It's Culture / Travel There

A Houstonian’s Guide: Rome in 24 Hours

roman forum

As I write this, my lifelong BFF (eternal BAE) is currently abroad in Italy. In honor of her Eat, Pray, Love (and eat some more) trip, I am finally writing about my Rome stay!

ICYMI, I went to Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome for a backpacking trip in September. If I’m being honest with you, Rome was not my favorite city on the trip — there had to be one at the bottom! It is a fantastic city I could have explored for weeks! Unfortunately, I was there for just a couple days (thank god bc I would have gained all the weight.

Here are some general tips about visiting the oldest city in the world (or close).

  • The streets are not your friends. It’s an old city, and so are its streets apparently. RIP to my boot heel that was forever left in the city. I cannot emphasize enough: Wear comfy shoes. Springing for a cab doesn’t help if you are at all motion sickness inclined.
  • The underground metro is the worst. There are only three lines, and, if you are patient enough to actually figure it out (it’s hard), you still might be screwed. I remember a traumatizing situation in which my ticket (THAT I HAD JUST BOUGHT) wasn’t working anywhere. I tried every turnstile and the rush of people were v annoyed with me until one very nice stranger tried to help me (to no luck) and we ended up squeezing through as one. Weird but very nice. Also, forget about sitting down on that train. It’s packed like sardines.
  • Rome is supposedly one of the worst cities for pickpockets. Keep your belongings close, and your valuables closer.
  • You will just stumble upon history. Every single bit of it is older than anything I’ve ever seen. Super cool and humbling. So, keep your head up and take it all in!
  • Romans were over all the least helpful people on my trip. I felt very on my own to figure out things. Servers had attitudes, too. Could have just been my experience, but oh well!
  • Order wine by the liter at every meal. Get the house wine, or whatever is cheapest. All Italian wine is good.
  • Get a guide. We on a whim joined a tour group that showed us around the Colosseum and Roman Forum, which was great because we wouldn’t have known anything about those places otherwise. It’s not like a museum with plaques telling you what’s what. Plus our guide was SUPER cute.

And here’s how to do the oldest city in the world (or close) in just a day!

Morning at the Vatican

The Vatican, like the Louvre or Versailles, is something you book in advance. Or so I thought. I was really stressed out about my metro experience (see above) and the hoards of people moving with me toward the Vatican. Though I had a 10 am reservation, I skipped stopping for breakfast because I assumed I would have to wait in at least one of the massive lines. And there were tons of scalpers asking if you needed advance tickets. When I said I had them, they moved on. I found it so hard to believe that ALL these people didn’t have tickets yet — I couldn’t be the only one to plan ahead for this? I shamelessly went straight to the front of the line and talked to, what I remember as, the largest man alive holding a velvet rope, showed him my ticket, and he immediately let me through. Now so early and hungry, I found a vending machine that gave me an apricot croissant.

I knew I needed some guidance but my ticket didn’t include an audio tour. I downloaded an unaffiliated app for $3, “Unofficial Guide to the Vatican.” There was a few to choose from. Here are the highlights:

  • Constantine things. I feel like there are Constantine things everywhere throughout the Vatican, but the two important Constantine-commissioned works of art are the porphyry (most expensive stone ever) sarcophagi he commissioned for his daughter and mother. On each sarcophagus, decorations are inscribed for each woman in his life. Happy scenes for his daughter, and intense ones that made momma proud for his mom.
  • Rafael’s rooms. There are four rooms that that Pope Julius II commissioned Rafael to paint frescoes for the reception rooms of the Papal apartments. You’ll probably walk in and be like, “oh that looks familiar.” Rafael was the dude that painted himself into his work, so play “I spy” with Rafael (especially in “The School of Athens”). Rafael died before completing two of the rooms, but his students finished his work.
  • Sistine Chapel. Duh this is the main event. All roads lead to the Sistine Chapel. Whether you’ve got an audioguide app or cassette player, it (and the signs) all leads to this. I remember basically waiting in line to get in — everyone is just being funnelled through the Rafael rooms, down the hall of tapestries, etc. When I finally got there, I was in awe. You are NOT allowed to take pictures, but I’m a rebel and got a blurry shot. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo for part of the work: The ceiling and The Last Judgement. The ceiling has the Creation of Adam that’s v famous. The Last Judgement was super controversial, because Michelangelo painted the people nude, and the pope was pissed — this was a functioning chapel, a place of worship. Then some people came in and painted fig leaves over the dirty bits, and then some people came back in to try to take them off and restore the original painting.

Gnocchi at Due Colonne
gnocchi in rome

I cannot tell you if this gnocchi is the best in Italy because I have not had all of Italy’s gnocchi (and unfortunately never will), but it was the best thing ever for me when I munched on it during lunch. I actually didn’t order it; my friend did. BUT, I cleaned the plate when she was done. So good and I am now drooling.

The other thing you need to know about this place is do not sit inside. I mean, you can. But you shouldn’t. I kid you not, halfway through our meal I looked up and realized the street we were on ended at the Colosseum. Literally, our view was this incredibly old and beautiful structure with so much history. I was stressed out about time and traveling back the next day, but this view was the most amazing release.

See the sights

100% recommend doing a tour of some sort. We did one because it was worth the $50 euros or whatever to know what we were looking at. Bonus: We got a really hot Italian tour guide. 😉

 Colosseum

I know it’s cliche, but this was probably my favorite piece of history I got to see on my trip. It was just insane to me to imagine the things that happened in this place and how many years it has stood. It’s honestly as old as civilization itself, and its history does a really good job paralleling the history of civilization. It was constructed in 72 AD and completed in 80. It served pagan purposes for hundreds of years, like gladiator battles (prisoners forced to fight each other to the death). Due to stonerobbers (people who stole pieces of the structure, like the gold brackets used to hold the huge cement slabs together) and earthquakes and, you know, thousands of years, it’s kinda fallen apart.

Arch of Titus of Rome and the Arch of Constantine

Triumphal arches were so totally in during the imperial period during the fourth century A.D. under emperor Augustus. They were constructed to celebrate a big win in battle and then everyone would parade through it. Not much is known otherwise about the arches.

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

The Roman Forum was the center of society of Rome. Everything happened here: Trials, markets, triumphant parades and the home of the Vestal Virgins. This one of my favorite parts of my tour — maybe because I’m a young woman and that’s exactly who the Vestals were. The women were selected between ages 6 and 10 and were committed to serving a term of 30 years, taking a vow of chastity. The girls selected were usually from wealthy families and selected by the ruler himself. The Vestals were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. With their selection, they became daughters of the state so any sexual relationship was deemed incestuous and punishable by death. But not just any death. No one was allowed to spill vestal blood, so the women who broke their vow of celibacy would be buried alive — except that it was against Roman law to be buried within the city. So. Rather than be buried alive with no access to food or water, the condemned women were given the smallest amount of food and water. Enough for them to not technically be buried alive, but not enough that they would survive. I think most chose to end their own lives. If they didn’t break their vow, they were released at the ripe old age of 36-40. Apparently there were Vestals to be married and they were v popular after. Still, not worth it.

The Vestal Virgins we also thought to be the creators of pizza, but that is unconfirmed.

Altar of the Fatherland

Altar of the Fatherland

We sat in front of this structure our cabbie called the White Castle. LOL. Not the White Castle you’re thinking off. It’s actually a military building with a first-floor museum, or so I discovered after googling.

Largo di Torre Argentina (cat colony)

I really wish somehow, some way Julius Caesar could know that the Pompey’s Theatre in the Largo di Torre Argentina where he was killed has turned into a cat sanctuary. I wonder how PISSED he would be. The square was on the top of my list of places to visit, for obvious reasons, but I was kinda bummed that I couldn’t go down into the square. I know it’s probably for conservation purposes, but I also like to think it’s so that the cats can have their space.

Full disclosure: The cats looked a little rough. Every single one had some sort of old wound — missing eye, foot, etc. It was sad but they seemed happy to be alive at least.

This one lil calico played with me though! I gave him my hair tie (all cats love hair ties, it’s the universal toy) and also my heart. There is an actual place where you can visit cats and maybe adopt? IDK bc they were 5 minutes from closing and shooed us out v rudely.

It took a lot to make me leave this place. Mad props to you, Italy, for having a no kill regulation for strays.

Pantheon

Pantheon

In normal Italian way, this pagan temple built in 118-128 AD is now a church. Italians a v good a recycling religious structures. It’s free to go in and there are usually performers and people out and about. It’s kind of an impressive architectural accomplishment. The circular dome is unreinforced and has stood the test of time (ahem, 2,000 years). At the peak of the dome is the oculus, an opening that both lightens the load of the dome and provides natural light.

Trevi Fountain

trevi fountain

 Again free, this is one of the most iconic spots to visit in Rome. We had a dreary day, so we didn’t get to spend long there, but I did manage to toss a penny in — which I kind of feel bad about because apparently the money (in euros) goes to the poor. OOPS.

Pasta/Pizza at Pizzeria Forno a Legna

We booked an Airbnb for Rome (it was so cute!), and it was in this apartment buildin SECONDS from the Colosseum and tons of other things. Literally, we never cabbed or (apart from my Vatican voyage) metro-ed once. Right outside our door was this cute restaurant that we went to because we were starving and it was RIGHT there. Turns out it was amazing and everyone in the world knew that except us. UNTIL we ate there. Such amazing pizza, pasta and wine and gelato.

Gelato at… anywhere.

Eating ice cream will never be the same to me after the gelato in Rome. It wasn’t just a post-meal dessert for us (although that picture on the right was my SINGLE SERVING I got after our first dinner in Rome). But, gelato was our “oh it’s starting to rain.. let’s pop into this gelato spot” and our “oh I’m tired of walking… let’s pop into this gelato spot” kind of thing. I learned what type of gelato I liked (all of it) and whether I liked it in a cone or a dish (both). PSA: This gelato spot in Houston, while not as good a sitting near the Trevi Fountain eating gelato good, it’s pretty freaking good.

11 thoughts on “A Houstonian’s Guide: Rome in 24 Hours

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