Rome (Pt. 2)

Rome, like any metropolitan city, deserves multiple trips. This was my third time in Rome (I visited once as a baby to visit my grandparents, and again a few years ago with Anthony), and each time has gotten better and better. We stayed in a more interesting neighborhood, redid our favorite activities, and checked off some bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do last time. Here’s some advice for Rome that we learned on this trip:

Stay in Trastevere. This is easily the most charming neighborhood in Rome, with maze-like cobblestone streets that wind past pretty churches and colorful, crumbling buildings. Trastevere means “beyond the Tiber River”, and those who grew up here have a sense of pride similar to those who grew up in Brooklyn — they consider themselves Trasteverini before they consider themselves Romans. Like Brooklyn, Trastevere is also a foodie destination, with some of the best restaurants in Rome right around the corner from our apartment. It’s convenient to most touristy sites, so we were able to walk almost everywhere.

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Across the Tiber River

Although the secret has been out for a while and Trastevere is now packed with tourists and exchange students at night, we still felt like locals staying there as we entered a nondescript door and walked up three narrow flights of stairs to reach our apartment. Our host welcomed us with a bottle of wine and a binder full of recommendations, which I followed diligently. Our apartment had lovely terracotta floors, vaulted ceilings, and a tiny balcony. We took afternoon siestas and cooked pasta leftovers in the compact kitchen.

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View from our balcony

Visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum as early as possible. Last time, we were there midday, and it was awful. The heat was so bad that I was too miserable to appreciate any history and spent the entire time jumping from shady spot to shady spot. This time, we booked tickets for the first entrance of the day, which meant fewer tourists and much cooler temperatures.

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Outside the Colosseum
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Cross-section of the Colosseum
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Inside, before all the tourists arrive

Two other places to visit as early as possible are the Pantheon and Spanish Steps. The Pantheon does not require tickets as it is a public church, so we got there before it opened and were among the first to enter. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings in the world, mainly because it has been in continuous use throughout its history, first as a temple and then as a church. The Pantheon is blatant proof that one can only survive if one adapts. Its most famous feature is its huge coffered concrete dome, with an oculus that opens up to the sky and lets rainwater in. Built two thousand years ago, this dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Heading to the Pantheon
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Oculus
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The emptiest the Spanish Steps will ever be

Visit Piazza Navona at dusk. Though inundated with tourists and street performers, this lively square has always been one of my favorite parts of Rome. It is built on the site of a stadium from the 1st century, and was later transformed into a stunning public square filled with Baroque Roman architecture, such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Dusk is the most romantic time to come, when the marble glows a soft rose color, Romans and tourists are relaxed after the hot day, and musicians start playing corny American love songs. I even teared up here on our last night, when some guy played “My Heart Will Go On”, a song that I typically hate — but then again, everything sounds better in Italy.

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Fontana Quattro dei Fiumi

Visit the Trevi Fountain in the morning and in the evening. This fountain is what I was most excited to see in Rome. It was closed for renovation last time, so I made sure it was the first thing we did when we returned. At night, it’s magical, but early in the morning, you can better appreciate all the intricate details of the marble and the crisp blue of the water.

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Romantic at night
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Early morning visit

See Bernini and Caravaggio at the Galleria Borghese. Advanced reservations are required, and each ticket includes a mandatory guided tour, which we enjoyed tremendously. Our quirky guide focused on just a few of the pieces throughout the museum and really helped us appreciate the sculptor Bernini and painter Caravaggio.

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Can you believe that’s marble?
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Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne
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Bernini’s David
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Beautiful fresco ceiiing by Mariano Rossi
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One of Caravaggio’s famous paintings, exemplifying his dark and realistic depictions of religious themes

Take a food tour with Eating Italy. We signed up for a four-hour Twilight in Trastevere tour, which took us to seven different places around our neighborhood, from a secret wine cellar that once housed bronze sculptures from the ancient Roman times, to a 90-year-old cookie shop that’s won dozens of awards yet has no signage in front, to a takeout spot that specializes in Roman street food specialties. As usual, the food tour was my favorite activity of our entire stay. It’s a great way to meet other people, learn about the culture, and be introduced to places we’d never find on our own.

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This wine cellar was an ancient Roman courtyard that had been buried until excavation in the 19th century
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Ready for wine!
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Julius Caesar’s favorite dish: pork stew with fish sauce
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Stefania and Giuliano have been running this biscotteria (cookie shop) for decades
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Trying lemon, chocolate, and hazelnut biscotti
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The porchetta, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and beer were all delicious, but our favorite thing was the owner’s son, who hammed it up for the cameras
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Trying supplì (fried rice balls mixed with tomato sauce and mozzarella)
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Roman-style pizza is thin and crispy, baked in a metal pan, topped with nothing but fresh tomato sauce, and served by the slice
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Trying pasta at a ristorante
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Two of Rome’s most typical pasta dishes: amatriciana (guanciale, pecorino, tomato, onion) and cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper)
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Fior di latte and hazelnut gelato from Fatamorgana

I ate carbonara every day but never got sick of it. Our tour guide explained that there’s a reason you can eat pasta every day in Italy but not feel bad about yourself; it’s just made differently here. Less processed.

Here are some of my favorite eateries we tried:

Osteria Da Zi Umberto: This trattoria, just a couple of blocks from our apartment, was filled with locals. Reservations are a must, though we lucked out with a last-minute table, and the carbonara was the best I had on the trip. Anthony tried (and fell in love with) trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe!).

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Carbonara, roasted rosemary potatoes, trippa alla Romana, and a half liter of house wine

Trapizzino: This is a new trend in Rome. It takes a traditional street food, pizza bianca (plain pizza dough), creates a pocket with it, and stuffs it with classic Italian dishes, such as rosemary chicken or veal tongue with anchovies. It was my favorite way to eat Roman pizza. Trapizzino has been so successful that it’s expanded to multiple locations across Italy.

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Trapizzino

Da Enzo al 29: This popular restaurant is usually booked weeks in advance, but we were able to try it because our food tour guide is friends with the staff. I had a dish of burrata, prosciutto, and grilled eggplant. Da Enzo deserves the hype!

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Grilled eggplant, burrata, and prosciutto

Gelateria La Romana: We revisited this gelateria after discovering it on our trip last time, and we are happy to say that the gelato is still as delicious, sustainable, and dirt-cheap (2.50 euros for two scoops! You’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else!) as we remembered.

Some other tips for dining in Rome:

  1. Stick to trattorias for your main meals. Trattorias specialize in traditional Italian food and are more casual than ristoranti. Order a carafe of house wine and enjoy incredible food for cheap. It’s the best way to experience Roman cuisine, and the rustic atmosphere is exactly what you came to Rome for.
  2. Eat breakfast the Italian way: standing up at the counter, drinking a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Even if your hotel provides free breakfast, I urge you to skip it and head to the nearest coffee bar instead. Those hotel breakfast buffets usually consist of poor-quality cured meats and cheeses, old pastries, cereal and yogurt options, and coffee that no self-respecting Italian would drink. Trust me, they’re catering to lazy Americans. You’ll have a much better experience waking up early and surrounding yourself with Italians on their way to work.

Though it was not my first time in Rome, it was the first time I fell in love with it. I’d always been somewhat intimidated by it as a city, preferring genteel Florence or glitzy Milan. But this time, we did Rome properly. We felt so at home here; some of our most memorable experiences were just watching the World Cup at a couple of our neighborhood spots, cheering with locals and tourists alike. If we ever decide to live abroad, Rome is Anthony’s first choice — and it’s hard for me not to agree.

Rome

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Rome was intimidating. After getting comfortable in quaint Florence and Disneyland Venice, we were finally in a real city, dense and sprawling. The Eternal City has a special place in my heart — partly because my grandparents used to live in Rome, back when my grandfather was still working for the UN, and partly because one cannot grow up watching Fellini films without being somewhat seduced by it.

The remains of a former temple
The remains of a former temple

We stayed at the adorable Lilium Hotel, near embassies and other grand buildings. Everything about Lilium Hotel was charming, from the French doors that opened up to our tiny balcony, to the birdcage and piano in the lobby, to the dishware for our breakfasts each morning.

Lobby of Lilium Hotel
Lobby of Lilium Hotel
Breakfast with a view
Breakfast with a view

After we settled in, we walked to the nearby Monti neighborhood, which immediately became my favorite neighborhood in Rome. The hilly neighborhood is right in the center of Rome, yet retains a small village quality thanks to its narrow side streets, quirky buildings, and bohemian character. Monti and Trastevere seem to be the “cool” areas in Rome right now. You can tell just by passing any piazza in Monti, where young Romans with cheap beer and cigarettes congregate around the fountain. We ate in Monti twice, once at La Taverna del Monti (try the fritti and carbonara!) and once at La Carbonara. Just like in Florence, food in Rome is a very good deal, unlike cities along the coast.

Rione Monti
Rione Monti
Had two of Rome's specialties (carbonara and fritti) on our first night
Had two of Rome’s specialties (carbonara and fritti) on our first night

Enormous ancient ruins are everywhere, nonchalantly scattered across the city. We trekked over to the Colosseum twice — once during the daytime and once at night — because it was just that stunning. The colossal, concrete-and-stone amphitheater is still the largest in the world and is an architectural and engineering marvel. The exits are embedded within the tiers of seats and are called vomitoria because it is where the crowd can “spew forth” and exit the Colosseum rapidly. This design has been copied over and over in modern stadiums. The Colosseum can hold 80,000 spectators and has been used for everything, from gladiator contests to executions to re-enactments of classical myths. Part of it has collapsed due to earthquakes and stone-robbers, but even in its damaged state (which offers a perfect cross-section of the structure), it is still stunning. When you’re inside the Colosseum, it’s hard not to imagine a packed stadium watching wild animals tearing naked prisoners into pieces.

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Perfect cross-section of the Colosseum
Perfect cross-section of the Colosseum

Rome was probably the hottest city on our trip, with temperatures over a hundred when we were touring the Roman Forum. If you’re here in the summer, it’s a good idea to bring along a water bottle to refill at Rome’s many public drinking fountains, and plan to take afternoon siestas. There are also gorgeous fountains all over the city, and you’ll often see Italians just sitting with their feet in them. While America seems to respect works of art by closing them off and making them inaccessible, Italy in many ways does the exact opposite by incorporating masterpieces into daily lives.

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Roman Forum
Filling up the water bottle
Filling up the water bottle

You can’t really visit Rome without stopping by the Vatican, so we made our way through the disgustingly touristy surrounding neighborhood — constantly being asked by strangers on the sidewalk if we had bought our tickets yet — and finally entered Vatican City. (We later realized that they are actually associated with the Vatican City and were trying to help us. We could’ve used that level of help in Florence!) We breezed through opulent halls and followed the signs to the Sistine Chapel. Groups of tourists were herded like cattle, in and out of the chapel, but if you stay in the middle, no one will notice how long you’ve been there. Anthony and I ending up staying in the Sistine Chapel for about 30 minutes. It was breathtaking — and this is coming from an atheist! Michelangelo spent four years of his life working on this massive fresco, depicting the history of the world. When he was first commissioned by the pope, he was primarily a sculptor, not a painter, and was reluctant to take on the project. However, the Pope was persistent. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo was standing on scaffolding as he painted (instead of lying on his back) and must have felt considerable discomfort as he had to paint with his head tilted upwards. If you aren’t impressed with Michelangelo yet, you certainly will be after standing under his Sistine ceiling.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel

After the Sistine Chapel, we climbed 645 steps (yes, Anthony counted!) up to the top of St. Mark’s Basilica to see the view of Rome. Rome isn’t the most attractive city from above, but the view gives you a good sense of how vast it is.

View of Vatican City
View of Vatican City

Surprisingly, my favorite meal in Rome was right outside Vatican City. Hostaria dei Bastioni was recommended by Rick Steves, so we decided to give it a try despite its touristy location. A charming old man welcomed us inside his restaurant. My seafood pasta was unbelievable, so when he asked us if we wanted to try some tiramisu, which his wife makes fresh, we eagerly said yes. And, boy, I’m so glad we did. I didn’t think anyone could top the tiramisu at New York’s Via Quadranno. Unlike every other tiramisu I’ve had in the U.S., I could actually taste the sponginess of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, as well as the mascarpone and a hint of alcohol.

Seafood pasta
Favorite meal in Rome

Whereas nighttime makes Venice exponentially more palatable, nighttime heightens Rome’s sensuality. Rome wins the contest for best uplighting. As the sun sets, lanterns illuminate the streets with a warm, orange glow, evoking the oil candles used in ancient times, while the intricate details of monuments become accentuated in the most impeccable way. In other words, Rome becomes sultry.

Pantheon
Pantheon

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Rome is a perfect mix of fashionable Milan and gritty Naples, which was the next stop on our Euro Trip. Ciao, Napoli!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Ride the Metro. As a New Yorker, I’m always pretty curious about other cities’ subway systems. Rome only has two lines (it’s hard to build underground when you’re constantly finding ancient ruins during construction!), but we found them very convenient. An unlimited day pass cost €7. The Metropolitana di Roma stations and trains are covered in stylish graffiti, and each train has little monitor screens that play random commercials.
  2. Everything is Rome is a tourist attraction, so get advanced tickets to save time. Since I had reserved online tickets for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and St. Mark’s Basilica, we were able to skip three insanely long lines.

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