Think of European cities and Rome will probably be among the first to pop in to your head. Nice climate, nice food, lots to see and do… it’s hard to avoid Rome if you’re a fan of city breaks. I spent 4 nights in Rome from 14th-18th August and i’ll share some reviews, tips and thoughts on the Italian capital…
Hot. Busy. Old. Going to Rome in the middle of August probably isn’t the smartest time of year to go. If you can pick and choose your dates to go, avoiding the hot summer months would be wise. It’s ridiculously hot (early-mid 30’s) and because a lot of Rome’s attractions are outdoors and extremely old, there’s not much air conditioning in or around them. One thing you will find plenty of around you is ‘people’. Tourists, mainly. Whether it’s Termini station, the Colosseum, The Vatican, [Insert Fountain Name Here] fountain (there’s loads of them) or just strolling around streets, be prepared to bump in to masses of tourists.
Once or if you get over the people and the heat, you’ll start to see what you came for – the city itself. Every building looks old, but it’s difficult to comprehend just how old some of the buildings actually are. I still can’t really process it.
I struggle trying to visualise what life would have been like in King Henry 8th’s time or during the Irish famine… hell, even trying to think of life before electricity or cars is difficult yet the likes of the Colosseum and Pantheon date back almost 2,000 years and are relatively intact… intact enough for you get an idea of how they would have looked when first built. St Peter’s Basilica is 1500 years younger than those two, highlighting Rome’s unique ability to preserve its history. If Rome was a person, it would be seen as incorruptible by the Catholic Church and therefore a saint. It doesn’t decompose over time like the vast majority of other cities have done / do.
A hotel has the power to make or break any trip. A quick look at tripadvisor will confirm that and show you just how much most people care about where they stay. We stayed at the Boscolo Exedra Roma which is probably one of the best hotels in Rome (that’s not me hyping it up, it’s a 5* hotel in a great location and won a 2013 certificate of excellence on tripadvisor). I don’t need to say a whole lot about it as you can see for yourself from the photos below just how luxurious it is.
When i think of Rome, the Colosseum is first thing i picture. That was the case before i visited and it’s also the case now. I’m not sure what i expected but there’s something magical about it. Magical is a strange choice of word to describe a place where 500,000 people & over a million animals lost their lives in brutal fashion, but i suppose that highlights my inability to comprehend the fact that this is a 2,000 year old building… the events that took place in it seem almost mythical even though i know they’re not.
It costs €13.50 for a ticket in to the Colosseum and you can (and should) book them online through the official website. Booking them online will save you HOURS queuing. The last thing you want to do on any holiday is stand in a slow moving queue for hours with the sun burning it’s way through your skin and mind. I find it incredible that so many people DON’T book tickets online and naively join the queue when for the sake of a few minutes research online, you could avoid that world of pain and frustration.
You print off your tickets at home, head to the Colosseum and ignore all the ticket sellers and people trying to sell you stuff. You’ll probably see a big queue of people snaking around corners. Don’t join it. Follow it up to the entrance and waltz right through where you’ll just need to scan your ticket at a turnstile to get in. Little to no queuing at all. After that, you’re free to roam around everywhere excluding the basement which costs extra. You can also buy an audio guide or of course get a guided tour if you want. Another tip would be to just walk around yourself – whether you like it or not, you’ll never be more than a few steps away from a guided tour and can just listen in until it gets boring.
The Vatican Museums
The second thing i think of when i think of Rome is The Vatican. First impressions of The Vatican were negative. Beggars, street sales people, tour guides all trying to do the same thing – get money out of you. You get this at any major attraction (Eiffel Tower is another that springs to mind) but it was particularly bad leading up to St Peter’s Square and the entire way around to the Vatican Museums.
As with the Colosseum, you’re rewarded for booking tickets online. You get to skip the queues again. The Vatican museums are to the right of St Peter’s Square… just keep walking and walking until you’ll see queues. Skip the queues and walk right up to the main entrance where you’ll see signs for online reservations. Just follow the signs all the way in and you’ll have to go through metal detectors. Once past them, head up the stairs and grab your reserved tickets at one of the ticket booths. It will feel like cheating because you’ve bypassed hundreds of people who’ve spent more time waiting than you have, but don’t worry, you’ll have enough waiting of your own to do later on…
In short the Vatican museums were impressive but destroyed by the sheer volume of people they let inside. I had intended taking photos of the extravagant art & architecture, but instead i felt obliged to take photos of the crowds, purely to highlight what a farce it was / is.
Everywhere you go there are crowds. You struggle to see floor space most of the time. ‘Dangerously overcrowded’ is how i’d describe it but you can see that from the photos below yourself…
The paintings and works of art all around cannot possibly be enjoyed due to the feeling that you’re being herded through corridors like cattle, strengthened & confirmed by the guards in the Sistine Chapel who literally gesture to people coming in to move along towards the exit (as soon as you step foot inside), just like a farmer would herd cows in to a field waving his arms or with a stick.
As far as i know, there are limits on how many people can enter at certain times (the website indicates time slots are unavailable presumably because they’d sold out), but whatever those limits are, they need to be lowered dramatically if the goal is to provide an enjoyable experience for guests. In the end, i wanted to get out quickly rather than put up with the insane crowds.
Perhaps naively, i also didn’t expect the Vatican Museums to be littered with official souvenir shops full of jewelry, magnets, calendars, keyrings, pens etc… with the pope’s face on them. It cheapens the experience and reminds you that it’s just another business trying to maximise profit – whatever original purpose it was supposed to serve has evaporated.
I was glad to see this famous staircase in the end as it means you’re close to the exit…
St Peter’s Basilica
This almost made up for The Vatican Museums. It would be difficult to leave this giant church unimpressed, regardless of your religious affiliation. It was still crowded and there were queues outside to get in, but the place is huge with so much open space that it didn’t feel full. There were, however, the odd group of people huddled around various statues that were scattered around the place, the most famous being Michelangelo’s Pietá.
It’s a place you could probably never get sick of walking around. There’s so much to admire here that it’s difficult to know what direction to head in next. Best of all, St Peter’s Basilica is free to get in to, you just need to queue up and go through metal detectors.
Dress code is also enforced here. In short, no shoulders on show and shorts have to be below the knee. Break the dress code and you’ll be kicked out and excommunicated, or something to that effect. No exceptions made, not even for children. The same actually applies in the Sistine Chapel (which you can only visit through the Vatican Museums) so if you want to head in wearing a tank top and speedos, you’ll be disappointed.
You won’t find many shops inside St Peter’s Basilica (although i did see at least one souvenir shop!) but you do have to pay to get up to the top of the dome, which we didn’t do. I’m not a religious person, but if i were, i’d struggle yet again to see the place as anything other than a big, old, breathtaking building. Police, security guards, employees, metal detectors, CCTV… this is stuff we’re used to in an airport or high security government building… i’d find it difficult to ignore all of that and then pray to a God afterwards.
Overall verdict on the Vatican is that it’s definitely something worth seeing / doing once if you’re in Rome, but it probably won’t be the highlight of your trip and probably won’t be a place you’ll go back to in a hurry. I don’t think it’s the peaceful, religious place most of us probably imagine it is.
Photographers & pickpockets. Beware of both. The Trevi fountain is a beautiful place to chill out, particularly at night but because it’s always crammed with people in close proximity to one another which makes it a pickpocket’s paradise. Look closely and you’ll see the odd policeman / women in among the crowd or observing from a distance. Pushy photographers will also try to take your photo, especially if you’re with other people, but at least they’re trying to take your money legitimately.
Nothing particularly appealing about these. Out of the way and over-hyped. Probably the most disappointing ‘top 10’ attraction in Rome. The Spanish Steps hold the title of ‘widest staircase in Europe’ but this is definitely an attraction that you just tick off a list for the sake of it. It’s not something i’ll remember with great fondness when i think of Rome.
The only word i could think about when looking up at that ceiling was “How?”. Look at it… it’s 150 feet high, made of giant concrete slabs forming a perfect circle at the top. This is a 2,000 year old building. Technology available back then included wheels, ropes, wood, concrete and muscles. The fact that they were able to build it is an achievement in itself but the fact it’s stood the test of time makes it even more intriguing.
Vittorio Emanuele II
This gets a lot of stick from locals for being too gaudy but it’s certainly impressive looking and the panoramic views from the top are supposed to be worth the €7 fee up (although we didn’t go up).
Rome is a beautiful city but if you don’t really appreciate art, architecture, history, religion, food or ice cream, there’ll be nothing in it for you. If you do appreciate any or all of those things, it’s worth visiting at least once. Just not in the hot summer months when the attractions are packed with people and it gets uncomfortably hot.
Virtually all of the main attractions are within walking distance of each other so unless you’re incredibly lazy, you shouldn’t need to get buses or the metro to get you around. If you do end up going, make sure to book tickets for everything in advance. I knew absolutely nothing about how to get around Rome and where the key attractions were in relation to each other. I knew where my hotel was and where i was being dropped off by a bus from the airport. That was it. However, i was able to navigate around Rome as if i knew it like the back of my hand. Why? Google Maps for iPhone. I saved key attractions in the app before i arrived in Rome and it stores map data offline, meaning no pesky data roaming charges.
I basically had my own sat nav in my hand, complete with compass and 3D street view meaning that if i were to get my bearings wrong, i’d just have to stick the map in to compass mode and swivel the phone around to figure out the correct direction to head in. Seriously useful and ultra reliable. It makes getting to any location, in any city, easy and stress-free which allows you to enjoy the journey more rather than worry about whether you’ve took a wrong turn and will make it to a destination on time.
Check out the 800 or so photos of my trip to Rome on my flickr to get a better idea of what Rome is like in August.