I was sixteen the first time I went to Europe. My mom’s friend was working in Barcelona at the time so my parents and I spent a week visiting her and another week seeing Austria, Germany, and Italy. We only got a few days in Italy, spending the night in Vernazza – part of the Cinque Terra – and one day in Florence. Even though I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, I still have vivid memories from that trip and have been wanting see more of the boot shaped peninsula since leaving it eighteen years ago. (eek!) So when I was living in Germany and my friend said he was planning a trip that would include Rome I had no problem inviting myself along.
I’m that person in the group who always wants to see the local museum or historic landmark on any trip, so obviously Rome was a high priority travel destination. Once I was actually in the city and I was fully immersed in history – it was almost overwhelming. There’s a huge difference between two hundred or even five hundred year old buildings in the United States or Germany and standing in a building built in the first century in Rome.
If you’ve traveled before (or, like, done anything with other people) you know that things don’t always work out the way you planned. Maybe you unknowingly plan your trip on a holiday weekend and underestimate the amount of venue closure, or are overwhelmed by the amount of tourists at a particular location, or fall for a busker’s scam, or find scaffolding covering the most desirable tourist attractions. All of these things happened while I was in Rome. But you know what? We still had fun. We made the most of our time and appreciated everything we had the time to see. Plus now there’s a ton of reasons to go back one day.
Hopefully this guide will help you plan your trip to Rome, and see that you can cram in a lot of stuff into a few days. Hopefully you will learn from my mistakes and have an awesome experience. And I hope you can see that speed bumps during a trip don’t have to hurt your experience.
I should mention that there is enough stuff to see in Rome to fill a month, and my list includes only what we had time for. Also, even if you skipped all the normal tourist attractions and just walked through the city you would fill up your camera memory with all the photos you’d be taking. There is no corner of the city that is not filled with something interesting to see.
A few notes: Churches are open to the public and free to enter, but close before sunset so plan accordingly. You can buy a three-day or week metro pass but you will find that you don’t need it because you will be walking everywhere and the metro is not as comprehensive as other European cities. It will be cheaper to buy a few rides over the course of the time you’re there. June is not the best time to go, it’s full of tourists and hot as Hades. Future trips will be planned in the off season, if anything for milder weather.
The Pantheon is probably best known from the Da Vinci Code and is not the Parthenon. If you continue to ask Italians for directions to the Parthenon they will start to give you dirty looks. Not that I know this from experience. Just guessing.
This was one of my favorite things from the trip. It was just insane to be standing inside a structure built in the second century. That means it was built some time between 118 – 128 AD. And it’s not in ruins. I still kind of can’t get over it.
Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps
Close to the Pantheon are two iconic monuments, the Fontana de Trevi and Piazza di Spagna, better known as the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Used in probably every movie ever set in Rome, they are must see attractions for most tourists and of course were on our list. However, when we found ourselves standing in front of them, we were less than impressed. The fountain was completely drained and covered in scaffolding, and the same was true for the Spanish Steps, not too far away. It was a disappointing start to our trip, and we would find more scaffolding in other parts of the city. Later, I found out the city had been under construction for quite awhile and continued for several more months after we left. It’s now free and clear so I’m looking forward to the return trip.
I think I was most excited to go to Vatican City on this trip. The Vatican includes St. Paul’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum. The Basilica (above) is the church, and the Museum consists of 54 galleries of art commissioned in the 16th century and of course, the Sistine Chapel. The size of the building alone is overwhelming, it could take you hours to see everything, but the amount of people inside was smothering. When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel there were at least 200 people inside. It took something away from the experience for me. Kind of like seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
The Basilica is free and once inside I felt like I was in a Dan Brown novel. For five euros you can climb to the top of the dome where you’ll get a great view of Saint Peter’s Square and Rome beyond. The website say there’s a dress code for women to wear clothing that covers their knees so I came prepared, but I saw several women with short shorts on, so maybe they aren’t too concerned about it.
The Vatican Museum is extremely popular and the line will be several hours long so it’s better to get tickets in advance. Even after getting inside walking around the museum is like making your way from your seat to the restroom and back during a major sporting event. Seriously cannot emphasize enough not going in summer.
We did find an additional part of the museum that holds Popemobiles of the past. It’s outside and not very obvious since it’s underground, but really cool to see all the ways the Pope was carted around before the glass bubble we all know and love. The best part was that there were only a few other people inside with us so it was a nice respite from the chaos in the museum above.
Altare della Patria – Alter of the Fatherland
Located at the top of a traffic circle in central Rome is a monstrous white marble structure that you might mistake for city hall or some other government building. If fact it is a monument built to honor Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. It’s the largest monument in Rome and it’s extremely ostentatious.
It does provide a nice view of the city and, if you’re so inclined, there’s the Museum of Italian Unification to check out. The monument is somewhat controversial because part of Capitoline Hill was destroyed to build it. Capitoline Hill is one of the 7 Hills of Rome and a cool church that backs up against the monument is one of the more unique I’ve seen. It was very open, almost cold inside and hanging from the 30 foot ceilings were about a hundred crystal chandeliers. Almost like it was ready for a ball or wedding.
If you walk down the steps from Capitoline Hill and head down toward the Tiber River, you’ll happen upon a neighborhood of ruins that includes the Temple of Apollo Sosiano and the Marcello Theater. This is the coolest part about the city, you can wander around without a destination and still find something awesome to look at.
The area known as the Roman Forum is the length of land between the Altar of the Homeland and the Colosseum. It was the center of ancient Rome and the ruins of several important government buildings are protected within the area. It almost seems to go on forever, there is so much to see. You can spend at least two hours here, more if you looked at every thing. Be sure to go up to the second level, there’s even more to see up there including a great view. Admission to the Forum can be purchased at the entrance and includes the Colosseum as well as several other museums.
One of the most famous landmarks in the world, the Colosseum was top of the list of must-sees in Rome. So of course, I could only get a few pictures in before my camera died. Tip: make sure your camera is charged before you leave the flat. But you know what? I think it let me appreciate being there just a bit more. Standing in a building built in the first century AD (older than the Pantheon) is astonishing. It’s so big! They have a very nice exhibit set up in one of the wings with artifacts and historical information which we appreciated. The Colosseum was another building under construction. It almost seemed like a cruel joke that all the major attractions were hidden under scaffolding during the busiest time of the year, like, who made that call? Have they already been fired? But after later learning that they had been halted because the government had basically run out of money, it was more sad than anything. I’ve heard that it was donations from major commercial companies that got them out of that mess and they are now finished with the construction.
This is also where I fell for the Roman hustle, by taking pictures with a dude dressed as a soldier and then having to pay for them. He just kind of jumped in with my friend as we walked down the street and started posing. I didn’t really think anything of it and after taking a couple shots he asked for five euro. Asked is the wrong word, it was more like I owed it to him. I guess I could have walked away but he probably would have followed and without knowing the actual rules I just coughed up the money and left a bit ashamed. If this is your jam then by all means, go for it! If you’d rather hold on to that cash, beware because they are everywhere.
Was Rome amazing? Yes! Was it overwhelming? Yes! Did it sometimes feel like you were in a third world country? Yes. Rome was a wonderful contradiction. An ancient city filled with historic treasures and too many things to explore in a short time. But equally true of this tourist town is how little the locals actually liked tourists. From the buskers on the street to the waiters who were yelling at potential customers to come in while simultaneously snubbing you after handing off the check, it’s much different than the U.S. But this is the side effect of travel – your world opens up a little bit each time you are taken out of your comfort zone. And all the rudeness aside, I still cannot get over how rad it was being in cradle of western civilization. And I cannot wait to go back.
How to keep it thrifty
Since getting to Europe from the States is going to be the most expensive part of your trip, planning a longer vacation visiting multiple countries is a good option. Once you’re in Europe you can either take the train or short, cheap flights between countries. I even took a bus from Germany to Prague. Rome is pretty far from the rest of Europe so a flight would be a quicker way to get there, but if you take the train you can stop at other cities like Florence or Milan or Venice. There are tons of cheap flights to Rome from other European countries. I took a flight that went out of Karlsruhe – about thirty minutes outside of Stuttgart.
For years, cheap accommodation has been limited to hostels. Nothing against bunking with 10 or 20 strangers and sleeping in metal bunk beds, (because lord knows, we’ve all done it) but older I’ve gotten the more I’ve cared about a good nights sleep rather than just the cheapest place to put my head. That’s why I’m so glad sites like Airbnb exist. You can rent a room in someone’s home or an entire apartment. When you’re going on a trip with friends, you can split the cost and save even more. There were four of us on this trip and we paid less than $40 each for the apartment we rented for three days. If you’re more adventurous you can try couchsurfing where you stay with someone for free. It might be an actual couch or it might be an extra room, but it’s free! I have never personally used it but I have many friends who have and recommend it.
Lastly, a great option for keeping your vacation thrifty is to buy food from the grocery store and prepare it at home. And if you rent an Airbnb or stay at a hostel you’ll have use of a kitchen. This by no means limits your local food options, we stumbled upon a indoor farmers market and bought meat and bread and some smears and made sandwiches. They were delicious!
Bonus Tip! Carry a refillable water bottle with you to fill up from the many fountains around Rome. The water is free, cold, refreshing and a blessing in the sweltering streets.
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