Ah, Rome. It’s one of those iconic travel locations that you simply must visit. Or so people say. To be sure, it’s quite the mecca for ancient history buffs and tourists wanting to snap a pic in front of the Colosseum. It’s full of traditional cuisine and gelato and monuments, but somewhat short on public restrooms (more on that later). Wanna know how we navigated the streets packed with foreigners hocking everything from flowers to weird squishy balls that squeaked like a depressed seagull when you threw them? I knew you would.
Our arrival in Rome
We arrived by bus in Rome after a few nights in Florence, Italy. It took 3 1/2 hours and we left our hostel/campsite/bungalow literally before the crack of dawn. And surprise, surprise, when we arrived at the train station in Rome, the line to our Airbnb outside the city was inexplicably not running. No one could tell us why, just that it wasn’t. Apparently, there are a fair amount of strikes that take place among employees, so that could be a thing. Fortunately, transportation in Italy is cheap (single tickets are only €1.50, but you can get multi-day passes, too). That’s public transportation in Italy for you. But thanks to handy Google Maps (which doesn’t always work with public transport routes in foreign countries) and some very basic instructions from our host, we managed to find the bus that would take us in the right direction.
Once we found the place, we were given strict instructions not to mop up water from the leaky shower with the provided bath towels (Then what am I supposed to use to soak up the puddle on the tile? Oh, there’s a mop in the bathroom? Perfect.), then headed back into the city, by which time the train was running again.
Finding free attractions in Rome
It was just after lunchtime (American lunchtime, not Italian lunchtime), so we had plenty of daylight left to explore. And explore we did. By foot. Because that’s how we do. Also walking is free. And walk we did. A freaking lot. By the end of three days, I was threatening with almost no hint of joking in my voice to chuck my shoes in the Tiber River. I brought with me a pair of comfortable sandals (Sanuks, to be precise) that were soft and squishy, but apparently not supportive enough. Also, the fabric was too tight in between my toes so all I did was complain and ask Josh if he thought it would be OK if I just walked around barefoot. He did not think that was wise.
Why didn’t I just wear other shoes, you ask? Because I only had one other pair of shoes and they were just as uncomfortable! Plus they were not sandals and I have a thing about wearing closed-toed shoes when it’s hot. I just can’t do it. If my feet are hot, I’m miserable, so I just couldn’t win. One day I’ll stop being so cheap and just pay out for a really nice, stylish, comfy pair of shoes, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
So we walked. We popped into several churches and cathedrals and I was glad I had donned a skirt that day instead of shorts. Fun fact: most Italian churches are very traditional and prefer that you not enter with bare shoulders or shorts, among other revealing articles of clothing. I had forgotten my scarf to cover my shoulders, but nobody seemed to mind enough to request I vacate the premises.
We waited in line at the Pantheon, which is totally free to enjoy. Plus while you’re waiting you get to hang outside in this lovely old courtyard complete with cafes and monuments. You wait for a few minutes before being ushered in to gaze up at the magnificent domed roof, the sunshine beaming in from the circular opening at the apex. This is when you start to wonder how they conducted religious services if it was raining.
We looked out at the city from the Spanish Steps and marveled at fountains and found free water refills at weird old fountain/trough deals that pour out water from spouts that look kind of like noses. Second fun fact: the water from those fountains in Rome is entirely potable. You just shove your water bottle under a spout that looks distrustingly old, and drinkable water fills it up. Apparently, Rome has some of the cleanest water in Europe and the oldest and most impressive aqueducts.
The piazzas are stunning, the architecture is sublime, but the bathrooms in Rome are…nonexistent. I mean, we couldn’t even find pay toilets to use! And trust me, we looked. Restaurants and cafes don’t usually let you use the toilet unless you’re a paying customer, so I ended up, along with about 30 other people, in line for a single-stall bathroom at a McDonald’s. This, I swear, is just further proof that Italian’s actually hate visitors. They’re doing everything in their power–including withholding toilets–to get tourists to leave. If only they knew we weren’t tourists, but travelers… And fun fact: if and when you do find a toilet, the seat will probably have been removed. You’ve been warned.
Fortunately, I was reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson at the time, so I had a lot of opportunities to remind myself that, while I can’t control what happens to me and around me, I can control how I respond to it. I choose to travel, therefore I have to accept all the ups and downs that come with it, including, but not limited to, pushy Italians, confusing bus schedules, and long bathroom lines at McDonald’s. I can choose what to (and what not to) give a f*ck about. (Sorry, mom! That’s what the book says!)
We meandered around the Pyramid of Caius Cestius–a tomb built for a rich man way back–but it was closed up for the day. We tried to check out Cinesitta, the Italian film studio near our Airbnb, but entry was €10 and the tours were only available in Italian. Guess they don’t get many foreign visitors who want to see the lot… And did you know that an area of ancient Roman ruins is now a cat sanctuary? True story. You can see cats napping all over the temple complex where Julius Ceasar was betrayed and murdered, but down a stairway to the side is a close underground room that’s home to scores of cats. The Torre Argentina sanctuary feeds them, makes sure they are spayed and neutered, clips their ears, and either lets them wander mostly free or offers them up for adoption. Crazy town.
We took a walk around Tiber Island located in the middle of the Tiber River. It’s small but offers some pleasing views and architecture, not to mention coffee and gelato. It took maybe 15 minutes to walk around the perimeter at a leisurely pace, but who doesn’t love a good island in the middle of the city?
We did, however, find a Bialetti shop and Josh nearly lost his mind. So many coffee-making devices! So much cheaper than at home in the States! Even I got excited! Excited enough to agree to purchase a double shot Moka Pot in vibrant orange that we would spend the remainder of the trip carting around in a plastic shopping bag because it wouldn’t fit in our daypacks. We were packing ultra light, remember? Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t have an ounce of trouble on any of our remaining flights with not being able to carry it on despite strict airline rules limiting cheap passengers to one personal item. Whew. We had, however, devised a plan if they refused to let us through with the extra bag: start stuffing crap in pockets. If you’ve read our packing light tips, you know how we do.
The Colosseum and Roman Forum
The second day was Colosseum day. We rose early and were in line for tickets (€12) by 9:00. The line was still long, but we only waited for 20 minutes. We had read that waiting much later can mean standing in line for upwards of an hour or more, so we felt pretty lucky. It was a beautiful sunny day and we spent 5 hours in the Colleseum and Roman Forum. Perhaps more than anything else we enjoyed laughing at the tourists who paid way too much money to take a guided tour of the Colosseum. How did I know it wasn’t worth the extra cash? Because on multiple occasions we would pass a guide speaking to their group repeating verbatim the text on an informational sign we had literally just passed.
Among the other gems we overheard from guides: This is a Greek statue made by a Greek in Greece. (is it also of a Greek person?) The arena floor has been reconstructed; it’s new. (Umm, obviously.) This is a very steep staircase that goes down to the area floor. (Yes, we can see that by looking at said staircase.) These are pillars. (Facepalm.) Gladiators fought here. (If you didn’t already know this you probably shouldn’t have left Kansas–no offense to Kansas.) This was built by so-and-so. (You mean the guy whose name is on the plaque right next to you?) See what I mean?
Next to it all is Circus Maximus, which gets top billing as a free “attraction,” but it’s really just a strip of grass.
Wrapping up Rome
Our final day in Rome we went to Vatican city, which you may have already read about it. Saint Peter’s Basilica remains one of the most breath-taking edifices I’ve ever had the pleasure of appreciating. Takeaway tip from that experience: bring an umbrella rain or shine. It gets hot standing in the sun for an hour!
Overall, Rome is a fabulously historic city with a pleasing aesthetic. Was it our favorite European city? No, but certainly worth the trip. Gelato was a win, though (surprisingly) nobody did it better than Prague. Macchiatos and cappuccinos were cheap at €1-1.50 a pop. Vegan food was fairly readily available at a handful of restaurants and supermarkets, including some killer vegan mozzarella, and the weather was finally beautiful and warm. Would we have enjoyed it even more if we had paid closer attention to ancient history in school? Maybe.
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com