A big city without skyscrapers, rather, its skyline dotted with domes. Domes whose bells call out the hours and whose rings echo and reverberate across its miles. Energy rises up and courses through its veins. Turning around this corner is a piazza. In its midst an obelisk carried across the Mediterranean ages ago. Around that one, another piazza with an ancient fountain depicting imagery of rivers, carrying water to the citizens. And around another, a third piazza, this one lorded over by the dome of a massive church, built atop what was once a temple, looking down upon tourists and locals alike. Remains of the former city lie about in unexpected places as you twist and turn through a massive, living and breathing museum. Gelato in hand, people stroll the piazzas, narrow lanes and wide avenues as sunlight wanes, aperitifs are sipped and night comes alive. The sounds of clicks and clacks of well cobbled shoes on a cobblestone street through the bedroom window late at night remind you that the city is never fully asleep. And then it begins again, the next day.
Whether it was a coin in the Trevi Fountain or just good planning, we have returned to Rome after ten years. Last time, we were full-on inexperienced tourists (so much so, I got taken for a photo with a gypsy dressed as a gladiator for a couple of euro… ah, the ignorance of youth) and hit all of the major sights (the Coliseum, The Roman Forum, the Vatican Museum, Trevi Fountain, et al). This time, with more time, we opted for fewer formal tours and more meandering. What I will say about the tours, however, is that if you plan to visit the busiest sights: the Coliseum or the Vatican, they are essential. You’ll skip lines and, with the Vatican Museum in particular, you’ll get a lot more out of it and make some sense out of the artwork amidst the hoards of people. We used Romaround Tours and it looks like they’re still in business.
The Heart of Rome. On our first day, having arrived later than usual the night prior to our Airbnb and feeling too lazy to venture out to either dinner or to a market, we first hit the Campo di Fiori for some shopping. Overwhelmed by the calls of madame, senhora, and “look here’s” from the t-shirt and chotski vendors amidst the fruits and vegetables, we headed to the nearest Carrefour. We aren’t in Nice’s mellow Cours Saleya market anymore, Dorothy.
After unpacking our groceries, we headed out on Rick Steves’ walking tour “The Heart of Rome” which starts you back at the Campo di Fiori and winds you through the streets to end at the Spanish Steps. Along the way, you stop off at Piazza Navona, see a remnant of an ancient aqueduct, pass by several ancient Egyptian obelisks which were carried across the Mediterranean by the Romans from Egypt as a symbol of their dominance during the hey days of the Empire, people watch at the Trevi Fountain and pass by the Immaculate Conception Column where the Pope visits on December 8th annually to kick off the Christmas season. If the timing is right, you can finish with a beverage at the bar of the Hassler Hotel atop the Spanish Steps.
We backtracked back to the Pantheon to go inside just before closing time (last admittance at 6:30pm) to catch the waning light inside perhaps my favorite site in Rome. The Pantheon is my favorite for its serenity. Sure, it’s busy like all other tourist sites, but once inside you can admire that majestic dome above. Named pantheon because it was built for “all the Gods” (even the non Roman ones were accepted) it truly is a marvel of architecture and engineering. Just imagine the Romans pouring the concrete to form the dome from their positions on the wooden scaffolding above. Check out the Rick Steves Audio tour for an even better appreciation.
Hit up nearby Giolitti for a gelato day or night. You’ll be able to spot it because of the crowd.
Ancient Rome. It seems a fitting introduction to Ancient Rome to begin with the Pantheon. The only Roman era building to still remain in the state it was back in the days of the Caesars. We would recommend it first. It will help you appreciate what the now crumbled former buildings and remnants might once have looked like back in the day. We began our tour of Ancient Rome at Trajan’s Forum. Trajan was known as a benevolent ruler who built aqueducts, roads and bridges across the Roman Empire and tried to do things to help the populace. We wandered amidst the ruins of his forum and observed Trajan’s Column which celebrates Rome’s victories under his leadership in the Dacian war.
From Trajan, we headed to the Capitoline Museum’s Palazzo dei Conservatori where we took in the sculptures and frises of Marcus Aurelius, the 5th century bronze of Remus and Romulus suckling the wolf at the beginning of Rome and Bernini’s Medusa. Rome wasn’t as bustling as it will be in the coming months, but being the weekend of the Rome Marathon and spring break back in the USA we heard more American English than we have heard in a while and the sights were definitely crowded. Despite this, the museum was delightfully sparse and we had a lot of the rooms almost to ourselves.
Back outside, we headed down towards the Coliseum, which we toured last time and had no intention of visiting this time, hoping to skirt around it for the Roman Forum and another Rick Steves walking tour. Slightly overwhelmed by the crowds and aggressive calls from tour operators and immigrants selling selfie sticks as we neared the Coliseum, we cut away for some margherita pizza and Coke Zeroes to return to the Forum another day. This being the true advantage of having more time without a packed daily agenda.
On our return, we purchased tickets (or tried to) online, which was a requirement. Fortunately, when the purchase failed the agent at the ticket window sold us tickets directly, but if you go, buy online in advance. With our buddy Rick all queued up, we strode through the gates to the Roman Forum ready to take in arches, columns and vestal virgins. This was the best of the Rick Steves’ tours we did while in Rome. He paints the picture of not only what the structures once looked like, but what it was like to be marched down the Via Sacra as a captured slave through the streets of Rome. Or what it might be like to be Julius Caesar after his betrayal by the Senators. Or what it was to be a vestal virgin keeping the flame of the Temple of Vesta alive. Perhaps it was being 10 years older, or perhaps it was Rick, or perhaps it was that we had not just completed another tour of the Coliseum (like last time), or perhaps it was that we were not being rained upon (also like last time) but we got so much more out of this tour than we did last time. Tip: despite the throngs, it is worth the view from atop the Palatine Hill. The crowds are there for a reason.
The Jewish Ghetto. With Rick Steves again as our guide (seems like we are making a habit of this) we explored the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. Beginning at the Ponte Fabricio, his tour gives you just the right amount of history of the area and an appreciation for the plight of the Jews through their periods of rising and falling in favor during various phases of Rome’s history. It’s short, downloadable and we recommend it.
Given today’s current oppression of and aggression against the Ukrainian people by another dictator, the story of the Nazis demanding a ransom of 50 kilos of gold within 24 hours in 1943 from the residents of the Jewish Ghetto seemed especially timely and sad. When the ransom demand was met by Jewish and non-Jewish Romans alike, the Nazis rounded up 2,000 of the Jewish residents in what is now known as Largo 16 Ottobre (the date of the betrayal) to be sent to concentration camps anyway, never to return.
Vatican City. Having toured the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s last time, we only skimmed by Saint Peter’s Square to see if the Pope was out and about. Not being a Sunday or a Wednesday when he makes predictable public appearances, he was not.
If you go to the Vatican Museum, as previously mentioned, we strongly recommend an organized tour. The crowds can be overwhelming and you won’t know what to look for or where to look without one. The square, being the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion and the former site of Roman executions of Christians during chariot races is worth a visit even if you don’t go inside. Rick Steves (yes, him again) will add a little color to your visit (inside St Peter’s if you don’t opt for another guide and out) as well. If you’re a postcard person, you can send one from the post office there from one of Europe’s smallest countries. Back into Italy, we headed down the Tiber, to Trastevere.
Trastevere. With you know who in our ears, and following one of our favorite lunches in the heart of a busy Saturday Trastevere afternoon, we toured the neighborhood from the Ponte Fabrício (same bridge as the start of the Jewish Ghetto so you can easily do them back to back without getting Rick Stevesed out) to Santa Maria in Trastevere. We had considered an Airbnb in Trastevere for its authenticity and chose one more central for our sight seeing, but probably will opt for one here next time to fully immerse in an authentic Italian neighborhood.
And speaking of next time, though we had longer this time and the duration felt about right, we still left some things to do on the table. There’s just so much to see and do. So, we plan to return a third time but tossed another coin in the Trevi to ensure it.
Most of what we enjoyed, however, in addition to all of the many sights to see (averaging about 20,000 steps per day – whew) was the people watching. Whether they are strollers or posers at one of the many fountains it is, in and of itself, a sight to see. And if you like the restaurant list we sometimes post, these were our top three: CiPasso (traditional Italian), Old Bear (bistro with awesome upstairs indoors) and Ba’Ghetto in the Jewish Ghetto.