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While many American travelers head to Rome to see the Colosseum and other famous ruins, the Eternal City has so much more to offer. Allow me to fill you in on the secrets of this bella Italian capital.
1. You Don’t Necessarily Need to Deal With Crowds
If you plan to visit the main tourist sites, make sure you go during off-peak times to bypass the hordes. You can also buy your tickets for the most popular monuments ahead of time online, which is a great way to avoid waiting in line for hours, especially in the hot Italian sun. The Roma City Pass is also available for purchase ahead of time, and gives you access to many of Rome’s museums and monuments, as well as transit options.
There’s also plenty to do in Rome if you decide that fighting the tourists at the usual monuments isn’t the way to go — sample delicious food and wine or wander around used bookstores and shops filled with Italian-made leather goods. Walking along the Tiber River is a great way to enjoy the city in a peaceful way, and believe it or not, the riverside is often relatively empty of tourists beyond the popular bridge spots.
2. Churches Are More Exciting Than You Think
Um, yeah, Rome is full of churches. Obvs. But just because the Eternal City has spent centuries upon centuries as the center of the world for an entire religion doesn’t mean your Roman holiday needs to consist entirely of lighting votives in Vatican City with your beshawled nonna. Rome is home to more than 900 Christian churches, which the masses at St. Peter’s Basilica somehow never seem to realize.
Stop by Santa Maria de Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome, to see the mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. Check out Santa Maria sopra Minerva, one of Rome’s only Gothic churches. Though the outside is rather plain, inside you’ll find a vibrant blue ceiling and the tombs of Medici Popes Leo X and Clement VII. Pop into Santa Maria della Pace to catch the famous fresco by Raphael dating back to 1514 (inside, just behind the door).
3. The Most Beautiful Ceiling in Rome Isn’t in the Sistine Chapel
I’ve waited for hours in line to see the Sistine Chapel, and while it’s stunning, it’s nothing compared to the less-touristy experience of walking straight into Sant’Ignazio di Loyola and being completely blown away by its massive painted ceiling — I actually got a stiff neck from craning up for so long, as I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this vaulted masterpiece. A chaotic mix of cherubs and apostles floating among the clouds, it will have you staring up for hours and not getting bored.
4. There’s a Village Within the City
Trastevere is Rome’s signature quaint, picturesque neighborhood. Follow the twists and turns of the cobblestone streets to discover hidden boutiques, ivy-covered restaurants with secret patios and lots of cool bars.
Testaccio, located a little further down and still a bit rough in some parts, is Rome’s newest hot spot. The Mercado de Testaccio was made for the senses: Close your eyes and inhale the fresh scents of oregano and the gentle murmur of the shoppers. This is a great place to buy Roman food specialties to snack on or take home as gifts.
5. When You Toss Your Coin Into the Trevi Fountain, You’re Also Supporting Charity
The story says that if you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll someday return to Rome. These coins actually add up to more than $3,000 per day and you may not know this, but you’re actually doing a good deed when you throw a coin in. Caritas, a Catholic charity, has partnered up with a local supermarket and uses your discarded coins to buy groceries for low-income Romans.
6. Cappuccino Is Only for Breakfast, but You Can Eat Pizza Anytime
Rome’s famous foodie scene comes with a few rules: First off, never order cappuccino for a meal other than breakfast. After lunch, order a caffè macchiato or anything else that doesn’t come with lots of milk. When ordering coffee, Italians typically do so while standing at the bar. If you sit down, be prepared to pay the tavolo prices (basically, those seated at tables pay more for coffee). So stand up and shout your order at the barman like all the other Italians in the room.
While most Romans order a coffee and cornetto (sort of a richer, sweeter croissant) for breakfast, it’s not frowned upon to get something saltier, like a square slice of pizza or panini for breakfast either.
7. You Don’t Need to Buy Bottled Water
I definitely enjoy a crisp bottle of San Pellegrino on a terrace with huge sunglasses on while pretending I’m Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren, but if you’re dying of thirst, there’s no need to buy bottled water in Rome. Instead, do as the Italians do and drink from one of the 2,500 cast-iron public fountains around the city, which can be found on almost every block and deliver fresh, cold water safe for drinking. If you want to artfully sip without getting water all over your face and clothes, plug up the faucet with your fingers to deliver the water up through the tiny hole on top, making it less awkward for you to drink.
8. Only One-Tenth of Ancient Rome Is Excavated
Yes, you read that right. 90 percent of ancient Rome lies several feet below street level and is still sitting there. Nowadays, excavation is complicated, for obvious reasons like the homes and offices sitting above the ancient city, which is why the city’s metro system is rather limited. Every time a shovel digs in for a new station, bronze coins, mosaic floors, bracelets and even human bones are unearthed.
9. The Cats Are in Charge
You may notice while strolling around that excessive numbers of cats seem to be everywhere, especially among the ancient ruins — out of an estimated 300,000 stray cats that live in Rome, roughly 200 of them call the Colosseum home. And don’t even think about chasing them away, because it’s actually against the law — Italian legislation dictates that when five or more cats live together, you can’t move or chase them away. If you’re a dog person, instead of being grossed out by these felines, think of them as adding to the charm of the city. Still, I highly recommend not touching or feeding them.
10. Roman Women Must Be Half Mountain Goat
I’m still amazed Italian women can basically jog in this city in stilettos, because Rome definitely isn’t flat, a fact American tourists always seem to forget despite the echo of “the Seven Hills of Rome” (Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal and Viminal) from their childhood history lessons.
To cut to the chase for modern-day travelers: Wear comfortable shoes. If you’re using Google Maps to time a walk somewhere, add in an extra couple of minutes in case you find yourself unexpectedly trekking uphill.
Have you ever been to Rome? What are your favorite things to do there?
Featured image of the Roman Forum courtesy of the author.
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