Close your eyes, I ordered myself.
It seemed counterintuitive. My meanderings through Parco del Colle Opio had finally reached the grand finale. We had been walking through Carinae, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of ancient Rome. And, like all residences of great importance, it was a well placed plot of real estate.
So even though I had little idea where we were going, I wasn’t particularly surprised when we turned around a bend in the paved pathway and, rising before us out of the hodge-podge of antiquity and modern life, was the Flavian Amphitheater. Al Colosseo.
As soon as I saw it, I stopped. Close your eyes, I told myself, moving out of the pathway of tourists and locals alike. It was too easy to keep moving. Too easy to continue the march forward, until we reached victory. It was our first evening in the Eternal City, and we had a list a mile long. We didn’t have time to stop and absorb. So I stopped. And I absorbed.
Behind the darkness of my eyelids I imagined that the sounds around me did not belong to the twenty-first century. I imagined that the cars I heard belonged to carts and wagons, that the rolling Italian I heard around me was Latin. Inhaling deeply, I felt myself momentarily transformed, traveling through time to the days of the gladiators.
Exhaling slowly, I opened my eyes. With a sense of renewed calm and focus, I held out my hand.
Visiting Rome is an overwhelming experience. It’s a huge city, with modern buildings piled on top of ancient structures, a web of maze-like streets, and more to see than you could easily accomplish in a lifetime. It is also a beautiful city, full of culture and history and the rolling beauty of the Italian language.
Tara and I had three days to make the city ours. It was a whirlwind, and we left wishing that we had managed just one more day, as we so often do. During the time we did get, though, we managed to figure out a few tricks to making the most of your time in Rome, especially if that time is limited.
Making the Most of Rome: 5 Steps
1) Prepare Yourself
I’m a planner by nature, but I know some people cringe at the idea of planning a trip ahead of time. They like to show up and see where the wind takes them. If that’s the way you travel, that’s fantastic! I’m honestly a little envious of you. But when it comes to big cities that just have so much to do, I find that at least a bare bones outline of what you want to see is really helpful. This doesn’t have to be a long, detailed itinerary. It’s nice to know, though, that you absolutely must go to the Vatican City — which, in and of itself, will take an entire day. Figure out what you absolutely have to see so that you can structure your time around those places.
Of course, if you have limited time, that means that you need to…
2) Remind yourself that it’s okay if you don’t see everything
It’s easy to try and fit everything into one trip — more difficult to actually accomplish. If you only have a few days in Rome, figure out what you can save for your next trip. We had to skip out on exploring the Roman forum due to a lack of time, which was sort of a bummer, but now I have something that I can get excited about visiting next time. If I see all of the highlights in one trip, I’m less likely to return.
3) Buy an OMNIA Pass
We actually lost money in purchasing this pass; it’s more cost effective for people who are in Rome for a week or so. That being said, I would absolutely buy one again for the peace of mind it gave us. We may have spent a tiny bit more, but for us, the OMNIA pass was worth the money for its value.
The OMNIA pass gives you access to top tourist spots in Rome, as well as entrance into the Vatican City with fast pass entrance. Since we knew we had limited time, and we didn’t know how long the lines would be (long, we presumed, given that it was July), it made perfect sense to buy this card. At €95 it wasn’t cheap, but during our three days in Rome we used it to access public transportation, enter ruins such as the Colosseum, climb the steps of St. Peter’s, and more. Without the pass, the time we would have spent figuring out what to do and where to go, and then waiting in line to make it happen, would have made the entire experience less enjoyable.
TIP: If you’re not planning on visiting the Vatican City, go for the ROMA pass instead.
4) Take the time to absorb the places you do go
It would have been so easy for me to run up to the base of the Colosseum and check it off my bucket list and then keep on going. Instead, I stopped. I reflected. And by forcing myself to do this I was able to appreciate where I was more fully.
It’s true of any place you visit, but possible even more so for cities, which fast become overwhelming. The places we visit aren’t just arbitrary items on a list. They have meaning. They have depth. They have history. It’s worth taking a moment to explore that.
There’s a great Tedx Talk by Thomas Campbell about the narratives behind museum artifacts. Campbell’s particular area of expertise is in tapestries, and he reminds the audience that the artifacts museum goers hurry past are vastly more intricate than a passing glance will satisfy. Some of the tapestries are so intricate that they would take hours to pick apart. Most people barely scratch the surface. The same goes for many paintings or places of historical importance. Just take a look at the detail in the Room of Maps at the Vatican City Museums.
We owe it to ourselves to take the time to absorb the stories of these ancient places, as much as time allows.
5) Hit the highlights, but explore the nooks and crannies too
Getting lost is often the best thing that can happen to a traveler. When Tara and I visited Rome we accidentally left the map in the hotel room several times. On each occasion we stumbled across unique alleyways and shops that we otherwise never would have seen. On one occasion, we hunted out the less popular Campo de’ Fiori, south of Piazza Navona. It’s unique in that it is the only square in Rome that doesn’t have a church in it. Instead, it has a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was executed by the church for heresy. The statue depicts him glaring in the direction of the Vatican City.
In getting lost several times, we also managed to find some spectacular hidden spots that were devoid of tourists. Given the opportunity to slow down a little, we were able to appreciate a more authentic Rome, and to soak in the beauty of the Eternal City.