Over the years, I’ve found that one of the biggest surprises for first-time visitors involves whether you need to book restaurants in Rome.
Many of us, after all, are used to restaurants back home. Whether in the US, UK or Canada, unless you’re talking about a super-trendy or Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s often fairly easy to walk into a restaurant for dinner and get seated without much of a wait. It’s easy to assume that Rome is the same. Why shouldn’t you be able to walk into a humble trattoria on a Thursday evening and find a table?
Then there’s that all-pervasive myth about Italy: The idea that no matter where you eat, you’ll eat well. So even if you can’t get in to one place, the next place should be just as good. After all, the center of Rome is just teeming with good restaurants, right? And, of course, we all love that idea of “discovering” that perfect hole-in-the-wall spot — no research or reservations needed.
The problem? In Rome, none of this holds water. (Or wine, as the case may be…).
If anyone were to ask you “What is panettone?”, you’d say it’s pretty easy to answer: It’s that dry, bread-like cake, shaped like a dome, sort of tasteless, that pops up around Christmas and that supposedly nobody likes… right?
Last Christmas, I went to Milan to investigate where panettone comes for BBC Travel. I learned about the history of panettone, how it’s made and the traditions of how (and when) it’s eaten in Milan (and around Italy).
And, needless to say, I learned what all the fuss is about.
Spoiler alert: When it’s made properly — and good Lord, is it laborious to make properly — it is a completely. Different. Food.
No matter where you are in your trip planning, you probably have some idea of what to do in Rome… during the day. But what should you do in Rome at night time?
Here are some of my favorite things to do in Rome at night.
What to do in Rome at night when you… want to do as the locals do, part I
The funny thing about this question is that, in many ways, it’s surprisingly easy to answer. Trying to figure out how to fill your schedule between the time that the sites close and night falls and when you go to sleep? Go to dinner.
That might sound glib. It shouldn’t. Keep in mind that Romans tend to eat dinner at about 9pm — so much so that restaurants that cater to locals won’t even open until 8pm. They also tend to linger at dinner longer (and, for better or for worse, serving can be slower) — which means you’ll see many groups of friends, or couples, sit down at 9pm and not leave until 11pm or even midnight.
So, obviously, that’s one way to fill your time. (And if you really want to fit in, don’t forget to read up on Italian dining etiquette first).
Which may leave you with the opposite problem: If you aren’t eating until 9pm, what do you do from 6pm until 9pm?
There’s nothing like turning on Netflix and getting a surprise… one of the shows you were interviewed for a year ago has come out! If you have Netflix, catch me talking about Caesar (and, obviously, Cleopatra) on the new season of Roman Empire: Master of Rome. And stay tuned for next season… I may or may not have even more to say there.
Wondering what to see in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome? Good question. I talked about visiting the Jewish Ghetto — specifically in terms of when to go, what to expect and what makes its history so fascinating — before. But I didn’t go into exactly what to see in the Jewish Ghetto once you’re there.
The thing is, most people don’t come to Rome’s Jewish Ghetto with a long list of must-see sights in mind. After all, the Jewish Ghetto doesn’t have anything as well-known as, say, the Pantheon or Colosseum or St. Peter’s. Instead, people usually come to soak up the atmosphere, grab a bite to eat and then… carry on their way.
You could do that. But if you want to be a little more organized? Here are my six favorite sights to see in the Jewish Ghetto.
Theatre of Marcellus (Teatro di Marcello)
Also known to tourists as “that other Colosseum,” the Theatre of Marcellus is not the same thing as the Colosseum. The Colosseum was the home of vicious gladiatorial combat. The theatre of Marcellus? For plays, concerts and poetic recitals. Despite being more high-brow (and a bit less violent), though, this monument has a history almost as sad as the Colosseum. It was begun by Julius Caesar as a gift to the people (yay!), but left unfinished when Caesar wound up in a pool of blood about five minutes away (boo). Emperor Augustus, Caesar’s successor, finished it and dedicated the theatre in 13 BC to his nephew and son-in-law (noble families preferred to double up wherever possible). He was said to be a stand-up lad, beloved by Augustus, and was slated to be his successor (yay!)… until he fell ill and died at the age of 19 (boo). The theatre remained in use for several hundred years (yay!), until it was largely abandoned and became a quarry for other buildings by the end of the 4th century (boo).
Today, it’s been revived somewhat: People live in apartments on the upper floor (truly), while the sight itself hosts small concerts in the summer. You can’t go in during the day. But you still shouldn’t miss it. (As if you could!).
Portico of Octavia (Portico d’Ottavia)
Under scaffolding for ages, the Porticus Octaviae has finally been restored… hurrah! Its size seems impressive now, but when you see it, squint your eyes and try to imagine that these columns kept going: This is actually the fragment of a larger, colonnaded pathway that enclosed the temples of Jupiter Stator and Juno Regina inside. It gets its name from Augustus’s sister, who it was dedicated to around 27 AD. And that brick archway might seem relatively new, but it actually was built in the 5th century, which destroyed the columns that were originally there.
If you’ve been researching a trip to Rome, at some point, you’ve probably heard about the Colosseum underground tour. (You may even have heard about it here… or even here). And if you haven’t visited before, you might be wondering: is the Colosseum underground worth it?
First, let’s talk about what the Colosseum underground actually is.
When people hear “underground” in Rome, they automatically think catacombs. But when it comes to the Colosseum, that’s not exactly — okay, not at all — the case. We’re not talking about a spooky cemetery; instead, we’re talking about a backstage area.
That’s right. Think of the Colosseum’s underground as where all of the work required to host these massive, bloody pageants really went on. It’s where gladiators waited for their turn to fight. It’s where the animals were caged. It’s where the mechanical lift (yes, you heard that right) was hoisted up to spring said gladiators and animals through hidden trap doors in the arena stand, stunning and, one would assume, impressing the crowd.
To recap, a few months ago, I published a massive 2017 update of my popular guidebook for Rome. But it was still available as an e-book only (either for Kindle or as a PDF). Many of you emailed to ask if I’d be publishing a print version of the Rome guidebook, too.
It took me a little while (turns out, designing and formatting a book and its cover for print is complicated!). But in December, it finally hit Amazon here. Here’s a little peek at what the cover looks like:
If you’ll be in the city for more than a couple of days, visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is a must. As well the oldest Jewish settlement in all of Europe (dating back to the 2nd century B.C.) — and, as you might expect, home to a striking synagogue, kosher bakeries and Jewish-Roman trattorias — it isn’t only worth a stop for visitors interested in Jewish history.
That’s because the Jewish Ghetto is also one of the loveliest, most atmospheric areas of Rome. Compact and very pedestrian-friendly, it’s one of my favorite places for a stroll.
Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome? Here are a few things to know first. (After you read this, don’t miss my follow-up post on what to see in the Jewish Ghetto).
The Jewish Ghetto in Rome today
The biggest misconception about the Jewish Ghetto has to do with its name. The word “ghetto” (understandably) tends to throw up some confusion.
First, no: the “Jewish Ghetto” is not an inappropriate nickname. That’s what the neighborhood is called, and what locals (and Jewish locals) call it. Second, it’s not a “ghetto” in the modern sense — though it has its own very sad history of discrimination and poverty.
In the 16th century, the quarter was walled off as the residential area for Rome’s Jews, a heart-wrenchingly common occurrence in Italy and, of course, across Europe. (In fact, the word ghetto is an Italian word: the first Jewish ghetto was in Venice, in the quarter known today as Canaletto). Today, it’s an extremely safe, very well-heeled quarter of the city.
The other thing to keep in mind when you visit the Jewish Ghetto is that this is the spiritual and cultural home of Jews in Rome. And that’s a big deal. Rome is the longest-running home of Jews in all of Europe — thanks to the less-happy fact that they were brought over as slaves in the 2nd century BC.
But when you visit the Jewish Ghetto today, remember that, despite the towering synagogue and the kosher restaurants, it’s a far cry from the thriving, bustling Jewish community it would have been a century ago.
About 2,000 Jews of the area’s 7,000 were rounded up in a single day in 1943 and sent to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. Today, Rome is said to have less than 20,000 Jewish residents, only a few hundred of whom live in this quarter.
Having trouble figuring out Rome airport is best to fly into — or which airport is most central? I don’t blame you. Rome has not one, but two, airports — Fiumicino (FCO) and Ciampino (CIA) — and they’re both international. So how do you decide between them?
First of all, keep in mind that you may not have to decide. If you’re coming straight from the US or Canada, your flight will land at Fiumicino. Easy.
But if you’re coming from Europe or elsewhere, you may have the option. Here’s how to decide which Rome airport is best to fly into.
Fiumicino is the main international airport (but still not enormous)…
Both airports serve airlines from all over. But when people talk about Rome’s “international” airport they usually mean Fiumicino, Rome’s main international airport. If you’re flying an airline like Alitalia, American Airlines or British Airways, you’ll be coming into Fiumicino.
Still, compared to international airports like London Heathrow, Fiumicino isn’t huge. There are four terminals, three of which are in the same building; only one, Terminal 5 (which serves passengers coming from the US and Israel), requires a short shuttle bus to get to. I find the size to be nice. It’s small enough that it’s always very easy to find someone after they’ve landed (and to navigate yourself), but large enough that it has some nice shops while you’re waiting for your flight. And I don’t know about you, but I’m always glad that I don’t have to walk 30 minutes from the gate to the exit.
Seven years ago, when the Colosseum opened its underground to the public, it was a huge deal. Now, the powers that be seem to be trying to outdo themselves: They’re topping off an extraordinary €25 million restoration with opening the Colosseum’s uppermost level. (See what I did there?)
You already could go up to the third level as part of the underground tour (confusing, I know). So despite the breathless media coverage, it’s not as if this is the first time visitors are getting the option to see the Forum and Arch of Constantine from above. Still, it is the first time they’ve been open to the public in 40 years… and, like the rest of the Colosseum, they’ve been restored to (some of) their former splendor.
Like the third level (and underground), you only can access the top tier of the Colosseum as part of a special tour. The tours, which begin on 1 November, must be pre-booked; they cost an extra €9 on top of the €12 admission fee. You should be able to book the top level Colosseum tour online, though it doesn’t seem to be an option quite yet. Watch this space.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.