From the first moment I set eyes on Italy, I knew it would be special to me. I’ve always wanted to go back – for the art, for the food, for the weather, because I want to escape from being an adult. But experiencing all of it with my sister recently made this without a doubt the best vacation I’ve ever been on. Most of the photos in this post are hers, because I lost my phone during this trip. So, without further ado, let us guide you through a great four days of touring Rome. The comments in brackets are my sister, Kiana’s.
Day One: Trastevere, Trevi, and Cats
At six o’clock in the morning, we hopped on a plane, in cold, rainy Ireland, and three hours later, we were in beautiful, sultry Rome. As we got off the plane at Ciampino Airport, I could feel the thick, almost breathable air hit me like a wave. We got a taxi and drove through the city. The last time I visited Rome, we’d stayed in the area outside Ciampino, about 20 minutes outside of the city center, but I don’t think it’s worth it to save money on hostel or hotel costs if you end up wasting a lot of time trying to actually get where you want to go.
One of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city is Trastevere, with its winding streets and colorful trattorias. I’d gotten us a hostel right in the center. And let me tell you, Orsa Maggiore For Women Only (sorry, guys) really delivered. In fact, all of our hostels in Italy were top-notch. This one was a beautiful old villa in the heart of Trastevere, just minutes from the Tiber River, along which Kiana and I tried to run every morning as a start to our day.
That first day, we went out to get some lunch. As we passed through the neighborhood, we saw amazing frescoes everywhere – on the walls, in alcoves, on the facades of buildings.
When we found the area with lots of restaurants, Kiana immediately said yes to the first guy we passed, who offered free air conditioning and a giordano, or back garden, to sit in. I explained that it’s always best to wait until you get out of the super-touristy areas before deciding where to eat. If someone has to beg you to come to their restaurant, it’s probably not the best one. But that’s the thing about Italy: almost every single meal is a good one, whether or not you go to those places. Oftentimes, it’s just about price, because the food is always going to be good. [You totally didn’t tell anyone about how there were the guy and the girl working there and they were all beautiful and flirty and how we planned their whole life out for them. He has been dropping hints for the last few weeks about how much he liked her, and finally she gives in. They move into a beautiful rooftop apartment in Trastevere and open their own restaurant. They have six kids and never argue and love each other faithfully until they both die on the same day.]
This was Kiana’s first time tasting margherita pizza, the most basic and delicious Italian flavor (which we don’t have in America), and I’ll let her describe it: [Margherita pizza is now what I picture when people say less is more. I’m used to American pizzas which are fluffy crust, lots of tomato sauce and tons of cheese, but imagine spare sauce, cheese and crust, but when you eat it pure heaven. I still miss it so much…]
After lunch, we walked the short way into the city. It’s well known that I’m an absolutely terrible navigator. Most of the time, I use Google Maps on my phone, but our friend Jackie wanted to try her hand at reading maps, so we’d picked one up from reception. Incidentally, she did a great job getting us around. [You also need to talk about how easy walking around Rome is. You think it’s going to literally take all day to get anywhere, but five seconds and you’re at the Pantheon or five more steps and you’re at the Trevi Fountain and so on.] We wandered around the many piazzas, looking for something famous, until we came to a place that Kiana had mentioned before from the research she’d done, and that really intrigued me.
The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary is a place for unwanted or stray cats in the heart of the city. Tucked into a corner of the ruins of the Senate where Julius Caesar was assassinated, it provides a great place for the more able-bodied ones to roam around – they’re the only creatures allowed inside the fragile ruins.
The sanctuary is home to 150 adorable balls of fluff who are well cared for by the staff. You can come in and spend time with them, like we did, adopt a cat in person, or “adopt from afar,” which means you pay to sponsor one of the cats at the shelter. They also have a really cute shop where you can buy cat-themed calendars, tote bags, or cups. All proceeds go to support the shelter.
What I like about this place is that potential adopters go through a screening process to make sure the cats are going to a good home. Check out their website here.
We met so many furry friends who were missing eyes, were deaf, or had only three legs. People tend to get rid of these “defective” pets, which is horrible. Everyone deserves a chance. Or, as this graffiti outside the center puts it:
We emerged covered in cat fur and feeling a little better about the world. It was time to explore the city a little more fully.
I have two regrets about the first trip I took to Rome. One is that I didn’t see St. Peter’s Basilica, and the other is that I didn’t go inside the Pantheon. This is the stupidest thing I can imagine, because both are completely free. And even though the Basilica has a huge line outside of it, you can get right into the Pantheon, even at the busiest times of day.
The Pantheon, or the Church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs, is a former Roman temple, remade into a church by the Catholics. It should be said that, although neither of us bears any ill will to the Catholic religion, and in fact have a lot of respect for it, Kiana was very disappointed that they seem to have left their mark on so many historic edifices in Rome which started out as secular monuments. However, I was pretty enchanted with the mix of pagan and holy. The Pantheon’s been a church since the seventh century. Before that, it was a pagan temple commissioned by Hadrian to replace one from Augustus’ time that had burned down. [The Pantheon is completely made out of concrete; note that because it is so impressive. Also the floor is slightly domed so that when it rains it won’t puddle on the floor. They think it also used to house a statue for each of the gods but that they were removed when the Catholic church took it over.]
The first thing you notice when you walk in is the ceiling, which is usually open to the sky. It’s the largest unsupported dome in the world, and the oculus, or eye, in the center is still the only source of light in the church, other than candles.
“Pantheon” means that this temple was dedicated to all the gods, but nobody really knows why it’s survived so well. It’s the best preserved out of any old Roman building.
Also located here is the tomb of Raphael (much, much more on him later), which is adorned with the Madonna of the Rock statue by Lorenzetto.
Near the Pantheon is the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, which of course we went inside. In Rome, the churches (besides the Basilica) are often under-visited because there’s simply too much to see. But this one was gorgeous. I can never decide which country’s churches are my favorite, but the ones in Italy are usually done by famous artists and architects that I’ve heard about all my life.
Sant’Ignazio has some relatively unknown but still beautiful frescoes by the Jesuit priest and architect Andrea Pozzo, whose greatest work is the ceiling of the nave.
[One of his greatest known works is actually the fake dome that he painted in the center.]
One tip about churches in Rome (and really anywhere there are famous Catholic churches): if you’re wearing clothes that don’t cover the shoulder or the midriff, expect to either wear your own scarf to cover them or put on the cover they provide you. We encountered this in both Rome and Florence, and the amount of people complaining about it was ridiculous. I’ve detailed before how it’s polite to wear a headscarf inside Orthodox churches, and men were required to wear yarmulkes inside the synagogues in Prague. If you want to go inside someone’s place of worship, you have to be prepared to play by their rules. There you go. Rant over.
After the church, we headed for a Roman landmark I already knew well: the Fontana di Trevi. It’s one of the most iconic landmarks in the city, and for good reason.
By Roman standards, the fountain is relatively new – only completed in 1762. You may know it from every film about Rome ever. The tradition is to throw a coin over the right shoulder with your left hand – which means you’ll come back. And it worked for me, so hey. It’s so popular that they estimate about 3,000 euro are thrown in every day. But you don’t need to feel bad about it, because that money is being used to fund a supermarket for the needy.
Naturally, we stopped to get some gelato at one of my favorite places, Antica Gelateria, for some stracciatella, a flavor which is like vanilla with little chocolate chips inside. After cooling off, we strolled back along the Tiber, which separates Trastevere from the main center of Rome. The city is truly built on marble, or at least most of its art is.
We headed back to our hostel for a nice, roasting Italian evening and tried to get some sleep.
Day Two: The Vatican
In the morning, Kiana and I went for a run along the Tiber. Exercise is one of my coping mechanisms for dealing with depression, but it’s much easier to actually do on vacation when you have a buddy. It was so peaceful to run past the riverside restaurants setting up for the day, passing Italians out for their morning exercise. And it was good to talk after so long without seeing her. One of the hardest parts of living abroad is the constant pull you feel toward family, while at the same time feeling the pull toward travel.
After our run, we went to get crostate, one of my favorite breakfasts from my previous visit: little jam tarts with lattice tops. [Um, hello, the hot bakery man who spoke English so that I could order the rather heavenly doughnut with the cinnamon sugar?] We ate these as we walked to our first stop of the day: the Musei Vaticani.
It took us the first half of the day just to get through the various courtyards, shady rooms, and halls that house the Vatican’s collection of religious artifacts, art, and oddities.
First, to get logistics out of the way: book your ticket online. Unlike in Florence, we didn’t find a city pass that worked for us, so we booked everything separately. You won’t need a ticket for St. Peter’s Basilica.
The main reason most people visit the Museums is that they want to see Michaelangelo’s famed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. And trust me, that alone is worth it. You go into the chapel, a long, barrel-shaped room, and stand with about 300 other people, marveling over the detail, and not even caring that your neck is about to snap off from craning it. I’ve already described my first impressions in another post, so here’s Kiana’s take:
[The Sistine Chapel is larger and smaller than I imagined.When you see the people that Michelangelo painted you understand exactly why the Pope wouldn’t let him get out of it. God-given talent is the only way I can describe it. All of the people that he painted look so real that it wouldn’t really surprise you if they started moving. Breathtaking.]
There’s plenty more to see in the museums themselves, however. My favorites are the papal apartments, in which Raphael’s The School of Athens is displayed,
and the ceiling in the Maps Hall, which looks something like this:
After our visit to the Museum, we stepped out into the sunlight (and around all the street salesmen who tried to get us to buy a tour on the way in), and checked out the artists selling their paintings of St. Peter’s Square, the Piazza Navonna, and others. Kiana, of course, bought a painting.
And then it was time for the part I’d been waiting for for three years: the Basilica di San Pietro, or St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m a huge admirer of Michelangelo – the Sistine Chapel, of course, but his sculpture is my favorite – especially the Pieta. Even if you’re not religious, or don’t know the story of the Crucifixion, you can still see and feel a mother’s agony as she holds the body of her son. The figures are so unbelievably lifelike, and yet so ethereal.
So why didn’t I see it the first time, you ask? The Basilica can be off-putting to tourists in the summer, because of the long line and the heat. But fear not, they have guys in the center of the square whose only purpose is to spray grateful tourists with a hose hooked up to a truck. Did I run into the spray and squeal like a five-year-old? Absolutely I did. Shut up.
The church itself is free to enter. The few metal detectors are what makes the wait so long. But if there’s such a thing as a line worth standing in, this is it. The building is breathtaking – and on purpose. It’s the largest church in the world, after all. The huge scale and soaring ceilings are meant to draw the eye upward toward God.
My favorite part of the church is the grand altar created by Bernini, who was one of the major architects, along with Michelangelo, Donato Bramante, and Carlo Maderno. According to tradition, the church is also the final resting place of St. Peter. Bernini is said to have wanted to make “a mighty throne for the Apostle.”
I also loved Bernini’s baldacchino, the huge bronze pavilion in the center of this photo.
It’s situated right underneath the dome, so the sunlight falls directly on it, and it’s beautiful. But the best part was when I was standing there with Kiana and the organ began to sound through the church with Toccata and Fugue, my favorite organ piece.
We walked around for about an hour or so, just trying to take in all of the beautiful architecture and sarcophagi and sculptures. Every corner showed us something new.
The church wasn’t done giving up its secrets yet, though. After spotting some people roaming around the dome above our heads, I found out from a caretaker that you can climb it, and the bell tower, for an extra fee.
The view is even more spectacular from the dome. You can’t walk all the way around it, like I could with the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but you can see everything below you almost as if you’re watching it from the heavens. I should have stayed there, it turns out, because what was coming next was not good.
It’s not something I make a point of broadcasting, but I’m extremely claustrophobic. It’s not even the feeling of tight spaces, so much – it’s more the feeling of being trapped. And that’s exactly what I was as we squeezed through the narrow passageways with people both in front and behind us. There were points where I had to grip Kiana’s shoulders and close my eyes so I didn’t have to look, which of course she mocked me for. I powered through, though, because I thought that when I got to the top, I’d be treated to a great view and some fresh air. One of those things happened.
The space up top was so crowded with people that we headed back down pretty quickly. We stood in the square to take photos while the sun went down, and then went to a riverside restaurant that was thankfully open-air for some delicious pizza.
Day Three: Strength and Honor!
The next morning, after we pried our eyes open, we headed off to the Roman Forum. It’s important to note that the first time I was in Rome, we used the metro a lot, and you can definitely do this, but it’s not at all necessary. Everything is within walking distance, like Kiana said, and more importantly, you miss large parts of the city if you’re underground most of the time.
The Forum was also included in the ticket we bought to the Colosseum (the s.u.p.e.r. ticket, which gives you one entrance to the Colosseum and two to the Forum). I recommend buying tickets online in advance, so you can bypass the queue. Failing that, buy them at the Palatine Hill ticket office instead of at the Colosseum.
The Forum was the city center of ancient Rome, although mostly only fragments survive today. Don’t worry, though; it’s enough of a glimpse into daily life to be fascinating. My personal favorites were the Temple of Saturn, built in 497 BC, and the Temple of Vesta, near which the House of the Vestal Virgins, who tended the sacred fire of the goddess Vesta, was located.
I also liked the nearly-complete Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which is a temple dedicated by the former to his wife, Faustina, who became a deity along with her husband. Later, the Church took it over and turned it into the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda.
It was scorching hot that day, and we had to stop several times to rest in the shade of a stone pine, but we made it all the way around. [The reason it took so long was that I was brimming over with all these facts that I just had to share with you guys every time I saw something I recognized.] We were greatly helped in this by the fact that throughout Rome, there are public spigots where you can fill up your water bottle free of charge with delicious, cold water. USE THEM.
Eventually we walked up to the Farnese Gardens. I love looking at pretty plants, but there wasn’t much to see here, as a lot of it was under construction. However, it does provide an amazing view of the city. In the background of the video below, you can see the remains of the Basilica of Maxentius.
Next, we moved on to the Colosseum. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Roman customs, mostly the open savagery. Other civilizations were more brutal, of course, but nobody else really made it into a pastime the way the Romans did. And the Colosseum is ground zero for bloodsport.
The Colosseum is just as large as any standard stadium today – it was built to hold 50,000 people – and took only 9 years to build, which is still quite a feat. [The Colosseum was actually smaller than I expected.] Once inside, you go up a flight of stone steps, and suddenly, you’re there, standing where thousands of spectators stood to watch gladiators battle it out.
While we explored, I told the girls all the fun facts I knew about the Colosseum, because this is the only time all the useless knowledge in my head comes in handy. [Sure, you had a lot of facts, but not even you knew how it started with sanctifying graves with blood.] No, I did not know that. What I did know was this: gladiators were fed on a special diet of mostly grains in order to add an extra layer of fat to their bodies. This was for two reasons: to protect them from serious wounds, and to make the wounds look more serious by gushing blood. Also, that scene in the Disney version of Hercules where Hades yells at Pain and Panic for sporting Herc-themed sandals and sports beverages? Not so far from the truth. Gladiators did endorsements, just like modern athletes. It’s even thought that there were billboards in ancient Rome.
After the long time spent in the shade, we went inside for some cool air and good food at L’Hostaria Al Gladiatore. Here, I introduced the girls to bruschetta pomodoro (crostini with fresh tomatoes and olive oil), my favorite appetizer of all time. Also, a very attractive waiter told Jackie she had pretty eyes, and we teased her about that for the rest of the trip. [Woah, woah, woah. Yeah, he was super hot, but you totally forgot to mention the part where you and Jackie went “to the bathroom” and came back with your hair down and combed trying to look better for our waiter.] Well, I’m sorry you’re apparently blind, Kiana.
As we walked back outside, it looked like it was going to rain. This was very surprising, because Rome isn’t exactly known for monsoons. Nevertheless, we went to the very much outdoor Altare della Patria, a not-so-classical monument located near the Forum, hoping the weather would hold.
The Altare is dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy, and is pretty much universally hated by all Romans. For one thing, they destroyed an old medieval neighborhood to create it, and for another, it looks like this:
It’s not that it’s ugly, it’s just that it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the Roman skyline. It’s blindingly white and absolutely enormous. That said, it’s got a bunch of really cool sculptures dedicated to Italian soldiers and freedom fighters throughout the ages.
As we began walking home, it started to rain. Our legs were absolutely killing us by this point, but we found some shelter in the Capitoline Museum, which Kiana had wanted to see for forever, and I had heard about before I left for Ireland. [I basically forced you guys to go to that museum. We should’ve taken it slower at the end of that day.]
This museum dates from 1471, when a Pope (Sixtus IV) donated some of his private collection to the people of Rome and housed it on the hill. I didn’t know much more about it than that its collection now includes The Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture which commemorates the defeat of the Gauls (Celts) of Anatolia (modern Turkey) by Attalus, a Greek king. The sculpture is known for its lifelike expression of agony.
We also found a number of other cool things:
The absolute best thing, though, was finding a painting that I already knew and loved and didn’t expect to see, Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene.
And thus ended the third day.
[You skipped everything cool that happened that night! Trastevere?! Ring any bells? We went back to the hostel to wait out the rainstorm. We took a nap, relaxed a little bit, you know, and then we went out to see the night markets that night. We got gelato (again) and we saw the wonderful guitar player who had a bunny on his shoulder that he would coo to in between songs.]
My bad. There are no pictures to go along with that story, probably because SOMEONE was too busy freaking out over how cute the bunny was. Here’s Kiana’s sketch of our little neighborhood:
Day Four: So Many Piazzas
The last day of any trip is always a good day to gather loose ends, visit whatever you didn’t get to visit, and also to get one last look at your favorite places. Luckily for us, we’d left some pretty cool stuff for the end.
The first place we went was right in Trastevere, only a block from our hostel: the Villa Farnesina. This is a relatively unknown Renaissance structure built for some banker. The thing that makes it special is the frescoes by Raphael in the loggia, or long hall: The Triumph of Galatea and The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche:
The villa is absolutely covered with these beautiful frescoes, surrounded by a high wall and lovely Italian gardens that we walked through in the early morning, when the air was still cool.
When the day started getting hotter, we began wandering to the places we hadn’t seen yet. First, the Piazza Navonna (the one with all the fountains), where we heard the clock strike the hour in the bell tower.
[The plaza was absolutely picturesque. We were there early in the afternoon, there was a gentleman playing traditional guitar outside one of the restaurants surrounding the area. Off in a corner a man was waving giant bubbles around for a group of children who were giggling. The sun was shining and literally all I could think was that when I pictured Italy this is exactly what I thought of.]
Then we made our way to the Piazza di Spagna, known in English as the Spanish Steps, which I was excited for, because they had been closed for construction the first time I came.
The Steps were originally built to connect the Spanish embassy with the church at the top, the Trinità dei Monti. We got some what I like to call “slap pizza,” pizza cut into squares, folded in two, and wrapped in paper, from one of my favorite places in Rome, Mariotti, which unfortunately doesn’t have a website, but which is right outside the metro stop on the Viccolo del Bottino. Pro tip: you CANNOT eat on the Spanish Steps. Don’t try it, or a policeman will come and make gestures at you. Better to eat by the fountain, or climb the steps to chow down while taking in great views of the city.
After climbing the steps, we went into the church to sit and hear the organ being played. It’s such a clean, white space, full of light.
We hit one more square on our quest to see all of Rome: the Piazza del Popolo, which is absolutely enormous. Jackie had wanted to see this one, but after the graceful fountains of the Piazza Navonna, and the chaotic atmosphere of the Piazza di Spagna, this one was kind of disappointing. It wasn’t ugly, it was just that there was so much empty space that could have been used for fountains, or gardens, or something, but was just cobblestones. Apparently, this used to be a popular place for executions, so appropriate, I guess?
We sat for a second on the fountain, admiring the view into a nearby villa, before getting some more gelato (with cookies!) and heading back to our hostel to take a short nap.
That night, we planned to go on a night photo shoot of some of our favorite places in the city. We started out on the hill above Trastevere, where we stumbled upon a wedding taking place at the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola:
After making our way to the panorama and shooing away numerous flower sellers (this is a common scam, they’ll give you a “free” flower and follow you around until you pay them for it), we got some great dusky views of the city. These “view” moments are often the best part of traveling for me: they give me time to reflect and think about all the things I’ve enjoyed.
We ended up spending almost four hours wandering around. We saw everything from a harpist near the Castel Sant’Angelo to two jazz musicians wearing panda and horse heads playing in a bar. Here’s some of the greatest hits:
After walking wearily back to our hostel and realizing we had a six a.m. train to catch the next morning, we ended our trip to Rome just as it began: with excitement for our next stage.
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