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!

 

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(Approximately) 1072 Reasons to Study Abroad during College

I just got back from my study abroad reunion in Rome. A week spent in Rome with people I met a decade ago during my first experience abroad, in one of my favorite cities in the world. It was more than enough motivation for me to create an ode to studying abroad, and reminded me to continue to work daily to convince the young people I know to experience this incredible opportunity. So here goes:

  1. Studying abroad allows you to experience international travel in a way that is safe and supported. Especially if it’s your first time abroad, this creates a level of comfort for you (and likely your parents) that will make the unknown a little less threatening.
  2. You’ll discover more about yourself in that time period than you would imagine is possible. Not only more about your personal likes and dislikes, tolerances and intolerances, but your travel habits, communication style, friendship-building capacities, how you spend and budget money, what is important to take from your travels, and lots of other abilities you didn’t know you had or could develop.
  3. Integrating yourself into a different language and culture is the best way to learn either; choose to really engage in the place, and the benefits are limitless.
  4. You can make friends from all over the world who will love for you to come back and visit for decades to come.
  5. Your (adopted) home city will likely be a great jumping-off point for other travels around the region or continent you’re in–independent or group travel is much easier with budget airlines and rail systems that are much more extensive than at home.
  6. Adapting to daily routines outside of your own helps you become more flexible and tolerant, not only when you’re traveling, but when you get home also.
  7. You’ll likely experience a wide variety of new foods, and you may gain some new favorites to take home with you as go-to comfort food that will evoke instant memories of your trip abroad. It’ll also give you a reason to go try new ethnic restaurants at home, if you’ve discovered a love for moussaka, arepas, or shawarma while you were abroad, and want to expand your gastronomic experiences.
  8. You’ll gain skills that will help you post-college. You’re more marketable as a prospective employee with language skills, a proven track-record of taking on new challenges, or the worldliness that comes with experiences outside of the US.
  9. You’ll wow your friends and family with the skills you’ve gained while abroad. The first time I traveled with my parents after my study abroad trip, they couldn’t believe how assertive and proactive I was, and how easily I could navigate new cities and public transportation. I certainly wouldn’t have been equipped to help them travel more easily, if I hadn’t been given the chance to figure it all out during my semester abroad.
  10. If you choose to “disconnect” from technology to some degree while you’re abroad (by choice or necessity), you’ll discover that life without smartphones, though more difficult, can be more fulfilling. I studied abroad before smart phones existed, and I’m certain I had a better, more adventurous experience as a result. I also rediscover this every time I travel, and rely less on social media when I get home.
  11. You’ll discover things about your home and home life that you will come to appreciate more when you get back. It’ll help you realize how important some relationships are, and maybe help you understand some that aren’t.
  12. You’ll think about the world differently; knowing people and places different from your regular help you on your way to becoming a global citizen.
  13. You may be inspired to attend grad school abroad and continue your international education; especially in central and northern European countries, you may even get to go for free!
  14. You have time to truly get to know a city; the best discoveries are made when wandering aimlessly or walking to class, not usually when walking from one tourist site to another.
  15. With the diversity of programs available at many universities, you can continue a more traditional course of study OR take classes unrelated to your major; both will enrich you beyond belief.
  16. There are SO many places around the world to study, and so many types of programs, there is actually something for everyone. Want to study zoology? Ancient languages? Native cultures? Mechanical engineering? Literature? ALL can be done through one program or another, and through the lens of another language, culture, perspective, etc.
  17. There are lots of opportunities to study abroad for the same or nearly the same cost as a semester at school would normally cost. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t afford it; there are so many ways to make sure you can!
  18. You are not likely to have fewer responsibilities, more freedom, or more opportunities than you do in your undergraduate studies. Do it while you can, or you may have to wait until your retire to feel like you have the time again!
  19. Wanderlust is real, and once the travel bug bites, you’ll be doomed to a life of exploration, expanding your horizons, and experiencing new people and cultures.
  20. – 1072. You’ll see and do remarkable things, be better prepared for the world post-college, and you’ll make lifelong friends along the way. This is exactly what college should be about. 

Take these to heart, and go forth, and set the world on fire!

MC Lean

Travel Tips from McLean Meets World!

I am by no means a wizard when it comes to travel. I have actual and figurative bumps and bruises from doing things the hard way, the long way, and the just plain wrong way in my travels. I also know that just because something has worked for me does not mean it will work for others, but I seem to keep sharing the same pieces of travel advice to friends and family. I thought it was about time to write it down and put it into the ether, so here I present to you: McLean Meets World’s 14+ tips for making the most of your travels:

 

1. Climb something tall in every city. You get a better understanding of the geography of a city if you can see it from above. You see the movement of traffic, people, and the urban planning (or lack thereof) that helps you make sense of the place. Plus, if you actually climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator (if there is one), then you’ve always got a justification for that dessert you’ll end up having anyway (also, bonus justification if actually climbing saves you the cost of said dessert–you are officially doubly free of guilt).
2. Take a walking tour of the city, if one exists (especially a free one!). Many companies have started tip-based walking tours of major cities around the globe (in Europe in particular) and they’re a great introduction to a city you’ve never been to. I try to find one on my first or second day in a place. Traditionally, they’ll take you to all of the major sites, and then you can decide for yourself later if you’d like to return and invest time and money in the place. For 10-15 Euros, you’ve got a great introduction to a city, potentially some new friends to visit the city with, and a nice 2-ish hour walk through what is likely a beautiful, history-filled place.
3. See as many monuments at night as you can. Certainly go during the day and enjoy them while they’re full of tourists, even (especially?) if you’re already hot, sweaty, and cranky. But go again at night–some of my favorite moments have come with a cool evening breeze, fewer people, and a more personal experience with some of the world’s most famous sites.
4. Always know some of the language, even if it’s just please and thank you; certainly more is always better. If you have particular dietary needs, make sure to have a phrase or two written down if you’re not comfortable saying them. More often than not, sincere effort and a smile will get you about as far as you’ll absolutely need to get–but sometimes it won’t. In those moments, keep in mind #5.
5. Remember that you’re an ambassador for your language, and more importantly, for your country. Americans are notorious complainers–so far, this has held true on all five continents I’ve visited. Sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes it’s people getting angry for others not doing things we’d expect them to do at home. Remember, all things are relative. Try to be kind and respectful, wherever you are. And of something is frustrating you, take a deep breath and think about why. Don’t be the person who becomes the stereotype for a whole country. And certainly don’t be the person who gets angry at a non-English speaker, in a non-English speaking country for not being able to understand your English!
6. Basic cultural competency will make your trip easier. Take a few minutes before you go to look for some information about tipping, restaurants, currency, escalators, voice volume, common scams, etc. When I travel, I operate using the assumption that most people are good and mean well. Keep that in mind, and definitely try to let that be your guide, but also be ready to protect yourself from being an easy mark. (This is where practical advice like: don’t carry/flash large sums of money, always have multiple copies of your passport, and don’t get in cabs with strange men at the airport, come into play. Those are important too–I’m just going a bit heavier on the philosophical here today. Also, I assume if you’ve seen the movies Hostel or Taken, you’ve got most of the bigs ones covered! And if you haven’t seen them…don’t.)
7. Group travel is great…until it isn’t. If you’re traveling with a larger number of people, especially with varying degrees of travel experience, make sure your group knows basic information about how to interact in big groups abroad. Also remember there will likely always be people with you at sites who aren’t in your group–don’t ruin it for them by monopolizing anything; a person, a place, physical space, or things.
8. Do as the locals do. Don’t go to places that (literally or figuratively) scream for tourists. Though they can be, often, they won’t be authentic or quality meals or purchases. If you find a place that’s full AND full of people speaking the native language, stop and check it out.
9. Homesickness is real regardless of how long you’ve been away, and sometimes all it takes to lessen it is a little dose of American commercialism. Stopping at an American chain for some comforts of home is okay, and can sometimes get you through a rough stretch of travel. BUT, indulge with serious moderation and with some stipulations. Don’t get Starbucks coffee in Vienna; get Viennese coffee. Don’t even think about McDonald’s fries in Belgium, get pommes frites at EVERY OPPORTUNITY. Don’t compare your Roman meal to Olive Garden, and don’t ask for alfredo sauce in Italy. It doesn’t exist.
Homesickness can also be improved by getting to know other travelers. I’m surprised every time I travel when I catch myself eavesdropping on conversations I hear in English. Sometimes I insert myself, and sometimes I don’t, but talking about shared experiences gives you a great starting point for new friendships with other travelers, whether or not they speak your language.
10. Always use the restroom when it’s available to you, especially if it’s clean and free. The American chains mentioned in #8 are often great places to use the restroom, though you should always buy something if you’re planning to use a restroom there. Museums and restaurants are also great places to use them. Carrying tissue or a small amount of toilet paper is probably also a good idea, just in case you find yourself in a jam.

11. Know your travel triggers and work to avoid or minimize them.

  • If you get irritable and angry when you do too much or sleep too little (and who doesn’t?!), build in time to be exhausted and recuperate. If you’re going 24/7 for as long as you’re in a place, the value of your experiences starts decreasing rapidly. I’m certainly guilty of trying to fit in too much, and not really caring about what I’m seeing or doing. This is when I get frustrated at myself, after the fact.
  • If you shut down quickly after getting hungry, know that, and make sure the people you’re traveling with know too. And then find something to eat, or always carry something with you. Almonds are my go-to; easy and portable–pack some!
  • If you get uncomfortable in loud, cramped spaces, try to avoid them, or at least know how you best deal with them.

Ultimately, whatever it is that’s bothering you, think about why you’re there, and whether you think you’ll be back. Plan accordingly.

12. Write things down. There’s certainly no need to carry a large journal with you, but I’ve found that a small moleskine that has a piece of elastic to keep it closed is handy. I’ve started writing things I’m grateful for at down time during travel days or at meals. Traveling alone affords more opportunity to do this, but I’ve found that I’m more centered and grateful if I take time every day to realize how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. Also, if you make some great finds in a city, and know that you’ll want to share them, it’s better to write them down or take pictures of things than rely on your overstimulated, likely overtired brain to file away long-term.
13. Think about what you want to acquire on your trip. Some people come away with lots of souvenirs and gifts for themselves or friends and family at home. Others place experiences ahead of things. Some can meaningfully combine both. You have to know what’s more important to you, and how you plan to budget for both experiences and things. I learned the hard way as a broke college student that sometimes prioritizing finances means you can’t have both, and may miss out on experiences. However, the years that followed my study-abroad experience where I didn’t wear the t-shirts I bought, could finally acknowledge I didn’t REALLY need that extra scoop of gelato every time, or couldn’t remember the significance of a little statue I *needed* to have at the time have convinced me that bungee-jumping over the Corinth Canal would have probably been a better way to spend my time and money. This is truly a live-and-learn situation. Sometimes you have to miss a few great experiences or purchases to figure out what is important to you, but once you know, you’ll save yourself time, money, and space in your suitcase in the future.
14.  Get Lost. Make an effort to find the “road not taken” and walk as far as you’re inspired to walk. If you have the time and inclination, go somewhere without a destination. Play metro “golf” and get off at random stops to see whatever you can see. Or, have one destination in mind, and take the long route to get there. I know this sounds scary in a city you don’t know, and perhaps with a language you don’t speak. If you’re worried about this–know how to get to ONE big attraction or site from where you’re staying. The train station, a tourist site, a store or restaurant; these can all work, and if worse comes to worse, you can find a method to get back to that place, and your destination won’t be too far. Also, I always carry a physical map with me, with the place I’m staying marked, or the cross-streets memorized. Map-reading is a seriously underrated skill, and will serve you well (and impress your friends) in times of crisis, or just during periods where you want to navigate the old-fashioned way. Technology can also help immensely. If you don’t have a great sense of direction, download the google map for the cities you’re going to, and have an electronic backup.
Some of my favorite travel experiences have come this way. We rode a bus line to the end, wandered around, and heard a booming voice speaking in German, and had just come upon the Pope’s All Saints’ Day address at St. Peter’s Square. We wandered from our apartment in one direction, and heard the sounds of splashing water, only to come upon the Trevi Fountain. I also found the best cake shop in all of Vienna this way, and made it a priority to retrace my steps several times over the next few days. 🙂 However, you should also know the cities you’re wandering–if there are dangerous parts that should be avoided, know that beforehand. I’ve walked into more than one protest-turning-into-a-riot in politically/socially-motivated/active areas. (Keep in mind: All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, and safety should be a priority, BUT get out of your comfort zone!)
[edit: I can’t believe I forgot this tip the first time around–thanks Ben!]
15. For the best experience, work hard to be a traveler, not a tourist. For me, a tourist gets a picture in front of a famous landmark, but doesn’t care about the history. A traveler interacts with a place. A tourist visits cities superficially, checking places and sites off a predetermined list. A traveler gets lost in the streets, and wants to feel the kinetic energy of a city and its people. A tourist chooses to minimize discomfort and often takes the path of least resistance; a cab instead of public transport, a restaurant with English-only menus, an American chain hotel. All of these are acceptable options, and even preferable in some situations, but think about why you choose them. Before you even board a plane, think about why you’re going and what you want to learn. Be prepared for discomfort, but expect enlightenment. Be ready for frustration, but embrace serendipity. Make smart and safe decisions, but expose yourself to the unfamiliar.
Growth happens when we are capable enough to deal with the unexpected. Travel is about that growth; of humanity and awareness, intelligence and capability, and relationships between ourselves and the rest of the world, both physical and human. Be ready for it to change you, and if you think it doesn’t, try again. And again. And again. Change the places, the travel partners, the modes of transport, the season, the attitude, and sometimes before you even realize it, those things will all have changed you.
So…what did I miss? What other useful tips would help the seasoned and not-so-seasoned traveler? Comment below and let me know!
Safe travels, friends. MC Lean