By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I spent one week in Rome and Vatican City this past December. The temperatures were pleasantly cool and the crowds were somewhat less than during the peak tourist season. Rome is certainly a more frantic European capital, with both cars and pedestrians evidencing a seemingly hectic vibe even in the “off season.” In one week, we captured the major attractions in sufficient depth and got a good sense of the sprawling, cosmopolitan Italian capital.
The Vatican: Rome of the Popes
The Vatican is the smallest country in the world with approximately 1000 permanent residents on 108 acres surrounded by Rome. Vatican City was established as an independent country by the 1929 treaty with the Italian government. There are two principle reasons for sightseeing at the Vatican. One is to visit the largest church in the world (St. Peter’s) and the other is to visit the staggering collections of the Vatican Museums. We spent one day exploring these attractions within the Headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. To get to the Vatican, we took Metro line A to Ottaviano.
St. Peter’s Square
Our first view of the Vatican was memorable. St. Peter’s Square is the grand entrance to Vatican City and a spectacular urban showpiece. In December, the Square contains a huge Christmas tree and a nativity crèche. We were lucky to see the unveiling of this year’s Christmas crèche during our stay.
St Peter’s Square, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is another prime example of Baroque art and architecture in Rome. Constructed over ten years, 1656-1667, the square sits in front of St Peter’s Basilica and is dominated by a 40 meter tall Egyptian obelisk, as well as an original fountain by Carlo Maderno. The Square’s magnificent curving pair of colonnades are lined with two rows of marble pillars and 140 statues perched on top depicting important religious saints.
Guarding the Vatican’s border crossing and within Vatican City, we saw the mercenary guards from Switzerland. Their colorful dress uniforms are blue, red, orange and yellow with a distinctly renaissance appearance. The guards also wear black berets.
The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel
By booking a tour through the Omnia pass, we bypassed a lengthy line for the museums and we were accompanied by an exceptional English language guide. After reserving the time for fast track entry online through the Omnia pass, we booked the guide at the Omnia office in St. Peter’s Square. www.romeandvaticanpass.com.
The Vatican Museums are considered among the most important museums in the world. The museums have a strict dress code. These museums house great artistic masterpieces which were commissioned and protected by the Popes. Because the museums are immense, our tour guide focused on highlights. In the Octagonal Courtyard, among the most famous statues you can see the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön sculpted group and Perseus with the head of Medusa by Antonio Canova.
If you love history and geography, along the itinerary leading to the Sistine Chapel, you will find the Gallery of Maps, one of the brightest and most fascinating environments within the Vatican Museums. The gallery is named after the series of maps commissioned by Pope Gregorius XIII painted on the walls by Egnazio Danti. Italy is seen as divided in two by the Appennine Mountains; on one side are the regions standing on the Ligurian and Thyrrenian coasts and, on the other side, the regions standing on the Adriatic coast. The views of the main Italian ports of the sixteenth century complete the series of geographical maps.
Our route included a visit to the place where the Conclave elects the new Pope, the Sistine Chapel. The stunning Sistine Chapel is named after Pope Sixtus IV who called on the services of the most illustrious painters of the time. In 1508, Michelangelo began to paint the wonderful ceiling which is now considered the masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance and the most famous element of the museums. Michelangelo invented a form of scaffolding that allowed him to paint on the ceiling standing upright, over a four year period. In the nine central panels are represented scenes from the Book of Genesis. At the corners, scenes from the Book of Kings are represented. In the spaces between the rib vaults, you can catch sight of the five Sibyls and the seven Prophets, and to end with, in the corner plumes there are some Salvation Episodes from the Old Testament. In addition, murals by Sandro Botticelli run along the length of the walls.
In 1533, Pope Clemens VII called upon Michelangelo, this time to commission him to carry out the Last Judgement, positioned on the wall over the altar. The whole fresco is structured in a way that all the action happens around the figure of Christ.
In the Chapel, no pictures are allowed and we were only permitted to stay for a few minutes due to the crowds. With respect for the sanctity of the location, visitors are requested to observe absolute silence during their visit to the Chapel. http://www.museivaticani.va.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Built on the tomb of Peter, the Basilica was erected around the year 320 by Emperor Constantine. St. Peters is Rome’s biggest and most famous church. The Popes of the Renaissance made use of the greatest artists of the time, such as Michelangelo. St Peter’s Basilica doesn’t have a single painting in it at all. All the ‘art’ is sculptures, architecture and mosaics.
Access to the Dome provided us with spectacular views of Vatican City and Rome, as day turned into night. In addition, we had a tremendous view of the church’s interior as we climbed to the top. As the tallest dome in the world, measuring 136.57 meters in height, it was designed by some of the greatest artists of all time. The original designs were by Donato Bramante, in 1506, and were modelled on the Pantheon in its style and structure. It then took inspiration from Florence Cathedral, before Michelangelo took all previous plans into consideration and created what we see now, with Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana actually finishing the building over 90 years later.
As the holy epicenter of the Roman Catholic faith, Saint Peters is vital to the history and culture of Rome. Even to this day it is a place of global pilgrimage. With its impressive dome, gilt and marble interior, St. Peter’s is a wonder to behold not only for its symbolism but for its art and architecture, too.
Built over 2000 years ago, the Coliseum was constructed as amphitheater to host the city’s entertainment, including gladiator fights. The Coliseum is the largest amphitheater ever built and was designed to hold over 50,000 spectators. It contains underground tunnels, as well as a hierarchy of seating levels. The lower seats were designed for religious and political authorities, with a special place for the Emperor. It is amazing that the main structure still stands today and it is one of Europe’s most recognizable landmarks.
To get to the Coliseum, we took the Metro to the Colosseo stop on the B line. We booked an English language tour through Viator/Trip Advisor. The 3 1/2 hour tour of the Coliseum allowed us to skip the line and the tour provided us with an informative guide who shared stories about life in ancient Rome. We learned that the normal daily entertainment included animal hunts involving exotic animals imported from Africa and the Middle East and mock sea battles. http://www.viator.com.
The Roman Imperial Forums
Our Coliseum tour included walking through the Imperial Forums, the core of ancient Rome. A tour guide is essential here to explain the purpose of particular structures and ruins. The plaza consists of ancient government buildings, temples and a market place which were the center of everyday life in Rome. Today these ruins and grand arches are what remain of the political, commercial and religious city center.
Hearing the story behind the Arch of Titus was particularly interesting to us. This well preserved arch commemorates the Roman victory over the province of Judea in 70 A.D. One side of the arch shows in a sculpted relief the booty from the sacking of the temple in Jerusalem. Soldiers are shown carrying a Jewish menorah and other plunder, such as silver trumpets.
Our tour ended on Palatine Hill. Overlooking the Forum, this hill is the oldest inhabited spot of ancient Rome. Walking up the Hill, our guide told us the story of the mythology of the formation of Rome that took place on this site. Two brothers, Romulus and Remus, were found by a she-wolf who kept them alive.
This domed circular temple is said to be antiquity’s best preserved Roman building. The Pantheon we see today was built as a Roman temple by the emperor Hadrian in 120 A.D. The exterior portico is Greek in style with large granite columns at is entrance. The rotunda sits under a concrete dome, with a central opening to the sky.
Today the Pantheon is used as a church and admission is free, through two ancient bronze doors. The interior holds decorative statutes and the tombs of famous Italians from more recent centuries, including several painters and an architect. Two kings are buried inside – Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I. The artist Raphael is buried near the main altar. To get to the Pantheon, we walked from the Barberini metro stop on the A line. http://www.pantheon-rom.com.
Roman Art Museums and Galleries
The Borghese is an art museum housed in a lovely Baroque mansion. Located next to the beautiful greenery of the large Villa Borghese Park, the museum contains an impressive collection of sculptures, paintings and antiquities, focusing on the 15th through 19th century. Pictures are not allowed within the gallery because the Borghese is a private art collection.
Advance booking for a specific date and time is required because the gallery strictly limits attendance. Highlights include Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue of Apollo chasing Daphne as she transforms into a tree, Bernini’s realistic statute of David about to swing a rock at Goliath, and greatest collection of paintings by Caravaggio including a self-portrait. To reach the gallery, we walked from the Barberini metro stop on the A line. www.galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/it.
Currently the gallery is showing the first Italian exhibit dedicated to Picasso sculptures. Fifty six works of Picasso are interspersed within the gallery’s permanent collection. The permanent collection is housed in twenty frescoed rooms, with ornate decorative ceilings of great beauty.
The Capitoline Museums
These museums contain an extensive collection of art and archaeology, sitting at the top of Capitoline Hill. The museums consist of three buildings and a beautiful piazza, designed by Michelangelo. The museums were founded in 1471 by donations of Roman sculptures and statues from Pope Sixtus IV. The Capitoline Museums are the world’s oldest national museums.
The museum’s detailed audio guide took us through the collection highlights, including the She-Wolf. This iconic bronze statute represents the she-wolf suckling the brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Other masterpieces included Bernini’s bust of Medusa, the Palazzo dei Conservatori courtyard containing the colossal fragments of the famous huge statue of Constantine the Great and the bronze equestrian statute of Marcus Auerlius. We waked to the museum from the Colosseo metro stop on the B line. http://www.museicapitolini.org.
Monuments and Palaces of Rome
Victor Emmanuel II Monument
Also known as the Alter of the Fatherland, the largest monument in Rome was built in honor of the first king of united Italy. Completed in 1935, the design features a very large equestrian statute of the king, fountains and Corinthian columns. The glaringly white marble monument has been criticized as conspicuous. Indeed, our tour guide said the locals use several nicknames for the monument, such as the wedding cake or the typewriter or the eighth hill of Rome!
To get to the monument, we walked from the Coliseum stop on the metro’s B line. We walked up to the roof of the monument to see unforgettable 360 degree views of central Rome. The monument also holds the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, surrounded by an eternal flame. The tomb is guarded 24/7 by sentinels. There is no fee to tour this monument, which is easily visible throughout central Rome.
This iconic wide staircase is divided into three landings. We walked up to the top of the hill, where we admired the view and peaked into the church of Trinita del Monti and saw the obelisk. Constructed in 1723-1725, the Spanish Steps are one of Europe’s widest staircases. The steps sit right outside the Spagna stop on Metro’s A line. There is no fee here.
The Piazza di Spagna and the Fountain of the Leaky Boat are at the bottom of the steps. The piazza contains the Spanish embassy to the Vatican which gives the steps its name.
For centuries this building was home of the popes. Now the Quirinale is the official residence of the President. The palace served as a papal residence from 1574 to 1870 and then became the official residence of the king. The closest metro stop is Carvour on the B line. We were required to book the time for our tour on line for a nominal fee. www.palazzo.quirinale.it.
Today the palace houses the President of Italy. We found out that he was in the Palace during our tour based on the flags being displayed. The palace is along the lines of the United States White House combined with Versailles in France. Both inside and outside the Palace, we saw the President’s guard (corazzieri regiment) in their magnificent crimson and blue uniforms, with embossed steel helmets and knee high boots.
Our tour started with a short video which included an English language guide. Although the one hour guided tour is in Italian, one of our guides was a student who translated the highlights into English for us. The tour included the courtyard and many public rooms, such as the majestic state reception rooms. Highlights included a hall of mirrors similar to Versailles outside Paris, a room dedicated to the presidents of the Republic, the Pauline chapel with dimensions similar to the Sistine Chapel and the private office of the President. The tour is designed for but not limited to residents of Italy.
Fountains of Rome
Rome has more fountains than any other city in the world. They are free to view and open both day and night.
The Triton fountain
In the Piazza Barberini, this fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture. The fountain represents Triton, half-man and half-fish, blowing his horn to calm the waters, following a text by the Roman poet Ovid. During our stay, this Piazza also contained a large Menorah, to commemorate the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. The fountain was constructed in 1642-1643 and is located right off of the Barberini stop on the Metro’s A line. A jet of water spurts out of Triton’s mouth. http://www.sovraintendenzaroma.it.
The Trevi Fountain
Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome and one of the most famous fountains in the world. Finished in 1762, the stone fountain was completed by a number of sculptures, including Nichola Salvi. Hordes of tourists marvel at the fountain’s extravaganza of sculpture and cascading water within the Piazza di Trevi, both day and night. At night the fountain is lit, but not too brightly.
Fern threw a coin into the fountain using her right hand over her left shoulder. The coin throwing is said to ensure a return trip to Rome. The coins collected are used for charity.
The fountain’s theatrical design includes marble sea creatures commanded by the sea god Oceanus. Oceanus’ chariot is being pulled by two sea horses. Two tritons are leading the horses, while one triton blows his conch shell. We walked to Trevi Fountain from the Barberini metro stop on the A line.
Fountain of the Four Rivers
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s fountain is the centerpiece of Piazza Navona. This beautiful Baroque piazza is glorious. It is full of outdoor cafes and street artists, strolling locals and tourists. Created in 1651, this sculpture contains an Egyptian obelisk and powerful figures representing the river gods of the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plata rivers. Horses plunge through the rocks, along with exotic flora and fauna. This fountain was designed by Bernini for Pope Innocent X. We walked by the fountain during one of our tours; it is not near any of the metro stops.
The Sinking Boat Fountain
At the foot of the Spanish Steps, the Leaky Boat Fountain built by Pietro Bernini is powered by an aqueduct. The half sunken boat gently spills out water. The bees and suns on the boat constitute the Barberini motif. Barberini Pope Urban VIII commissioned the early Baroque fountain, which was built in 1627-1629. The fountain sits near the Spagna metro stop on the A line.
Walking Through Rome
Central Rome is very walkable. We particularly enjoyed two walking tours.
City Walking Tour
Starting outside the Barberini metro on the A line, we began our two hour tour at Piazza Barberini. The city tour provided us with information on some of the key historical and religious sites of central Rome, along with a few that are more obscure. In addition, our tour guide provided us with her insights on where to go for the best coffee, chocolate and bread. http://www.freetourrome.com.
As a “free tour,” payment is by tip and we typically pay 10 Euros per person. This particular tour begins most days at 9:30 a.m. and it includes a number of the major plazas, churches, fountains and ruins. We briefly walked by the Temple of Hadrian, which has one wall and eleven columns surviving from its days as a temple in imperial Rome.
Near the Pantheon, we entered the Jesuit church of Saint Ignazio. This church contains a fascinating illusion of a dome and vaulted ceiling on what really are flat ceilings. Built in 1626-1650, the exterior is Baroque in style. Painted in 1685-1694 by Andrea Pozzo, the church features the life and works of Saint Ignatius.
Not far from Piazza Navona, we walked by the so-called French church. After the tour, we entered into the Church of Saint Louis. This church is famous for its cycle of three paintings by Baroque master Caravaggio – The Calling of Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew and the martyrdom of Saint Matthew. These paintings are housed in the Contarelli Chapel in the front of the church. They are stunning works of realistic naturalism. Coins are inserted to light up the art. In this working church, services are in French.
Jewish Quarter Walking Tour
Starting at Piazza Venezia, near the Victor Emmanuel II monument, the “Jewish tour” begins most days at 3:30 p.m. Unfortunately on this two hour “free tour,” we spent only a little time in the Jewish quarter. Most of the time was spent within the surrounding neighborhoods, ending in the hip Trastevere district.
Within the Jewish quarter, we did see a large menorah for the Chanukah celebration, the brass stumbling stones installed in front of the last residences of victims of the Holocaust and the main thoroughfare with kosher restaurants and bakeries. The corner bakery has limited offerings, but the two pastries we ate were exceptional. The pizze is a dense brick of sweet dough bursting with candied fruit and nuts.
We separately toured the Great Synagogue of Rome, the largest synagogue of Rome. This building is located on the banks of the Tiber River, around the corner from the heart of the Jewish quarter. Built in 1901 – 1904, the synagogue contains an unusual aluminum square dome and a façade containing elements of ancient architect of various styles.
Inside the building, we toured the temple and the Jewish Museum of Rome. The museum explains the Jewish presence in Rome since the Roman era. Many exhibits are displayed from five other Rome synagogues torn down around 1908. An orthodox congregation still conducts services in the large chapel. It is patrolled daily due to a 1982 attack.
Walking through the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter, we particularly enjoyed chatting with Gabriele Levy, a sculpture who makes art using Hebrew letters. We were fascinated with how he took famous paintings and made them unique by using Hebrew letters within his designs. Fern and I spent some time with Mr. Levy, listening to his story of how he made his way to become an artist in Rome. www.gabrielelevy.com.
Eating in Rome
To get the best food experiences, Fern and I intentionally wandered away from the tourist sites. For several meals, we walked to local markets, purchased cheese, breads and Italian chocolates and ate them in our hotel.
Mercarto Centrale is located within Termini, the central rail station. The Mercarto is an upscale food court with 17 food stalls, one pizzeria, one coffee bar and one beer bar. The employees of each food stall separately make your order. This is a very lively central market. As our first meal in Rome, we enjoyed a tasty light and airy pizza at the La Pizza food stall. Prices were very reasonable. The nearest Metro stop is Termini. At lunch time, the food court is quite busy. https://www.mercatocentrale.it/roma.
We were attracted by the lunch specials sign at Gran Caffe Salandra. We stumbled onto the café in between museum visits. Located on Via Antonio Salandra 36/38, the waitress did not speak English, so the proprietor took our orders. The lunch special consisted of pasta or pizza plus a large well mixed salad and a beverage for a very reasonable price. Because we ordered only one drink, the very friendly manager provided us with a fresh pastry instead. The café is not far from the Barberini metro stop on the A line.
Prior to our Colosseum tour, we stopped for lunch at the family run La Prezzemolina cafe rated excellent by Trip Advisor. Although very close to the Colosseum, this small café sits on a very narrow winding alley, Via del Colosseo 1, and is easy to miss. The cut to order pizza is priced by weight and did not disappoint. The prices were very reasonable, there were many pizza options and the food was very fresh. The sisters who took orders at the counter were very friendly and engaged us in conversation about the United States.
In the area still referred to as the Jewish Ghetto, we had a quick lunch at Renato Al Ghetto, a kosher hostaria. This simple restaurant sits right in the heart of the Jewish quarter, around the corner from the Grand Synagogue of Rome, on Via del Portico D’Ottavia 5. Although the menu was limited, the salads were large enough to share. The highlight of our meal was the so-called Jewish Artichoke, which was in season, but so fried that is was difficult to taste the artichoke itself. The wait staff was very attentive and friendly.
We enjoyed Il di Tiempio Minerva so much that we went there for dinner twice. This Trip Advisor 2018 winner of the certificate of excellence is located near the Mazoni metro stop on the A line at Viale Manzoni 64/68. We found this quaint restaurant to be very homey, with great service and exceptionally delicious food, especially the eggplant parmigiana. The prices were moderate, noting that the portions were modest. www.iltempiodiminerva.it.
We ate dinner at Taverna Rossini, located at Viale G. Rossini 54, just off the Linge/Ungheria tram stop of Tram 3 in the Parioli neighborhood. The restaurant is billed as a tavern, with the interior divided into rooms that make the atmosphere more intimate. We found the food and service to be nice but unexceptional. The seasonal specialty, the Roman Artichoke, was the highlight of the meal. www.tavernarossini.it.
We also ate dinner at Mattarello in the Parioli neighborhood, at Tram stop 3 Linge/Ungheria, with an address of Viale Liegi 64. The restaurant is informal, with handmade pasta fettuccini being the specialty of the house. The prices were reasonable and the portions were better than our other meals. http://www.ristorantemattarello.it. There are other Mattarello restaurants in several Rome neighborhoods.
Tazza d ‘Oro is a coffee shop with a prime location, right near the Pantheon on via delgi Olmetti 5B. The coffee is roasted right in the shop and you stand at the bar. Tazza d’Oro was recommended highly by one of our tour guides. The coffee is very inexpensive, the service by the barista is quick, but the coffee was very bitter. http://www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com.
Venchi is an Italian gourmet chocolate offered at many locations in Rome. www.venchi.com. The Venchi story began in 1878 when Silviano Venchi opened his first chocolate shop. As recommended by one of our tour guides, we purchased one of the Venchi dark chocolate spreads and enjoyed devouring it on top of pizza bread from a neighboring store.
Tips for Rome
Detailed information including maps is provided in Rick Steves’ Rome (Avalon Travel) and in Fodor’s Rome (Fodor’s Travel Publications). Both guidebooks were helpful in allowing us to pick and choose which attractions were essential to see, as well as which sites were near each other. For more current information, we did internet searches. For more of a feel of Rome’s atmosphere, I read several of David Hewson’s Nic Costa novels, which help bring Rome to life.
The Metro is very easy to navigate on its two lines, A and B. The underground is the quickest way to get around, but all attractions are not close to metro stations. The fares are cheap, but the metro machines only take cash in coins of 2 Euros or less. Metro tickets can be purchased at Metro station machines or in tobacco stores. The daily pass and the 3 day pass are better values.
To get around to areas where the Metro does not go, we walked, took the tram or rode the bus. The Metro has good signage and each stop is announced. Neither the tram nor the bus announced stops and the signage was not easy to follow. The same ticket can be used on the Metro, bus or tram. Of the six tram lines, tram line 8 was convenient from our hotel to reach major attractions and tram line 19 was convenient to reach the Jewish quarter.
The Omnia Vatican and Roma Cards consist of a sightseeing package which gives holders free entry to a choice of two top Rome attractions, two top Vatican City attractions, and one hop on hop off bus for three days and unlimited public transportation for three days. In addition, these cards provide a free guidebook, a map, skip the line entry to several attractions and discount admissions to other sites. Fern and I have found these city cards to be a good way to provide structure to our sightseeing. www.romeandvaticanpass.com.
Hop on Hop off Bus
There are several similar buses in Rome with comparable services, routes and buses. The Roma Cristiana Open Bus gave us a good initial orientation to the eternal city on our first day. This bus has one route of 18 stops where you can get on or off near some of the most interesting areas of the city’s historical or religious importance. The English language audio guide provided limited information and commentary about the attractions at or between stops.
We stayed at two hotels with the nicer one being the Hilton Garden Inn Claridge, on Viale Liegi 62. This hotel is located right on the Tram 8 line, within several tram stops of the Policlinico Metro stop on the B line. The Hilton is set within the elegant Paridi neighborhood, near many restaurants. This hotel has a small but adequate fitness center. The breakfast buffet was far above average. The guest rooms were comfortable and of a nice size for a European hotel.
Transportation to Airport
The Leonardo Express is an airport rail service linking the Fiumicino airport with the central rail station, Termini. The normal time of the trip is 32 minutes with no stops. The express train runs every 15 to 30 minutes. Tickets cost 14 or 15 Euros, depending on where purchased. We found the train to be very comfortable. www.Leonardo-Express.com. Alternatively, private car services cost around 55 Euros for the same trip.
Compared to our other European trips, fewer restaurants and attractions accepted credit cards of any type. Cash payment was required much more frequently.
Regardless of the Trevi Fountain’s mystique of return, Fern and I felt that in one week we truly had conquered Rome’s main attractions in sufficient depth to have a true sense of the city.