How one family experienced Rome in two days without losing their minds or their life savings. Most Italian vacations include a grand itinerary. Cities such as Rome, Venice, and Florence are premiere destinations, each with its own list of popular, “must see” sites. Rome, a world famous metropolis, offers such an extensive list of legendary venues that a traveler would need weeks to experience all this lively city has to offer.
What is the everyday tourist to do? One solution is to create an itinerary that ensures you’ll have an enjoyable trip. Whether its exploring the Colosseum, dining on Italian cuisine, or climbing St. Peter’s 491 steps to the top of the dome, while in Rome focus on quality, not quantity. With only two days for our Roman Holiday, my family’s mindset was simple – “Que sera, sera.”
Piazza di Spagna
Arriving mid morning in Rome allowed us to use our travel time to its fullest. With luggage in tow, we stepped out of the subway tunnel and onto the cobbled streets of the Piazza di Spagna. Just around the corner were the famous Spanish Steps where British poets, John Keats and Lord Byron, resided for a time and wrote some of their most romantic lines. Keats actually died in a Roman villa just a few yards from this lovely spot. Today that same building is now a museum – The Keats-Shelley Memorial House – and includes an extensive collection of notable literature.
Standing in front of this glorious staircase, we took a seat (a step) and enjoyed a robust performance by a trio of young street musicians. At the base of this bustling site was the curious Sinking Boat Fountain. Powered by one of several aqueducts which flow beneath the streets of Rome, it was not as glorious as the Trevi Fountain, but still remarkable. As we reclined on the stones steps, moaning over pizza rustica – pizza by the slice – our teenage daughter was drooling over window-after-window of Gucci and Prada. In Italy one can simply enjoy “la dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing) or shop. In the Piazza di Spagna, either was a good choice.
After checking-in and dropping our bags at the Hotel Piazza di Spagna, a three story Italian classic with terrazzo floors, we set off by foot for Capitol Hill and the Roman Forum. There was a free, walking tour that started at the Colosseum; however, we traversed this trail backwards and began at the Forum where, legend has it, Rome was born. Here the ruins crumbled into their own version of a masterpiece. When it dawned on our kids that they were traveling across the same stones as Julius Caesar, their fascination for Rome’s history sparked, flaring brightly into a whirlwind of questions. “Where was Caesar assassinated?” “Why did Brutus stab his father?” “What are the Ides of March?” Here, surrounded by ancient columns and dilapidated temples, the past was alive and well. Fortunately, there was a nearby vendor selling historical pamphlets that provided the answers.
Our steps through Roman history ended at the Colosseum, a 50,000 seat, circular theater where gladiators fought on both land and water. The enormity and scale of this piece of ancient architecture is only equaled by the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge in England. The entrance fee to this grand stadium was 10 euro a person, granting our family an upclose and personal view of what it might have been like to be both prisoner and warrior.
Day two, we took the subway to Cipro-Musei Vaticani – The Vatican Museum. This expedition to the world’s second smallest, independent country – which is protected by it own army of Swiss guards – included a two hour wait. Many tickets for Rome’s famous attractions can be reserved at www.selectitaly.com, eliminating long lines; however, the Vatican does not subscribe to this service. After an hour of moving only a hundred yards, we considered stepping out of line. Fortunately, there were street vendors who entertained us with their wares. From sunglasses to radio controlled cars, these modest traders moved up and down the procession of tourists selling their merchandise with admirable diligence. It was a peddler offering water and ice cream that renewed our enthusiasm for the Vatican.
At 10 euros ($12) per adult and 7 euros for each child, we entered the Musei Vaticani and used the complimentary map to wind our way through the long corridors and immense galleries of prominent treasures. From frescoed walls to marbled statues, we gazed upon one of the most elaborate art collections on the globe. In the Corridoio, a grand section of the museum, we stood among Roman gods. Their marbled bodies, gleaming with perfection, tempted one to take a bended knee. As we moved from one masterpiece to the next, our tour culminated at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. From 1508 until 1512, Michelangelo labored on a scaffold, perfecting the nine ceiling panels that depict Adam and Eve’s ticket out of the Garden of Eden and continue on to the creation of man. On the chapel’s walls are more frescoes created by Renaissance masters such as Botticelli and Roselli. As we craned our necks towards the heavens, our sixteen-year-old son quietly said, “I think I might want to be a history teacher.”
St. Peter’s Basilica
From the Vatican Museum, we found our way to Basilica di San Pietro or St. Peter’s Basilica, where
it was believed that St. Peter was crucified. In 324, Emperor Constantine ordered a basilica to be built over Peter’s tomb. One thousand years later, when the Renaissance was at its height, the current basilica was reconstructed. Today, St. Peter’s can host over 95,000 worshipers.
In order to enter the basilica, one must go through a security screening and adhere to a strict dress code that includes no shorts, skirts above the knee, or bare shoulders. We had to buy a souvenir scarf for our daughter whose lasagna-strap tank was deemed inappropriate. Inside, no one speaks above a whisper. I thought this would be a difficult task for our youngest, but the grandeur of St. Peter’s rendered her speechless. With so much gold and marble, it is an unbelievable sight.
Due to some vandalism in the ’70’s, Michelangelo’s Pieta’ can only be viewed from behind bullet-proof glass. This life-like creation of Mary enfolding her son after his crucifixion is real enough to bring tears to the eyes. After an hour exploring the basilica’s first floor, we descended the staircase leading to the site of St. Peter’s tomb. Once at the holy crypt, we settled into the modest pews and contemplated if St. Peter was actually buried behind the wall before us. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code had filled our thoughts with rumored speculation.
We ended our tour of the basilica with 491 steps to the top of Michelangelo’s dome. Although all four kids climbed the spiraling staircase without complaint, it was a narrow, claustrophobic trek. A literal stairway to heaven, this site should not be missed. At the dome’s pinnacle, Rome spreads towards the horizon like a sea of terra cotta. With its sunbleached, tiled roof tops and golden hills, the city itself was a splendor of color and shapes. Most of the architecture was over a millennia old and still we “oooed” and “awed’ as if a magicain had just pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
The End of Two Stunning Days
After spending the day walking through some of Rome’s most celebrated sites, our “normal” selves would have been exhausted. Maybe it was the gelato or the cappuccino, but even our youngest wasn’t ready to say goodnight to Rome. Since we had avoided renting a car, our family stumbled across several sights not on our itinerary. We toured Nero’s Golden House, sat by the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and watched the talented artists, fire-eaters, and mimes in the Piazza Navona. Winding down from a full day, our family gathered for the last time on the Spanish Steps. Listening to a young Italian strum his mandolin, I held my husband’s hand and felt my heart flutter. We may have missed a few sites, but our two-day, Roman holiday was simply…perfetto.
Planning Your Roman Holiday
From plane tickets to hotels and train fare, everything can be done online. Below is a list of a few websites and phone numbers we found extremely helpful. Buon viaggio!
Phone Numbers –
Hotel Piazza di Spagna – 06-6796412
Vatican Tourist Office – 06-69881662
Piazzale de Colosseo (Colosseum) – 06-7004261
Select Italy in the U.S. – 847/853-1661 (ticket reservation)
Best Gelato –
Giolitti – 40 Via del Vicario
San Crispino – 56 Via Acaia