Over two Millenia ago, the world was ruled by the Roman Empire. From England to Africa and from Syria to Spain, one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law. After 2760 years since its foundation, Rome still captures travelers imagination. We got lured into this magical city and spent 4 days waving through time in the form of ruins and history, learning about the most powerful empire of all times and its legacy.
We visited some of the major attractions: Colosseum, Vatican City, Ancient Rome, Pantheon, etc. I was in Rome back in summer of 2004 as a student and it was packed with tourists, huge lines and incredible heat. This time I returned with my husband and with some experience. There were still huge lines, lots of tourists and instead of the heat, it was very cold. However, we did more research and therefore were more prepared. We are proud of some smart choices we made (thanks to Rick Steves and the help of Google) and even though those choices required to spend a little bit of more of money, they saved us a lot of time and allowed us to see more places and have more fun. The good news is that I will be sharing those tips with you here so you can also make the best from your trip to this wonderful city.
Day 1, December 28th
We arrived in Rome in the afternoon on December 28th. After getting the keys and a tour of the Airbnb apartment we rented, we headed out to explore the city which seems to have a special and romantic charm at night. The apartment was walking distance from the Colosseum, so that was our first stop. It was closed but we simply wanted to admire it during the night. After that, we requested an Uber and headed to Trastevere, a very colorful and lively neighborhood, especially at night.
Our next stop was the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s oldest church. Built in the 4th century AD, right when the Christianity was legalized. It was partially destroyed by fire during the sack of Rome in 410, then repaired and rededicated to the Virgin Mary by Pope Celestine (422-32) and it underwent several reparations. Then, in the 12th century it was totally rebuilt by Pope Innocent II (1130-43), using materials from the ancient Baths of Caracalla. Most of the present building dates from this era, with the portico and some other remodeling from the 19th century. The church keeps a relic of Saint Apollonia (her head) and a portion of the Holy Sponge. Among the burials in the church are Pope Callixtus I and Lorenzo Cardinal Campeggio.
We arrived just in time to enjoy a “free concert” since the church choir was there practicing. So after listening to the Christmas songs and walking around the church, our stomachs reminded us it was time to eat. Trastevere offers endless options to enjoy a Roman dinner. From trattorias to fancy restaurants, it is not hard to feel overwhelmed by so many possibilities. We had Rick Steve’s book, but we decided to explore on our own and simply stepped in the place we thought looked right which happened to be La Scala. The tables were almost full and we didn’t hear anyone speaking English, only Italian so for us that was a good sign.
The food was great. To our surprise they had a whole menu with Truffles we were immediately sold and proceeded to “truffled” everything. We had burrata with truffles, gnocchi with truffles and fettuccine with truffles. Can’t get enough truffles! We love truffles so much we are thinking about going back to Italy this year and arrange a truffle hunting expedition.
Day 2, December 29th
The next morning we had planned to go to the Colosseum & Ancient Rome. Here’s my Rome sightseeing Tip #1: Smart travelers do save money and time by investing in the Roma Pass. With this card you can skip the loooong lines at the Colosseum and the Forum. The lines are huge, sometimes up to 2 hours, depending at what time you arrive. We paid 70euros for 2 “Roma Pass” which is valid for 3 days. We bought them at a kiosk in front of the Colosseum and we think we may have paid 10euros more than if we have bought it online or at the official TI office. But we were in a hurry and really didn’t want to waste more time walking to the TI office.
What’s included in the Roma Pass?
- Free admission to the first two sights AND you get to skip the line
- Discount on the **rest sights within the three-day window
- 3-day transit pass valid on all buses and metro within Rome
**The following sights are covered (or discounted) with the Pass:
- Colosseum and Palatine Hill
- Roman Forum
- Borghese Gallery (still need to make a reservation online or by phone)
- Capitoline Museums, Castel Sant’ Angelo, Ara Pacis, Etruscan Museum
- Baths of Caracalla
- Trajan’s Market
- Montemartini Museum
- Museum of Roman Civilization
- Some of the Appian Way sights
If you will be visiting any two of the major sights in a 3-day period, then getting the pass totally makes sense. In order to take advantage of the Roma Pass (and save money), visit the two most expensive sights first, such as the Colosseum (with the Forum) and the National Museum. Make sure you skip the line at the Colosseum! That’s part of the deal. Sure, you will still need to make the line with anyone else who also bought the Pass, but it’s definitely shorter and faster than those staying in line without it.
Tip #2: If you have a smart phone or iPad, then I highly recommend you to download Rick Steve’s audio tours of Rome: Colosseum, Ancient Rome, Trastevere, Jewish Ghetto, all of them! They are free, you can listen to them from the convenience of your smart phone (don’t forget your headphones!) and you can visit the sights at your own pace.
After the Colosseum and Forum, we headed to Piazza Venezia to go to the top of Altare della Patria (also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) using the new panoramic elevator. While at the top of Vittorio Emmanuel Monument in Rome, A guy asked Alexis if he could record something… Next thing we see is he pulling an engagement ring and him and his girl start crying. I get into my cameraman role and interview them. She said yes! Hopefully I get invited to the wedding in Israel, but even if we don’t (which most likely will be the case) we wish all the happiness to this couple and we are so happy we were witnesses of such special moment.
Day 3, December 30th
Our first stop was Piazza del Campidoglio, which we missed the day before. Wanted to see the stairs designed by Michelangelo and the réplica of the huge statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, which apparently Michelangelo despised.
After that, we headed to the Pantheon. But before, Alexis stopped by a barber shop we found on the way to get a hair cut. He is into this strange quest of getting a hair cut in every city we visit. The man was very friendly and he talked to us about a friend of his who became a priest and now lives in Puerto Rico. He said he comes to visit every year and always brings Puerto Rican coffee with him.
Now we headed to the Pantheon. It is important to remember that this monument is a church and it is still used and should be respected as such. The entrance is free but you need to make sure you are dressed appropriately in order to enter. This means, no shorts (over the knees) and no tank tops. My suggestion, especially for the ladies out there, is to make sure to alway carry a light jacket in your bag if you are traveling during summer, this way you make sure to have something to cover yourself in case you stumble upon a church you want to see. Also, be respectful and keep your voice low. No yelling, no cursing and no laughing hard. Also, if you are traveling with kids, please make sure they don’t run or play around. This is a sacred place and the guards will make sure to let you know that.
This church was built over two millennia ago and it’s dome served as the inspiration for Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s. Raphael and otherItaly’s first two kings are buried here.
As we left the Pantheon, we took a detour from our way to Fontana di Trevi (undergoing an extensive renovation sponsored by Fendi which is scheduled to be over by summer or fall of 2015), to see Piazza Navona. There I stopped to dance with a charming old man singing a catchy song. We then went to see Fontana di Trevi. I was surprised by the amount of tourists who obviously didn’t do their research and were so disappointed when they realized the fountain was under renovation and therefore dried and not functioning. To us, this was a great opportunity to see the fountain from a different angle. We could actually walk over the fountain, getting close to the statues in order to appreciate the magnificent labor done with the sculptures.
Almost by the end of the day, we stopped by the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which houses Bernini’s impressive sculpture (and one of my favorites) of St. Teresa in Ecstasy.
Located above the altar of the Cornaro Chapel, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa represents an episode from the life of the saint (who was born in the Castilian town of Ávila in 1515), as recorded in her spiritual autobiography. Teresa describes an angel carrying a fire-tipped spear with which he pierces her heart repeatedly, an act that sends her into a state of spiritual rapture. “The pain,” she writes, “was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.”
We decided we still had time to stop at one more sight and we chose to visit the church of San Giovanni in Laterano. This church is the cathedral of Rome, where Emperor Constantine allowed the Pope to set up the episcopal chair after 312. The main purpose of our visit was to see the Scala Sancta, which are in the nearby Chapel of San Lorenzo, opposite to San Giovanni in Laterano.
The Scala Sancta consists of 28 white Tyrian marble steps and according to tradition were the actual staircase of Pilate’s house (in Jerusalem), which Jesus descended after being condemned. But how were they brought to Rome all the way from Jerusalem? Well, some claim that St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, brought them back from a relic-gathering trip to the Holy Land. Interesting souvenir she brought back with her!
Only the devout are allowed to climb the Holy Staircase itself, and only on their knees. Less devout visitors (or just the curious) can walk up the alternative staircases on each side.
Day 4, December 31st
On this day we visited the world’s smallest country, Vatican City. Time for my Tip #3: In order to save time and skip the line is to reserve your tickets in advance, online.
We booked an English tour when made the reservation online. It was very easy and straight forward. We made the reservation for 9am, so we called Uber which offered a door to door service to the Vatican Museums. I forgot to mention that most Uber cars in Rome are black cars. We felt like celebrities when arrived at the entrance of the Vatican Museum in a black Mercedes with tinted windows. The driver opened the door for us and we headed straight to the entrance where after showing our reservation confirmation to the guards, they proceeded to walk us to the entrance in front of hundreds of tourists standing in line. It was our sort of celebrity moment, hard to not enjoy.
We took a tour of the Vatican Museum in English which highlighted the most important things to see there, such as paintings by Raphael, and rooms of the Medici pope before we enter to what can be the most important sight in the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, with it’s famous mainly for the frescos that decorate its interior, particularly the ceiling with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment .Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected. This chapel can feel very small with all the tourists inside, trying to sneakily take pictures of the ceiling before getting caught by the guards who seem to yell every 3 seconds “NO PICTURES” “NO PHOTOS”!
It was New Year’s Eve, so the Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica closed at 1pm, so we had to make sure we exited the Sistine Chapel by the door on the right if we wanted to see it. Once inside the Basilica we stopped to admire Michelangelo’s Pietà, which he sculpted when he was 24 years old.
At the Basilica we felt so tiny and got lost in the vast space, even when it was crowded with tourists. Seeing St. Peter’s throne and the main altar, with Bernini’s dove window is incredible. It really doesn’t matter if you are Catholic or not, this place is a must when in Rome. Try to leave your own religious believes at the door and make an effort to appreciate and understand this place.
We spent the afternoon strolling in the Jewish Ghetto. We couldn’t visit the synagogue since it was closed because of the holiday, but we did stroll the streets and even got to tried a Kosher bakery where we bought a delicious carrot cake and cheesecake.
We really tried to take advantage of the Roma Pass and use public transportation, however at 4pm it was impossible to find a bus. We were standing in the bus stop for almost 20 minutes and the bus never came. We then headed to a taxi stand and waited in line for 10 more minutes while trying to book an Uber. All taxis seemed to be taken and there were no Ubers available. Finally Alexis was able to get a confirmation on the Uber app and within 5 minutes a guy in a big bus stopped to pick us up. This was the only time we had trouble with transportation in Rome. For us it was important to go to the apartment and take a nap, before heading to the New Year’s celebration at Circus Massimo which promised to be a big event, with lots of fireworks, free concerts and lots of street food.
What not to miss:
- Colosseum and the Forum
- Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica
- Trastevere’s Neighborhood
We really wanted to go to Borghese Gallery and visit the Necropolis with Peter’s tomb in the Vatican City, but ran out of time. Rome is a city where you can easily spend 2 weeks and still not see everything. I’m looking forward to returning to Rome and see more of what this city has to offer.