It’s hard to compress eternity into just two days… It is Roma Aeterna, after all. But I’ve discovered that if you’re savvy at crowd-dodging, willing to wake up at sunrise and generally a good power-walker, then you can actually squeeze a lot into 48 hours. There are many itineraries out there on what to see and where to eat when in Rome, yet I find that the best itineraries are our own – the ones that come from wandering. So, an espresso in my veins and a map in my hand, I braved this chaotic city without a minute to waste. Because while Rome may be eternal, nobody should wait forever to see it.
8:30 pm: Dine with the locals.
You’ve arrived in Rome at one of the worst times possible. Only because the whole city has taken over the piazzas, outdoor terraces, and cheap eateries, thwarting all hopes of grabbing a quick and quiet dinner somewhere. But if you can wade through the tourists and don’t mind waiting in your first queue of the weekend, then Trattoria Luzzi (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, 88) is a fun, cheap, and lively place to start. The neighbourhood joint is conveniently located down the street from the Colosseum, so you can take advantage to stroll by the monument and see it lit-up at night. A far cry from the set-menu tourist traps, the local and familial Luzzi serves reliable Roman pizza and pasta for a price your wallet won’t cry about.
7:35 am: Watch Rome waking up.
After a quick espresso and nutella cornetto, make your way to the Trevi fountain. It’s an early wake-up call when you’re on vacation, but it means seeing this monumental fountain without the frenzy of crowds, or risk of losing an eye with all those arms tossing coins. Just you and the fountain… and maybe a dozen other early risers. Just a short walk away, the next stop is Piazza di Spagna – the starting point of the Spanish steps. Save for a group of jet-lagged tourists, there are few people at this hour to block your way to the top. Climb the steps to Piazza Trinità di Monti and watch the morning light wake up the rest of Rome. (Note: the Trevi fountain’s façade is currently under restoration and is expected to finish in the Fall of 2015)
10:00 am: Skip the Vatican Museums.
If it’s the last Sunday of the month, the museums are free, but entrance still comes at a price. Unless you start queuing at 6:00 am, you’re not likely to make it inside before closing at 2:00 pm. I happened to be in Rome on such a Sunday, and arrived to find a four-hour-long line that wound its way all around the Vatican City walls. If you’re not up for being herded into the Sistine Chapel like cattle, skip the museums and save them for a longer trip. Visit the Basilica instead, which is always free, though also boasts a long queue of its own. For a more peaceful experience, wander down the smaller streets of the Borgo neighbourhood, off of Via della Conciliazione, and find a spot for your second morning coffee. Sip it while standing at the bar of MeCa Di Mercuri Michele & Sas (Via dei Mascherino, 52). Nothing to call your mother about, but it’s a friendly place where Italians drink their coffee, waving to the owner as they lean at their usual spot. Also, they were pulling cornettos out of the oven when I walked in, so that seemed a good enough reason to stick around for a bit.
12:05 pm: Spend some time in Trastevere.
After a loop around the circular Castello d’Angelo and its park (where they offer outdoor cinema on summer evenings), walk along the left bank of the river Tiber, starting at Lungotevere Vaticano. This tree-lined route takes you past five of Rome’s more impressive bridges, before reaching the medieval working-class-turned-bohemian neighbourhood of Trastevere. Spend some time here. A lot of time here; getting lost among the russet and terracotta houses, and finding tiny piazzas shaded in flowering dogwood trees. Sit on the steps of the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria to get a good view of one of the oldest churches in Rome and, rumour has it, where the first mass was openly celebrated. When you’re ready for lunch, take a seat at one of the outdoor tables of Casetta di Trastevere (Piazza dè Renzi, 31), where you can enjoy a dish of buttery sage ravioli and small carafe of house wine for 10€.
3:32 pm: Gelato at the Pantheon.
Cross Ponti Garibaldi and walk straight up towards the Pantheon. While the monument itself is impressive, its actual location is the interesting part, due to its proximity to Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40): one of, if not, the best ice cream parlours in the world. Pay at the till as you enter and don’t let the frantic, gelato-deprived masses deter you. The nocciola and flore di latte might just change your view of the Pantheon as you sit at the fountain across from it to savour your 2.50€ dessert.
5:20 pm: Get lost around Piazza Venezia.
The largest and most controversial structure in Rome, Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, towers over Piazza Venezia and is an immense, almost blinding white contrast to the rest of the city. While it is said to be one of the few buildings seen from most parts of Rome, I can attest to the fact that it is still possible to get lost in its surroundings. Wander a ways and you’ll find yourself looking over the ruins of the Forum Romanum. Wander too far and you’ll find yourself going in a giant, map-turning circle that leads you right back where you started.
8:00 pm: Wine and dine in Cavour.
Rome’s “cool” neighbourhood; Cavour is where locals and their troupes go for drinks and dinner. You’ll find Italian, wine-glass-gripping “Bo-Bos” spilling out of bar doorways and into the streets, and bottle-guzzling ones by the fountain in Piazza della Maddona die Monti. If your feet can bear waiting for a table, head to the hip enoteca Ai Tre Scalini (Via Panisperna, 251) with its ivy-covered doorway and old Italian charm. If you’re roughing it and sticking to a budget, grab a few slices of pizza from La Boccaccia (Via Leonina, 73), sit on the steps of the nearby plaza, and strike up a conversation with the gelato-loving tourists next to you. Then, if you must, get a gelato for yourself from Gelateria dell’Angeletto (Via dell’Angeletto, 15).
9:30 am: Tour the Colosseum.
Book your ticket online ahead of time to skip the lines and start the day in the colossal site, which some people travel for days to see. While guide books and high school history might do the trick for some, I would go back with a private tour guide the next time. You don’t get the weird anecdotes and obscure details from the historical info boards alone. Such as… Did you know that the Colosseum once had the greatest biodiversity of all of Rome (Italy?) thank to the tropical plant seeds and insects brought in by the animals?
11:24 am: Try the “best” coffee in the world.
Ride the metro to Piazza del Popolo and hang out with the lounging male statues for a while before pressing onwards down the side streets off of Via del Corso. Tiny galleries, gourmet food shops and pretty boutiques are tucked away here, hidden from the main shopping drag. Wind through the alleys until you arrive at Tazza d’Oro (Via del Pastini, 11). This is where you’ll enjoy, some claim, the best coffee in Rome. Made of beans that are roasted on-site, the result is a fragrant, sweet, round cup of coffee with the layer of rich, frothy crema on top.
12:01 pm: Get lost looking for Al Pacino.
A short walk away, find Piazza Navona and its ornate Fontana del Nettuno. Then get lost looking for Caffè della Pace (Via della Pace, 3/7), where directors film and stars go to sit on its terrace to people watch. Diane Keaton once slapped Al Pacino at this cafe – a favorite spot of his when in Rome.
2:00 pm: Picnic with the locals.
Sometimes you need to get far off the beaten track to get a true sense of how the locals live. Grab a caprese sandwich and sit in the gardens of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Overlooking the remains of Porta Magica, the entrance to 17th century alchemist and marquis Massimo Palombara da Pietraforte’s villa, you’ll be in the company of mothers yelling to their children, workers on a lunch break, and a glimpse at what a usual summer Monday looks like to most Romans.
5:00 pm: Run some errands.
A very wise person I know thinks that one of the best ways to see a city is to have a few errands to run. So when I dug through my backpack in the early hours of my trip to find that I had left my camera charger at home, I knew I already had something to do in Rome. If you’re perfect and didn’t forget a single essential tucked away in your closet, pick a hidden place to find or a rare souvenir to track down, and weave your way through the city, feigning to speak Italian, to try and find what it is you’re looking for. FYI: After 3 hours of searching, I finally found a good camera shop, Il Fuoco della Fotografia (Via di S. Maria Maggiore, 143), where two generations of Bernardis helped me locate the right lithium battery charger for my Nikon.