One of the top 25 travel destinations in the world according to Trip Advisor, Italy has been on my travel list for years. Although I still have a lot more to see of the country, last year I finally had a chance to visit Rome and Abruzzo, giving me a taste of both a big city and the countryside.
Known for its history, breathtaking architecture, and delicious food, it certainly didn’t disappoint. And, while I deeply appreciate art and history, the foodie in me couldn’t get over the freshly made Ragu, the simplicity of the ingredients in every meal, the leisurely pace between each course and the charming, cozy restaurants that all made for an unforgettable experience. My favorite dish by far was the bucatini all’amatriciana, which is a spicy tomato sauce over spaghetti. Since I love spice, I always asked for pepperoncini (the generic Italian word for hot chili peppers) on the side and one server even brought me whole chilies with a pair of scissors. Delicious!
The capital of Italy is everything you’d imagine – the beautiful buildings, adorable little shops and marketplaces lined with cafes and restaurants where people sit around, order a beverage and catch up with friends and family, and much more. We did a mix of touristy and local things while we were in Rome, but the local places provided a richer experience.
Though a beautiful place to hang out, the Piazza Navona was lined with tourist traps – restaurants and vendors looking to make money off of foreigners – so we explored deep into one of the adjoining alleyways and stumbled into this little treasure.
Osteria Del Gallo was tucked away in a corner and we would have never found it had we not tried to get away from some noisy street performers at a restaurant on the other side of it. With only a few small tables inside and outside, the restaurant was tiny, but the ambience and the food were up to the mark. I had bucatini all’amatriciana and tiramisu for dessert.
Upon a recommendation by one of our friends we also tried out a local pizzeria near Trastevere called, Pizzeria Ai Marmi (the address is: Viale Trastever 53, 00153 Rome, Italy). It’s not a fancy place, but they serve Roman-style, thin crust pizza which is delicious – especially the Margherita.
We had also booked a food tour in advance with Antonia from Gourmetaly, who was such a delightful personality. She knew her food and local restaurants well and you could tell how passionate she was about it because her mouth watered when she described some of her favorite places. We did the ‘luxury dinner’ tour, which was at a family-run restaurant behind the Pantheon. It started in an underground, private cellar, where we had a wine tasting, and ended with a tasting of the specials upstairs in the main restaurant.
The Colosseum in all its grandeur is certainly a site to see, but I recommend getting a tour guide to take you through it. If you plan early and book online, you can avoid some of the long lines, but if you arrive there and book a guide on the spot it’s not too bad since the lines do move quickly. Be prepared to be standing around a lot as there’s no place to sit and the tour is about three hours long. It covers the who, what and why of the structure, as well as details about the entertainment and shows that took place in the 80,000-seat amphitheater. To think this massive structure was built by men in 72 A.D. and it still stands (most of it anyway) is remarkable.
Unfortunately, the Spanish steps were under construction when we visited, but the square itself is pretty. There are men selling flowers (watch out, they’ll offer a lady a rose for free and then come back and ask the man if he would pay a small price for that smile on her face!), people eating gelato as they walk around the cobblestone streets, and small stores selling international brands and local wares.
Although the Trevi Fountain was heavily crowded with tourists, it was certainly a gorgeous work of art to look at. We went during mid-day, but I later found out that getting there early morning is probably the best way to enjoy it as it’s less crowded at that time. The story goes, if you toss a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand into the fountain, you will more than likely return to Italy in the future. I believe some 3000 Euro is thrown in by tourists every day, though it’s illegal to take the money out of the fountain, so don’t try it!
The Pantheon, is one of the most well-preserved buildings in Rome. The oculus, an opening in the dome ceiling, allows water in when it rains and it’s typically closed to the public at that time. Luckily it was a gorgeous day when we went, so I got some neat shots of it.
The Piazza Navona was by far our favorite spot, and we came back a number of times to hang out and soak up the atmosphere around Fontana dei Fiumi. In my opinion, the tourist restaurants right on the Piazza are not worth going to, unless you don’t care about the quality of food and ambience. But as I mentioned before, walking through some of the alleyways around the square you’ll stumble into the best places serving the most delicious homemade food. The trick is to avoid the restaurants that have waitresses and waiters standing outside urging you to come in – those are the touristy restaurants and the experience doesn’t feel as authentic.
Just across the Tiber River to the East, Trastevere is one of the coolest neighborhoods in Rome. Known as more of a hipster locale, in the summer it plays host to a street fair of sorts just along the banks of the river. Lined with various pop-up pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as stalls selling pastries, clothing, bags, belts, shoes and various souvenirs, it feels festive and was a cool spot on a hot summer evening.
Vatican City, the smallest country in the world with a population of 800 people consists of The Vatican Museums, housing ancient Roman sculptures, the Sistine Chapel, which holds Michaelangelo’s famous ceiling mural, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Every part is a work of art.
When I got to The Borghese Gallery, I’ll admit I thought it was going to be a boring tour of paintings, but our guide, a British guy named Alex, was so knowledgeable having studied the art and the artists, that he brought the sculptures and paintings to life with his stories on each.
The museum used to be a mansion that belonged to the Borghese family, who only ever used it to entertain guests they were trying to impress, so they never lived there, but they decorated it with lots of grandeur.
All in all this was one of the better trips I’ve been on because there was so much to see and experience, and we hadn’t even scratched the surface. If you haven’t already, it’s worth crossing Rome off your bucket list.
More about Abruzzo in my next post.