11 June 2013

Visiting Rome - Part I

A number of people have asked me about visiting Rome--things to do, etc.  I thought it might be a good idea to collect some of my thoughts in a series of post, of which this is the first.  I will hopefully have some more soon.  This is written mostly with my fellow Americans in mind.  If you have any questions, ask in the comment box and I'll see about adding it in the future.

What to bring?

In addition to all the stuff you usually bring, consider these:

A small pair of binoculars.  In Rome there are lots of tall buildings, with some great art very far away (the Sistine Chapel being the prime example).  A small pair of collapsible binoculars will serve you well.

Decent clothes.  Some churches in Rome still require you to dress appropriately (thankfully).  The most important of these is St. Peter's in Rome.  What does it mean to dress appropriately?  It means you are covered from the shoulders down past the knees.  You'll also notice that the Italians rarely wear shorts--even in summertime, although that is changing a bit.  You can survive touring in Rome with a pair of cool, light trousers--even in the summertime.

Change purse.  As Americans, we are not used to carrying coins around.  Our paper bills start at $1, and so we may have a few coins in case a purchase is less than that.  In Europe there are 1 and 2 Euro coins.  That means you will be paying for a lot more things--especially snacks and small gifts--with coins.  There are few things more likely to prompt an exasperated look from a Roman shopkeeper than pulling out a €20 note to pay for something that cost €1.05.  Get used to carrying around a bit of change with you, and a change purse, or some other small bag, helps keep it all together.

Map App.  If you have a smartphone, I have found that one of the most useful apps for Rome is a downloadable map.  The great thing about this is that in a city the size of Rome, your phone can triangulate your position based on the cell towers.  That means a downloadable map can pinpoint you on the map, without an internet connection!  I use the Ulmon App, but there are a lot of others.

An at least one thing you may not need to bring:

An Umbrella.  This you probably do not need to bring with you. Whenever it rains, there is small army of foreigners who sell large and small umbrellas.  You can get one for your stay for €10 Euro.  It probably won't outlast your stay, but it's one less thing you have to pack.  Although it does rain in the summertime, Rome's rainy season is in winter--November to January--when nobody is here anyway.

Advance Work

There are a few tickets that you absolutely need to get in advance, sometimes several months in advance:

Guides in Italy.  One of the best English speaking guides in Italy is Liz Lev. She knows her art and she knows Rome.  She has also written a great Guide to Roman Guidebooks, which you can read here.  One of her best pieces about Roman tour guides is here: "7 Sure-fire Signs You're on the Wrong Vatican Tour". There are also people who you can hire to give you private tours.  Certainly, Liz Lev (whose email is on the previous link) would be a great choice.  I would also recommend a married couple I know here, John and Ashley Norohna, whom you get find out about from their website.

"The Scavi".  "Scavi" is just the Italian word for "excavation".  But "The Scavi" usually refers to the excavation of the necropolis (cemetery) under St. Peter's Basilica and it is where the relics of St. Peter may be found.  It is an incredible site, and absolutely, definitely, without doubt, worth seeing.  Because of the fragility and importance of the excavation site, only a very limited number of tours are permitted each day.  This means you have to book this months in advance.  Fortunately there is a website, and they take requests in English.  All the details can be found at the webpage for the Excavations Office.  Note also that they also do not allow children (under 15 years old) into the Scavi--no exceptions.  The guides for this tour vary greatly in quality. The American Seminarians from the Pontifical North American College are some of the best guides--and it doesn't hurt to ask if there is an American Seminarian available to lead the tour.

Sistine Chapel.  Although the Sistine Chapel is in Vatican City you can't get there from St. Peter's Basilica.  Unless you're a Cardinal on your way to the Conclave, the only way in is through the Vatican Museum, which is a bit north and a touch west of the St. Peter's Square..  Now, you can get tickets for the Museum and the Sistine Chapel there.  However, in the height of the tourist season, that line can get very, very long.  However, you can now book your ticket (and time of entry) on-line.  It is a bit more expensive, but it is a lot better than standing in line under the hot Roman son for an hour.

Galleria Borghese.  This is a one of the great art museums of Rome--a collection of Master works, in a beautiful building, in one of the great parks of Rome.  The only problem is that you have to get tickets in advance.  Not really a problem, just something to plan for.  They have a website with plenty of information in English, and you can book online.  The Borghese is not too far from the top of the Spanish Steps, so you might plan to visit it the same time you visit the Steps.

Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.  Like the Sistine Chapel, you can get your ticket to the Colosseum and Palatine Hill (and it is one ticket for both) when you get there.  But it is a lot easier, and only a bit more expensive, to get them online.  Looks like they have changed their website, but this link should get you there.  Since this tour is outside, I usually recommend to people to go in the morning when it is cooler, and then eat lunch nearby.  Unless you want to stop and see everything, the morning should do.  If you want to go back, the ticket is good for two days.  I would also strongly recommend getting a good audio guide or guide book for this--the ruins are not well marked, and you often have no idea what much of it is.  I have found that Rick Steves audio guides can be pretty good.

That's a start anyway.  I will add some more in the coming days...