Taken from an original blog post in 2015:
As I sat in terminal D looking up at the screens to confirm my departure to Rome I thought to myself when I get back I want to write a lengthy and detailed account of my first trip to Rome. Now that I am back in the states I am quickly realizing writing about my entire trip while accurately describing the magnificence that is Italy is going to be a bigger challenge than I originally thought.
Let’s start from the beginning. I had originally planned on spending Thanksgiving in Tokyo. As they often do plans changed and I decided to travel to Rome for my Thanksgiving vacation. The days leading up to my departure were filled with frantic reading of the guidebook, frequent visits to Amazon.com to purchase power adaptors, new luggage, and much more anticipation than I had expected. I had always known that one day I would be visiting Italy, the place where my fathers ancestors came from, and the location of the Vatican which takes on special meaning being a Catholic. However, now all of a sudden I was sitting in Philadelphia International Airport awaiting to board a plane to Rome. The day had arrived.
I got to the airport early as always. This time I decided to pay for a shuttle service to pick me up from my house. I had to be at the airport early and figured it was wise to spend the $40 to simply hitch a ride and make it as easy as possible. I travel light. Very light. I had one roller bag full of a weeks worth of wrinkled freshly cleaned clothes and my camera equipment. That was all I needed. I snagged some food, charged my iphone and before I knew it my flight on Alitalia was boarding.
Now international flights are always no fun. Unless of course you are fortunate enough to have a first class ticket. I myself did not have a first class ticket but was pleasantly surprised with my seat, food and space during the 8.5 hour flight into Fiumicino airport which is about 20km outside of Rome. I put on my headphones, listened to a couple podcasts, watched an in-flight movie (The Big Lebowski), and before I knew it I was touching down in rainy Italy.
A shuttle took us from our flight to the customs location of the airport. The line filled with international travelers filled up quickly but luckily moved very quickly and before long I had an Italian officer reviewing my passport. I was very much looking forward to adding an Italy stamp into my passport. Much to my dismay my passport was reviewed for maybe two seconds and given back to me with a nod and approval to enter Italy. I walked through thinking ‘what no stamp?’ ‘This couldn’t be right, I thought I’d get stamped?!’ Walking through the terminals now a bit baffled and admittedly disappointed I ran into an American girl who asked if she could look something up on my phone. Specifically her hotel address. I kindly obliged and in doing so inquired to her if her passport had also been neglected with what I dreamed would be a lovely Italian stamp of approval. She confirmed that they do not stamp your passports here. But maybe they would if I went back and asked. I said thanks as she snapped a photo from her phone of my phone displaying her hotel address. Ah technology. I had now realized that it was not a mistake and started to walk towards the exit searching the train which took me into Rome. Bummed out about the no stamping of passport let down I was having a difficult time locating the train into Rome. I decided to take a shuttle for 40Euro into Rome. The driver had assured me he would take me directly to my hotel. I figured this would be the best bet, as it was pouring outside and I couldn’t afford to get lost or stuck outdoors with all my camera gear.
I hopped in the back of the shuttle and met two other Americans on their way into Rome. Their first time visit as well. I attempted to strike up some conversation with quickly got the impression they didn’t want to chat with me. No biggie. I just looked out the window as our shuttle made its way from the airport into Rome at close to 100mph zipping through traffic. I had been to Germany before and driven on the Autobahn so the speed and chaotic nature of our taxi drivers driving was not really a surprise to me. In fact it was quite enjoyable as I sat looking out the rain splattered windows knowing Id be in the heart of Rome in mere minutes. This trip was on like Donkey Kong!
My shuttle had taken a route into Rome which passed directly by the Colesseum which was unavoidable. I heard the thumping of the tires rolling against the cobblestoned streets until the shuttle abruptly stopped and a thick Italian voiced yelled out from up front -‘Hotel Cosmopolita” – ‘this is you, yes?’ As promised I made it to the front door of my hotel. The Hotel Cosmopolita. I tipped the driver 10Euro which he seemingly was more than grateful to receive, shook his hand and made my way inside where another well dressed Italian man welcomed me to the eternal city. I said hello, in attempts to feel out if he knew any English. Turns out, much like Germany, everyone knows English or some form of it. He checked me into my room, gave me a map of the city, circled the ‘must see’ attractions, and even kindly told me how to get to all of them. It turns out the map he had given me, as I am sure he had given a dozen other tourists that very day, was the most helpful map I carried with me all week long!
I made my way to my room not really knowing what to expect of a single room in Europe. Hotel rooms in Europe are much smaller than American standard rooms so I had my reservations as to how big the room would be. Much to my surprise the room was quite nice and included everything I could possibly want. A nice sized and comfortable bed, flat screen TV, internet and a lovely bathroom with two toilets. One I understood, the other I avoided as I knew it shot water where the sun don’t shine.
I had arrived in Rome. My excitement was at an all time high. I had just touched down in the eternal city and had 6 days to go exploring. I couldn’t think of a better scenario. I grabbed my camera and headed downstairs out the front door. It was pouring. Damn. I had forgotten that it had been absolutely pouring since I had arrived a couple hours earlier. This made things somewhat difficult to go out exploring with $3000 worth of camera gear strapped around your neck. I dropped my camera back off in my hotel room and this time grabbed my rain jacket I had thankfully brought with me. I ventured out into the rain with no camera but it wasn’t going to hinder my trip I told myself.
My first night in Rome went by very quickly. As mentioned it was pouring outside so walking about on the streets was a bit of a challenge. I ended up visiting the Piazza Venezia which was the next block over from my hotel. Lined with cafes and small shops I would frequently visit throughout the week I ended up taking the elevator up to the top of Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. What an incredible view! From up there I was able to see virtually all of Rome as there are no sky scrapers impeding your view all around. I stayed at the top and got my 7Euro’s worth for the elevator ride up. It was still raining but I had barely noticed at this point. I was in awe of this place already and its sheer magnitude. I took a few iphone shots and eventually made my way back to the hotel. It was dark by this point, still raining a good bit, and I was starting to feel the time difference creep up on me. I made my way around the corner of my hotel and snagged two slices of my first authentic pizza margherita. Wow. Good pizza would be putting it mildly. Still full of excitement, and now pizza, I walked the short walk back to my hotel and turned in for the night in hopes of getting an early start the next day.
I woke up very early the next morning for some reason. It could be attributed to my horrible sleep patterns, normal lack of sleep, and/or the 6 hour time difference between Rome and America. I saw the sun start to pour through my window on the west side of my room and I began to smile. Today was going to be a good day – it was not raining! I slugged myself out of bed and made my way over to my little window, opened up the doors and the sun was making her presence slowly known over Rome. I sat back down on my bed and looked over the detailed itinerary I had planned out months ago. I quickly realized that this itinerary, although noble, would be a mistake to follow for the next 6 days. I turned my phone back on and looked at the time. It was Sunday. I thought -‘what are the chances the pope is in town?’. Turns out he was and there was Sunday mass scheduled for 10:30 that morning in St.Peters Square. And just like that I had my morning plans.
I grabbed my backpack and headed out the door of my hotel making my way across the street to Café Sin Sin. Here I was told I could buy all sorts of morning delights, including a bus ticket for 1.50Euro that would take me to the Vatican. Ticket in hand I hopped on the 40 Express which I read earlier was notorious for pick pockets. I rode the 40, 81 and a few other local express buses all throughout the week and never ran into any situation where I felt I might be pick pocketed. If you are aware of your surroundings and be alert as you would normally be then you most likely never will have an issue. The bumpy bus ride let me off about 2 blocks from the Vatican. It was roughly 8:30 in the morning and hundreds of people were walking towards St.Peters square for Sunday mass. I noticed people from all over were headed the same direction I was. Large groups of nuns, priests from North Africa, and a variety of pilgrims coming from all of the world all seemingly marching in the same direction I was to be part of the papal mass.
I managed to snag a chair. My chair was roughly 250 yards away from the alter and the pope. Mass began and I was in awe. I was attending mass given by the head of our church at the Vatican. The sea of people ahead of me and behind me all listened intently as the pope gave mass in Italian. I will never forget this day and how close I was to the Pope. As a catholic it is our belief that the Pope is the closest person to God. To hear Pope Francis speak to the crowd and bless the crowd was an event I will always hold in my heart. I even managed to snap a few photographs of the mass and will cherish these photographs forever.
After my decision to visit the Vatican and witness the Pope give mass I realized I had already wildly exceeded my expectations on this trip. Anything after that would be icing on the cake. As I hopped back on the # 40 Express bus headed back into central Rome I realized that I was in for an experience of a lifetime being in this city. Not knowing how the rest of the week was going to go or where it would take me I was prepared for anything and literally ready to explore all of what Rome had to offer.
The following days flew by in a flash and my time in Rome was inching towards an end. Each morning I would wake up early around 7am, hop in the shower to calm my notoriously horrible back down, throw on my clothes and head out the door. Each time I would venture out I had the hotel map given to me on my first day which proved to be the best map I could have used my entire trip. My days in Rome were spent walking the city. I wanted to walk every inch of the eternal city, experiencing first hand as opposed to on top of a tour bus or by taxi. I wanted to feel the cobblestoned streets underneath my well worn sneakers, as only they would truly lead me on my own adventure.
As luck would have it I could not have chosen a more perfectly situated hotel in all of Rome. The Hotel Cosmopolita was located in the heart of Rome and almost every major tourist attraction was in walking distance. As I quickly realized a few days into my trip – Rome can be walked in its entirety. Any location with Rome can be trekked to with a good pair of sneakers, a broken watch, and a good camera to document the journey.
Walking the eternal city allows you to experience so much more than sitting atop one of the many open air tour buses that whirls you past the major attractions. Walking the city throws you directly into the mix of Italian life in Rome and all the joyous attributes it holds. As you walk down any of the thousands of small cobblestoned streets you pass by shops, cafés, vendors selling roasted chestnuts, and most importantly incredible Gelato stands. Yes…it is a must to eat Gelato while in Rome…even in Winter!
Throughout the week I found myself walking everywhere. I walked down the Roman Forum walk which was only 2 blocks away from my hotel. I made my way to the Colosseum only to be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the lined moved to get in. I walked to Trevi Fountain multiple times, both during the day and at night as the fountain atmosphere is completely different at each time. I found myself walking along the Tiber river and stopping off at the Pantheon on my way back to the hotel. The Spanish Steps, Termini Station, The Vespa Museum, Cafés, restaurants, souvineer shops ….you name it I saw it in Rome and was in awe of it all.
Each evening when I would eventually get back to my hotel, downright exhausted and still jubilant from the days adventures, I would revisit the sites I saw that day in my guidebook. I made a habit of doing this to determine how accurate the guidebook really was. The majority of the information in the book was accurate expect for a few things I thought it left out that I think the budding visitor would find helpful to know prior to arriving in Rome.
1. They don’t stamp your passport. I mentioned this earlier in my post. This was a big disappointment but you get over it quickly.
2. Traffic is chaotic in Rome. Seemingly with no pattern or rules to the road but somehow it all works. Watch the Vespa’s & Taxis when you are crossing the road as many times they are traveling at a high rate of speed to what we would normally expect to see in the States.
3. Learn some basic Italian phrases. Learning a few basic greetings will help you out as you get accustomed to the culture. If you do not know a single word of Italian you will still be completely ok. I never ran into anyone that did not speak at least a little English.
4. Taxi’s are VERY expensive in Rome. Learn the transit system if you need to get to & from the airport. It will save you about 52Euros each way by avoiding taking a taxi. But then again, the taxis offer you a straight express ride to and from your destination so it all depends on your travel budget.
5. Allot money for gifts. Less than 30% of Americans hold a passport and the family & friends back home that are not as fortunate to travel to Rome will very much appreciate a little gift from you when you return.
6. Eat. Eat often and eat well. My favorite dish is Spaghetti Carbanarra with Bacon. Oh, and enjoy a coke while you’re there… real sugar in these pops so they taste better. But don’t be surprised to pay for refills.
7. Pack light. Take only what you need when traveling. Over packing will eat into your travel adventure time. Don’t check a bag unless you have to. Remember, you most likely will be bringing some things home so the less you arrive with the better.
8. Bring a camera. This is for obvious reasons.
9. Yes, do as the tourists do and throw coins into the Trevi Fountain. But do it correctly…throw 3 coins over your right shoulder ensuring your return to Rome one day.
10. Enjoy the seemingly small things during each day. Take a few slower sips of your café latte at an outside café, order the most expensive glass of wine on the menu, take in the beauty of the history of Rome and realize how it shaped modern day civilization.
11. Secure an isle seat on your flight to & from. The flight is roughly 8.5-9.5 from NYC to Rome. The return flight is almost 11 hours given the jet stream. It’s a long flight and admittedly the one going to Rome is always better.
12. Take someone with you. I travel mostly alone, including this time to Rome. I enjoy traveling but having someone to experience such a wonderful place with is always preferred.
13. Take an adventure each day you are in Rome. Throw out your itinerary and wing it each day. Walk down streets and get lost. Getting lost results in the most memorable sites you stumble upon. If you have a few days in Rome you have more than enough time to see the major sites and much much more.
14. Understand, accept & realize that you will not see, anywhere else on gods green earth, more beautiful woman than in Rome. If you disagree than I know you havnt been to Rome before.
15. Avoid television and the amenities in your hotel. Go to Rome to experience Rome, not to watch tv and lounge around.
16. Share your photos and stories with your friends back home. Although they are no doubt super jealous they will appreciate seeing the occasional photo or text from you 5000 miles away.
17. Rome in Summer is hot. Rome in Winter is cold. Rome in Winter is also rainy. Spring & Autumn are great times to travel to Rome.
18. Purchase your Vatican and other major attraction tickets online before you travel to Rome. The lines wont be that long in the off season during Winter but if you find yourself in Rome during the Summer the last thing you want to do is wait in line for 4 hours when you can ‘skip the line’ with a pre-purchased ticket. Avoid the ‘tours’ as much as possible.
19. When visiting the Vatican – prepare to be overwhelmed. Quickly realize you would have to live a lifetime at the Vatican to see all the exhibits, paintings & sculptures. Take your time of course and be sure to visit the major sites – Sistine Chapel & St.Peter’s Basilica.
20. When in Rome – you want to stay in Rome. Coming home from Rome is the toughest thing you may have to do. I honestly did not want to leave Rome. By the end of my week I started envisioning a life there and contemplating my ‘options’.
In summary of my ramblings about Rome and as mentioned previously, no words can accurately describe the eternal city properly. Any attempts to describe the atmosphere of Rome to friends and family will always remain futile and leave you almost frustrated tripping over your words. Rome immediately went to the top of my lists as favorite places Ive been and remains as the most beautiful and inspiring place I have ever been blessed to visit.