Trip to Rome, Italy
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
I travelled to Rome in January 2020 (before the start of the pandemic) for 5 days with my husband and mother in law. Rome was on my travel bucket list, so when we saw a great deal on flights and hotel from Delta Vacations, we jumped on it. I wanted to see Rome’s classical architecture, visit art galleries and try some authentic Italian food before deciding once and for all whether I like Italian food (I know it is sacrilegious to be indifferent to Italian food but I grew up in Jamaica and we don’t eat much Italian food in Jamaica). Some of the main attractions in Rome are the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City), the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and the Sistine Chapel (Vatican City).
Rome, also known as the “Eternal City”, is located in the Lazio region of central Italy along the Tiber river. The city was founded by twin brothers Romulus and Remus in 753 BC, making Rome’s history over 2,800 years old. Rome was the capital of the Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC), the Roman Empire (27 BC- 476 AD) and the Papal States (754 AD -1870) before becoming the capital of a unified Italy in 1871. The city has an estimated population of about 2.8 million people and has an area of approximately 496 square miles. Rome has over 2,000 public fountains and, with over 900 churches, it has the most Christian churches of any city in the world. And although modern Rome has many centuries old buildings, an estimated 90 percent of ancient Rome has not been excavated and is buried about 30 feet below the current city. In 2019, the last year data is available, Rome was the 16th most visited city in the world and the most visited city in Italy. The official language spoken in Rome is Italian, but many locals speak English, especially those involved in tourism. And finally, the largest religion practiced in Rome is Christianity, specifically, Roman Catholicism.
Things to Know Before You Travel to Rome
I have two passports – Jamaican and American – so I always check to see which passport I can use to get visa-free travel to the country I plan to visit. For my trip to Rome, I used my American passport because U.S. passport holders do not need a visa for tourist or business trips to Italy lasting less than 90 days. However, your U.S. passport must be valid for at least 3 months after your planned return to the U.S. But if you do not hold an American passport, you can check whether you need to apply for an Italian Schengen Visa here.
Before you travel outside the U.S., you should probably check the U.S. State Department travel advisories for the latest information about the country you wish to travel. I always read travel advisories because they not only give you information about the security situation in the country you plan to visit but they also provide information on required vaccinations and local laws that may affect tourists, for example, laws concerning LGBTQI or women. You can look up travel advisories by country here. Fortunately, Italy did not have any security travel advisories or vaccine requirements in January 2020.
Another thing you may want to square away before you travel to Rome is what to do about mobile data and whether you need a power plug adapter/voltage converter to charge your electronics. For trips lasting more than a week, we buy a SIM card for our iPhones along with a data plan. In Europe, we use either Vodaphone or Orange because they have large, reliable mobile networks and offer high data speeds. However, for our short trip to Rome, we used Verizon’s TravelPass, you can learn more about TravelPass here. If you are travelling to Rome from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean, you are going to need a power plug adapter because Italy uses F or L sockets and plug types C, F and L, while the U.S. uses sockets and plug types A and B. I recommend getting a universal power adapter, which works for most if not all countries and regions of the world, and you can purchase a universal power plug adapter at any online retailer, electronics store or big box retailer. Most electronics (cellphones, laptops, cameras, tablets) support dual voltage, making a voltage converter unnecessary but you can always check the fine print on your power cord to be sure.
Nuts and Bolts
I traveled through the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO), which is about 14.7 miles/23.4 km outside of Rome. The Ciampino-G.B. Pastine International Airport (CIA) is closer to Rome at around 0.4 miles/ 0.6 km from the city center, but we found the best deals from SLC to Rome arriving at FCO. I did not get hassled by immigration at FCO when entering the country, but I don’t usually get hassled by immigration in countries I visit when I travel with my American passport or with my husband.
In Rome, we stayed at the Best Western Hotel Astrid, which is northeast of the city center. Because we got a vacation package deal for our trip to Rome, we were restricted on choice of hotel, so we just chose the hotel with the best reviews of the ones offered. However, the rooms were very small, even by European standards, and the bathroom was tiny. But the thing that frustrated us the most about our hotel was that it was not along the main train lines and was only serviced by the light rail, which had much fewer arrival and departure times than the main train lines and was rarely on time. When we travel to Rome again, we will definitely make sure that we stay closer to the city center.
We used the train, light rail/tram and buses to get around Rome and it was pretty easy to navigate the public transport system using posted signs and trains schedules, but we also used Google maps. In the unlikely scenario that you get lost, there are many information counters and ticket offices with people who speak English that can help you, especially in the heavily trafficked train transfer stations. We purchased a CIS (week pass) transport ticket for €24 (about $28.40 USD) per person, which gave us unlimited use of public transportation in Rome for 7 calendar days. You can learn more about the different options for public transport in Rome here.
One of the things I wanted to see in Rome were all four of the major/papal basilicas. In Roman Catholicism, a major/papal basilica is the highest-ranking church building, possessing both a papal throne and a high altar that cannot be used for Mass without the pope’s permission, and all four of these major basilicas are located in Rome. They are the Archibasilica del Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano (“Archbasilica of St John Lateran”), Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (“Papal Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican”), Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura (“Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls”), and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (“Basilica of St Mary Major”).
The first basilica we visited was the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, which is dedicated to both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and is the oldest Christian church in the western world. The Archbasilica of St John Lateran is the highest ranking and most important of the four papal basilicas because it serves as the seat of the Pope, making the Archbasilica of St John Lateran more ecclesiastically important than St Peter’s Basilica, although the former is a lot less visited. The Archbasilica of St John Lateran is where the Pope celebrates Holy Thursday Mass and was where all popes were enthroned until 1870. We took the train from the Flaminio station to the San Giovanni stop and walked about 5 minutes uphill to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, which is located on Caelian Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills.
The Archbasilica is very impressive and looks more like a palace than a church, but the building’s ecclesiastical purpose is apparent from the façade, where there are statues of the Apostles and Jesus on the top of the building. The Basilica’s central doors are made of bronze taken from the Roman Senate House in the Roman Forum and inside the Basilica, you will see statues of the Twelve Apostles lining the church’s main nave, along with beautiful mosaics on the floor and ceiling as well as frescoes and huge, ornately carved columns.
Then, we walked for about 20 minutes along Via Merulana to the Basilica of St Mary Major, the other major/papal basilica. According to legend the Basilica was built by a Roman nobleman and his wife after they prayed to the Virgin Mary asking her how they would best dispose of their property in her honor. During the night of August 5th, snow fell on the summit of the Esquiline Hill and, in obedience to a vision which they had the same night, the couple built a basilica, in honor of the Virgin Mary, on the spot which was covered with snow. The Basilica of St Mary Major is also impressive with many centuries old mosaics decorating the inside and outside of the building and it contains many artifacts important to Christianity and the Catholic church. I highly recommend visiting the Borghese Chapel inside the Basilica because it holds an icon of the Virgin Mary that is at least 1,000 years old and according to legend, kept the plague away from Rome. I also learnt that the gold used to decorate the ceiling of the basilica came from South America and was given to the pope by Christopher Columbus, which kind of ruined the Basilica for me. So apart from the fact that the Basilica de Santa Maggiore is mostly made of gold stolen from the Indigenous peoples in the Americas, it was a beautiful basilica.
We finished the day with dinner at the Birrera Macroni because it was across the street from the Basilica and it had good reviews. The food was good and reasonably priced, but the restaurant space is very small and felt cramped once the dinner crowd started to arrive.
Vatican City is the world’s smallest country by population and area and is the world’s only Christian theocracy and has an absolute monarchy with the Pope as the leader. Usually there are really big crowds to enter the Vatican/Vatican Museums but because we purchased our tickets online and it was off-season, we didn’t have to stand in line. We went on a three-hour guided tour that included the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The tour may sound like a long time but there was so much to see that it really didn’t feel like that long at all. If you ever visit the Vatican/Vatican Museums, I highly recommend the tour because without it, we easily could have spent hours wandering through the museums with an audio guide.
The museum tour focused primarily on three sculptures - Laocoön and His Sons, Belvedere Torso and Belvedere Apollo. Unfortunately, Belvedere Apollo was undergoing restoration and so we only saw Laocoön and His Sons and Belvedere Torso.
After visiting the Vatican museums, our tour guide took us to the Sistine Chapel, which since the 1500s is where the Papal conclave is held and from its windows white smoke is released when the cardinals have elected a new pope. The Sistine Chapel was magnificent with its beautiful frescoes that were painted by Michelangelo, the famous Italian sculptor, painter and architect. On the ceilings of the Chapel, you can see the Creation of Adam and the Last Judgment. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the Sistine Chapel, but it is definitely worth visiting in order to view this famous piece of western art.
Our tour ended in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the third of the four major basilicas in Roman Catholicism. St. Peter’s Basilica is on the spot where many early Christians were executed, and specifically, it is on the area where St Peter’s body was found. St Peter’s Basilica also houses the Pieta (“The Pity”), which was sculpted by Michelangelo in 1498-99 and depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus after His crucifixion. Another cool fact about St. Peter’s Basilica is that it has a door that is only opened every 25 years and those who step through the door during this period get special permission from the Pope and are believed to be forgiven of their sins...it is set to open again in the 2020s, so if you are in Vatican City then, you should get permission to walk through this door and you will be good to go for the next life!
After our tour ended, we grabbed lunch close by and then walked over to Gelateria Cremilla for some delicious gelato. Next, we walked 5 minutes to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian and his descendants but was later used by popes as a fortress and castle. It was also used as a prison where people were tortured and held before execution. We paid for the Castel Sant'Angelo’s official tour, but it was awful, definitely the worst tour we had in Rome. The tour guide spoke while she walked so those of us behind her (which was basically the entire tour group) weren’t able to hear what she was saying, and she never waited for the entire group to catch up before starting to talk about something else.
Another thing that annoyed us about the Castel Sant'Angelo is that visitors are only allowed to walk in one direction once inside (it is a circular building). So, when I went to use the restroom before our tour started, I was unable to retrace my steps and meet the tour. Instead, I had to walk in the opposite direction to find the exit and then continue walking around the outside of building to return to the entrance and meet my tour group. Apart from seeing a few of the torture rooms and torture devices that were used when Castel Sant'Angelo was a prison, there isn’t much to see at the Castel Sant'Angelo. The reason it is so popular is because it is one of the few buildings in Rome that has been continually in operation and has not been burnt or razed to the ground since its creation. If you are short on time in Rome, I would say skip Castel Sant'Angelo.
The Galleria Borghese is located in the former country home of the Borghese family, a wealthy, aristocratic Roman family and also the family after whom the Borghese Chapel inside the Basilica of St Mary Major is named. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the Galleria Borghese but the gallery had a few of the most well-known sculptures from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous Italian sculptor and architect. We saw “The Rape of Proserpina”, “David” and “Apollo and Daphne” and learnt that Bernini sculpted those three masterpieces for the Borghese family when he was 21 and 24/25 respectively. We also learnt that he never went to art school because of course he didn’t. After the tour, we walked the grounds of the home, where I took many pictures of the beautiful stone pine trees!
Next, we visited the Spanish Steps, a staircase of 136 steps built in 1723-25 to connect the Piazza di Spagna at the base and the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. The Spanish Steps takes its name from the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See located on the Piazza di Spagna (“Spanish Square”) at the base of the monument. The Spanish Steps are a great place to take pictures because it offers a great view of the city and plaza below. The Spanish Steps reminded me of the steps in front of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris. But please note that the Spanish Steps are rather steep and have no railings, so it is difficult to go up or down these stairs if you have limited mobility or knee problems. I had ACL replacement surgery last year, so I also some problems walking down the Spanish Steps.
We walked around 20 minutes from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum. The Colosseum was completed in 80 AD and was an amphitheater that could seat up to 80,000 people. It was built using the spoils taken from the Jewish temple after the Roman’s siege of Jerusalem. We did a guided tour of the Colosseum that allowed us to go underground where animals like lions and elephants were held for fighting in battles or animal hunts (where the arena would be transformed to look like the natural habitat of “exotic” animals like lions and hunted and killed by fighters or members of the public for entertainment). The underground area was also where the gladiators would enter the arena to fight. Our guide told us that gladiators did not live in the Colosseum but in barracks close by and that only exotic animals were held in the underground of the Colosseum. This tour was definitely one of the best tours we did on our trip and I highly recommend taking a guided tour of the Colosseum when you visit.
We ended the day with a visit to the last of the four major basilicas, St Paul Outside the Wall (referring to the walls surrounding the city of Rome). We took a train from the De Nicola/Termini station to the V.le S. Paolo stop and then walked a couple minutes to get to the basilica. St Paul Outside the Wall was originally built by Emperor Constantin I in the 4th century AD on the site where followers of St Paul had erected a memorial where he was buried. A fire almost completely destroyed the basilica in 1823 and it was rebuilt and reopened in 1840. Because the basilica is so far from other major tourist attractions, I recommend visiting the basilica either at the start or the end of your day.
After viewing all four major basilicas, St Paul Outside the Wall is my favorite because the building looked very tropical with palm trees, a fountain and huge roman columns. Basically, it didn’t look like a church on the outside, which made it seem more welcoming than the other Papal basilicas. The four major basilicas are fantastic and true masterpieces and I highly recommend going to see all 4 when you visit Rome.
The tickets we bought for the Colosseum included tickets for Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, but we were too tired to do Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum on Day 3, so we decided to visit these sites on Day 4. The ancient Romans believed Palatine Hill was the location of Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and his twin brother Remus, were found by the she-wolf who raised them. Most tours of the Colosseum don’t include Palatine Hill, which is understandable because it is still an active archeological site and the ruins dosn’t seem that impressive. But I would still encourage people to visit because the history is fascinating. However, due to the fact that Palatine Hill is an archeological site there are many areas where the ground is uneven and you may trip if you aren’t paying attention, so if you suffer from mobility issues, you may want to skip Palatine Hill.
Next to the ruins of Palatine Hill is the Roman Forum. The area where the Roman Forum is located also has a long history going back to the time of Romulus, Rome’s first king, when it was used as an open-air meeting place. But since the 13th century many of its structures were torn down and the site became a dumping ground. And this is basically how the Roman Forum has remained to this day. The Roman Forum is also an active archeological site, so you will only be able to see the remains of some of the buildings that were torn down in the 13th century.
From the Roman Forum, we walked about 12 minutes along Via del Corso to the Pantheon. At the Pantheon we did an audio tour but halfway through listening to it, Aidan Turner (star of Poldark) walked in with a female companion, who I would later learn is his girlfriend Caitlin FitzGerald, and I lost all interest in the Pantheon. I thought I was in the twilight zone because it didn’t seem as if anyone else recognized him because no one else was reacting and I wanted to shout, “It is Aidan-freaking-Turner!!!” For a milli-second, I thought about cancelling the rest of the day and just following them around (at a respectable distance of course) but not wanting to waste the money we had spent on pre-paid tickets to the Baths of Diocletian and not liking the optics of me, a Black woman, following Aidan Turner around Rome (and also not being a crazy stalker!), I decided against that course of action. But I did the next best thing, I had my husband follow Aidan Turner around the Pantheon to take a good pic of him. Check out the awesome pic my hubby got!
From the Pantheon, we walked less than 10 minutes to the Trevi Fountain via Via del Seminario and Via dell Muratte. The Trevi a public fountain that was built in 1762 and is the largest baroque style fountain in Rome. It was huge and very crowded! I recommend taking your time walking from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain because there are a lot of souvenir shops and places to get gelato along the way. We decided to buy gelato and sit on some steps across from the Trevi Fountain and people watch and it was great!
We finished the day at the Baths of Diocletian, which is part of the Roman Museum - a museum complex of four different buildings scattered around the city each showcasing a different part of Rome’s history. We had a hard time choosing between the Roman Museum and the more visited and recommended Capitoline Museum, but we wanted to see something other than paintings and sculptures, so we decided to go to the Baths. The Baths of Diocletian were imperial Rome’s largest public baths, accommodating up to 3,000 people, and were built between 298-306 AD.
Visiting the baths seemed like a good idea but it was terrible and by far one of the worst museums I have been to, anywhere. Aside from the attitude of the woman at the ticket office, only three rooms in the museum were about the baths, the rest of the museum was a hodgepodge of stuff from ancient Rome, in no particular order. In fact, it was so poorly organized that we left after only going through the first floor and didn’t bother visiting the top two floors. Something else I really disliked about the Baths of Diocletian is that when you pre-order tickets you have to take a printed copy to the museum with you or else, they won’t let you into the museum. We forgot our printed copy of the tickets and had to walk 15 minutes to find an internet café (yes, those still exist) to print out our tickets and then walk 15 minutes back to the museum. I do not recommend visiting the Baths of Diocletian if you are short on time and if you prepaid for your tickets, do not forget to print them out!
Travelling While Black and/or Female
I didn’t have any problems with street harassment or being stared at in Rome because it is a cosmopolitan city with people of all races and ethnicities. I found people were generally friendly and helpful, but I was travelling with my husband (who is white) and maybe I would have had a different experience if I was walking around the city by myself. The only negative experience I had was when I was at the FCO airport on my return to the States and I was “randomly” chosen, twice, for extra security screening, which meant I was pat down and had my luggage searched. I definitely believe race played a role both times and I was very upset because it was the first time I had ever been racially profiled in Europe and I have been to multiple countries and airports in Europe. Nevertheless, I took it in stride because I know when to pick my battles and this was not that time. Plus, my treatment at FCO just prepared me for what I would endure from U.S Customs and Border Protection at JFK. Again, proving my point that if you can survive in the U.S., the rest of the world is a piece of cake.
I really liked Rome and will definitely visit again because there were so many things that we didn’t get to see on our short 5-day trip. I loved our visit to Vatican City, specifically the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel as well as our visit to the Basilica of St Paul Beyond the Wall and the Borghese Gallery and Museum. Although I think we managed to visit most of Rome’s main attractions, I wish we had the time to visit the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, the Doria Pamphij Gallery and the Capitoline Museums.
My biggest recommendation for those wanting to see the main attractions in Rome (or anywhere in Europe for that matter), is to buy your tickets online. Fortunately, we visited Rome during low season in January, so it wouldn’t have been a big deal if we hadn’t bought our tickets ahead of time because most places didn’t have ticket lines. But, if you go to Rome during the high season (spring and summer), I cannot stress enough that you buy tickets online. Another thing I recommend for the more popular attractions like the Vatican Museums, is to pay for a guided tour. Sure, you can read the plaques, but the popular tourist attractions get very crowded very quickly, making it unlikely that you will be able to read the plaques, and by getting a guided tour (or at the very least an audio tour), you will be able to save time and prevent a potentially frustrating experience.
There are a few things I would have done differently on our trip, for example, I wish we had stayed in a more central location because we weren’t able to walk to any of the tourist attractions from our hotel and spent a lot of time shuttling from one location to another. And although we researched restaurants and read reviews and got recommendations from friends, few of our meals were memorable, so I am still undecided on Italian food. I loved Rome’s architecture and was in awe of how easily the ancient and the modern co-exist so seamlessly. My one critique of Rome however was that it was not as clean as other European cities I have visited (Oslo, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Leon, Burgos), so that did take away from the city’s aesthetic. Nevertheless, I think people who love classical western architecture and art, European Renaissance history or religious pilgrims would really enjoy Rome. And although you can find itineraries for any length of stay in Rome, I would recommend at spending at least 7 days if you want to visit all the main attractions.