Sunday, July 25, 2010

European stop 1: Rome

After our flying-first-class-international experience, we landed in Rome and kicked off our European vacation. Here are some highlights.

Total time in Rome: 3 full days, 3 nights

Money-saving tip:
The first thing we did after we landed in Rome was buy two Roma Passes at a tourist office inside the airport. This wound up being an excellent decision, and I'm glad we got these before we did anything else.

At 25 Euros each, the Roma Pass is valid for 3 days and gets you unlimited public transportation in Rome as well as admission to two museums or historic sites participating in the program. Note that this does not include the Vatican Museums, which you'll want to visit if you want to see the Sistine Chapel. Still, this was a great deal for riding the metro and buses and for seeing the Colosseum and Capitoline Museums.

Hotel Fori Imperiali Cavalieri
Via Frangipane 34
Rome, IT 00184 

Price we paid per night: $127

Location: Ideal. Across from the Roman Forum and a less than five minute walk to the Colosseum metro station. It was easy to get to all the spots we wanted to visit in or near the Centro Storico.

Room: Clean but very small, in fact the smallest of the eight hotel rooms we stayed in during our trip. The room was about 11' x 9', with only room for a bed, two small bedside tables and a wardrobe with a small TV. The bathroom was also tiny but adequate.
Breakfast included?: Yes. Standard European buffet with bread and pastries, cold cuts and cheese, yogurt, granola and cereal, hardboiled eggs, juice and mineral water. The bartender takes your coffee order. Bonus points: Nutella in tiny single-serving packs!
Service: Pleasant and helpful.
TV: Several English-language stations because the hotel subscribes to Sky TV, so we had both BBC and Fox News (yay?).
Internet: You can get a good Wifi signal in your room if you pay 15 Euros. We wanted to have Wifi, so we signed up, but we were never charged the 15 Euros.
Overall assessment: This is one of the three hotels we picked out on our own (our travel agent Cindy picked out all the rest).  I feel like we got what we paid for -- an adequate hotel in a great location. If you want luxury, this place is not for you, but if you're on a tight budget and you want convenience and a quiet, clean place where you can take a late afternoon nap and sleep each night, this place is for you. We were not wowed, but we were not disappointed, either. (And, remember, the average European hotel is not nearly as nice as the average American hotel, so don't go into average European hotels with high expectations.)

Most of what we ate in Italy was relatively inexpensive but impressively awesome. We stuck with the basics, for the most part: pizza, pasta, antipasti platters. Remember that in both Italy and Spain you pay for water, and you don't get ice (well, you definitely don't get ice in Italy, and you sometimes get it in Spain).

Taverna Romana
Genre: Full-service Italian restaurant

Location: Via della Madonna de'Monti -- two blocks from our hotel!
How we found it: Budget Travel magazine article
What we ate: we shared three plates -- salad, barbecued lamb chops, rigatoni cacio e pepe -- and a litre of house red wine, and mineral water
Total cost: 33 Euros ($40)
Overall assessment: This is probably the best pasta we've ever eaten, and it was definitely the best pasta we had on our trip. The restaurant is small and crowded but has a homey feel, and everyone looks like they're having a great time. It opens at 7 for dinner, but the crowds really form around 9:30. Great value!

Genre: Wine bar
Location: Via della Madonna de'Monti -- diagonally across the street from Taverna Romana, two blocks from our hotel!
How we found it: Waiting for Taverna Romana to open up
What we ate: two glasses of prosecco and a plate of appetizers from the buffet
 Total cost: 14 Euros ($17)
Overall assessment: I'm so glad we sat down at one of the tables on this cute street. The plate of appetizers may have been one of the best things I ate on our whole trip. It was a fun way to kick off the night before we walked around and ate dinner.

La Bottega del Caffe
Location: Piazza Madonna dei Monti -- a few blocks from our hotel
How we found it: This restaurant has a crowded outdoor garden patio where lots of people were speaking Italian instead of English, so we took that as a good sign.
What we ate: amazing and huge antipasti platter, bottle of prosecco
Total cost: 50 Euros
Overall assessment: I would go back here in a second to have that incredible antipasti platter.

That's right, there's lots of cheese to dip in honey on that platter, and I am really, really, happy.

Ivo a Trastevere
Genre: Full-service pizza and pasta restaurant
Location: Via San Francesco a Ripa -- Trastevere is across the Tiber River from the Centro Storico. It's an area that attracts a younger, often student crowd, but with lots of good restaurants it's growing in popularity with tourists.
How we found it: Matt read a 36 Hours in Rome feature on the New York Times website, and this was mentioned in the restaurants comments section.
What we ate: Stephanie: Five (!) cheese white pizza; Matt: pasta with shrimp; litre of red wine
Total cost: 32 Euros
Overall assessment: Matt's pasta was average, but my pizza was amazing. I'm accustomed to four-cheese pizzas in America, but throughout much of Italy I saw these five-cheese pizzas. The additional cheese is gorgonzola, no doubt my favorite cheese of all time, so this really upped the pizza ante for me.

We wanted to hit all the highlights on this trip, and I think we succeeded. 

Price: included in our 25 Euro Roma Passes
Tip 1: Having the Roma Pass already purchased before we arrived at the Colosseum meant we did not have to wait in a two-hour line; we simply walked right in.
Tip 2: Get an audio guide, because there are basically no signs in the Colosseum telling you what you're looking at. But, be advised that there are few signs telling you where to begin the audio guide. So, we learned to walk upstairs and go directly through the first doors overlooking the Colosseum floor, and that is where you begin.
Fun fact: The Colosseum is famously missing stone on the exterior because it was used during the time of the Holy Roman Empire to build up the rest of the city. At the time Rome was not considered physically impressive enough to reflect its role as the most important city in the world, so they had to work fast!

Museo Capitoline
Price: Included in the 25 Euro Roma Pass
Fun fact: Oldest museum in the world.
But...Although it's cool that this museum is so old and houses lots of old stuff, it was one of the low-points in our sightseeing during our trip. I'd recommend skipping it.

Vatican -- St. Peter's Basillica
Price: Free
Tip 1: Everyone gets there on the early side, probably because everyone goes to the Basillica first and then sees the Vatican Museums, which close at 4:30.
Tip 2: The line to get into the Basillica might be curving almost all the way around St. Peter's Square, as it was the day we visited, but don't get talked into taking an expensive tour from an annoying tour guide outside the Vatican. The line takes about 30 minutes to get through at its worst, and there are plenty of signs inside the Basillica explaining what you're seeing.
Tip 3: If you are not claustrophobic or acrophobic, climb the 517 stairs to the top of the dome! Don't take the elevator -- it costs more and only cuts out the first 200 stairs, which are by far the least intimidating of all the stairs. 
Tip 4: Have a means for covering your shoulders, and make sure your skirt or dress reaches your knees.
Fun fact: The baldachin (high altar) over what is supposedly the remains of Peter is made of bronze taken from the Pantheon.

Michelangelo's original Pieta

Getting ready to climb Michelangelo's dome
The view of the dome after the first 200 stairs
The view from the top

Vatican Museums
Price: 16 Euros (adult ticket)
Tip 1: The Vatican Museums accept credit cards to pay entrance fees. This makes the Vatican Museums stand out from almost all other museums and historical sites we visited in Italy and Spain, where we almost exclusively had to pay entrance fees with cash.
Tip 2: If you want to see the Sistine Chapel, you're going to have to fork over the cash to come here, and you're going to need to get here by mid-afternoon (last entrance time is 3:30).
Tip 3: To make the most of your visit, figure out what you want to see, besides the Sistine Chapel, and follow the map to get there. We wanted to see the map room and the tapestry room, both of which were impressive, and we still had to walk through lots of other cool-but-not-cool-enough-to-spend-a-lot-of-time-in rooms.
Tip 4: You definitely cannot take photos or videos of the Sistine Chapel. Don't even think about it.

Trevi Fountain
Price: Free
Tip: Go there twice if you can -- once at night, once during the day. The fountain is crowded but festive on a summer night, and there are tons of gelato places in the plazza.

Price: Free
Tip: This is a great, short activity to squeeze in whenever you have the time. There is no difficulty getting in, and your visit will probably only last 30 minutes.
Fun fact: This building is probably one of the oldest you'll ever enter. It's at least 2000 years old, and looking fantastic for its age, might I add. You go, girl!
The plaza outside the Pantheon is beautiful as well

Catacombs of San Callisto
Price: 6 Euros (adult ticket)
Tip: Make sure you check and recheck your planned transportation route before making your way out to the catacombs, which are off the beaten path intentionally because this is where the early Roman Christians were forced to bury their dead well outside the city gates. We took the metro from the Colosseum to Termini, switched to Line A and took it outside the city by about five stops, where we then boarded a bus that turned out to be the wrong bus. We had to switch buses from the side of a semi-sketchy rural road, and we were stuck on a hot day with no water (the only time on our trip we didn't have water). Fortunately, the other bus did show up, and we made it to the catacombs at the moment an English tour was starting, but just be advised that it's not easy to get there.
Overall assessment: Instead of writing one fun fact for the catacombs, let me just say this is one of my favorite sightseeing memories from our trip. Our tour guide was highly knowledgeable and there is such a fascinating history tied up in this 20-kilometer underground burial site. You have to take a tour -- it's free and included in your ticket, and they're not about to let you walk around there by yourself (nor would you want to). I highly recommend a visit, but I encourage you to feel comfortable with your modes of transportation before venturing out.


  1. Awesome Review and Pics Steph! Now all I need is 3 straight weeks off of work and some extra moola to go see for myself! That antipasti platter looks amazing! I've never heard of cheese and honey, but it's time to try!

  2. If you want to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for free on September 27 it'll be free entrance.