A long weekend in Rome

March

The eternal city is a feast of art, history, churches, and food. To truly live la dolce vita, don't try to do it all in one trip.

Duration: Three day weekend

Past and present collide in spectacular fashion in Rome. Every time we visit, we are still mesmerized by the Coliseum and the ruins of the ancient Roman forum right in the center of the city with loud motorbikes whizzing past, and modern Italians going about their daily lives. The most amazing thing about Rome is that it’s not a museum; the rich history isn’t behind ropes and barriers with climate control, it’s right in front of you, everywhere you walk. On recent visits, we’ve spent more time getting to know some of the areas that don’t have major monuments in them, but have buzzy energy and fabulous restaurants. Namely Rioni Monte, the Jewish Ghetto, and Trastevere. One of the great things about returning to Rome, is that you can pick just one or two museums or tourist attractions to visit, and spend the rest of the time walking, eating, and popping in and out of little churches. Without the pressure to ‘do it all’ you have more time to, in our case, eat it all. The sheer volume of ‘important things you must see’ in Rome can be overwhelming for a first time visitor, so it’s a destination that particularly rewards repeat visits.

  • Sight Seeing 100% 100%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 60% 60%
  • Activities 70% 70%

Touristy sites that are actually worth it:

The Sistine Chapel is spectacular, awe inspiring, something you must see once, and a total cluster f*&^ to visit. Located deep in the maze of the Vatican Museum, you have to walk through dozens of rooms of art and artifacts from the Vatican collection before arriving at the ‘Capella Sistina’, and dozens more before leaving the building. Lines are long to enter, tour groups clog the chapel itself, and you’ll be packed cheek to jowl as you contemplate Michelangelo’s masterpiece. That said, there are a few crucial ways to save your self some (if not all) the headache involved. 1) You must pre-book a ‘skip the line ticket’ online. Try for a slot first thing in the morning, or late in the afternoon, and do whatever you can to not show up ticketless. Sometimes the website doesn’t work, and as you’ll see online, there are a million ways Viator and others make money in a secondary market by marking up tickets that they’ve pre-booked online. It’s super annoying, but if you can’t get an original ticket from the Vatican website, we would still try for one of these rather than show up in a queue that can kill your entire day in Rome. We would highly recommend adding on St. Peter’s Basilica, as you’ll be able to enter via a passageway connecting it to the Vatican Museum. Otherwise, you’re back out in the square, staring at yet another queue to get inside and see Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Baldacchino.

*Update* We booked Valentina’s Airbnb Experience on a subsequent visit to Rome that included early access to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel in a small guided tour, as well as line-free access to St. Peter’s. At $84 USD pp, it’s not cheap, but it was far and away the most pleasant Vatican experience we’ve had, and included context and information that went well beyond the usual sound bites. We highly, highly recommend this tour if you are considering a visit to either the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s, regardless of whether you’re a first time visitor or it’s your tenth time visiting. 

After all that art, and dealing with hordes of tourists, treat yourself to a brisk walk to Bonci Pizzarium an out of the way pizza spot with a devoted foodie following. Unprecious, cheap, and delicious, these freshly made ‘pizzas’ are like little open faced focaccias cut into square bites and in a variety of unique flavors. Everything is fresh, fresh fresh, and delicious. Add a plastic glass of wine to your order and you’ll soon forget the hassle and stress of touring the Vatican.

Colosseum and Roman Forum it’s up to you if you pay admission and tour the inside of the colosseum, but at least walk the Roman forum, and look at the exterior of the building that set the standard for stadium design the world over. We haven’t paid to enter the Colosseum in years, and it’s been under scaffolding and renovations on our recent visits. You can get the gist from the outside. 

Teatro Marcello and the Jewish ghetto. We love the ruins of the Teatro Marcello, which pre-date the Colosseum, but are even more beautifully preserved. Located adjacent to the Jewish ghetto, this is a perfect walk into the heart of where many of our favorite restaurants are located. 

Fontana di Trevi, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona three of the major sites that can easily be seen on a quick walking loop through central Rome. Walk, gawk, get a gelato, and get on with it. Do NOT eat a meal at any overpriced trattoria with a menu in six languages facing any of these. You will have mediocre food at high prices in a city filled with incredible, reasonably priced meals. Nothing makes us more depressed than squandering a meal in Italy. If your feet are tired and you just want to sit and take in the scene, get a cappuccino or gelato but don’t commit to a meal here!

Borghese Gallery We’d actually been to Rome several times before finally making here, which is crazy because it’s perhaps the second best (after the Vatican) but far more pleasant and manageable museum collection in Rome. Bernini sculpture after Bernini sculpture is displayed in sumptuous palazzo rooms filled with the best examples of Renaissance and Baroque art. One room contains the best concentration of Caravaggio paintings in any one place (thanks to Caravaggio’s sometime patron, Cardinal Borghese). Again try to book tickets in advance, and enjoy the stroll through the park and gardens to this pleasant museum

Nearby, try Hostaria Romana for traditional, but exceptional Roman cuisine. Order the carciofo alla Romana (artichokes) for a starter.

Ecstasy of St Theresa statue in the Sante Maria della Vittoria church. For art history nerds, or big Bernini fans, this little church is absolutely worth a visit. Remember that churches, as opposed to museums, charge no admission and far less tourists, and every church in Rome seems to hide a famous masterwork that would be a major attraction in any other city. Rome has an embarrassment of riches; Bernini here, lesser known Michelangelo over there, but this church is really special. Make sure to turn on the light box that illuminates this work (I can’t remember if it requires a coin).

Michelangelo’s Moses in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli – another unassuming church with a major masterpiece inside. Michelangelo’s imposing sculpture of Moses. Well worth a quick visit as it’s so close to the restaurants, bars, and shops of Rione Monte.

Bramante’s Tempietto – if you make it over to Trastevere (which you absolutely should for some of the best food in Rome), this is a must. Perched on a hill with beautiful views for Rome below, this perfectly proportioned ‘tempietto’ or tomb, is Renaissance harmonious architecture at its finest.

Terrazza del Gianicolo – for our favorite view of Rome, and a great way to walk off all that pasta, take a steep walk up from Trastevere up to this popular lookout point. 

Where to Eat

Below are a few of my favourite places for traditional Roman specialties like bucatini amatriciana, cacio e pepe, or carciofi alla giuda (Jewish style artichokes). Rione Monti, Trastevere, and the Jewish ghetto are three neighborhoods teeming with delicious options that aren’t geared towards tourists. The food in Rome is so good, provided you avoid a few tourist pitfalls. Steer clear of restaurants overlooking main squares (like the Piazza Navona for example). It’s better to enjoy a drink at one of these and save your appetite for places that prioritize food, not tourist dollars. Also, when in doubt, avoid places with menus listed in several languages. Sunday lunch is a popular meal for Roman families to go out together, so you should make a reservation to be sure to get into your restaurant of choice. Finally, with so much tempting food to eat throughout the day, do as the Romans do and don’t bother with breakfast. A cappucino drunk while standing at the bar, perhaps with a small cornetto is all you need. 

Neighborhood: Rioni Monti

Centrally located, with a bunch of great restaurants, buzzy streets at night, and nice shopping, this is one of my favourite neighborhoods to use as a home base in Rome

1. Mizio’s Street Food – The best hole in the wall sandwich shop in Rome. Prosciutto di parma with mozzarella di bufala on the airiest, lightest focaccia… heaven! There’ve been more than a few times I’ve arrived in Rome late at night and come straight here for my first late night meal. This is the first place I ever tried sfogliatelle and it threatens to usurp cannoli as my favourite Italian dessert.

2. Er Baretto – fantastic coffee, order and stand at the bar with the locals

3. Caffe Bohemien – super popular cocktail bar. Come for a drink to feel as if you’re young, cool, and live in Rome. Packed on weekend nights but a really cool atmosphere.

4. Gelateria Fatamorgana – you can’t really go wrong with gelato in Rome, but this place gets it particularly right.

5. Pasticceria Panificio Panella – fantastic pastry shop packed with locals. Come for a pastry and coffee and sit outside.

Places I still want to try: 

1. Ai Tre Scalini  – super highly recommended Southern comfort style Italian cooking. It always looks buzzy and is high on my list next time I’m in Rome.

2. Trattoria Monti – I’d read numerous articles and blogs praising this classic trattoria but sadly, the Sunday lunch crowds all made reservations and I couldn’t get in. (Amateur move: MAKE RESERVATIONS PARTICULARLY FOR SUNDAY LUNCH – many Italians eat out for this meal and the best trattorias, the ones filled with locals, will be full. I’ve learned this the hard way a few times).
3. Trattoria da Danilo – conveniently located near the train station, this is supposed to serve excellent Roman food

Neighborhood: Jewish Ghetto

This neighborhood at the foot of the Campidoglio, adjacent to the river is a foodie paradise. Apparently it was one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe (dating to the 2nd century),  and it’s now a pedestrian-friendly quarter with wonderful restaurants and bakeries.

1. Nonna Betta – a friend who spends three weeks every Fall in Rome told me this is her favourite restaurant in the city. It serves ‘Italian kosher’ cuisine, but I have no food restrictions and can attest that everything I’ve ever tried there has been superb. Good for lunch or dinner, it’s a safe bet for delicious food, warm staff, and an unpretentious setting. Every pasta I’ve ordered here has been amazing, and their outdoor seating is perfect for a warm night spent people watching, as everyone strolls by this busy corridor.

2. Roscioli – has fantastic food in a modern wine/bar setting with a buzzy vibe. Superlative pastas, fresh antipasti, an extensive wine list, and a nice bar for solo diners, this is a great modern take on Roman cuisine. That said, several friends from San Francisco recommended Roscioli to me, and the night I was there, at least six other diners were from the Bay Area. Talk of IPOs and the Bay Area housing market is exactly the buzz kill conversation I moved to Europe to avoid, so this was a bit of a drag. I don’t know if it was coincidental the night I was there, or if there really is a surplus of SF visitors to Roscioli but I do want to caveat that while the food was excellent, I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by locals. [Addendum: we’ve been back to Roscioli and had a lovely lunch, surrounded by a mix of Americans and Italians, and nary a mention of San Francisco. Another tip, decline to order dessert and you’ll still get served a free plate of cookies with thick chocolate sauce to dip them in. So good!]

3. Pasticceria Boccione– wonderful bakery, order the torta ricotta e visciole if they have it (a delicious ricotta and cherry tart)

Places I still want to try: 

1.Giggetti – right next door to Nonna Betta, this comes recommended by a Roman friend of a friend. I’ll have to try it next time.

2. Pianostrada – after reading in the New York Times that they have the best panini in Rome, I’m dying to try it to decide for myself. 

3. Open Baladin– a friend who spends a few weeks in Rome every years swears by this burgers and craft beer restaurant. I can’t abide missing a pasta meal while I’m in Rome, but if you’re in the mood for something other than Italian, this is the kind of spot I would go to in SF/Portland/London, and it does have a local following. 

Neighborhood: Trastevere

It took me far too many visits to Rome to get to this neighborhood. Perhaps because it doesn’t have any of the major tourist sites, or because it’s on the other side of the river, Trastevere is a bit off the beaten path for first time visitors. But it’s precisely these reasons that make it one of the best dining neighborhoods in all of Rome, filled with locals, unpretentious but amazing food, and charming street filled with shops and nightlife worth exploring.

1. La Tavernaccia– located at the far end of Trastevere, I went on a long walk along the Tiber in pursuit of this restaurant and had one of my best meals in Italy. The waiters barely spoke English (good sign!) so there was a lot of gesticulating, and my few broken phrases but it got me everything I wanted: red wine, a starter of grilled artichoke with fresh bufalo mozzarella and a divine pasta with boar’s meat ragu. Make a reservation if you can, as there are locals and regulars who fill this popular restaurant, but I lucked out with a single table at the tail end of their weekend lunch service. The walk along the river to get here is beautiful and a perfect way to gear up for more pasta. This place pops up on multiple foodie lists, and came recommended by a few Romans as well and I can see why. It’s the type of place I will go out of my way to visit on future visits to work my way down the menu. Everything about this meal was perfect. 

2. Ombre Rosse– a lively bar, definitely sit outside, order an aperol spritz, and wait for the free antipasti to arrive. You can almost make a meal out of these delicious, complementary bites and juicy olives. (I say almost because it’s Rome and you’ve got to push the limits of consumption while you’re here…)

Places I still want to try: 

1.Da Enzo – I can’t believe I didn’t make it to what might be the favourite trattoria in Trastevere. Da Enzo came up on multiple lists with people raving about the simple Roman cuisine and I’m dying to try it next time. 

2. Dar Poeta– supposedly serves the best pizza in Trastevere. I’m sold. 

3. Litroa wine bar perched high above Trastevere. This one popped up on a few lists.

4. C’e pasta…E pasta– with only one stomach, and limited time, I just couldn’t get in a meal at this pasta shop a block away from La Tavernaccia. It’s highly rated, has pasta served to go style on little paper plates, and looks fantastic. La prossima volta…

Various Neighborhoods

1. L’Antica Enoteca  – this restaurant located near the Spanish steps saved my life, and I will forever be grateful. They have the best prosciutto e melone I have ever tasted, and a perfect cacio e pepe. I was hangry after walking for hours in Rome with a dear friend who has no appetite and eats to live, but doesn’t live to eat, and I was desperate for food. The thought of just picking any place we passed, and potentially squandering one of a limited number of meals in Rome, made me more upset than the hunger itself, but for various reasons, there were no good options close to where we were that were open, and I took a leap of faith on this spot after walking by and hearing Italians dining outside. Thank God this restaurant delivered in spades and I plan to go back and order the exact same thing next time. If you think melon is the watery fruit everyone leaves behind at the bottom of fruit salad, come here to taste the sweetest, ripest, most flavorful and refreshing melon offset with the saltiness of heaping fresh prosciutto. The cacio e pepi was simple, light, the pasta was cooked perfectly, and the peppery, pecorino kick was simple Roman cooking at it’s best. I love this restaurant for coming to my rescue in a time of need.

2. Sant Eustachio Il Caffè – highly recommended coffee next to the Pantheon. Order a cappuccino (before noon) or an espresso (afternoon) and stand at the bar to drink it like a local.

3. Antico Caffè Greco – widely considered to be Rome’s oldest cafe, everyone from Keats to Lord Byron to Dickens have quaffed espresso in this genteel, old world setting. It reminds us of a Viennese cafe, with tuxedoed waiters serving coffee and desserts in opulent surroundings. It’s an old world splurge – coffee and dessert will be much more expensive here than other places in Rome (though not if you stand and take your espresso at the bar in front). But for a taste of glamour, surrounded by paintings, gilded frames, and plush seating, the desserts are fantastic (cannoli shells aren’t filled until you order them, the sponge cake with lemon is to die for). 

4. Tazza d’oro Caffé – another highly recommended coffee spot.

5. Eitch Borromini I’m dying to try this rooftop cafe, after reading that Marlene Rentmeester of Le Catch thinks it has the best cacio e pepe in Rome. I’ll have to try it next time.

6. Bar Del Ficosupposed to be a fun, bohemian bar with a good scene.

7. Ristorante Velavevodetto– I read about the food here and it looks amazing. Let me know if anyone has been!

Where to stay: 

We opt for Airbnbs when in Rome, as they tend to be better value, and get you a lot more space than a hotel. We often stay in Monti, but on a recent visit we stayed at this Airbnb and the location couldn’t have been better. The studio flat was spacious for two people, had all the comforts of home (Netflix and Amazon prime TV were surprising bonuses. We watched Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love). It’s located in a beautiful, quiet courtyard on Via del Gesu with a supermarket, a panini shop, a takeaway pizza place, a popular local’s lunch spot with great pasta, and a Thai massage place all on the same little street. Literally everything you need! The location is in between the Jewish ghetto, the Pantheon, and Palazzo Navona, so it’s perfectly central. We would absolutely stay here again. They have a second baller property listed in the same building if you’re travelling with more guests (a three bedroom that sleeps up to 10 people), so that’s on our list for when we want to splash out. But for a cheap, comfortable, well located Airbnb for one or two guests, the studio is the best place we’ve stayed in Rome on our last handful of visits. [Use our link to register for Airbnb here]

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