It only took a year and a half for me to take advantage of the perks of traveling Europe from Scotland. A trip from CT to Rome would take 8 hours to travel, with a 6-hour time difference, a pricey plane ticket, and at least a week visit to make it worthwhile. I was able to book a last-minute 4 day trip with my boyfriend, Iain, to Rome from Edinburgh that would take 3 hours to travel, 1 hour time difference, and not cost an arm and a leg!
Here's the low-down of the trip:
Overall it was fine. It wasn't exactly a hotel, but as if an apartment building had been made into a hotel. For example, we were given a key to get into the building, there was a reception open during the day but no concierge, no common area, no room service, no restaurant/bar, no elevator. It was basically a shared Airbnb but someone made your bed and replaced the towels. They charged us €30 for arriving at 2am, which was annoying but, again, it's not a real hotel so there isn't 24-hour staff.
The location was perfect. It was around the corner from the Spanish Steps—very central and full of high-end retail stores like Prada, Gucci, Versace, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabanna, Fendi, Louis Vuitton—you get the idea.
Next time, I would rather stay at an actual hotel because I think the accommodation is part of the trip, not just a place to sleep. Let's just say, I'm not one for backpacking and sleeping in hostels. I like a nice hotel that serves breakfast.
Piazza di Spagna
"Spanish Steps? More like the Spanish Seats" - Iain, the comedian.
This was my favorite and least favorite area in Rome. Favorite for all the designer stores, as I mentioned earlier, and also it's just absolutely gorgeous. On the top of the Spanish Steps is the Hotel Hassler, a 5-star hotel and not to be missed. Just go inside and pretend you're staying there. Take the elevator up to the 6th floor, turn left, and enjoy the gorgeous view of Rome from the balcony. Be sure to take the stairs on your way down to experience it's luxury. I love this hotel.
It was my least favorite area because, like most of the touristy spots of Rome, it was overcrowded. Groups of school kids in clusters with large backpacks were annoying but not the main problem. It was the men trying to sell you shit. You make eye contact with one guy holding up a neon green selfie stick and he beelines for you. If you look around with a slight deer-in-the-headlights expression, someone nearby is waiting to first ask, "Where you from?" just to get their feet wet, and then rope you into buying a tour. The worst were the men selling roses. Walk within a few feet of them and they will stick the roses right into your face.
Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo, & Piazza Navona
All of these places had the same problem as I just wrote above—with the crowds and the people selling shit. We really had to be careful with pick-pocketers. I bought a Travelon anti-theft bag and it was one of the best purchases I've made in years. I definitely recommend getting one, ladies, before you go to a busy tourist area.
These places are best to visit in the morning. Luckily Rome wakes up late. We walked by the Pantheon around 4 pm and there was a huge line out the entrance and through the Piazza della Rotonda. We came back at 10 am the next morning and it was practically empty.
Colosseum and Roman Forum Tour
We had not planned our visit to the Colosseum. As we got out of the taxi, a person was standing right there to haggle us into booking a tour and I was ready to say "No thank you," because a) I was naïve and thought it would be free-entry and easily accessible and b) tours gave me anxiety. But he gave us a discount from €59 to €40 each (My theory is that they always jack the price up so they can give a "discount") and so we decided to do it.
The tour company, Italy With Us provided a chilled out, slightly hungover Californian guide to give us the inside scoop.
There are a lot of police on the streets so Rome is very safe, but our bags are not. Keep hold of your belongings and do not underestimate the gypsies. (I knew this before going, hence the anti-theft bag!)
Avoid restaurants where someone is outside trying to get you in, restaurants with menus that have pictures of food on them, and restaurants that charge more than €7 for a margherita pizza
The Rule of Three, which he coined and I hope it's okay that I'm giving away this secret: When you are at a tourist attraction, turn your back to it and walk 3 streets away and you will find restaurants that are at least €3 cheaper and 3x tastier.
Rules in Rome are just suggestions. He proved that when he lifted up a rope closing off a section of the Colosseum and told us to act causal as we snuck underneath.
Thank goodness we booked this tour. Otherwise, we'd be stuck in a line for at least 30 minutes just to buy a ticket, and herded in like sheep. It's not very exciting to look at historical landmarks when you don't have a guide telling you facts and little tidbits during it. It's so much better to learn than to just see.
We went to the Roman Forum afterwards, which would've also required purchasing a ticket but the tour got us in straight away. Overall the tour lasted 2.5 hours.
Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St Peter's Basilica
I don't know if you know this but I have issues with anxiety. Oh, you knew that already? Great. From the minute Iain said he'd want to see the Vatican back in January, my anxiety about the trip lasted until lunch at a cafe 30 minutes before the tour began.
The best way to handle my growing anxiety of being in a crowded museum for hours was to find a tour that would allow us to skip the lines and let me escape if I felt anxious. The truth is, no one really holds your hand through everything and they shouldn't. I'm not 8 years old. The woman I emailed through Angel Tours said I could let the tour guide know at any moment if I needed to leave, but once the tour began, I realized I needed to get my shit together and stay calm. If that didn't work, Iain was there with me to help.
Our guide took us through a 4-hour tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter's Basilica. It was insanely busy, maybe because it was almost Easter, but the museums were long hallways so full of people that you had to shove through them to get by.
The museums were gorgeous and my favorite was the Gallery of Maps and Raffaello's fresco The School of Athens in the Raffaello rooms, mainly because of the interesting facts about pieces in these rooms that our guide told us about.
The Sistine Chapel, although extremely cool, was hard to appreciate because the room was overcrowded. Our guide spent a good forty minutes in the beginning of the tour showing us with pictures interesting facts about the Chapel so it was nice going through the crowd and picking out the bits he'd told us about. One artist, younger and less-experienced than the rest (including Botticelli) used gold in his yellow paint so his art shined in the light, impressing the Pope. Crafty bastard.
St Peter's Basilica was gigantic and epic, but after 3 hours of the tour, I think we were all a bit burnt out. I give huge props to our guide, who continued with great enthusiasm and stamina. The Basilica is free-entry, so I suggest coming back another time for a second look. During this part of the tour, people were beginning to latch onto our group trying in the least convincing way possible to act like they weren't following us. It was hilarious to watch, especially when our guide called one girl out who had settled in nicely in the middle of our group.
After the tour, Iain and I were ready to stuff our faces with pizza.
This the area on the opposite side of River Tiber near Tiber Island. The Trastevere was full of cute little streets and a bit quieter than the east side of the river but still with people trying to sell you shit. Every restaurant had a man outside trying to get us in, but ignoring that, and it was a nice place to walk around. And if you're interested in a dark, dingy, cheap pub that sells Tenants, there's a place called Mr Brown. (I thought we'd fallen into a hole and somehow landed on the Cowgate.)
We had drinks at Harry's Bar, a very fancy restaurant that gave you free chips (crisps) and peanuts—bottomless, might I add. I somehow managed to get drunk off one margarita, possibly because they were being generous with how much tequila they gave me but yeah, we had to take a stroll in Villa Borghese to let me sober up a bit.
Later in the night we went to Gregory's Jazz Club for a drink and I watched in awe as the bartender made dirty martinis and bloody marys. He was a New Yorker but had been living in Rome for over 20 years. He said he came to Rome for a 10 day vacation and never left. I love hearing stories like that. I would've thought he was crazy a few years ago, but I understand what it's like now to fall in love with a city. *cough* Edinburgh *cough*
I just realized that we took zero food pictures! We were too busy stuffing our faces.
Pizzeria Baffetto, near Piazza Navona - Opens at 6:00 for dinner and there was a line waiting outside for the doors to open, so it's good to be early. The pizza was delicious but the staff were a bit unfriendly and intimidating, seeming like they were used to churning out customers.
Le Grotte, near Piazza di Spagna - This place was adorable. We sat outside along the quiet cobblestone street. We had moscardini fritti (fried octopus), pollo ruspante al forno con patate (roast chicken with roast potatoes), and bistecca di manzo alla griglia (beef-steak on the grill). All of which was fantastic.
Bottega Italia, Via Veneto - After one margarita at Harry's Bar, I was pretty tipsy and ready to stuff anything into my mouth to soak up the alcohol. We found this cute place with heat lamps outside. We shared a boiled ham pizza, sirloin steak, and chicken supreme. All incredible, duh.
Al Vicoletto di Piazza di Spagna Wine Bar - Hobbits have Second Breakfast, we had Second Dinner after taking a wee break in the hotel during a rain shower. This was a cute place tucked away, and at 9pm it was quiet. We ate outside. I had beef tenderloin carpaccio (did not realize it was raw, but it was still incredible) and Iain had a balsamic vinegar fillet and we shared tiramisu. All very yummy! And then we had a Second Dessert of gelato afterwards.
And of course, gelato. Gelato. For. Days. The variety of flavors were incredible. Tiramisu, cappuccino, coconut, macaroon, coffee, white chocolate, stracciatella, mango... the list goes on.
This was a fantastic trip. The weather was gorgeous, the food was gorgeous, the streets were gorgeous. I encourage you all to visit Rome before you die.
Oh! One last thing—if you want to learn simple Italian before your trip, check out the podcast Coffee Break Italian. These 20 minute podcasts are so helpful, and the hosts are Scottish ;)