As I put together the itinerary for our much-anticipated month near the Mediterranean, I felt that I might be saving the best for last.
Rome did not disappoint.
Visiting Athens at the beginning of our trip and reaching Rome as we wrapped things up, our trip was bookended by two of the most influential European cities that helped shape modern civilization.
Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, or an amateur theologist, anthropologist, or archaeologist, you’re bound to be impressed by what you find in Rome.
If you want to, that is.
This is the final installment in a five-post series reflecting on a month-long trip that I took with my family of four as we traveled with a newfound confidence as a fully vaccinated family during the most notable pandemic in a century.
If you’d like to catch up on our earlier adventures from early 2022, click on over to the following posts:
- An overview focusing on the pros and cons of traveling as Omicron overwhelmed: 6 Weeks of International Travel During Peak COVID
Before we get into it, an important reminder of what a trip to Italy can and cannot do for you:
Lodging and Transportation in Rome
As we did throughout this trip, we stayed at an Airbnb close to the sites that we wanted to see.
Originally, I booked a large three-bedroom apartment in the center of Rome. The place had an address on Via dei Coronari, an artery that quite literally passes through the heart of the city.
Sadly, the 16th-century building showed its age to its owner at an inopportune time. I was sent a picture of some exposed beams where the floor had given out, creating a connection to the apartment below. Better that it happened before we moved in than during our stay, I suppose.
We ended up with a place just across the River Tiber, directly across the street from Vatican City, about a 15 minute walk from where we had originally planned to stay.
I was planning to buy four individual week-long passes for my family to use the subway, but we realized that pretty much anything that we wanted to see was within walking distance. There was a recommended brewery or two that would have been easier to reach by metro, but all of the main tourist sites were within a reasonably tight radius. The furthest from our lodgings was The Colosseum, which was about a 45-minute walk away.
The only time we actually took the metro was to and from the central train station, which is where we caught the bus to and from the Fiumicino airport on our first and last days in Rome.
Food and Drink in Rome
Having just spent a week in Sicily, we had been on a steady diet of pizza and pasta, and our boys were thrilled to continue the tradition. When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.
As a cosmopolitan, international city, there are other options, of course, and we did try some of those. The four of us had a tasty and cheap dinner at 63 Rostorante Cinese, a Chinese restaurant just south of The Vatican.
My wife and I also ventured out for some authentic Mexican food at La Cucaracha (translation “the cockroach”), a nearby restaurant founded by a Mexican immigrant from Acapulco. The portions were about one-fourth the size of a typical Mexican meal, and the price was easily four times higher. With a truly authentic Mexican meal in actual Mexico offering about 16x the value, I’ll remember to stick with the tried and true Italian foods the next time we’re in Italy. When in Rome…
As anticipated, breweries and craft beer bars were more common in Rome as compared to Sicily. Our Plan B Airbnb happened to be in a great neighborhood for birra artigianale.
We found tasty hazy, double dry hopped IPAs, imperial stouts, and fruited wheat beers at places like Be.Re, Beer Time, and L’Osteria di Birra del Borgo.
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St. Peter’s Basilica
Every friend and family member who has visited The Vatican told us the same thing as the blogs and guidebooks say. Book any tours months in advance. Arrive early, expecting long lines and big crowds. Plan on it being, as my friend Colin would say, “nuts to butts” in there.
Our experience was nothing like what the guidebooks, Colin, or any other friend warned us about. Of course, Colin’s never been there, and almost no one has been there in January at the peak of a pandemic. I can say this with confidence, because that’s precisely when we were there, and we practically had the place to ourselves.
It was incredible.
We arose before dawn on our first morning in Rome to “get in line” by about 6:45 a.m. to be among the first wave of tourists to be allowed entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica at 7 o’clock.
Unable to locate the line, we accidentally wandered in at the exit where a lonely Vatican worker pointed out the actual entrance on the opposite side of the massive cathedral.
We wandered the Basilica, marveling at the immense space and intricate artwork throughout. Down the center, plaques are placed with the names of other very large churches placed at the spots where their entrances would be if they were located on the same spot, just in case you’re not convinced that you’re standing in one of the largest places of worship in the world.
We gladly paid the €6 to climb the 551 stairs to the top of the cupola to take in the views. For another €4, you can take an elevator most of the way up, but where’s the fun in that?
My wife and I were also able to book a guided tour of the necropolis, the dimly lit underground labyrinth that is believed to house the remains of St. Peter himself. I don’t think a Catholic upbringing is required to appreciate the weight and significance of this sacred spot. No children are allowed in this part of the necropolis. Neither are photos.
The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museums are so nice, we explored them twice!
As advised, I booked our guided tour well in advance. In hindsight, I’m sure we could have walked right in and booked it on the spot. As you’ll see in our photos, the museums were all but deserted.
There are something like nine miles of corridors lined with priceless frescos, sculptures, and artifacts from a wide variety of cultures and time periods. I was expecting primarily Christian relics, and there’s no shortage of them, but the scope of the museums is much broader than I had theorized.
My favorite was a long hallway lined on both sides with massive maps of every city and region of 16th Century Italy. These were painted by Ignazio Danti as instructed by Pope Gregory XIII. The ceiling in the Gallery of Maps was also something to behold.
There are a few different paths to take through the series of buildings, but they all lead to the renowned Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor prior to his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Nearly 30 years later, he returned to paint a massive fresco, The Last Judgment. There’s a lot to take in and a lot going on throughout the room, especially in Michelangelo’s dark depiction of the apocalypse that takes up the entire west wall.
If you’re not on a guided tour, I strongly recommend downloading the Rick Steves Audio Travel App and the specific guide to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. There’s also one for St. Peter’s Basilica and most of the major tourist sites in Rome. These cost nothing and I get nothing for promoting them; I just found them very helpful, and we used them all over town. Many other similar apps are free to download, but the actual audio guides cost money.
The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are free on the final Sunday of every month, and our final full day in Rome happened to be the last Saturday in January, so we went back for more. This time, we used Rick Steves as our phone-based tour guide, and it was just as informative as having an in-person guide with the obvious downside of not being able to ask questions.
A Papal Audience
By waiting in a short line to talk to a Swiss Guard on a Tuesday, my wife was able to secure four tickets to the next day’s audience with The Pope. The Swiss Guards are military personnel from Switzerland, they’ve protected The Pope for over 500 years, and they dress like colorful jesters. You can’t miss ’em.
We were among several hundred people who scored these free tickets, and we gathered in a modern chapel around the corner from St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday morning for the weekly audience. This was not a mass, but an opportunity to hear The Pope and a number of other clergy speak and give blessings.
A message was delivered in Italian, and that message was repeated in seven or eight other languages by various clergy who each took their turn at the podium. Then, Pope Francis arrived, gave an address in Spanish (he’s Argentinian), he repeated it in Italian, and his message was then shared in turn by the different clergy members in their respective languages.
The experience was memorable for us, not so much for the content, 90% of which we couldn’t understand, but for the fact that we were in a room with one of the most revered people on the planet, and he was speaking to us.
This Roman Temple turned Catholic Church dates back to the 1st Century A.D., with roots in the 1st Century B.C., but fires destroyed the original building. It is both a holy place and a hole-y place; the domed ceiling has a circular opening in the center of about 25 feet across at a height of 140 feet.
It’s hard to fathom how, nearly 2,000 years ago, sixteen 66-ton granite Corinthian columns were quarried in Egypt, floated through the Nile River, across the Mediterranean sea, up the River Tiber, and stood upright as part of this magnificent building.
The fact that the building still holds the record for the largest dome of unreinforced concrete in the world is another testament to the engineering and architectural prowess of the Romans.
Before the world had jumbotrons and ballparks named after orange juice companies and banks, it had Rome’s Colosseum. This event stadium for gruesome spectator sports held more than 50,000 Romans, or approximately the same number of fans that Yankee Stadium can currently hold.
In its current configuration, you can see the tunnels and rooms beneath the former floor where gladiators, lions, and tigers were held before being brought up for battle via a pulley system.
The building has deteriorated somewhat over the 1,950+ years since it was built, but that’s to be expected. As you tour the place, you’ll encounter recreations of the complete Colosseum in all its glory. There was once a plan to convert it entirely to a place of worship, and a secret chapel has existed there for years.
To get a better feel for what went on within the walls of this 1st Century arena, check out the Oscar-winning film from 2000, Gladiator starring Russell Crowe.
The Roman Forum
Similar to the Agora in Athens, the Roman Forum was a hub for commerce, politics, and socializing for centuries. Today, you’ll find acres of ruins, remains of palatial buildings, and you can stand on the same ground where Julius Caesar and others once ruled over the vast Roman Empire. Caesar’s remains are also here, guarded by loyal feral cats.
As we did at the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Jewish Quarter, and on several jaunts through the city’s piazzas (plazas), we let Rick Steves guide us through the Forum. Particularly interesting was the House of the Vestal Virgins and the story of these priestesses.
Entrance to the Forum and Palatine Hill is combined with a ticket to the Colosseum. During busier time periods, I’m sure it’s important to secure these well in advance.
Our kids did grow weary of Mr. Steves’ folksy voice, but my wife had a secret weapon to help retain their interest in the many historic sites we visited. As we’ve done in Paris and Barcelona, we gifted them a Mission book that rewards them with points and boxes to check as they explore the sites in a scavenger hunt style.
The boys are old enough to have figured out that the points are basically worthless, so we also had to reward them for their attention and patience with gelato. We rewarded ourselves, too.
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Piazzas, Fountains, and Rome-ing Around
No visit to Rome is complete without a stroll through Piazza Navona and its three magnificent fountains. If you want to return to Rome one eday, toss some coins over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, contributing to the $1.7 Million or so that lands in the fountain each year, which is donated to help the poor.
These may be the two most visited and well-known, but I encourage visitors to wander the streets of Rome to find your own favorite plazas and water features. They’re ubiquitous in the city, and if you meander for more than about 10 minutes without stumbling upon one, you can call up Google Maps to find dozens of them.
The same is true of churches. Rome is loaded with grand Baroque cathedrals, and, if located elsewhere, many of them would be the most magnificent structures in their respective cities and towns. If the doors are open, respectfully poke your head in and have a look.
As you wander, make your way up the Spanish Steps, down through Trastevere (which is another craft beer hotspot), and surround yourself with greenery in the large Villa Borghese on the east side of town or in Parco de Gianicolo in the west.
Stick your hand in the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) and see if he bites. Read up on Giordano Bruno, a scholar who paid the ultimate price for challenging the teachings of The Church, and visit his statue in Campo de’ Fiori. Pick up a bottle of limoncello in the square while you’re there.
A week is not long enough to take in all that Rome has to offer, and this isn’t Frommer’s or Fodor’s, so there’s plenty that I’ve left out, including many free and paid museums, some of which we visited, and many that we didn’t.
I will recommend one free museum that’s inevitably going to be within blocks of someplace else you were going, anyway. The Napoleonic Museum is the former home of Count Giuseppe Primoli, Napolean Bonaparte’s first cousin, once removed. It houses his private collection of Bonaparte artifacts (say that 10 times fast!) and others that have been donated and purchased since the Count’s passing in 1927, when the home and collection were donated to the city of Rome.
I am confident that we will return to Rome, especially now that my wife’s close friend is moving there for a new job this summer! We look forward to the tastes and sites and allowing ourselves to get lost in the streets and alleyways of the ancient city. I encourage you to do the same.
Have you spent any time in Rome? What places, facts, or experiences did you find to be the most memorable?