Rome Sightseeing: See it or Skip It?

Rome is the third most visited city in Europe, just behind London and Paris, and receives 7-10 million visitors a year to take in its cultural and archaeological wonders. The city has become quite a tourist hub, and was way more overrun with tourists than London when I visited at a similar time. Since Rome welcomes so many sightseers, it also has unfortunately been invaded by people trying to take advantage of these visitors. It is also filled with so many attractions that it can be difficult to sift through all there is to do and see in the Eternal City. It’s a great city for tourists, yes, but it is also easy for a tourist to get taken advantage of or unnecessarily waste money on some random ruins or tour.

During my recent visit, I certainly didn’t experience EVERY last famous site, but I did pack in some major highlights to varying degrees of success. Not all of these attractions were worth the hassle or money – so I wanted to be sure to share what you should see, or skip, on your next trip to Rome.

 



The Vatican – See it! (But only the right way!)
Your enjoyment of your visit to the Vatican will be largely dependent on what tour you choose. Make sure to book a tour in advance and one that gives you early entrance to the Sistine Chapel. We went through Walks of Italy, and we were able to take in the beauty of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel a full hour before opening – beating the crowds and heat – allowing us to relax and fully enjoy the masterpiece. Then we continued to explore the Vatican museums, gardens and St. Peter’s. The place is a world wonder with an overwhelming collection of art and history. Definitely a must-see, as long as you can avoid the sweltering throngs of tourists with the right tour.



Open Air Double Decker Bus Tour – Skip it!
While I loved the open air bus tour in London, its Roman counterpart was very disappointing (we used the City Sightseeing brand in both cities). Multiple of the tour companies are run by disorganized street hawkers, making it very difficult to tell who is legit and who is trying to run away with your euros. Once we finally figured out how to buy non counterfeit tickets, they were still 20 euro each and we had to wait in a very long line for a seat on a bus. The tour itself was lackluster with overcrowded seating, broken audio guides (there was no in-person guide like in London), and long wait times at each stop. Definitely skip it and instead wander Rome by foot while listening to one of Rick Steve’s free podcasts.

Entering the reconstructed arena floor.

 

The top of Ancient Rome.

The Colosseum – See it! (But only the right way!)
Like the Vatican, the Colosseum is a must-see, but you should try to book the “right” tour beforehand. Salesmen will try to rope you into booking a tour as soon as you set a foot near the site, but spend time before your trip researching an option that will give you special access. Again, we booked a Walks of Italy Tour (it’s extremely well reviewed and reputable) that gave a “VIP’ feeling to all of it. Traipsing about the colossal ruins, we were led pas the velvet ropes and below the Colosseum where the gladiators would train, walked around the actual restricted arena floor, and slipped up a locked, secret staircase to the “roof” of the auditorium. Taking in views of Ancient Rome from the very top of the Colosseum is something I’ll never forget, and I highly recommend you book this tour. If you don’t want to spend the extra euros, still visit the Colosseum, but book through the official museum instead of through a sketchy street vendor.

Throngs of tourists at the Spanish steps.

 

Trevi Fountain. Under construction, so even more forgettable.

Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps – Skip it!
I’ve paired these two stops together as they’re usually included in the same guided tour. By all means, check them out, but don’t waste money on a guided tour. You can quickly take a cab or the metro to both spots, meander around the neighborhoods, snaps some instagrams, then be merrily on your way. They are both pretty jammed with tourists and street vendors, so you will want to get away from the men shoving selfie sticks in your face anyway.

Trying the #3 slice of pizza in Rome at Volpetti Piu.

 

Overwhelmed with beautiful meats and cheeses at Volpetti.

Eating Italy Food Tour – See it!
I mentioned this tour on my previous post, but I cannot recommend the Eating Italy Food Tour enough. We did the “Taste of Testaccio” trek, and munched on 12 tastings at 9 of the city’s best food vendors from restaurants to a street market. The day was an onslaught to the taste buds – tiramisu, salami, pasta, bruschetta, suppli – the feast went on and on. Our tour guide Dom was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining (he has mutton chops and is in a Rolling Stones cover band!), and we had a beautiful day making new friends and relishing the neighborhood’s bites.

What are your “must sees” in Rome? Anything I forgot or should give a second chance?

(Almost) Everything I Ate in Rome

While Italy is full of art, history and culture, I definitely was most looking forward to its gastronomic tourism. Translation – the food was DAMN good. I kept a little photo diary of (almost) everything I savored in the beautiful culinary country, so I wouldn’t forget my favorite restaurants and dishes. There are definitely a few I hope to return to and enjoy again some day.  I broke the food up by Rome and the Amalfi Coast – there are too many dishes to fit into one post and the cuisines are pretty different. So, let’s first enjoy a tasty tour of Rome – my mouth is already watering.

 

DAY ONE
 

Our first meal was at La Bruschetta near our hotel, the Marriott Grand Flora on Via Veneto. We were jet lagged and just wanted food and wanted it yesterday. I had lasagna, and it was soggy and mediocre. Not the best culinary note to start the trip on.

 

Our dinner that evening, however, more than made up for the poor first impression. At the recommendation of our concierge, we tried Ristorante 34 near the Spanish Steps. It’s definitely in a touristy part of town, but the food was UNBELIEVABLE. We dined al fresco in the twilight, and dish after miraculous dish was paraded out by the welcoming (rare in Rome) and hustling waiter. I feasted on red pepper and gorgonzola pasta, veal saltimbocca with truffle mash (ohmagahhhh), and a chocolate souffle. My parents split an outrageous veal shank, and I had to partake in those festivities as well. Honestly, this was our best meal by far in Rome, and I highly recommend you try it.
Picturesque Roman al fresco dining, straight out of Lady and the Tramp.

 

 

*Drools*

 

All finished off with a shot of espresso.

 

DAY TWO
Day two, we ventured to the neighborhood of Testaccio for the Eating Italy “Taste of Testaccio Food Tour.” My parents had completed the tour their last trip to Rome, and highly recommended it. We spent half the day wandering Testaccio, sampling its foodie delights at local vendors, restaurants, and markets. Unfortunately, I was so entranced by the food that I didn’t take pictures of everything. I did remember to snap some, however, and have included them below. Definitely add this tour to your “must-do” list in Rome.

 

 

 

Suppli, a street food made out of breaded, fried risotto.

 

Our tour began as most days should, with tiramisu.

 

DAY 3
 
The morning of our third day, my mom and I explored the Vatican and Sistine Chapel and had worked up quite an appetite by lunch time. We met my brother and dad to fuel up at Ristochicco, just a short walk from St. Peter’s Square. The whole surrounding area by the Vatican is a swarm of beggars, scammers, and tourists traps. I definitely relied on Trip Advisor to find a legit restaurant that wouldn’t serve awful food and take us for every euro. Ristochicco was fabulous, and we gobbled up our pasta (I had gnocchi with toms), served fresh out of the cast iron pan.
That evening, after an afternoon filled with rain showers, we took a perilous cab ride (every cab ride in Rome will bring you close to death) to the Trastevere neighborhood. Trastevere was the least “touristy” feeling place we visited, and it was lovely to spend an evening with “real” Romans. Most restaurants are partially outdoor, lining the pedestrian walkways that are filled with street vendors. We had dinner in the center of the action at Grazie e Graziella, another TripAdvisor find. To start, we shared an antipasti of beautiful meats and cheeses, then I had amatriciana for my main. It’s a traditional Roman meat sauce (you definitely don’t order bolognese – this isn’t Bologna!) made with guanciale, pecorino cheese, and tomato. For dessert, we were stuffed but just had split a tiramisu. This was probably my second favorite restaurant in Rome, after 34, plus the waiters were really hot ;).

After dinner, we attempted to walk off the pounds by wandering the piazza in the dusky glow. If I lived in Rome, I would without a doubt live in Trastevere.

DAY FOUR

On our final fourth day in Rome, we had a full day of touring planned at the Colosseum and Roman Forum. To make planning a bit easier and to avoid the crowds at restaurants near these tourist hot spots, we filled up on brunch at our hotel, the Marriott Grand Flora, restaurant. Luckily, the buffet provided this view:

You could do worse than a hotel breakfast with sweeping vistas of Rome. I nibbled on an assortment of pastries, meats, and fruit. The breakfast was included with our room, so not a bad way to save a few euros.

 

After lots of walking and putting on our best Russell Crowe and gladiating about, we decided to forgo a normal lunch and do as the Romans do – eat gelato. I can’t remember the name of this random gelateria a few steps from the Colosseum, but their nutella flavor was on point.

We had a day of travel to Naples then on to the Amalfi Coast looming ahead of us, so we decided to stick close to our hotel for dinner. Unfortunately, we struck out in this neighborhood, yet again at Andrea. It was fine, serviceable, but entirely forgettable. Not representative of Roman cuisine at all. Plus, their saltimbocca was never going to live up to the heaven I experienced at 34. Lesson learned, Via Veneto is not a neighborhood for impressing foodies.  I should have known when the restaurant focal point is the Hard Rock Cafe.

meh.

 

We really outdid ourselves with sampling the tiramisus of Rome. This one was okay.
The cookies weren’t too shabby, but I’m easy to please when it comes to sweets.

Luckily, the Amalfi Coast cuisine finished our trip on a high note. I’ll be sure to put together another post recapping that tastiness!

 

Arienzo Beach from Positano

One of my favorite days during our trip to Italy, and perhaps one of my favorite days ever, was our day trip to Arienzo Beach off of the coast of Positano. I knew I would have to share my experiences on the blog, as I wanted to commit every detail to writing and never forget the feeling of being in this magical place.
After stuffing ourselves on omelettes, capucinnos and nutella at our hotel’s breakfast (Hotel Margherita – you must stay there!) that morning, we hopped on the bus to Positano. We stayed in the neighboring, sleepier Praiano, and a creaky orange bus conveniently rambles along the winding cliff road that connects all of the coastal towns. After a  treacherous short ride through narrow streets, packed with fellow, sweaty tourists, we arrived at the center of  bustling Positano, right on the beach. Not a bad reward at the end of our trip.

Our journey had just begun, however, and we patiently awaited for our little water taxi to arrive and take us to our beach club, reachable only by boat or hundreds of steps down the cliffside. Americans that we are and with my track record of clumsiness, we chose the boat option.

 

Without much to-do, we climbed onto our jetty helped by tan, shirtless Italian men (you become very good at leaping into boats when staying on the Amalfi Coast). The views of Positano from the sea are spectacular – you really can’t get a bad photo, and I probably took hundreds, including a selfie (or ten)!

Our steadfast captain led us past the picturesque coastline dotted with almost fake looking colorful houses, and just around a bend to our destination – Arienzo Beach. Or Bagni d’Arienzo if you’re a local.
We arrived to the welcoming site of the most aqua sea water meeting black shoreline, dotted with bright orange umbrellas and lounge chairs.  For only 10 euro, the chair, umbrella and service are yours to soak up the Mediterranean sun all day long. I loved how most beach clubs in Italy had chairs with face shades attached to them. Perfect for us pale folk who need protection or bookworms who don’t want to strain their eyes.

Our fellow sunbathers we’re a little more scantily clad in speedos and bikinis; it’s pretty empowering how almost all Italian women will rock a bikini, even if they’re not in great shape. I’m also proud to say we were only a few of the handful of Americans at the club. Patting myself on the back, I thought it must be a good sign if you’re outnumbered by locals. The lazy crowd was a mix of couples sipping on prosecco, schoolchildren playing hooky to play water polo, and families cooling themselves in the crisp, turquoise water.

Upon becoming properly crispy in the high noon glare, our stomachs began to rumble. We decided to make our trek on the rocky shore to the club’s restaurant, nestled on stilts above the beach. The black rocks were “hotter than the surface of the sun” according to my dad, and I definitely recommend you bring a pair of flip flops for a barrier.We of course had forgotten to pack ours, so we raced across the stones to our lunch.

 

Properly shaded under umbrellas, our friendly Italian waiters brought out fresh al dente linguine, decorated with succulent clams and mussels. Funnily enough, our waiter was from Praiano, the town where we were staying, and was friendly with our hotel owners. Instances like these make the Amalfi Coast have this cozy, familial feel, and we definitely felt more welcome and at home here than in busy Rome.  Slurping down the delicious pasta and seafood, I made sure to wash it down with a watermelon Mojito.

 

Freshly buzzed on rum and sunshine, we took in the beach from our birds eye view. The restaurant was the perfect spot to practice my best Gray Malin and snap away at the photogenic sherbet toned umbrellas.

 

Returning to our chairs for a few more hours we alternated between sunbathing and dipping in the sea. The ocean floor was also blanketed with rocks, but the buoyant, salty Mediterranean makes it easy to lean back and float away.  I’ll never forget these little moments spent bobbing away in the Italian sea with my parents, simply savoring each other’s company and the enchanting surroundings.
Sadly, the time to leave eventually arrived with the waning sun. Our accommodating hosts arranged for a private water taxi to take us directly back to Praiano, allowing us to skip the bumpy bus ride home. The ocean interstate was an immensely more pleasurable mode of transport, but I was sad to say goodbye to our little dream beach, our  “Avalon” on the sea.

 

You can find more info about Bagni d’Arienzo or reserve a chair here. It came highly recommended from locals as a more authentic alternative to the popular Da Adolfo, and it far outshone my high expectations.
Check out more of my Italy posts here:

What to Know Before You Go to Italy

While I had an amazing time during my recent trip to Rome and the Amalfi Coast and regret nothing about our journey, there are a few things I wish I would have known before arriving in Italy. While I’m an obsessive planner and scoured Pinterest for tips, there were a few things, cultural and logistical, that caught me off guard and slipped through the cracks. I’ve included a list of these tidbits and tips below, so you can learn from my experience and mistakes and make your hopefully upcoming trip to Italy all the more prepared and easier. You’ll be able to focus less on dealing with hassle and more on fully immersing in la dolce vita.

1. Bring more cash than you think you’ll need. While most major restaurants and attractions take credit cards, cash is still king and you will run out of euros quicker than you think. You cannot tip waiters or guides on credit cards, most taxi drivers prefer cash, and some stores and restaurants will still push you to fork over the euros. Simply put, you will become quicker friends with the Italians if you are able to pay them in cash. Save up and withdraw plenty before you leave the States, so you don’t get stuck using an exchange with tons of fees once you are abroad.

2. There are public restrooms in major piazzas and train stations, but you will typically need to pay a euro or two to use them (see tip above!). They are usually well maintained and clean, but we Americans are spoiled and not prone to being charged for public restrooms. I definitely was caught off guard, fumbled with my cash and ended up walking into the men’s toilet at Termini train station – yolo!

3. Selfie sticks are everywhere! If you are in a tourist heavy area, you WILL be accosted by an endless barrage of aggressive dudes trying to sell you a selfie stick. A firm no will get them away, but be prepared for the constant onslaught as you walk near the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Pantheon, or really any major attraction. You will never want to see another selfie stick in your life (also, isn’t your arm essentially a selfie stick?) If you absolutely HAVE to have one, buy one before you go. Most of the sellers are part of syndicates that are usually tied to the mob and human trafficking, and the actual poor immigrant sellers see little of the profits.

4. Italy is a very Catholic country, it is the home of the pope after all, so most restaurants or stores are closed on Sundays and religious holidays. Double check hours and openings online or with your concierge before setting out for the day or be prepared for more casual dining options.

5. Bring hair conditioner! In order to save space in my suitcase, I typically rely on the hotel’s shampoo and conditioner, but the majority of Italian hotels only provide a single shampoo/conditioner combo. If you have thick or tangly hair and need a standalone conditioner, you will end up buying conditioner at a farmacia or spending 10 euro at Sephora like I did.

6. Also pack bug spray! I was eaten alive by mosquitos on the Amalfi Coast (humblebrag) and few stores sell insect repellent. Plan ahead.

7. There is abundant FREE clean drinking water. Most streets have public fountains with great, fresh drinking water straight from the aqueducts. Save some money and produce less plastic waste by forgoing constantly buying water bottles and pack a bottle to fill as you go (this foldable bottle would be a great space saver!)  Even inside the Vatican and smaller coastal towns like Capri and Positano had abundant fountains to refill. You will need it after climbing the Colosseum or hiking through Ravello.

Happy trip planning – I hope these tips help improve your stay in beautiful Italy!