Well, it’s been a few months since we returned to the UK and Rome now just seems like a two-week holiday that I enjoyed over the summer. And, just like a holiday, apart from the occasional, ‘How was Rome?’ from acquaintances I bump into in Waitrose [Ed: what the hell are you doing in Waitrose? You haven’t got a job, you daft bint. Off to Lidl with you], nobody’s interested and I don’t really think about it, unless a TV show has the hero driving around the Colosseum on a scooter and I suddenly blurt out, ‘Bloody hell, I used to live there!’
But then the lovely Elaine from I Used To Be Indecisive asked me for my insider tips for a weekend in Rome and I remembered how much I loved it and decided that I really should reminisce more. So here are my suggestions for a great visit:
DO NOT go in the summer. It’s ridiculously hot and sweaty, there are thousands of tourists everywhere you turn and it’s ridiculously hot and sweaty. September or October are the best times to visit, followed by April or May. Roman autumns are just beautiful with warm, sunny days and cool evenings.
Unless you’re HWW or Lewis Hamilton, DO NOT attempt to drive. Or cross the road.
If you decide to speak Italian while you’re there, Romans (yes, they are called that!) WILL laugh at you. Possibly not to your face, but the waiter will be sniggering when he walks away from the table. My coffee shop Italian spoken with a strong West Country accent was a particular source of amusement for pretty much every Italian I ever met. I don’t have this accent when I speak English, only Italian…
WATCH OUT for the dog poo. Italians are far too cool and lacking in a well developed sense of community spirit to worry about picking up cacca from the pavement.
Drink cappuccino after 11am just to annoy the locals. If you avoid the real touristy places, you shouldn’t have to pay more than €2 for a cappuccino. I can honestly say I never had a bad cappuccino but they are always served luke warm so if you like it hot (as I do), you have to ask for ‘bollente’ or ‘molto caldo’.
Ok, where to go. Obviously all the usual places first:
The Colosseum, Forum and Palentine Hill. Yep, definitely worth seeing, even after my sixth visit (tour guide duty for various sets of visitors). The Colosseum often has long queues but you can get tickets online, or at the Palentine Hill ticket office (the ticket is for all three sites) which has smaller queues.
Trevi Fountain (once all the scaffolding is off). Throw those coins in.
Vatican City. St Peter’s Square and the Basilica are free to get into but the Basilica usually has huge queues. Tickets for the Sistine Chapel can be bought online if you fancy this, but it might take a long chunk out of a weekend visit. Once you’re in the vicinity of St Peter’s Square, you immediately get hassled by tour guides who promise that you will skip the queues if you buy a tour with them. I never did it but could be worth it if you’re time poor but cash rich. I have to confess that I was underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel. Yes, I’m an uncultured oaf. I did however, adore the spiral staircase that you sweep down to exit the Vatican museums!
HWW’s favourite place to visit is the Pantheon, with its amazing concrete dome and oculus open to the elements. Stunning to look at and totally free to get into, it has been in continuous use since it was built almost 2,000 years ago. It’s still a working church so expect to be ‘shhhhhh’ed every five minutes.
Now some of the less well known spots. One of my favourite places to visit is the Aventine Hill, not far from Circus Maximus. It’s a lovely place to walk around, with great views over the city (from the gardens) and the most wonderful view through the keyhole of the Knights of Malta doorway. Not far away is the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), made famous in the film Roman Holiday and now a popular photo-opportunity for Japanese tourists.
Trastevere is a lovely area to visit with lots of shops, bars and restaurants, especially in the evening when they all appear from behind shuttered doors.
The Vittorio Emmanuel Monument (or The Wedding Cake as the locals call it) has stunning views over the city, along with information boards so you know what you’re looking at. Most importantly, it has a lovely roof top cafe with reasonable prices.
I will let you in on my secret bar where you can get a cappuccino for 90c. Go up the right hand set of stairs to the right of the Vittorio Emmanuel monument, through the statues of Castor & Pollox then across the Capitoline Museum Square. Keep to the right and head through a small lane where there is a locals’ bar with the 90c cappuccino. Not bad for the centre of Rome. If you walk to the end of the lane, there is a fabulous view over the forum (almost better than going into the forum!)
Piazza del Popolo is up past the Spanish Steps and worth a visit. There are two cafes at either side which are Roman institutions. Pricey but we had the best spag bol we had in Rome at the one on the right hand side looking back towards the Spanish Steps. From the piazza, you can walk up to Villa Borghese (more great views), where the Romans go for a stroll on Sunday afternoons whilst the tourists ride around on Segways.
Piazza Navona is a stunning square and has lots of touristy places to eat or grab a coffee. There’s an excellent gelato shop, Grom, which offers natural, traditionally made (and delicious) ice-creams.
The Island in the Tiber is beautiful, it’s joined by two bridges so you can walk across the river and stop for a coffee halfway (well, it is a strenuous two minute walk…) In the summer, the usually neglected banks of the river are full of pop-up bars, restaurants and shops and the island is also alive with music and people.
I can’t help with many places to eat as we had two fussy-ish kids with us, so usually just got a plate of pasta which is much the same everywhere, or we went to La Boccaccio in Trastevere. It’s just a tiny shop, with a few bar stools inside and three tables outside, but it does amazing pizza by the slice with a wonderful ever-changing selection of toppings, anything from pizza bianca (totally plain) or margarita, through to bacon and potato (the best!), peppers, courgette and aubergine or rocket and mushroom. Sadly, no pineapple. When will Italians learn that adding pineapple to a pizza takes it to a whole new level of yumminess?? You pay by the weight so a couple of slices of pizza and a beer would cost around €5/6. Not bad for a lunch in the centre of Rome.
I’m sure I’ve missed off loads of my favourite places and I’ll update if I remember any more so that this becomes my tribute to my time in Rome.
But my biggest tip is just to take it easy. Don’t try to pack too much in. Enjoy a cappuccino at Caffe Greco and admire all the fashionistas tripping along, with their Dolci & Gabanni handbags in one hand and mini sausage dogs in the other. Go into a church (they’re all lovely and individual) and contemplate the meaning of life…or just rest your feet. Get lost in all the little lanes around Campo de’Fiori and stop for a Spritz and antipasti at 6pm. Think of me back in England drinking tea and wondering why it’s so bloody cold.
PS And for god’s sake, whatever you do, please pack a guide book so you’re not relying on me and my half-arsed recollections.