Ask Someone Who Recently Went to Rome

What’s the shortest amount of time someone could/should/would reasonably spend there? Like a really long weekend wouldn’t be enough, right?

I’ve actually done both — the first time I stayed three nights and this time six — and I can tell you there is never too little or too much of Rome. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is truly one of those cities that expands and contracts to fit your plan. New York is this way, where you can hop in for a 24-hour party and hop back out, but if you sit still for a minute, you start to picture yourself living there.

Okay, you could probably read this anywhere, but I’ll give you my tiny synopsis of Rome: the central part of Rome — the part in this free map someone inevitably hands you almost the second you step off the plane (okay, not really, they have them at the train or bus or shuttle ticket window as you leave the airport) — that part is all walkable and made up of little tiny self-contained neighborhoods with pedestrian squares called “piazzas” that you can find just by opening your eyes. If you’re only there for two days, hit a monument or two, eat some great meals, wander aimlessly, do a little shopping, and call it a perfect weekend.

On the other hand, Rome is so old that there layers upon layers of things to see. Depending on your level of interest in antiquity/the Middle Ages/the Renaissance/modern art and design/FOOD, you could be there forever and ever, amen. It was also recommended that we try a day or overnight trip to Florence or Naples or Sorrento by train. Supposedly those are very easy, but we were too lazy to be bothered.

Every day at 5:30 P.M., this church has an automated presentation about St. Ignatius. There are moving parts.

How many pieces of luggage did you bring, and please list every single item that was in each of them. Just kidding, but could you get away with just a little carry on? Or do you have to look snazzy at places, and stuff?

I brought one 22″ carry on suitcase and a tote bag. I know this sounds ridiculous, but hear me out: I tend to wear my heels — in this case high heeled boots because it was fall — to the airport since they take up so much room and I don’t want them to get smashed in my luggage. Besides, I take them off the minute I’m on the plane anyway. I packed two dresses that I can, and did, dress up and down, one pair of jeans, two pairs of leggings, a long sweater and long shirt, a few tanks, and a jean jacket that I also wore to the airport. There’s laundry joints all over if you need them. You must bring at least one pair of comfy walking around sneakers, and I kept worrying that with the leggings/sweater/sneakers, I’d look like I was going to the gym in my pajamas. Normally, that would be fine, but I’m in ROME and everyone is so beautiful and put together. But in fact, if your tennies are streamlined enough, you just look Euro! And then I brought another pair of flats for going out to dinner when I didn’t want to wear heels. Much of Rome is cobblestone, so you might want to skip heels altogether, though I’drather die. I still had some room in my luggage after all of that in case of shopping.

Hotel, inn, or ‘partment?

Hotels, like hotel-hotels, are expensive, and personally, not quite worth it. I have asked for a tour of some rooms after dining in a hotel’s restaurant for example, and the finishes are nice, but they’re all small and there’s no kitchen and they cost hundreds of American dollars a night. The first time I went, I stayed at a $100/night B&B my mom’s friend recommended and it was where I learned that most rooms in Rome — public and private — contain an espresso maker. Glorious. Anyway, that room was nice and it had giant shutters that opened onto a gorgeous view of a super Roman looking little street and there were marble floors and free breakfast and a cool old manual elevator. But it was across the river to the west near the Vatican and I had kind of a scary, dark walk through a tunnel to the center of town and back. It didn’t stop me from going anywhere or having fun, but this time I decided we should stay in the central part of town. We found a little one bedroom apartment through Airbnb near the Trevi Fountain for $120 US/night. During the day it was a busy and noisy area, but much of Rome gets pretty quiet after midnight, so it didn’t bother us.

Having an apartment, too, means that you can refrigerate wine and cheese and open wine and serve cheese and use real dishes and lay on a couch and read with the shutters open. (Shutters everywhere!) When you have more than a day in Rome, you end up reading for a good chunk of time either to fight jet lag, pass a lazy morning, or while you’re out at a cafe. (I say this as someone who is not into opera or theater (sorry, Nicole!) and doesn’t know Italian, so entertainment was limited.) La Feltrinelli— a big chain bookstore there — has an English language section and the cover art is often different than editions you’d find in the US, so that’s fun.

What did you read while you were there?

Oh, I picked a real doozy, after failing to get into Cloud Atlas. I read Swerve, “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today,” which just won the Pulitzer for nonfiction. I know that sounds daunting/boring, but it’s kind of a romp — lots of fun Pope scandals and treasure-hunting — and it’s accesible and interesting. Plus, I had never even read the “obscure work of philosophy”, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (an epic poem now readily found anywhere), and I still “enjoyed” it. BUT! It’s fucking heavy in parts, man. SPOILER ALERT: We’re all going to die and nothing means anything. Upshot: according to the poem, seeking pleasure and minimizing pain should be our highest aim. I like that. It made a hell of a lot of sense in Rome. The book also has this wonderful line about death: “You will not care, because you will not exist.” You will not care, because you will not exist. You will not care, because you will not exist.

Is everyone in Rome always wearing really great jeans? Or did I just make that up in my head?

Jeans, sure, but the suits? Oh MY god, the suits. I think my husband almost left me for about 100 men in suits and I would not have blamed him. Just gorgeous, gorgeous suits. And overcoats. And scarves. Like this, no kidding.

I noticed three stand-out looks for women, aside from suits, which many wear as well:

1. Cuffed jeans, Tod’s style cool loafers or brightly-colored oxfords, button-down or silk tank, a spiffy blazer, scarf. Hair all wild and curly and bold glasses.

2. Eileen Fisher, only probably handmade by “textile artists” in Italy, so better.

3. Flowery dresses, again with a blazer and a scarf. Long, straight hair. A hat. Sunglasses. Perpetually 29 years old. Riding a bike or Vespa. These were everywhere.

I just want to hear about the food. What was the first thing you ate when you got there, and what was the last thing?

The very first thing was, haha, this croissant and espresso at the train station/bus shuttle stand at the airport. EVERYTHING IS BETTER IN ROME, did I say that yet? Everything. That is why “Made in Italy” used to mean it was special. You should see the leather gloves and hats. Anyway, even train station croissants are better. Roman croissants are a little orangey and they are topped with sugar.

Once we got into town and settled, we stumbled around and found a tiny piazza — these are every few streets, an empty block that is usually bordered by restaurants with outdoor seating and some touristy stores — for homemade pasta and a glass of wine. I had the fettucine all’Amatriciana. Standard pastas like that one, cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), and carbonara are done decently at a lot of little restaurants, so try a bunch. The last thing I ate was pizza at 4 A.M. Hardly any place is open then, so you take what you can get.

And what was the best thing, and the worst thing?

The worst was that pizza, but that’s just because it was old. There are so many “bests” in Rome. We tried a few Time Out recommendations and both were amazing: at Roscioli I got fresh burrata with local anchovies that had been caught this spring, and at Matricianella I had the best gnocchi of my life. One night we splurged and had dinner at a fancy restaurant we saw on No Reservations. The decor and service were dreamy, and the veal was out of control, but in hindsight, no more satisfying than the panino we’d share at whatever cafe in the morning. Mmm, melty cheese. And we also found some excellent food on our own just by chance. I wish I could remember the names of some places, but who cares? A lot of the fun is finding them. The streets — just the look of them, all skinny and wind-y, and cobblestoned, and closed in by three- and four-story terracotta apartment buildings with flower boxes in the windows — they draw you in against your will and you spend hours wandering, so just go with it.

Dusk near Piazza Navona.

Two food-related things make Rome one of my favorite places. The first is that all cafes — and there are, in my estimation, as many as two per block — are also bars. WHAT? Yes, a cafe is a bar and a bar is a cafe. And second, from roughly 4-5 P.M to 7-9 P.M., at many bars and restaurants, they have a happy hour called “aperitivo.” One we went to more than once for the scene — particularly fashionable, older, local businesspeople chatting heatedly in Italian — is Ciampini. “Aperitivo” is a selection of appetizers, either brought to the table or buffet-style, that come free with a cocktail or wine purchase. Often it’s just pistachios and salami and cheese and olives. Which, I don’t know why I just said “it’s just” because that was all awesome? But some places go all-out. At Casa & Bottega I had a Negroni with focaccia, quiche, crostini, grilled sqaush, and a barley salad. Just go door-to-door asking, “Aperitivo?”

Did anyone touch you in a way you didn’t want? I guess that sounds like I mean it specific to Italians, but I’d ask that of anyone who went anywhere. (Open thread in the comments?)

No, but a few times, maybe two or three, when I’d get three steps ahead of my guy, men sitting at cafes would make really loud, obvious, kissy sounds from like two feet away. It was cartoonishly funny. But no, no touching. I don’t know, it’s super lame to generalize because more often than not it depends who you’re with and where you are exactly and there are so many other factors, BUT, my impression of Romans has been that they are unusually friendly and polite, while still being wry and funny and sassy and charming. Good time folks. I’ve met like two service people there who were in genuinely bad moods, and on the street, no one even notices you because it’s a big city and they have their own shit to worry about.

I was in Rome — maybe, seven years ago — and there was so much graffiti on ancient buildings and beautiful fountains and such, and it depressed me a little. Is the graffiti still there?

And now a chance to talk about the Colosseum! I took the audio tour on the advice of a friend and it was great but what he failed to mention is that you get to skip the hours-long line when you do that and it only costs an extra 5 euro. Boo-ya. Did you know that the Colosseum is right in the middle of town? Like, people have apartments across the street, for real. It’s not at all what we were taught, America! (If you find yourself in that area, make a pit stop at San Pietro in Vincoli to check out Michelangelo’s Moses. Holy shit, for real. I got lost on my way there once, but then I heard an accordion playing and looked up a steep stairway to see a man with the box and a woman dressed like a beautiful fortune-teller, so I walked up there to listen and OMG IT WAS THE ENTRANCE!) Anyway, I may have hallucinated this, but in the audio tour of the Colosseum they mentioned ancient graffiti being on one of the pieces of marble there. I bring that up just to say that as long as there have been people and scratchable surfaces, there’s been graffiti. Nothing you can do, other than not contribute, so don’t worry about it! And I do not condone it, but the spray paint variety just signals to me “you are now entering a city” which in turn makes me excited. I dunno.

How much does a glass of wine cost at one of the cafes or wine bars or whatever it is that I’m envisioning you lounging around in all day? Not in a bad way, but that’s all I can picture. 

And I did! We did pretty much just wander from cafe to cafe with books in my bag. You can find a cheap glass most places for around $5 — sometimes less? The more expensive glasses are at fancier wine bars, restaurants, and at some of those aperitivo hour places, but again, so worth it. Here’s a money-saving tip: at many of these ubiquitous cafes, there’s staggered pricing depending on where in the establishment you want to drink — and this includes coffee. The cheapest place is standing — literally standing — at the bar, the most expensive is sitting on the sidewalk. I know standing, all alone, at a bar in a busy cafe in America doesn’t sound so awesome, but it’s SUPER HOT in Rome, I promise.

What did you bring back?

Not much. I found myself a little overwhelmed by all the nice fashions and really couldn’t decide on any one thing. The place is also super-saturated with tourist goods, and the prices on clothes you could get here are quite inflated, so it didn’t seem sensible to do a lot of shopping there. We did get a little plaque for our house carved by this dude with a cramped studio on a side street full of art galleries near Piazza del Popolo. I also touched everything at Dolce & Gabbana and tried on some ballet flats at some “handmade Italian shoes” place, but in the end, everything seemed too expensive or breakable to fly with, so I just keep eating and drinking my allowance with abandon. Last time, I spent hours in this odd antique photo store — their collection is endless — and I came back with some real winners.

What thing did you try/ do/ see on the trip that you most wanted to take home/ wish were a feature of your life here?

Typical answer, but I wish we could take things a little slower and have more breaks in our day for simple pleasures like an afternoon shot of espresso and a sweet pastry, or a discussion. That is one of the stand-out memories: so many boisterous discussions taking place during daylight hours. Folks there find time to sit around in public and talk to each other, somehow. And I cannot believe that aperitivo thing doesn’t exist here. I mean, it does, but in a “hot tray full of taquitos” kind of way. It kind of makes me want to open a bar, but there has to be some reason it wouldn’t fly in this godforsaken place.

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