“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.”Giotto di Bondone
I’m going start with a very bold and very honest statement – I did not love Italy.
I say this because it’s all too easy in forums such as this to wax lyrical about everywhere you’ve been and pretend that every city is a dream destination. It’s not. There are places I’ve been that I’ve adored, some that I’ve not enjoyed at all, and then some that fall in the middle.
I liked Italy – very much in some places – but I did not love it.
Do I recommend going there? Absolutely.
I’ve been to Rome twice now; the first time was for an extended stay five years ago, the most recent was for a mere 24 hours after arriving from Australia and before flying on to Croatia.
On my first trip I did all the things you’re supposed to do in Rome – I went into the Colosseum, toured the Vatican, walked through the Roman Forum, wondered at the Pantheon, battled crowds at the Trevi Fountain, sat on the Spanish Steps, admired the pieces in the Galleria Borghese, strolled through the Piazza Navone, ate 9355 gelato cones.
The second time, because t was such a short stay and because I’d already ticked all the main sights off my list, was to simply walk down to the Colosseum, shop a little on the Via Corso, admire the Trevi Fountain, take photos at the Spanish Steps and find the best pizza in Rome.
Oh and still eat as much gelato as I could in my time there.
I like Rome; I like the palpable sense of history there and the fact there’s so much to see and eat. But the spirit of the city didn’t particularly strike me like it does so many other people and if I were to make a list of the top 20 cities I’ve been to, it wouldn’t be on there. That said, I definitely recommend people see it at least once in their life time.
Yes, it is crowded, yes there are lots of tourists, yes it can be overpriced. But it’s also unique and well preserved and interesting. It’s a place that in many ways has helped give birth to the modern world and being able to reflect on that history and see these extraordinary landmarks with your own eyes is really something else.
Rome is a lovely city, I’m just not in love with it.
Where to stay.
I’ve stayed in the same hotel in Rome twice because it is perfectly located near main attractions, well priced, close to airport transport, and there’s plenty of food and shopping options nearby. It’s called Okapi Rooms and is just below the Piazza De Popolo and adjacent to the Via del Corso, which is one of Rome’s main streets.
Nothing about this place is fancy but it’s clean and has kind of an old school Italian charm to it with it’s terracotta tiled floors and wooden furniture. Last time they gave me the enormous attic room, which had a bank of fully openable windows that overlooked the Rome skyline – plus when I arrived at 8.30am in the morning they let me check in straightaway and go up to my room. After almost 24 hours on a plane this was absolute heaven.
The area around here is great at night, safe to walk around, and from here you can easily walk to a lot of the sights or get on Rome’s metro at the Piazza de Popolo stop and get to pretty much anywhere that’s not within walking distance. It’s set on a smaller side street and you don’t get a huge amount of street noise either. Again, this is not a glamourous hotel but it’s outstanding for what you’re paying and where it’s placed.
Where to eat.
I actually can’t remember any specific places I ate when I first travelled to Rome – most of the time I think I just wandered around the city and stopped anywhere that looked good. I know there was pizza on a side street over near and huge government building, a steaming hot cheese and tomato filled foccacia plus a standing up cappucino on the Via Del Corso not long after I landed, and the aforementioned hundreds of gelato.
Another point of honesty: I find the food in Rome and in Italy in general tough. I love Italian food and when you first arrive, it’s exciting to be eating all this incredible stuff. But for me there’s a lack of diversity in the food and after a couple of days I started to struggle. Everything is meat, cheese, tomato, bread and gelato. Everything. Salads and sandwiches and fruit are almost non existent unless they’re manipulated into the previous five categories. This isn’t like Melbourne or London or New York where you can go and eat a ton of different stuff, food in Italy is fairly one track. At least that was my general experience, though I’m sure plenty of others have done it differently and I’m not disrespecting that.
However with that in mind, on my last trip I had two goals: eat as much gelato as possible and find the best pizza in Rome. I was only going to have one dinner there so it needed to be good. After much online reviewing (wherein lies intense debate), I settled on a place called Piccolo Buco. It was located in the Centro area, not far from the Trevi Fountain, so I knew it would be close enough to where I was staying. The place opened at 6pm and when I walked past about 20 minutes prior, there was already a short queue. That seemed like a pretty good sign to me. It’s only a small place and luckily I managed to snag one of the tiny tables and put my order in quickly. I had a simple margherita pizza and a Coke, but I swear to you it was indeed the best pizza of my life. MY LIFE. It was hot and fresh and chewy and the buffalo was perfectly melty and the basil so beautifully aromatic. I definitely recommend heading there for one meal.
For breakfast on bth mornings I was in Rome, I headed to a place called Rosati on the southern end of the Piazza De Popolo It’s a classic cafe/restaurant/bar done in the classic Italian style. They have coffee and a ton of pastries for breakfast, or head there for dinner (I’m pretty sure I went there on my first trip as it’s right around the corner from my hotel). Service is snobby to tourists and I couldn’t figure out if I paid first or after I’d eaten, but the sweet treats made the confusion worth it.
A final note on gelato in Rome. Everyone will have a recommendation and many of these are tiny hole in the wall places. By all means search up a storm before you go, but honestly? I’ve never had a bad gelato in Rome. Find a place with a heap of people lined up or someone that’s selling a flavour you love, and I can pretty much promise it will be good.
What to see and do.
The best thing about Rome is that there is so much to see – so much history that’s been preserved throughout the city and much of it can be checked out just by walking around. There’s ruins literally everywhere, churches and city squares hundreds of years old, and of course the wonder of the Vatican museums.
First things first – start by checking out the Colosseum. Yes, you can get some great photographs from the outside but I definitely recommend going in – and buying a ticket in advance if you want to avoid some fairly long lines. It is a really interesting place to explore (and get even more incredible photos inside) so make sure you go in at least once to experience it for yourself. From there you can stroll over to the Roman Forum and spend time wandering through the ruins at your own pace. Everything is really well signposted so you get a good understanding of what you’re actually looking at. The Palantine Hill gives some of the best views across the city and is the perfect spot for photos. It is a really incredible thing to see altogether – the quintessential Rome experience.
If you’re in the area, it’s a reasonably short walk up the Via Del Corso to do a little shopping, or stroll off the side streets to check out the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps. A word of warning: both of these will be completely packed with people at most time of day or night. Like, seriously packed. But really you’re just there to take a moment and see these things with your own eyes – once you’ve thrown your coin in the fountain and made your wish, there’s not actually anything to do there. If less busy photos are your thing then think about going as early in the morning as you possibly can.
The best art museum in Rome would have to be the Borghese Gallery which has such an incredible collection of Italian pieces. There is so much to see in there and this is another place that it’s highly recommended you book as early as possible prior to going as entries are timed and only limited numbers are allowed in. The gallery is set in the Park Borghese, just to the north east of the Piazza Del Popolo (so an easy walk from there if you’re staying in that area) and the park itself is just stunning to walk through. There’s gardens and outdoor artworks everywhere. Give yourself at least a few hours (half a day would be good) to enjoy this area.
In the Centro area, the two most important things to see are the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. The Pantheon is a church that has one of the most incredible domed roofs in the world – it’s the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence and was built some time around 113AD. It’s also surrounded by 16 colums and is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture. Entry is free so definitely worth wandering in. The Piazza Navona is Rome’s main city square and packed with cafes, stalls, street performers, fountains and more. This is the place to enjoy a coffee or a spritz and then people watch to your heart’s content.
There is no way that you could visit Rome and not see the Vatican. There’s a couple of components to it, firstly St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel and then the Vatican musems. The square is the setting for the Vatican and is where you want to grab some good photos outside because it is an imposing piece of architecture. The Basilica is the ‘church’ part – the head of the Catholic Church and as impressive inside as you could expect. It’s absolutely huge. Conversely, the Sistine Chapel seems almost tiny in comparison but is home to the famous Michaelangelo frescoes including The Creation of Adam (you know, the two fingers touching). Because the crowds are immense here, you do get moved through quite quickly. The museums are filled with artworks and other artefacts, and it’s worth spending some time here after you have done the churches.
A couple of points worth noting when it comes to the Vatican – it will be absolutely packed with people, no matter when you go. You’re going to be lining up a lot and it is going to feel like you’re surrounded by tourists at times. Just go with it – everyone wants to see this place and that’s completely understandable. Buy your tickets online and ahead of time and that will likely save you a fair bit of queueing during your visit. Also keep in mind that you are entering a church and there are some dress restrictions. Dress appropriately and conservatively ie short shorts and a midriff top won’t cut it. I got in with shorts (though the sign says they aren’t allowed) but definitely make sure your shoulders are covered and that your footwear is better than just flip flops.
The one part of Rome I haven’t had a chance to explore is Trastevere, a cobblestone street filled area across the Tiber River. It’s meant to be quaint and cute and filled with great restaurants. Have a look and report back to me how you go.
Where to shop.
I’m sure there are plenty of brilliant boutiques scattered all over Rome, and no doubt there’s flagship stores for major Italian high fashion brands, however the majority of shopping I’ve done there is all down Via Del Corso where the chain stores live. International Zara and H&M is still a bit of a novelty to Australians so it worked for me.
I didn’t get much of a chance to see it on my last trip but I understand the Termini (aka main train station/transport hub in Rome) has been seriously renovated with amazing shops and restaurants. Would be well worth checking out.
If you do find yourself in Italy, Kiko is a local make up brand that has stores all over the place and has some incredible products. I’ve been obsessed with their eye crayons and eye primers for years. They always do seasonal collections and have little snap sales, so definitey have a look if you see a store. Plus it’s not expensive at all – probably about the equivalent of general drugstore cosmetics prices.
Rome: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: There’s a lot of sights to see in Rome, so you’re gonna want a little bit of time. Four full days would be absolutely perfect but at a stretch and with planning, three is fine. If you stretched to five then you’re easily going to be able to keep yourself occupied too.
Getting around: I walked ro so many places given I was stayig in the Centro area. So. Much. Walking. Rome also has a fairly good underground Metro if you get sick of pounding the pavements, and I’m a big advocate of the red bus type hop on/hop off tours, which will get you to all the major landmarks. I used one of these when I visited the Vatican, which was a little out of walking range. Also if you’re coming in from the airport, the Leonardo Express train will get you into Termini quickly, easily and fairly cheaply.
When to go: I’ve been in September and October and both times it was still fairly hot (temperatures above 30 degrees celcius). Summer has high temperatures so if you’re into that, enjoy. I like cooler weather so I’d recommend late autum/early spring, or even winter.
Key places for first timers: Vatican, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon.
Underrated gem: I’m not sure that there’s anything too underrated in Rome but the Trevi Fountain or the Colosseum would be my favourite places to see.
If I could only eat at one place: I can’t go past the pizza at Piccolo Buco. Best ever.
Best photo opportunities: Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the spiral staircase at the Vatican, any cone of gelato anywhere.