Our first trip to Italy ended in Rome. After enjoying a lively introduction to the country in Naples, I was looking forward to seeing the capital city and all its well-known attractions.
We chose to make this trip to Italy during the spring holidays (as opposed to summer) and I’m glad we did. The weather was pleasant and the crowds were not as bad as I imagine them to be during the summer holiday peak. We did a lot of walking in Rome and more than once I thought to myself, this would be a lot less pleasant in intense summer heat!
What We Did
We gave ourselves plenty of time to walk around the old parts of the city. Our strolls took us by the River Tiber, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain.
We weren’t the best stereotypical tourists at these sites. We saw the Pantheon at night so, unfortunately, we could not go inside.
We didn’t take the time to sit on the Spanish Steps (I was getting hangry and finding food was more important). I didn’t even get a good picture of them – just one blurry one – because I assumed we’d go back and we didn’t!
We didn’t toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain (it was hard to get past fence barricades and other tourists). Still, we saw them all, we took the pictures, and we appreciated the moments.
While my husband and I enjoyed seeing some of these famous spots, our son loved watching the street performers (so. many. street performers.). His favorites were making spray painted pictures of wolves howling at moons and suns setting behind palm trees. Not quite the masterpieces we saw at the Vatican Museums, but hey, what is art if it is not subjective?
We did make the time to see the Colosseum. Getting there was the one time we used the city’s metro. We purchased our entrance tickets to the Colosseum in advance, which I highly recommend. You still must stand in a line to get through security, but it will reduce your wait time significantly once inside.
We did not buy the additional entrance to the underground. I am sure it is very cool to see, but we were trying to be realistic with our time spent there given everything else we were trying to see that day. We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the open areas and for us, that was enough.
After the Colosseum, we visited the Roman Forum. We spent most of one day just between the Colosseum and the Forum. You could easily spend an entire, long day at the two places, there is so much to see.
We bought these tickets in advance, along with the Colosseum entrance tickets. Like the Colosseum, we didn’t explore every inch of the Forum, but guided ourselves through what we felt were the highlights and were happy with what we saw.
Because we were there in the spring, wisteria was blooming in some parts of the Forum, a lovely, fragrant enhancement to the experience!
I took four years of Latin in high school, a fact that is maddening to me now that I live abroad and realize how useful it would be if I had studied an alive language instead, but it was nice to stand in the Roman Forum and vaguely remember learning about it all those years ago. My teacher loved showing us the movie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which probably taught us more about our teacher than about Rome, but it came to mind, so at least I remember something.
Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
We devoted another whole day to visiting the Vatican Museums. We bought our tickets for this in advance, too, which I again highly recommend. Both here and at the Colosseum, it can be somewhat confusing to find the right line to enter (all while dodging tour operators who are promising you “skip-the-line” tickets and tours, impossible to tell how legit they are), so I also recommend making sure you understand the details of your pre-purchased ticket before you arrive!
At the Vatican Museums, we got audio guides and a family tour map, in addition to the standard tour maps. The museum collections are vast. We didn’t get to all of them. I was disappointed that in some of them, access to some of the collection pieces was restricted. There were some sculptures I would have liked to have gotten closer to, especially in a section that was all animal sculptures.
The Sistine Chapel was a highlight, of course, for us and for the crowds around us! The docents in the chapel were tough. They keep you moving (no sitting allowed) and they keep your manners in check. No photos are allowed, which I actually appreciated because it meant we could just focus on trying to enjoy what we were seeing. We made ourselves take a moment to really take it all in, and it is quite stunning. It’s not easy on the neck to stare up at a huge, detailed ceiling for very long, though, but we did our best.
Before leaving the Vatican Museums, we purchased postcards to send to family in the States from the Vatican City post office, complete with Vatican City stamps! This was a unique and fun activity to do, especially for our son.
St. Peter’s Basilica
We were able to visit St. Peter’s Basilica without having to wait too long. We went later in the day and the line moved quickly. It was also stunning with beautiful details everywhere.
Walking through Vatican City gave us great opportunities for people watching.
Near Vatican City, we walked by Castel Sant’Angelo. Now a museum, it was originally constructed as a mausoleum for Hadrian and his family. It has also served as a protective fortress for popes.
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery
One of the main reasons for this trip, and certainly one of the personal highlights, was for us to visit the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in nearby Nettuno, Italy. My husband’s grandfather is buried there, and so is my great-uncle. It was important for both of us to visit their graves and pay our respects.
The American Battle Monuments Commission does a beautiful job with all the cemeteries and monuments for our American war dead overseas. We have now been to a handful of their sites in Europe and are always impressed by the respect they show and the impeccable way they are maintained. We had a very nice conversation with the staff there who helped us find our family members’ graves.
After this visit, we had lunch in Nettuno and enjoyed views of sea before driving back to Rome. (We tried to take a scenic drive back on the road along the coast, but the views from the road were not good. At least we tried!)
What We Ate
As often is the case for us, our hotel included breakfast in our room rate. Their breakfast service was a nice range of traditional continental options as well as traditional Italian egg and pastry dishes. The coffee was delicious!
We had lunch in one of the cafés at the Vatican Museums, pretty standard museum café fare, with an Italian focus, of course.
On the day we were in Nettuno, we stopped in Moj Café for a late lunch. The kitchen actually wasn’t open for service, they were only serving coffee and tea at that time, but they prepared us some sandwiches anyway. It was really nice of them!
Between visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant, Binario 4. They served traditional pizza and pasta dishes. The food was good and the location was very convenient to what we were touring that day.
We tried to find good, traditional Italian meals for dinner every night. The first night, we grabbed a late meal of pizza at La Focaccina di Serafina. Here, you can select pizza by the slice, so we got to try a variety of pieces and toppings. It is a small place, ideal for takeout, and we enjoyed talking with the one employee working there while we waited for our slices to be prepared. Something was happening across the street in some sort of government building. The street was full of military personnel, guards, and/or police, and a lot of press. They seemed to be waiting for someone to come out of the building. We kept waiting to see who. We asked the employee at the restaurant what he thought was happening and he responded in Italian, so we still don’t know, but we could tell by his facial expressions, gestures, and jeers in their direction, that whatever or whoever it was, he disapproved. We didn’t press for a recap of the information in English.
We enjoyed more pizza at Camillo B, as well as dessert, the only night we had something other than gelato for dessert in Italy!
We had some really nice pasta dishes at Pupina. This is where I tried a version of Cacio e Pepe, which Condé Nast Traveler says is the “one dish you should always order in Rome.” Pupina’s was good, maybe slightly too salty, but very rich and decadent.
My favorite dinner in Rome was from Ristorante La Francescana, a wonderful family trattoria. It had a comfortable ambiance like being at an Italian grandmother’s house for dinner. They had a beautiful salad bar full of fresh mozzarella, olives, peppers, artichokes, and other vegetables and legumes. After enjoying that, I had their Fettuccine alla Francescana (fettucine with crème sauce, mushrooms, peas). It was so delicious! It will be the authentic Italian meal I will always remember from this trip.
I didn’t make note of one place we got gelato, but the one I was sure to make note of was the best we had anywhere in Italy, Gelateria La Romana. A friend recommended it to me and I am very grateful for that!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Hotel Sant’Angelo, a unique city hotel that is conveniently located near Vatican City. The room and the bathroom were very small, but the location was good and the staff was great. They had quirky, unique décor that felt like it came from individual sales, not mass producers of hotel furniture. They were attentive and helpful before and during the whole stay. The gave us recommendations for dining and touring, and helped us make reservations. They lobby always had refreshments and snacks and they offered a daily happy hour with drinks and snacks, too. They can’t control the size of the building and the rooms, but they can control their service and they did a great job.
What We Missed
Rome is huge and we only had a few days. Of course, we missed a lot. I had noted these additional things to be of interest: Capitoline Hill, Piazza del Popolo, Circus Maximus, Campo de Fiori, Borghese Gardens, and the Appian Way. We didn’t see any of these, and I am sure so much more. That doesn’t bother me though, because I went into the city knowing we had limited time and would only see some of the highlights we selected.
Rome was exactly as I imagined it would be. Large, filled with beautiful, historic things to see. I think my favorite part of the whole trip was the walk we took in the old town during our last night there. We wandered through the streets, gelato in hand, with no particular direction or purpose other than to enjoy the city. We went down some quieter streets and saw some beautiful architecture, and in those moments, I felt like we were really seeing and feeling the city. It was a perfect end to our first trip to Italy, and hopefully not our last.