pulling me back in a way no other city can.

After all, non basta una vita: one lifetime is not enough.