Update: I originally posted this in 2018 but I've updated in 2022 following another visit
Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals *****
Known as the Eternal City, the Capital of the World and the first ever large metropolis, Rome as a city is almost unparalleled in terms of its history and impact on the western world.
I decided to spend a few days discovering the history and story of the city with tips from locals born and raised in the city and found Rome to be one of my favourite cities that I have visited - both as a general traveller, and as a Sikh.
The Eternal City
According to the Romans, the city was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, who together with his twin brother Remus were raised by a she-wolf. According to legend, Romulus killed his brother after an argument and took his place as the first King of Rome, with the city named after him.
Although it's highly unlikely that this legend is true (evidence suggests the city may have been founded earlier as a conglomeration of closely located villages), it sums up the city beautifully - a city so old that it has given birth to so many stories and legends.
Every school in England teaches the history of the Roman Empire, its evolution from a small monarchy governing the city of Rome, to a Republic that slowly took over the Italian peninsula, to an Empire that ruled western Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. During this period, the city acquired immense riches and knowledge from all corners of its Empire, and for half a millennia became the largest and (from a western perspective) most important city in the world.
Following the fall of the western Roman Empire, the city was sacked on several occasions, its population falling rapidly as the seat of government was moved to Constantinople and then Ravenna following the permanent split of the western and eastern empires. For the next 1,000 years, the city was ruled by northern Europeans, Lombards, Greeks (Byzantines) and finally the Bishop of Rome as the capital of the Papal States.
It wasn't until the 15th century that some measure of peace returned to Rome and the city was able to grow and prosper. The Popes looked to build Rome as a centre of art and culture and began a uniform reconstruction of the city which led to Rome taking the mantle of leading Renaissance city from Florence. This era coincided with some of Rome's best known landmarks that are still in use today.
Following the unification of Italy, Rome was designated the capital of Italy, although its position as capital of the Papal State meant that it was taken with a little force, and a lot of embarrassment, by the Italian revolutionaries from Pope Pius IX. The city escaped relatively unscathed from the Second World War, despite being a part of the losing Axis Powers and grew rapidly in the post war period.
Today the city is home to almost 3 million inhabitants, the most populated city in Italy and the third most visited city in the European Union.
I stayed near Piazza del Popolo at the northern end of the city. It was a great area to stay in as it is within walking distance of all the major Roman landmarks, and at £35 a night, the room that I was staying at Popolo Rooms and Suites was also priced competitively.
The Popolo Square is a very large space with an Egyptian Obelisk placed in the centre. The Romans took many artefacts from Egypt after conquering the country and there are a number of obelisks around the city. The square usually has a variety of entertainers with crowds of people around them as you find in most major cities, but close to the square is the Villa Borghese, a large park with landmarks and museums in the area. It's a really nice park, if a little empty and sparse in places, not as busy or big as Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York. On the perimeter of the park, however, is Pincian Hill, which has a lookout point over Piazza del Popolo and with very good views over Rome.
I walked through this area a number of times, and the view is spectacular during both the day and in the evening, with the large number of domes dotted around the city all lit up.
Within the square is the Santa Maria in Popolo church, a place of worship that houses works by famous artists such as Raffael, Bramante and Caravaggio. I quite liked the small, intimate feel to the church, a big difference from some of the larger grander ones in the city.
A short walk from both the square and the park are the Spanish steps, Built in the early 18th century, the 135 steps link the Spanish embassy to the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. The steps are usually filled with people relaxing and watching the world go by, whilst entertainers usually set up at the base of the stairs. During my visit, the Christmas tree was still up and the view from behind the tree, in front of the Church looking down over the Spanish steps and Piazza di Spagna was very nice. Other than that, I'm not sure there is too much to say, if you don't visit the Spanish steps, honestly, I don't think you miss out on too much.
One landmark definitely worth visiting is the Trevi fountain, again a short walking distance from the Spanish steps. Another product of the 18th century, the almost 27 metre high and 160 metre wide fountain is large in both imagination and scale. Tourists throw coins into the fountain (right hand over the left shoulder) to bring them luck, but with almost €3,000 being thrown into the fountain a day, the only ones that get the luck are those cleaning the coins from the pool by the looks of it. During my second visit I learned that the coins are used to subsidise food at a supermarket for the homeless - so it turns out it isn't a bad thing at all.
I visited both during the day and evening, and I would recommend an evening visit when the fountain is lit up and the brilliant blue of the water is better visible. Considering the fountain is roughly 300 years old, it is in fantastic condition, and I wasn't surprised to hear that the last round of restoration occurred in 2015.
The Via del Corso is the central road that links the north of Rome to all of the major landmarks and contains mostly high end stores, similar to Oxford Street in London, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago (which you can read about here), and Orchard Street in Singapore (and you can read about that here). The road also has a lot of pastry shops, pizza stalls and gelato stores, the enticing fragrance of these reaching everyone on the pavement walking past.
Most people visit Rome due to its history, and so many of the city's landmarks are a reminder of Rome's glorious past.
The most famous landmark is the Colosseum. a first century stadium capable of holding up to 80,000 spectators and one of the largest structures of its time. The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre after the ruling dynasty that constructed the stadium, was used for gladiatorial contests, public performances, executions and the hunts of exotic animals. The stadium was only in use for a few hundred years, and following a series of earthquakes, much of the remaining structure was used by the inhabitants of Rome to rebuild the city. In fact, the Colosseum has spent far longer in ruins than it ever spent as venue in use.
Walking down the Via San Giovanni in Laterno, a long wide road with the Colosseum directly in front feels like you are walking to a football game. In fact the stadium in its design and shape reminded me of the Nou Camp and it doesn't take too much imagination to understand how it must have felt for spectators approaching the stadium during an event.
Standing next to the landmark gives you an idea of just how large it is, even in this day and age, and in its ruinous state, the sheer scale is impressive. The tickets are priced at €7 for EU citizens (€12 if you are non-EU) but during the day of my visit entry was free, therefore the queue was incredibly long. I paid €20 to skip the queue but also got a guided tour of both the Colosseum and the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill which was definitely worth it.
To enter the Colosseum, you have to pass through a metal detector and airport style security scanners. I faced absolutely no issues, you only need to put your electrical devices (mobile phones etc.) through the scanner and there is no need to remove watches or belts. Taking your salai in a pocket should be fine, although I left mine in the hotel.
The Colosseum on the inside is just as impressive, even if it's difficult to make out how it must have looked due to so much of the interior being missing. The centre of the stadium (which would have been covered) has the ruined walls of the rooms underground that would have housed materials, props and animals/people. The seats no longer exist, but in the middle ages, the middle of the stadium was converted into a church and remnants of this still remain.
There are almost 80 entrance points to the stadium (much like modern day stadia) and I walked through the Emperor's entrance, which was designed with more comfort and grandeur in mind, you can actually still make out some of the mosaics and frescos on the walls.
After an hour in the stadium I walked out in awe of the monumental structure that was built almost 2,000 years ago and still stands in some form to this day - it really speaks volumes for the design that went into it and the materials used. Not only would this building have been impressive 2 millennia ago, it's still incredibly impressive today!
The next stop was the Roman Forum. The forum is a rectangular plaza that is home to the ruins of some of the most important buildings in ancient Rome. In the heyday of the Roman Empire, the forum would have been the centre of the city. Just outside the forum proper is the Arch of Constantine, a 20 metre high arch built to celebrate military conquests in Judea in 315 AD and undoubtedly the inspiration for the large number of triumphant arches constructed around the world since.
Structures in the forum date back to the very beginnings of Rome, in fact one of the largest standing structures in the area is the Temple of Saturn that was constructed in the 5th century BC. The forum contains the administrative centre of ancient Rome and therefore also houses the Senate, various basilicas and marketplaces and other civil and religious buildings.
Walking through the ruins is a good way to get some sort of feeling of what life may have been like here 2,000 years ago, but without a doubt the best way to appreciate the Roman Forum is from atop of the nearby Palatine Hill. A short walk up the hill and through a small staircase takes you to a rooftop with an incredible view over the forum and the Colosseum in the distance - it may have been my favourite view of Rome and is definitely worth seeing.
One of the best preserved of all of ancient Rome's monuments is the Pantheon, a large domed building not far from the Roman Forum. Built by the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian in 125 AD, the building is in such a good state because it has been in almost continuous use since its construction, first as a Roman Temple, and then as a Christian Church. Looking at the large domed roof and the state of the current building, it is very difficult to believe just how old the building is. It's one of those landmarks that will stay with me for a long time.
Aventine Hill and the keyhole view
Rome is famous for its seven hills, and the Aventine Hill is the southernmost hill, a short 20 minute walk from the Roman Forum. I didn't actually think that the view from the hill itself was anything special, and certainly not as good as the views from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Palatine Hill or Pincian Hill but the visit is worth it for one special attraction.
Just a short walk from the viewpoint of the hill is a small church called Santa Maria del Priorato that holds a little secret. The keyhole to the door of the church has a magnificent view of St. Peter's Basilica, perfectly framed by a garden. If my phone was capable of taking a half decent picture I would have shared it, The secret isn't that well kept though, when I got to the door, there was a short queue of people, all waiting their turn to get a view.
Not all of Rome is beautiful. Locals in particular detest the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), a relatively recent addition to the city that towers over Rome and is an architectural punch in the face. Completed in 1925, the only redeeming feature of the building is the view from the inside. One side gives a view over the Via del Corso to the north of the city, whilst from the southern view it has a great panoramic view of the Roman Forum and Colosseum. For a small fee of €7 you can take a lift to the very top of the building, but having seen the view from roughly three quarters of the way up, I figured the value add from the extra height was probably not worth the investment.
Another negative is the transport system. Buses are almost non-existent and the metro system is fairly small. Trains are old and dirty (although better than Paris) and the stations that house them are smelly, leaky and dilapidated. That being said, for €1.50 per ride, they are cheaper than using the London Underground - but the city is so walkable, especially if you are visiting, that I only ever took one journey on the metro - and that was purely to review it.
Trastevere and long walks
I've always said that the best way to see a city is by walking, and during my four days in Rome, I averaged roughly 13 miles a day. In fact, there is so much to see, I cut down my meals to just one a day so I could keep moving, perhaps not the smartest thing!
I walked through every area of central Rome, from Popolo in the north, through the central road, Via del Corso, to the Aventine Hill in the south, Rome Termini in the east and the Vatican and Trastevere in the west.
Perhaps my favourite walk was to the east of the city centre, directly next to Tiber River. The walk along the Via del Coronari and Via Giulia is particularly nice - these small narrow streets are lined with vendors and small shops selling all manner of goods. In the evening and night they have lights strung across the buildings and it all feels, for a lack of better word, slightly magical.
The area is also home to the gigantic Castel Sant Angelo, the square at Piazza Navona and the beautiful marketplace of Campo de Fiori, the latter of which was a personal favourite of mine during one of my long excursions. The market was bustling with activity and although the fruits and vegetables are expensive, the stall stay busy with buyers and sellers. The Chiostro del Bramante is a small church located near the Via del Coronari that houses a fresco by the famous Renaissance artist, Raffael, and also has a small gallery adjoining the building. The church, unlike some of the others, was very quiet and worth a visit.
On the other side of the River Tiber is the area of Trastevere, the Shoreditch or East Village of Rome. The area, as with its equivalents in London and New York, seems a little run down, but the narrow cobbled streets hide a multitude of gems, from small shops, to fantastic restaurants. The main landmark in the area is the Santa Maria in Trastevere church. The original building was constructed in 340 AD, and the facade of the church seems incredibly old. I arrived while there was a Mass service going on so I observed it for 20 minutes. The church was absolutely packed full of worshipers. The interior is decorated beautifully, again a lot of gold on the ceilings and walls.
Trastevere is also home to the best pizza I have ever tasted. A local friend of mine recommended a trip to Dar Poeta, a pizza place located in the neighbourhood and honestly, it overtook Grimaldi's in New York as the best pizza I have ever tasted - it even beat its Neapolitan cousins in the south that I visited a few days later. At €13, it wasn't the cheapest pizza that I ate, but it was definitely the best tasting. The base was sturdier than the pizzas I would taste in Naples, and the mix of cheese and tomato somehow just felt perfect. Unlike a few pizzerias in Naples that only allow margherita pizzas, Dar Poeta has a large menu, however, the general consensus is that extra toppings spoil the taste of a pure traditional pizza, and having tasted the margherita pizza here, I'd agree.
To be fair it's hard to go wrong with food in this area, there are so many highly rated restaurants around every corner that no matter where you decide to eat, it'll probably be a good decision.
During my second visit to Rome, I spent the majority of my stay in the Trastevere area which allowed me to better explore the area, as well as experience its vibe over several days. While it still feels similar to some of the more hipster places in London and New York, in many ways it is completely different. Outdoor dining and a culture of sitting outside and enjoying the company of others transforms Trastevere from a relatively quiet but architecturally beautiful part of the city during the day to an incredibly lively and busy part of the city at night. The streets are packed with people and it's almost impossible to get a table at a restaurant in the evening without a booking. Every maze-like cobblestoned passage comes to life with the laughter and conversation of a city that knows how to relax and enjoy themselves.
A city of unparalleled beauty and history
Rome is easily one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited, and I much prefer it to Paris (which you can read about here). Although once the largest city in the world, in the modern sense it is relatively small, especially compared to some of the global cities such as London, Tokyo and New York (which you can read about here). That being said, none of those cities have the history, architecture or uniform beauty (with the exceptions of Paris and Vienna) that Rome boasts.
As a Sikh, it was a great city to visit, although it doesn't have a community of Sikhs the size of northern towns and cities like Parma and Brescia. Other than a couple of curious stares, I had absolutely no problems getting around or seeing places. It's an incredibly safe city, as long as you are always aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for pickpockets.
Rome is a city that I would have no problem visiting again. Other than the museums in the neighbouring Vatican City (which you can read about here), I didn't visit any within Rome - primarily because the city itself is a museum. If I were to visit again, I would perhaps take some time to visit its museums. After spending most of the day walking from landmark to landmark, averaging 13 miles a day, I would definitely spend a follow up visit relaxing and really immersing myself in the city a little more.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.