My son Colin and I are back from our European Odyssey — a 10-day trip to Rome and Paris. Colin was brimming with confidence and knowledge after a term studying abroad in Greece and Florence. And I was happy to be back in these beautiful cities after 25 years. Traveling with a college kid is different (Early morning start times are not too popular; Pizza in Rome counts as a gourmet meal.) but we found a rhythm and shared interests for a fantastic five days in Rome.
We focused our sightseeing on Imperial and Renaissance Rome with a day trip to Pompeii. The exciting news is that Italy has a lot of new old stuff. The country has made a commitment to new excavations and museums over the last 25 years in both Rome and Pompeii. The result was a trip with plenty of classic sites (The Vatican, the Coliseum) and some fantastic new finds for me.
Below are some of the spots we loved, the tours we took and the resources we used:
The Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica
Colin had been studying the Renaissance all year and was very excited to see Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. I had a vague memory of a super crowded, noisy visit 30 years ago to see the masterwork before it had been cleaned and restored. ( “I don’t know, that may be The Creation of Adam. It’s just so dark I can’t really see.”) On the recommendation from a friend, we booked a Small Group Early Entrance Tour with Livitaly. The tour is 99 Euros* and well worth if if this is on your bucket list or you don’t want to stand in line for hours. (*I had a media rate but paid in full for Colin) Our guide Giulia was working towards her PhD in Egyptology and she did a fantastic job prepping us for the Sistine Chapel with a mini-slide show/art history lecture on her iPad as we waited for the early entrance. Then she lead us fearlessly through the doors at 8 am and we headed toward the Sistine Chapel before the rest of the tourists arrived. It was magical walking through the completely empty Hall of Maps to the relatively empty Sistine Chapel. You can see the paintings! You could feel the divinity! It wasn’t noisy! Then, we did some backtracking to see the highlights of the Museum, like the magnificent Raphael Rooms and the Greek statue known as the Laocoon, a highlight for my son.
Near the end of the tour, Giulia lead us out the back door of the Museum and into St. Peter’s without waiting in any lines. Honestly, I can’t even imagine making your way through the Vatican Museum on your own. Nothing about it is user-friendly and Giulia really knew her way around and provided her expertise to enhance our visit. At the end of our tour, Giulia pointed Colin towards the “Climb the Dome” line and I stayed in the Basilica and went to Mass.
Later that day, my son said, ‘Thank you for today, Mom, That was really special.” See what I mean? Worth it. Thanks, Livitaly.
The Churches: Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassada, San Luigi dei Francesi
We took a tip from New York’s Cardinal Dolan (Visit his great Rome posts here) and spent an afternoon wandering through these three churches to see the treasures inside, like Bernini’s Tomb ( SMM), Byzantine Mosaics (SP) and 3 magnificent Carvaggios (SLF). Say you can’t make it out to the Vatican– just sayin’– but want a little of the flavor of the magnificence, this trio of churches would give you the divine feels for free! Santa Maria Maggiore is spectacular, all the wow of St. Peter’s but smaller and easier to access. Lots of history, crypts, art and incense. (There is a security line at SMM). Santa Prassada is small, calm and contemplative. The Caravaggios at SLF, especially The Calling of St. Matthew below, were amongst my favorite discoveries on the trip. Thanks, Cardinal Dolan. Do drop a Euro in the collection baskets.
The Lesser Known Spots We Felt Like We Discovered
Mercati di Traianon
Museo dei Fori Imperiali
In English, Trajan’s Marketplace & the Forum Museum. Our accidental museum choice that turned out to be a winner. Armed with our new Rome Museum Pass, we were headed out to the Capitoline Museums and an uncrowded Forum entranced near the Trajan column we’d spotted on Sunday. But it was Monday and all of those sites were closed (wah, wah…) , so we ducked into the new-ish archaeological museum and it turned out to be a special stop. Built within the 2ndCentury AD walls of Emperor Trajan’s market, this museum was a little miracle: uncrowded, well-conceived and beautifully designed museum within the footprint and walls of the actual ancient marketplace. It felt like you were literally walking through history and in some parts of the site, we were, wandering down ancient streets with market stalls to the left and right. The exhibits themselves were choice, high quality statues and finds from the site. Plus, equipped with great bathrooms! (No Lines. Don’t laugh.) And some vending machines with food and beverages! It’s not a museum that makes the history easy; it definitely helps to know the timeline of Imperial Rome and be familiar with Trajan’s accomplishments like his mad building skills. But it makes for a wonderful start to the whole Forum and Coliseum experience. Note about the Forum & Coliseum: We followed the Forum and Coliseum Tour outlines in our book. (See sources below) The Rome Museum Museum Pass made it possible to skip the line at the Coliseum. We were at the Coliseum late in the day, a lovely time. Starting at this Museum, then walking through the Forum & ending at the Coliseum was a very satisfying day.
The Alter of Peace, dedicated in 9 CE to celebrate victory against the Gauls and serviced by the Vestal Virgins and animal sacrifices. Awesome. This ancient monument to Caesar Augustus is now wrapped in a modern building designed by American architect Richard Meier and the effect is simply stunning. A 2,000 year old alter — the first in Rome dedicated to a man and not a god– is a cool, clean spot to spend an afternoon. Watch the film first before examining the alter. It tells the story of Augustus, of the excavation of the alter 1500 years later and the building of the modern Museum. The Ares Pacis is a vivid reminder that every Empire can fade away and that even the sacred can end up buried in silt.
The National Museum of Rome
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
We went to this spot to see one thing only, the Boxer at Rest, a brilliant Hellensitic bronze statue of a battered, bruised boxer that could have been created today. It is considered an ancient masterpiece. (You can read this story from the NYT if you don’t believe me.) If we’d only walked into the room with the Boxer, the admission fee would have been worth it. The Boxer is stunning, but there was more! The newish museum is housed in a Palazzo that was gutted and re-purposed and I loved the murals and mosaics on the top floor as well. Warning: You will spend the rest of the day singing Simon & Garfunkle’s The Boxer to yourself. The entrance fee here also includes a trio of other nearby smaller museums like Diocletian Baths. For a full day that rivals the Vatican, pair with the nearby churches ( see above).
What an unexpected treasure this Palazzo turned out to be! The perfect post-Vatican follow-up that we read about in our Nat Geo book (see below) and added to our itinerary at the last minute. Love the murals in the Papal Apartments? Then head on over to the Villa Farensina! The murals of Rapheal and others minus the crowds, lines and frantic pace of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum. Drop dead gorgeous. Stunning. And very personal. Villa Farnesina, located in the Trastevere neighborhood, is considered one of the noblest and most harmonious creations of Italian Renaissance. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigito the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi. The interior is decorated with frescoes by Raphael Sanzio, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giovanni Bazzi known as il Sodoma, Giulio Romano, Giovan Francesco Penni, and Baldassarre Peruzzi himself. A delightful stop early in the day and then you can explore the shops, galleries, churches and restaurants in the nieghborhood that people consider “the Brooklyn of Rome.”
The 100% Creepy & Awesome
The Capuchin Crypt
On the Via Veneto. Our first stop in Rome because it was directly across the street from our hotel. And even in my fugue state after 24 hours of travel and no sleep, I knew this would be a winner for my son. I’d seen a mention in my Hidden Rome book, so when I spotted it across the street, I was in. He went to a Franciscan High School and what 20 year old isn’t interested in a basement full of bones. Holy Cow, was this thing creepy. And a crazy wonderful. We spent time in the museum beforehand because we’re Friar Fans. There is a sweet portrait of St. Francis by Caravaggio tucked into the Museum portion of the monastery. But the five crypts of human bones fashioned into artwork was the highlight. Plus, bonus for me, it wasn’t claustrophobic like the Catacombs. My son loved it so much, he went back to buy a t-shirt on our way out of town. No photos were allowed– but check out this website for a taste of the creepy and visiting information.
Lived up to The Hype!
Day Trip to Pompeii
After encouragement from several travel bloggers, we decided to try Pompeii as a day trip from Rome on our own via train. We took the high speed train from Roma Termini to Napoli and then the local from Napoli to Pompeii. (This post here has exact instructions. Do read first– as it’s confusing. Like the fact that there is Pompeii the Archaeological Site on one train line and Pompei The Town with One I on another.) We did our homework and bought our train tickets the day before for cheaper pricing and our Pompeii tickets at the site, not from the charlatans at the Pompeii train station. The guide provided by the site is complete– but a little hard to follow because a discrepancy between the map with street names and the descriptions with grid numbers. We supplemented the free guide with our Pompeii guide (See below) and followed their numbered tour with great success. We supplemented the book with info from Classicist Mary Beard. Here are her great tips for your visit. She literally wrote the book on Pompeii.
I can’t tell you how much we loved this site. We spent 5 hours here, unrushed and engaged. Once you get past the main entrance and Forum area, as Mary Beard suggests, many of the ancient streets are empty and evocative. We stopped for a late lunch at the cafe on site which was totally acceptable and enjoyed the late afternoon and early evening walking to the edge of Pompeii– the Amphitheater and beyond. The crowds disappeared after about 2 pm and the mid-May weather was glorious for us, 68 and sunny. But I have no doubt it is brutally hot in the summer. The site is huge and has been lightly restored, in the best possible way so as to evoke history, but not glamorize the ruins. Some of the blogs I’d read laid out a breakneck touring schedule with stops at Herculaneum and Naples on the same day. We thought we’d make Pompeii and the Museum in Napoli but because of some timing issues with the train, we did not get to the Museum which is highly recommended. (A cab ride from the Napoli train station.) We choose to spend a few extra hours on site in Pompeii and we’re glad we did. Excavations are ongoing and new areas open up periodically. Sunscreen, hat, comfortable shoes, water and a guide book are a must. Enjoy.
Inside Imperial Rome: From Lions to Gods and Pompeii & Herculaneum: In the Shadow of Vesuvius
Loved these books! They came recommended to us, so when I spotted them at our first stop at the Forum Museum, I picked them up. (5, 50 Euros and 8 Euros) FYI, I saw them at all the Museum gift shops. We used the Inside Imperial Rome book to enhance our tour of Trajan’s Market, the Forum and The Coliseum. The “Reconstruction Overlays” of Then & Now were so much fun to experience as we stood in front of a site like the Coliseum and tried to imagine what it would have looked like back in the day. Good maps, good archaeological detail and numbered tours that made sense at both sites. Now that I’m home, I’ve paged through the book a half dozen times to relive our trip.
The 500 Hidden Secrets of Rome
Fun to read. Organized by category, not neighborhood. Lots of insider information, like best vintage shops. But a little hard to cross-reference geographically—so you’ll need another book and a good map.
Walking Rome: The Best of the City from National Geographic
A fantasic little guide and a win-win. It’s from National Geographic and it’s written by well-known Rome food writer Katie Parla. (her website is also a great resource) We used this book every day and discovered one or two things with each reading.
The History of Rome by Mike Duncan
Yes, it’s a LOT of episodes. And it’s old skool, so the audio quality is just a guy in a room with a microphone. But pick and choose the episodes that speak to you. Well worth investing the time beforehand so you understand just how impressive Imperial Rome was.
The Tides of History by Patrick Wyman
More Rome and some Renaissance. Well-produced and written. Great storytelling and vivid imagery. Brings the Empire to life. Sets the stage in terms of politics, economics, daily life. Not an art historian.
ArtCurious by Jennifer Dasal
Glad I brushed up on my Renaissance knowledge with this wonderful podcast. Epsiodes like Rivals: Michaelangelo v. Rapheal provided great background for our museum visits.
Thanks for reading and sharing ll your insights with me before my travels. Want more details on our trip? Listen to this episode of my podcast Satellite Sisters. Click the arrow below.
Next week, Paris!
Ciao Ciao, Lian
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