All photos shot with 35mm film and a vintage camera
Few places conjure up as much as Rome, where the ancient melds with the modern in a bustling and cosmopolitan capital city. There are so many iconic sights in Rome, from the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, to the Fontana di Trevi, that it can make planning a trip, particularly a short one, seem overwhelming. Visiting everything there is to see and do would take days, if not weeks or months.
And, to truly experience Rome, you need to lose yourself in the intense charm of its neighborhoods, away from the crowds; to chance upon piazzas and churches and tiny bars; in short, you need to wander through it. But is it possible to discover a city like Rome in only a short period of time?
Luckily, it is an eminently walkable city, and with a little planning, it’s possible to both visit some must-see sites and also take time to experience the city serendipitously, with plenty of stops for Italian coffee along the way. So how do you make the best of your time there? Below are a few tips and insights for making the most out of a short trip to Rome.
1) Don’t try to see and do it all
In other words, prioritize. If there is one big tourist attraction, such as the Sistine Chapel, that you are absolutely intent on visiting, look it up in advance — check to see if tickets are available online — and most importantly get there early. (Expect crushing crowds in and around the most famous sites, particularly during the high season.) Otherwise, you will lose disproportionate amounts of time jostling for a spot in line, hours that would be better spent exploring the city.
If you are really pressed for time, consider one or two well-planned walks of the city instead, visiting a few main attractions in passing. For a two-day trip, a walking itinerary that includes 4 or 5 sites, and an in-depth exploration of 1 or 2 neighborhoods is reasonable, and will allow you to get a good sense of the city. (See below.)
2) Plan to walk
A lot. Make it a point to pack a pair of good walking shoes. Rome’s Metro system services some of the main sites, including Piazza di Spagna, which is adjacent to the Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum, but is fairly limited otherwise. (St. Peter’s in Vatican City, for example, is far from the nearest stop.)
A great starting point for visiting the city by foot is the area around the Spanish Steps (Spagna stop on Metro Line A). There’s a beautiful view of the city from Trinità dei Monti, the monastery located at the top of the fabled steps, which overlook Piazza di Spagna. From there, walk to the Trevi Fountain, then the Pantheon (which is free and open to the public) and Piazza Navona. Then, cross the Tiber at St. Angelo Bridge, and continue on to Vatican City and St. Peter’s.
After having seen some of Rome’s highlights, cross back into the areas around Campo de’ Fiori and the Centro Storico, Rome’s “historic center,” around the Pantheon. Give yourself enough time to wander through the neighborhoods and meandering streets in this area, the heart of Rome. If you’re up to it, you could walk to the Colosseum area from here, though it’s a healthy trek.
The Colosseum, which is right next to the Roman Forum and the Arch of Constantine, is just off the “Colosseo” Metro stop on Line B. This cluster of ancient Roman ruins and buildings in the ancient part of the city is the stuff of which Classics majors’ dreams are made, and absolutely worth even the most cursory of stops.
If you have just one day in Rome, start at Termini and take the Metro to the Colosseum area. Hop out and have a look, then take the Metro back to Spagna (you’ll need to change at Termini); from there, try the walk suggested above. Or, if you’re feeling up to it, you can walk, starting from the Roman Forum and ending at Trinità dei Monti.
3) Don’t Leave Without Trying …
Italy’s gastronomic culture is storied in its own right, and rightly so. Any trip to Rome, particularly for the first time, cannot be considered complete without trying some of the city’s emblematic dishes and, of course, drinking Italian coffee, which is consistently superb. Do not leave Rome without trying:
1) Cornetti. Not exactly a croissant — but close — a cornetto is a light, flaky pastry that is filled with jam, custard, or chocolate. Although the French croissant has acquired a near-mythic status, it’s possible to chance upon an entirely mediocre croissant in France. It’s harder, however, to find a cornetto in Rome that is anything short of sublime (in my experience anyway!). Cornetti is a breakfast pastry; go to a little bar in the morning and order one, like the Italians, with your morning cappuccino.
2) Coffee. When in Rome, drink coffee, at every possible opportunity – in the morning, halfway through the afternoon, and after every meal. A good rule of thumb, which also applies to food, is to find a little place on a side street. (Always stick to side streets.) Whenever you go to a bar or restaurant with a view, in a main piazza, it’s almost guaranteed that you will trade quality for the view, and pay a premium, as in most touristy places. In Rome, it’s not worth it. Authentic Italian coffee (and food) is just too good – and easy to find.
3) Carbonara. The quintessential Roman pasta dish that is traditionally prepared with egg, cheese, bacon, and black pepper. Katie Parla (@katieparla), a Rome-based food writer, offers some suggestions for best pasta dishes in Rome in an April 2015 piece that appeared in Bon Appétit. (Her website is also a great resource for all things related to Roman food.)
4) Gelato. Of course gelato!
4) A few practical matters
Rome is filled with small hotels and pensiones that are reasonably priced and often family-run. Do a little research beforehand, and you’re guaranteed to find a well-located place to stay at an affordable price. Be careful, though, as the European idea of standard amenities is very different from the American one. Don’t be surprised to find shared bathrooms or hallway showers, even in 3-star hotels!
Rome’s main international airport is Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino, located about 30 kilometers (roughly 18.5 miles) outside the city. There is a train, the Leonardo Express, that runs directly from the airport to Rome’s central Termini Station, with several departures every hour. Termini is a central hub with a Metro station connecting both of the city’s two main Metro lines, Lines A and B.
All photos © 2016 Claire Peeters