Rome is the city that made Audrey Hepburn famous, and by god if that doesn’t pull you closer, I don’t know what will. It’s beautiful for sure, but it’s rough around the edges – in a good way. Like an old postcard. Rome is overlooked in the way classically handsome actors are assumed to be talent-less, and taken for granted as another Euro-centric destination on a map dotted with Instagram memories. Rome is a wide-open world, in a hundred different time zones, with a slow beating pulse and a wide-eyed wisdom.
In my opinion, the best time to visit is in autumn. There are far fewer crowds, the weather is still very warm but not sweltering, and for a city so full of parks and plant-life, the trees put on a good show. Known popularly as the city of seven hills, the geography of Rome is characterized by these and the Tiber River, flowing down from the Apennines and through the heart of the city. The climate is Mediterranean, and extremely hot in the summer.
If you’re only there for a few days, you’ll find yourself already planning your next visit. There is almost too much to do, in a wonderful way that means this will never fully be just a typical tourist destination. The gravity of the buildings, and the situation of each in a different historical era makes you feel like this place is limitless in every direction. The food is as good as you’ve assumed and maybe better, and the people are wonderfully kind and patient when you mangle their language to them.
If you fly into Ciampino, there’s a very nifty shuttle bus that takes you straight to Termini Station; and from there you can walk anywhere. The area around the station is full of hostels and hotels, ranging from the extremely basic to the moderately high class. The area being interrailing central, it’s not where you’re going to find the most luxurious accommodation, but it is a great part of the city to lose track of time in.
To fit so much within a city is mesmerising – to fit another city within that city is triumphant. The Vatican has its own reputation, but whether your visitation is sacred or profane, there’s not a doubt in my mind that it will stay with you. I would recommend booking early online, even at off-peak times of the year, as the lines can be 2-3 hours long, and the process of getting in involves tight security. Once you’ve shaken the feeling that you’re in a Dan Brown novel, your eyes can adjust to one of the most spectacular collections of art and history on the planet. The Vatican Museum is in fact a group of museums, all within The Vatican, and they are by no means all religious. Get an audio guide if you can – the city is clearly proud of its history and offers no shortage of information.
You could spend the whole day here, but if you can’t, focus on some highlights.
Astounding translations of ancient texts carved in stone, alongside intact mummified bodies, sarcophagi, and organ jars – The Vatican holds one of the world’s most impressive exhibitions of Ancient Egyptian artifacts – some as old as 6, 000 BC.
The sculpture hall is home to a large number of armless beauties and fig-leafed heroes; mythical deities and ancient royalty abound. If you are visiting The Vatican, there’s a strong possibility you enjoy classics, mythology, art history and history – if so, I would highly recommend the sculpture hall.
One of the crowning glories of the papal state is the Sistine Chapel. Come prepared – they make you work for it, so good shoes and a steady blood sugar level is recommended. In a long and meandering route through marble courtyards, palatial apartments, and many paintings by Raphael, the path to the Sistine Chapel is as involved a journey as you are likely to take here.
There are several signs, but just in case, remember not to wear revealing clothing – this means shorts and t-shirts – and to keep your voice low once you’re in. Never have the words ‘celestial bodies’ carried so much weight – in pure muscle. Michelangelo’s figures are dynamic in their physicality, rendered so that they tumble out of their frames and backgrounds. Maybe it will be smaller than you anticipated, and maybe you imagined it less crowded, but the stunned silence of the people jostling your elbows speaks volumes.
While you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth mentioning that St Peter’s Basilica is nearby. Truly one of the highlights for me, the square itself is enough to make you weep. An expansive colonnade sweeps inwards on either side towards the steps of the basilica. The building itself is enormous in scope, and mesmerising in its execution. While you are standing with your eyes wide, people will be outstripping you to get to the entrance turnstiles which are easy to miss. You enter to the right and exit to the left, and the same applies for appropriate dress codes.
It’s worth checking what the mass times are before you go, as you won’t be allowed past a certain point if there’s a service on. Built on the site where St Peter was thought to have been crucified, the basilica is the final resting place of several popes, was rebuilt in the 16th century by the masters; Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini among others, and remains one of the holiest sites in Christendom.
When you find yourself back on the other side of the city, you’ll find the offerings no less astounding. Recently restored, the Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque Fountain in Rome, and is in fact the termination of an aqueduct from about 19 B.C. The central figure is Ocean, carved by Pietro Bracci, and flanked by two winged horses, tritons, and the figures of Abundance and Health. Typical of the style and period, the figures are powerful, muscular – verging on the corpulent, and stand well above life-size. Get some gelato (in Venchi), throw a penny, and sit on the edge.
A short walk away you’ll find the Colosseum looming at you between buildings. The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built, and boasts an extraordinary level of ingenuity – and cruelty. This was where epic gladiatorial battles took place, and exotic animals were shown off to the public before being pitted against each other. It’s worth paying extra for a guide – they really know what they are talking about, and will grant you access to the underground and the upper levels.
Your ticket for The Colosseum is also valid within two consecutive days for the Roman Forum nearby. The forum rises in sections above the current street level, and was the city centre of ancient Rome. Ruins of every kind of building climb over one another, columns reach out of the earth and temples extend skyward. Once you enter the Temple of Vesta and climb to the top, it’s Russian roulette whether you’re standing in ancient Rome or Renaissance Rome. The wonderful juxtaposition of centuries is both beautiful and humbling. Once again, book ahead online and pay for a guide – it’s almost a different city.
Clambering over ruins can work up an appetite, and there’s nowhere in the world like Italy when it comes to food. One thing I noticed is that the tourist driven places cater to the Italian standard, so that even the worst quality greasy spoon is miles ahead of what you expect. Lists of the best restaurants in a city are helpful, but the best way to find what you’re looking for is to get hopelessly lost. If you want to narrow it down, the trendy ‘Monti’ district is a great place to start – and if you get a chance go to La Carbonara – an old school Italian restaurant serving up the finest pasta in Rome since 1906. If it’s gelato you’re after, there’s no better place than Venchi; you’ll find them neatly distributed but there’s a particularly impressive one five minutes’ walk from the Trevi Fountain. The prices are extremely reasonable, and while you wait you can watch the molten chocolate flowing down the wall behind the counter. It’s the ice-cream you’ve been searching for your whole life.
One last recommendation, and an unusual one, is the Termini Station food hall. The atmosphere is electric with the chatter of Italians devouring truffles, pastries, pizza, and artichokes. The pastries are spectacular with espresso in the morning, and each station has a specialty that would make your knees week.
The best thing about Rome is that it’s overwhelming. You’ll never have enough time to see it all, so you have no choice but to come back again, and again – unless you want to fish your coin out of the Trevi Fountain.