Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Only have a handful of days to enjoy the Rome Metropolitan Area? Don't fret, you can capitalize on this time effortlessly, with a handful of places that we've picked out especially for you to delve into.
I'm just going to cut to the chase. To be honest, as lovely as Italy's capital was, I debated writing about Rome because I spent so little time here (a literal handful of hours one afternoon in the city itself); I couldn't image what I could possibly say that hasn't already been said a thousand times. However, since few people have no choice but to spend only a very short time in the city, I figured that maybe I should write about what I managed to see and how I managed to see it whilst there for such a short time.
I've also included a couple of my favourite places in the immediate or surrounding metropolitan area, which were visited in the days after our excursion to the urban centre... These are all places that I would highly recommend, as well.
Day One: Rome
I only spent one day in the city of Rome, that historical centre as us foreigners know it, but those hours there were some of the most visually charged moments of my life. The real experience began when exiting the Rome Metro (which we took in from the suburbs), as I stepped out of Colosseo Station. The Colosseum in all of its ancient glory towered just across the street; despite the hustle and bustle of tourists, locals selling bus tours, and businessmen and women pushing through the crowds, I looked up at this magnificent feat of humankind and cried. Like a big emotional baby, I cried, thankful that I had my oversized sunglasses hiding this moment of travellers' weakness from the people around me.
It was as if my mind instantaneously removed all the people, all of the construction work happening both on and around the Colosseum, and allowed me to view this breath-taking glimpse of history all on its own. And, yes... that made me really emotional. But how could it not?
Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, this incredible feat of architecture from around 70 AD — made of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete — is the largest amphitheatre ever built. At one time, it held an estimated 50,000 and 80,000 spectators during gladiatorial contests and public spectacles, including animal hunts, executions, and dramas based upon Classical mythology.
Nonetheless, we didn't spend much time lingering around the Colosseum. I took a handful of minutes to drink in the astounding architecture, letting my eyes rove across each archway, each column, and the stonework that made them. With my grandmother and cousin encouraging me to move along, I took one last glimpse at the massively looming structure and carried on to Via di San Gregorio, shifting my admiration to the Palatino to my right.
You can easily see the ruins of what was undoubtedly a stunning Flavian Palace atop Palatine Hill. This hill, standing forty metres (roughly 130 feet) above the Roman Forum, is the most central of the Seven Hills of Rome, and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. Indeed, this location was the first nucleus of the Roman Empire, which expanded from this very spot, outward.
This tidbit of history was explained once we boarded our Greenline Tours bus, and I was able to pop in the earbuds they provided us with to hear about Rome's history as we drove through the city's network of historical streets. Because we purchased the 25€ hop-on-hop-off bus pass, we were able to jump off at any of the stops we wanted to, to have a better look around. However, we waited until there was an opening for the three of us on the upper open-air observation deck of the double decker bus, and sat there for the complete tour before disembarking. Doing so allowed us to learn about all of the different spots around the city, and figure out which places we most wanted to explore on ground level.
Although I would have happily wandered around the entire city of Rome by foot, we were limited to only one afternoon; thus, I had to really narrow down the places I wanted to see up-close and personal. This meant that I had to only view the stunning Altare della Patria (pictured above) and adjacent Palazzo Venezia (pictured above) where Mussolini gave his fascist speeches to the people of Italy, from the top of the bus. From my bus tour, I also was able to see the infamous Theatre of Pompey, the very location where the assassination of Julius Caesar took place on March 15th (the Ides of March), 44 BC. Not to mention the countless basilicas and cathedrals I saw pass me by, palatial interiors that I will not be able to see until I return to Rome one day in the future.
As we drove along, I fell more and more in love with the city from the top of a bus. It was a way of experiencing it quickly, while still appreciating it. That is, I had the opportunity to see Rome without dealing with delays caused by a need to push through throngs of tourists, worrying about how to get to my next point of interest, or lagging behind thanks to fatigue caused by the sun's fierce heat that afternoon.
Though of course I was sad to only be in this world-famous city for a short afternoon, I had resolved to capitalize on this time in the best way possible. I refused to pry my eyes off of the buildings lining the streets, their brilliant amalgamation of architecture creating the the visually pleasing roadways. Behind every bend, I could spot the domed rooftop or proudly towering steeple of a church, each façade sporting their own detailed frescoes that have survived the tests of both time and weather alike.
Wanting to see the Fontana di Trevi (the Trevi Fountain), we disembarked from our tour bus and made our way along the streets. I made my way down Via di Lucchesi as quickly as possible, being sure not to lose my grandmother and cousin behind me as I moved at full speed through the crowds. Truth be told, I followed my nose and ears — the scent of chlorine and roaring sound of the fountain's rushing water — down the street until I found myself face-to-face with the Trevi Fountain. Though I would never admit it out loud in that moment, I instantly was brought back to my first time watching the Lizzie McGuire Movie, where I first saw this world famous fountain on a movie theatre screen.
In fact, as a young girl, that was the most in-depth "experience" of Rome that I had had; in Italian class, we never focused on one particular city in our geography lessons, but rather on the many different regions and provinces within Italy. Lizzie and her friends gave me the feeling that I was coasting through the old streets on the back of a Vespa right along with her and the conniving Paolo.
While we had our feet on the ground, we capitalized on this time to do some shopping. Naturally, in such a touristic location, there were plenty of opportunities to stock up on magnets and shot glasses to bring home, as well as small shops with clothing and jewellery amongst the various restaurants that lined the road. One such shop was a Murano glass store, where we could not only buy a plethora of stunning jewellery pieces (which I definitely did), but also figurines, tree ornaments, and other lovely items created from the handblown Venetian glass.
Though only shopping for about a half hour, finishing up this little task made us realize how hungry we were. We popped into a little pizzeria nearby, where I ordered the vegetarian pizza for one — it was swoon-worthy!
With full bellies, we made our way back to the designated bus stop, where we decided the next place we should travel to in Rome, the final destination of our day... was actually in a different country altogether.
Day One: Vatican City
Another incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, with its short two-mile border encircled by beautiful Italy. This independent city-state covers just over forty hectares (one hundred acres) and is a must-see while in the city of Rome. Though not officially a part of the European Union, as with any other nation that is a part of it, Vatican City has an open border. That is, tourists can wander between the little nation and Rome, Italy as they please.
The Vatican’s history as the central location for the Catholic Church dates back to the construction of St. Peter Basilica, located on the namesake saint’s grave, in the fourth century AD. As a result, this area shifted into becoming a popular pilgrimage site and commercial district; however, it was consequently abandoned after the move of the papal court to France in the year 1309. It wasn't even one hundred years later, in 1377, that they returned. It was then that its now-famous landmarks of the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel, and the new St. Peter’s Basilica (as we see it today) were erected within Vatican City's limits.
To preface this, leading up to my arrival, I've had some issues with Vatican City with regards to how it came to be. In the eleventh grade (in my very Catholic school, I may add), my history teacher filled my class in on the horrific lies told to manipulate a vastly uneducated medieval populace of European peasants into handing over what little money they had to survive, to the church.
This grand, palatial space came to cost over 46,800,052 ducats to build, the rough equivalent of about $7.1 billion to $10.7 billion CAD ($5.4 billion to $8.2 billion USD) in the modern day. So just how did they get this money from European parishioners?
As you can likely imagine, this was not only from the donations regularly collected during mass. It came also from donations to the Church made by devoted Catholics hoping to pay the way for their deceased loved ones to get out of Hell, especially people who gave birth to stillborn babies, or whose children died shortly after birth, prior to being baptized (in those days, it was preached that people who were not baptized would spend eternity in Hell, as they were not devoid of Original Sin). When it became clear that more money would be needed to complete this large-scale project, raking in donations had to be turned up a notch: they created an in-between for sinners who died before repenting, who did not quite belong in neither Heaven nor Hell, which they called "Purgatory".
This newly thought of place didn't have to be your home after death for long. The more you donated to the Church, the less time you would have to spend in Purgatory. You could pre-pay your way out of Purgatory. If you happened to have the money, you also had the opportunity to pay for your pre-deceased loved ones, so that they would spend less time in the state of in-between as well, and would have a quicker route to Heaven. Essentially, if you paid enough, God would grant them entry into Heaven as a 'thank you' trade-off.
Knowing that this goes so much against the core beliefs of true Christianity, that such manipulation took place over people who were born and who died in such immense fear for their immortal souls... it's always been both a sad and sore spot when I think about Catholicism's history. Just like when I see similar instances in the modern day (politically, within corrupt businesses, etc.), of people in power taking advantage of those in weaker situations, this particular instance in history was undoubtedly that of a system that exploited unknowing and fearful people.
Then again, aren't most (if not all) palaces throughout time, constructed thanks to an imbalance of power between a ruler and the people of his or her kingdom? I feel that this is an important history to keep in mind, as the seemingly perfect majesty of Vatican City makes it quite easy to forget its darker past.
That being said, there is no doubt about the fact that the buildings located in the Vatican — both their exteriors and interiors — are absolutely mesmerizing. As someone completely captivated by the grandeur of palatial spaces, I found myself unable to pry my eyes off of the towering buildings surrounding me. I had gone into Vatican City with just my grandmother, waiting in line patiently to make our way through the security check to enter the Holy Palace less than thirty metres (a hundred feet) away.
I didn't realize that we were visiting the Vatican that morning (as we had originally planned to spend two days in the city fo Rome, leaving our trip to the Vatican for day two), and so I didn't take the Church's dress code into consideration when I got myself ready that morning. When it was decided that we would do everything in one day instead, I came to the swift realization that I had broken two crucial Vatican clothing rules, which disallow one entrance into this holy space: shorts above the knee and a crop top. Thankfully, I found a souvenir shop nearby selling scarves, which I wrapped around my waist, and used my grandmother's sweater to hide any other exposed skin visible between my shirt and my denim overalls. Though I definitely looked ridiculous, I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to go to this must-see location.
Eventually, we made it through, and everyone gradually began to fall silent. In fact, I got goosebumps all over my body the moment that I stepped under the stone rooftop and toward the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica. No word of a lie, I'm actually getting goosebumps thinking about it now, as I write this.
The intensity of the visual stimulation was mind-boggling. Everywhere you turn your sightline to, you are met with an onslaught of colourful biblical depictions, impressively detailed statues, and glimmering luxury. My grandmother summed it up in one of her vocalized observations: "There's nothing here not made out of marble or gold. Or gold-covered marble."
We wandered further through the labyrinth-like maze of aisles, dipping between pilgrims and fellow tourists as we made our way around the interior of the basilica. Upon finding a sign that directed us into the papal crypts, we descended beneath the church to see the tombs of the Catholic Church's most important figures. There are signs everywhere stating that no photography is allowed, and although countless others were doing so anyways, I felt that it was important to respect the rules. Therefore, I don't have any images to share of this space, but I did come across this video, which gives you an incredible 360° look into the crypts (drag the video with your cursor if you're viewing from a computer, or move your device around if viewing from a smartphone).
Throughout the evolving history of the Vatican, many of the tombs were destroyed during the sixteenth to seventeenth century reconstruction (the complete list of tombs, including those which remain today and the ones that have been ruined, can be found here). There are many that stand, where you can still pay your respects today. Alongside each crypt, you can find a card stating the name of the person buried in that spot and the significance that they had on the history of the Church; though the vast majority are religious men, there are several women buried here as well, including Countess Matilda of Canossa, Queen Christina of Sweden, and the Polish Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska.
Once we exited the crypts and re-entered the light of day, we briefly considered paying 8€ to enter the infamous Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo. However, as our cousin was waiting for us and the line up was extremely long, we passed up the opportunity in favour of visiting this sacred space whenever the two of us decide to return to Rome next.
Day Two: Castel Gandolfo
Located just twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) southeast of Rome, we continued our immersion into the papal history of Italy at Castel Gandolfo, home not only to quaint and old stores, a beautiful church, and natural views that leave you sighing in wonder, it is also the location of the Papal Palace, also known as the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo.
For centuries, this palatial residence located in Piazza della Libertà served as a summer residence and vacation retreat for the pope, though only recently (in 2016) became a museum segmented from the Musei Vaticani. This nearly fifty-five hectare (135 acre) complex of buildings is embedded in what appears to be an entirely naturalistic garden setting. Including its principal seventeenth century villa, an observatory, and a farmhouse with 30 hectares (75 acres) of farmland, it has been afforded extraterritorial status, due to it being one of the properties of the Holy See, who (as mentioned earlier), are technically part of their own separate nation in Vatican City. The oldest parts of the castle date back to the thirteenth century, constructed long before 1596, when the Vatican seized it from its owners, the Savelli family, who were unable to repay a debt that they incurred against the Papacy.
However, the site also served a more crucial purpose during its history, as it sheltered a number of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, these people finding safety at the palace under the protection of the Holy See. As well, many people used the Papal Palace as protection from Allied bombing raids in 1944.
Within the same square, Piazza della Libertà, you will find the lovely church of Collegiata di San Tommaso da Villanova, designed by the brilliant sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1658 and 1661. Bernini was originally commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, with the purpose of the proposed church intending to serve as the chapel for the Papal Palace. Its name comes from St. Thomas of Villanova, a sixteenth century Augustinian friar from Spain.
Though certainly not as grand as Vatican City's St. Peter's Basilica, Collegiata di San Tommaso da Villanova is a beautiful work of art in itself. It's simply coloured white walls allow for the eye to be drawn to its key artistic features, including its mouldings, sculptures, marble shrines, and breath-taking alter. If you turn your gaze heavenward, you will see the magnificently carved dome, featuring accents of gilded gold.
When you step outside of the church, you will catch a glimpse of the Fontana del Bernini (Bernini Fountain) located centrally in the town square. As the name suggests, this fountain was designed and carved by Bernini, during the same time that the church was constructed.
The town square and adjoining streets branching off from the square offer visitors a perfect opportunity to do some shopping, be it for souvenirs to bring home for friends and family, or uniquely crafted items to keep for yourself. While I was there, I picked up a few religious items to bring back for some of my family members, as well as perused the shops looking for a pair of earrings to get my mom for her birthday. Eventually, I found the most perfect pair of silver earrings with a stone coloured the palest of greens. Of course, I picked it up before exiting the little jewellery store to admire the items found in other shops — including pottery, hand painted ceramics, and small oil paintings that were for sale.
As I walked along the streets, I wandered closer and closer toward Via Palazzo Pontifico, where one can look over the Monte Cavo cliffside viewpoint and down to Lake Albano. This small volcanic crater lake in the Alban Hills is the perfect spot to admire the crystalline turquoise waters and vibrant greenery of the surrounding hills overlooking the lake.
Day Two: Nemi
A short drive from Castel Gandolfo leaves you face to face with another stunning location. Also located in the Alban Hills, the town and comune of Nemi is situated about thirty kilometres (nineteen miles) southeast of Rome. This is the town where Emperor Caligula built several large and costly luxury barges for use on the lake during his tenure between 37 and 41 AD (boats that were finally salvaged in 1929 to 1932, under orders of Benito Mussolini, who was trying to desperately to relate himself to powerful emperors of Italy's past).
Perhaps more exciting are the delicious little wild strawberries that Nemi is famous for, known as Fragoline di Bosco or Fragoline di Nemi ("little strawberries of Bosco or Nemi"). Much smaller and sweeter than the commercially grown varieties you typically buy at your local supermarket, these strawberries are grown on the sides of the town's volcanic crater, which creates a microclimate allowing the retention of the sun's warmth whilst also providing a wind shield. Though I unfortunately missed the annual Festival of Strawberries held in Nemi, I did have a chance to try some on an ice cream sundae at a local café. They were so delicious!
It's not just the local agriculture that's of interest in Nemi, but its historical intricacies, too. In the town itself, you can find various historical buildings, including a few late medieval to eighteenth‑century churches, but Castello Ruspoli remains to most impressive. A castle dating back to the tenth century, this monument is one of the most visited places in Nemi. Though much of the original castle was destroyed over the many years since its initial construction, there have also been plenty of additions and renovations made to the main structure since that time, as well. As a result, the castle is still an imposing presence, dominating the skyline of Nemi. The power of this beautiful building is evident when viewing the town from across the lake, or when standing on old Corso Vittorio Emanuele and gazing up at it.
Behind the castle, following Corso Vittorio Emanuele toward the cliffside lookout, you have a perfect, unadulterated view of Lake Nemi, with ivy-clad aqueducts beneath you and to your side. Nestled amongst vibrantly green pastures, rolling fields, and lush forest, one cannot help but take the time to admire the beauty that Italy consistently offers up. It's the lush forest however, that keeps you moving forward toward the next historical site.
Another impressive location and dating back to 300 BC, is the Temple of Diana Nemorensis. An ancient sanctuary in Nemi, this holy space was once dedicated to the goddess Diana, making it a famous place of pilgrimage in the Italian peninsula. The temple complex itself once covered an impressive area of 45,000 square metres (484,375 square feet), but was abandoned during the late Roman Empire. Today, sections of its marbles and decorations have been removed, and the area of the temple has been gradually covered by forest over the passing centuries. Though generally left undisturbed, amateur archaeological excavations began on the site in the 1600s, and visitors can still find their way to the relatively secluded forest site today.
As we made our way back to our car, my grandmother and I stopped at a little liquor store, whose spirits were infused with the little fragoline local to the area. After sampling a couple different varieties, she picked out a couple to bring home with us.
Walking along the cliff to make our way home, the sun began setting along the horizon. A watercolour of pinks, yellows, and oranges blended together in the sky, contrasting against the dark silhouette of a town gearing down for the evening.
It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Day Three: Anzio
I only spent about forty-five minutes in Anzio — fifteen minutes trying to find parking and around a half hour walking along the harbour watching fishermen mend their nets, ready their boats, and talk amongst themselves. Other than the Battle of Anzio during the Second World War, I know little more about this seaport commune than the average person would. I can only say that it was a stunning location, and wanted to share some of my favourite photos that I took while meandering about the lovely harbour.
Although a prolonged time in the Rome Metropolitan Area is no doubt the most ideal situation, you shouldn't pass up an opportunity to spend only a handful of days in the area if given the opportunity. When well planned, one can have an incredible time here, even with a time crunch.
When in Rome... do as the Romans do, and go with the flow.
What are some places I should check out in Rome and its surrounding municipalities next time I return? Let me know in the comments!
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