Italy

Rome: Beating the Crowds

Classic Fiat Rome

In June 2016, when my sister and I took a cruise onboard the Royal Clipper, we spent additional time in Italy on both sides of the sailing trip.

Ciao Roma!

My sister and I spent a week in Rome before heading to Civitavecchia to board the Royal Clipper — always a wonderful pre-cruise or post-cruise extension to a vacation. You’ll find my article on the Royal Clipper cruise here.

The Coliseum on our After Dark tour. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

The Colosseum on our After Dark tour. Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Rome is a bustling city, and the summer is the height of the tourist season. It’s hot. There are long lines for many of the major sights — ungodly long for things like the Colosseum. This can be a recipe for vacation disaster, when patience runs short and tempers flare.

A little pre-planning makes everything run smoothly. Last year, my friend Joyce came with me to Italy — her first trip, so of course we had to see all of the big sights. I had heard there were evening tours of the Colosseum, and I figured it would be one of the best ways to see it. That’s when I found Dark Rome — (part of City Wonders tours). We used them for an after dark guided tour of the Colosseum, breakfast at the Vatican, and a tour to Pompeii, and had a  great experiences with this company last year.

Lord Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome. By engraver James Tibbitts Willmore or Arthur Willmore, after the original composition by William Westall.

Lord Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome. By engraver James Tibbitts Willmore or Arthur Willmore, after the original composition by William Westall.

My sister was interested in doing both the Colosseum and Vatican, so we booked with Dark Rome again. We did the After Dark Tour of the Colosseum with dinner. Dinner came first, at the roof garden restaurant at the Forum Hotel that overlooks part of the forum. Gorgeous view and good food. Our night tour of the Colosseum was wonderful. No lines. No heat. So very quiet. This tour includes the underground part of the Colosseum, where you can get a sense of what it was like for the gladiators and the animals beneath the floor. It is a gift – to be able to truly feel this amazing space.

Okay, yes. That was a pricy tour. Here’s how to have the same experience for less. Book the after dark tour of the Colosseum, – no dinner. Then go to the restaurant website for Hotel Forum and book dinner privately. Save yourself around 70 euros per person, and — you will probably get a better table. Dark Rome’s reserved tables are at the very back of the roof garden — easily the worst tables in the restaurant. There is also a roof top bar at the Hotel Forum, one flight up steps up from the restaurant. After dinner drinks looking out over the Imperial Forum — wonderful.

Breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard at the Vatican.

Breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard at the Vatican.

We also did Dark Rome’s Breakfast at the Vatican tour. Having breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard inside the Vatican is a very special experience, and this for me makes this one of the best Vatican tours available. Following breakfast, you are among the first visitors entering the Musei Vaticani. You’ll have a guided tour through many of the Vatican Museum galleries before visiting the Sistine Chapel. The tour ends inside St. Peter’s, where you are free to spend as much time as you like. Be aware: if you book this tour on a day there is papal mass in St. Peter’s, you will not get to see the Basilica. Benefit: the Vatican Museum is less crowded on those days. So if you have already seen St. Peter’s, this could be perfect. If you have not, it could be heartbreaking. There is a papal mass every Wednesday the pope is in Rome. Here is the Papal Audience Schedule.

The last three years, I’ve traveled to Italy in the summer because work conflicts made it impossible for me to take a long vacation at other times of the year. No choice but to deal with the heat and the summer crowds. I was impressed with the Dark Rome company. The quality of the guides on all of the tours both years was outstanding, and if I go back to Rome with another friend who wants to see the tourist sights, I will use their services again. Their tours not only allowed us to do some special things, but also they saved a lot of time and frustration.

I love the Roman Forum. I love standing and imagining what it would have been like to stand here 2,000 years ago. But in the summer, it’s HOT — and the later in the day it gets, the hotter, and more crowded it’s going to be. My advice, get here early. The Forum opens at 8:30 in the morning — get on it and be there! Secondly, avoid the most crowded entrance which is the one directly in front of the Forum — go instead to the Palatine Hill entrance.

Another day, we did a private tour in the Castelli Romani area with Laran Tours, a small husband and wife company offering a great assortment of day tours out of Rome. My only hardship was trying to pick just one day trip out of a very tempting set of options. We had a fabulous day with Emma and Alex. The Castelli Romani is a beautiful region near Rome with volcanic lakes; it was a favorite spot for Roman summer villas, and it’s easy to see why. We had wild strawberry tarts in Nemi, toured two different wineries, then went off on our own for lunch. Big thumbs up for Laran Tours — the experience that day was very personal and fun.


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Restaurants

Sughero Ristorante is at the top of my list of restaurants we visited on this trip to Rome. Last year I met Lavinia De Santis who was working as a wait person at a restaurant near our hotel.  While that restaurant was good, it was really Lavinia that made the dinners there special.

My sister and I returned there this year, only to find out that Lavinia had left to start her own restaurant. I found Sughero on the internet, and we were able to make reservations with the Fork.

Lavinia de Santis in her restaurant Sughero in the Parioli neighborhood, Rome.

Lavinia de Santis in her restaurant Sughero in the Parioli neighborhood, Rome.

It was an easy 10 – 15 minute cab ride from our hotel. And wow! Absolutely superb meal! Sughero is an all-seafood restaurant, with great fresh fish and a good wine selection. One of the things that impressed me about Lavinia last year was her knowledge of wine, and that is certainly in evidence at her place. She is passionate about good food and wine, and truly charming. Her business partner, Daniele Mangiaracina is talented chef. Isn’t it wonderful to see two people doing what they love, and doing it well?

We ate at Sughero three times. It’s easily one of the best seafood restaurants I’ve eaten at in Rome. Each time we did a Chef’s Tasting menu, and only repeated one selection. Everything was great — but the thing I had to have every time was the alici fritte, the fried sardines with fennel and orange.

Go see Lavinia and Daniele! It’s worth a quick cab ride. Sughero is small, and as a great new restaurant in Rome, it has developed a following; this means you will definitely want to make a reservation – easy to do through The Fork. Check out the Sughero Facebook page, if you’d like to pop by and see what these two talented restaurateurs are up to each week. But I warn you. It’s going to make you hungry!

Fried sardines with fennel slaw and fresh orange. Sughero Ristorante, Roma. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Fried sardines with fennel slaw and fresh orange. Sughero Ristorante, Roma. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

 

Carciofi alla giudia at Piperno in Rome. So good!

Carciofi alla giudia at Piperno in Rome. So good! Photograph, Carolyn Fisher.

Another big favorite this trip was Piperno, a well-known and well-loved Roman restaurant. Piperno dates from 1860 and is located on the edge of the Jewish ghetto in Rome. They are famous for their artichokes, carciofi alla giudia.

My sister ate at Piperno in 1989, and she’s been thinking about it ever since. We had a lovely evening there, sitting outside. I figured we would share the artichokes as an appetizer, but Carolyn wasn’t willing to share :-). So yummy!

Combining dinner at Piperno with a walk in the Jewish quarter is a perfect way to spend part of a day in Rome. “Hidden in the heart of the city, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is one of the best attractions in Rome and also one of its least-known. As the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe, this beautiful, thriving neighborhood is as central to the history of the city as it is to the Jewish faith. Follow us into the Jewish Ghetto, Rome, to see how Jews have shaped the Eternal City.” — From Walks of Italy, a great site for putting walking tours together, either on your own or with their company.

Our "executive double" room at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.

Our “executive double” room at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.

Hotels

I’ve had friends ask, “where should I stay in Rome — and what is the best location?” If you are staying in Rome for the first time, being centrally located so that you can walk to many of the sights is key.

When I travel, I often do a combination of luxury and tourist class hotels. On this trip, our splurge hotel was going to be the Bauer Hotel in Venice. In Rome, I wanted a centrally located hotel with decent reviews but a more reasonable price. Hotel Quirinale was a good find. We had an “executive double” room, which was lovely — it was large and overlooked the garden.

We also stayed one final night at the Hotel Quirinale at the end of our trip before flying home. That evening we were in a Superior Double room, which was significantly smaller, although still nice and quite comfortable. Based on our two stays, I recommend going with the “executive double,” particularly if you are staying in Rome for more than two nights. Also, request a garden view.

The Hotel Quirinale’s greatest strengths are the size and comfort of its rooms, its location, and its garden bar. We had cocktails in the garden many evenings before going out to dinner.

The hotel’s biggest weaknesses: service at the front desk and breakfast. These are the two places where you know that you are staying in a tourist-class hotel. They are processing lots of people, and you feel it. The breakfast, which is included in the price, is a just-adequate buffet. There is plenty of food, but it’s nothing special. Would I stay again — yes. For exactly the reason that I chose it in the first place.

Last year, Joyce and I stayed at the Sofitel near the Villa Borghese. It was a great hotel with impeccable service and a lovely breakfast buffet. The downsides to the Sofitel: small room for the price and not as centrally located for walking to major sights. Additionally, when I was looking at hotels in the spring, the Sofitel’s rates were considerably more expensive this year.

Parting Thoughts

Rome is such a wonderful city! Vibrant and stylish, the ancient, the old, and not so old mixed together. Great food and wonderful people. Can I get on a plane and head back right now?

I invite you to share your favorite Roman restaurants and hotels in the comment section below, and feel free to link to your Trip Advisor reviews or blogs. The more the merrier — it’s always great to find new places!

Etruscan she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, the Capitoline Museum. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

Etruscan she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, the Capitoline Museum. Photograph, Ann Fisher.

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17 replies »

    • Thank you — and yes, I was SO impressed with what Lavinia and Daniele have at Sughero. It takes a lot of bravery to launch off and start a new business, and it made me so happy to see how well they are doing. Please feel free to share places you particularly like — putting some new ones on my list for the next visit would be great.

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  1. wonderful post! you brought back many memories of my own stay in the eternal city! Good tips for tourists too! I just did a post on my recollections of Pompeii and thinking about how I would like to return. I have a cousin living south of Naples.

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