Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Attempt at an "Intro" to Rome

Although I haven't blogged about it yet, I just got back from the self-proclaimed "historic" Charlotte, North Carolina.  I won't deny lovely Charlotte its "historic" title per US standards, but I can only chuckle at how infinitesimally small it's history is compared to another city Dave and I just visited: Rome, Italy.  It was our first time out of the country together since our trip to Ireland in 2007, and we couldn't have been more thrilled to spend our first week exploring the ancient city.
Timeframe: We had been warned that you need to take Rome in stride by avoiding burying yourself with a laundry list of "must-do's" during your visit.  That advice could not have been more spot-on.  If you are operating within a "typical" vacation timeframe (i.e. 1 week or less), there is just TOO much to see in Rome.  Period.  My suggestion is to read about the city as much as possible before you head out (try Rick Steves for instance) and make a priority list of places to visit.  You don't want to get too hung up on seeing every possible place mentioned, because (a) you'll be too rushed to appreciate the beauty/history of what you do make it to see and (b) you'll have trouble immersing yourself in what makes Italy truly great: sumptuous, multi-course meals and leisurely, gelato-filled strolls!
Flight options: If you're flying from the US, you'll be headed to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO).  If you are traveling from an European city, you might be able to find a flight to Rome's less congested Ciampino Airport (CIA).  For instance, discount carriers Ryanair and easyJet both fly to CIA.  Nonetheless, most of us will find ourselves at FCO, which means you've got to make some plans on how you want to get to the city center.  We enjoyed taking the "Leonardo Express" train directly to Rome's Termini train station.  It leaves every 30 minutes and costs EUR15.  If you wanted to make a reservation in advance, you could also arrange for a shuttle to your hotel.  Lastly, you could take a Rome city taxi, which would probably take you about 45 minutes and will cost you an even EUR 45.

Hotel options: My best advice is to get on TripAdvisor and read, read and read some more.  You obviously have to balance your desire to be in a certain neighborhood with what you can afford.  However, I would suggest that you try to stay within East Rome if you can help it.  This would mean you'd be north of "ancient" Rome (i.e. Roman Forum, Colosseum, etc.), east of the Tiber River, west of Termini Station and south of the Borghese Gardens.  East Rome may look like a big area on the map, but, as long as you've packed comfy shoes, you should be able to walk or take short, inexpensive taxis to everywhere you'd like to visit.  We chose to stay at a fairly reasonably priced 4-star hotel on Via Nazionale, Hotel Artemide.  We were quite pleased with it for a number of reasons (e.g., size and cleanliness of the room, quality of the bathroom amenities, good air conditioning, flat screen tv, etc).  It also has a lovely rooftop restaurant and bar that overlooks the city.

Must-sees: I can't cover this topic in the detail that it deserves solely in my intro post, but I'll go ahead and tell you in summary form what I wouldn't miss.

  • Vatican Museum:  How could you pass up the papal palace lined with the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raphael?  The answer is you cant.  Buy your ticket in advance online but still be prepared for intense crowds.  It is all worth it once you set eyes on the Sistine Chapel.

  • St Peter's Basilica: Neighbors with the Vatican Museum, this is the grandest, most significant church in the Christian world.  You can visit the chapel and crypt for free, but the view from the top of the dome is worth the EUR5-7 cost.

  • Colosseum: Home to the notoriously gruesome gladiator battles, don't miss this truly unbelievable structure.  A clear architectural wonder, especially considering it's 80 A.D. construction.

  • Roman Forum (& Palantine Hill): Ruins of the center of the ancient city.  Imagine the commerce, politics and religion that took center stage in these ruins.  Don't miss the Arch of Titus that marked the old entrance to the city on the Via Sacra, as well as the large Senate House.  You can also find the ashes of Julius Caesar as well.

  • Borghese Gallery & Surrounding Gardens: Former Cardinal Scipione Borghese's villa, used to showcase the fine art of his age.  Many precious Bernini sculptures are contained within its walls.  

  • Pantheon: Dedicated to all gods, it is the most well-preserved monument in the city.  Inside you can find the tomb of Raphael as well as the tombs of the country's 1st two kings.

  • Spanish Steps: Named for the Spanish Embassy, it is a hangout spot for many (particularly a popular night-time hot spot).

  • Trevi Fountain: A Baroque fountain completed in 1762 by Nicola Salvi, which brings an "Ocean" scene to life.  Particularly gorgeous at night.

  • Night walks through Campo de' Fiori and Piazza Navona: Bustling plazas with outdoor wining & dining ideal for people watching.  Bernini fountains to top off the experience.

Restaurants:  You really have to overtly try NOT to have a good meal in this city.  There's essenitally just one rule... steer clear of restaurants that are directly outside of main tourist attractions.  You know you're in a tourist trap when you see blatant advertisements of menus in multiple languages.  There will also be asterisks next to a lot of antipasto and entree options, which is a signal that the food is frozen and will only be heated up.  If you can manage to stay away from these places, you will not be disappointed!  I would specifically recommend walking southwest and across the river to the Trastevere neighborhood for dinner one night.  It has a really unique feel and is overrun with highly praised trattorias.
For those of you itching to go to Rome, I hope this was a decent introduction to what you might expect.  There will be more to come from me, which will cover the must-sees in much more detail.

My last recommendation is a fun, superstitious one:  don't forget to throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain!  If the legend is true, it will ensure your safe return to Rome.