Rome-ing Around Italy’s Capital
Sarah Fisher, one of our online executives, shares all the highlights from her eventful trip to Rome…
We departed Stansted at around 18:35 on Saturday night on our RyanAir flight to Rome, Ciampino. My husband and I have been talking about visiting Rome for years so we were very pleased to have finally managed to squeeze a short city break into our hectic working schedules.
After an uneventful flight, we arrived around 9:45pm local time and made a swift departure through customs and were met by our pre-booked transfer at arrivals. We had booked a shared transfer but we were the only ones in the mini-bus. A terrifying 30-minute taxi drive later, during which our driver spent more time doing the crossword and updating his Facebook than watching the roads outside, and we arrived at our hotel. I say hotel but it was actually just a basic B&B which appeared to be one floor of a very large building. From the road, you wouldn't even know it was there. Check-in was fast and we were quickly in our room. It was basic but had everything we needed for our three nights away including a comfy bed and good shower; we didn't plan on spending much time in the hotel anyway.
We decided to make the most of our evening, despite it being well after 10:30pm by this point and headed out to check out the area and find a cold drink as it was a very hot, sticky evening. We located the busy area as suggested by our hotel receptionist and found bars and restaurants buzzing with people spilling out onto the streets and laughter and opera in the air. We purchased drinks and a chocolate gelato and with our eyes feeling heavy headed back to the hotel to rejuvenate ready for new adventures in the morning.
After a well-earned lie-in, we had a quick continental breakfast of croissants, cereal and juice at our hotel and headed out to start our Rome city break. With our hotel located very close to the Vatican, we headed there as a starting point. There was what appeared to be a mass wedding going on which was streaming live on big screens and the pope was presiding over it. We lingered for a while to soak in the atmosphere, listen to the choir singing and snap a few shots. However, with Sunday mass service in full swing, the Basilica closed until 1pm, the crowds surging and the sun beating down, we decided to leave the Vatican for Monday instead and head off elsewhere.
Spotting an information point, we bought two 48 hour tour bus passes at €23 each to aid our adventures. Whilst we did use them to start with I would recommend walking if you are fit because you see so much more when travelling in this way, which you would miss on a bus. Everything is within fairly easily walking distance if you don't mind walking on bumpy cobblestone roads and jumping out of the way of the occasional moped. The city maps are a little deceiving and make things look much further apart than they really are.
Locating the right bus quite easily, we hopped on board the open top (a first for my husband I was surprised to learn) and headed towards the Colosseum. Rome is home to the small car and whilst waiting for the bus to depart, with a great honking of horns, a rally of mini cars came cruising past us like a scene from the Italian job. A fun sight to see. Upon arrival at the Colosseum an over enthusiastic guide offering 'free information' almost immediately tried to sell us prepaid tickets with guided tour and queue jump for €45 euro each to "save us the two and a half hour queue". Luckily we chose not to succumb to his charms and after queuing for around twenty minutes and paying €12 each we were in.
Granted we didn't pay for a tour, but you can easily earwig in on other people's or just read the very informative signage. Not wanting to be tied to a group in the scorching heat anyway, we had a good look round and took an awful lot of photos. It was amazing to see a building of this era (80AD) still standing despite centuries of weather, heat, earthquakes and tourists taking their toll. Some parts, such as the floor over the arena, had been recreated in a section to give a better idea of what it would have originally looked like and there were new additions such as exhibits, lifts and souvenir shop added for good measure too.
However, most of it still remained true to the ancient ruins. The walls felt suspiciously like those fake fibreglass ones you get around theme park roller coasters. This, however, was of course just due to the centuries of dirt which had accumulated on the rocks giving them a rather smooth feel, rather than the rough one I had expected... clearly it doesn't rain as much in Italy as it does in the UK!
After about an hour we headed back out in search of food to quell our now grumbling stomachs. As there didn't appear to be a great deal of restaurants in the area around the Colosseum we jumped back on the bus and headed back to the Vatican area. Of course, like any major city, food is expensive in the main tourist areas. The first one we walked into was charging €21 for a chicken breast (more than we were willing to pay per head for lunch!). We quickly sought out a little supermarket, of which there are many, and bought a stash of food, drinks and treats for about €18.
After heading back to our hotel to drop off our morning purchases and eat lunch, we headed back out. Jumping back on the bus, we continued to the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II. We strolled around taking in the scenery and indulging in a spot of people watching. From here we headed towards the Trevi fountain, and with heavy map consultation and navigation of the narrow streets, we found our way to the fountain quite quickly. I had been looking forward to seeing this famous tourist attraction and throwing in a coin to ensure my return to Rome one day but was hugely disappointed to find it covered in scaffolding and drained of all water. Clearly it was undergoing restoration or maintenance. You were able to walk over a scaffold bridge to get a closer look, but it was still a shame we didn't get to see it in its full glory.
With a bit of a pout on our faces, we decided to navigate our way to Piazza Navona via the Pantheon. The disappointment of the Trevi fountain was soon forgotten as we browsed the little alleyways with their shops full of treasures and friendly little restaurants. The eateries here were far better value for money than around the Vatican, so we decided to come back this way later for dinner. We paused for a while to watch a few street artists sketching caricatures and human statues doing.....well nothing actually, before carrying on.
There was a Pro Ukraine rally outside the Pantheon, but it was all very peaceful and so we went inside. It was another spot we had looked forward to seeing and were very pleased to find it was free entry. There was a male voice choir rehearsing which sounded great. Originally built by the ancient Romans, it is now the oldest Catholic Church in Rome. It was, however, very busy inside so we didn't stay long and made our way back out into the sun.
We finally found our way to Piazza Navona, which is a very beautiful square with the famous 'Fountain of the Fours Rivers' in the centre and a smaller fountain at either end. We settled on a bench next to a fountain for a brief rest and to take in the atmosphere before deciding our poor feet wanted a proper rest back at the hotel. We walked back to the hotel via Castel Sant'Angelo. There were a lot of street sellers in this area with their wares lying on the pavement. Several approached us but a polite no was all it took and we didn't feel harassed like we have experienced in other places we have visited.
After a good rest at the hotel, we were recharged enough to head back out. We travelled towards Piazza Navona where night time had now fallen. The streets were alive with people and there was a real buzz in the air. The Piazza was filled with street entertainers, artists furiously painting away and traders selling illuminated toys which lit up the skies as they threw them in the air.
After a casual stroll around, our stomachs were once again calling us and the restaurateurs were beckoning us into their establishments. We spotted a pretty pizzeria and were welcomed to sit outside. We found the language barrier more challenging in Italy than in other countries but managed to get what we wanted (mainly through lots of pointing!). A tasty feast was brought before us for little more than €12 each, my husband sampled the pizza and I went for a nice traditional lasagne which was delicious. The atmosphere was warm and friendly with lots of loud talking and laughter filling the air.
Feeling well fed, we thought we'd take a wander to see the Vatican by night. We were surprised to find the area, which earlier in the day had been filled by people and tour buses, now virtually deserted. All the restaurants had sold enough overpriced chicken and were now closed and, but for a few stray tourists, the streets were quiet.
The Vatican was very beautiful by night and without the crowds we were able to move around and take in the sights more easily. We started to wander slowly back to our hotel. As it was a fairly hot evening still we couldn't resist an ice cream, and so we stopped at a gelateria and bought a pot of 'Cookie Woogie' gelato each and then wound our weary way back to our hotel.
This morning we had planned to get to the Vatican early on the advice of the information centre to avoid the queues. However our bed was far too comfortable and after filling up on breakfast it was around 9:30 before we arrived. The queue for St Peter's Basilica (free entry) was snaking halfway across St Peters Square so we thought it best to head straight to the Sistine Chapel in case that one was the same. Upon arrival, we were once again greeted by hordes of sales-type people offering queue jump and tours to avoid the 'two-hour queue'. Having thought we knew better from our experience at the Colosseum we ignored them all and joined the back of a very long queue.
Unfortunately, this time, we did actually face a 2-hour wait; a large part of it in 28c heat. The vendors were selling pre-paid tickets for around €27 and guided tours for around €36. By queuing and paying at the door we paid €16 each. In hindsight, if we had known how long we were going to be waiting upon arrival we would have probably paid the extra. With greater hindsight still we should have pre-booked our tickets online and avoided both. A lesson for us in planning ahead!
We finally made it through the queue, being entertained by musicians and the odd seller who failed to take no for an answer from the innocent victim who made the mistake of making eye contact. Inside we had to go through airport-style security, having our bag scanned and walking through metal detectors before making our way upstairs and buying our tickets.
I was only really interested in seeing the Sistine Chapel personally; after all going to Rome and not seeing the Sistine Chapel would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower! We followed the signage, which led us through room after room of emasculated statues and intricate paintings and tapestries. It was very hot inside and the volume of people made it very hard to really look at anything properly. After around half an hour we finally made it into the Sistine Chapel. Despite there being numerous signs and guards constantly telling people no photography or filming was allowed inside the chapel, there were still many people doing so. The chapel itself and the famous ceiling were very beautiful and amazingly detailed, but the experience was akin to seeing the Mona Lisa for me....smaller than I expected!
Eventually, we made it outside and breathed a sigh of relief and took a well-deserved sit-down. My tips on a successful trip to the Vatican would be to arrive early and not on a day when it is about 30C outside! The doors open at 8:30am so I would suggest arriving then and pre-ordering your ticket online so you can go straight in and avoid the crowds and group tours which tend to block everything up.
We headed back to our hotel for lunch and a proper sit-down. Following our meal and a shower to freshen up we had our game faces back on and our next mission was to seek out the Spanish Steps. As we had already paid for the tickets and our feet were still a little sore, so we hopped on the tour bus and headed across Rome to the area by the railway station. Once there, we wandered towards the Spanish steps, browsing the shops and stopping to admire the odd fountain or piazza which crossed our path.
Taking the bus and walking turned out to be a good plan as we arrived at the steps at the top and walked down rather than arriving at the bottom and walking up. At the top, there were painters selling their masterpieces. We paused to sit close to the top of the steps, enjoy a cold drink and watch a newly-wed couple having their wedding photos taken in this very romantic setting. After a while, we descended to the lower half of the steps which were crammed with tourists who didn't have the energy to scale the upper levels. The fountain at the bottom, like the Trevi Fountain, was closed for renovations but it didn't particularly matter to us.
We decided to walk back through Rome and browse the streets as we went. The area at the bottom of the Spanish steps is where you will find all of the designer shops such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton if that is what you are looking for. Eventually, we found our way back to the river and, with the sun setting over the Vatican in the distance, we found ourselves being drawn towards it. With the crowds once again mostly cleared we were able to get a better view and take more photos.
By now, our feet were starting to throb once again and so we decided to grab a takeaway pizza and head back to our hotel rather than dine out. We grabbed a box crammed full with pizza (including a chocolate one!) for €9 and another pot of gelato for good measure before heading back to watch a movie and relax.
Check-out wasn't until 11am so, following a good lie in, breakfast and packing, we left our bags at the hotel and headed out for our last few hours of exploring at about 9:30am. We did consider seeing St Peter's Basilica, but by the time we arrived the queue was snaking across the whole of St Peter's Square. It did seem to be moving quite quickly but it was 30C sunshine and we thought it would probably be heaving with people inside so decided to give it a miss. We sat in St Peter's Square for a while (in the shade), people watching and trying to work out where the smoke comes from during conclave, before setting off for a wander along the river. Here, we browsed the little markets stalls, picked up some souvenirs and headed back to our hotel to await our transfer to the airport.
After waiting 30 minutes after our pre-booked transfer was due to arrive we were starting to panic. With no answer to the buzzer at our hotel, we were left with little choice but to flag down a taxi on the street and pay €50 to get to the airport. The experience of being driven through Rome at peak time in a taxi is also one I never wish to repeat! The lesson here was again better pre-planning.
When we arrived at the airport, we found we could have caught a shuttle bus from the city's main station, which is in the city centre, to the airport for just €4. It runs every twenty minutes. With hindsight, we could have done this from the start and wouldn't have had to worry about transfers arriving in the first place. Needless to say, however, the firm we booked with will be feeling my wrath when I get home!
Check-in at Ciampino airport was smooth and we bought a nice roll each and a drink for around €12 which is much better value than you would normally pay at an airport, I thought. An hour later we boarded our flight home and a further 2 hours and 10 minutes later we landed back in a foggy Stansted, already planning our next trip and with some great new memories.
All in all, I would say I loved Rome, with its beautiful streets, attractions and great weather. We learnt some lessons along the way, mostly about pre-planning but overall had a fantastic experience. I am not normally one to go back to the same place twice but Rome is somewhere I do hope to go back to one day, even though I couldn't throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to guarantee it!
- The first Sunday of every month is free entry into the Colosseum. Unfortunately, we were a week too late!
- Bring only hand luggage, we try to do this as much as possible now and it makes things abundantly quicker at the airport if you check in online as we already had.
- Don't bother with the bus tours unless you have very time limited or prefer not to walk, as you can get everywhere fairly quickly on foot and see so much more of the city by walking.
- Most road users in Rome see traffic lights, lanes and zebra crossings as suggestions rather than rules so take extra care when crossing the road.
- Visit the Vatican and Sistine Chapel during the cooler months, early in the morning and pre-order your ticket here before you go.