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.
    Churches
  • 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!

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s