When people tell me they didn’t like Rome, it’s like they told me they don’t like sunsets or puppies or Elvis Costello. Sure on the cuddly scale, Rome is less puppy and more Costello, but like the musician, Rome has a large body of work that encompasses a wide variety of eras over a long period of time.
Where else can you be walking down the street and look up from a fantastic pair of shoes only to see a two thousand year old structure just standing there like it’s no big thing? WHERE ELSE? OK, sure, perhaps, Turkey, Greece, Israel, and a few other places. But where else are you going to also eat a two hour lunch with some of the best wine in the world for a fraction of the price? Where else are you just going to stumble upon the ruins of Largo Argentina, just sitting in the middle of the city, and find out it’s not just an ancient temple, but also a present day cat sanctuary?
No matter where else I go in the country I always return to Rome. And each time I go I discover a new attraction that delights me and fills me with wonder. Rome is like a piñata and there’s still plenty of candy left to fall out.
I should say here that The Boot Camp is not a travel guide per se. These are just places I’ve been that I can personally recommend. It’s the places I tell friends when they ask, “What should we see?” So there will be many more hotels and restaurants and things to see in all of Italy that I can’t possibly know anything about, many of which I’m sure are wonderful and I’ve been missing out on all of these years. Likewise, your mileage may vary. You may not be as excited by my favorite places, some of which it’s been a few years since I stayed there so they may be different now for better or for worse. If you want to see something more up to date, start a kickstarter to fund my travel guide.
I prefer to stay in the centro storico, the old city. There you’re walking distance to all the major attractions as well as great restaurants, cafes and bars. Rome is an incredibly walkable city. You can have breakfast at the Pantheon, walk through Largo Argentina and the Jewish quarter, across the river to Trastevere, eat lunch, and then keep going down the river to the Vatican or up the Janiculum Hill if you’re so inclined.
However if budget or other needs must, there are great places to stay all over the city: apartments for rent, fantastic Air BnB experiences, and other hotels that may offer more modern conveniences than the ones built into several hundred year old buildings.
In Piazza al Pantheon, I’ve always enjoyed the Sole Al Pantheon.
The rooms vary as do the rates, but if you’re looking for a splurge, there is a suite with a window overlooking all of the Piazza with a terrific view of the Pantheon.
Last summer I got a fantastic last minute deal at the Pantheon Royal Suite. The rooms are quite small, but nice, with robes and Molton Brown toiletries. Also, the bed is motorized to lift up, revealing a Jacuzzi underneath. Where else are you going to see that?
Both locations can be noisy as they’re right in the middle of a square with cafes serving until late. But you’re on vacation and you only live once: go be part of that noise.
I’ve also stayed in Campo di Fiori at Hotel Lunetta, which, like the Pantheon Royal Suite, has a spa in the hotel. The Lunetta has a roof top bar which is a great place to stop by on your way out or make it the last stop before you go back to your room. It’s on a side street off the Campo, so my experience was that it was less noisy that my stays near the Pantheon.
Years ago we also stayed at Hotel Smeraldo, which was a fantastic location and very affordable.
I’ve got a list of great restaurants and fun places to drink, but if you want someone to do all the planning for you DEFINITELY check out Marco Lori’s wine and food pairing class. He’s a dear friend and master sommelier and offers a 6 course meal with wine pairings that is the best deal in all of Rome! Plus you can learn something to bring back to your own dinner parties so you can always have a little Italy with you!
Don’t leave Rome without ordering Cacio e Pepe somewhere and if you see fried zucchini flowers (especially if they’re stuffed with ricotta) get them. The Italians do fried food like no one else. It is very lightly battered and fried, not dunked in batter and then served up like a heart attack. Also, get the potatoes. Something about Italian potatoes….they’re just roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper, that’s all, but I can’t make them taste like that in my kitchen at home no matter how hard I try.
One of our favorites in Rome is Ditirambo, right in Camp di Fiori. Get the truffle potatoes!
Also a few years back a Roman friend introduced us to La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, near the Colosseum in what was explained to us as the “Echo Park” of Rome. (Right coasters, think Brooklyn.) They had 2 specials that were amazing: burrata with anchovies and cacio & pepe with truffles. Ask for the English menu. The chicken liver bruschetta is great, too. I’ve also had the pork with truffles which was crazy good. And the potatoes that came with it were great! (SEE POTATOES, ABOVE)
Gusto near the Piazza del Poppolo has a pizzeria, a wine bar and a fancier osteria. The pizzeria is known for their fried vegetables and zucchini flowers which my husband has been talking about being the best he’s ever had for the last 3 years. And the enoteca around the back serves wine by the glass if you’re looking for a mid afternoon break. Wines by the glass have traditionally been harder to come by, unless you just want the house wine, which isn’t always so great. But they have a wonderful selection here.
There’s another great wine bar in Campo di Fiori called Rosciolo. It’s not right in the square, but on a side street. They also sell gourmet food items like aged balsamic vinegar and truffle salts and do tastings of cheeses and meats, as well.
If you’re across the river in Trastevere, we’ve eaten twice at both La Scala as well as Olimpio al Drago and they were both fantastic! Drago is a little easier to find than Scala but we loved both meals. The carbonara and cacio al pepe was great at Drago as were the grilled mussels with burrata. Scala has oysters that were the least expensive I saw the whole trip, as well as more burrata and anchovies, and a raviolo with truffles. And both places have super cute bathrooms! (SEE “A WORD ABOUT TOILETS” PART 1)
Aroma was a great place for drinks, with a patio that overlooked the Colosseum and was a great place to watch the sunset as the night lights came on around it. Unfortunately, now that side is reserved for the restaurant. The food there was very good, too, but it was on the expensive side and fancier than you get at most Italian restaurants. Which is fine, but not why I go to Italy. I liked it better than my husband. Aroma is also a 5-10 minute walk to Fori Imperiali if you want to go for a drink before eating there.
And before you leave, get a granita con panna at Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon
Now that you’re fed and rested it’s time to actually see the two thousand years of history I’ve been going on about.
The Colosseum and forum are must sees, but I think it helps to have a guide point out what you’re looking at and tell you the history. The ruins being ruins, it’s hard to tell your rostrum from your Temple of the Vestal Virgins.The Husband is a huge ancient history enthusiast; he actually studied Latin. He used this company and loved the tour, which had a grad student or Phd as his guide.
Even if you decide not to do the tour, look into getting tickets online ahead of time. And there’s always an audio guide.
We both really enjoyed it. It’s on the smaller, more manageable side so you’re not overwhelmed with gallery after gallery that you feel you have to get through and appreciate even though you have jet lag. It has a ton of Bernini sculptures that are really amazing to look at up close. We were in awe of the detail and texture he was able to put into the marble, like the way a hand presses into the flesh and makes it dimple.
This is an interesting museum with more ancient artifacts not too far from the Colosseum. I don’t think you need to be worried about tickets ahead of time and it could be a great alternative if there’s bad weather and you don’t want to be outside in the rain or cold.
I’m going to say something really controversial here: skip the Vatican. Look, if it’s your second or third time or you have 5 days or like you’re super Catholic, then by all means go. But I don’t recommend the Vatican museum. It’s crowded and the tours are inefficient and chaotic and overpriced. Our tour guide went so quickly and so far ahead that she lost us and several others and this was the tour that came recommended. And they will tell you that you have to cover your knees and your shoulders and men can’t wear pants and you will show up in the dead of summer wearing pants with shoulders covered only to be surrounded by a sea of people wearing shorts!
Instead I would recommend taking a lovely walk through the Jewish ghetto, across the bridge to Trastevere, have lunch, and then keep going along the river to St. Peter’s Square and seeing the gigantic plaza that is the Vatican before walking back across the river to the Ara Pacis or the Villa Borghese.
This place is great and totally flies under the radar. It’s all frescoes, mosaics, coins and sculpture from ancient Rome and in remarkably good condition. Very un-crowded the day we went and the ticket also gets you into the Baths of Dioclesian and a church across the street. No need to buy tickets ahead of time or anything.
This is church near Piazza Navona with 3 Caravaggio paintings inside, just hanging there. Just walk right in! Another great alternative if all you have the bandwidth for that day is 3 paintings and a glass of wine near the fountains in the Piazza.
This is the home of an ancient Roman altar dedicated to the Goddess of Peace. It’s a gorgeous sculpture made out of marble, and situated in a light filled modern building. Another great thing to look at when you don’t have the bandwidth for observing ALL of ancient history in day. The basement is also gallery space. The day we were there it featured an exhibit on Roman food that was the perfect length. We came. We saw some beauty. We learned some things. And then we went to Gusto for a drink. Perfect Italian afternoon.
Lastly, I’ve never done this food tour, but a friend of mine just did the Trastevere twilight tour and raved about it.