Rome has been on my wish list for a while – and why wouldn’t it be? Some of the most iconic buildings and monuments in Europe, let alone just Italy, a history that’s only befitting of the World’s third oldest city and all the freaking gelato. It would have been so easy for me to plan a weekend away to Rome, but Italy as a whole eluded me until my trip to Florence in 2016 and so its the case that I got to 34 without ever seeing the Coliseum, or The Vatican with my own eyes.
But once I’d spent even only a day in Florence I was determined to see more of Italy, and watching Rome through the eyes of Dan Brown films just wouldn’t cut it anymore. When planning our Italian road trip, Rome was the first destination we decided upon, and it was also the place we stayed in longest.
Question is, would it live up to the hype, or would Rome with all its architecture and history and crazy feel like one big tourist trap?
As Rome was sandwiched in between the two other Italian destinations on our list, we actually didn’t fly at all, but a quick search shows me that Rome is very cheap to fly to. Much like other European destinations, Ryanair flights are cheap (if not a little inconvenient) and other budget airlines fly there too.
We however arrived by train from Pisa in 2 hours and 50 minutes, whizzing through the Italian countryside, napping and dreaming of Roman cuisine (because hell I was getting a gelato no matter what time we arrived).
Upon arrival at Rome’s main Termini station we slipped into the queue for a Taxi to our hotel, even though there where a few “taxi drivers” touting for our immediate business. There’s good reason for this. I’d heard horror story after horror story of rip of taxi drivers and general chaos at the station. Our hotel booked us a taxi back there when it was time to leave for our next destination.
As with many of our city breaks, we pretty much walked everywhere in Rome. It’s an expansive city, but an interesting one so walking between attractions (for example from the hotel to The Vatican) allows you to take in the atmosphere and see things you might have missed. We did A LOT of steps, but that helped work off all the pizza and red wine we were consuming.
Where To Stay
So the thing you need to know about Rome is that realistically it just isn’t a cheap city. I was quite taken aback at the price of hotels, even the basic ones and especially if you want to be relatively close to the centre. That said, we made a conscious decision to splash out a little in Rome because it was our Birthday holiday and because we were staying for a while and wanted somewhere comfortable to chill out in between all the chaotic sightseeing.
We picked the Albergo del Senato and couldn’t have been any more pleased with our choice. A very traditional Italian hotel in the very heart of Rome, this hotel is right on the Piazza della Rotonda overlooking the Pantheon. In fact quite a few rooms have views of the Pantheon and it’s roof terrace offers incredible views across the city. There is a bar up there too (although it wasn’t open in March as it was out of season) and I can well imagine sitting up there with an Aperol Spritz watching the sunset.
We were overjoyed to find we’d been given a 4th floor room with a perfect view of The Pantheon and they even left Prosecco in our room on Andrew’s birthday.
As usual, map view on Booking.com is your friend in Rome, and will allow you to see what is available in the areas of Rome you are interested in seeing.
With SO MUCH to see and do in Rome, its difficult to know where to start. So we startd with a list. that list of course had all of the famous landmarks within in, and we set aside a day each to explore The Vatican and The Coliseum. But there is a huge amount of other things to explore, so here is everything we fitted in in 3.5 days.
The Colosseum, Roman Forum + Palatine Hill
As we wandered down Via Dei Fori Imperiali and the Colosseum came into view, tears pricked my eyes. Less than 24 hours after our arrival in Rome and I was getting to see the thing I truly wanted to – the historical, magnificent Colosseum.
I’d argue passionately that a trip to Rome is not complete without seeing this extraordinary building. I’d also suggest that if you are interested in Ancient Rome and the history/culture of this city, a tour that takes in the Colosseum, Roman Forum + Palantine Hill is a must. So many people just visit the Colloseum, but for my money the Roman Forum is where it is at.
You can purchase a ticket with entry to all three locations, and this is what we nearly did. Instead we booked on to a fantastic Walks of Italy Tour with our guide Felix who imparted so much knowledge about the area that made it extraordinary value. Whether you do a tour or not, do make time in your Rome schedule to visit – you’ll need about 3 hours to do all three sites justice.
Cost: 12EUR per adult for all three sites, valid for two days (only one entry to each site). You can buy tickets in advance (skip the queue tickets) for 16EUR here. If you book with a tour company, your entrance fee is taken care of.
The Vatican Museum, Sistine chapel + St Peter’s Basilica
Technically entering another country (or at least political state), The Vatican area is either the second or the first big ticket tourist attraction depending on your viewpoint. I’m neither super religious or an art aficionado so I’ll admit to being a little concerned. Of course I’d go and see it, but would I be bored? What would I make of it?
The fact is you neither need to be into art or into religion to appreciate the sheer gobsmacking nature of The Vatican. We toured all three areas – the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica and each one left us more breathless than the last. Truly I have never seen anything quite like this in my life before, and I’ve been in a lot of religious buildings.
The Sistine Chapel is truly incredible, and seeing Michelangelo’s ceiling in real life is a sight to behold (you are not allowed to take pictures, but really pictures would never do it justice). The Sistine Tapestries, now part of the Vatican Museum collection are truly beautiful, intricate pieces of art and the sheer scale of St Peter’s Basilica will play tricks on your mind.
So here’s a couple of things to note. Even in March, when they get approx. 15,000 visitors a day it was chaotic. In high season they get more than 35,000. Queues can stretch for over three hours to get in to the Museum and Sistine Chapel, and then you have to queue again for St Peter’s Basilica (which is free to enter). As you approach the area you will be bombarded by “guides” looking to take you in, to skip the queue and all those things (they’ll also shout down the street at you that you are stupid for ignoring them if you do).
My advice? If you are truly interested in what The Vatican has to offer, go with a guide (pre-booked with a reputable company). We skipped all the lines (including going into a special entrance of St Peter’s Basilica reserved for guided groups) and had Dario a complete Vatican expert, art historian and passionate storyteller take round our small group of 15. As with the Colosseum, we booked with Walks of Italy, and I’d say their tours are top-notch.
Cost: 16EUR per adult which includes entry to all three areas, but you will queue. 20EUR for “skip the line” tickets bought direct from the Vatican Museum website.
The Trevi Fountain
This isn’t just any fountain. This is a huge beautiful hard to imagine fountain of epic proportions because the Italians don’t do things by halves when it comes to their art. Visiting early is a must if you don’t want to it be swarming with other tourists, and visiting at night is magical too.
It’s beautiful to look at, but one of my favourite facts is that it was closed and then refurbished by the fashion house Fendi (see, I told you the Italians go hard for their art). It’s one of the oldest water sources in Rome and has a legend to go with it. It’s said that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain you will guarantee yourself a return to Rome. This coinage all adds up, and the coins are collected every night and given to an Italian charity called Caritas.
The Spanish Steps
A tourist trap, a crowded mess and a disappointing location are all things I’ve heard to describe the Spanish Steps. And in many ways this may be true. But they are beautiful to see and their elegance is pretty much unrivalled across the whole of Rome in my opinion.
It won’t take you long to visit, and I’d suggest going AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE if you don’t want to be hindered by all the tourists. They won’t take you long to visit, but as the widest stairway in Europe it is certainly worth a look (and a climb!).
The Pantheon is one of the most influential buildings in Rome, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. In fact “Pantheon” actually means “honour all gods”. The numbers on the side of the building suggest it was built and dedicated between A.D 118 and 125 which makes it very very old indeed, and what is even more incredible is how well preserved it is.
Luckily I got to see this wonder every day as it was right outside my hotel. For me, whilst everything about this structure is beautiful, the most fascinating part of it is its giant dome, with its famous hole in the top of it, casting an eye or shedding sunlight into the room below.
Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I as well as the famous Renaissance painter Raphael and his fiancée are buried in the Pantheon, and I get the impression that the secrets this place holds will never truly be discovered. Magical.
A great place for views over The Vatican and beyond, Sant’Angelo Castle is a huge cylindrical building which towers over the city just on the right bank of The Tiber. It was actually commissioned by Hadrian, was later used by popes as a fortress and castle and is now a museum.
Once the tallest building in Rome, we went and took a look, mainly to see the structure itself which is unusual. On the bridge to the castle, you’ll find Bernini’s Angels, incredible artistic sculptures.
It’s a little pricey to get in so we didn’t on this ocassion, but I’m told the views make it worth it. It’s also a national history museum so if you aren’t historied out by the his point, go nuts!
Cost: 15.50EUR per adult.
Largo di Torre Argentina
CATS. ARCHITECTURE. CATS AND ARCHITECTURE. Sorry to go all capitals on you there, but there is a place in Rome where you can see cats roaming around old Italian ruins and it is honestly the best.
The square plays host to four Roman temples and the remains of Pompey’s Theatre. But that isn’t all you’ll find. Situated amongst the ancient ruins is a cat sanctuary, which is currently home to over 250 cats. There are cats EVERYWHERE in Rome which makes me extremely happy because cats are the best, but this is the place you’ll see the highest concentration of them.
For the history buffs, this is also the place where Julius Caesar was murdered. BUT CATS.
Built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, this huge square even still looks like an open space of a stadium. Think of the film chariots of fire and you won’t be far wrong. This square holds three very important fountains – The Fountain of Neptune, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor.
It’s a wonderful place to grab a coffee and watch the world go by (the coffee is extremely expensive here, but you are right in a tourist sight), and its just another example of why the Italians are extremely good at fountains.
Altare della Patria
Altare della Patria (translated as the Altar of the Fatherland and also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) is located centrally in the Piazza Venezia which isn’t far from both the Coliseum and Pantheon. When you arrive the the square, the building looks incredibly impressive and once you’ve climbed the front steps, you will find the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded 24/7.
This very typical Italian monument was built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, the first King of unified Italy (hello history lesson. Altare della Patria is free to get in, but the real joy of this place are the views from the roof which include The Forum, Palazzo Venezia and beyond. It will cost money to go up to the roof (via a lift) but honestly, its worth it.
Cost: Free to get in, but 7EUR to ride the lift to the roof.
Where to Eat + Drink
We actually booked on a food tour in Rome with Eating Italy of the Testaccio area of the city where we got to sample some of the best artisan food and drink Rome has to offer (see the full lowdown on that here). I’ve written a full foodies guide to Rome, but here are some of the other incredible places we ate (and drank):
- Hostaria Pantheon – a bit of a tourist trap, but decent, honest food close by The Pantheon.
- Di Qua – tucked away down a side street near the Spanish Steps, brisk service but great carbonara
- Salotto 42 – amazing bar, perfect for an aperitivo!
- Ristorante Angelina – out in Testaccio if you fancy getting away from the tourist hotspots and eating proper Roman food!
- Il Sorpasso – all your Vatican eating dreams can come true – just 10 minutes walk off the beaten track is this little gem.
- Spirito Divino – the best restaurant we ate in – with a wine cellar older than the Colosseum and a menu to die for, get yourself to Trastevere for a meal.
And for the gelato….(check out my full guide to finding the best gelato in Rome)
- Il Gelato di San Crispino
- Gelateria del Teatro
- Bar Giolitti, Testaccio
- Gelateria dei Gracchi
The food and drink in Rome is incredible, and I’d happily eat only Italian cuisine for the rest of my life.
Rome is an insanely beautiful, chaotic and overwhelming city. It of course has all of the drawbacks that any major European city has – tourist traps, expensive attractions, mess etc. But in spite of all of that, Rome’s history and architecture make it a wonderfully diverse city to visit. Around every corner is a beautiful building or monument waiting to be discovered, and down every side street is a gorgeous restaurant ready to service you simple but delicious Italian food.
Rome met all my expectations and more (which is hard to do, as my expectations were sky high)! What are your Rome tips?