There are a few cities that have long been on my “must-see” list. Porto. Sicily. Oslo. Helsinki. Nice. Sofia. Wellington. Bologna. All cities that I would absolutely bite your hand off to have a chance of going, and yet I don’t really expect to ever go to these places. They are dream destinations, and dreams don’t often come true, right? I mean I fully realise that I have the means to book in some long weekends and realise these dreams – especially the cities in Europe – but I think my hesitation is in part down to the idea that I would be somewhat underwhelmed by these cities. When you spend as much time as I do reading blogs of people who have been to these places, watching video, researching restaurants… It can build up expectations in your head that are very difficult to fulfil. However recent experiences are now leading me to rethink my hesitant approach to dream travel.
Continuing my tradition of going away with my school friend J (who was my companion for last year’s jaunt to Girona), this year we decided to finally tackle Italy. J had never been to Italy, despite being well travelled around the rest of Europe, whilst I am always up for going somewhere new as my fascination with Italy lives strong, despite only ever having been to the north. After a long debate between the sights of Sicily and the sights of Rome, eventually we settled on Rome due to favourable flights and an abundance of cultural intrigue. I mean, where better to start discovering a new country than the capital, right?
We booked an incredible AirBnB for our Monday-Friday stay, literally a few metres away from the glorious St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican. Although the initial wonder soon wore off when we had to trundle past the Vatican and the hoardes of tourists every time we left or returned to our little flat, I can fully see why the Vatican is such a place of pilgrimage for those of the Catholic faith. It is imposing but beautiful, especially at night. Because we were staying so near, we were able to get up early one morning to go inside the Basilica before the crowds descended and this is something I would fully recommend. Totally worth the late breakfast just to be able to fully appreciate and contemplate this amazing building. Also it is free, yay!
Beyond the Vatican, our days were pretty committed to ticking as much as possible off our Rome bucket list. Strangely enough, the sights I was most awestruck by were probably those which I was least excited to see (hello Pantheon and fori) whilst the sights I was most looking forward to where the ones I found somewhat… underwhelming? Case in point: the Colosseum. It’s great, it’s big, it’s old… But for me that was about it. Not sure if it’s because I’ve already seen so many pictures and videos of the colosseum in films etc. that there wasn’t really much more to it, or if it’s just because there were a lot of people, but something didn’t really connect there. Ditto for the Sistine Chapel; the experience of being herded through a museum for an hour (I absolutely hate crowds so a little bit panicky) to end up in a chapel where a disembodied voice tells you very loudly to REMAIN SILENT AND GET IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR. Not exactly the ideal situation for serenely contemplating life and religion. Beautiful fresco’s though, and cool to see in real life, but would definitely recommend booking ahead and going as early in the day as you can. Or just Google imaging it #yolo.
Moving on to the more positive side of things, would definitely put the Pantheon up there on the must-see things in Rome. Although like the Colesseum I have seen many a picture of the Pantheon, nothing could have prepared me for just how it felt to actually see it in the flesh. Seriously you turn a corner and then it’s like BAM! Huge, imposing and absolutely breath-taking, you can really see how this building was built to catch the attention of the Gods. I think we just stood there and looked at it in silence for a good 10 minutes, and it was the only sight in Rome that we went out of our way to see a second time. Worth it! Another sight that caught up of guard was the Fori di Roma, made up of the ruins of the Trajan’s Market and the Forum of Augustus, it is amazing to see how well-preserved these structures still are after thousands of years. With a bit of imagination and a good dose of squinting, you can almost see the streets and buildings reappear before your eyes as you imagine people going about their daily life. Love it!
In terms of areas, we spent a lot of time around the streets behind the Vatican – after long days of walking you don’t want to hike hours for dinner – where we discovered some amazing spots for food, drinks and everything in between. Particularly recommend VinSanto for a great carbonara (my favourite meal, fact fans), Old Bridge Gelateria for something sweets (the queues are worth it) and Passaguai for a glass of wine with a laid-back ambience (+ free cheese, score).
If the Vatican isn’t your thing, then the student district of Trastevere may be more up your street. Set in the old town just behind the river, Trastevere is made up of twisting, tiny lanes and is chock-full of hip bars and restaurants at very reasonable price points. And that’s not to say they are subpar, value-for-money focused places: many of the highest rated restaurants in Rome are located in this district. For a drink check out the flower-lined lanes around the main square (around Santa Maria di Trastevere) . For food, definitely 100% recommend a plate of polpette (meatballs) at Tonnarello, or a carbonara (can you spot a theme) at Grazia e Graziella. Both places had queues out the door, but they move fast and within 10-20 minutes we were happily seated with prosecco on the way. When in Rome…