Slightly less than four years ago, for my 21st birthday I visited Rome for the first time. It was one of my first European city visits, and helped sparked the wanderlust that has stayed with me ever since.
I’ve revisited Italy in the interim, but until this week when I took Sasha for her 25th birthday, I hadn’t been back to the capital. We’d been debating what to do after Paris last summer, and late last year I found some cheap flights to Ciampino airport that coincided with Sasha’s birthday. Something of a cop-out in terms of buying gifts I suppose, but it’s the thought that counts!
We only spent three nights in Rome, but our flight times meant we had most of four full days in the city, arriving early on Sunday morning, and leaving late on Wednesday evening. I took Charlie home to stay with family before we left, so after a short Saturday night sleep, we hopped on the first bus of the day to Edinburgh airport and caught our flight to Rome Ciampino.
There was some confusion over the best way to get from the airport to the city centre, with so many operators seeming to offer the same service (admittedly I’m usually a little better prepared, so this caught us by surprise). No matter, we managed to snag the last two unreserved seats on the first coach out to the city, and half an hour later we were walking from the main train station, Roma Termini, to our hotel.
Our hotel was relatively central, just off Piazza Venezia (actually the same hotel I stayed in on my first visit to Rome back in 2013 - very little has changed in the intervening years). After a quick shower and change, we headed out to get our bearings around the city and hit up some tourist attractions, starting with the nearby Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps.
After a couple of hours of walking around, we figured that a birthday visit to the habitual Hard Rock Café to make our plans for the following few days would make sense. Usually we stay for a couple of drinks, but the drinks were extortionate even for the Hard Rock, so we didn’t stick around too long after eating our fill. Afterwards, we headed back towards the hotel, stopping at a wine bar near the hotel for a couple of bottles of prosecco to celebrate the final few hours of Sasha’s birthday. Whilst there, we found a walking tour that sounded good and started at 10am the following morning, so suitably intoxicated from the wine, we wandered the two blocks back to our hotel for some long overdue sleep.
The next morning, we woke up just in time for our walking tour, stopping on the way for some caffè to kill the lingering hangovers. Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, if a little on the quiet side, so we learned some new things, but probably not as much as she intended us to learn. The tour covered much of the north of the city centre, starting at the Spanish Steps, and meandering south-west via Piazza Colonna, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, finishing just outside the Vatican City. Unusually for a tour lasting more than two hours, there wasn’t a break at the halfway mark, so after the tour we bought some street pizza for lunch, before heading into the Vatican City itself.
The queue for entry into St Peter’s Basilica was surprisingly short, so after just a ten minute wait to pass through security, we entered the vast church. There is so much detail to take in that we could have spent days inside; in actuality, we probably spent less than an hour wandering around in awe, before heading down to the papal tombs and then back outside to climb to the top of the Cupola - the dome of St Peter’s.
We elected to climb the extra 200+ stairs to the roof of the Basilica rather than take the lift. Once you reach the rooftop, there’s another 300+ steps meandering around the interior of the dome itself, so the lift doesn’t save you too much climbing. It is not a place you want to go if you’re claustrophobic (or morbidly obese), as the walls are very narrow and follow the path of the dome itself, tilting inwards as you spiral to the top. The view at the top is breathtaking though, and definitely worth the calf workout.
After getting our money’s worth of the sprawling views of Rome, we headed down back to ground level, and walked around the exterior walls of the Vatican City to the entrance of the Vatican Museums. At 16EUR for entry, you want to make sure you spend a long time here to make it worth the cost. Most people headed straight for the Sistine Chapel (similar to the rush to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre), but don’t skimp on the other amazing artifacts on display in the sprawling rooms of the museums. Save the Sistine Chapel for last, and sit on the benches around the walls of the rooms and rest your legs and drink it all in. Earn it.
Finally, four or five hours after first arriving at the Vatican City, we decided it was time to head back. We walked back to the hotel to shower and change, and then headed out for a quiet night at a restaurant near the hotel, Il Pastarito. I visited and loved this place in my first time in Rome, and if anything the quality of both the food and service has only improved. Two bottles of wine later, we decided to call it a night and headed back for some sleep, planning to check out the southern sights of the city centre the following day.
We woke up surprisingly early on our last full day in Rome, and as planned headed towards arguably the most iconic landmark in Rome - the Colosseum. There was no queue, as with all other attractions we’d visited in Rome so far, so we bought our tickets and headed straight through into the amphitheatre. There is, admittedly, not a great deal to do once you’re there, but simply being inside the ancient stadium itself is worth the entry fee. Trying to visualise what the Colosseum would have looked like two millenia ago can be difficult, but once you take out the sea of selfie sticks from your view the sheer scale of the place is honestly breathtaking.
Our entry ticket also granted us access to the nearby Roman Forum, so after wandering around the Colosseum for a while, we headed over to the ruins of the ancient Roman temples and governmental buildings. It’s a relaxing and interesting place to spend some time, relatively quiet compared to the Colosseum just across the road. After a couple of hours here, we headed back to the hotel to relax for a bit, and I went out on a short run to Circo Massimo, the remains of the chariot racing stadium just south of the Colosseum.
After my run, we returned to Castel Sant’Angelo across the city, this time to visit inside and to see the view from the terrace. However, due to some confusion on how to access the terrace itself, by the time we made it to the top the sun had already set on the city, so our view was restricted to the nightscape only. After tiring ourselves out going up and down the inside of Castel Sant’Angelo, we wandered around the city in the general direction of our hotel, stopping at a restaurant near Piazza Navona on the way back.
For our last day in Rome, we didn’t really have too many plans. We’d visited and seen pretty much all of the attractions we wanted to see, so we decided to just wander around the city centre and see what caught our eye. I visited a coffee shop I’d heard good things about, Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè, for some coffee and picked up a couple of souvenirs, and then followed up with a visit to one of the many gelateria scattered around the city. We took the long way back to the hotel to collect our bags, passing the Pantheon and Vatican City again, before walking along the Tiber back to the Colosseum, and finally to our hotel, where we collected our bags and headed back to Termini to catch the bus to Ciampino.
All in all, it was a fantastic return to one of the world’s great cities. I doubt it will be my last visit, certainly not to Italy, and most likely not to Rome itself either. If nothing else, I can’t go the rest of my life without proper Italian coffee.