A shadow shawls the playground of ruins like a protective parent. Everything is pallid, dark—except for a temple. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which sits in Forum Romanum, was built back in 141 A.D. and later converted into a Roman Catholic church in the seventh century. It’s basking in a rusty, age-old golden sunlight in habitual pride, like it’s readying itself to say one last important thing to say before the lights go out. Behind its six towering columns, there’s green door that floats about 20 feet from the foot of the front staircase.
“But how could anyone get to it?” Our tour guide asks in accent that’s both Russian and Italian, but at the same time, neither fully this nor that. The Romans were certainly not giants. If anything, they were known for their short stature. “Did they use a staircase that’s now demolished?” “Is there a backdoor?” “What about a ladder?” Eager tourists take a stab, but a small, wry smile dances on our tour guide’s lips as if to say: Nope, not it. She lets the guessing game go on for longer than necessary. Come on, I think. Just tell us already.
Rome is like a lasagna, the locals say—and so does our tour guide. I also heard it being compared to an onion, but I feel like a lasagna is more fitting. You see, before all the archeological excavations, the bottom of that door used to be the ground level, which means we’re standing on of the first few sheets of pasta that was laid out way back when.
So really, it’s true. Rome is like a lasagna—rich, with a meaty past that is still being unfurled and unearthed. This is a city that’s built and rebuilt on itself. We are reassured again of this when we visit the Basilica of San Clemente, trek underground into a fourth century church, then even lower down to a pagan temple and a first-century Roman house. Or when we meander through a network of tunnels down multi-storied underground catacombs, where the Christians were buried for centuries.
Rome is complicated—and also, so simple, so easy-going. Its history is both distant and near. It should be explored both slowly and fast (there’s just so much to see in so little time!) There are so many guides on the Eternal City out there. If some cataclysmic internet failure wiped out thousands of articles on Rome, there would still be thousands left. So, in a nutshell, the list of memories below isn’t meant to replace the itineraries you’ve already printed out from the New York Times or Condé Nast Traveler. I’m sure their seasoned travel writers really know their stuff. Instead, I’m really hoping this piece will become an extension of the schedule you’ve thoughtfully put together. But wherever you get your information from, know this: a source that promises you “a perfect day” in Rome is lying bravely. All days in Rome are perfect. All you need is cacio e pepe, a glass of wine and a sense of curiosity that pushes you to wander.
Braving the crowds at The Vatican.
Traipsing around St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel was absolutely surreal. If you’re in Rome, don’t let the enormous crowds scare you from experiencing what Vatican City has to offer (which is A LOT). After asking some locals and doing a bit of research, we realized that an early-morning tour was the way to go. We ended up booking a skip-the-line, early entrance tour with Walks of Italy, and it was one of the best decisions we made in the city. Heads-up: even with an early access tour, you do have to wait in line for close-to an hour to get into the city. That’s how popular the destination is, even during the low season.
Experiencing the real Rome.
In Rome, we stayed at a simple B&B away from the hustle and bustle of the city center. I’m so glad we made that choice. In our neighborhood, espressos never cost more than €1, nobody spoke English (which gave us a chance to put our Italian to the test) and the pace of life was much, much slower. But above all, we got to watch Romans go about their day. Every morning, on our way to (well, somewhere or another), we’d always come across large groups of teenagers ambling to school, and wonder what their lives were like—what they studied, what music they listened to, how they handled the abstract, ever-so-confusing concept of love at that age. Another bonus? Nobody tried to badger us into buying anything.
Wandering. Just wandering.
When in Rome, wander. In search for food, in search for art, or in search for nothing in particular at all. Just explore. Get lost. Never pass up an opportunity to step into a church, because chances are you’ll stumble across a masterpiece or two. (Word to the wise: if you don’t have wifi to find your way home, downloading offline Google maps will do the trick). I know that the Trevi Fountain is a can’t-miss sight, but walk just a few minutes away from the crowded fountain, and you’ll stumble across the stunning Galleria Sciarra. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. But as you step inside, the courtyard opens up and overwhelms with liberty-style frescoes and a soaring vaulted glass ceiling. One of the best parts? There’s hardly anyone there.
Taking in the views from Vittoriano.
You really can’t miss the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument (or Vittoriano) when walking through Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill. Built as a nod to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy after the country’s unification, the close-to-230-foot building boasts soaring Corinthian columns, gorgeous sculptures and enough stairs to pose a serious cardio challenge. The first time I passed by the monument, I assumed there would be an entry fee. I’ll come back later, I thought. Turns out, you can wander upstairs to panoramic terrace for free. Climb to the top of the imposing building, and you’ll be rewarded with the most stunning view of the city.
Spending the afternoon at Trastevere.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a guide to Rome that doesn’t mention this picturesque area. Why? Well, because it sort of a coming-together of all the things people are looking to see and experience in Italy. Labyrinthine, cobblestoned streets? Check. Al fresco trattorias that are just the right amount of crowded to be considered lively but not obnoxiously so? Check. Quaint shops and killer cocktails? Check and check. Even in a semi-touristy—OK, let’s face it, a pretty touristy—spot like Trastevere, the cocktails are still cheaper than the ones served up in a dingy Los Angeles bar. Lastly, I have to add: if you find yourself in Trastevere, seek out the Church of San Francesco a Ripa, where you’ll find Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, an incredibly moving statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Chasing cacio e pepe.
In Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover: Rome” episode, he said: “Looks like just some plain pasta with a little black pepper and cheese … and it basically is. But, you have no idea how good that is.” You really have no idea. Unless you’ve been to Italy. Unless you’ve had good cacio e pepe. Then you must have an idea. There are many restaurants slinging this cheesy dish (just stay away from the touristy restaurants), but the best I had the privilege of eating was at La Dispensa Dei Mellini. It’s a small, cozy restaurant, and the crowd is mostly comprised of locals, which is always a good sign. The food? Let’s just say it’s made a Pavlovian dog out of me.
BYOB (bring your own breakfast).
Our little B&B had a humble, bare-bones breakfast—fresh croissants, a small variety of cold cuts, yogurt and cookies. So, one evening, at the behest of an Italian friend, we stopped by Ercoli 1928—a gourmet deli that’s also part restaurant and part cocktail bar. This place takes its craft seriously. It became immediately obvious once my roving eyes landed on two, black-hoofed Iberian hog legs, propped up by wooden contraption like trophies. So what’s special about those pigs? Well, they’re fed up to 20 pounds of acorns a day, left to romp around and—skipping the morbid part here—are cured for three years after that. As a result the gloriously marbled “jamón Ibérico” is often called the “caviar of cold cuts.” While yes, it’s technically a Spanish delicacy, I still urge you to try it for breakfast, as well as the black pig prosciutto, both of which are expensive. But delicious. But expensive.
Touring the crypts and the catacombs.
Our tour with City Wonders was basically a crash course on the history of the Capuchins, why they mattered and why they decided to decorate the walls and ceilings of their chapels with bones of 3,700 bodies. “Like actual bones?” my friends back home often ask, wide-eyed. “Yes,” I respond, immediately googling pictures to show them. (Photography isn’t allowed inside the crypts). “And did you get to see them?” Oh, yes—and it’s not something I’ll soon forget. After touring the crypts, we hopped on a bus and drove into suburban Rome to the 2000-year-old catacombs, where we walked underground through a labyrinth of dark, cold and narrow tunnels and past graves and sarcophagi (which were later looted in the Middle Ages). It was a fascinating, terribly morbid and—dare I say—bone-chilling experience.