When in Rome
I visited Rome back in 2004 for the first time and covered all of the major sights. However, being back in Rome just a few weeks ago felt like I was visiting for the first time. It's hard to remember everything, and given I was only 20 years old on that trip, I don't know if I had as much appreciation for it as I do now. On this trip, I spent 5 nights in the Eternal City and had a chance to see a lot: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Piazza della Spagna, Campo dei Fiori, Piazza Navona, Trastevere, the Orange Gardens at Aventine Hill, Tempio Maggiore, Villa Borghese, the Panethon, the Trevi Fountain and more. I must admit that Rome is a challenging city to navigate. It's very spread out making it necessary to take buses, taxis, or trams. No matter how many times I walked throughout (and I walked around 11 miles a day), I still couldn't seem to get a feel for the layout of the city. It's a beautiful place with so much history and culture, but I am a Florence girl at heart. Either way, I am so glad I took the time to explore Rome and I had some incredible meals and wonderful experiences that will stick with me for a long time.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Rome is a large city that will require advanced planning. You can't do everything in a day, and you should strategically map out your plan based on where things are located. For example, I'd set aside one day for the Colosseum and one day for the Vatican if you want to hit up a lot of the major tourist attractions.
- There are four staple pastas within the Roman cuisine that you will find on almost every menu. Be sure to order each one to get a sense for all of the flavors: Carbonara, Gricia (similar to a Carbonara without the egg), Amatriciana, and Cacio e Pepe. My favorite is the Cacio e Pepe which is made with butter, cheese, and pepper, but they all have their merits. Also, you should know that suppli are rice/risotto balls. They are a great street snack in Rome.
- I relied heavily on two food bloggers while I was in Rome: Katie Parla and Elizabeth Minchilli. They both offer excellent takes of the restaurant scene in Rome, and their blogs are full of details on their favorite spots, what to order, etc. In addition, Elizabeth Minchilli has an app that you can download for a few dollars called “Eat Italy” that some have said is helpful. I didn’t download it, but could be worth exploring.
- Uber does exist in Rome, but only Uber Black, therefore the costs are high. I would check with some of the taxis to get a sense for costs and then gauge which mode of transportation might make more sense. Uber is great for convenience, but it can be a lot more costly than other modes of transportation around the city.
- Trastevere is THE neighborhood for food and restaurants in Rome. I was amazed that just about every recommendation I got was in this part of town. It isn’t close to many of the sections with landmarks, or to where the clusters of hotels generally are situated. But, it’s worth a taxi to dine at some of the best spots and to experience Rome’s best food.
- As you’ve likely heard, there are a lot of hustlers and pickpockets around the major tourist attractions such as the Colosseum. I found it particularly obnoxious as they are quite aggressive and try to strike up conversation. My best advice would be to ignore them at all costs. Once they realize you will not engage they will move on to someone else. For women, I highly recommend carrying your things in a crossbody bag with a zipper on top so you don’t have to worry.
WHAT TO DO
Rome is a massive city that takes time to explore. While this list below does not even begin to capture all of the options for experiencing Rome, here are a few activities that I found interesting or worthwhile.
- Have Coffee in a Piazza. The Romans have a long history of enjoying espresso at the bar. However, there are many famous spots that offer great seating and allow you to enjoy piazza views. Try for Caffe Domiziana in Piazza Navona, Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe, or Antico Caffe Greco on the famous Via dei Condotti off of Piazza della Spagna. I am not recommending that you eat at these places as the costs are high and the food might be mediocre, but just enjoy a nice drink and perhaps a pastry to get into the spirit.
- Take a Food Tour of Trastevere or Testaccio. I signed up for the Trastevere for Foodies walking tour through Eating Italy. We met in the morning at a coffee shop in the neighborhood, and then we worked our way around visiting a suppli shop, a cheese shop, a butcher, a bakery, and finished our tour with lunch at a great restaurant in Trastevere. It was a fun way to get a sense for the culture and how the neighborhood has evolved over time. It was about four hours long and our guide was knowledgeable and friendly. They also offer a similar tour of Testaccio.
- Visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum. This was my second time visiting the Colosseum. I signed up for a tour through City Wonders and I’ll admit that I regretted it as soon as I arrived. It was 3 hours (way too long), and there were 25 people (way too big). However, if you want to get a lot of great information then tours are a good way to go, and they do let you skip the line. The Colosseum is a stunning structure that you must see at least once, but I would do an unguided tour or a private tour if I was to go back in the future.
- Stroll through the Spanish Steps. This is an easy one, but I highly recommend taking your time walking down the steps and perhaps even sitting down to people watch for a bit. It’s a gorgeous square that attracts people from all over the world, and is one of the quintessential spots that people think of when they think of Rome. It’s particularly beautiful in the evening when the sun is setting.
- Visit Castel Sant’Angelo. This mausoleum turned castle turned museum is quite a sight to see. You can buy tickets to enter, but I think just walking around the structure is impressive enough. It’s a beautiful round building that was built somewhere between 134 -139 AD. At night, Castel Sant’Angelo is all lit up and looks stunning as the lights reflect along the Tiber River.
- Walk to the Orange Gardens on Aventine Hill. This is a bit of a hike, and it took me about an hour to walk there from my hotel in the northern part of Rome. But, I was able to weave my way through the city walking through the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Venezia, and Tempio Maggiore (the oldest synagogue in Rome), before arriving at the park. Everyone had told me to go here for the best views of the city. I can confirm the views are great, but don’t get your hopes up that this is going to be a beautiful garden with flowers and plants. It’s a small open area with beautiful trees and benches to sit, but that’s about it. There was also a beautiful fountain that dates back to the 1500’s. It’s a fun thing to do in Rome for an amazing vantage point, but I don’t think it should be a destination on its own.
WHERE TO EAT
I will admit that I found the food scene in Rome to be overwhelming. Since I hadn’t been in over 14 years, I really was starting from scratch and I wanted to make sure I hit some of the best restaurants. I would do your research, ask friends (a coworker of mine who visits often was hugely helpful), and make sure to secure reservations in advance. I can’t tell you how many places that I went to that had lines, or had to turn down patrons quite regularly as they had not booked in advance.
The majority of the restaurants you find around the Pantheon are going to be tourist garbage, but Armando al Pantheon is an exception to this rule. The restaurant has been in existence since 1961, and still remains an important staple within the dining scene. I found the service here to be some of the best I had in Rome, and I thought the sommelier was excellent. Many tables tried to put in their wine orders first, but instead he asked them what they were ordering for food so he could recommend the best pairing. I ordered the eggplant parmesan to start and the cacio e pepe for my main course. Both were great, and this meal got me started on the right path while visiting Rome. Armando Al Pantheon is located at Salita dei Crescenzi, 31
This is a small and unassuming place that I read about via Katie Parla. I had my hotel make a reservation, and the staff could not have been more friendly or accommodating. The waiter even warned me as I went to order the meatballs that they are not like the meatballs we are used to in the United States, and that these are fried and prepared in a unique style. I really appreciated the tip as I changed my order and was very pleased with what I ate. I started with a delicious appetizer of fried mushrooms which were light, crispy, and had no signs of grease. For my main course I had the tortelli di zucca (stuffed pasta with pumpkin) which was tossed in a light butter sauce with sage leaves on top. This dish was perfect, and a nice break from some of the heavier pastas such as the cacio e pepe or carbonara. Colline Emiliane is located at Via degli Avignonesi, 22.
I had been instructed by many that this place is a bit of a zoo, but that the lasagne is not to be missed. I decided to make it my lunch stop one day since it's just steps away from Piazza Navona. It is a busy little place with mediocre service, but I got a spot outside on the patio and was very happy to order a glass of wine and a slab of the famous lasagne. I am delighted to report that the hive mind was right about this dish-- it was delicious! The top was crispy and slightly browned, and the layers of cheese and meat were decadent and full of flavor. While I can't speak to anything else on the menu here, I do think the lasagne for lunch is the perfect play. Cul De Sac is located at Piazza di Pasquino, 73.
Throughout all of my research about Rome restaurants, Da Enzo in Trastevere came up regularly but with mixed messages. Some said it was a must, some said the food has been inconsistent as of late. Either way, I decided that I wanted to give it a try. I made a reservation about a month in advance, and when I arrived on the evening I had booked, there was a line of about 50 people wrapped outside of the door. The restaurant is tiny, but a very well oiled machine. As soon as the clock struck 7:30 pm they immediately asked those who had reservations to step forward, and we were all seated almost immediately. Those who were waiting in line outside had to hope that people didn't show up. I found the staff to be very friendly and pleasant, and they had a lot of confidence in my ability to finish a carafe of white wine on my own. I ordered the pasta gricia to start which was made with rigatoni, guanciale from Amatrice, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. The pasta was divine. Big thick al dente noodles, huge chunks of cured salty pork, and a plentiful dose of cheese and pepper. I was already full after I finished the dish, but I knew I had to soldier on. I ordered their famous meatballs for my second course which were so simple yet comforting and satisfying. The meatballs were made with beef and mortadella and were served in a light tomato sauce. I couldn't handle dessert, but the tiramisu looked excellent. Despite the mixed reviews I had read about, I had a great meal at Da Enzo and would highly recommend you try it when in Rome. Da Enzo is located at Via dei Vascellari, 29
When you tell people you are going to Rome, Pizzarium Bonci is one of the first places that comes up as a "must". Many think of this as the best pizza in Rome, and they even opened an outpost in Chicago this past summer. However, let me give you the lowdown on this place. It is a small takeaway pizza joint with a few tables outside for standing and perching. It is also located in a very residential area outside of Vatican City, so this will likely be a 20-30 minute taxi from where you are staying if you are staying in downtown Rome. After 2+ hours of my Colosseum tour, I decided it was way too long and I was also getting hungry. I bailed and hopped in a taxi and made my way here for a slice. The pizza is located on display and you can select which slices you'd like, and then they warm them up for you in the oven. I went for a piece with ricotta cheese, slivered almonds, garlic, sundried tomatoes, and mushrooms. The pizza was quite good, but I'll admit that I am not sure it was worth the effort and money to get there. Especially because I was done in 10 minutes and then had to take another 30 euro taxi back to my hotel. But, I think this would be a great stop after visiting the Vatican, and if you have a few people with you so you can try a bunch of different varieties. I'll probably get a lot of heat for saying what I just did, but this was my honest take. Pizzarium Bonci is located at Via della Meloria, 43.
Everyone told me this restaurant was the best, and it did end up being my absolute favorite meal in Rome. The good news is that they accept reservations on their website, so let this be the first thing you do once you’ve booked a trip to Rome! Roscioli is an Italian deli in the front, with a restaurant in the back. In addition, they also own a bakery around the corner and offer wine and food tasting dinners as well. I was seated at the bar since I was dining solo, which ended up being great as I met many other solo diners that evening and we all shared great conversation over amazing food. To start, I excitedly ordered the burrata with sundried cherry tomatoes. The portion was enormous, but this was easily the best burrata I have ever eaten. The tomatoes were sweet and I used the bread for dipping and creating small sandwiches filled with gooey cheese. Absolute perfection. For my main course I went with the Roman classic of pasta carbonara which was overly decadent and rich, but I finished every bite. I loved everything about Roscioli, especially the atmosphere. I would ensure that this is part of your Rome itinerary. Roscioli is located at Via dei Giubbonari, 21
When I asked Katie Parla which restaurant was a must, she said it was this one. She also tweets regularly about eating here, and I knew that this was going to be the real deal. I made a Sunday afternoon reservation for my last day in Rome, and couldn't wait to see what Da Cesare was all about. I took an Uber over which took about 30 minutes, but immediately I could tell this place was going to be different. By 1:30 pm the place was packed, and I was definitely the only American in sight. Every table was a party of 8 or 10 and this was clearly a place that Roman families spend their Sunday lunch with their families. I was really pleased to be dining at a place that seemed authentic, and I also was able to sit on their lovely outdoor patio. I started with the lightly fried squid which was served in a cone with a wedge of lemon. I loved every bite of this, and understood why everyone said this was a must order dish. Given it was my last day in Rome, I had to go big, so I ordered the tonnarelli cacio e pepe. While cacio e pepe can be made with many pasta shapes, the tonnarelli is the classic choice. It's a thick square shaped spaghetti that holds the cheese and sauce quite nicely. As you can see from the photo, this dish was LOADED with cheese, but you definitely didn't hear any complaints from me. It was rich and creamy, and the perfect end to a Roman holiday. Trattoria Da Cesare is located at Via del Casaletto, 45.
I had a great time eating my way through Rome and exploring many of the beautiful landmarks. The city is full of incredible history, and it was a packed few days that I will always be glad I had the chance to enjoy.