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. NB: 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.

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Why These Catacombs in Naples Might Be the World’s Creepiest

Catacombs of San Gaudioso, Naples

I’m constantly telling people to visit Naples, and I’ve finally written about one of my favorite reasons why: the catacombs of San Gaudioso. While Rome has no dearth of spine-tingling sites (hello, Capuchin crypt), these catacombs — which include a gallery in which desiccated heads were attached to the walls… and portraits of the dearly departed frescoed around them — are, hands-down, the creepiest place I’ve ever visited.

The run-down: Like the spectacular catacombs of San Gennaro, the catacombs of San Gaudioso were first dug out in Greco-Roman times. They were used as an ancient necropolis and then — later — an early Christian cemetery. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the catacombs in Rome have similar backstories, too). But after being inundated with the lave dei vergini (literally, the lava of the virgins; great name, right?) and abandoned in the 9th century, they were forgotten about. Until, that is, some enterprising Dominican friars decided to build a church here in the 17th century… and pay for it, at least in part, with their really gruesome fancy-schmancy burial practices. (So fancy, in fact, only nobles and high-level officials got the benefit of it. Really, who doesn’t want to be drained, beheaded and put on display for all eternity?!).

Read more over in my story on the catacombs of San Gaudioso for BBC Culture, and remember: You have been warned.

If you’re already sold and just need the details:

The catacombs of San Gaudioso are located in the Naples neighborhood of Rione Sanità. (If you go, don’t miss the equally creepy Cimitero delle Fontanelle). The entrance is at the Basilica Santa Maria della Sanità in Piazza Sanità. The catacombs are open from Monday to Sunday, 10am-1pm, but visitable only with a tour, which leaves every hour; the guides (who are super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by the way — not always the case in Italy!) speak English, so you can ask for an English-language tour. More info here. It costs €9 per adult, which also gets you entrance to the catacombs of San Gennaro (also a must-see).

Also: two facts about ancient Rome you probably didn’t know, why you should visit Rome’s only pyramid and some other reasons to visit Naples.

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.

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Inside Vatican City

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 1.45.46 PM

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.

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Rome in Summer: Is Rome Hot? (And How to Deal)

Rome in summer
No matter how hot it gets in Rome, please don’t jump into the Trevi Fountain. Okay?

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°.

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Where to Catch the Pope This Easter Weekend

Way of the Cross, a chance to see the pope this Easter
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.

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A Few of My Favorite Places in Rione Monti, for National Geographic Traveler

Monti article for Nat Geo Traveler
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).

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Pope Benedict XVI Resigning February 28

Pope Benedict XVI resigning
Pope Benedict XVI in healthier days: on the Day of the Immaculate Conception in 2010

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.

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How Should I Schedule My Sightseeing in Rome?

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

Vatican museums, closed Sundays

You’ll also be out of luck if you were hoping to see the School of Athens.

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

Palazzo Massimo, closed Mondays

Palazzo Massimo, closed on Mondays

Most of Rome’s best museums close on Mondays, but are open every other day of the week. These include the Borghese GalleryPalazzo BarberiniPalazzo MassimoCrypta BalbiMAXXICastel 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 SundaySanta 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

Rome's ancient sights open every day

Rome’s ancient forum

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!

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Now, Go Behind Locked Doors in the Vatican—And Visit the Niccoline Chapel

Niccoline Chapel in the VaticanEver 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. 

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