Is it possible to do Rome in a weekend? YES it is!! But be warned, you will experience sore feet, stomachs crammed to capacity, and maybe a little FOMO (fear of missing out) on seeing and experiencing even more of this wonderful city. And yet none of these “annoyances” should stop you from visiting one of Europe’s most touristy, but also enchanting, cities we’ve been to yet! For a city with a reputation for pickpockets, selfie sticks, and long lines, I was absolutely blown away by how much I loved visiting Rome. As someone who tolerates but does not typically enjoy cities and sites that are notorious for these characteristics, Rome’s redeeming qualities of endless displays of ancient civilization and incredibly delicious food can encourage someone as stubborn as me to be converted.
We took a late afternoon Friday flight from Brussels to Rome’s Fiumicino airport and arrived at our Airbnb in the Monti neighborhood after an easy 30 min train ride and 15 min walk from Termini Station.
It didn’t take us long to sit down to our first pasta dinner of the trip, Kaitlan’s with lobster and Dan’s with a classic spaghetti, at a lively Italian family restaurant. You know you are dining in Italy when you can’t hear your neighbors at the table two feet away from you because the restaurant is filled with happy greetings, hearty laughs, and the sounds of people enjoying their food, family, and friends- a little different than our more reserved Brussels.
After capping our meal off with wine and a tiramisu, we decided on a post dinner walk to the Colosseum. Wondering how close we were, we exited the restaurant, turned a corner and were staring straight at the massive monument, just a couple blocks up. Covering six acres and at a height of 157 feet, it’s hard to miss, especially when you are looking up at it from the base of one of Rome’s seven hills. Turns out that a visit to the Colosseum at night is a unique experience. After the daytime touring crowds have departed, you practically have the place to yourself to get up close and personal without being jostled or hassled into joining a tour or buying a souvenir. We actually didn’t yet comprehend just how crazy the area around the Colosseum can get during the day, but even without this knowledge, we knew this was a special experience for our first night in Rome.
We capped off the evening with (strong) drinks at the quaint Black Market cocktail bar in the Monti neighborhood and plotted our itinerary for Saturday.
Our Saturday started bright and early with a run through Rome. It’s always exciting to me to be one of the first few people on the streets in the morning while visiting a new city, especially when I don’t have to fight through crowds or dodge inattentive tourists. Our run took us to the River Tiber past the Trajan Forum, and the Altar to the Fatherland (the massive marble building in the picture below). Reaching the Ponte Sisto (bridge), we snapped a few pictures before following the bike path along the river and making our way back.
Heeding the advice of “Uncle” Rick Steves, I had purchased our tickets for our first stop of the day, the Vatican Museum, online ahead of time. Dan and I were quite pleased with that decision upon rolling up to the entrance at 9:30am and seeing the massive line that had already formed for those without tickets. With the Museum opening at 9am, I wondered how long those people had already been standing there and was grateful that our reserved entry time allowed us immediate entry. We were feeling optimistic about our big win and the visit started off well enough with us enjoying the nice view of St. Peter’s Basilica from a balcony overlook within the Museum, but shortly thereafter, we had to join the troves of people all migrating in the same direction- towards the Sistine Chapel. As far as I could tell, there really is only a one-way path that everyone follows to get to the Museum’s crown jewel, so between the tour groups and rogue wanderers, it got crowded in there quick. I tried to keep things interesting for us by interjecting with facts about various artifacts from my trusty guidebook, but it’s hard to focus on anything but the crowds of tourists on your right and left elbows who are all eagerly bumping along on the way to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Another visitor, who I easily identified as an American based on his thick southern accent, likened us all to a herd of cattle being driven into a corral. He emphasized his point with a long “mooooo” for good measure.
Finally reaching the Sistine Chapel after so much build-up was a relief! You climb up a few stairs, turn a corner, pass through an open door, and then you are there, staring at a room covered floor to ceiling in beautiful frescoes, wall paintings, and tapestries. The Chapel is intended to be a place of tranquility and if you can ignore the guards constant shushing and muted shouts of “NO pictures” you have a chance to appreciate the beauty that completely surrounds you. While the process of getting to the Chapel tested our patience, the wait was worth it in my opinion and I was particularly struck by detail of The Last Judgment. There really is almost too much to take in and as we were leaving I found myself wondering what you have to do to get a private tour. Also, no pictures are allowed so I have nothing to show for the wait!
We exited with the tour groups through the “secret door” to St. Peter’s Basilica and on our way into the Basilica, got our first up close look at St. Peter’s Square. While the Museum felt cramped and crowded, the inside of the Basilica is anything but that. The length of two football fields, it has a 60,000-person capacity. Interesting tidbits: I learned that it was the site of the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in A.D. 800 and the Pope welcomes pilgrims through the Holy Door every 25 years on Christmas Eve.
A short line and small fee later, we were making the hike up the 550 steps to the dome of the Basilica. The climb involved some scrunching and contorting of our bodies to squeeze up the narrow angled stairs, more so for Dan than me, but I think that was more fun than taking the elevator half-way up. At the top, you exit the stairwell into the interior of the dome and have a completely new perspective of the Basilica below you. A few more stairs up and you arrive at the exterior platform where the view of Rome from the top of the dome is spectacular, especially the Square just below. We walked around the dome and I was amazed by how much land encompasses the Vatican, as well as the beautiful gardens.
With our stomachs ready for pizza and pasta, we made the climb back down and then passed through St. Peter’s Square on our way to lunch. The Square, which is actually cylindrical, is massive when you are standing in the middle, but I think the best perspective of the true size was from the top of the Dome.
Dan had done some scoping of restaurants in the area ahead of time and even though it did not have an outdoor seating area, we landed on Rione XIV because of the excellent recommendations. We settled in and toasted to a delicious lunch of pizza and pasta- Dan said this was hands down the best pasta he’s ever had in his life! My pizza was also phenomenal and would give our favorite pizza place in Ixelles, Mito, a run for its money.
Our next destination of the day was the Pantheon, and as we made our way back across the river, we detoured through the Rione Ponte neighborhood. Dan was on the hunt for a new leather wallet, and it didn’t take long for him to spot one that came with a built-in coin pouch (handy for hanging on to those one and two Euro coins). The sales woman even knocked five euros off the price when he asked!
Dan’s luck hadn’t run out yet, and he successfully identified and navigated us to a gelato shop that may have appeared more low-key than the hundreds of others we passed, but was not lacking in customer service or flavor. Gelato Sicily served up an awesome combination of pistachio and ricotta honey gelato for me and double desserts for Dan- a cannoli and a scoop each of tiramisu and Stracciatella. They even let Dan pick out his toppings on the cannoli!
Our cones kept us entertained on the walk to the Pantheon, which, upon our arrival at the temple turned church, I was pleased to see was open to visitors, as that is not a guarantee. For a building that is around two thousand years old and is exposed to the elements via the opening to the sky (oculus) at the top of the dome, it’s remarkably well-preserved. More interesting tidbits: I learned that the main light source is this oculus, which, as a “big hole” in the roof, doesn’t prevent rainwater from entering the building, but someone had this figured out and put small holes in the floor for drainage. Built as a temple to all the gods of a pagan Rome (pre- Christianization), it is one of the best preserved of all the Ancient Roman architecture owing to its consecration as a church in 609 A.D.
Pleased with our success thus far, we then made our way over to the Trevi Fountain and I have to admit I had set my expectations low based on other tourists’ feedback. Maybe these low expectations were a good thing, because I really was impressed by the enormity and pristine condition of the Trevi Fountain (I subsequently read it had undergone a recent cleaning). Also impressive, but not appreciated- the crowds. If there was any spot to get pick-pocketed, I think this was it! Everywhere you looked, people were distractedly snapping selfies, throwing coins, and attempting to ignore the souvenir hawkers. Despite the crowds, I really did enjoy our opportunity to have a seat next to the fountain and people watch for a bit. Before leaving, I did throw a British ten pence in for good measure to guarantee a trip back to Rome (according to the legend). Yet another interesting tidbit: The city collects the coins from the fountain on a daily basis and the money is donated to a charitable organization.
Ready for a quick break before dinner, we made our way back towards the Airbnb, making sure to walk past the Forum, which we would be visiting the next day. Nearby the Forum, we paused for perhaps a minute too long to look at something and were scouted out by a thrifty souvenir salesman who struck up a conversation after “guessing” we were Americans. Long story short, while we did end up paying two Euros for an elephant bracelet, the guy was an excellent salesman and quite frankly should be rewarded for his effort. Not a native English speaker, he could carry on a conversation better than most, and was persistent but friendly about us accepting his “gift” in honor of our upcoming marriage (yes, we told him that). As soon as you accept their “gift”, the sale is all but made, and all that remains is the closer. Before you jump to conclusions about how gullible we are, let me also explain that we were generously offered a second bracelet (one for me and one for Dan) but firmly turned it down, well aware of his end goal. I think that in these situations, the best way to avoid being roped into a sales pitch is to A. Never stop walking and avoid all eye contact or B. Learn how to say “I don’t speak English” in the most obscure language you can think of. I’m going to try Option B for our next trip.
After a brief regrouping at the apartment, we headed out for the evening, planning to stop at the Spanish Steps for sunset and then find a place to eat dinner in the area. The view of the Rome skyline, including St. Peter’s Basilica, from the steps was pretty, but the steps themselves were crowded, so we didn’t linger for long.
A little ways away from the chaos, we spotted a cozy wine bar on a side street and decided to stop in for a sample before dinner. The friendly owner kindly recommended two wines for us, a Chianti and a Shiraz (aka Syrah), and when I asked, he also suggested a nearby restaurant for dinner- Ill Gabriello, which turned out to be a great recommendation. Mingling with locals makes me happy, as do end-of-the-evening roof-top drinks!
Our Sunday started with breakfast at the café across the street from our Airbnb where we enjoyed our sandwiches outside on their patio while the incredibly cheerful waitress and owner were attentive to our needs. We dropped our bags off at a business that conveniently stores them for travelers (great way to make money in Rome) and were on our way to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum, which are all in the same area.
We did not make reservations or purchase tickets online ahead of time for these attractions as I had read that even if the lines are long, there are multiple spots to purchase tickets at the sites and you can gain immediate access if signing up for a group tour. Going into the weekend, we also wanted to keep our plans somewhat flexible and considered that we may want to visit these sites on Saturday instead. We optimistically walked up to an entrance, with me assuring Dan that I knew what I was doing, but were quickly put in our place when we realized that in fact the long line of people already waiting had the same game plan as us. Furthermore, a quick search online at that moment revealed that there were absolutely no more reservations available that day.
Slightly discouraged after leading us in the wrong direction (in more ways than one), I consulted my side-kick, Rick, who suggested that an entrance to the Palatine Hill was likely to be the least crowded and that we would be able to purchase a “Super Ticket” there that would allow us entrance to all three sites. We waited in a much shorter line for the Palatine Hill and ended up being very pleased with our decision to start away from the crowds and have one of the most ancient areas of Rome almost to ourselves. The Palatine Hill looks down on both Circus Maximus (the former chariot-racing stadium) and the Forum, and as Dan recalled from his audiobook of Roman history, is the spot where Romulus and Remus were saved by the she-wolf Lupa and then founded Rome, as told by Roman mythology. It has been the site of Roman Imperial Palaces and these are the ruins can still be visited today.
From the Palatine Hill, you have direct access to the Roman Forum as they are connected via a couple of walking paths. While always difficult for me to decisively choose, seeing the Forum was my favorite part of the trip! Having seen a Roman ruin here and there across Europe (baths, walls, aqueducts, etc.), I was envisioning myself being underwhelmed… but I felt completely the opposite! Being able to walk amongst what was once the heart of Rome was incredible. The ruins include temples, shrines, government buildings, and monuments, and while yes, they are ruins, taking it all in from ground level gives you a sense of how important this area was in the daily lives of Rome’s citizens centuries ago. I am truly amazed by how well this city has preserved its history and what it feels like to be this close in proximity to it all.
We left the Forum, walked over to the Colosseum, and with tickets in hand, asked an attendant which entrance we should use. He looked at our ticket and said, “This is not valid for the Colosseum.” What I thought was a “Super Ticket” admitting us to all three sites, was, upon closer examination, only offering admittance to the Palatine Hill and Forum. With only a couple hours left to take in Rome, game-time decisions had to be made and Dan did a good job convincing me that waiting in a long line was not the best use of our time. So, while the decision to not purchase our tickets to the Colosseum ahead of time was a mistake that resulted in some frustration and no visit to the interior of the Colosseum, the disappointment didn’t last long and was quickly forgotten upon arriving at Mr. 100 Tiramisu. If you’re thinking that the name would imply that they offer 100 types of tiramisu, you would be correct!
A recommendation from our friends (thanks Dru and Ashly!), this place exceeded my expectations. At the suggestion of our hostess, we sipped on wine and Limoncello while dining on an appetizer of pears and cheese, followed by a charcuterie board of cheese, sausage, and bread, and finally finishing with a tiramisu sampler- Oreo, Nutella banana, and pistachio. Our spot at the open-air counter facing the street was perfect as we could watch each passerby smile when they caught site of the mini-tiramisu carrousel that was displayed in the window.
And so we have finally arrived at the end of my long-winded recap of Rome, the longest blog post yet! Just because this was a quick visit, did not mean this was going to be a short post and while it turns out you can do Rome in a weekend, you better also plan on being very busy. As I said at the beginning, it truly was a fantastic visit to this iconic city and a great introduction to one side of the Italian culture. Good thing we liked it, we’ll be heading back to the country, but eating tiramisu and pasta a little further north in less than two months!