While the month leading up to Christmas can feel like a whirlwind, time seems to slow down with Christmas’ arrival. School is out, many adults are off work between Christmas and New Year’s; and in the UK, many local businesses close down completely, with the larger retail stores operating at reduced hours. It is a time for family and friends, and with the majority of our family and friends stateside we decided we would take a trip at Christmas to alleviate some of the nostalgia we may feel about not being home at Christmas for the first time in our lives.
We weren’t looking to be away for too long, or a trip that involved much planning (like renting a car, or multiple hotels), so we decided to stick with a European city; finally settled on the ‘eternal city:’ Rome. As we priced out our travel options in Rome we ended up purchasing a package airfare, hotel, & breakfast deal from Jet2 Holidays. Jet2 is one of the UK’s several low cost airlines and my in-laws had very positive reviews of their package holiday to Prague from October. We’ve found with the low cost airlines that you do need to have a little flexibility, they might not offer flights between your locations everyday. If they do, you may not have choices as to the time of the flights. And if it is a package deal, you may only have a few fixed length of stay options. But as it was Christmas we were a little more flexible than with the rest of our travels.
Getting to Rome from the Airport: The main airport for Rome is Fiumicino, which is a decent ways west of the city near the coast. There are a couple of options of getting to Rome from the airport which include a coach shuttle bus (operating on a set schedule and can take over an hour), regional train (30-45 minutes and takes you to Trastevere, Ostiense and Tuscolana stations, which works if you stay in those areas); but not surprisingly the fastest method (and the most expensive) is the direct train into Rome’s Termini Station at €14, which runs every 30 minutes and takes 30 minutes. [A taxi from the airport to Rome is about €48.]
Our hotel was two metro stops away from Termini station, which we decided to walk that evening. It was a pretty uneventful walk on a Sunday evening. The neighborhood looked to be mostly offices, which were closed, with a few restaurants and did have a little bit of a deserted feeling (probably due to Sunday, approach of Christmas, and non-residential) but that is a feeling I often got in the business areas of DC on weekday evenings. There was a lot of graffiti, but not in that unsafe sort of way, Rome is basically just covered in graffiti (we found some on St. Peter’s Basilica.)
After checking in at the hotel (which went flawlessly – and we didn’t even have to show our Jet2Holidays voucher). We decided to head out and do some evening sightseeing in Rome. As part of my research into things to do in Rome at Christmas I knew there was a Christmas market at the Piazza Navonna, so we headed in that direction. It was a clear night, so we decided to walk, even though it was further than our normal distance (but walking was something we were going to have to get used to in Rome).
Note on Public Transportation in Rome: While Rome is a city built on seven hills, it isn’t as hilly as San Francisco or Edinburgh and is fairly walk-able to many attractions. There are two subway lines (with a third under construction) that run about 4 minutes apart and also hit the major sites. The subway is the easiest (and most reliable) method for an newcomer to understand, but there is also a bus and tram system in the city that will get you around the Roman neighborhoods, rather than walking far distances. Tickets are €1.50 and are good on all methods of public transportation and allow for one transfer between forms of public transit. Tickets can be purchased from the machines in metro stations (use coins) or from Tabacchi (tobacco) stores. If you have jam-packed days planned there are 1 & 3 day transportation passes available.
The piazza was filled with stalls of food, fair type games, and small gifts ranging Despicable Me toys or the Italian folk tradition: la befana. La Befana is an old woman (or witch) who flies around on Twelfth Night (evening of January 5th) bringing gifts to children. The tradition derives from when the Three Wise Men stopped in a small village to ask for directions. They invited the women to go with them, she declined, also declining an invitation from a shepherd. Later that evening she saw the star in the sky and decide to visit bringing gift for the baby Jesus that belonged to her child that who died. Unfortunately she got lost along the way and never found the manger, but still flies around searching every evening on January 5th.
Note on Sightseeing in Rome: If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know of my love for all-included passes to a city’s attractions & transportation (see Dublin & Copenhagen posts). As well as how is it activates some dormant ‘scrimper gene’ in me to maximize my options into what often gets called a ‘death march’ by my companions. Rome does have it’s own pass at €34: Roma Pass. It give you free transportation, free admission to two museums, and then discounted admission to other museums; but it doesn’t include the Vatican. I opted not to purchase it for two reasons: 1) We only had two sightseeing day in Rome before things closed, knew we wanted to spend a good chunk of time at the Vatican, and I didn’t think I would be able to maximize the card. 2) Based on a quick read of the website the terms & conditions of the card seemed a little complicated with referencing getting two museums free (do you get to pick which ones? or is is just the first two you go to?, which might not be the most expensive and there for not the best deal). But I do think it is worth looking into if you plan to spend a full three days in Rome (not including the Vatican), and you may be staying further out from the city.
We spent the next day at the Vatican (it was Monday when the other museums in Rome are closed). Anticipating that that’s what the other travelers would do, I booked our tickets online and we had a 11am entry time; and when we got to the Vatican museum and saw the line we were glad we did. There is an expedited line that sends you to the ticketing area. We were about 20 minutes earlier than our official entry time, but the people in the ticket line didn’t say anything to us. [By the time we left the Vatican around 2pm the line was gone and you could get immediate entry, but I think that the Sistine Chapel closes around 4pm, so that should factor into your plans.]
Your ticket includes a map of the museum, but the corridors are pretty well marked in a loop with the Sistine Chapel as the highlight. The bulk of the museum’s collections are antiquities the Etruscans, Greece, and Rome and then the Renaissance works commissioned by the Church. If you plan of visiting the Vatican museums I would say you need at least two hours and could spend all day if you wanted; our visit was around 4 hours. The museum contains houses a sit-down restaurant, cafeteria, and pizzeria (a large slice and a bottle of water costs about €4.50).
In the part of the museum that house the antiquities we felt that there was plenty of space to walk around, but as you get closer to the Sistine Chapel the corridors seem to narrow and you start to feel more claustrophobic. We think that problem is exacerbated by the fact that as it got more crowded, guards would close off alcoves containing statues that could get bumped, corralling people into less space.
The Sistine Chapel is the Vatican’s jewel (but sometimes underwhelming to visitors, as it is much smaller than people expect) and the only place in the Vatican museum that doesn’t allow photography; and guards will swat a cellphone out of your hands if they see you holding one. But one thing I don’t think people should miss are the Borgia Apartments were Pope Alexander VI lived, and currently houses the Vatican’s collection of modern art by Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc.
I do consider a the Vatican museums a must visit, I think it is a must visit, but because it does get quite crowded I don’t know that I would pay to go back if I found myself in Rome again. The other things that I wished was part of the Vatican museums was a little more history of the Catholic Church itself. Why was it established in Rome? More history of various Pope’s.
Following the Vatican museum we walked along the Vatican’s walls to the entrance to St. Peter’s square to visit the Basilica. The Basilica is free to visit, and while there was a line halfway around the square, it moves fairly quickly and is just for the metal detectors at security. The inside of the Basilica is very impressive and there was a choir practicing for midnight mass the next day.
One thing that does cost money at the Basilica is going to the top of the dome. It is €5 to take the stairs all the way up and €7 euros to take the elevator part of the way. We choose the stairs, the elevator doesn’t even cut out a majority of the steps (and those are the gentle easy steps) but it does take you to the roof of the Basilica for a close up view of the dome and a decent view of the city even if you aren’t able to (or don’t want to) go all the way up. In all honesty I’m really glad we went to the top (and I’m not a big ‘go to the top of things’ type of traveler) the view was great and it was a cool experience.
After visiting the Basilica we walk south of the Vatican to the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, to what my husband did his travel research on – where the good beer bars are (Italy is not known for it’s beer culture, but my husband proves you can find good beer everywhere). The Trastevere doesn’t have many tourist attractions (and is only serviced by city buses and trams) but is a cute little neighborhood with winding cobblestone streets, many restaurants and bars, and popular with young Romans. The place we spent the most time was Bir & Fud (Chrome can translate the page), which had a large number of Italian microbrews on tap. Your beer comes with a bowl of homemade potato chips (crisps) with a ketchup-like dipping sauce, and they get refilled with each round (or maybe that is just Americans reputation for eating), but they also have a good snacks menu on offer.
For dinner (which Romans don’t think of eating until 8pm – hence why we appreciated snacks) we decided to head to the Colosseum are (which was on our way back to our hotel). We needed to catch a 3 tram, but were never able to find it despite walking around for a half hour, so we took a bus to the metro. For dinner we wanted to eat at a restaurant we walked by the previous night that look busy, which we thought was a good sign of quality. However, it was also busy that night and my husband didn’t want to wait and said he had read that Pizza Forum down the road was also good. It wasn’t! If you are near the Coloseum and need lunch or dinner don’t go! My husband’s wasn’t terrible, but I ordered a pizza with mozzarella, sausage, and arugula should be good right? No! there was no sauce of any sort on the pizza making it dry and what they called sausage was more like cut up vienna sausages. Looking back, when you go on a trip to another country and only have one bad food experience, you’ve done well.
The next morning was Christmas Eve day and we planned to check out the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum, which are all part of a combined ticket for €12 (the ticket is good for two days and gives you one admission to each site – which is really two admissions to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill since they are connected). Reading online the Colosseum was the site that had the worst lines, so we decided to go to that one as close to the opening time as possible and we didn’t have a line (don’t know how much Christmas Eve factored into that). Of course, as we walked towards the Colosseum, the allusive 3 tram from last night rode by us, mocking us!
The Colosseum is a very impressive building built around 80 CE on land that Nero had used to build his private lake. It was the new emperor’s way of giving the land back to the people of Rome. The top level that you can access houses the museum placards with information about the Colosseum (with no mention of Russel Crowe). I was impressed with the information on the placards as they included a fair bit of social history about average Romans at the games, and didn’t just focus on the bloodshed or architecture.
Across the street from the Colosseum is Palatine Hill, where generations of Roman Emperors built their palaces. Today it is the ruins that are left, and you can’t actually enter any of the ancient structures, but it is an enjoyable stroll towards the Roman Forum from the Colosseum and feels very garden like (and my husband and I also really enjoy just hanging out in gardens and public parks while on vacation). It was one of the few places that we wished we had a guided tour for a little more context of what we were looking at. Connected to Palatine Hill is the Roman Forum, which served as Ancient Rome’s economic and political hub. There you see the remains of temples to the God’s and classic Roman columns.
Following the Roman Forum we headed to the Pantheon (no admission fee). Built in 31 B.C.E. to honor all the Roman gods, it was converted to the Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs in 609 C.E. and has undergone updating with each century (and the architectural model for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). The marbles in the interior are beautiful, and the church is the burial site for King Victor Emmanuel II (1st king of unified Italy) and Renaissance painter Raphael. There is a hole at the top of the dome, and I’m told that when it rains heavily it is pretty impressive to watch the waterfall inside the Pantheon (just watch your step).
We got a kebab on a side street by the Pantheon, it was mediocre and catered towards tourists, which is something that you just have to accept when you get hungry near significant historical attractions. However, the biggest disappointment was the rudeness of the woman at the till, especially since none of the travelers were behaving in a stereotypical ‘obnoxious tourist’ manner.
Our legs were tired from the walking (and we were feeling the pain of climbing the dome the previous day), so we swung by the Trevi Fountain (where we knew we would spend more time on Christmas Day), the Spanish Steps, and then caught the metro back to the hotel for a siesta before Christmas Eve dinner. As we boarded the metro we noticed the signs that said that public transportation would close down on Christmas Eve at 9 pm and would only be open on Christmas Day from 8 am-1 pm. In planning this trip I knew that museums and many restaurants would be closed Christmas Day, but I didn’t really anticipate the public transit network to shutdown, maybe run less frequently than every 4 minutes; but still, not to shut down. This meant that we could take the metro to dinner, but would be walking home, so we were glad that we were going back for a nap.
Christmas Eve & Day meals is probably were I spent most of my pre-trip planning. I knew it was likely that places would be closed and I didn’t want to eat out of a vending machine, and I think secretly that since food was always such a big part of my family’s celebrations I wanted to have a good meal. I spent a lot of time on Trip Advisor looking at restaurant reviews, different neighborhoods, and seeing if menus were online. After a few emails and a lot of help from Google Translator, I was able to secure a booking for each day. Our Christmas Eve meal was at Estrobar and was a take on the traditional Christmas Eve ‘Feast of the 7 Fishes.’ For antipasta there was a generous plate of salt cod fritters, tuna tartare, squid salad, and raw salmon and yellow tail. Pasta was gnocchi with sea bass, and the entree was turbot in puff pastry. Dessert was a chocolate lava cake.
We walked home full and went straight to bed because the next day was Christmas and we wanted to see Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi or Christmas Day blessing. We woke up had breakfast and was at St. Peter’s Square around 9:40 am for a 12:05 blessing. The front part of the square near the Basilica was sectioned off and contained chairs, which I assumed you needed tickets for. The square was busy, but not crowded and there were several Catholic school groups from around the world. At 10 am there was a stampede of people towards the seats. We still thought you needed tickets or that all the seats would be taken by the time we went up there, until a member of the French group next to us waved her hands for her friends to join us, so we figured we would check it out. We ended up getting a seat about 15 rows back in the centered in front of the Pope’s balcony! It did put us closer to the school groups who acted like they were at a soccer game, but thankfully settled down once the blessing began.
If you find yourself in Rome at Christmas and would like to attend the Urbi et Orbi; I would say (based on my one experience) that if you aren’t a large group and would like seats, to get to St. Peter’s square by 10:30am. If you don’t mind standing you can arrive as late as 11:30, it seemed that the square only filled up right before it began.
The Pope’s speech was in Italian, so we did have to look up the speech when we got back to the hotel, but focus on working for peace and increasing humanitarian aid to Syria and South Sudan.
The blessing ended around 12:40 pm (probably to allow people to catch the metro before it closes for the day. We had Christmas dinner plans at 3 pm near the Trevi Fountain, so we just meandered in that general direction: passing the Castle San Angelo, walking along the river, to the Spanish Steps. At the Spanish steps (and then again at the Trevi Fountain) there were a lot of other travelers also enjoying the outdoors on Christmas day. In these sections a decent number of restaurants were open, though the site down ones looked full, but if you find yourself in Rome on Christmas without a reservation you will still be able to get a slice of pizza and a gelato; and the weather is usually temperate enough to be outside.
We ate our Christmas clementines (that I had swiped from the hotel breakfast buffet) on the Spanish Steps and then made our way towards the Trevi Fountain and confirming we did in fact know where our restaurant was. The Trevi Fountain is the product of a decorative sort of ‘arms race’ for fountains across Italy during the Baroque period, and is very impressive and not a bad place to hangout. Legend has it that throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain will ensure a repeat visit to Rome (the coin collected from the fountain raise millions of charity each year).
Christmas dinner was good, and despite being so close to the Trevi fountain, we wouldn’t have needed a booking (it is down an alley off a side street). This restaurant catered to tourists, though wasn’t touristy (perhaps because it wasn’t full), but the staff were all incredibly friendly and didn’t seem to resent working on Christmas. We had the traditional cured meat antipasta. I had lasagna and my husband had a pasta in a tomato bacon sauce for first course. We both had pork saltimbocca for the entree, while I had chocolate mouse for dessert and he had tiramisu. Surprisingly none of the restaurants we visited offered pannetone, even though we saw everyone carrying it home on the metro on Christmas Eve (but that’s ok, it was part of the hotel’s breakfast the next day). We made our final walk back to the hotel after dinner and settled in for the night. Our flight the next day was at 11:55 am, so there was only time for breakfast before we needed to take the metro to the train station to get the Leonardo Express back to the airport.
We didn’t see everything in Rome. There is still the National Roman Museum, and the Galleria Borghese. Would we go back yes, but probably only for a day when flying through Rome to do activities in the countryside, not as a dedicated visit.