ROME — At 580 square miles, the Eternal City is more than 10 times the size of Boston. Its population is 2.8 million, not counting the scores of tourists who come to admire such ancient sights as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, and behold artwork by the likes of Caravaggio and Raphael. With so much to see, how does a first-timer break it down without feeling overwhelmed?
We revisited Rome after several years and brought along a first-time visitor. Upon arrival, we put on our comfiest Euro-looking shoes and set out to explore.
“This is amazing — I don’t know where to look first,” said Paul Kelley, our Rome newbie, surveying the ancient architecture as we crossed the bridge over the Tiber River into the shadow of Castel Sant’ Angelo. Built as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian (circa 139 AD) and used as a fortress and prison through the Middle Ages, the castle got its new name when the archangel Michael was said to have made a miraculous appearance. Ultimately, it served as a refuge for popes in danger. It’s open now as a museum, but the exterior alone is breathtaking, and it highlights one of the reasons a stroll around this city is so fascinating: There’s an antiquity around every corner.
We ended up smack in St. Peter’s Square, gazing at the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica. Late in the afternoon, there was just a sprinkling of visitors inside this massive (six acres) Baroque-style basilica, so we could take in its glories without the distraction of tourist throngs, and we could spend as much time as we liked in the thrall of Michelangelo’s Pietà, the sculpture of Mary cradling the body of her crucified son.
The basilica is free, although it costs a few euros if you choose to climb into the dome, up 231 stairs or on the elevator, for dazzling views. We were lucky we’d dressed the part for our spontaneous visit; the dress code bans shorts, bare shoulders, and short skirts.
Of course we wanted to venture on to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. There were lines to get in, but they moved quickly. The aggressive freelance “guides” who entice you to skip the line by going with their tours forget to mention one thing: They enter only after they’ve recruited a big group, which can be hours later. Of course, there are legitimate tours for the truly line-phobic. A local company called Walks of Italy does an after-dark tour that garners raves. Arriving after 4 p.m. paid off; lines are much longer in the mornings, we’re told.
That said, the quarter-mile walk to the Sistine Chapel — and the finale, Michelangelo’s rendering of God passing the spark of life to man — is worth the effort.
Later, a walk around the Via Veneto led to another impromptu stop: the Capuchin Crypt, where the bones of Franciscan friars are arranged in intricate patterns to decorate the walls under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione.
In Rome, “everything revolves around food,” an expat told us. There’s a pasta or pizza place on every corner. To avoid carb overload, we relied on insalata mista (green salad) and fruits from the market for lunch, and enjoyed leisurely dinners at trattorias.
For the best food and value, look for cafes on side streets where you’re not paying for the view. Avoid places that offer a “tourist” menu. Roman specialties include spaghetti alla carbonara, pecorino Romano cheese, and a dessert called tartufo (basically a ball of gelato). Useful Italian rule of dining: If your food arrives hot, ahead of the others, don’t wait — that’s considered rude.
If you’re a foodie, nothing beats a food tour of Rome. We spent 3½ hours with a small group led by Julia of Walks of Italy (www.walksofitaly.com). For about $80 each, we ate our way around the Campo de’ Fiori’s open market (a wonderland of plump produce), tasted olive oils on crusty bread, and sampled balsamic vinegar aged 50 years. We got behind the scenes at Antica Norcineria Viola, a salami shop festooned with giant tubes of meat, and a cheese shop with a wheel of Parmesan the size of a tire, where we tasted wonderful store-made hard and soft cheeses, including a chocolate ricotta. The finale: a pizza-making lesson at one of Rome’s best pizzerias. Our group included a family from Lichtenstein with two children and we all had a grand time pounding out our fresh dough and arranging veggie toppings. (Meat goes on after the pizza is cooked.)
Our lodging plan included two hotels — one in the heart of the city and one a half-hour shuttle ride away. The Hotel Marriott Rome Park (www.marriott.com; rooms from about $124) is located between Da Vinci Airport and the city center. We took the hotel shuttle (about $8 each way) into the city every morning and stayed until after dark — walking miles each day. That meant bringing along a backpack with extra shoes for when our feet hurt. The families at the hotel seemed to love the place, since it has a big outdoor pool and on-site restaurants.
The second property was Palazzo Manfredi (www.palazzomanfredi.com; rooms from about $384), a boutique hotel across the street from the Colosseum. With its terrific rooftop restaurant and central location, this is a fabulous place for couples. We walked everywhere from here, exploring the ancient city and beloved tourist sites such as the Spanish Steps and the Villa Borghese.
Our freewheeling tour of Rome turned out to be the perfect way to go.