I was overdue a holiday recently, and about a mont or two ago I came across super cheap weekend flights to Rome, so I just went ahead and booked it spontaneously! I then told my mum, who asked if she, my dad, and sister could all come along, so it quickly turned into a family trip (minus my brother, who is abroad himself right now anyway). I’ve been to Rome once before, but only for a day and a half, but this was the first time in Italy for everyone else. We were away for four nights, arriving late on a Saturday evening, and leaving again on the Wednesday evening, which gave us about three and a half days to see the city – this post will be the first of two!
We had arrived late the evening before, and gone out for dinner close to the apartment we were staying in, which was close to the Via Nazionale. We didn’t see much of the city driving through in the dark, so the Sunday was out first proper full day in the city. It was a bit grey and rainy, but a good deal warmer than back home in Scotland! I had booked us a free walking tour (New Rome Free Tour) to start with at 10am, since I’m a free tour guide myself, and it’s a good way to get an introduction to a new city. Italy has stricter regulations than Edinburgh though, so you do have to book it online, you can’t just join on the day. We met the guide at the Spanish Steps – named for the Spanish embassy, but actually paid for by the French! – which were just a 15 minute walk from our apartment.
After telling us about the Spanish Steps, we continued on though the historic city centre, first passing the Column of the Immaculate Conception, right outside Valentino’s house! Our guide was very into the architecture of the city, showing us all sorts of design features along the way, including fake windows to avoid paying taxes on them, and Ancient Roman columns now inside a supermarket! And we learned that many of the buildings constructed during the Renaissance period got their stone, marble, and other materials, from the Ancient Roman sites, like the Colosseum and Roman Forum. He talked a lot about sculpture too, particularly Bernini, who designed half the city by the sounds of things!
As it was a Sunday, we were not able to go inside some of the churches he would normally have shown us, since Mass was taking place. However, we were able to go into the courtyard of San Silvestro in Capite, where the walls are inlaid with dozens of slabs of engraved stones, collected from sites all over the city! We then passed through the Galleria Alberto Sordi, which was the fanciest looking shopping mall I’ve ever been in, before emerging in front of the Marcus Aurelius Column. Rome has dozens of columns and obelisks all over the city – every square either has that, or a fountain! – but this one is so intricately carved, with thousands of pictures adorning its sides, telling of the victories of Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century. It’s actually surrounded by government buildings, so you can’t always get that close during the week, but this was the upside of doing the tour on a Sunday, that they were all closed! We learned a bit more about their architecture, then stopped by the Obelisk of Montecitorio, which lines up to be used as a sundial – though it was too cloudy for us to see it in action.
It was then a short walk to the Pantheon, a fascinating building! It was built in the 2nd century, as a temple to all the Ancient Roman gods, and has a perfectly round, self-supported dome, which was a feat of engineering for its time! Now it is used as a Catholic church, one of the only reasons it still stands – most of the ancient temples were pulled down when Rome became Christian. Mass had already finished so we were able to go inside and have a look at its rich decoration, and the whole in the roof which fills it with natural light. At midday on the spring solstice, also the anniversary of the founding of Rome, the light shines through and lines up with the main entrance, suggesting it also worked as a sundial! The tour continued with a visit to the Church of Saint Ignatius, where visitors can look around in the back half, even while Mass takes place at the front. This church has the most interesting ceiling, as it was painted as a massive ‘trompe l’oeil’, a trick piece that makes it look as though it has a dome and arches that aren’t actually there. It’s quite confusing trying to figure out what is real and what is painted!
The tour finished close to the Trevi Fountain, where we paid and said goodbye to our guide, before checking out the fountain itself. Last time I was here, it was being renovated and had no water in it, so I was glad to see it in all its glory this time! Rome is very proud of its water – our guide had already shown us the various drinking fountains around the city, supplied through ancient aqueducts, and most of the fountains work with natural pressure, no pumps of mechanisms! The Trevi Fountain is actually built on the back of someone’s house, from the 18th century, and the sculptures depict Oceanus, the sea god, surrounded by seahorses and Tritons (mermen). Our guide had told us that the coin throwing was really just because it’s done in films, like ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’, but I also discovered that it generates millions of euros every year, which the city collects and gives to charity, so it’s still worth tossing some in! My family did so, and then we headed off to find some lunch.
I took them to the Piazza Navona, which I remembered from my last trip. The Fountain of Four Rivers stands in the centre, with one river god representing the rivers of the four major continents known about in the 17th century – the Danube for Europe, Ganges for Asia, Nile for Africa, and Rio de la Plata for the Americas. We chose a restaurant, where I devoured an entire pizza to myself, and people watched while hiding from the rain for a while. We then planned to head towards the Capitoline Museums, to seek refuge from the rain, though it wasn’t too heavy anyways. We wound through many narrow, winding streets along the way, just taking in each new corner of the city. We actually passed by the River Tiber, and saw the Isola, its only island in the middle of it.
We wound up past the Teatro Marcello, which looks like a smaller version of the Colosseum, and around the edge of Capitoline Hill. Once we had climbed up the slope to the museum, we ended up not going inside. It was a bit pricey, and we would have only had an hour or two to look around, and didn’t know of any specific artworks inside we wanted to see. Instead, we admired the building itself – nothing in Rome looks ugly or uninteresting! – and the statues around its courtyard. We also came across a viewpoint behind the museum, which overlooked the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum visible in the distance!
Back down the hill, we continued around it to the Altare della Patria, also called the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel, who became the first King of Italy in 1861. This was when the entire country became united, as in the past it had existed as smaller kingdoms and city states. The building is huge and decadent, but also nicknamed ‘the wedding cake’ by locals who were less pleased by its size and design. From here it was a short walk back to our apartment, to relax for a couple of hours before heading out again for dinner. We went back into the historic centre, and saw some of the same sights from this morning, including the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, lit up in the dark, the latter being particularly impressive! After roaming around for a while, we ended up in a small restaurant down a side street, where we shared bruschetta and crostini to start, and I had gnocchi for my main.
Our second day started even earlier than the first, as we had pre-booked timed tickets for the Colosseum at 9am. Pre-booking was definitely a good idea, as later in the day, you end up wasting time in huge queues trying to get in, and we were glad that we did go so early, as it was fairly quiet when we arrived, but getting much busier by the time we were leaving, at around 10.30am. It took us about 20 minutes to walk there from our apartment, and then we had to queue up to collect our tickets – you can print a pdf yourself, but only for adult tickets. My sister and I were eligible for a discount, but we had to show proof of that on arrival. We also hired audioguides at the same time, because we wanted to get a better understanding of what we were actually seeing!
Once we got inside, the audioguide basically took us on a loop halfway around the upper level, then downstairs and around the lower level. However, the stops on it don’t necessarily require you to stand in each exact spot, as it is more often talking about more general history. The Colosseum was built in the 1st century, commissioned by Emperor Vespasian and finished by his son, Titus. It took around 10 years to complete the project – which actually seems pretty quick given its size! – with thousands of slaves doing the work. Today, large sections of it are now missing, as the stone was used to build other parts of Rome during the Renaissance. It could hold almost 60,000 spectators, seated according to rank – the lower your rank, the higher you sat – and the boxes reserved for the most important guests would have lavishly decorated with marble. The Colosseum is an oval, not a circle, with entrances all around the sides, but gladiators would enter from one end, and the dead bodies were dragged out the other.
The audioguide also told us plenty about the gladiators and other games that took place here. Gladiators were either free men looking for fame and fortune – they were the celebrities of the time! – or slaves seeking to win their freedom. There were different types of fighters, equipped with different weapons as well. From the lower level of the Colosseum, you can see the underground levels, which were once hidden by the amphitheatre floor, part of which has been reconstructed. Here, the gladiators waited, but also wild animals were kept. Some could be released into the arena via trapdoors, to the awe and delight of the crowds. As well as gladiator and wild animal flights, the arena was also flooded on occasion to stage naval battles!
Once we had sufficiently explore the arena, we exited and made our way over to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which is included in the same ticket. We got audioguides again for this, to understand what each of the ruined buildings once was. It took us a little while to figure out where to start, as the numbered maps on boards around the area do not match up with the numbered map in the audioguide! We got there in the end, but it did waste some time – we ended up staying inside from about 10.45am until 1.45pm, and even though the extended audio tour was meant to take 2 hours, I couldn’t complete it all in 3 (which is when you have to return the audioguide), since I got lost or mixed up a couple of times! It gave me a decent overview of it all at least. It was also a warm, sunny day, so it was very pleasant for spending a few hours roaming around outdoors.
The Roman Forum would have once been a busy, bustling, central area of the city – it seems strange to think of all those people walking around in it 2000 years ago, and the fact that these ruins still exist! It was built over many centuries, from the 5th century BC through to the 5th century AD, spanning the Roman Republic and Empire. We saw the remains of their government buildings, meeting halls (‘basilicas’ but not churches!), and of their market shops. Many of the ruins were once temples to the ancient Roman gods, including Saturn, Castor and Pollux, and Concord, as well as the House of the Vestal Virgins, who were revered in Roman society. The Temple of Romulus is an important one as well, the man who founded Rome, after defeating his twin brother, Remus, according to legend. There are triumphal arches at either end of the Forum too, dedicated to two of Rome’s Emperors, and covered in images of their victories.
The Roman Forum sits in the valley below Palatine Hill, which is covered in the second half of the audioguide. This was the place where the earliest Roman Emperors built their grand royal residences, above and away from the rest of the Forum, and looking down on the Circus Maximus (once a stadium) on the other side. It is also believed to be where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf as infants, legend says. You can see the remains of Augustus, Tiberius, and Domitian’s palaces – because of course they needed one each! – as well as more temples and yet another stadium. A more recent addition to the hill is the Farnese Gardens and villa, built in the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, which is definitely quite a contrast to the ancient ruins!
We left the park early afternoon, and walked around the back of it, past the Circus Maximus, and found a cafe to stop in for lunch – pizza again for me! Our plan had been to go to the Baths of Caracalla, just a short walk away, but on arrival we discovered they close early on Mondays! I did get there in the end though – more on that in part 2. So instead, we hopped in a taxi and went back to the Altare della Patria, on the front of Capitoline Hill, and which we had passed the day before. Since it was better weather than Sunday’s clouds and rain, we wanted to go up the glass lift we had spotted on the back of it. This did mean we got to explore the rest of it as well!
You actually enter on the front of the building, and climb up all its stairs first. The monument contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, flanked by two guards and flaming cauldrons in remembrance. We walked around the back of the huge statue of Vittorio Emmanuel on horseback, and then around to the back of the building where the elevators are. I don’t love glass lifts like these, but I sucked it up, and it took only seconds to reach the very top of the building. We were very glad we had kept this for a sunny day, as we could see all across Rome, including the Colosseum behind us, and St Peter’s Basilica, where we would be headed the next day. We spent a good while perusing the information boards up there, which indicated what many of the other buildings we didn’t recognise were.
We descended in the lift again, and then exited by walking down the stairs inside the building – everything was pristine white marble, and it is just as grand and decadent inside as out! It really is massive as well! There is a museum in the basement about the unification of Italy, but we opted to skip that. Instead, we exited, and stopped to get some gelato on the way back to the apartment – so many flavours to choose from, but I went with Nutella and coconut this time! After a couple of hours rest, we went out for dinner, this time choosing somewhere close to the apartment, down a little side street near Via Nazionale. We shared some salad and a meat board first, then I chose risotto for my main course this time, with prawns – there was more seafood on many menus than we had been expecting! We were all ready for bed after such busy days so far – and there was still more to come!
Check out my updated Travel Inspiration
post on Rome as well, with new photos from this trip!