Want to know the best ways to explore Vatican City and get to know the Pope — beyond St. Peter’s Basilica? Check out my roundup of Vatican secrets in the August/September issue of National Geographic Traveler (…it’s the cover story!), from where to shop for papal socks to seeing the “other” Sistine Chapel. Not in the US? You can also check out a version of the piece online here.
When it comes to Rome in summer, let’s get back to basics: what the weather in Rome in June, July, August, and September is really like… and how to deal.
In this first installment of the Rome summer guide, you’ll find out about some surprising ways to beat the heat, why Rome’s water fountains are freakin’ awesome, which of Rome’s sights have nada shade, why dressing skimpily isn’t always the answer, and—of course—what that heat is a great excuse for (hint: it comes in a cup or a cone…).
Want to survive enjoy Rome in summer, at the height of its temperatures? Read on!
What to know about summer weather in Rome (caution: heat ahead)
Rome in summer? Hot? Um, yes (at least for this New England girl). Rome’s average temperature in both June and September reaches a high of 81° F. The heat peaks in July, with a high of 88° F. And August isn’t much cooler, at 87°.
Here in Rome, all eyes have been on Pope Francis I since his March election. Curious about the new guy in charge of the Vatican? This weekend, there are plenty of chances to catch a glimpse of him—from the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum to the papal mass at St. Peter's Square on Sunday. For more (and on more events going on this Easter in Rome), check out my latest piece for BBC Travel.
It's no secret that I adore Monti, the ancient rione a stone's throw from Rome's Colosseum and forum. Want to find out why? Pick up the April issue of National Geographic Traveler (that's the U.S. version of the magazine), where I've written about some of the area's hidden gems and hottest spots—from an ancient basilica to an artisanal gelateria. Here's a sneak peek, but when the article goes live online, I'll share it here, so check back. (Update, March 17: You can now read the story about Monti online!).
And stay tuned for news of an article on another fantastic Rome neighborhood, for another great travel magazine, coming soon. (What can I say, I hate to play favorites).
Big news from Rome: The Vatican announced this morning that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of the month.
The last time a Pope resigned, it was in 1415—and the purpose was to end the Western Schism. (Three men were all claiming to be the Pope simultaneously. Things got confusing). This time, the 85-year-old Pope’s reason for his departure seems a little more personal. It’s most likely because of his health, which seems to have been deteriorating in recent months. You can read the Pope’s declaration of his resignation here.
Coming to Rome sometime during the Christmas and New Year's season? Here are the most important things to know! Check out my new, 5-minute video—something I'll be doing more often, so make sure to subscribe to the Revealed Rome YouTube channel. Thanks for watching!
Not everything’s open every day in Rome. The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel close one day a week; so do lots of favorite restaurants and shops.
So when planning your trip to Rome, it pays to have a basic idea of what day in the week is best for which sight or activity. Here’s help. (In the form of a “rhyme.” Move aside, Shakespeare Keats Dr. Seuss Eddie Mannix).
And here it is… in video form!
Dreaming of the Sistine Chapel? Then don’t go on a Sunday
The Vatican museums (which include the Sistine Chapel) are open every day but Sunday. On the last Sunday of the month, they are open and free, but it’s not something I recommend if you value your vacation time; the line is often three hours or more (and you can’t book a ticket in advance on the Vatican website). St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily; on Sunday, the Pope appears at 12pm to an audience on the square, and on Wednesday, he has his general audience at 10:30am.
Best time to go to the Vatican: Wednesday morning, as the museums tend to be emptier while the Pope does his audience; otherwise, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays, since Saturday and Monday tend to be crowded with people who would have gone on Sunday.
And stay away from smaller churches—at least if it is midday
Most churches are open daily in Rome. However, many of the more off-the-beaten-path churches also close midday, some for as long as from 12pm to 4pm, so always check. On Sunday, remember that they may be holding Mass and more ceremonies than usual, which can make it more difficult (or forbidden) to walk around to sightsee.
Best time to go: Morning or evening, except for Sundays (unless you want to see Mass).
On Monday, many museums are a no-go
Most of Rome’s best museums close on Mondays, but are open every other day of the week. These include the Borghese Gallery, Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Massimo, Crypta Balbi, MAXXI, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the National Gallery of Modern Art.
Best time to go: Tuesday through Friday; weekends tend to be more crowded than weekdays (not that that’s much of a problem at some of these places, like the Crypta Balbi).
While for lots of restaurants, it’s the day of riposo
Many of Rome’s restaurants have one “day of rest,” even though this is no longer government-mandated. This day is typically—but not always—Monday, and sometimes Sunday for lunch and/or dinner as well (particularly for restaurants that are more elegant or upscale; since Sunday is a big pizza night, pizzerias are usually open Sunday). Some restaurants, like popular Da Francesco near Piazza Navona, close Tuesday instead.
Best time to show up without a reservation or calling in advance: Wednesday or Thursday. Popular places tend to have a wait on Friday or Saturday nights, and if you’re heading somewhere on a Monday, you’ll want to call in advance (or look it up) to make sure they’re open.
There is a catacomb open every day (phew!)
Luckily, no matter what day you’re planning on going, at least one catacomb will be open. Just make sure it’s the right one! The catacombs of St. Sebastian close on Sunday, Santa Priscilla closes Monday, St. Domitilla closes Tuesday, and St. Callixtus closes Wednesday. They also close on most major holidays and over the lunch hour, so double-check the hours on the websites.
Best time to go to the catacombs: When they’re open—and not on the weekend, which tends to be more crowded.
And the Colosseum and forum are open daily, too
Most of Rome’s most famous ancient sights are open daily, including the Colosseum, forum, Palatine, and Pantheon (although the Pantheon does close slightly earlier on Sundays, at 6pm rather than 7:30pm). The Baths of Caracalla also open daily (but close at 2pm on Mondays).
Best time to go: Anytime—although to avoid lines and crowds at the Colosseum and forum, opt to either be there first thing in the morning (i.e. 8:30am), or later in the day (many people clear out by 3pm).
And shops can be tough on Sunday, unless they’re big and new
Shops in the heart of Rome’s center—particularly on Via del Corso, around Piazza Navona, and near major sights—are open every day. Especially the chains. (But we know how I feel about those). More interesting and better Smaller shops, which don’t have the staff to open daily, tend to close one day a week; for many, this is Sunday. Lots of them stay closed through Monday morning. Many of the smaller stores also close midday, like churches.
Best time to go shopping: Monday through Saturday, outside of lunchtime; to avoid shopping crowds in high-trafficked areas, try not to shop in the evening or on weekends.
Want more tips about what to do in the Eternal City? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!
Ever dreamed of going behind the scenes at the Vatican? Walking through locked doors? Ducking under velvet ropes? Admiring the incredible art and rooms closed to the public, like the world-famous Niccoline Chapel (above) or Bramante’s staircase?
Good news. Now, your dream can come true.
Two tour operators now offer VIP access to the Vatican’s most hidden gems. Walks of Italy just launched its “VIP Access: Vatican Behind the Scenes & Sistine Chapel” experience, while Dark Rome offers the “VIP Vatican & Private Sistine” tour.
(Update, 7/5/2012: You can also find this tour on Viator, where it’s named the “VIP Access: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms.” However, Viator is not a tour provider; it is an aggregator. There is no such thing as a “Viator guide” or “Viator tour.” In this instance, this tour is not Viator’s, but rather Dark Rome’s, tour [which makes it very misleading, and incorrect, that the Viator tour description says it is a “Viator exclusive”]; people who book with Viator will be put on a Dark Rome tour, with a Dark Rome guide, exactly as if they’d booked it directly through Dark Rome. Therefore, my description below of Dark Rome’s VIP Vatican tour should also be applied to Viator’s).
In both experiences, in a maximum group of 10, clients are led through the Vatican and behind closed doors by a Vatican guard (and their guide). That’s how they see such famed (but inaccessible) gems as the famous staircase of Bramante, the Gabinetto delle Maschere (with mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the “Three Graces,” one of the world’s most famous ancient Roman sculptures), and the terrace of the Loggia Scoperta, with its stunning view over Vatican City. (This blog post by Walks of Italy has lots of photos of what all these look like).
But the most exciting stop is the exploration of the Cappella Niccolina. This was the papal chapel frescoed by early Renaissance master Fra Angelico in the mid-15th century, before Michelangelo was even born. Filled with exquisite frescoes that happen to be some of the most seminal of the Renaissance, this chapel is almost always closed to the public. The chance to experience it, never mind in a group of just 10 people, is phenomenal.
So far, the only way to visit these spots is on one of these two tours. Not on your own. Not even with a Vatican guide. Just on the Walks of Italy or Dark Rome tour.
That’s not to say these two tours are exactly the same. Yes, they’re both 3 hours long. Yes, they both visit these hidden spots, as well as the Vatican’s more accessible (but unmissable!) areas like the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. Yes, they both include skip-the-line access to the Vatican museums.
The big difference is in the Sistine Chapel. Although both tours explore the Sistine Chapel, the Dark Rome version visits the Sistine Chapel for half an hour after it closes to the public. (The Walks of Italy tour visits it as normal, but does include skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica upon exiting).
That leads to the other big difference: the price. The Walks of Italy tour costs €79 per adult, while the Dark Rome tour costs €220 per adult.
If you’re in Rome for Christmas, you’re in luck! As always, there are absolutely tons of ways to get into the holiday spirit.
Here, the best of what to do.
1. See the Pope. Over the Christmas season, you’ve got lots of opportunities, from midnight mass (although getting tickets can be tricky) to “Urbi et Orbi” on Christmas Day (no tickets needed). Here’s more on how exactly to see the Pope throughout December and January (updated for 2016!).
2. Celebrate Christmas at the Auditorium. Every year, Rome’s Auditorium hosts a number of Christmas-themed events (link in Italian), running through December and early January. Goings-on include a Christmas fair, ice-skating rink, and lots of concerts, from Christmas Italian music to gospel.
3. Head to a Christmas market. They pop up all over Rome this time of year, the most famous being, of course, that in Piazza Navona (both at top and below). Here’s a list of other Christmas markets in Rome (updated for 2016!).
4. Worship—in English. The American Catholic church of Santa Susanna is usually the go-to for English Mass. But the church itself is closed for the moment for renovations. In its stead, if you’re in Rome for Christmas, there are a variety of other Catholic churches host services in English throughout the holiday season (of these, my top pick would be the stunning Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri—it’s an ancient Roman bath turned church by Michelanglo, no big deal).
For non-Catholics, the Anglican Church of All Saints’ Church holds holiday services, including the Service of Nine Lessons with Carols, and the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Scotland has services throughout the Christmas season. Other churches with non-Catholic services in English during Christmas include the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, the Methodist Church at Ponte Sant’Angelo, and the non-denominational Cavalry Chapel.
5. Go ice-skating. The Auditorium’s not the only place you can slip-and-slide. You also can skate underneath the iconic silhouette of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo. Click here for more information on the Castel Sant’Angelo rink. Other skating rinks in Rome include those at Re di Roma, Tor di Quinto, and Villa Gordiani.
6. Delve into the tradition of Italian nativity scenes. As well as Christmas cribs popping up in churches all over town, Rome boasts both a museum of more than 3,000 of them and, over Christmas, an exhibition of 200 presepi from artists across the globe (now in its 41st year). Here’s my New York Times piece on where to find presepi in Rome.
7. Check out the Christmas lights. Decorations are getting more ambitious every year, with gorgeous twinklings (and light projections, and jumbo screens) lighting up not only the heart of Rome’s centro storico, but even Termini, EUR, and the Fiumicino airport. Don’t believe me? Check out my photo post of the prettiest Christmas lights and decorations in Rome!
8. Hear some holiday music. The internationally-renowned academy of Santa Cecilia hosts several Christmas choral concerts in December: on Saturday December 17 at 11:30am, Dec. 20 at 7:30pm and Dec. 21 at 8:30pm.
9. Enjoy delicious Christmas sweets. Bakeries are brimming over with yummy holiday offerings like panettone, torrone and pandoro (above). If you’re in Rome for Christmas, make sure to taste the goods. It’s the one time of year that even Italians over-indulge in the sweet stuff!
10. Give back. The Emergency Christmas Market now takes place right in the heart of the center on Via IV Novembre 157B (off Magnanapoli), near Piazza Venezia and the Roman forum. It’s a Christmas market with a twist—proceeds from the goods, which include everything from Nepalese hats to Cambodian silks to Italian panettone, go to charity. In 2016, it’s running from 1 to 24 December on Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm and Mondays from 12pm to 8pm (early closure at 2pm on Christmas Eve).
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.
Nothing says “holiday season” in Italy like some good ol’ Christmas cribs. Find out where to see the best and most creative—including nativity scenes made out of pearls, marzipan, even eggs—at my newest post for the New York Times. (Photo courtesy of the “100 Presepi” exhibit).