If you haven’t been to Rome yet, book your next trip there. I have traveled all over the world and seen some amazing wonders (natural and man-made), but I have never before felt like I had traveled back in time. I had never before stood in a building and felt so intensely the weight of history. In the Pantheon, I teared up as I stared at the eye in the dome, overwhelmed by the sophistication of its construction, by the fact that nearly two thousand years ago people had been standing at that same spot, marveling at that same craftsmanship. At the Colosseum, I was stunned by how little has changed, how very similar our modern stadiums are.
But Rome is not all about Ancient sights. There are villas and palaces, churches and parks, piazzas and fountains, hiding at almost every corner of the narrow cobblestone streets. Art lovers will find countless masterpieces all over the city as well as in museums and galleries. Foodies can feast in trattorias, pizzerias, outdoor cafés, and gelaterias.
Languid pace: Compared to New York, most cities feel relaxed. But the pace in Rome seemed particularly languid. People didn’t appear to be rushing at any time of the day—not on the streets and certainly not on the job (at least not the waiters I came in contact with). While I would have preferred better service, I loved the peaceful vibe in Rome, which reminded me of my childhood and a slower, pre-social media, pre-information overload world.
No dogs: I barely saw any dogs in the four days I was in Rome. What made me first think of it was that I didn’t encounter any dog shit on the streets like in some other Western European cities where people don’t pick up after their dogs.
Drinking fountains: Along with the charming old buildings, piazzas, and cobblestone streets come public water fountains. They are everywhere in the center of town and after the first day, I left my water bottle in the hotel.
Fast coffee: The best espresso and cappuccino, hands down. Coffee shops in Rome look more like cafés or bars (many do serve liquor). Locals never seem to rush except for when they drink their coffee. They order at the bar and, standing right there, down their cup of espresso in a sip or two before saying bye and leaving. There are no people sipping 5-word-long coffee drinks in paper cups while working on their laptops. The only people sitting (on the occasional tables or, in one case, benches) are tourists.
My favorite café: Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè (famous for its home-roasted beans, blended with water from an ancient aqueduct).
Bad service: The service in restaurants was amazingly bad. Small or big, cheap or fancy, old or new, in the center of town or outside it, without exception every place I went to disappointed in service. Waiters didn’t smile, never came to check in on the meal, and were often downright rude. They would be standing, four of them by the bar, talking and laughing, and nobody would look to see if you might need something. And that’s a problem when there are no saltshakers and black pepper grinders on the tables and your meal is getting cold while you’re trying to get someone’s attention.
For whom the bell tolls: I loved hearing the bells of the many churches throughout the day, often at odd times, like 7:38 p.m.
Women in boots: I know it was September but it was in the low 80s and sunny. I’ve seen New York women anxious to wear their fall footwear before it’s cold enough, but in Rome there were women in boots (ankle and knee high) everywhere.
The Pantheon is the best-preserved building of ancient Rome. The emperor Hadrian (A.D 117-138) built it to replace Marcus Agrippa’s Pantheon of 27 B.C., which had burnt down twice. According to the brick stamps on the side of the building, the present structure was completed and dedicated between 118-125 A.D. The original use of the Pantheon is somewhat unknown, except that it was a place of worship, even though its structure is different from other traditional Roman temples. The building stands virtually unaltered today thanks to Emperor Phocas who, by donating it to Pope Boniface IV in 608, unwittingly ensured that it would be preserved under its new guise as the Christian church, Santa Maria ad Martyres.
The Pantheon still holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome (142 feet high and wide). The function of the opening at the top (27 feet in diameter) is structural—the tension around its ring helps support the weight of the dome. The oculus (as it is known) lets a shaft of sunlight through and lends the temple an ethereal air. It’s particularly thrilling when it’s raining. My hotel was close by, and at the first sign of rain, I ran to the Pantheon to see the water fall through the oculus and spatter against the marble floor.
Tip: Go at different times of the day and, especially, when it’s raining.
The massive stone amphitheater known as the Colosseum was built 72-80 A.D. under Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty as a gift to the Roman people. In A.D. 80, Vespasian’s son, Titus, inaugurated the Flavian Amphitheater (as it was referred to then) with 100 days of celebratory games, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. Measuring 620 by 513 feet, with seating for more than 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum was the largest amphitheater in the Roman world. Awnings, like sails, were unfurled from the top story in order to protect the audience from the hot Roman sun.
After four centuries of active use, the arena fell into neglect. Even though most of what remains is its shell, walking up the steps and around the stands, I was amazed by the similarity to our modern stadiums both in terms of structure and in terms of the tiered seating arrangement with special boxes for the Emperor and reserved areas for the senators.
Tip: Every first Sunday of the month, there is free admission to the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine. You can also skip the lines and buy tickets online or at the Roman Forum or Palatine (it’s one ticket for all three attractions).
The Spanish Steps
With its ramps and stairs that intersect and open like a fan, the Spanish Steps are considered one of the most majestic urban monuments of Roman Baroque style and are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city today. Built at the request of Innocent XII and created by Francesco De Sanctis in the eighteenth century, the structure provided a glorious solution for connecting Piazza di Spagna and the Trinità dei Monti church above.
My experience of the Spanish Steps was one of disappointment. Not because they didn’t live up to their fame. Not because of the crowds snapping selfies. Not because the church on top was under construction. But because of the enormous Versace billboard hanging over the scaffolding, crowning the Baroque splendor of the architecture with the most pedestrian and vulgar signs of modern culture. It looked to me like someone had taken a very colorful dump on top of the Spanish Steps.
The Trevi Fountain was also under construction. Luckily, it wasn’t desecrated by billboards.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican is one of the most renowned works of Renaissance architecture and one of the two largest churches in the world. It was designed by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The grandiose elliptical esplanade–created by Bernini in the mid-seventeenth century–forms St. Peter’s Square. The square is embraced by massive colonnades that symbolize outstretched arms. Two fountains form the axis of the piazza. The Egyptian obelisk in the middle was transported to Rome in 37 AD and thought to have stood witness to the crucifixion of St Peter.
Tip: To avoid the long line, go about an hour before closing. I ended up waiting only 30 minutes instead of 2 hours.
The Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla were the most popular spa in ancient Rome. Like a modern spa, the large complex included hot and cold pools, exercise areas and social lounges. It also had libraries and brothels on site. But unlike our spas today, access was free.
Tip: Go on a cloudy day. I got a sunburn.
Piazza Navona, one of the loveliest squares in Rome, was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian (1st century AD), retaining its elongated oval shape. Here you can find outdoor cafés, street performers, artists and, of course, fountains. Bernini designed the central one, Fountain of Four Rivers.
Tip: Go toward the end of the day. The setting sun on the building facades makes for great photos.
When to go: September is a great time to visit Rome. Kids are back at school and the number of tourists is down, compared to the summer crowds. The weather is still warm but no longer as hot and muggy as in August, which is perfect for dining at outdoor cafés, eating gelato, and sightseeing in shorts or summer dresses. The early fall light is perfect for photos—the sky a vibrant blue, the air crisp without the summer haze. The locals are back from vacation and the city has returned to its normal pace.
High heels: If you want to keep in pace with Italian women and wear heels, forget the stilettos and bring platforms instead. You can better navigate the cobblestone streets. That’s what the locals seem to wear most.