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The capital city in the land of Leonardo, Michelangelo and the popes is today a living museum with gorgeous artwork, amazing architecture and inspiring ancient sites. At the same time, it's alive and vibrant in a 21st-century way. It's an unforgettable city to visit, and we'll warn you right now that once you've experienced it, you'll want to go back for more.
One of our favorite things to do there is walk and ogle. On a recent visit, we took one day to do the route from Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica -- with its jaw-dropping art, statuary, and religious significance -- to Via del Corso, where our quest for the latest Italian fashions was more than fulfilled amidst the well-dressed crowd of Roman shoppers. The next day, we went on an ancient history quest past ruins and columns, traversing the same streets Julius Caesar strode (and rode) to the Colosseum, where gladiators once battled. Walking on, we were awed by the Pantheon, the well-preserved ancient symbol of Rome and now a great hangout spot.
First-time visitors, many envisioning Rome as big and congested, will be surprised by the scenic layout, with its famous seven hills and the Tiber River running through the city. (Cleopatra famously made her grand entrance from the river.) And the senses may be shocked by the general energy, hustle and bustle. With cars, taxis and scooters roaring here and there, crossing the street can be a challenge. (Don't worry; there are quiet piazzas aplenty with lovely cafes where you can get away from it all and unwind.)
The food is, of course, wonderful -- we can't eat enough pasta -- and the spirit of la dolce vita (the good life) abounds. Whenever we do such a quest in Rome, we do regular gelato stops (try the yummy pine nut flavor) or coffee breaks. And the shopping scene serves up Prada, Gucci, Armani and more. (High style can be found in more affordable brands like Furla, as well.) What could be better than that?
No question, Rome has one of the world's most important collections of once-in-a-lifetime sights to see, including St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Forum and on and on and on. And for those historic monuments alone, the city is worth a visit.
But if you're on an itinerary where Rome is just a port of call for the day, you won't see everything. Either resign yourself to that fact, or book a tour that will at least drive you by the main sights. Be aware the port for Rome, Civitavecchia, is about 1.5 to 2 hours from the city. (There is decent train service.) If you're beginning or ending your cruise there, plan to stay at least a couple of nights to explore the Eternal City; it's likely to steal a piece of your heart. Make sure to drop a coin in Trevi Fountain, which is said to assure you'll come back again.
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Religious icons from Vatican City make great souvenirs, as do leather handbags and shoes.
Italian is the official language, but many people you encounter will speak at least some English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro. Get cash from an ATM machine that's compatible with your local bank. Local "cambio" shops exchange dollars to euros, though at higher rates than at ATM's. Banks also provide exchange services for a fee. You can use credit cards, but dollars are generally not accepted by retailers and restaurants.
Where You're Docked
Civitavecchia has been the port of Rome since Emperor Trajan's time in A.D. 108. It is about 1.5 to 2 hours by taxi or bus from Rome, depending on traffic. Free shuttles typically ferry passengers from their ships to downtown Civitavecchia.
This is a commercial port, and it's about a 20-minute walk into the city, although there are basic services like Internet, a deli and a small market just outside the gates of the port. The other important "service" Civitavecchia offers is a train station, about a mile outside the port, with a direct line to Rome.
This is a commercial port and it's about a 20-minute walk into the city, although there are basic services like Internet, a deli and a small market, just outside the gates of the port. The other important "service" Civitavecchia offers is a train station, about a mile outside the port, with a direct line to Rome.
From Civitavecchia: The bus trip or taxi ride to Rome takes 1.5 to 2 hours. The other option: Take the train, which leaves every half-hour from Civitavecchia (takes a little more than an hour) and lands right in the heart of Rome at Termini Station. Additionally, most cruise lines offer both a motorcoach transfer option and organized tours. If you're not a tour type, one advantage here to the cruise line motorcoach option is that if the motorcoach is late coming back, the cruise ship will wait. Taxis line up at the port, too; plan to pay about $150 each way to Rome and back.
In Rome: Rome is a great walking city; within the center area, most of the major historic attractions, shopping areas and fabulous piazzas are easy to get to on foot. However, Rome's bus system is also efficient and simple to navigate, particularly from Termini Station. The Metropolitana or Metro (marked by a big red M) is the city's subway system.
Watch Out For
Watch out for pickpockets on buses and at the major tourist sights (especially the Colosseum, where there are often bands of gypsies).
In Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica (Piazza San Pietro; open daily, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), the earthly locus of the Roman Catholic Church, and the extensive Vatican Museums (where you'll find the Sistine Chapel) are grouped together just across the Tiber River from central Rome. Visitors to St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums (open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) have to clear a security checkpoint. The line for St. Peter's begins in the Piazza, while the entrance and line to the Vatican Museums is around the corner (to the left, on Viale Vaticano). Expect to wait in line for hours if you want to visit the Vatican Museums on your own. (One advantage to booking a cruise line tour is you might not have to wait quite that long.) Plan ahead, and book your tickets (timed entry) online to skip the lines; you'll only need to pass through security. It's easier to bypass lines if you enter through the museums, which lets you out in front of St. Peter's, where you may enter without further lines. However, there can be lines if you'd like to climb to the top of St. Peter's Basilica (or ride up in the elevator). While it's free to enter St. Peter's, the climb/ride carries a small fee, and entrance to the Vatican Museums is pricey (but well worth it, specifically to see the Sistine Chapel in person). The Vatican Gardens are available for viewing with tickets, as well, but note that these tickets may book up as far as six months in advance. Note: Vatican City is its own city and is not included in ROMA passes. Be aware that sleeveless shirts, shorts and short skirts or dresses are not acceptable attire within St. Peter's, and you will be banned from entering if you don't have a sufficient way to cover up. Bring a shawl, and be sure the attire on your lower half reaches at least to your knees.
The Colosseum (Piazza del Colosseo; open 9 a.m. and closing between 4 to 7 p.m., depending on the time of year) is the shell of an ancient stadium, first inaugurated in 80 A.D., where gladiators engaged in bloodbaths. The building is impressive, and you'll want to spend at least an hour taking it in. There are areas that are only accessible by foot and stairs, but there is also an elevator to reach the top. Across the street are the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Walking along the streets of the ancient ruins will transform you, as you envision what this central Italian piazza would have been like during the age of Caesar. Tickets to the Colosseum and Forum can be purchased together; lines are much shorter at the Forum ticket line.
Near the Colosseum, we always drop our jaws at the sight of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument (Piazza Venezia), an extravagant white-marble monument (nicknamed "the wedding cake") with giant horse sculptures, constructed in the 1800's to honor Italy's first king. You can't go inside, but it's a great photo opp.
The Pantheon (Piazza della Rotunda; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) dates back to 27 B.C. and is considered the ancient world's most complete monument. Even better, the Pantheon is more than a museum; it still holds concerts and other special events.
The Trevi Fountain (Piazza Trevi; open 24 hours) was made famous by the classic flick "Three Coins in a Fountain"; legend has it, if you want to come back to Rome, you must throw in a coin. Within walking distance are the Spanish Steps, which draw quite a crowd when the late afternoon sun begins to create a warm, golden hue over the 154 steps leading to the Trinita dei Monti. (If you can make the climb, a rooftop cafe awaits, offering wonderful views of the Roman skyline.)
For art-lovers, Galleria Borghese (Villa Borghese; open Tuesday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.) has Rome's premier collection of masterpieces, including works by Titian, Caravaggio and Raphael.
Rome's most magnificent shops are clustered on streets branching off from the elegant Piazza d'Spagna (the Spanish Steps). The most chic stores are found on Via Veneto and Via Condotti; more mainstream (and affordable) stores are on the long Via del Corso. Take a coffee break at Antico Caffe Greco (Via dei Condotti 86), a place to see and be seen since it opened in 1760. Antique stores are clustered on Via del Babuino.
Been There, Done That
Ostia Antica (Via dei Romagnoli 717; open Tuesday to Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 to 6 p.m., depending on the season), Rome's version of Pompeii, is about 45 minutes outside the city, but it's worth the trek. It was founded in the 4th century B.C. and was a bustling port city until a couple of factors -- outbreaks of malaria and the river's changing course -- led to its abandonment. Ultimately it was covered in silt, and the site has gradually been excavated over the past century.
Explore the hip urban neighborhood of Trastevere (just across the Tiber). Among its attractions, beyond tons of charming sidewalk cafes, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, is the serene and soothing Orto Botanico (Largbo Cristina di Svezia 24, open Tuesday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 or 6:30 p.m., depending on the season), comprising 19 different gardens. You'll also find the piazza of Santa Maria, one of the city's prettiest piazzas and the site where, according to legend, oil was said to have sprung from the ground on the occasion of Christ's birth. Santa Maria Cathedral, which anchors the square, is a soothing, restful stop.
One of Rome's most exuberant piazzas (traffic-free squares) is Piazza Navona, which is virtually a carnival. You can have your portrait drawn, sit by the fountain and enjoy a gelato cone, drink wine at a sidewalk cafe or dance to live music. Also fun is Campo dei Fiori, particularly if you like flea markets in the morning and fun, informal sidewalk cafes from lunchtime onward. (The only reason it's not called a piazza is that it isn't anchored by a church.)
A meal at an outdoor cafe is a must-do Roman experience. Although Piazza Navona can get a bit crowded, that's part of the fun. The bustling piazza is filled with cafes offering alfresco dining and chairs facing out for the best people-watching, while musicians stroll and provide ambience. One cafe to try is Tre Scalini, the oldest restaurant on the piazza, with its umbrella-covered, red-clothed tables and traditional Italian pastas, pizzas and steaks.
Near Vatican City, en route to Castel Sant'Angelo along the river, a host of restaurants is located along Borgo Pio, but, instead, duck down one of the side streets for less crowded and less tourist-filled small restaurants with better prices and better food.
Staying in Touch
Bibli (Via dei Fienaroli) is a bookshop with Internet access, as well as a cafe that serves quick bites so you can relax, get connected and regain your energy before hitting the streets of Rome again. The bookshop is open daily from 11 a.m. until midnight, except on Mondays, when it's only open during the evening.
Editor's Note: Due to an antiterrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the Internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (like a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
Best for First-Timers: The Rome City Tour is an all-day affair that includes visits to the Colosseum, the greatest architectural remnant of ancient Rome, and the Vatican, including the Bernini-designed Piazza San Pietro, magnificent St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum, with its remarkable Sistine Chapel. (Bring binoculars.) Also drive past such landmarks as the remains of the Roman Forum, Trajan's Column, the Arch of Constantine and the Circus Maximus. The tour might also include a short walk to see Trevi Fountain.
Best for Second-Timers: So you've seen Rome, but have you seen under Rome? Book a Countryside and Catacombs tour, and see the underground maze of tunnels where early Christians practiced their religion in secret, as well as the Basilica di San Clemente, which dates back to the first century. Then visit the hills and countryside that surround the city. Your tour will follow the Apian Way, an ancient military road, as it passes farms, villas and palaces. You might even stop at a winery for aperitifs with the resident Count and pause to see an extinct volcano.
Best for Dan Brown Fans: Book a tour of Rome inspired by author Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons," and your guide will take you to the first Altar of Science (the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo) and the second Altar of Science (St. Peter's Basilica) and point the way to the third Altar of Science (or at least give you a clue). The tour also includes the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini's statue "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" (which provides direction to the fourth Altar of Science), the Pantheon and lunch at Piazza Navona, as well as the Bernini fountain that's the clue to the fifth you-know-what. And you also visit St. Angel's Castle, where the Illuminati held their secret meetings.
For More Information
On the Web: Rome Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Lissa Poirot
All photos except Arco di Tito appear courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Board.