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Rome: What We Liked and What We Didn’t

It is said that all roads lead to Rome. We decided to see for ourselves if the very good reputation of the “eternal city” is justified, so we spent a whole week to explore the capital of Italy. 15 million tourists arrive here every year, so it should be something exceptional, right?


How to Get to Rome

There are numerous flights to Rome from various Romanian cities. There are several airlines connecting Romania and Italy, carrying less tourists than Romanians who work abroad in the boot-shaped European country. From Cluj, the flight takes about 2 hours, and the local time zone in Italy is -1 hour than in our country. From the Ciampino airport, where low-cost airlines land, you have to change two buses to get to the capital city. A ticked valid for 100 minutes on all public transportation lines costs €1.5. It’s much cheaper than the airport shuttle bus, that charges €5.

We bought a one-week subscription on all public transportation lines from the ticket machine at the airport, for only €24 each, which was very useful to us. The validity ends at midnight on the 7th day, not after exactly seven days since it was first activated, as we would have expected. It is also valid in the metropolitan area, on the surface subway – so we got to go to Ostia too, without extra expenses.


Day 1: Bad Weather Upon Arrival in Italy

When we arrived in Rome it was almost dark outside and it was raining. The weather was worse than in Cluj, which rarely happens. After changing two buses, we ate something at McDonald’s that was on the way, bought some water and snacks from a supermarket and took the third bus towards the hotel. We booked accommodation in the western part of the city, not too close to the city center. Theoretically, it was a 3-star hotel, but practically, it was almost too modest even for two. It looked like it wasn’t renovated, neither inside or outside, probably since it was built, about half a century ago.

Although they were cleaning on a daily basis, there were acceptable services and good food in the morning for breakfast, the dirt accumulated over the decades of degradation of the building required more attention from the management and staff and much more thorough cleaning procedures. Besides, the room was quite cold during nighttime, the small radiators hardly faced the large room volume and the heat was on only for a few hours in the evening and a few in the morning.

The €5 we paid for the Swedish buffet in the morning turned out to be a very good investment, we would’ve hardly found something more than a small sandwich for that money in the city, and here we could choose from some types of sausage, cheese, yogurt, sweet pastry, juice, tea and coffee.

Day 2: Fontana di Trevi, the Center of Ancient Rome, the Orange Garden

The next day, we started visiting the most famous tourist attractions in the city. After long waits at the bus stops, which would happen every day for the rest of our stay, because the line passing by our hotel was less popular and the city traffic was infernal, we took the subway and from there arrived in the city center.

It has to be said that the public transportation buses are quite old, looking worse than those in Cluj. And the subway stations are miserable, those in Bucharest are luxurious compared to what we found here. The traffic is chaos, always crowded, lots of scooters and motorcycles that get in front of the cars, and almost all pedestrians cross illegally.

Di Trevi fountain, 250 years old, has a superb architecture and is for sure one of the places that should not be missed in Rome. Unfortunately, there are always hundreds or even thousands of tourists by the monument, you can hardly find an empty spot for a second to take a picture or even get close to it. In fact, this is a constant in the city: there are thousands of visitors everywhere, you always have the feeling that you are waiting in a queue, and we were there way off-season, at the beginning of December…

We passed by Trajan’s Column, which depicts the history of the battles between the Romans and the Dacians. The Muslim painting vendor in front of it was in a strange contrast with the history of the place. Then, we arrived in Venice Square, at the Altar of the Homeland, a monumental building dedicated to the Italian nation, built after the 19th century reunification. After a brief discussion with the gull on the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, we visited the Military Flag Museum.

Behind this building begins the old center of the Roman Empire, now called the Palatin Hill. Actually, it is a quite large area scattered with historical remains from antiquity, which can be visited by those who are passionate about that kind of relics. On the other side of this area is the Colosseum, the symbol of Rome, a huge stadium from ancient times, where the gladiator battles were held.

In addition to the huge number of tourists, the area is suffocated by barrow-men (especially persistent Pakistani people who want to sell you selfie sticks) and all sorts of strange characters who are putting on shows for money. The atmosphere has undoubtedly its charm, but at some point it gets tiring.

Then, we continued with Constantine’s Arch, the Claudia Apeduct, the Carcalla Baths and the Circus Maximus (a place where horse races were organized). The winter here looks quite weird, some trees have yellowed and fallen leaves, just like in our country, and some of them are green, blooming or even fruitful. It feels like you are in two different seasons simultaneously!

Further, we climbed up a hill passing by a park with roses that’s only open for a short period during springtime when the flowers are blooming. We were impressed by a scene where a large group of immigrants, many of them Muslims, were served food at the social canteen of a Catholic monastery. Arriving on the top of the hill, we finally found what we were looking for: the Orange Garden, a very nice public park with a beautiful panorama over the city and many fruitful trees – it was the citrus season when we visited.

After a short stroll along the Tiber river, we descended to the Trastevere neighborhood, where we ate lasagna, saltimbocca alla romana and drank wine. The place was a typical Italian restaurant, very small, family business… with a Romanian waitress. After dinner, we went back to the hotel, because although the weather was warmer than at home, it still was getting dark at about 5 pm, and you don’t have much to see in the evening unless you are fond of bars and clubs.

Day 3: On the seashore, in Ostia

Because we were close to the Tyrrhenian Sea (which is actually part of the Mediterranean), we couldn’t miss the opportunity to take a walk on its shoreline. From Rome to Ostia, which is the nearest town/resort to the Italian capital, the road takes less than an hour by subway. In fact, the train goes under the ground just in the city, then it comes out and it’s kind of a metropolitan train.

We arrived at Castello di Giulio II, where we got to pet some cats and then walked around a bit, among the old Italian rural houses. The castle was closed, and we chose not to visit the Ostia Archaeological Park because we weren’t interested to see some more ruins, so we took the train again and traveled to the end of the line.

We thought we could walk on the beach towards the center from here, having the impression that there was some kind of promenade trail along the sea. We were badly mistaken. In fact, it was just a sidewalk by the highway and it was impossible to get on the beach, because all the land was privately owned and closed to the public.

It should be noted that Ostia is the favorite playground of the Italian mafia from the capital, and that is why most of the venues here belong to them and different incidents happen here quite often. The day we arrived there were police filters everywhere and helicopters flying across the area.  It was just in the evening back at the hotel when we found out that a body was found on the beach and that a war between two mafia clans was about to begin.

After about two hours of walking on the road, seeing tens of restaurants and dubious terraces with large fences, most of them closed, we finally reached a place where we could enter the beach area. The pontoon (Pontile Di Ostia) is a good place to admire the sea and take pictures. We caught a quite beautiful sunset here.

The tourist harbor is also nice, but it was deserted at that time, and most of the venues were closed. The central area of the town has several pedestrian streets that look good, but the locality is still modest, far below our expectations for a resort near Rome.


Day 4: The Fleamarket, Piazza Navona and the Christmas Fair that didn‘t exist

So we’ve heard that there are several vintage markets in Rome. Being curious whether we could find interesting and cheap stuff, we arrived at such a place located near the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. Besides the same old junk you can find at the fleamarkets in our country, there was also a tone of „made in China” new merchandise, sold by very insistent African and Pakistani vendors. Do not hesitate to use your negotiating skills here, as you could get really big discounts, sometimes even over 80%, as the initial asking price is very high, especially for tourists.

Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano is a grandiose building pompously decorated inside. The nearby Lateranense Palace looks modest from the outside, and Sancta Scala didn’t impress us. Then, we decided to have a long walk through the city, passed through Giardini Nicola Calipari where we found lots of fellow Romanian citizens who come here to beg or to steal (they are easily recognizable in many places in the capital, actually).

Fontana di S. Maria Maggiore, the Colonna della pace and the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore were some of the places we liked. In addition to ancient vestiges, many of them being just ruins, medieval churches are the most interesting tourist attractions in Rome, most of them being in very good condition.

Teatro dell’Opera looks modest on the outside, but we heard that it is much more sumptuous inside. In fact, many Italian buildings are like this: the exterior is oftenly not renovated, but the interior is luxurious, a specific Italian contrast.

Then, we passed by the Chiesa di San Paolo Dentro le Mura, a small but nice church, then the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which has a beautiful architecture. Il Tempio di Adriano is a strange combination of an ancient building with a new construction.

The Pantheon is among the most important sights to visit in Rome. The building has been a temple for nearly 2000 years, first dedicated to the Roman pagan gods and then to the Christian God.

We then reached Navona Square, a place recommended in all travel guides. Before coming to Rome, we were thinking that it would be great to visit a Christmas Fair. Of course, northern European countries have the most exciting winter events, in Italy being too hot for it. But we did read on the Internet that there should be a beautiful Christmas market in this location.

But we weren’t that lucky. It was nothing in there, just a few street artists goofing around for some coins. A waiter from a local bar told us that the fair might open a few days later. We don’t know if we should believe him. The official schedule said it should be open from the first days of December.

The disappointment in the non-existent Christmas Fair ended in some emotional eating of too much pizza by slice, something very Italian, cheap and delicious. It’s a kind of fast-food, they make many kinds of pizza in huge griddles and then cut and sell as many and as big slices the client wants. The payment is usually by weight or by slice, if the slices are equal. They are really tasty, you can feel the difference made by original ingredients and spices.

After the big dinner, we walked on the semi-pedestrian streets in the area, looking at the hundreds of restaurants and boutiques, with lots of people inside. It’s strange and at the same time really beautiful to see Christmas decorations in palm trees, and to see people at the terraces enjoying ice-cream in winter.


Day 5: Parks and Nobiliary Palaces of Rome

After walking a lot amongst buildings and cars, we felt the need to have a day closer to nature. So we went to visit some nice parks of Rome, that were very green at this time of the year.

We started with Piazza del Popolo, an interesting place with large spaces and beautiful buildings. From here, there are steps that lead up to Terrazza del Pincio, from where there is a nice view of this part of the city. There are over 200 busts of various personalities that have marked the history of the city in the Passeggiata del Pincio Park.

Our walk continued through the park owned in the past by the Borghese family, the alleys leading us to a small lake with aquatic birds on it, and on the other side of the green area there is the Museo e Galleria Borghese, an art collection from XV-XVIII centuries, housed by the former villa of the nobiliary family.

After that, we walked on the Savoia family domain, where was the villa of the Italian king until the second World War. But we couldn’t really find the said villa and didn’t get to see the bunker built for the monarch, but we enjoyed walking on the paths of a sort of urban forest that led us to a nice lake, at the Parco di Villa Ada.

From here, we went by bus to another park, by the Villa Torlonia, the residence of the former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. There is a museum here which displays objects linked to the former leader, and also some other interesting buildings and monuments. This day ended in the Piazza Bologna area, which didn’t really impress us.


Day 6: The Vatican, the center of Catholicism

It was time to visit the kilometer zero of the Western religion: the Citadel of the Holy See. The Vatican is in theory an independent state, but in practice it is actually a mini-district of Rome, that is, a few buildings and a park, surrounded by an ancient wall.

Piazza San Pietro is accessible to everyone, here are held the open-air services on the occasion of various Christian holidays. The queues for entering the Basilica di San Pietro are immense, but they move fast enough. In fact, the blockage is related to the visitor security check, which is done like at the airport, to prevent terrorist incidents.

The church is the largest Christian worship place in the world. The interior arrangements are extraordinary, reflecting the exceptional wealth that this capital of spiritual empire has attracted over the centuries of domination over Europe. A great part of Rome can be seen from the tower. And it’s a real challenge to get up there: there are 551 steps, with really steep patches.

Vatican Museums contain a huge collection of extremely valuable works of art gathered in the last millennium. The spaces are very large, the wide corridors are filled with Romanesque statues, the magnificent domes are painted by the most famous Renaissance artists. The Sistine Chapel is just one of the many incredible places here. This epicenter of Western power and wealth is a must-see, at least once in life, by anyone who wants to understand the history of the globe.

Near the Vatican is Castel Sant’Angelo, another ancient redoubt that is worth exploring in detail. After a short stop on the bank of the Tiber, where we watched the fishermen and joggers on the banks, we entered the Santissima Trinità degli Spagnoli church for a bit to see an evening service for the Italian Catholics.

We ended our day with a walk in the Piazza di Spagna area, with lots of luxurious shops and extremely high prices. We saw there some clothing items that we wouldn’t wear even if we found them in thrift shops, they loked that horrible, but some people are paying thousands of euros for them. But, unlike most of the city, the streets in this part of Rome are better maintained, the venues and hotels being for the rich who aim to make a splash.


Day 7: Civitavecchia, the port of Rome

The next day we had the pleasure of seeing the sea again for the last time this year. After Ostia disappointed us, we decided to visit Civitavecchia, about which we’ve heard better things. There is a metropolitan train that takes you there too, but our subscription was not valid for this area. We found out about this only by being fined by the controller for not having the right tickets. The 60 km distance from Rome takes about an hour and a half.

Here, the beach is easily accessible to the public. We walked on the sand to Forte Michelangelo, a medieval fortress, and then explored the port, which is in full expansion. The cruise ships from all over the world stop here. Two millennia ago this was the place from where the Romans’ ships sailed to all corners of the empire.

We wandered through the city, which is really nice, much more quiet and well-arranged than what we saw in Italy in the past six days. Civitavecchia also has that Mediterranean air we found in Malta and Cyprus, we felt good here. The sea front is a very good place for promenade, and the terraces are irresistible. It’s worth coming here!


Day 8: Return home and our opinion

On the last day in Italy we did not have much time left to visit anything. We just walked through the Cornelia area, rested for a bit in Parco di Villa Carpegna and then changed 3 buses to the airport. The sun shining above the palm trees made us regret a little that we had to fly back to colder weather.

What can we say about Rome? We liked it, but it was below our expectations. It’s a city with a tremendous cultural treasure. There are thousands of monuments, buildings, works of art and archaeological remains built thousands of years ago by the ancestors of today’s inhabitants. Nowadays, there are many buildings with falling plaster, unkept spaces, more garbage than we have seen in the capital of our country, and also many exaggerated claims and high prices.

Yes, it is worth going to Rome, but do not expect it to be like in movies or in northern countries with a different culture. You will find here a mixture of beautiful and ugly, clean and dirty, culture and kitsch, good people and all kinds of profiteers, civilization and barbarism. Maybe it is normal to be so in the former capital of the greatest empire that the Earth has known. Perhaps this melange is a kind of average of all the influences that this city has had, for a long time considered the center of the world. Ciao!

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