We’re huge fans of history and architecture, yet somehow I’ve never been to Italy, let alone one of the most historic towns in the world – Rome. Over the August bank holiday weekend we put this wrong to right.
We stayed at a great hotel roughly in the middle of the three big draws of the city: the Colosseum, the historic old town and Vatican City. For most of the sites we used Rick Steve’s podcasts to guide us around allowing you to go at your own pace and save a few pounds on the audio guides.
Arriving in the afternoon we had enough time to see the must-do sites of the old town. First was the Trevi Fountain… which was covered in scaffolding and the fountain was drained. What an epic fail! A bit annoyed, we headed to the Spanish Steps by Piazza do Spagna… which was also covered in scaffolding. Ha! Strike two.
We preserved and ambled over to the Piazza di Navona to find… No scaffolding. Phew! The main church is spectacular and there are three stunning fountains too. I love Roman mythology and was geeking out about the one of Neptune at the northern end as well as the main fountain representing the four rivers of Rome.
The next day was our first big item on the list – The Colosseum. You can book a ticket online and take the email along to jump the painfully long queue (EUR 14pp for the combo ticket which also gets you into the Roman Forum next door). We went early to avoid the crowds and the heat.
We used the Rick Steve’s podcast and wandered around listening to that for about an hour, imaging the Gladiator type scenes that took place here. There’s an add-on ticket that gets you up to the highest level and down into the underbelly but it was sold out – book this way in advance if you’re interested.
After an awesome pizza-sandwich thing round the corner at La Follia, a tiny cafe, we headed to the Roman Forum. I’d never heard of this, but it was where most of medieval Roman political and social life took place and well worth a trip.
The scale of it is unbelievable. Again, contemplating some of the existing buildings being built and what it would’ve looked like in all its glory is fascinating. We used another Rick Steve’s podcast here and after the tour headed up to Palatine Hill to get the best view over the forum.
It was roasting hot, but fortunately all over Rome they have water fountains with icy cold water literally on tap. What a life saver!
On our last day we went to Vatican City, to see the Museums (inc. the Sistine Chapel) and the Basilica di San Pedro. Again, you can book a ticket online for the Museums which let you queue jump and provide a time slot for entry (EUR 20pp). The queues can be huge, so definitely do this, the subway gets you very close and remember to adhere to the conservative dress code.
The museum is huge and it takes a while to get to the Sistine Chapel which is last and you’ll have to contest with tons of tour groups but the art and interior rooms are remarkable.
Once in the Sistine Chapel, we found a seat on the side and listened to another podcast about it. This is really recommended to give some context and just how remarkable a feat Michelangelo accomplished, defining the visual depiction of the Bible. I managed one snap before being told photography is forbidden – whoops.
From the chapel you can take a shortcut to the Cupola by using the “tour groups only” exist on the back right. The Cupola (EUR 5/7pp with/without the lift) provides amazing views from the dome of Basilica over Vatican City and, whilst a massive slog up the stairs in the heat, was well worth it. You stop halfway (where the lift takes you) to see the inside of the dome, then head up more stairs for the view over Rome.
Back on the ground you enter the Basilica from a side entrance. We backtracked to the main entrance then kicked off another Rick Steve’s audio guide around the inside and tombs of the popes. No pictures allowed down there, it’s rather crazy seeing the coffins of the people that brought Christianity to the mainstream. Unsurprisingly, Saint Peter’s tomb is the most opulent.
Leaving the Basilica we finally got the full view from the front having taken he back route in. The pope was due a few days later so they were prepping the chairs for his address. Shame we missed him.
After a killer lunch at a nearby restaurant – gnocchi ragu. Mmmm – we headed back over the bridge to the city via Castel di Angel. After the splendour of the Vatican the castle looks a bit run down, but it’s still worth seeing. It’s meant to look best at night.
In the evening we wondered around Trastevere, cooled off with some Lambrusco
We followed this up with an amazing dinner at Hostaria La Botticella. The locals were arguing with the waiters to get a seat so we knew it’d be good. Pasta served in cheese bowls and strawberry tiramisu were the highlights.
We had another great dinner in Trastevere another night, getting some rustic pizza in a bustling neighbourhood spot – Ai Marmi. The bruschetta and arrancini were amazing and Katie started chatting up the old men next to us. We swapped a few slices with Pino and his friends so everyone could try a bit of everything.
On our last day before we left we went to the Capotolini museum (EUR 15pp & 5 for an audio guide) just behind the monument to the fallen soldiers. The Vatican has amazing art but it’s mostly Christian focused, and, personally, the Roman mythological/pagan tales were more the selling point of Rome for me.
The major draw here, though, is the original depiction of the founding sons of Rome – Romulus and Remus – being raised by a she-wolf dating from the 5th century. This depiction is everywhere from Rome to Siena shown in statues, paintings and even the logo of AS Roma (the football team), so it’s pretty cool to see the original. It’s just sitting in a room on a pedestal. No ropes, no guards. Amazing.