Rome has been known as the Eternal City since ancient times. The Roman people thought that no matter what happened in the future, Rome would go on forever. And, it has.
There are two defining sites in the city, the Colosseum and Vatican City. The first was the home of great Pagan rituals and events, and the second took over the spiritual responsibility once Christianity became established.
We had a tour guide who summed up this relationship perfectly. Standing in the Colosseum and pointing to the Sistine Chapel across the city she said, “This was once a building filled with marble, art, and beauty. As the Church grew in power, all of the treasures that could once be found over here can now be found over there.”
The Roman Empire not only survived the transition from Paganism to monotheism, it managed to remain the preeminent city and culture in the Western World. What an incredible accomplishment!
The last time we were in Rome, we arrived by car and after 30 minutes of trying to navigate to our hotel (and avoid being run off the road by the locals), we ditched the car at the nearest rental office.
First tip: Don’t drive. (Yes, it’s a big city. But most of the areas that will be of interest are in walking distance from each other. Odds are, you can walk anywhere you will want to visit within 30-45 minutes.)
You can’t miss the Palazzo Venezia, home of the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (known as “The “Typewriter”, as it looks like one). Think of it as a long lost friend you can see from almost anywhere. It’s a great landmark that can guide you to the Forum, Colosseum, ghetto, and across the Tiber to Trastevere.
Try to stay near the Pantheon or Piazza Navona. They’re centrally located and fairly close to almost everything – even the Colosseum if you head towards The Typewriter. And, there are plenty of places to eat and drink well, in all price ranges.
Going to Vatican City or the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine? Consider taking a tour. You’ll skip the very long lines and complex entry procedures. More importantly, you will probably learn quite a bit from the tour guides – we certainly did. Use these two vastly different sites to take note of the major disruption that occurred in Rome over the last 2000 years: the transfer of wealth from a Pagan culture/empire to a Catholic one – in the same city, no less!
Stop at every church that you can – not necessarily for the religious value, but for the cultural value and to understand the vast wealth and social stratification of the Catholic church before and during its Renaissance heyday. Based on their size and location, you’ll get a feel for the socioeconomic status of the people that each church, chapel, basilica, or duomo was built to serve. No matter what size or location, the artwork and architecture are breathtaking. (If the Renaissance is of interest, hop the train and spend a few days in Florence.)
Heading to Trastevere? Don’t forget to walk through the ghetto, home for centuries to Rome’s Jewish population. Stop for coffee and a nosh, possibly some lamb and fried carciofi (artichokes). The area has remained unchanged for at least a century.
If you love the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and major piazzas during the day, check them out at night. The energy, enthusiasm, and entertainment value are magnetic. There’s plenty of gelato, coffee, shopping, and people watching to be had in or near most public gathering places.
Restaurant reviews are a crap shoot. Some places highly recommended to us by friends were terrible, while some places that were not so highly rated on Trip Advisor were quite good. Stay off the main streets and you’ll do ok. Also, prices can be a good indicator of quality, so don’t expect cheap prices to translate to high value. (Any place that’s been visited by Anthony Bourdain or Rick Steves will probably be expensive and crowded.)
A few of our favorite places to eat:
- Pierluigi Ristorante – Unbelievable seafood, great service and al fresco dining to die for. You must make a reservation, and be prepared to spend for the privilege. (Ristoranti are at the top of the Italian gastronomical foodchain.) Worth it! Address: Piazza dé Ricci 144, Roma | Email: email@example.com | Phone: [+39] 06 68 61 302 – 06 68 68 717 | Open every day for lunch and dinner (reservations required)
- Osteria Barbarini – This cozy, traditional restaurant specializes in truffle dishes – pastas, meats, seafood. Nice wine list that offers many reds that go well with the pastas and meats. A bit off the beaten path, close to the Piazza del Tritone. Address: Via Della Purificazione, 21, Roma | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Phone: +39.06.4743325 | Lunch and dinner, closed Sunday (reservations required)
- Il Gabriello – Close to the Spanish Steps, head down the stairs of this rather sophisticated, artful, and well-designed restaurant. Both the food and wine are excellent, as is the service and the ambience. Meat, fish, and pasta are all first-rate, reflected in the prices. A Google favorite. Address: Via Vittoria, 51, 00187 Roma – Zona di Piazza di Spagna | Phone: +39 06 6994 0810 | Dinner, closed Sunday (reservations required)
- Ristorante Il Ponentino – Yes, the staff seemed a bit slow and cold at first, but once you smile at them and use your limited Italian language skills, they warm right up. (In fact, Bob and our server became fast friends when Bob asked him to pose for this photo.) The food is quite good and reasonably priced. And, if you think like an Italian, you’ll appreciate that they leave you alone until you request their attention. We loved their version of tiramisu, made with cake rather than ladyfingers. Excellent homemade pasta, too.
A bit hard to find on the Trastavere side, but the old neighborhood is charming and definitely worth exploring. Address: Piazza del Drago, 10, 00153 | Phone: +39 06 5830 1939 | Go for lunch
- Diadema Café – Out of the way spot not too far from the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore. It’s a family run, casual place with good food and a very friendly atmosphere. Be forewarned: It can get a bit roudy at night, thanks to a lively, young, and international crowd. Address: Via Palermo, 31, 00184 | Phone: +39 06 481 8379 | Open all day, every day
- L’Antica Salumeria (Piazza della Rotonda, by the Pantheon) – An authentic and traditional Italian deli, this is the perfect place for a lunchtime sandwich or antipasto, and a beer. Attentive service, friendly staff. Go to the Pantheon next door and then stop here for lunch. Address: Piazza della Rotonda, 5 | Open all day, every day
- Edy Ristorante – This is an artsy little place just off the Via del Babuino, one third of the way from the Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps. The food is very traditional and very good. Service is typically Italian, so take your time and don’t expect to be entertained. Address: Vicolo del Babuino, 4, 00187 Roma | Phone: +39 06 3600 1738 | Lunch and dinner
Don’t have a dinner reservation? Try going early, as Italians don’t show up for dinner until about 9 pm. That gives you a shot at a table between 6:30-8:30 pm. (We never saw anyone without a reservation get turned away at 6:30-7 pm, when restaurants typically open. Odds are, you’ll be surrounded by other Americans.)
Don’t be offended by pano (bread) or cupierto (cover) charges. They are typical in Italian culture. Consider them to be a service charge and tip accordingly. For example, a $4 charge as part of a $44 meal can be considered a 10% tip. If you liked your service and wait staff, consider leaving another $2-4 for a total tip of 15-20%.
The best way to make a reservation is by asking the concierge or front desk attendant at the hotel to do it for you. Restaurants want to please hotel guests so that they get recommended by the staff, and will be more willing to bend to hotel requests.
Mangia Like An Italian
When eating out, remember 4 things:
- Italians don’t generally put butter or olive oil on their bread, so don’t expect any. (However, most servers will smirk and bring it if asked.)
- Take your time and enjoy your meal – the service isn’t slow, it’s relaxed.
- You don’t need to order an antipasto, first course (primo piatto), and second course (secondo piatto). Pick and choose as you see fit and feel free to share.
- Since lingering after a meal is both normal and expected, you probably won’t get the bill unless you ask for it (“Scuzi, il conto per favore”). If you do get the check without asking, there’s a reasonable chance that you’re being insulted and asked to leave.
Skip the summer if you can. It’s hot, crowded, and expensive. (That’s Paige trying to cool off by the Tiber River after we walked for about three miles in the summer heat and humidity. Note the sunburn on her arms.)
Questions? Comments? Let us know below.
Masthead photo: Lunch near the Spanish Steps (Bob)
View All Italy Posts: