Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome: What You Have to Know

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome

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). 

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto is great for a stroll
The Jewish Ghetto: great to visit, take a stroll, *and* make furry friends

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.

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto
Probably not when you picture when you hear “ghetto”: One of the many stunning courtyards tucked into the Jewish ghetto in Rome

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.

In the Jewish Ghetto of Rome
In the Jewish Ghetto of Rome

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.

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What To Do in Rome When You’ve Done… Everything

What to do in Rome when you've done everything

Sometimes, I get a call from a client who needs help planning their second, third, even fourth trip to Rome. The issue isn’t that they need to know how to use Rome’s public transport, or where to eat, or whether to book the Vatican Museums in advance. What they want to know is if there’s anything to do in Rome when you’ve done… everything.

The good news: I always can help. And it’s not because I’m some kind of genius. It’s because you could spend years, even a lifetime, in Rome and never see everything the city has to offer. (I’d know). As much as it seems like you’ve checked off just about every item in your guidebook, I promise: You haven’t. There are always more fascinating, unique sights to see.

So whether you’ve already seen Rome’s main attractions — or you already have them in your itinerary and have more time to play with — here are some sights to add.

Yes, there’s much, much more to Rome than sights like the Pantheon… as beautiful as they are

Nota bene: I’m assuming you really have seen “everything in Rome” for this post, so I’m not including things that have been written about many, many times already, like the Colosseum underground, Borghese Gallery or even Basilica of San Clemente or Appian Way. My litmus test for this list was whether a visitor normally would have seen these attractions in their first three or even four trips to Rome (no!) — and whether I’d recommend that they do (yes!).

(PS: There’s so much you can do in Rome once you’ve done “everything”, this won’t be the only post like this. Stay tuned!)

What to do in Rome when you’ve done everything? Here are 10 more sights to explore:

Rome’s other “Central Park”: You’ve visited the lovely Villa Borghese and seen views of Rome from the Janiculum Hill and Garden of Oranges. What’s next? Monte Mario. Little-known to most visitors, this massive park (actually a nature reserve) is located on Rome’s highest hill just northwest of the city center — and has some extraordinary views of the city. (Also shown at top of post).

What to do in Rome when you've done everything -- Monte Mario park
Views from the little-known park of Monte Mario in Rome

The ancient world of Aventine Hill: If you’ve been reading Revealed Rome, you know I’m a big fan of ancient underground sites — and that many of them can be found beneath churches. One of my favorites, though, is the Church of Santa Sabina in the Aventine.

That’s not just because of the church’s underground, which includes 2nd-century homes and a 3rd-century shrine. It’s also because, even if you can’t access the underground (open only on pre-reserved tours), you can get a glimpse of how the ancient/early Christian world would have looked: this is one of the few churches in Rome that’s been left with its 5th-century structure largely intact.

The Church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hilla
The ancient Church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hill: stunning and often nearly completely empty
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The (New) Revealed Rome Guidebook Is Out!

New Rome guidebook

I couldn’t be more excited to announce that, after five years, my new Rome guidebook is out.

The original 2012 version of the Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks to the Eternal City sold thousands of copies (and got rave reviews). This book builds on that success with an in-depth update and serious expansion: It’s crammed full with more than twice as many fun, easy-to-digest tips and tricks than the previous version.

Like the previous version, the new book is not your normal “Rome guidebook”. Instead of providing information easily found elsewhere, it gives you tips and tricks to experiencing Rome like a local, including items like…

  • how to pick an authentic Roman restaurant at a glance
  • budget accommodation options you may not have considered
  • the one place to never take a taxi
  • secrets to skipping the lines at the Colosseum, the Vatican and more
  • off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods that should be on your list
  • how to eat gluten-free, vegetarian or with other dietary restrictions
  • key tips for booking (and taking) trains
  • here to find drinking water, and bathrooms, while out and about
  • how to protect yourself from pickpockets
  • the best neighborhoods in Rome for shopping

New Rome guidebook

…and much, much more. Buy it on Amazon here or by clicking the cover at left.

I’m also really excited to say that, for the first three months of publication, I’m donating a significant portion of the profits (€1/$1/£1 per book, depending on location of sale) to a cause I believe in: the American Institute for Roman Culture, a nonprofit which protects and campaigns for Rome’s cultural heritage. So if you’re thinking of buying a book, now is the time to do it!

The book comes on Amazon as an e-book which can be read on any tablet, iPhone, laptop or Kindle.

Note: Bought the book before today, and now wish you’d waited for the new version? Don’t worry: You can replace the older version with this update. If you’re using a Kindle device or app, turn on Annotations Backup to back up your notes, highlights and bookmarks. Then go to the Manage Your Content and Devices page, select “Automatic Book Update” under the Settings tab and select “On” from the dropdown menu. Your e-book automatically will be updated to the new version.

If you’d prefer to receive the book as a PDF, order it through Paypal by clicking on the button below. When I receive the order confirmation, I will e-mail you the book as a PDF. (Just be aware that this is a manual process, so can take me up to 48 hours to e-mail over).




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What is the Weather in Rome Really Like? (And How to Pack for It)

Want to know the weather in Rome, Italy? You could obviously just check out the forecast. (Not that that’s necessarily that reliable). But you’ve wound up here instead, so I’m guessing you don’t want to know the Rome weather coming up in the next few days — you’re looking further ahead and curious what, say, the weather in Rome is usually like a few weeks or even months from now.

Maybe you’re trying to decide when to come to Rome. Or you’ve already chosen your dates, and you need to know what to pack.

Although I resisted writing a post about weather in Rome for a while (compared to all of the incredible art and unknown museums and underground ruins and gelato gelato gelato the topic just seems so… banal), I get asked about it enough that it seems like it’s time.

So: here’s what to expect, season by season, in terms of the weather in Rome. And what this means in terms of what to pack and prepare for.

(PS: If you are looking for the weather forecast in the near future, two of my go-to sites are Weathercast and Accuweather).

Weather in Rome in… summer (spoiler: it’s hot, and they’re not that into a/c)

This is when things get nice and sweaty. Temperatures peak in July — that’s when you’re looking at an average high of 88°F (31°C). (While the average low is a comfy 62°F/17°C, if Rome ever hit that temperature in July, I’m pretty sure it’s while I was sleeping). It’s also the driest month of the year, with less than an inch of average rainfall. August is about the same — plus you have the double-whammy of the uber-crowds and that it’s ferragosto (read: when many restaurants and shops close as locals, reasonably, flee to the seaside). If you can swing it, June is milder and less crowded, especially earlier in the month.

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The Pyramid in Rome: Restored, Clean and Now Open

The pyramid of Rome, also called Pyramid of Cestius

Did you know there’s a pyramid in Rome? Neither do most people. And not only is there a pyramid, but it’s a pretty legit — and ancient — pyramid: dating back to 12BC, it was the over-the-top burial tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman praetor with a thing for Egyptian style.

At 120ft (36m) tall, with a base of 97ft (29.5m) on each side, the Pyramid of Cestius is pretty hard to miss. It’s been largely overlooked for years, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s located in Testaccio — a neighborhood that, while very much in the center of Rome, is just off the beaten tourist track. That’s changing, thanks to recent trends like the gamut of food tours that now run through the area. But the quarter remains less trodden than, say, the streets around Piazza Navona.

Not to mention that Rome’s pyramid was in bad shape. Once gleaming, white marble, it had become so dirty that, by the time I first laid eyes on it in 2009, it was a sooty, dark brown-gray. It was so bad that, having just scoured five years of photographs to see if I could find proof for you, it turns out I don’t have a single one — probably because, in all the dozens of times I walked past, it was so grimy I hadn’t felt moved to take a picture.

And finally, except for the occasional “extraordinary opening”, the pyramid was closed to visitors.

That’s all changed.

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What to Know About Coffee in Italy — And Where to Find the Best Coffee in Rome

Where to find the best coffee in Rome

The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks — which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italian coffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really meanAnd, naturally, where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).

But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.

How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style

Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.

And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?

Got it? Good!

Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?

You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
Best coffee in Italy at Naples Caffe Mexico
At the best Italian bars, like Caffe Mexico in Naples, making an espresso is down to a science

For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).

Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:

Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino — these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”

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Can Rome’s Ancient World Be Saved? My Video with BBC Travel

IMG_1783

In July, I filmed my first video for BBC Travel: It’s about how Rome’s ruins are at risk — and what’s being done (or not) to save them. The video is part of what we hope will be a series called Dissolving History, about cultural heritage under threat around the world. You can watch Dissolving History: Rome here.

Cultural heritage (a decidedly unexciting term for what I think is one of the most exciting things around — the one way we can really get up close and personal with our own history!) is a topic close to my heart. I first covered how Italy’s heritage was underfunded five years ago. Since then, I’ve written about UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage for National Geographic Traveler and Italy’s stolen works of art for the BBC.

But even when I’m not writing about cultural heritage directly, I’m writing about it somehow. It’s rare that I write a travel story — or take a trip at all — without somehow touching on the destination’s monuments and museums, its artifacts and archaeology. And I have a feeling it’s the same for most of you.

So it’s an important topic. And a surprisingly fun one. Check out the video for more.

And here are some behind-the-scenes shots, if you’d like to see…

Biblioteca Casatense, Dissolving Heritage Rome

I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage Dario Franceschini. Here, I’m debriefing with his aides after the interview.

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One of the Loveliest Little Leather Shops in Rome

“Where can I find a good leather store in Rome?” has to be one of the most frequently-asked questions I get. Although I’ve dragged my (leather-clad) heels on writing a full list — it’s pending, I promise — here’s one to add: Mancini.

The little shop, tucked behind the Pantheon, got its start back in 1918. The great-grandson of the first owner runs it today. For a small place, it’s had an illustrious history: it provided leather for the 1951 film Quo Vadis, once made a leather folder (random, yes) for Pope Pius XII and was Gucci’s go-to spot for repairs for years.

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The Best Trattoria in Rome? How About Six of Them

The best trattorias in Rome

Looking for the best trattoria in Rome? Good. Because unless you’re sticking to Michelin-starred spots only, at some point during your trip, you’re going to wind up eating at one. Might as well make it top-notch.

Originally, a trattoria was a mid-priced, family-run restaurant, something between a ristorante and osteria in terms of expense and formality. In reality, it’s come to mean pretty much any restaurant in Rome that’s serving up Roman dishes and isn’t overly expensive (or any others that want to pretend that’s the case — hi, all you places with tourist menus!).

So if you want the very best trattoria in Rome… you should have an idea of where to go.

When I’m craving an amazing cacio e pepe or Roman artichoke or saltimbocca, these are the trattorias in Rome I frequent.

(Do note that while these places all have very good food, they’re not all always top-notch with service: brusque waiters are part of the trattoria’s charm. Truly. It’s as traditional as carbonara).

The best… no-frills trattoria in Rome

Spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana
An abundant portion of spaghetti alle vongole at Hostaria Romana

Hostaria Romana is old-school: the tables are crammed together, past diners have scrawled their signatures on the wall, and if two people at your table order the same pasta, it’s spooned out of a pan right at your table. Fortunately, the dishes are old-school, too. Nothing here is going to blow your mind with creativity, but that’s not the purpose of, say, a like-your-nonna-romana-made-it amatriciana: We’re talking simple ingredients done well.

On that basic (but oh-so-difficult, if other trattorias in Rome are any indication!) promise, Hostaria Romana delivers. Which is especially surprising given its location right around the corner from Piazza Barberini, or tourism central. Even more surprising? The waiters here are actually nice. Go figure.

In season, don’t miss the artichokes. When I ate there in December, I ordered both the alla giudia (fried) and alla romana (braised) styles. They were both delicious. (Who said you have to settle for just one option?).

Carciofi at Hostaria Romana in Rome
Don’t limit yourself. How about a carciofo alla giudia…

 

At Hostaria Romana, one of the best trattoria in rome
…and a carciofo alla romana?

Hostaria Romana is located at Via del Boccaccio 1, right near Piazza Barberini; it’s open daily except Sundays for lunch and dinner. For dinner, reservations are recommended.

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Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2018)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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