In true 14-year-old fashion, Rome was my least favorite city in Italy when I visited for the first time. Yeah… that Rome…The Eternal City— home to the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the pope and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, and countless other priceless works of art and architecture. I can’t say for sure whether it was too much history, too much traffic, or not enough gelato stops, but something about it left me with no desire to return. But a weekend full of rain in Tuscany meant no grape harvest, and so with about 15 hours to plan, a weekend trip to Rome materialized!
When in Rome… there are so many things to see and it’s impossible to know where to begin on your own, so a walking tour is a perfect way to start. Unlike other cities I’ve visited, most of the free walking tours in Rome require a cash deposit and a printed ticket. And since I’m not lugging a printer with me… I had to find a tour that accepts walkups. Thankfully, Rome Free Walking Tour offers two itineraries for walkups. Both begin at the Spanish Steps, but the morning tour ends at the Vatican and the afternoon tour ends at the Colosseum. I took both tours and along the way saw the Trevi Fountain (unfortunately under construction at the moment), Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Castel San’Angelo and St. Peter’s Square. It was a little like reading the CliffsNotes of Rome. We went quickly, and it wasn’t too in depth, but it was a great use of time on a short trip.
My favorite tour, though, was the Twilight Trastevere Tour that I took with Eating Italy Food Tours. Most socializing is done while eating and I believe that the basis of a culture can be discovered around a local table. And so food tours are usually my second stop after a free walking tour. I got so lucky with this one. Our small group of 6 clicked immediately, which made the whole experience even more enjoyable. Plus, our guide Jasmine was amazing!
The Trastevere neighborhood has an interesting history— it’s across the Tiber River from the rest of Rome and was the area that sailors, fisherman and non-Romans (mostly Jews and Syrians) lived during the time of the Roman Republic (that’s around 509 BC!). Once the Romans realized that the immigrants were having fun and eating great food, they too began to move to the Trastevere neighborhood. It’s artistic and multicultural and I love the brightly colored buildings (reminiscent of Cinque Terre) and maze of narrow cobblestone streets.
I’ve heard about partying like it’s 1999, but I’ve never thought about partying like it’s 1 BC… But that’s exactly what we did! We had a cocktail party in a first century wine cellar and nibbled on pork shoulder with apple and honey made using Julius Caesar’s personal chef’s recipe.
On another stop, I loved meeting the latest two generations of a family-owned bakery that’s been passed down through four generations. The brutti ma buoni (ugly but good) cookies were one of my favorites… and following the lead of some of the others on my tour, I bought a bag full of cookies to try some of their other flavors. Without this tour, I would never have found this signless bakery, although I now fully believe everyone should visit Biscottificio Innocenti!
The King of Porchetta assembles the porchetta every night after the shop closes, stuffing the pork roast with herbs and sending it off to the country to be slow roasted all night. It’s returned in the morning, and the King of Porchetta sees a steady stream of customers.
Eating Italy’s tour is a little pricey compared to other cities I’ve visited, but for access to 8 different hole-in-the-wall places, tastes of food from restaurants that were WAY out of my budget, wine pairings, history of the Trastevere neighborhood and a totally stuffed belly, I wholeheartedly believe it’s worth it.
For a fresh, local and Roman farmer’s market experience, be sure to visit the Campo de’ fiori market. Not only are there some great bakeries as you walk to the market (it’s all about balance… an amaretti in one hand and an eggplant in the other.) The spices, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and bright and beautiful fruits and vegetables make this market a treat for the senses.
Mustafa and his magical vegetable utensil added a little comedic relief. His demonstration is hilarious, and I watched him slip into several different languages as he joked with tourists and shared how this tool can create chips, gnocchi and french fries. If you visit this market, don’t pass by his stand without getting a demo!
After a month in Florence, the Italian city where you’re advised to not eat the pizza, I was ready for my favorite Italian dish! When asking where to go for the best pizza in Rome, I was directed to Pizzeria da Baffetto by everyone I asked. And they did not lead us astray. I opted for the Baffetto pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, artichokes, sausage, peppers, onion, olives and an egg on top. It came out quickly with a thin, crispy crust and the perfect amount of toppings. The atmosphere is a little intense, as you are seated at long tables with strangers. They’re a busy place and intent on getting you in and out so everyone can enjoy this delicious pizza, but the price is good and the pizza was everything I hoped Roman pizza would be!
As you make your way across the Ponte Sant’Angelo, it’s easy to look at the beautiful angel statues and move on through the waves of people… but be sure to stop and really look at the angels. Each is holding something representative of the passion of Christ. If you can block out the masses of people, it can be a great place to reflect.
If you’re in Rome on a Sunday and the pope is home, make your way over to the Vatican for the papal blessing. It was a really special moment being surrounded by believers from all over the world who had come to take their faith a step further by coming to this place with such rich Christian heritage. Here I am with the pope:
The lines to get into St. Peter’s after the blessing are ridiculous, but if you take a little lunch break and return, the lines are much shorter and it moves quickly. The church is incredible– with all the splendor Rome had to offer. Some of the marble you’ll see comes directly from the Roman Colosseum and other sites in the city that are now ruins.
If you’re up for 551 stairs… grab a water bottle and head to the top of the cupola. I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful Rome is from above. See how St. Peter’s Square is in the shape of a key? The Catholic faith says that Jesus handed the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter, thus making him the first pope. As you walk around the Vatican, you’ll see keys in all sorts of places!
This time around, I found myself hoping that the Trevi Fountain legend is true… and so I tossed my coin over my shoulder, hoping that I will return to Rome again!