Meandering the ancient streets of this amazing city, which are laced with history and full of cultural delights
Rome, the “Eternal City” is a fascinating place to visit and there are so many things to do and sites to see. We were lucky enough to be able to spend 3 days exploring this amazing city.
We loved our time in Rome but there are, as with many of the major cities, multitudes of tourists which makes the main tourist attractions very crowded. It is worth checking out tours that enable to bypass the lines – these can be pricey but if you don’t like getting up at the crack of sparrows and camping outside hours ahead then you might want to consider this option.
There are plenty of places to eat, as you might expect, many offering traditional Italian food. As we try to follow a vegan diet (sometimes on holiday we expand our range to be more vegetarian) there were not a great many options. You can always try the Happy Cow website or app to find a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. We tried and enjoyed Su Ghetto in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, which has some vegan and vegetarian options and Ops!, a vegan buffet located just outside the city walls.
Rome is an interesting city to explore and it is safe to explore – of course, usual precautions apply about being wary of what areas of town you are in and not flashing your wealth overtly (i.e. expensive jewellery and watches), especially late at night.
We didn’t find it to be the cleanest city out there. Talking to the locals they blame the mayor for cutting back on services, but the trash seems to pile up and can be unsightly.
Rome has two airports, the major hub Fiumicino (also known as Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci) and Ciampino. Fiumicino lies 20 miles south-west of central Rome.
The train is the best and cheapest way to get into the city. The train station is right next to the main departures and arrivals hall – there are frequent trains to the city’s main Termini station (Leonardo Express, 35 minutes), while another line, FM1, connects with stations in the southern and eastern suburbs.
A taxi will cost around €50 to get into the city centre.
If you wish you can rent a car, but be aware the streets are narrow and the parking is limited. The Italians also have a bit of a reputation for being crazy drivers – so make sure you have good insurance.
Our preferred method of getting around a city is to walk wherever possible. Rome is fairly compact and most of the main tourist sites are within the city walls so walking is easy – there are a few hills but nothing too drastic. During the summer Rome can be very hot and humid, so make sure you carry plenty of water.
If you would rather not walk everywhere there are public transport options. Run by the municipal transport agency ATAC (atac.roma.it), Rome’s bus network is fairly efficient and extensive – unlike its metro system, currently consisting of just two useful lines, A and B, which intersect at Termini Station. A section of the new C-line was unveiled on November 2014, but currently, it serves only the city’s eastern suburbs; an extension to connect with the B line at Colosseo is not expected to be completed until 2020 at the earliest.
A is useful if you are going to the Vatican (direction Battistini, get off at Ottaviano), while B will take you to the Colosseum (direction Laurentina, get off at Colosseo). Single ‘BIT’ tickets can be bought at metro stations, in most tabacchi (cigarette shops), or at newspaper stands. They cost €1.50 and are valid for 100 minutes on any combination of buses, plus one metro ride.
There are also whole-day (BIG, €6), three-day (BTI, €16.50) and weekly (CIS, €24) passes.
- Exploring the beautiful and inspiring Roman Forum
- Visiting the iconic Colosseum
- Climb to the top of the spectacular Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele for spectacular views across Rome
- The Trevi Fountain is a must-visit place when you are in Rome
- Seek some peace for a few minutes in the Pantheon
- Stroll through the magnificent Piazza Navona and admire its fountains
- Visit the Vatican Museum and St Peters Basilica
- Grab something to eat and stroll the streets of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
- An e-bike tour of the Appian Way and Rome’s Catacombs
- Revisiting the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountains at night and the Spanish Steps
For our first day in Rome, we decided to mainly use foot power to get us around. Luckily, the city is compact and easy to navigate as a pedestrian. We started our journey from our apartment and ended up at the metro station at Piazza Spagna where we caught the metro back. The route to visit the suggested locations for Day 1 covers about 5.2 km or about 3 and a bit miles. Below is a link to a Google Maps view of the route that can be downloaded to your phone.
The Roman Forum
There were many things that drew us to Rome; the culture, the food and the history. As usual, when we visit somewhere new, I like to plan and research to make the most of the time we have during our time. There are some iconic things to see and do in Rome, one of which is the Colosseum. So, I explored the Internet and found some combination tours of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and after a bit more research I decided upon a tour with Italy Wonders. We opted for the small group 3 hour tour, which was a little expensive at €50 per person but it is worthwhile paying not only for the informative guides but simply to skip the massive queues for these sites, especially in the summer months. Getting into the Colosseum and Roman Forum is inexpensive but you easily spend an hour or two waiting to get in, which would not be much fun in the blistering summer heat! Once the centre of public and political life in Ancient Rome, the Forum is now the most impressive archaeological site in Rome, attracting more than 4.5 million visitors every year. Located close to the Colosseum and Palatine Hill in the historic centre of Rome, the Forum is a sprawling labyrinth of ancient ruins, including the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Titus and the House of the Vestals.
From the Roman Forum, we climbed to the top of Palatine Hill, which is the centremost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. It rises to around 40 m (about 120 feet) above the Roman Forum and offers amazing views across the ruins.
From the Roman Forum, it is a short skip, hop and jump to the Colosseum. By the time we arrived the crowds had swelled and it was crazy around the entrance to the site. It was at this point we realised the real value of having booked a “skip-the-lines” tour. We still had to wait for the allotted time to go in.
The Roman Colosseum or Coliseum, originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian. It was completed by his son, Titus, in 80, with later improvements by Domitian. This amphitheatre is made up of 80 arched entrances allowing easy access to 55,000 spectators, who were seated according to rank. Built of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete, it is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Elliptical in shape, the Colosseum is 188m long and 156 wide. Originally 240 masts were attached to stone corbels on the 4th level from which a covering was stretched across to form a roof to protect the spectators from the heat of the sun.
Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele
A short walk from the Roman Forum is the unmissable edifice of the Vittorio, or the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele.
The Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele was inaugurated in 1911 as a tribute to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy after the country’s unification. Inside the building is the Institute for the History of the Italian Risorgimento and the Central Museum of the Risorgimento. Since 1921, the Victor Emmanuel Monument holds the tomb of the unknown soldier, a place in which the eternal flame shines and which is always guarded by two soldiers.
The colossal monument, which is 135 meters wide and 70 meters high, is comprised of scores of majestic Corinthian columns and endless stairs, all carved in white marble. The top is crowned with an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel cast in bronze and two chariots driven by the goddess Victoria. The monument was strongly criticised at its construction since it was necessary to knock down numerous valuable buildings to make sufficient space, and Italian citizens did not agree with the idea of having such an eye-catching and elaborate building next to the other classical buildings that surround it.
One of the greatest attractions of the Monument to Victor Emmanuel is the panoramic view that can be seen from the terrace located at the same height as the chariots. The panoramic elevators are the only way to reach the upper part of the monument. By the time we reached the Vittorio we were very hungry and it was very hot, so we declined to climb the stairs to the top of the monument (next time!). Apparently, the amazing views make it worth the effort to climb.
No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Fontana di Trevi, or Trevi Fountain. Located in the Quirinale district of Rome, the Trevi Fountain is known as one of the most stunning fountains in the world.
Like the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain is mostly built from travertine stone, a name that means “from the Tiber” in Latin, the likely source was the city of Tivoli, about 22 miles from Rome. The Trevi Fountain stands a massive 85 feet tall and is almost 65 feet wide. With water pumping out of multiple sources and the large pool in front, the fountain spills about 2,824,800 cubic feet of water every day! Luckily, the water is recycled – so you’ll not be able to drink from this fountain.
The fountain features Neptune, the god of the sea on a shell-shaped chariot pulled by two horses, each being guided by a Triton. One horse is calm while the other is unruly, representing the different moods of the sea.
The fountain dates back to ancient Roman times, and the construction of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in 19 B.C. that provided water to the Roman baths and the fountains of central Rome. It’s said that the Aqua Virgo, or Virgin Waters, is named in honour of a young Roman girl who led thirsty soldiers to the source of the spring to drink. The fountain was built at the endpoint of the aqueduct, at the junction of three roads. These three streets (tre vie) give the Trevi Fountain its name, the Three Street Fountain.
Today, the Trevi Fountain is a magnet for tourists and is packed out day and night. If you got there really early in the morning you might manage to get some photo taken without being jostled by a mass of visitors.
From the Trevi Fountains we took a five-minute walk through some side streets to reach our next stop; the Pantheon.
Even today, almost 2000 years after its construction, the Pantheon is a remarkable building to see and is a striking reminder of the architecture of the great Roman Empire. The word Pantheon is a Greek adjective meaning “honour all Gods”. The first Pantheon was believed to have been built in 27 BC during the reign of Emperor Augustus. After suffering calamities the Pantheon had several revisions before the building we see today was constructed by Hadrian in 120 AD.
The Pantheon was first built as a temple to all gods, before being the first pagan temple to be converted into a church in the year 609, which saved it from being destroyed during the Middle Ages. What is more amazing is how the Pantheon survived the onslaught of barbarian raids when the rest of the monuments of ancient Rome did not.
The exact composition of the material is still unknown and appears to be structurally similar to modern-day concrete! Whatever the reasons are, the Pantheon is the only structure of its age and size that has successfully survived the damage of time and gravity, still intact with all its splendour and beauty.
The most fascinating part of the Pantheon is its giant dome, with its famous hole in the top (The eye of the Pantheon, or oculus). The dome was the largest in the world for 1300 years and until today it remains the largest unsupported dome in the world! The diameter of the dome is 43.30 meters or 142ft (for comparison, the United States Capitol dome is 96 feet in diameter) and is in perfect proportion with the Pantheon by the fact that the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal to its diameter.
Entry to Pantheon is free but ladies need to cover their shoulders and not be wearing anything too revealing and men need to remove their hats. As this is a place of worship visitors are expected to observe silence, which you are reminded of from time to time by a message coming over the speakers – sort of ironic bearing in mind the call for silence, but unfortunately people are not great at following the instructions on the signs. The interior design of the Pantheon is less ornate than most churches or basilicas, which actually added to grandeur rather than distracted. It is the oculus in the dome which is the most eye-catching feature, especially at the time we visited when the sunlight formed a powerful beam that illuminated the inside of the basilica.
We strolled from the Pantheon to the Piazza Navona, one of the largest and most beautiful piazza squares in Rome with three impressive fountains, including la Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi with its large obelisk at the centre. This Bernini designed fountain was constructed in 1651 for the Pope. The centrepiece of the fountain is a tall Roman obelisk and surrounding it four figures can be seen, each representing the great rivers: Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de la Plata.
The Fontana del Moro at the southern end of the piazza depicts a Moor fighting a dolphin – Bernini’s addition in the 17th century.
At the northern end is the Fontana di Nettuno, (Neptune) built-in 1576 by Giacomo della Porta. The statues of Neptune surrounded by sea nymphs were added in the 19th century. Both of these fountains were started prior to the Fontana dei Fiumi but have been altered several times as time has slipped by.
Another architectural feature of the piazza is the baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone provides an impressive backdrop. The original church here was thought to have dated back to around AD 300 when the young St Agnes was martyred here. Inside the church is beautifully ornate and as is a wonderfully cool escape from the heat of the day.
One of the planned highlights of our visit to Rome was to go to Vatican City, which is an independent walled-off city within Rome that is about 110 acres and has a population in the 800s. It is an “ecclesiastical” state ruled by the head of the Catholic Church-The Pope.
The points of interest within Vatican City are St. Peter’s square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel.
After some research, I discovered that the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica, unlike other tourist sites in Rome – such as the Colosseum, do not put a cap on the numbers of visitors per day. As a consequence as many as 30,000, a day try to cram themselves into this smallest of City-States. This totals a whopping 6 million people per year. So, I booked a “skip the lines” 3-hour small-group tour through the Vatican Museum website.
Everything I had read said to take the earliest tour possible, so I booked us on the 8:30 am tour. So, we set off early taking the metro line to the Cipro – Musei Vaticani station, which is about a 10-minute walk from the museum entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was only just after 8:00 am and already the queues were stretching back a good quarter of a mile. It was with a mix of sympathy and satisfaction that we walked straight past the waiting hoard and entered the museum to the area where the group tours meet. There are not too many tours, so the waiting area was relatively calm compared to the throng of peopled jostling in line for the ticket booths.
Some things you need to know before you head off to Vatican City:
- You do not need to be part of a guided tour to enter the museums or St. Peter’s Basilica. However, expect to wait long hours during busy tourism months.
- St. Peter’s Basilica is closed on Wednesday mornings for papal audiences. To catch a glimpse of the Pope be there at noon on Sundays or go to the Wednesday service. Be sure to get a ticket at least one day before. Papal appearances may vary during the winter and summer months. In fact, when we visited in July, there were no Papal audiences scheduled.
- The Vatican museums are closed on Sundays and holidays. It is open and free on the last Sunday of the month.
- You can pretty much take pictures everywhere apart from in the Sistine Chapel – where silence is expected to be observed.
- There is a dress code for entering the Basilica and the museums. Wear long pants or ladies medium length skirts/dresses and cover your shoulders.
My full blog post on Vatican City is here.
Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto in Rome sits just below Campo de’ Fiori, bordered by the Tiber River and Teatro Marcello. This was before the river had any embankments, so the tiny neighbourhood would regularly flood. The ghetto was limited to an area of three streets, walled in and gated. Exits were tightly controlled and there was a curfew for inhabitants. If takes about 15 to 20 minutes to walk here from the Vatican.
The first Jews arrived in Rome during Chanukah in 160 B.C. and there has been a Jewish population in Rome ever since – making this the most ancient Jewish population in Europe.
There are some interesting restaurants serving Kosher food in the area. We were getting a bit tired of pasta and pizza’s so the option of a more Mediterranean fare was too tempting. Most of the restaurants are founds along the Ghetto’s main street, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, which is a little touristy but still a fun place to sit down and watch the world go by. We would recommend trying Su Ghetto it has a pleasant outdoor space – indoors is a bit more utilitarian (but air-conditioned). We tried the deep-fried artichoke here which was interesting! Also, next door to Su Ghetto is a tiny bakery called Pasticceria il Boccione. It is easy to miss as there is no sign to announce its name – just a simple chalkboard with a list of its delicacies. Inside it is tiny, you can probably fit about six people in – max! But the cakes are delicious and if they have it you must try the ricotta and sour cherry pie!
From Su Ghetto we walked down Via del Portico d’Ottavia to look at the ruins of the once glorious Portico d’Ottavia – now overshadowed by the adjacent Baroque church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. Here we spotted a sign on the wall of an adjacent building that memorialised an event over 75 years ago, when on the morning of October 16, 1943 SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered his troops to empty the Jewish Ghetto, which had become a de facto prison after the German occupation of Italy.
The sign we had seen was on the walls on a non-descript building that after closer inspection turned out to be a small museum dedicated to the holocaust. Fondazione Museo della Shoah is a small museum that houses a collection of photographs that had been uncovered depicting the events of the holocaust in Italy. Most of the signage for the photographs is in Italian, but there on docents on hand to explain and translate – but to be honest the horror and sadness of the photographs largely speak for themselves.
If you are looking for a more in-depth insight into the Jewish community of Rome then a visit to the Museo Ebraico di Roma, or Jewish Museum of Rome is a great place to visit. Just around the corner from the Portico d’Ottavia and located in the basement of Rome’s Great Synagogue, this museum provides an insight into the long and diverse history of the Jews in the Eternal City. There are tours from the museum that takes you out through the Ghetto, these start at €8.00 for a group tour or you can organise a private tour if you prefer a more personal experience.
From the Portico d’Ottavia it is a short hop to the Teatro di Marcello, which looks like a mini-Colosseum. In fact, like it’s larger cousin is an amphitheatre but it actually predates the Colosseum by over half a century – Vespasian built the Colosseum in 72 AD, but Teatro Marcello was inaugurated earlier in 12 BC by Augustus.
Today, Teatro di Marcello has a dual role – partly a publicly owned ancient site and partly a domestic residence for wealthy people. The red-brick structure on-top of the Roman arches are apartments – which apparently cost an arm and a leg to own. But, a pretty cool place to live!
In the summer there are concerts held in the area outside the Teatro di Marcello, which we didn’t manage to make but hear they are quite special.
From the Jewish Ghetto, we crossed the River Tiber to the district of Trastevere, which retains a connection to its working-class roots that now has a reputation for attracting bohemians and hipsters that has resulted in many innovative trattorias, craft beer pubs and artisan shops popping up.
Located right above the borough of Trastevere, on the west-side of Tiber River, the Gianicolo or Janiculum Hill offers one of the most terrific views over the Eternal City. Starting from via Garibaldi you can reach the top of the Hill with a 20-minute walk across the Passeggiata del Gianicolo.
Bike Tour of the Appian Way and a visit to the Catacomb of St. Calixtus and Aqueduct Park
|Tour Company:||Top Bike Rentals and Tours|
|Meeting Point:||Via Labicana, 49, 00184|
|Type:||Cycling tour on e-bikes – very easy going|
|Prices:||€79 per person for a 6-hour tour. This includes a guided tour of the Catacombs and lunch|
I have often watched people passing my by on their tours on various forms of personal transport, especially bicycles and segways, and thought I would like to try that! Anyway, during our stay in Rome, I thought we’d finally give it a bash, so I booked us on a 6-hour e-bike tour . We both love cycling but as we progress in years we have both become interested in electronically assisted bikes, especially Karen, so this seemed like a great opportunity to see what they are really like.
Nighttime walking tour
Having visited many of the tourist sites during the day we decided to head out to walk around these places at night. Rome, like many countries in the Mediterranean, comes to life at nighttime. Romans tend to eat dinner at about 9 pm — so much so that restaurants that cater to locals won’t even open until 8 pm. They also tend to linger at dinner longer (and, for better or for worse, serving can be slower) — which means you’ll see many groups of friends, or couples, sit down at 9 pm and not leave until 11 pm or even midnight.
Rome’s monuments are impressive during the day, but at night they take on an entirely new persona. Walking through the city at night, when it’s cooler outside, is often a more pleasant experience than covering the same ground during the hot day.
We started our night stroll at the Colosseum, which is interesting when it is lit at night. Strangely enough, it had a totally different persona at night – the lighting made it appear as if it was a car park. Weird!
From the Colosseum, we headed towards the Trevi Fountains, which not surprisingly was as busy at night as it was during the day.
Just a short walk from the Trevi Fountains is the Spanish Steps. Built-in 1723 to 1725 these 138 steps connect the lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper Piazza Trinita dei Monti, with its beautiful twin tower church. They are wide and irregular and have been worn down in places and made very slick (you’d need to be careful on wet and icy days). The elegance of these steps has been a magnet for artists, painters and poets. Just feet from the foot of the Spanish Steps is 26 Piazza di Spagna, the final resting place of the great English poet John Keats which today is a museum dedicated to him and Percy Shelley, the romantic poet who also died in Italy about a year after Keats had passed.