My favorite things to do in Rome fall into two categories: sitting and scavenging. Sitting is tough – it means you have to ignore how little time you have in this magnificent city and how many sites you want to see and just sit quietly in one place for a while to soak it all in. Scavenging makes up for all that quiet time and can be done on the go as you flit from site to site.
As far as I am concerned, this is Rome’s greatest hidden treasure. I love it so much I hesitate to tell you about it because I don’t want it to get overrun with tourists. Commissioned around 125 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for his family, Castel Sant’Angelo was later converted into a fortress and prison during the papal states years. Today it’s a museum, but none of that is why I love this place. In fact, the building itself is pretty boring. But work your way up the ramp to the very top and you’ll get the treat of a lifetime.
From one side you can see the Tiber River that runs through Rome.
From the west side you look straight at Vatican City.
And from another side you get a stunning panorama of Rome’s skyline. You can even see the Colosseum in the back left corner.
Time your trip carefully, because good lighting is the key to great pictures. These were taken late in the day, which makes Vatican pictures tricky because it’s in the west and silhouetted by the setting sun, but it’s a perfect time for skyline pictures. Morning time would be the reverse. I got lucky and caught this shot just after a storm passed to the west of us. Patience helps – I waited almost 90 minutes for the light to resolve itself into what I wanted for my shots, and that’s why Castel Sant’Angelo falls into the “sitting” section of this post.
Reflect on history
There are dozens of great walking tours that will take you through the Roman ruins and explain their history. What’s missing, though, is the chance to really slow down and reflect on what it means. I like to plop myself down beside a ruin and imagine what life was like in that place thousands of years ago. Tune out modern sounds and picture the scene from history. Men and women in leather sandals wearing crudely spun clothing. Women selling freshly pressed olive oil at market stands. Men bending metal into pots and tools. Animals everywhere. OK, so I’m a geek. But it’s fun.
Pick up a gelato and cop a squat on the Spanish Steps. Italians are renowned for their style and beauty, and this spot makes for some of the best people-watching in the world.
If you sit here long enough you can pick out who the locals are and who the tourists are.
Watch how Italians go about their daily life. No Costco runs for these folks! On the way home from work they stop at the butcher and produce stand for their dinner. Many young people live with their parents until marriage, so you’ll see lots of couples squeezing in some cuddle time.
Scavenging is a game I play in lots of places, but Rome seems to be the best for it since there’s just so much to see. It’s kind of like playing the “license plate” game on road trips, where you look for plates from other states. In this game you’re looking for things that are present everywhere in Rome. It keeps me from getting bored (and the kids will love it too!). Here are some ideas of things to look for (hint – for extra fun you can even set it up as a competition between yourself and friends or between your kids).
Angels -They say angels are everywhere among us, and in Rome I can believe it.
Fountains – With 2,000 fountains, Rome has more than anywhere else in the world. Does anyone know what the #2 city is? Put your guess in the comments section below.
Headless/limbless statues – This is a perfect one for teenage boys. For some reason the artists love decapitating and/or amputating their statues’ limbs.
Vespa scooters – Making a game of counting them might help reduce your irritation at their hornet-like buzzing.
Tiny Cars – The next best thing to a Vespa for getting around Rome is a tiny car. And I mean tiny!
Funny signs – Every country has their own way of announcing danger or street rules. Some of Rome’s are pretty funny.
What are your favorite cities to sit and scavenge in? Comments below, please!