You will remember that I am doing a few podcasts with a sharply practical character. They are a way I’m helping myself to get ready for an upcoming trip to Italy, and I hope they will be of use to you too. My last pod was a general overview of Rome, in which I suggested that for navigating purposes, it was useful to start by breaking Rome down into a Fixed Point, Four Streets, and Five Zones. I admitted that this was only a start, and that complications would be addressed later, but it’s best to start simply.
In the next several Mini Pods, I’ll add specific sites to each of the Five Core Zones, and then do so to the area around them. This will give us a better sense of what is where and help us decide how to group our visits so we can visit them efficiently. I’ll start with some general thoughts and then proceed to introduce each zone individually.
It takes so much time, money, and preparation to get to Rome from the United States that adding extra days or weeks makes sense if you can swing it. Now that my wife is joining me in retirement, we have the time for a three-week visit to Italy, which is more time than we’ve ever had before for traveling. This will allow us to visit sites outside of Rome as well: love Rome though I do, it’s also nice to breathe in the fresh air of the Italian countryside and visit Italy’s smaller towns. More on this later.
As for choosing a place to stay in Rome, it depends a lot on your budget and what’s available at the moment. I’m a big fan of Airbnb and Vrbo, partly because it’s handy to have a kitchen and place to eat. Even if you don’t cook when in Rome, there are lots of excellent places that offer less expensive meals to take out, and it’s nice to have a suitable place to enjoy them.
Our apartment for this visit is near the Cavour Metro Stop, which makes me very happy. It’s close to many of the spots we are likely to visit, and it’s a very Roman neighborhood with some excellent restaurants. Piazza Madonna dei Monti is like the living room for the whole area, and if you have a piece of takeout pizza, it can serve as a dining room too. The Colosseum, Forum, Imperial Forums, and Capitoline Hill are right around the corner, so you lose no time getting to them. They are also pleasant sights at dusk and when illuminated at night. It is not always possible to find a suitable place in this neighborhood, but I’d still recommend finding lodging close to the center of the city and the sites you will visit. On my last visit, I stayed further out in order to save money, but it cost me time, which is also money.
I’m a big fan of using evenings to visit Rome’s public places, such as pizzas, obelisks, fortifications, fountains, neighborhoods, and columns. They are often beautifully illuminated, and the Roman sun will not be beating down on you if you pause for a moment. It helps if you choose to have dinner in different parts of the city and use your walk to and from dinner as an occasion to look at Rome’s public architecture. This will allow you to reserve your days for museums, churches, and archeological sites, which cannot be visited at night.
On the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994, I went to Monte Cassino, the site of bitter fighting in World War II, and on this special occasion, there were busloads of veterans who had traveled back to relive their war years at this crucial site. It was a deeply moving experience for me, but it added to the veterans’ heartbreak that tour organizers had failed to realize that the rebuilt Abbey, which had been destroyed in a massive air attack on February 15, 1944, was closed every day from noon to 3:00 pm. The soldiers’ schedule did not allow them to wait, so they missed an important part of what they had come to see.
This is a dramatic way of emphasizing a banal point: It is essential to check the opening times for churches and museums before you head for Rome, so you can plan your visits in an efficient manner. Doing this is downright boring, but it’s a timesaver in the long run. And times and policies change, especially since has COVID disrupted past patterns. For example, I was disappointed to learn that the Forum now does not open until 10:00 am, an hour later than in my past experience. And now it is sometimes necessary to purchase tickets on-line, since COVID has led museums to discourage people from congregating, which has closed ticket offices.
The general point is clear: you must look at websites for entrance times and requirements. Many churches in Rome close from noon until 300 or 400 in the afternoon, and museums are often closed on Monday. I won’t recite the current details here, but I’ll put some links to major sites on the Get Ready for Rome webpage associated with this podcast. A few clicks will then let you know most of what you need to know. If you wait until you get to Rome to do this, you’ve wasted some of the time you could have used to be out on the streets enjoying the city.
As for what to visit in Rome, this poses difficult questions requiring the budgeting of time and money. There are tons of museums, archeological sites, beautiful churches, and other points of interest in and around Rome, and new museums open every year, such as the one at the Mausoleum of Augustus and another called the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio, which is supposed to shed light on the pleasure-seeking of the Emperor Caligula. If you will forgive an unsubstantiated guess, mine is that the Roman and Vatican authorities are desperate for funds, and they know of no easier way to seek them than by opening more sites at higher prices, and it seems to catch our attention best if they call them “underground” or “secret.” In any event, the first challenge is to decide what you want to visit, and this will depend in part on where a site is located and how much it costs to enter. It is obviously important to group your visits, so you don’t lose too much time and energy getting from one site to the next. This is why I contrived “the Five Zones of Rome” in my last podcast [add link].
If you want to consider all possibilities, do a Google search for “Museums in Rome” It’s an amazingly long list. Before putting together our list of main candidates for visits, I came up with some categories from which I wanted to draw, to illustrate Rome’s deep differences, if time and funds should permit. Here they are:
- Sites most characteristic of Ancient Pagan Rome
- The earliest Christian sites, including churches and catacombs
- The most magnificent Catholic Churches, including the four papal basilicas
- A selection of great palaces from the Renaissance or thereabouts
- The main public markers, such as obelisks, fountains, towers, walls, and statues
- The public monuments of Modern Rome, starting with the Vittoriano or Wedding Cake
- Signs of Mussolini’s Fascism
In addition, I wanted to keep an eye out for special exhibits happening in Rome during our visit; and, of course, our group is interested in finding the best and most characteristically Roman restaurants or trattorias.
Then I added the main sites that belonged to each category. My list grew to a great length, so the main effect of this exercise was to prove the obvious, that we would not be seeing everything. The next step was to group the sites geographically and, then, decide what we wanted to do most.
We are not done with this sifting process, but I’ll move from zone to zone and list our main candidates for a visit, and then I’ll proceed to a few areas outside of the Five Core Zones. We are limited to less than a week in Rome, so we must move fast and callously neglect sites we might like to visit. I’ll list more for each day than we can really do. This will give you options, especially if you have more than a week for your visit.
So, how are we going to use our time? We’ll get started in our next podcast with the Capitoline Zone, which includes the highest density of the most famous sites of Ancient Pagan Rome.