The Vatican just got served
After a whole day (or 2) in Rome, I suggest that you start early the next morning to explore Vatican City. Even though it’s the world’s smallest state, the number of people waiting in countless lines to get inside can outnumber the number of the Vatican City’s 800 citizens by a factor of 10 to 1.
If you’re staying on the east side of Rome, take the metro A line to Ottaviano, from where you can walk a few blocks southwest to the north side of the Vatican City Walls along Viale Vaticano.
If you arrive early enough in the morning on a mid-weekday or on the Wednesdays when the Pope is giving mass, you can head straight to the ticket offices around the corner and purchase your 16 euro entry into the Vatican Museums (they are closed only on obvious religious holidays and Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month). However, most do not get there early and end up waiting over an hour and a half in line along this very street to get inside. The only other way to skip this line is to purchase tickets online for an extra 4 euros, but these “skip-the-line” tickets usually sell out a few days before.
Your Roma Pass will be useless here, unless you want to buy the more expensive 90+ euro Omnia Pass.
FYI, this is also the only way to see the Sistine Chapel. Vatican City’s other main sight, St. Peter’s Basilica, is free to enter and you can see it via a separate entrance along the eastern end of the complex (more on that later)>
Once inside the Vatican Museums, it’s another madhouse figuring out where to go. Just get through security and head upstairs to get your tickets,
The Vatican Museums complex is designed in a linear fashion: you only have one path to follow. And eventually, if you don’t screw it up, you’ll end up through its famous corridors:
Eventually you’ll hit a stairwell that becomes a bottleneck for the mass of people trying to get downstairs to see the interior of the Sistine Chapel:
Head downstairs, look up, and prepare to stare dumbfounded at Michelangelo’s masterpiece that took him over 4 years to complete. If you’re lucky, the guards will be too preoccupied with crowd control to notice if you’re taking a few photos (they usually yell at you every 2 seconds):
But don’t be too obvious with your amateur photographing, because now it’s nearly impossible to get the Sistine Chapel from this angle:
After departing the chapel, you’ll end up back in the main upstairs lobby of the Vatican Museums, where you can either choose stroll amongst the Vatican City Gardens, take the all-day train around the city, eat in the café/cafeteria, send off a postcard, or head out down towards the exit via its famous spiral staircase:
When you’re leaving the Vatican Museums, you end up back out on the streets of Rome as if the Holy See just unceremoniously kicked you out of their country.
Well, not to fear, a 5 minute walk around the corner to its eastern entrance towards Saint Peters Square and Basilica will bring you right back inside:
Once you pass through the open archways, you’re back in Vatican City.
Meander around this gorgeous plaza that’s (no surprise) also designed by Bernini.
To get inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, aka the world’s largest church by area, length, and volume, be prepared to wait in another line:
Eventually, you’ll go through another round of security checks and then are given the option either to roam for free around the ground levels of the Basilica, or pay 6 euros to climb to the top of its Dome to get views over Vatican City and the rest of Rome.
You can pay another extra 2 euros to take an elevator and skip the first 200 steps (or which there are 500 total). The elevator will directly take you to the first rest stop, which is an elevated balcony that looks down the interior of the basilica:
Keep climbing up from here but take extra care if you get claustrophobic:
Eventually after the 504th step, you’ll make it outside:
Squint a bit looking east and you can make out the Colosseum peeking out to the right behind the Altar Of The Fatherland:
Then head back downstairs to explore the interior of the actual basilica itself, which is so large you can fit the Statue of Liberty inside here, sideways or standing up, and still have enough room left over.
Don’t forget to glimpse The Pietá by Michelangelo before you leave:
Afterwards, head back out east to exit Vatican City. If you keep along Via dei Corridori, you’ll reach Castel Sant’Angelo aka the Mausoleum of Hadrian.
Although this structure isn’t technically a part of the Vatican City, it became the Pope’s chosen refuge to which he could escape via an underground tunnel if the Holy See were ever to be under siege (as it was during the Sack of Rome in 1523). Its ramparts are also where the eponymous heroine of Puccini’s Tosca (spoiler alert)…leaps to her death.
But you can also come here for the great views:
Tomorrow: Italy’s other lesser-known microstate — San Marino!
- At time of posting in Vatican City, it was 18 °C -
Humidity: 73% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
When I was in Italy last, I thought it was odd to have spent a week there and yet never set foot in Rome. So when I discovered a free flight there thanks to an abundance of Chase Sapphire miles (an overview on how it works here: Chase Sapphire Preferred), I supposed this would be a good time to finally go.
For the longest time I’ve been wary of writing an entry on Rome and still doing right by it. With over 930 churches, countless attractions, and limitless secrets, this is no easy place to monsoon. But alas, any travel challenge is a challenge worth accepting, and if you only happen to have a weekend here, how does one make the most of “The Eternal City” that has survived over 3000 years? (and if I’m to be really honest, this is definitely more a place to live in and explore over months, instead of a place to “monsoon” in a weekend…but some of us beggars can’t be choosers, can we?)
So if you really are to have only a weekend in Rome and have no other choice but to make the most of it, here goes: You’ll likely will be arriving at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO). From here, the best way to get into Rome is by an hourly nonstop train from the airport to Rome’s main Termini train station. The ride costs 13 euros and tickets are easy to get from the automatic kiosks once you step out of arrivals; just make sure you get those tickets stamped by the green machines to your right before boarding.
The ride takes about 25 minutes nonstop.
Once you arrive at Temini, you can head onwards to other parts of the country, get on the metro to other parts of the city, or walk to your accommodations in the neighborhood, of which there are plenty.
I decided to get a Roma Pass here at Termini’s Tourist Booth, which for 38.50 euros and the next 72 hours, will cover unlimited metro and bus fares, free admission to the first 2 museums (including the Colosseum and Palatine Hill) that you visit as well as discounts for for any subsequent museum in Rome. It also acts as a “flash pass”, allowing you the skip the 1-2 hour wait in line to get into the Colosseum if you happen to go midday. Be forewarned, if you buy the Roma Pass online, you have to wait exactly 24 hours for the pass to be available for pickup. No refunds!
The first sight you can see that’s closest to the Termini Train Station are the Baths of Diocletian complex, the largest known imperial baths of the Roman Empire.
The complex can be accessed either directly from the northeastern sidewalk of Piazza della Repubblica (this took me awhile to figure out as I walked all the way around the baths and eventually accessing them through an unguarded backdoor of the church), or the adjoining Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri that has been built over the ruins:
Although there is an admission fee to access the baths’ museum complex, security at the time was minimal and nobody was checking anyone’s tickets.
The remnants of the actual bathhouses still remain impressive:
Exiting from the bathhouses back onto Piazza della Repubblica, take appreciation of the overkill that is Eataly in Italy:
…and walk northwest along Bia Bittorio Emanuele Orlando to reach the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria. It’s the small little corner building across the street from this:
Inside this nondescript building is an impressive interior:
…but what it’s really known for is being the home to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which is considered one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque.
After spending a few minutes here, walk more northwest along Via Leonida Bissolati and make a left to take a nice stroll along leafy and elegant Via Veneto, which was featured heavily in the film La Dolce Vita:
At the southern end of Via Veneto will be Piazza Barberini, notable for Bernin’s Triton Fountain:
From here at the Bernini Metro Station, take the Metro A line (Orange) 3 stops south (towards Anagina) to Vittorio Emanuele.
After exiting the metro, head west towards Parco Del Colle Oppio, pass by the ruins of Terme di Traino, where remains of Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s grand 3-floor villa, should be on your right.
If you face south and walk on, you’ll come upon the Colosseum, the ultimate symbol of imperial Rome and the largest amphitheater ever constructed.
Just as how crowds up to 80,000 strong had gathered then for gladiator games, the size of the crowds now are nearly as unbearable; lines can take up to 1-2 hours to get in! But thanks to the aforementioned Roma Pass, I was fortunate to discover there is a dedicated “flash pass” entry for Roma Pass holders in the “Group Entrance” area, allowing one to skip such a wait.
To give you an idea, the Roma Pass line is on the left, and the regular line to get in is on the right:
Once inside, head upstairs:
The seats are gone, but left a section intact to give you an idea of what it’s supposed to look like:
In my opinion, the views from the bottom floor are better:
You can stay as little as 20 minutes or up to an hour here depending how interested you are in Roman history (and/or how long you spent to get inside).
After the Colosseum, walk northwest towards Palatine Hill and it’s the same ticket as the Colosseum’s to get inside the complex: This is where the original settlement of Rome was founded, which eventually developed to become the famed capital city of the Roman Empire and arguably the most powerful and influential city of the ancient Western World. This is Old Rome.
You can get an amazing view over Old Rome by climbing up the steps to get to Domus Tiberiana or Capitoline Hill/Campidoglio.
After you’re done exploring Old Rome, exit northeast to Piazza Venezia to get a great view of Altar of the Fatherland, a grand marble temple honoring Italy’s first king and its soldiers of World War I.
From here walk north on VIa del Corso and then east on Via del Seminario to the Pantheon, the iconic temple built in the 2nd century AD known for being constructed with a big gaping hole in the ceiling and for housing the tomb of Rafael.
About that hole in the ceiling? It’s called The Oculus and was actually brilliantly designed so that the interior of the temple only receives natural lighting.
“But what happens if it rains?” — said everyone, ever.
The bio”physics” behind it is that most light rain would evaporate considering the amount of body heat that people would give off inside. That’s why there’s a saying: “It never rains in the Pantheon” (It’s not really true).
But if you really insist on asking “But what if there was a huge rainstorm?”
Why, a simply drainage system:
And with the Pantheon as your central point, you have a few options. To your west is Piazza Navona (which immaculate fountain is also designed by Bernini)…
….Campo de’ Fiori (Rome’s largest outdoor food market and the site of many executions, which explains why remarkably there’s no churches here)…
(go early as it clears out within an hour by dusk)
…and Via Giulia, which is a pleasant cobblestoned road lined with hundreds of old palaces:
And to the east of the Pantheon is the Colosseums’ rival in terms of tourist traffic: Trevi Fountain (be careful of the immense crowds!)
To make the proper wish here and so you don’t get cursed with being loveless for the rest of your life, throw your coin with your right hand crossing over the left shoulder, and with the fountain behind you.
Then from the Trevi Fountain, walk north to Piazza di Spagna. This square is famous for being the home to the Spanish Steps, which was the backdrop to Audrey Hepburn’s film “Roman Holiday.”
A block away from the steps along Via dei Condotti is Palazzo Malta, one of 2 headquarters for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — the world’s only sovereign entity that lacks actual territory. That means it functions like a country in that it has embassies around the world, maintains diplomatic relations with 107 other countries, enjoys United Nations permanent observer status (a status that countries like Vietnam, North Korea, Austria, Bangladesh, etc. all held before they joined the UN), enters into treaties, and issues its own passports, coins, and postage stamps.
Retrace your steps back to the Spanish Steps and walk more north along Via del Babuino to reach Piazza del Popolo (the “People’s Square”):
And that’s it! You’ve completed an epic walking tour of all that we thought was worth seeing for a beginner’s guide to Rome west of the Tiber River.
And when night starts to fall, consider either taking a pasta cooking class. . .
. . . or check out the same sights you just saw but when they’re lit up at night, such as the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore:
. . . . or swing by Trastevere: Rome’s equivalent of NYC’s east village neighborhood. If you do decide to cross the river to get here, its central gathering place would be Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastvere:
Be prepared to lose yourself among the throngs of hungry locals and tourists, all looking to choose from the countless great food options littered among the streets here:
Tomorrow: Vatican City!
- At time of posting in Rome, Italy, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, sunshowers