The title of this blog was supposed to be ‘ Top Three Spas in Rome‘ (watch this space for a later blog), but while doing research for that blog post I became outraged about the amount of ‘best things to do in Rome‘ articles requiring the spending of zillions of $$$. They included things like breakfasting on hotel rooftops and banqueting with 250 of your closest friends inside the Vatican palace ‘so you can experience the splendour that only Popes and royalty do/did’, while casually mentioning ‘you might like to also take in a few piazzas, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon if you have time’. So I decided to change the topic of my blog. I am passionate about my adopted city because it is one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world, full of art and colour and life, it also is one of the most historically and culturally interesting. And most of all I love the fact that nearly all of this can be experienced for free! Yes folks it’s true, the best things in Rome are free!
It is therefore a backpackers and budget travellers delight. However probably because a lot of it is free, it seems that the Eternal city sometimes thinks its needs to embellish itself and add costly delights for travellers who don’t feel they are special if they don’t have to pay lots of money for something. One of the things I love the most about Rome is that I can be minding my own business sitting around at the Trevi Fountain when right before my eyes Isabella Rossellini hops out of a taxi. Or that I can be waiting for a table (not queuing, there is a big difference) at a well-known restaurant in Campo dei Fiori and ahead of me in the not-queue is Harvey Keitel. Or that I can walk into Prada or Dolce & Gabbana or Versace on the Via dei Condotti and be treated like I, in my wildest dreams (and theirs), would be able to afford anything. You could also find yourself out for drinks with any one of Italy’s international movie stars or politicians who frequent the vibrant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks that often substitute dinner) scene in Rome’s tiny back streets.
Rome is a great leveller. Its streets and piazzas are open to everyone, always. It’s accessible a lot only by foot and so this makes it hard to create VIP experiences as opposed to public experiences. Rome is unequivocal, it can’t be cordoned off because Brangelina are visiting. Movie stars, models, zillionaires, dictators, mafia bosses, Prime Ministers mingle with the unknown, every-day tourist, back packer and refugee.
Every year on my birthday (since I stopped being a backpacker and could afford to eat properly), I used to choose one of the fancy restaurants advertised in tourist magazines as being ‘the best restaurants’ to eat in. The kind where you spend your weekly and sometimes monthly wage on dinner. Year after year, hoping for an amazing experience, I was disappointed. The food was always average, the service pompous (one year my husband and I had to sit near the toilets because he wasn’t wearing a tie – just a suit) and we mostly ended up stopping on the way home at one of our usuals to calm ourselves down with a real bowl of pasta and some local wine. My point being that in Rome the best restaurants are always frequented by average Romans, even the very wealthy ones.
So when in Rome don’t spend your money on rooftop breakfasts in hotels or dinning in the Vatican museum with 250 0f your closest friends or in a fake Roman spa being pampered by Eastern Europeans or on ‘private’ tours (where in the end you will have to queue up and approach things on foot with everyone else anyway). Here’s my tip for a fabulous Roman Day out and, apart from the inexpensive meals, it is all FREE!!!
Begin at the nearest bar (cafe) to your hotel. There should be one within 100 metres. Order a cappuccino or a ‘cafe’ and a cornetto, possibly with an orange juice if you want to be healthy. You will find the coffee is the best you have ever had, the cornetto (Italian croissant) will be light, and made that morning, the juice will be juiced in front of you and you will pay about the same amount altogether as the cost of one cup of coffee on a rooftop.
Then take your free map (get them at the airport, McDonalds or from your hotel). Hopefully you have done some slight research (free on the internet) or have a cheap guide book. Otherwise scroll through this blog to get to the ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘, ‘Top ten places to eat in Rome’ etc. articles. If you are staying anywhere in the city of Rome (centro) everything will be in walking distance with plenty of opportunities to sit down, grab more coffee or juice, fill up your water bottle free at a fountain or just rest. Start at one end of town and make your way down and then left and right as you please. Take one to five days depending on your itinerary and energy levels and repeat in the evenings for a different view. You can start anywhere but I have you starting at Piazza del Popolo.
Marvel at the huge space in such a crowded city, cast your eyes up to the lush green gardens of the Villa Borghese on one side, and put it aside for another day. Feast your eyes on the fountain in the centre of the Piazza, the churches all around it (one of which contains a Caravaggio) and the Egyptian obelisk (stolen by the Romans from Egypt). Walk out of the Piazza and down the Via del Babuino and admire the antique shops (stop at Hotel de Russie if you want a spa – next blog). Be entranced by your next view at the end of Via del Babuino which will be Piazza di Spagna. Sit awhile on the staircase and admire the beautiful people and the view of Via dei Condotti, Rome‘s premium shopping strip. Don’t forget to look in the window at Dolce & Gabbana half way down the Via Condotti, one of the best visual feasts outside a museum that you will see.
At the end of Via Condotti you will arrive at the Via del Corso. Turn left and head towards the ‘wedding cake’ Victor Emmanuel Monument at the end of the street. Admire the palaces and beautiful baroque buildings that line either side of this main street of Rome. Shortly after you pass the houses of Parliament on your right, turn down a pedestrian side street on your left full of market stalls. Follow it on to the end. Gasp. Get pushed in the back by other tourists behind you who don’t know why you have stopped. Yes folks this is the Trevi Fountain, at the cross roads of three streets or ‘tre vie’. All the more beautiful because it is contained in such a small space, wangle your way to the front and admire it sitting down for as long as you can.
Walk back the way you came and cross back over Via del Corso to another pedestrian street full of restaurants. Meander along the path following everyone else until you get to the Pantheon, another breathtaking moment but within a larger piazza. Sit on the steps of the fountain in the piazza and take it all in before you head inside (for free) and view the perfectly round, 2000 year old temple, with a hole cut out in the middle of the roof that lets the sun in to highlight different sculptures around the room as the sun moves overhead. How’s that for antique engineering?? Using your map move your way left (with the Pantheon to your back) towards Piazza Navona.
Now at this stage if you really have had enough of Roman culture and need to recover, you could eat at the McDonalds which faces the Pantheon (and serves beer), therefore having a drink/burger with one of the world’s best views at about 100th of the cost of sitting at any of the other cafes that also surround the Pantheon. I am only recommending this on the grounds of it being cheap and acknowledging that sometimes people need a break from antiquity (based on the experience of some of guests over the years). Otherwise I would suggest pushing on and eating a slice of pizza, also for the same price as a burger, at one of the places around Campo dei Fiori, a bit further along in our walk.
As you spill out into Piazza Navona and take a stroll around its race track type shape (yes it was originally a chariot racing track), admire the artists who display their wares and the magnificent fountain of four rivers in the middle. At one end (on the other side of the toy shop) you can see the original entrance to the race track in Roman times, below street level. Exit the piazza at the other end and cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele into cobblestoned streets that sell great pizza by the slice, and where you can sit down and eat for around the same price as McDonalds. Take the opportunity here to have an ice-cream in the same area. Campo dei Fiori will open up in front of you. Stroll around the square, take in the history of this being the last place that the Vatican burnt someone at the stake for daring to state that possibly the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around……
If you follow most of the traffic going out of the piazza in the opposite direction from where you came in, you will eventually hit a street going off to your right which becomes a foot bridge over the river. If you follow it you will find yourself in Trastevere, the oldest neighbourhood of post medieval Rome and home to its vibrant restaurant and nightlife. Have an aperitivo, at any of the little bars (cafes) that line its tiny cobbled streets, standing up of course which will cost you a fraction of what it costs to sit down, enjoy the free bar snacks and choose your inexpensive restaurant to eat at for dinner!
After dinner take a stroll along the river, meander throughout the Trastevere neighbourhood or go back the way you came for a completely different view of Rome. We haven’t even touched the free St. Peters or Roman Forum or the many parks and gardens that are just waiting to be explored! During your walk, or the next day, lose yourself in any one of the streets off this main beat. Sit and watch the local Roman traffic go by from a street cafe. Admire the marble columns, statues and painted plaques that adorn most buildings. Freely feast on the art inside most churches, and regularly look up to enjoy the free natural beauty of the skyline with its domes, starlings and magnificent sun sets. Now that’s something for free that’s worth paying for!