Visiting the cultural, historical, gastronomical, architectural behemoth that is Rome without a plan of attack would be a fool’s errand by any stretch of the imagination.
With a blow-by-blow itinerary that included tactical naps, pre-booked, timed tickets, backup bars and restaurants and backups for the backups, there was no way I was going the Eternal City slip through my fingers on my very first trip.
I know — I sound like the tourist of nightmares. But I’d like it to be known this is not my preferred approach to a city break. Ideally I’d like to stay for a month, mooching and nibbling, getting to know the place neighbourhood by neighbourhood. But sometimes needs must. Plus, I pride myself on the ability to build and carry through an efficient itinerary when the destination and timeframe call for it.
Rome in four days? That calls for it. And let me just humblebrag for a second here: I managed some pretty next-level touristing.
But that’s not all I did, and not what I want to write about. Instead, here are my best bits beyond the obvious best bits. These are the views to linger over, the nooks to explore, the unexpectedly fabulous places to eat.
Happy Hour at the Vatican Museums
Attending Happy Hour at the Vatican might sound highly irreligious, but I couldn’t recommend it more! Evening access to the museums is available on Fridays every week between March and the end of October. For 15 euros on top of the normal ticket price, you get access to an all-you-can eat aperitivo buffet and an alcoholic drink to enjoy in the Pine Garden. There’s a tonne of different focaccia, cold pasta, meats, cheeses, arancini and pastry desserts to choose from and it’s replenished regularly. There’s also live music in the garden, and people come and go regularly, so it’s easy to grab a seat.
The Sistine Chapel is quite rightly a priority for tourists visiting the Vatican Museums, but if I ever return, the Gallery of Maps will be my first stop and main destination. Travelling along the hallway takes you on a richly illustrated journey through the topography of Italy that will will help you fondly recall past adventures and cook up future ones at the same time.
Pizza and bread by Bonci
Romans famously serve up their pizza by the fat, square slice. I steered well clear of the tourist-trap pizzerias that line the streets and headed instead to Pizzarium, which has a reputation for serving up some of the most exciting pizza in Rome. TV chef Gabriele Bonci is the man behind Pizzarium and is known to be a genius with spelt flour and a wizard with flavours. It’s the perfect combo and before our visit to the Vatican Museums, I dragged my mum across a dark car park in a suburb of northern Rome to score us a taste.
We oohed and aahed as we nibbled our way through one sun-dried tomato, ricotta and mushroom slice and another topped with thinly sliced potatoes and prosciutto. I recommend saving room for the rich and gooey suppli (arancini) too.
Bonci also has an outlet in Mercato Centrale located inside Rome Termini Station, allowing me to pickup a punchy, perky porchetta panino on sourdough on the way to the airport.
Every tourist on a city break reaches the point at which they just need some peace and quiet. The place to come in Rome to find it is the Angelica Library, a small but beautiful public library that anyone can nosy around for free. The library is tucked away in the corner of Piazza Sant’Agostino, on the right-hand side of the church entrance. Take the narrow gate and follow the stairs up to the first floor and you’ll find yourself in a galleried room with three storeys of bookshelves to admire. Just make sure you don’t disturb the scholars at work while you’e doing so.
Views over Rome from the Capitoline Museum Terrazza
With around 900 churches spread across Rome, you’d have to be an extremely dedicated pilgrim to get around them in a lifetime, never mind in a single trip. Instead, retire to the Terazza of the Capitoline Museum and take in a whole cluster of religious sites from above in a single viewing. At the rear of the terrace is a bar and if you choose your seat carefully you can cast your eyes over the domes with an aperol spritz in hand. The entrance is tucked around to the right-hand side of the building if you’re facing it from the front. You don’t need a ticket or to buy anything from the bar to enjoy the view.
Sweet treats and sweet streets in Monti
Everyone raves about Travestere, but Monti was by far my favourite neighbourhood in Rome for lazy-day exploring. Ivy-strewn alleyways, boutiques and cool cafes give you a taste of local Roman life. As you explore, expect fantasies of taking up residence to flit though your mind.
Along Via Urbana there are many businesses selling delicious treats to sate your sweet tooth, but my favourites were the cannoli from Ciuri Ciuri. The staff make them up fresh for you so you can choose your filling and toppings. I like a classic plain ricotta filling with pistachio one end and chocolate chips the other.
While you wander, you can also work your way through a couple of flavours of Rome’s best gelato. Fatamorgana came recommended to me by the lovely Ashley over at Peach Trees and Bumblebees. She promised me the belle helene flavour (dark chocolate and pear) was to die for and she was absolutely right.
Just off Via Urbana is Mercato Monti, a market that will seduce even the most reluctant shopper (that’s me, hi!). Inside you’ll find a sleek, modern space where local leather goods are sold alongside carefully selected vintage garments. After rummaging through silk scarves and admiring handmade jewellery, I eventually picked up a vintage wool and cashmere coat from Les Copains. To my delight, I snapped it up for about 10 percent of its original price and has kept me toasty all winter long.
However much you dress it up, however delicate the portion, however fancy the plate, pasta will always be comfort food to me. It feels wrong to splash out on comfort food, and in Rome you don’t need to. I ate some of the very best pasta of my life at a little takeaway (although there are also seats inside) outlet called Pasta Chef in Monti. My mum and I enjoyed our buttery, glossy ravioli and tonnarelli alla carbonara so much that we went back for fusilli al pesto and rich red Roman classic rigatoni alla amatricana on our last day. Bonus: the restaurant recycles everything, using 100 percent compostable cutlery, plates and napkins.
Another no-frills takeaway pasta option is situated on Via della Croce neat the Spanish Steps. Spare yourself the cash you would spend at a tourist trattoria and head instead Pastificio Guerra. For the astonishing price of just four euros you can get a carton of fresh pasta, unlimited ice cold water and a glass of wine. Every day the proprietors serve up two dishes and you can either chow down standing at the counters around the rim of the small shop or take it away and eat on the Spanish steps.
Don’t forget to stop in at Pompi across the road for a decadent dessert in a box — takeaway tiramisu!
Rome’s historic cat sanctuary
Anyone who follows me on social media might have noticed I’ve gone full-on crazy cat lady over the past year while I’ve been fostering with the RSPCA. As such, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to stop by the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in the centre of Rome. Even if you’re not a fan of cats, you don’t want to miss this amazing square where Julius Caesar is said to have been stabbed by Brutus in 44BC. The ruins of the site are all fenced in, but you can walk all the way around the perimeter to admire them. It’s only when you look a little closer that you realise they are still occupied today and that all the residents are small and rather furry. See how many cats you can count on your way around!
Finally, I would really recommend just setting aside some time to wander. There is so much to see in Rome that even the most ambitious tourist or the biggest history and museum buff can easily get overwhelmed. Fortunately, Rome’s back streets are the perfect antidote to this, and you never know what you might stumble upon!
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