Our recent family vacation took us to Italy. Our full itinerary can be found here. Today’s focus is on our first stop: Rome … the city of layers … where ancient walls are graffitied by artists and occasionally hit by passing cars.
We chose the city. Next up – picking a location or neighborhood within the city to stay. We like to walk and/or use public transport in the cities we visit, so we tend to pick a location based on its accessibility to most of the things we want to see. Makes sense, right? We planned to visit the typical top spots in Rome, so decided to stay in a central location. Another area where we’ve stayed in the past is Trastevere, south of Vatican City on the west side of the river. It’s arguably quieter, and probably cheaper, and may even have a more (one might argue) “Roman” feel. We also considered the artsy, bohemian Monti area, which boasts a break from the tourist trap. In the end, we settled on a location in the heart of Rome – the Pantheon neighborhood within walking distance to Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and Campo de’Fiori, a piazza that hosts an open air market. We also were able to walk to Vatican City and the Spanish Steps, though took a taxi to the Colosseum. (Thank you to the Hotel Marghera – not where we stayed – for the map for its big words and pictures)
Where to sleep:
My husband is a perfectionist. This is annoying in some circumstances, like painting a room or deciding on a new pair of shoes, but is quite handy in picking out places for our family to stay on vacations. He will spend hours searching for the perfect spot for us to inhabit if only for a few nights. He nailed a good one in Rome: HiSuiteRome, luxury apartment suites on a relatively quiet street in the heart of Rome. It’s essentially an aparthotel, a serviced apartment with hotel-style booking.
We were met at the airport and transferred to HiSuiteRome in a private vehicle. The price for the transfer was included in our stay. Two friendly faces greeted us in a small reception office, then led us a few steps down the narrow street to our apartment. We discovered that the owner of the aparthotel owns the entire building, the bottom floor dedicated to the business, the top floors rented out to permanent residents.
We stayed for 3 nights in a two bedroom/two bathroom apartment complete with access to a peaceful courtyard in the middle of the building. Our place was huge, and could have easily accommodated 6 people. The front room had a kitchenette, a dining table for 6, and a pull-out couch. Behind this room was the first bedroom with 2 twin beds and an attached bathroom. Then behind that, another bedroom with a king bed, attached bathroom, and access to the inner courtyard. It was perfect.
What to do:
Normally I’m a fan of the big bus tours for first-timers in various cities, but I’ve heard mixed reviews for the one in Rome. I think it’s because 1) big buses don’t belong on the narrow streets in Rome, and 2) Rome is pretty walkable. So I say skip it. Instead, pick your top points of interest and make it happen. To figure out the top sites, look at the bus tour’s route or grab a travel book at the library or bookstore.
We arrived in Rome early afternoon on Day 1. After getting settled into our apartment, we walked our neighborhood … wandering into a surprisingly beautiful church off the Piazza Navona, then greeting a horse drawing a carriage outside the Pantheon, then making our way to Trevi Fountain to toss in a coin to ensure our return to Rome. We finished by eating some amazing pasta not far from our apartment.
Eating tips: Avoid places on the main squares or piazzas … especially places with “ristorante” in the title. They are generally touristy and over-priced with overly-aggressive massive menus. Instead, look for trattorias or osterias on the side streets. They are typically family-run, generation after generation. They have fewer tables, cheaper prices, a smaller menu with only the freshest, seasonal ingredients, and house wine served in decanters rather than bottles. Oh, and do use the toilettes there. They’re usually hidden somewhere in a cave in the basement accessible only by a small staircase, requiring you to duck your head and overcome your claustrophobic fears. It’s totally worth it. And if you’re traveling with a kid with a bladder the size of a pea, it’s also necessary.
Day 2 we spent wandering around ancient Rome, starting out at the Colosseum, then walking over to the Roman Forum, and finally climbing to the top of Palatine Hill. Based on a recommendation of one of Dave’s co-workers, we had booked in advance a family tour of the Colosseum with Context Tours. Liz Brewster, an architect living and working in Rome, met our family at a cafe across the street from the Colosseum, then walked us through the layers of the city. She used stories to engage our kids and answered all my crazy questions. It was definitely one of the highlights of the vacation. We finished off the day people-watching at the Spanish Steps, then eating pizza and gelato.
P.S. Before doing the ancient Rome stuff, get this book: Rome Past & Present. It’s the only reason you’ll need to enter a tourist shop to buy anything, and it’s well worth sifting through the kitschy snow globes and gaudy t-shirts to find it. It shows pictures of current Rome with overlays of what it looked like in ancient Rome. Super cool and well worth your 13 euros.
Gelato tips: Before picking a place for gelato, look to see how its displayed. Those that are stored in metal tins (rather than plastic) and are swirled or mounded generally means its made on the premises. Seasonal flavors and normal-looking colors are also a good sign. Sample several flavors before buying (though you will be hard-pressed to find a bad flavor). We had chocolate with wine, mango, and white chocolate basil at Gelateria del Teatro. And their lemon was out of this world. Don’t be afraid to mix the flavors. Even the small cup allows for two different scoops.
On Day 3 we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. Though it is free, it was raining and the line was long, so we paid to skip the line (look around the outside of St. Peter’s Square to buy these tickets). Entering the basilica is like tumbling around in a kaleidoscope. There is so much to see, so much to take in, it’s overwhelming. However, after the initial shock of its vastness subsides, you will slowly and quietly walk around the periphery and focus on each section individually. Michelangelo’s Pieta is truly exceptional and St. Peter’s memorial is spiritually moving. We were even able to witness part of a mass in process (somehow amidst all the tourists). We then finished off the day back at Trevi Fountain, where to really ensure my return, I pushed Dave in.
Before renting a car on Day 4 and escaping the city for Tuscany, we took another Context tour of Vatican City for kids. Art historian, Alessandra Poli, was exceptional. She focused our attention in the otherwise overwhelming enormity of the Popes’ collections of masterpieces, bringing them to light and life. Ending our time in Rome with the Sistine Chapel (and another round of gelato) was the exclamation point to a city that commands attention for its art and history as well as its modern vibrancy.