In May and June of 2011, I spent 5 weeks traveling around Europe. This post is one of a series chronicling the different places I visited on that trip.
The first time I went to Rome, I was only there for an insane 24-hour period. I say “insane” because it included sleeping at a camp ground, wandering down sketchy roads from Termini train station to the Trevi fountain late at night, sneakily cutting in line at the Vatican, sustaining ourselves on almost nothing but pizza, gelato, and Nutella Snack and Drinks, having to ask for directions to the Spanish Steps in three languages (English, French, and Italian), and surviving the craziest cab ride I’ve ever taken (I swear the guy was going like 100 on a tiny city street). I was 19, and while Rome was one of my favorite memories from my month-long study abroad program in Italy, I wanted to go back and explore the city further, and perhaps at a slower pace. My mom and I signed up for a guided tour of Sicily, and we decided to add a few days in Rome onto the beginning of our trip. So, here are my thoughts about Rome, Round 2.
We arrived in Rome in the morning and made it to our hotel by 10am. Luckily, they let us check in early, so we were able to drop off our luggage and freshen up a bit before heading out to explore. Our first stop was the Spanish Steps, which were a quick 5-minute walk from our hotel. I found it rather ironic that they were the first site we saw and that they were so close to our hotel, given the aforementioned problems I had finding them during my first Roman adventure.
However, we didn’t stay at the Steps for long, as we were in search of both a good meal and some ancient ruins. We hopped on the metro and rode over to the Colosseum, where we grabbed some lunch. I do not recommend heading to that area to get any sort of meal, as there seemed to be a distinct lack of non-touristy restaurants. I ended up with a good, not great, pizza margherita (the first of many on this trip – though subsequent versions were far superior).
After lunch, we headed to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. On my first trip, I remember being completely blown away by the Colosseum – in awe that I was standing where gladiators had once stood. I still found the Colosseum impressive, but on this trip, I was more awed by the Forum. I think it’s because, this time around, I spent more time pondering the sheer scope of the ruins and the fact that this was the center of all civic life in ancient Rome. Pretty mind-boggling.
After spending several hours outside in the sun (and feeling some nasty jetlag), we headed back to our hotel for a short nap before dinner. After our nap, we walked from our hotel to the Pantheon (the interior was already closed for the day), and then onto the Piazza Navona for dinner. I think there’s some sort of magic out on the streets in Rome at dusk, and perhaps one of the places you can feel it best is the Piazza Navona. When I think of Rome, I know I will think of places like this, so romantic and charming and just quintessential Rome.
We ate at a restaurant right on the Piazza, and I would gladly take a restaurant that’s slightly touristy in exchange for the ambiance we got. I had bruschetta and risotto ai funghi – a very satisfying first dinner in Rome.
We ended the evening by walking to the Trevi Fountain. The fountain was chaotic and crowded, as expected, but I still loved the experience. My favorite part about it is actually the walk to it – you can hear the water before you can even see it, and it’s a fantastic sense of anticipation.
Our second day in Rome was primarily spent not in Rome at all, if you want to get technical about it. After a lazy morning (read: we got up late and didn’t rush to get out the door), we made our way to Vatican City in time to grab lunch before our guided tour of the museum.
Taking a guided tour of the Vatican was a pretty solid choice – we got to skip the ticket buying line, and we had someone to help us make sense of everything. The scope of the Vatican’s collection is pretty amazing – our guide even said that if you were to look at every piece of art housed in the Vatican for one minute, it would take you twelve years!
After the Vatican Museum, we wandered over to St. Peter’s Basilica. I hadn’t had a chance to actually go inside St. Peter’s on my last visit, so I was excited to finally get to see the interior, which was gorgeous, and Michelangelo’s Pieta, which was really moving. The size of St. Peter’s is also incredible – they have markers that show you where other churches would fit inside St. Peter’s. Pretty amazing.
From Vatican City, we took a taxi over to the Campo dei Fiori for dinner. Like Piazza Navona, I just love the atmosphere on this square – definitely a great place for a meal.
We ate a restaurant near the Campo dei Fiori, and it was a delicious meal: bruschetta to start, a delicious ravioli with pine nuts and pears, and baba rum for dessert. I particularly loved my pasta – the combination of pear with cheese is unbeatable.
As we walked back to our hotel after dinner, we passed by the Pantheon yet again, which was our touchstone during our Rome trip – we pretty much walked by it multiple times each day, going to and from our hotel. I snapped a few pictures of it in the fading light – it’s imposing during the day, but even lovelier at night.
We began our third day in Rome at the Borghese Gallery. This was the one site I hadn’t managed to cram into my first trip to Rome, primarily because it requires a reservation to get into the museum. And, may I just say, that’s a pretty brilliant concept. Over the last few years, I have fallen in love with art museums across Europe, but what I have not fallen in love with are the overwhelming crowds, clustering around the best paintings, obscuring my views, and making me sweat. Needless to say, the Borghese Gallery was a nice change of pace.
You couldn’t take pictures in the museum, so I have no photographic evidence of my favorite pieces – the Bernini sculptures. Before this museum, my interest in sculpture was pretty much confined to Michelangelo and Rodin, but I have to add Bernini to the list. I find art (and the emotions it evokes) pretty tough to describe, but what appealed to me the most about the sculptures was that they felt so emotional and real. For example – you can see little details, like fingers pressing into flesh, and it is completely lifelike and evocative.
After visiting the museum, we hung out in the Borghese gardens for a bit. I saw this quotation on the base of a statue, and I think it’s very true.
In the afternoon, we went to San Giovanni, which is one of the major churches that people make pilgrimages to in Rome. The church has the steps that were transferred from Jerusalem to Rome and that were, according to Catholic tradition, walked on by Jesus during the Passion. Today, people come to walk up the steps on their knees, stopping on each step to say a prayer. I’m not particularly religious, but there’s undeniably something pretty powerful about seeing so many people doing that.
My mom at San Giovanni:
After visiting the church, we headed over to the Pantheon and stopped at an outdoor cafe nearby to rest in the shade (and enjoy some gelato):
And then, after two days of walking by the Pantheon at night after it had closed, we finally arrived early enough in the day to actually go inside. When you stand inside, right in the middle of the Pantheon, I think it’s pretty much impossible not to wonder – how the hell did they manage to build this, way back in the day, without any modern technology? Truly remarkable.
From the Pantheon, we wandered across the Tiber River to the Trastevere neighborhood, which we explored for about an hour before heading to dinner.
My guidebook described the neighborhood as “crusty,” but I don’t know if that’s the word I would use. Maybe warm, or homey, or cozy. I liked the vibe. I liked the colors of the buildings – lots of pinks and oranges. But what I really liked? The neighborhood contained the restaurant – Trattoria da Lucia – where I had the most mind-blowing plate of spaghetti alla gricia EVER. Behold:
It looks pretty unassuming, right? But rest assured, it was magnificent. It was quite simple – spaghetti noodles, olive oil, pancetta, cheese, and maybe a sprinkle of magic. But it was delicious. Seriously, I dreamt about it for the rest of my trip. And as this was our last night in Rome – I definitely left on a high note.
So, thank you, Rome, for your lovely ruins and breathtaking art and fantastic ambiance. But thank you most of all for the spaghetti.