Rome is a polarizing place. For some, it represents the peak of romance, beauty and charm. For others, it’s a crowded, tourist-laden nightmare. I think its real appeal is that it’s both; it’s a city of contradictions. There is a mix of ancient and modern, sometimes seamless in execution (turning on a busy street and seeing the Parthenon) and others not so much (the futile attempt of expanding the Metro due to delays in the name of archeology). It’s very urban, but yet has simple charms similar to those found in Italy’s most rural countryside villages. There are so many relics and ruins; it’s often a little overwhelming! But, if you take a step back to enjoy the moment, it’s a city that can leave you breathless. You will understand why it’s called the Eternal City.
Take a Roman holiday…
Rome has literally been around since the dawn of time, no joke. It’s one of the oldest known settlements in the history of man, several hunder years B.C. We’re taking Ancient Romans, Etruscans, Sabines, all sorts of peoples you hear about in museums. It is widely regarded as the world’s first metropolis and the birthplace of Western civilization. And a lot of the ancient ruins are still intact despite eons of industrialization! That’s why I feel like we can cut it some slack when it comes to some of its modern day shortcomings.
Now Rome is home to ~ 5 million people, making it very dense, population wise. There are people everywhere. On any given day multiply that by x number of tourists, and that should make you marvel at the city planning and structure that has lasted through time.
Rome is also unique because there is literally a whole country located within its walls. Vatican City is a separate state on the northeast side of the city, and is where you should start your Rome adventure.
Full disclosure, I am not religious. But seriously, the Vatican is incredible. St. Peter’s Basilica is the cornerstone of the city, but I was floored by the Vatican museum. The tapestries, the frescoes, it’s a Renaissance lover’s dream. That old adage “words can’t express” how magnificent something is rings so true. Room after room of incredible works of art. The level of talent and advancement of ancient cultures will leave you dumbfounded. Like seriously, you will feel like an idiot who has done nothing in life. Michelangelo was literally on his back the whole time painting the Sistine Chapel. Paint was dripping in his face while he made the Creation of Adam — with paintbrushes and that’s it. It’s astounding. He didn’t have photoshop!
Anyway, the Vatican deserves its own post, so I’ll just leave these pictures here to whet your appetite.
Speaking of appetites…there is no shortage of delicious in Rome. There is sometimes a limitation of money though, so I found a nice balance between reasonably priced street food and upscale dining options. It can be done!
From the Vatican, I hoofed it to Piazza Navona. Built on the site of an ancient Roman stadium, this open plaza is surrounded on all sides by little cafes and shops. At the center is the Four Rivers fountain, marked with the Egyptian obelisk.
I’d ignore the mostly touristy trattorias in this area and keep walking until you hit Campo De’Fiori, the site of a central open air market.
This place has also become very tourist heavy (see the overpriced packages of pasta being hawked), but at the south east corner, there’s a small bakery called Forno Campo De’ Fiori. Here you will find the crunchiest pizza al taglio. Just show the baker how much you want with your hands, and then peruse the market while savoring the most scrumptious 2-3 Euros you’ve ever spent. You will want more. Hold that thought, this was just a snack.
As you amble along the cobblestone paths in this area, you’ll run into a little restaurant called Rosciolo. OMG. I thought I’d had good pasta in my life. Apparently everything has been a lie up until this point. Shakes fist. I still dream about the pasta amatriciana from this place, the umami bite in every perfect al dente rigatoni. It was so good I forgot to take a picture…whoops. Next time (and there WILL be a next time).
From here it’s not a far walk to the Pantheon, one of the world’s best preserved ancient structures, with its construction completed somewhere around 120 A.D. This religious building is unique because it has an oculus, or hole, in its dome, letting in natural light. Ancient architects and builders were everything.
By this time, you’ve probably worked up an appetite? No, not yet? Well you’re not doing things right then, because down the street is Giolitti, one of Rome’s venerable gelaterias, in operation since 1900. Oh, it’s delicious. Creamy, smooth, flavorful. Molto bene.
Don’t worry, you can burn those calories by hiking to the Trevi Fountain. One of the iconic sites made famous by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (and also the Lizzie McGuire movie), you can’t help thinking that life IS sweet when you’re gazing into its dreamy seafoam-hued waters. The fountain, its mechanics a miracle in itself, is gorgeous. Legend has it, if you throw a coin into the fountain, you’ve just ensured your return to Rome. Second coin tossed guarantees a new romance, and the third…marriage. Allora, be careful what you wish for. And also watch your pockets, lots of tourists means lots of pickpockets.
Lose yourself in the afternoon, getting lost in alleyways and side streets. Before you know it, it will be dusk, and the perfect vantage point would be from the Spanish steps. A link between the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish embassy, these steps have been featured countless times in movies, TV and music. The best thing to do is just lounge around and bask in the sun. Or you can Audrey Hepburn it and try to eat gelato on the steps like I did and get yelled at by polizia. They’re quite stern. Grab your Roman Holiday moment on a Vespa instead.
Said gelato was from la strega nocciola, another great option. (I did not say this was a diet trip). The texture is a little bit more icy than Giolitti, but the flavors are also bomb. Enjoy while exploring the area all around the piazza. It is full of the best Italian brands found in all your favorite rap songs: Gucci, Ferragamo, Versace, Valentino, Fendi, Prada…
My first day was all about street food and quick eats, so I had to cap it off by going to the Mercato Centrale in the Rome train station. Now, this area is super sketchy at night, so be careful, but I did not have any issues walking there.
That’s right, I walked several miles from the Spanish steps to the train station (passing Piazza della Republica). I earned those gelatos retroactively.
In this market is the best pizza I have ever had (in 6 hours anyway). Bonci is a fast food pizza counter selling al taglio slices. It. was. insane. I’ve never had a pizza that crispy before, the olive oil and flavor of potatoes, sausage and garlic permeating through the crust. I ate one and then I immediately bought another to take with me. Add an arancino with melanzane and this is what heaven tastes like. Apparently, there’s one in Chicago, you lucky Windy City bastards.
Rome has always had a tumultuous past, and some might say it continues on today. It is a place that hides its underbelly from tourists pretty well. There’s cinematic drama: corruption, characters of ill-repute, unrest, decay, financial woes — but literally somehow being there makes you forget about your and the world’s troubles. How can you worry about anything while the twilight sun is casting its ephemeral glow on the Trevi Fountain or Spanish Steps? It’s a magical city, and its beauty and mystique can wrap up your defenses, rendering them weak to opportunists. So again, be cognizant and be careful of your surroundings at all times. You’ll hear this a million times from everyone there.
The next day is all about the ruins, baby. First, head to the Colosseum. You cannot imagine the immense beauty of a structure designed to be a murder stadium, until you’re actually up close. It is truly a remarkable feat of architecture. You feel like Russell Crowe a little bit, walking through the gladiator gates. So much brutality and violence, but still super cool to visit.
A short path will take you to the Forum where Julius Caesar held court…you can also see where the Ides of March happened/the site of his assassination. These ruins are in remarkable condition, weathering all sorts of wars, people, weather throughout the centuries. It’s the real Caesar’s Palace.
Continuing on, you’ll want to make your way up Palatine Hill towards Capitoline Hill to what is affectionately known as “the wedding cake.” Campidoglio is one of Rome’s most beautiful piazzas (that’s saying something). There is a gorgeous view of the Forum below, the Arch of Constantinople and the Colosseum in the distance.
You’ll want to walk down the steps from the Capitol to the Piazza Venezia, which I personally think is the most beautiful piazza. It’s the crossing of many major thoroughfares, so you can use it as a guide or starting point to anywhere.
Heading towards Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, I could not help myself but to slip down a side street and grab a quick coffee break and snack at Ciuri Ciuri a dessert chain that has phenomenal cannolis. Yeah, they’re from Sicily, but hey, leave the cannolis…alone.
Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest Catholic church in Rome. Again, that’s saying something. Multiple popes have been buried here; Italy’s hero Bernini is buried here. It’s quite stunning, quite fitting as an eternal resting place for very important persons.
An amazing place for carbonara was Amedeo ristorante. I mean, the fat from the guanciale mixed with the creaminess of the egg yolk — a savory explosion. So good. Also make it a point to try Jewish style fried artichokes. Romans love artichokes, and as they say…when in rome…
Allora, you didn’t really think I wouldn’t make that reference, did you?
As I hit most of the must see sites, I romed (get it) around the streets shopping for kitschy souvenirs. The beauty of Rome is that there’s something to see around every corner. There’s delicious smells emanating from every restaurant. There’s lots of emotive Italians yelling in the street, confused tourists, and lots of honking — a real city. I love it.
For the last night, because I was dead tired and with traveling companions who were also pretty weary, we tried a small restaurant around the corner from our hotel. I don’t care if it was touristy, or if Italians wouldn’t normally eat there, Aquila Nera, hit the spot. I had a HUGE plate of caccio e pepe, and it was delicious. It was cheap, quick and was still better than any pasta I’ve had stateside in awhile. Why can’t they make it like that here?
Questions that keep me up at night. It was a whirlwind Roman holiday, but I suspect that even if you lived in Rome, you wouldn’t be able to see everything. After all, it wasn’t built in a day, y’all.
Souvenirs: anything — pasta, olive oil, limoncello, colosseum kitsch, Roma soccer gear
Watch: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, When in Rome, Gladiator, Three Coins in a Fountain
Notable food and drink: Seriously? Were you not paying attention?
Famous Romans: Julius Caesar (duh), Sophia Loren, Isabella Rossellini