Travel Destinations

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rome’s Essential Places to Visit, Including Some You Might Not Know About

View of Vatican City from Castel Sant'Angelo

Romeo and I vacationed in Italy because we were lucky enough to be invited by friends to their destination wedding in Rome.  Who wouldn’t want to jump on the opportunity to visit one of the most historical cities in the world and attend a wedding on a rooftop overlooking the Colosseum?  We started our Italy trip in Rome, where we spent five nights, which was the perfect amount of time.  We continued on to the Cinque Terre and Venice, which I will also write about later.

There are many reasons to put a trip to Rome on the top of your list.  There are so many familiar sights that need to be experienced in person, such as the Colosseum, Ancient Rome, and the Pantheon.  The Vatican, technically a separate sovereign city-state, is an increasingly familiar sight as it has been in the news so much lately because of the newly elected Pope Francis.  Rome is incredibly easy to navigate, with many sights within walking distance, and with beautiful architecture, statues, and fountains around every corner. Plus Rome is frequently a destination featured in flight deals. 
Several attractions are well known and must-sees.

A visit to ancient Rome includes the Colosseum, Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Trajan’s Column, Market and Forum.  An excellent money saving item to have is a Roma Pass.  The Roma Pass is valid for three days and provides free entry to the first two visited sights, reduced entry fees to subsequent sights, and free use of the city’s public transportation.  An additional and very important benefit is that there is a reserved turnstile at the Colosseum for Roma Pass holders, allowing you to bypass the crowds.  I highly recommend purchasing your Roma Pass ahead of time.  When we traveled to Rome, we purchased our passes online and picked them up at the airport upon arrival.  When we arrived at the PIT (tourist information point) in the airport, there was a large sign informing visitors they were sold out of the passes, except for those that had been preordered.  It was definitely a timesaver to not have to traipse around the city trying to find a location that had passes available for sale.  Palatine Hill and Trajan’s Column, Market and Forum are covered by the Roma Pass.

Other must-sees, of course, are the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Booking tickets of any type for the Vatican Museums ahead of time is a huge time saver.  The line to enter the museums is always long and can even take hours.  However, if you have purchased your tickets in advance online, you can enter immediately, bypassing the long lines.  If you visit the museums before the basilica, you can take advantage of a shortcut by finishing your tour of the museums in the Sistine Chapel and exiting the Sistine Chapel through the door at the back right which leads you directly into the basilica, allowing you to avoid a second long line.  Be sure to dress appropriately when visiting St. Peter’s; no shorts, skirts above the knee, or bare shoulders.  We took a morning tour of the Vatican Gardens.  The Vatican Gardens are expansive, lush and colorful.  You will see views of St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel which cannot be seen elsewhere, and the Vatican helipad.  The Vatican Garden tour includes admission to the museums.  Another fantastic way to visit the museums is in the evening during Night Openings.  During certain parts of the year, the museums are open one night a week in the evening from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.  Because booking online is mandatory, not only are you able to enter immediately, there are also far fewer crowds, allowing better enjoyment of the museums.  A visit to Castel Sant’Angelo can be combined with a visit to Vatican City, and is also covered by the Roma Pass.

Ponte Sant'Angelo on the Tiber River
There are a number of attractions that are not as well known, but should be included in your itinerary.

One of the unexpected highlights of our trip to Rome was our visit to the Borghese Gallery.  This is a beautiful gallery situated in a large park.  The art in this gallery includes the works of Bernini, Raphael, and Titian.  It is truly awe inspiring to be able to examine Bernini’s sculptures up close and see the intricate detail.  Even though the Borghese Gallery is covered by the Roma Pass, this is one instance where it is worth foregoing saving money.  It is essential to buy your tickets in advance.  A limited amount of people are allowed in the gallery at one time.  When we were there, tickets were sold out for days, and there were large numbers of people who had made the trip to the gallery but were not able to buy tickets.  On the same day, we visited the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Santa Maria del Popolo, and the Spanish Steps.

Another fantastic place we visited was the beautiful Colonna Palace and Gallery, a private palace with lavishly decorated rooms, including the mirrored Great Hall with frescoed ceilings and a cannonball embedded in the staircase.  There are only a few rooms open to the public, and it is only open for four hours on Saturdays, but is definitely worth a visit. On the same day we visited the Palazzo Doria Phamphilj, another palace with extravagant rooms.  After the two palaces we headed to the Pantheon, strolled through the Piazza Navona and visited the Palazzo Altemps (covered by the Roma Pass) as well as the extensive Capitoline Museum (also covered by the Roma Pass). 

The Cappuccin Crypt is another small but fascinating place.  It is a crypt of small chapels containing the artistically arranged bones of Cappuccin friars.  A short walk away is Santa Maria della Vittoria, the home of St. Teresa in Ecstasy.

Michelangelo's Moses, San Pietro in Vincoli
We also visited San Pietro in Vincoli, with Michelangelo’s Moses, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the location of Bernini’s tomb.  And of course we visited the Trevi Fountain so we could throw in a coin to ensure our return.

Romeo and Er Buchetto Owner Franco Fioravanti
Italy is of course the home of food, including pasta, pizza, and gelato around every corner.  I recommend eating a porchetta panino for lunch at Er Buchetto.  Porchetta, if you don’t know it, is a delicious creation of a deboned pig layered with herbs, rolled up, and roasted.  A friend who lived in Italy suggested this tiny place which has been around since 1890.  Another food highlight was Sa Tanca Crostaceria, where I had the most surprisingly delicious octopus salad and a decadent risotto with shrimp, mushrooms, champagne, and cheese.

When choosing a hotel for your visit to Rome, find one that is centrally located.  There are many hotels that are reasonably priced that are outside of Rome’s center.  While they may seem like a good deal, and may even offer shuttles, you will waste too much time traveling back and forth, and you will be relegated to dining in the hotel restaurant instead of experiencing the wealth of food in the city.  We stayed at the Picasso Hotel in the Rione Monti district, which is near excellent food and only a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum.  It also cost about 110 Euro per night at a fairly popular time of year, with breakfast included.

For planning this portion of our vacation I used the guidebooks Frommer's Rome, Time Out Rome, and Rick Steves' Best of Europe.

Travel the World: A guide to the familiar and not so familiar tourist sights when traveling to Rome Italy.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.


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