Rome (Roma)

In 9 words: Thousands of years of history in a magnificent package.
For your first visit you need no less than 3 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in most cases, although you may need to use some form of transport for certain attractions.
Love its beautiful squares adorned with fountains.
Don’t miss: Climbing to the top of Campidoglio at night to get a view of the lighted Forum; finding the “keyhole view” on Piazza Cavalieri di Malta on Aventine hill.
On the other hand: Many central streets don’t look very exceptional.
Worthy attractions: Roman Forum; Colosseum; Palatine; Terme di Caracalla; Pantheon; Trevi Fountain; St Peter’s Cathedral; Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel; Castel Sant’Angelo; Santa Maria Maggiore; San Giovanni in Laterano; Santa Maria in Trastevere; Santa Maria sopra Minerva and dozens of other churches; Museo e Galleria Borghese; Ghetto.
Recommended day trip: Tivoli.
Left for another visit: Capitoline Museums; Palazzo Barberini; Palazzo Doria Pamphilj; Catacombs.
Last visit: December 2012.
 

Fontana di Trevi

I am slightly ambivalent about Rome. On one hand, I adore its fountains and beautiful squares; on the other hand, I think that central city architecture is spotty, with too much of less than delightful edifices surrounding the true gems. On one hand, I appreciate centuries of history in this Eternal City; on the other hand, most of the monuments dating to the Ancient Rome demand a lot from your imagination, being largely in ruins.

It cannot be debated, in any case, that Rome is one of the greatest cities of the Western world, and a must-see destination in one’s lifetime.

Things to See

Rome’s squares – some adorned with obelisks, some with fountains, many with both – are a true delight. Among the places that you have to find yourself on your wanderings about the city are: Dramatically Baroque Piazza Navona ♥♥♥ with its three fountains, the central of which, Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, is utterly resplendent; sometimes excessively busy Piazza di Spagna ♥♥♥, with its famous eponymous stairway leading up to the French church above; a bit too open to the motor traffic Piazza Barberini ♥, whose Triton Fountain is one of the loveliest; grand Piazza del Popolo ♥♥; lively Campo de’ Fiori ♥, with cafés surrounding the spot where Giordano Bruno was burned at stake. You won’t miss the expansive Piazza Venezia ♥, of course, with its humongous Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, called with derision alternatively either a “typewriter” or a “wedding cake”. Piazza del Quirinale ♥, Piazza Colonna ♥, the list can go on and on…

The famous Fontana di Trevi ♥♥♥ attracts so many visitors that the small square on which it sits is often bursting at the seams with crowds. In my opinion, it’s all worth it: The fountain is an exquisite piece of sculpture and architecture.

Pantheon ♥♥♥, fantastically preserved after two thousand years of standing, sits on noisy Piazza della Rotonda ♥ and is a most extraordinary monument both on the outside and inside, a vast cylindrical dome equal in radius and height. Its only source of light used to be the circular opening in the roof, and the floor is tilted in a way to properly manage the rain that enters through that oculus (watching the rain fall down inside Pantheon is an interesting sight). The tomb of Raphael and sarcophagi of Italian monarchs line the perimeter of the magnificent building.

Most of the other attractions from the Ancient Roman times are situated in the southern part of the city core. Colosseum ♥♥♥ does not require much introduction, of course, and it’s an awesome sight to behold. Touring it is a fascinating experience, although this is one place where you need to start using your imagination to form a picture of how the things were millenia ago. You’ll have to rely on your imagination even more on your visit to the Roman Forum ♥♥ – there are a number of columns, even a couple of porticoes, still standing here or there, and the well-preserved arches of Titus and Septimius Severus, but a person not highly attuned to the subject of ancient history will mostly see ruins around a field strewn with blocks of stonework.

What we liked most about the forum is how it looks at night, with lighting. The best viewpoint to take it in is off Piazza del Campidoglio ♥, itself a beautiful square, flanked by buildings of Capitoline Museums that we did not visit.

The Arch of Constantine ♥ is another well-preserved artifact of the Empire, and there are a few more worthwhile attractions of that era nearby, the Palatine hill ♥, with its ruins of the patrician palaces, the Trajan’s Forum, with its majestic column and the market complex that we only looked at from the outside, and the vast Baths of Caracalla ♥ complex, with fragments of original floors and mosaics on display.

Rome, as behooves the capital of Catholicism, has literally dozens of beautiful churches, many of which contain important works of art. We looked into quite a few: Santa Maria in Trastevere ♥♥♥, with breathtaking mosaics and frescoes; Santa Maria sopra Minerva ♥♥, with brilliant blue ceilings, fronted by one of the funnest obelisks in Rome, Bernini’s elephant; small and pristine San Carlo alla Quattro Fontane ♥; church of Trinita dei Monti atop Spanish Steps; San Carlo al Corso; etc.

Santa Maria Maggiore ♥ deserves an altogether separate mention. It is a blend of several architectural styles – to wit, the lavish ceiling is Renaissance, the façades and domes are Baroque, – and is also famous for its mosaics. Another separate mention belongs to San Giovanni in Laterano ♥♥, an opulent basilica built on the site of the first Catholic church in history (it is located slightly outside of the city core, but is definitely worth a detour).

Then, of course, there is Vatican. The enormous Piazza San Pietro ♥♥♥ is one of the most spectacular public spaces that I’ve ever seen in my life, with its semi-encircling colonnade, fountains, obelisks and statues. The incomparable St Peter’s Cathedral ♥♥♥ cannot be adequately described in words – I’m not even going to try. The view from its top terrace is worth the effort of climbing 491 steps, but be warned: Some parts of the climb are very tight and feel quite claustrophobic.

If you want to send a postcard from Vatican, there are three main locations to do that. The post office on the right of the square (if you face the cathedral) is the least crowded of the three. The one on the left of the square is subject to a lot of pedestrian traffic from the cathedral’s exit and, therefore, is much more crowded. The main post office is inside Vatican’s walls and, reputably, is a nice building in itself.

The colourfully dressed Vatican guards allow themselves to be photographed with children. They are positioned to the left of the cathedral.

Vatican Museums ♥♥♥ hold one of the most important art collections in the world, headlined by Raphael. You may have to endure longest waits during the busy season if you do not buy tickets in advance. The last Sunday of every month the entry to museums is free, and it pays to arrive an hour and a half before the opening; by the time the doors open, the line stretches for several kilometers. Sistine Chapel ♥♥♥ can only be reached through the museum – whether you love religious art or hate it, you’ll have to admit that frescoes by Michelangelo and other artists are masterpieces of unrivaled proportions.

A majestic and massive fortress, Castel Sant’Angelo ♥♥♥ is home to several exhibitions highlighting its history. There are a number of magnificent rooms with vivid frescoes, and the view of Rome from the top-level terrace is one of the best in the city.

For a respite from the bustling city, Villa Borghese ♥ is a large pleasant park, where hiring a pedal-powered carriage for cruising around is a popular activity. Make sure you get the one with a motorized boost; otherwise, the ratio of hard work versus enjoyment will tilt against you.

The Borghese Museum and Gallery ♥ is on the park’s grounds. The ground floor consists of nine splendid rooms full of superb sculpture, while the upper level contains an outstanding collection of paintings. Entry is timed and a limited number of people are allowed in for each two-hour interval; advance ticket purchase is essential.

The area of Trastevere ♥♥ around the church of Santa Maria is a hip and happening cluster of streets and squares lined with bars, cafés and shops, one of my most favorite rioni of the city.

Ghetto ♥, conversely, does not appear particularly hip, but it gets quite lively in the evenings. We walked by Rome’s central synagogue without going on a tour that it offers. At the beginning of Via Portico d’Ottavia, the main street of the Ghetto, there is a well-known pastry shop Il Boccione, where stern-looking all-female staff dispenses freshly-baked treats. We tried their specialty, torte di ricotta e visciole – those with a sweet tooth will love it!

Among the many delights that await you on various walking routes around town, is the amazing “keyhole” view ♥♥ through the locked gates of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato on Piazza Cavalieri di Malta on Aventine Hill. Off the beaten track, for sure, but worth every effort you put into getting there and finding it.

Transportation

We walked almost everywhere in Rome, having stayed largely within the city core. The couple of times we used metro in 2003, we did not like it much. Our recollection is that of the worst subway system that we have ever used anywhere – infrequent, badly-maintained and overall unpleasant. With only two lines in operation at that time, not many places were within easy reach by metro. The bus network is considerably more extensive, but not on one of our visits to Rome did we use a bus.

Taxis, however, are relatively inexpensive and useful. We hired a taxi several times during our visit in 2009, and paid less than €15 on every occasion. A fixed-rate of €48 is in effect for going to the airport from the city center (as of 2012).

Lodging

As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in Centro Storico will put you within 10 minutes of walking to most of the points of interest. Staying in Trastevere is also a good option.

In fact, the only specific recommendation from our stays in Roma is a cozy and well-stocked apartment on Vicolo del Bologna in Trastevere ♥♥ found through AirBnB (listing). It was just perfect for a couple or for a solo stay. The little square beyond the front door may get noisy on weekend nights as people spill out from neighborhood bars and restaurants, but otherwise the location is very peaceful. All major attractions of the great city are within reasonable walking distance in different directions. The apartment has everything one needs, including basic food necessities and fully-stocked kitchen, so you can stay in and have a candlelight dinner whenever you choose. A couple of supermarkets are located literally around the corner, for all of your homemade meal needs, or just to bring a bottle of wine back to the apartment. Not that you’ll stay in very often, with dozens of good restaurants within a stone’s throw, but breakfast in bed is certainly a possibility. I cannot vouch for TV channels, not having turned the TV on even once (TV is not why I come to Rome), but the WiFi worked perfectly when I needed it. The bathroom is on the smaller side, but completely adequate, with a shower and a bidet-enabled toilet. The hosts are very prompt in their communications and in accommodating various requests. Last stay: 2012.

Places to Eat

Of our major trips to Rome, we only kept detailed meal records in the spring of 2009, visiting several restaurants for which we found recommendations online. All those visits were as a party of four (two adults, two children).

Cassetta di Trastevere ♥♥, on Piazza de’ Renzi in Trastevere, sits on a small square, with both outside and inside seating areas. We sat indoors, in a dining room decorated to resemble a Mediterranean village, complete with wash-lines festooned with pieces of clothing. Quite an extensive menu, with prices roughly half of what you’d normally pay for dining. Good pizza, pasta, meat dishes. Excellent panna cotta for dessert. Our damage: €67, including a carafe of house wine and gratuities. Cash only.

Giggetto ♥♥♥, on Via Portico d’Ottavia in Ghetto, is widely known in Rome and beyond. One of the place that offers a Jewish-Italian mix of cuisines, it is extremely popular. Reservations are essential! There are several dining rooms and a couple of outdoors dining areas, and they were all full during our meal. The service is excellent, the wine list very extensive. The food is excellent, starting with fried artichokes through pastas and on to oxtail or veal with porcini and peas. Our damage: €134, including a bottle of wine, before gratuities.

We returned to Ghetto for a lunch, which we had at Piperno ♥, on little Monte de’ Cenci. This restaurant had a upscale feel, with fine cutlery and dishes and middle-aged waiters dressed in white jackets with black bow-ties. The service was of “refined” quality, although I did notice a waiter peeking over our heads to see if we finished our dishes. The food was good, but we did not order anything that would bowl us over. The damage was a bit too steep for a lunch: €100, including gratuities, without any wine to account for.

Ad Hoc ♥♥, on Via Ripetta, impresses from the very beginning with the shelves of wine bottles on open display. The wine list is virtually endless, and the menu, while not very extensive, is pretty interesting in that it provides a detailed description of each dish in both Italian and English. An attractive young waitress was almost fawning in her friendliness, which was compensated by another, not as friendly, hostess. Outstanding food. For starters, we had fish carpaccio and eggplant served in earthenware pots. For main courses, saltimbocca and salmon ravioli were very well received. Dessert sampler, consisting of pieces of four different cakes, disappointed a little – none of the cakes were great, a couple were somewhat cloying, – but berries with chantilly cream were excellent. Our online reservation entitled us to 15% off the bill, so the damage, with a bottle of wine but before gratuities, came to €125.

Coffee gourmands may appreciate Caffe Sant’Eustachio, on the eponymous square, more than we did. It is quite famous for the specialty coffee that it serves, but we are far from aficionados, so no recommendation, just a note for those who might enjoy it.

In December of 2012, we only recorded impressions of our meals, without keeping track of the actual menu selections. Those notes were turned into TripAdvisor reviews (found at this link). Here is the “heart” list of eateries from that trip: Bir & Fud ♥, Brunetti’s ♥♥, Cuoco & Camicia ♥♥♥, Dar Poeta ♥♥♥, Alfredo e Ada ♥♥♥, Hostaria del Moro da Tony ♥♥, Osteria dell’Ingegno ♥, Aristocampo ♥, Maranega ♥♥.

Further afield

Tivoli, the erstwhile resort of the ancient Romans still contains a number of temples in different stages of preservation or ruin. We did not actually tour anything in town, as our sole purpose was a visit to Villa d’Este ♥♥♥. The sumptuous residence of a 16th-century cardinal is all about its terraced garden full of spectacular fountains. Some of the fountains show their age, but the overall impression is quite remarkable.

On the way to Tivoli from Rome, another major attraction, ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, awaits our visit some other time.

Getting to Tivoli by public transport in 2003 required a bit of determination. Buses to Tivoli could be caught at the last stop of the B metro line, Rebibbia, but they actually departed from a station next to one of the previous metro stops. The buses were infrequent and got crowded at the point of departure. We managed to squeeze into a bus at Rebibbia, but the ride was hugely unpleasant. On the way back, we waited for a bus at a stop in Tivoli for good 40 minutes. The effort was worth it for us, but others’ mileage may vary. It is possible that the transport links have improved nearly ten years later.


Other notes for Italy