We arrived at Italy’s international airport, Fiumicino, during the early hours of a spring Friday morning. Wired and tired after a 13-hour flight from Cape Town, South Africa, via Ethiopia.
Our expectations of an ancient city with cobbled street, crumbling monuments, elaborate fountains and crazy vespa-filled traffic circles would soon come to pass. Once we had collected our luggage, we hastily exited the terminal to find any road that, as the popular idiom promises, would lead us to Rome.
The signage at Fiumicino is outstanding. The clear, colour-coded, multilingual signage lead us to our first road: the public transport terminal. From here you can travel cross-country or grab a 30-minute bus ride to Rome.
We opted for one of four competitively priced public buses that run every twenty minutes from Fiumicino to Rome’s central bus and train terminal: Termini. The bus was clean, comfortable and affordable, with a single one way ticket costing about five euros. The half an hour journey concluded with the pair of us exhaustedly clambering out of the multinational bus and into the centre of Rome.
After a much-needed midday nap, we set out to hit the city hard. Our nap and hotel coffee fuelled us with enough energy to walk the city’s many sights on the first day. Without planning or feeling it, come sundown we had covered thirteen kilometres on foot.
Highlights of the cliche touristy sites
Home of the Pope and Saint Peter’s Basilica, this is the centre of authority over the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican City was declared independent from the rest of Italy on 11 February, 1929. On a not-so-serious note, we spent our time there re-creating the scene from the movie Eurotrip and drinking from the fountain.
The Pantheon is an extremely interesting building and one of the architectural masterpieces of Rome. The circular building has the same diameter as its height: 43.5 metres. The dome, which has the same diameter, is bigger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica and at its top there is a nine-metre diameter opening which allows natural light to stream in. It’s free to enter (even though there might be a long queue outside) and every six minutes an automated voice announces in multiple languages that you must be silent.
The Trevi Fountain
The famous one from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. You might not know Fellini (Italian film director from the 60s), but you might know the fountain scene from La Dolce Vita. We struggled through a five-row-deep crowd for that gotta-have selfie.
TIP: Visit this site, and any other popular attraction like this as early as you can. We visited it twice. The difference from 4pm to 9pm meant we could actually sit at the fountain and take in the architecture (as well as people watch all of the wondrous selfie-takers).
There are plenty churches and basilicas to visit in Rome, just remember to dress appropriately.
The Spanish steps
The 18th-century marble steps connects Piazza di Spagna and the Church of Trinità dei Monti. It is one of the most famous parts of Rome but as of August 2019, it is illegal to sit on the Spanish steps. If you do, you might walk away with a 250-euro fine. The flowers are pretty but, in my opinion, the spot is overrated.
The Mouth of Truth
Our hands are still intact.
This is worth the visit for sure. It is unfathomable – both the engineering and the age of the building. If you want to go inside, pre-book your tickets and save yourself a chunk of time to wait in the queue.
The Roman Forum
Think Game of Thrones. This used to be the ancient city centre – the main hub where several important government buildings could be found.
The park, Villa Borghese
Villa Borghese never featured during our pre-trip planning and is heavily underrated. We spent an afternoon wandering around its immaculate gardens, watching genuinely happy people picnic, go kart, horse ride, exercise and making the most of la dolce vita. It was truly a highlight. Perhaps because we winged it. Perhaps because it is a truly large, happy and nature-filled garden.
During our stay, we bought most of our food from elusive grocery stores. We still do not fully understand where the locals buy their food. The sparse stores are well stocked and are the most affordable way to stay fed during a visit to the capital.
We feasted on amazing salads that had some combination of the Mediterranean basics: sun dried tomatoes, pickled mushrooms, olives, peppers, artichokes (Oh the artichokes! Worth every hard-earned penny) and aubergines. For less than eight euros we got two hefty salads and a litre of local red wine.
With post-meal pot bellies, we scoffed at other tourists being taking for a ride at inflated restaurant prices.
If salads aren’t your thing, try the market at Termini where you are able to fill up on Arancini or pizza cut to order and paid for by slice size. To round off your appetite with something sweet, do yourself a favour and have a competitively priced, high quality, well reviewed gelato at Gelateria da Costanza. Enjoy the view whilst doing so. You will know it when you see it.
We didn’t expect to enjoy Rome as much as we did. With its history, functional infrastructure, snagless buildings, hand-gesturing locals and deep-rooted culture, we can understand why, for so many centuries, Rome has been considered the centre of the world.
We hope that one day your road will lead you there.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- The city has an underground train network that is easy to navigate, however make sure that you are always in the possession of a couple of euro coins. Some public services, or even cafes, do not accept notes or cards. We didn’t make use of the buses or of taxis as they are few and far between – a pity since buses generally provide a greater perspective of the city than subways.
- During our three day visit, we stayed at two family-run hotels within five minute walking distance of Termini. The accommodation was easy enough to locate using a pre-downloaded offline Google map. Both accommodations were value for money and pleasant enough that they met our basic living requirements: clean, friendly, well-located, safe, quiet, available WiFi and quirky.
- Be prepared that a small four euro per person per night, city tax, may not appear on your booking reservation. This tax can only be settled in cash, either on arrival or departure. Depending on the time of the year, it is not necessary to book in advance. We generally will book the first nights accommodation close to the main transport terminal, scout the areas the following day for better opportunities and relocate if required. We did just that.
- We never had to purchase or carry water with us. Rome has millenia-old Roman fountains that continuously spill out sweet natural mineral water. Both the fountain and tap water, is safe and loved by both fellow humans and canines alike (there are ankle-level fountains for furry friends)
- The terrain is generally flat and, apart from a concerning litter problem, the city is safe and awe-inspiring. I recommend exploring it on foot.
Need more tips for travelling to Italy? Read this article by Go & Travel contributor, Ben Carson.