Our first stop in Italy was Rome. We flew the red-eye into Milan, then hopped on a high-speed train to Rome as soon as our flight landed. I wanted to be sure to be in Rome for my 30th birthday. I honestly had no desire to actually see Milan, we only flew into the city because that was a requirement of the amazing airline deal we got.
The two cities I had always wanted to visit, and that I was most excited to see were Rome and Florence. I don’t know which one I was most excited to see. By the time we got to Rome, we had been traveling for 24 hours and were exhausted. We both decided to just get some sleep and be well rested for the next day, my birthday.
When planning our trip, I wanted to make sure our first day in Rome was laid back and stress free. I knew we would be tired from traveling and I didn’t want us to rush around from place to place with a schedule. We got up, got breakfast, and just walked the city. We visited the sites you can just walk up to and got a feel for the city. Walking around Rome was wonderful. It wasn’t dirty or trashy like I’d heard from other travelers. The locals were by far the nicest that we encountered on the entire trip, and I don’t think it was just an act to get money from tourists. They were so genuinely warm and friendly. Any concerns I had about a language barrier quickly disappeared – even if someone didn’t speak English, and if my broken, terrible Italian didn’t work, everyone was still so eager to help us and figure out what we were trying to communicate. Some of the interrelations were quite funny, and left us all laughing.
Our first stop was to walk to the Colosseum, which was less than a mile from our hotel. It was amazing to walk a block from our front door and see the ancient site rising above us.
Our next stop was the Trevi Fountain, which was undergoing some reconstruction. The fountain was drained of water, and you could walk through the restoration site on a little bridge. I didn’t mind I didn’t get to see the fountain in its full working glory, it was still beautiful. The area around the fountain was a great area to walk around. There were tons of great restaurants, some good souvenir stands, and fun shops – you just had to be careful of the guy’s selling selfie sticks. They were EVERYWHERE, swinging the sticks in the air.
From the Trevi Fountain, we walked to the nearby Pantheon. I have always wanted to see the ancient temple turned church. It did not disappoint. It is 2000 years old and the best preserved building of Ancient Rome. It is absolutely stunning due to both its size and design. It’s amazing that they were able to construct such a beautiful building so long ago, and build it well enough for it to still be standing in such great condition.
I was breathless once I stepped in and I saw the beam of sunlight streaming in from the oculus. Pictures really can’t do it justice, it’s something you have to see in person. Despite the tourists milling around below, the light streaming in creates an ethereal feel to the entire chamber, settling a peace over everything and everyone. An unrelated plus side to the Parthenon is that it was free, and there wasn’t any line to get in.
Walking around Rome, you see a lot of nasoni – little water fountains. I had researched the nasoni before our trip and I could not wait to use one. The water is safe for drinking and incredibly cold and refreshing, coming from a reservoir 70 miles outside the city. They are a great way to stay hydrated while touring the city, and you can refill a bottle, saving money on bottled water.
After walking the city all day, David and I saw a local store owner come out of her store, walk across the street to a nasone, and drink from it. I’d wanted to drink from one all day, but that was all the push I needed. A local did it, so I wanted to also. The water was so cold and refreshing. It was like drinking from a fresh spring. It was delicious. I was even able to convince germaphobe David to give it a try and he agreed it tasted wonderful. When in Rome . . .
On day one I was also sure to get gelato. Luckily we had a great gelato place next to our hotel and it was delicious. Definitely worth all the hype, and better than ice cream in my opinion.
For our second day in Rome, I had planned two tours – The Vatican in the morning, and the Colosseum and Roman Forum in the afternoon.
If you want to visit the Vatican, I definitely recommend booking one of their tours – it was worth every single penny, and I’m saying that from a general standpoint, since I’m not even Christian, let alone Catholic. I also recommend booking the tour ahead of time, rather than the day of, otherwise you will be stuck in a line longer than any I have ever seen. I’m not kidding. I was advised to book the earliest tour I could, because there are less tourist and crowds in the morning. Ours was at 8:30, and the advice I had received was definitely accurate. By the time we were done, the entire square was packed.
The Vatican was by far my favorite part of our ENTIRE Italy trip. No question. We did a 3 hour tour that included the museums of the Vatican, as well as St. Peter’s Basilica – the actual church portion of the Vatican. I was a history major in college with an emphasis on renaissance Europe, and a minor in humanities, both areas which involved a heavy focus on the Vatican, as well as it’s art. I had always wanted to see it, having studied it so much, and I was not disappointed. The array of art was absolutely unlike any I have ever seen, spanning so many periods. There was so much, I simply couldn’t photograph it all, or include it all here.
One fresco I have always wanted to see in person is the School of Athens, which is located in the former papal apartments. Having studied all it’s symbolism, finally seeing it in personal was very exciting for me. All of the papal rooms painted by Raphael were beautiful, but this was by far my favorite of his frescoes.
The School of Athens
I was less excited to see the Sistine Chapel than other parts of the Vatican. I know, EVERYONE wants to see the Sistine Chapel, but I always assumed it was over hyped. I was wrong. It was everything they say it is, and more. You can’t take pictures inside the chapel, so I don’t have any to share, but if you get the chance to see it, do not pass it up. It’s one of those things you should see before you die, even if you don’t care a fig about art or religion. David never took an art history class, could care less about most of the art we saw, but he said that the Sistine Chapel was absolutely amazing. He said it actually have him an appreciation for art, and the rest of trip he was actually interested in the other pieces of art I made him see.
One interesting aspect of the Vatican tour was that although we went through what used to be the private rooms for Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, perhaps one of the most infamous Popes in history (and not for good reasons), the tour guide completely glazed over his history and legacy, as if to act like he never existed. His rooms weren’t even preserved, and instead are cavernous rooms, with empty walls, free of any frescoes – they were long since removed – and housing modern art. None of Borgia’s notoriously extravagant decorations or touches remain and the tour guide was eager to rush us through the rooms. I doubt we would have even seen them if they could have used an alternate route.
Our tour guide told us that the current Pope, Pope Francis has opened up more of the Vatican than had been opened to visitors before. He gave up his freedom to roam the galleries so that the public could see and benefit from all the art collected by Popes and The Church over the centuries.
After the Museum tour, we headed to the basilica.
When we walked in, it took my breath away, even more so than the Pantheon. My pictures do not do it justice. It is so grand and ornate, you don’t know where to look first. The picture below was taken from the middle of the basilica. It is much larger than just what I pictured. It’s massive.
The cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica
The canopy over the tomb of St. Peter and directly under the cupola.
I have this weird and morbid fascination with crypts. I guess maybe because in the Jewish faith, we don’t have crypts. Or I’m just dark. I really wanted to see the crypt below St. Peter’s, especially since it contains the tomb of St. Peter. It is also the resting place of Popes that were not subsequently sainted after their death (those are placed upstairs in the basilica). It took David and I a while to find the stairs down to the crypt. We had to ask 3 separate Vatican employees and aimlessly wander before we found it. No wonder it was so hard – the staircase is hidden behind a huge column.
Understandably, we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the crypt since it is a resting place, but if you ever get the chance, go down there. It isn’t creepy at all. It’s just really interesting, especially St. Peter’s tomb.
In the basilica, along the walls, there are also the bodies of saints, as I mentioned above. Some of them are in glass coffins so you can actually see them. Don’t worry, nothing gory, their faces and hands are covered so you don’t actually see any exposed body parts. I was so fascinated by the practice of preserving the dead for the faithful to see. Again, it is a practice so different from those of my faith, I can’t help but be curious and interested in it.
Of course I had to take an obligatory picture of the Swiss Guard.
I was curious about everyone working at the Vatican, and wanting to avoid getting a practiced answer, I questioned our tour guide at the Colosseum whether everyone working at the Vatican was Catholic. I was curious whether it was a requirement. This tour guide was born and raised in Rome, and grew up singing choir in the Sistine Chapel, so I trust she knows a thing or two. She told me everyone working in Vatican City must be Catholic, practicing, in good standing, and much attend church every Sunday as well as do confession once a week. Additionally, they must be married to a Catholic, and cannot get divorced or they will lose their job.
After the Vatican, David and I headed over to the Colosseum for our second tour of the day. Right now they have the underground tunnels of the Colosseum open for tours so you can see where they kept prisoners, gladiators, and animals. Unfortunately those tours were all booked so we had to do the regular one.
The site is truly amazing. I loved being able to see history in physical form. It’s like looking back in time 2,000 years. It seems impossible that the ancient Romans were able to build the Colosseum, let alone that it is still standing today, even if partially in ruins.
The outer walls have fallen in some areas.
View from the Plebeian seats.
After the Colosseum, our tour headed over to the Roman Forum, the site of Ancient Roman ruins. It was really an amazing experience to know I was walking where Ancient Romans once walked during their daily routines – where Julius Caesar may have walked.
The first stop in the forum was the Basilica Aemilia where Ancient Romans shopped. The brick building behind the ruins is the Curia, where the Roman Senate met. It’s not the building where Julius Caesar was actually killed though. At that time, the Curia had burned in a fire and was being rebuilt so the Senate met in a temporary building outside the forum.
Next we got to see the stone upon which Julius Caesar was cremated. People still leave offerings to him, usually in the form of coins and flowers. It’s located on the site of a temple that was dedicated to him after his death. He was a man turned god.
A 2,000 year old road that is still in fantastic working condition.
All in all, Rome exceeded my expectations. It was absolute heaven for a history nerd like me.
In case you want some ideas for your own trip, I’ve included my recommendations below:
Our Hotel: Duca d’Alba The hotel was centrally located and walking distance to everything we needed and wanted to see, including the train station, which was very convenient. The room was a good size, clean, comfortable, and the bathroom was newly updated. The staff was incredibly nice and helpful. I can’t say enough good things about them.
Must See Sights: The Vatican. If you see nothing else in Rome, you need to see the Vatican.
Best Restaurant: The best places we ate at in Rome were Er Faciolaro near the Pantheon, where I had the best calzone of my life. The dough was unlike anything I have ever had.