When I think back on our time in Rome, I remember the warm weather, the colorful buildings, the dark cobbled streets, and the happiness I felt at being there with Dan.
On our first night in Rome, however, we were feeling a bit jaded and less than charmed by the city. It probably didn’t help that we had just flown in from Paris, where we had spent the last five days being swept off our feet. Not wanting to repeat the dreadful experience of dragging our luggage through trains and along tiny streets, we opted to take a cab from the airport directly to our hotel near Piazza Navona. The cab ride took us past some pretty seedy-looking areas, with graffiti covering crumbling walls and what essentially looked like a series of American strip malls. It was not the glorious, brightly lit Rome I’d coveted in other people’s vacation photos, and I started to wonder if we should have just spent our last vacation days in Paris after all.
Our hotel, which had seemed so beautiful and airy in the photos I’d seen online, turned out to be very plain and overpriced. It had a view of the building’s shared courtyard, stuffed with heating units, random storage bins, and the occasional employee taking a smoke break. We were given a room key, but were told no guests got building access keys, so we would have to ring the front desk to be let in every single time we returned to the building. The room itself had a large gap under the door, ensuring that everyone in the vicinity could hear our conversations, and the bathroom was generally dingy, patches showing through too many coats of paint. But hey, the location was fantastic, and we could not have asked for a friendlier hotel staff! You win some, you lose some.
Feeling tired and seriously underwhelmed by our arrival in Rome, we ate at an overpriced tourist restaurant on the backside of our building, and went to sleep, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day. And you know what? It was.
We awoke on our first day in Rome with no real plan. We relished our hot showers, a treat after having to shower to night in our Parisian Airbnb, and set out to find some food. As it was already nearing noon, we opted for pizza at the aptly named restaurant Margherita.
We dined alfresco, and already our moods began to lighten as we took in the beautiful street around us and began to plan our day. It was decided over delicious pizza and Cokes that we would begin with the Pantheon, located somewhere nearby, and wing it from there.
It turns out, this was the best way to see Rome. We marveled over the gorgeous little streets. I stopped so frequently to take photos of the streets, the charming little balconies and the endless parade of beautifully-designed doors, that it took us fifteen minutes to arrive at the Pantheon, which should have been a four minute walk.
Fifteen minutes was all it took for my doubts about Rome to fall away, replaced by an eagerness to explore this beautiful city.
The Pantheon itself was lovely, the centerpiece of the beautiful Piazza della Rotonda.
Ancient buildings surrounded the square, each four to six stories with residences on the upper levels and cafes and shops spilling onto the main square. Visitors sipped their drinks, swirled pasta onto a fork, or ate gelato as they dined beneath white awnings, sunglasses resting lazily atop their heads. A great fountain, simply called the Fountain of the Pantheon, stood in the center of the square. We moved closer to get some photos of the fountain and laughed when we saw the grotesque, almost threatening faces which decorate every one of its four sides.
The Pantheon, a former temple, is renowned as the best-preserved building from ancient Rome. It is one of the only buildings to have been used continuously since its creation, which means it was frequently updated and repaired while buildings in other parts of the city were abandoned and allowed to become crumbling ruins.
One of the things that I found most interesting about the Pantheon is that it serves as a burial place for two Italian kings, the painter Raphael, and several other notable Italian figures.
The dome of the Pantheon is also noteworthy, especially for an engineer like Dan. It remains the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world, even 2,000 years after it was built. The hole in the center is called an oculus, and it was meant to serve as a connection between the temple and the gods above.
We left the Pantheon and spent some more time wandering around the square, just taking in the details and peering into the shops as we went.
We found a sign pointing visitors to nearby tourist sights, and off we went down a little side street in search of the Trevi Fountain. This became one of my favorite things about visiting Rome. The major sights were all very close to one another, and easy to locate thanks to little signs like these.
We wound up following the crowd for the most part, which I found simultaneously helpful and annoying. No visitor likes to think of themselves as a tourist, but in a city like Rome, it’s kind of inevitable that at some point you will simply join the throng.
So we followed the crowd, at one point bypassing the Trevi Fountain entirely and continuing up the road to our first glimpse of the rooftops of Rome.
It was a lovely sight, with all those sunset-toned buildings and decorated domes rising out of the mass. We lingered, wandered in circles for a while, and finally made our way back down the hill to the Trevi Fountain, tucked away just off the main road.
It was a lot smaller than I was expecting. Seeing the Trevi Fountain in movies, I always imagined it was a grand fountain tucked into the corner of a massive square, but in fact the opposite was true!
The fountain itself was grand and lovely, but the square in which it was located was very small and packed with tourists, making it a little difficult to maneuver our way down the steps to the water’s edge. Tucked into a little square like this, we didn’t feel as silly for missing it the first time around. I joked with Dan as we tossed our coins into the fountain that I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back to this packed, ultra-touristy place. Don’t worry, I was singing a different tune by the end of the evening.
Rome has free drinking water at fountains throughout the city. It’s one of the things the city is known for, and Dan and I filled up at the Trevi Fountain. The water was cold and surprisingly delicious, an unexpected relief considering how awful the drinking water is here in Florida. We wandered down another side street, stopping to sample our first gelato of the trip. I tried stracciatella and dulce de leche, both of which were fantastic and super creamy.
The charming little street spilled out onto a motor crossing, which we speed walked across as soon as the opportunity came. Here we saw all kinds of street artists and vendors selling their wares, and ducked into a McDonald’s to use the public restroom. What is it with Rome and the lack of public restrooms!? Then it was on to the Spanish Steps (goodbye Lizzie McGuire, hello fabulous). The square was packed with people, a good indicator that a major sightseeing stop was nearby, and stuffed with luxury shops and well-known name brands.
The steps themselves were closed for renovation, but the clear construction walls around the site enhanced the scene rather than detracting from it. I realized it was probably the only time I would see the steps 100% free of tourists, so I didn’t mind at all. The clear walls had photos of some of the movie stars to have graced the steps, such as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Funded by Bulgari, the renovations have now been completed and the steps are currently welcoming visitors.
At the top of the Spanish Steps is a little church, called the Trinità dei Monti. We felt obligated to make a donation by the grim-looking ushers just outside the front door, and to get to the church, we had to make our way through the scammers trying to push roses into our hands. Hint: they’re not free. Just keep walking. The church itself was small but very beautiful, with simple white ceilings and a few lavishly-decorated chapels along the sides.
We sat in the church for about fifteen minutes, resting our feet and just taking it all in, then stepped back outside to admire the views from the top of the steps. (No, I do not want a rose, please leave me the hell alone.)
With no real plan or destination, we turned right after leaving the church and continued down the road. I loved this little section of Rome, which offered wide walking paths, plenty of rooftop bars and charming restaurants, and some seriously stunning views over the city.
With cars parked along the sides of the narrow street, and plenty of plant life all around, the road felt like it could be part of any city. It could be a beachside lot in Florida, famous Kerry Park in Seattle, or a standard road in any small European country. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the cobbled streets and warm-colored buildings in the very heart of the city. I just really enjoyed getting above street level and seeing it all from a very different perspective.
Our walk took us to the Borghese Gardens, something that had seemed much further away on maps of Rome. I was ecstatic to have just stumbled upon it, and in so little time! I was already planning a return picnic at some point in our trip. The park was enormous, a true attraction all by itself. It had numerous restaurants, cafes, fountains, statues, walking paths and more. I especially wanted to see the Villa and visit the Secret Gardens.
We spent about half an hour wandering the gardens in bliss before needing to find a bathroom, an unbelievably difficult task. I literally had to download an app called WC Roma to help locate a bathroom in the gardens, and based on the line of 20+ people already waiting to use it, it was the only bathroom for miles. Eventually we just left and returned to the Piazza di Spagna, where we bought two espresso and used the cafe’s restroom instead.
Leaving the gardens was a major disappointment for me, and a frustration that could easily have been avoided if more public facilities were available throughout the property. Hopefully I will get to see the Villa Borghese on a future trip. At any rate, we had our espresso and did some window shopping as we wandered around the world-famous shopping district near the Spanish steps. I cheered up considerably as we walked the beautiful streets on our way back to our hotel.
We stopped inside one of the churches we had passed earlier that day, admiring its gilded ceiling and marbled interior.
We realized that aside from the small donation to visit the church at the top of the Spanish Steps, we had visited every attraction thus far for free. From beautiful churches to massive gardens to some of the most famous sights in Rome, we had not paid a single entry fee. That made me love Rome even more, and we returned to our hotel with a little extra bounce in our step.
After resting our feet and enjoying the AC for a while, we headed back out to find a nice dinner spot. We walked a little ways away from the Piazza Navona area, hoping to find something a little less touristy and a little more authentic. We wandered up and down side streets and away from the land of laminated menus and street vendors. It was down one of these cobblestone streets that we stumbled across Il Bacaro, described by Google as a “relaxed, vine-clad trattoria & terrace, serving signature Roman dishes by candlelight.” Hidden away from the clamor of the main streets, we were drawn in by Il Bacaro’s secluded location, the extensive wine list, and the candle-lit tables sitting precariously on those gorgeous black cobblestones.
It was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip, thanks to the delicious food, the intimate setting, and of course, the best company in the world. It’s the kind of setting that inspires conversations about our futures both at home and abroad, and we were both delightfully warm by the time our meal was over. Dan and I shared a bottle of white wine, ordered two plates of pasta, and ended the meal with tiramisu served in a champagne glass. The pasta was some of the best I’ve had in my life, with fresh mussels and a light red sauce, and the tiramisu was so creamy and flavorful, I don’t think anything here could ever compare.
We left the restaurant with a light wine-induced buzz and a desire to see the city by night, so off we went in search of the Trevi Fountain. Dan took most of the photos here, and I’m impressed by how beautifully they turned out!
You might think the crowds would thin out later in the evening, but the square was every bit as packed as it had been earlier in the day. We enjoyed the cooling night air and the glow of the fountain water for a while, feeling very much like the luckiest people alive, and then we continued on to the Pantheon.
We sat in the square for a while and people watched, and Dan took a few more beautiful photos of the Pantheon. At this point, the romance levels were still high but the wine buzz was starting to wear off, so we decided to grab a drink near the hotel and just bask in that vacation glow. This is how we finally discovered Piazza Navona.
The funny thing is, we had booked a hotel near the centrally-located piazza on purpose, and after the day’s explorations, had completely forgotten about its existence. Piazza Navona was literally across the street from our hotel, the entrance to the massive square located through a deceptively small street. Finding it was a pleasant surprise, and we quickly found a place to settle in and watch the world go by. We ordered a bottle of wine and a small plate of bruschetta from Bernini, and enjoyed the beautiful square for a while.
A hawker approached our table and tried to sell a single rose to Dan for a ridiculous 5 Euros. I just wanted the guy to leave us alone, and Dan happily got rid of him for me. He talked the price down to one Euro and then abruptly changed his mind, handing me the flowers from our table centerpiece with a charming flourish. Mr. Flower Seller was not a happy camper, but it gave us something to laugh about, and it made our first night in Rome even more memorable.
There were a few cons to our day, which I’ll discuss more in depth in my Rome Day 2 roundup. The overwhelming amount of tourists, the dozens of insistent scammers and hawkers, and the fact that everyone we encountered automatically treated us as tourists really grated on me after a while. The fact that everyone spoke English and half the people walking the streets wore enormous cameras around their necks made it easier for me to communicate and take hundreds of photos without cringing in shame, but seeing firsthand just how much of a tourist trap Rome can be was a bit appalling. Plus, what is the deal with the lack of public bathrooms!? It seriously cramped our traveling style after a while.
Still, I think the pros far outweigh the cons of a visit to Rome. We saw so much on our first day alone, and even with a short visit to the city, it is very possible to hit the must-sees and more. If you are interested in following our day one sightseeing itinerary, just click below to see the path we took (minus the part where we got lost looking for the Trevi Fountain).
That’s all for now! Check back soon to see what we did on days two and three!