Europe: Famous Italian Cities
Our second week in Italy was spent exploring two of the country's most famous cities, Rome and Florence.
Rome is the energetic capital of Italy, a contrasting combination of old and new, and a city that we almost dismissed completely.
When we were finalizing destinations, both Jared and I felt a resistance to visiting Rome. Our preconceived opinions of the city were that it would be overcrowded and overwhelming. Did we really want to spend our days fighting mobs of other tourists? A good friend and seasoned world traveler had something to say about it.
"How can you go to Italy and not visit what was once the capital of the world?" She made a good point. After chatting with several others who had spent time in the city, feelings were clear; Rome was NOT to be missed.
And to our surprise, Rome ended up being one of our favorite places in Italy.
With nearly 3,000 years of history, architecture and art, I was humbled by the small space and time that I currently take up in the world. Walking through the ruins, I kept thinking about the ancient civilization who had lived and breathed before me, their beliefs and culture, daily struggles and politics, victories and eventual defeat. It's a miracle that so much is left for us to visit and study.
Tips for Rome:
You won't be able to do it all, and trying to will only cause stress. Follow your curiosities and don't worry about following all of the guidebook's recommendations. That said, it's difficult to be in the city and not visit a few of the most iconic monuments that have stood the test of time. Here are a few of my recommendatinos.
- The Colosseum - Purchase your tickets in advance online and ignore all of the tour guides trying to sell you on their excursions (unless of course you want to go on a guided tour). There is a specific line for people who've pre-purchased tickets and you're able to skip the huge queues to get in. Be prepared for crowds. It's inevitable but manageable if you're not hangry.
- Admission ticket gets you entrance to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and the Palatine hill.
- Price: 12 Euro
- Valid for 2 days
- Go back and visit the Colosseum at night. It's much quieter and looks magical all lit up.
- The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill - We arrived soon as it opened in the morning and had the Forum almost to ourselves for the first 30 minutes. I suggest taking a guide book with you so you can read up on the history as you walk through it. We used Rick Steve's physical book but you can also download his audio walking tours. Arriving early not only gave us some solitude but kept us out of the heat as there is little shade coverage.
- The Vatican & St. Peter's Basilica- Whether or not you connect to religion, visiting Vatican City and the museum is a fascinating experience. Like my advice for Rome itself, don't try to see it all. It will leave you mentally fried.
- Purchase your tickets a few days in advance online to avoid waiting multiple hours in the queue.
- Research in advance and choose which rooms you want to spend the most time in. Expect to spend 3-4 hours in the museum.
- Price: 16 euro + 4 euro online booking fee (worth it) for the museum. *Entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is free.
- Dress appropriately. No bare shoulders, shorts or miniskirts allowed.
- Helpful information from the Official Vatican website.
Free Attractions in Rome
While there are plenty of monuments and museums that charge you to visit, there are a TON of gems that require zero euros to view.
- Pantheon - After visiting the inside and looking at the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built, grab a bottle of wine and relax in the piazza for an evening of people watching.
- Trevi Fountain - Find space and a more relaxing experience by checking out the fountain at night.
- Spanish Steps - Same advice as above!
- Circus Maximus- Near Palatine Hill is an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium from the 6th century BCE. It continues to be an important space for hosting music concerts and rallies. Great spot for a run!
- Villa Borghese - If you're up for a walk and craving green space, north of the city is the third largest park (198 acres) in Rome.
- The Secret Keyhole - this semi-secret keyhole lines up perfectly for a view of the dome of St. Peters. The doorway you're looking through leads to the Priory of the Knights in Malta, the legendary crusader knights and religious order.
- Catch the sunset from Capitoline Hill, one of the 7 hills of Rome.
Where to Eat & Drink Rome
One of the first things our host said to us was "Italian food does not exist, there is only regional food." He pushed a list of restaurant recommendations in front of us and we promptly got to work checking them off. Thankfully, he was a foodie with fantastic taste who pointed us in all the right directions.
- DaEnzo: If you can visit one food spot on this list, make it DaEnzo. We ordered fresh ricotta cheese and jam appetizer + the traditional Roman pasta dish- cacio de pepe. Literally translated as "cheese and pepper", it's one of the simplest pasta recipes ever, yet a meal I can remember clearly 2 months after eating it.
- Tip: Arrive 15 minutes before they open and get a front spot in the line. Once they've sat the first round of patrons down for lunch, you'll be waiting a while to grab a seat.
- Bir & Fud: Delicious pizzas and micro beers in the hip neighborhood of Trastevere. I recommend "The trifolata" - Focaccia with eggplants, mushrooms, fresh buffalo mozzarella, parmesan cheese and basil.
- Fata Morgana: A 100% natural gelato shop that we visited multiple times in 4 days. The pistachio + chocolate hazlenut combination was my favorite.
- Vinando: We ordered a charcuterie board of meats and cheese + a truffle gnocchi that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
- Faro Luminari del Caffè: Translated as 'Luminaries of Coffee' , a visit to this third wave coffee shop is a must for the coffee enthusiast. Everything from the quality of coffee, presentation, interior decor to the customer service was absolutely superb. I wish I could transfer their team and the whole shop to Seattle!
From Rome we took a 1.5 hour hyper speed train to Florence. Walking from the train station to our Airbnb, we were relieved to find a calmer atmosphere than Rome. The city didn't sprawl out as far, have as many people, and far less 'attractions' to see. However, only spent 3 nights there and I would definitely extend that by a few if we were to return.
Tips for Florence:
- Stay on the quiet side of the Arno river. At the end of the day, we were thankful to get away from the bustle, but a 10 minute walk over the bridge landed us in the city center.
- Purchase an OPA pass to to visit the group of 5 famous monuments - Baptistery, Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Giotto's Bell Tower, the crypt below the Cathedral and the famous Duomo.
- Price: 15 Euro
- Usable for 48 hours after the first input
- Reservation for the dome is mandatory and recommended for the Bell Tower and museum.
- Visitors are required to climb 463 steps in a very narrow setting to access the dome.
- Tip: Reserve the last time slot (6:30pm) to climb the dome. We did and were able to stay longer and watch the sun cast a gorgeous light on the city.
- There are plenty of museums in Florence, but you can view a fine collection of sculptures for free at Loggia dei Lanzi outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
- Take a walk (or run) outside of the city to Michelangelo's Piazza for a panoramic view of the city and to see a bronze replica of Michelangelo's David. If you get their early in the morning, you'll miss the tourists and vendors.
Where to Eat & Drink in Florence
- All'Antico Vinaio: the famous sandwich shop with a constant queue. We arrived early enough to skip the line and saved them for later in the day. Stellar option, but I prefer....
- Ino: Fantastic gourmet sandwich bar! The menu on the wall is written in Italian but the sandwich makers speak enough English to make sure you get a great lunch.
- Ditta Artigianale: God bless third wave coffee shops and the people who open them.
- Osteria Santa Spirito: Our host recommended this spot for our last night in Florence. We tried booking day of reservations and grabbed the last seating at 10pm.
- Archea Brewery: Although we should have been drinking wine, we couldn't help drop by this brewery to try out the craft beer!
- Mercato Centrale: If you and your travel partner can't agree on what to eat for dinner, head to this fancy food court. With over 10 quality food stands to choose from and 500 seats, you'll be eating like a local amongst the locals.
At the end of week 2, we were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed Italy's most popular cities. But after 10-12 hours a day of non-stop 'to-do's' we were both ready to slow down, get back to nature and focus on wine and relaxation!