Inside Vatican City

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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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Palazzo Altemps: The Best Rome Museum Not On Your List

Palazzo Altemps, a great museum in Rome

I can completely geek out on museums in Rome. So here’s an embarrassing confession for you: until a few months ago, I’d never been to Palazzo Altemps. And that’s even though, as one of the National Rome Museums, Palazzo Altemps was on the same entry ticket as some of my other favorites — Palazzo Massimo and Crypta Balbi in particular.

I told you. Embarrassing. Even more so when I went in December and realized just how much I’d been missing.

Brief background: Palazzo Altemps is, itself, a stunning 15th-century palace (albeit one with foundations that date back to an ancient Roman house) just around the corner from Piazza Navona. In 1568, a German cardinal with a penchant for ancient sculpture purchased it, and thus the collection was born. Although many objects have since been parceled off to other museums (the Louvre, for one), some extraordinary pieces remain — backdropped by frescoed rooms with painted, wood-beamed ceilings. And did I mention that you might be in these rooms by yourself? (It seems I’m not the only one who left Palazzo Altemps near the bottom of my to-do list).

Like this guy: the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which dates to the 3rd century; it was discovered near the Porta Tiburtina in 1621.

The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps
The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Because in case you missed it: the expressions on the pair in the middle — the Roman soldier, and the barbarian he’s about to slaughter — seem like exquisite portrayals of the kind of emotions that would actually be running through your veins (if there were room for any aside from ongoing expletives, that is).

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Six of the Best Trattorias in Rome

Best trattorias in Rome

If you’re eating at restaurants in Rome, you’re going to wind up eating at a trattoria (or, more likely, several). 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, as with any other kind of dining in Rome, if you want the very best… 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 places I head to.

(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

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, a 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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Rome’s Newest Top-Notch Gelato Shop

Best gelato in Rome

Fact: You can never get enough of gelato in Rome. That’s a very good thing, since these days, there seems to be a new gelateria opening every couple of months. And not just a new gelateria. But a new real gelateria.

What’s a “real” gelateria, you say? Here’s the second (more sobering) fact: The vast majority of Rome’s gelato shops spoon out industrialized junk, whipped up from a lovely conglomeration of synthetic thickeners, chemical flavors, and air. (Remember, friends, real gelato should not look like a cloud, and it should not be brighter than your sunburned face after a Roman holiday… coughBlueIcecoughDellaPalmacough). And for years, those who wanted top-notch, non-fake gelato had to seek it out, especially in the center, where such shops were few and far between.

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Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

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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Gifts for the Italy-Bound Traveler (2014 Edition!)

Looking for the perfect gift for a traveler headed to Italy? (Or maybe for yourself?). I've got you covered!

And don't miss this year's guide to the best Italian gifts on the web this season, or the 2012 guide to the best gifts for travelers to Italy!

The perfect airplane read(s)

When it comes to bringing history to life, Ross King is a wizard, telling rollicking tales of Renaissance scandals and assignments gone awry. And he's done it with not one, not two, but three Italian treasures: Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (on the Duomo of Florence); Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (on the Sistine Chapel); and Leonardo and the Last Supper (at right).

Conveniently, each book is on a different city (Florence, Rome and Milan). Talk about the perfect gift trifecta for someone headed for the Grand Tour.

A super-duper camera… the size of a smartphone

I adore my 6-year-old-but-still-fantastic Nikon D90 DSLR and my little waterproof Sony digital camera. If I were looking for something in the middle of those two, though – not as professional (or big or heavy) as the DSLR, but with more options and flexibility than the point-and-shoot — I'd be looking at what's called a "expert compact" camera. In particular, I'd have my eye on the Olympus XZ-2 (left).

The camera is smaller than a Galaxy smart phone, but comes with the kinds of bells and whistles you usually just can't get in a camera that size — like ISO up 12800, sensor-shift stability, an SLR-quality image processor, and HD 1080 video recording. In layman's terms, that means that you can shoot crisp photos in conditions that just won't work with a lesser digital camera or an iPhone, like an indoor restaurant dinner or the floodlight Colosseum at night. For anyone who loves taking photos but isn't a professional photographer (and even for some of us that are), this would be a seriously sweet gift.

A hedonist's guide to Tuscany

Val d'orcia 3Not your usual guidebook, Tuscany for the Shameless Hedonist includes tips on everything for making a stay in Florence or Tuscany pop with the pleasures of Italian life: where to find romantic aperitivi and relaxing spas, the top wine tours and finest local artisans, the best cooking classes and antique markets, and more.

A streetwise stocking stuffer

The Streetwise Rome map remains the most usable one of the city I've seen. It's laminated, so you don't have to worry about spilling wine getting rain on it. And the map has much more detail than you'll find on the free tourist maps in the city, but is still pretty easy to read and use. Let's just say it got me through my first 3-plus years of never knowing where I was.

Chic traveling clothes (for her)

My friend Tara Thompson Rasmus has a great eye for style, so I was  excited to see her launch her online clothing boutique, Hoot, aimed at the traveling woman. (So excited, in fact, I even let her talk me into being featured with some of the items in a little Q&A, coming out this week. Eek!).

All of the items are designed and manufactured right in New York City — no "fast fashion" here — and they're versatile classics. I think I wore my cream-and-navy-striped boatneck tee (left) pretty much nonstop through recent trips to China, Sweden, and Turkey. Pair it with a stack of bracelets or necklaces, skinny jeans, leather boots, big sunglasses, a scarf, and a classic wool coat, and you'd be ready to go anywhere in Italy.

A travel journal that gives you tasks (great for kids and creative adults!)

I love this. In the ingenious, interactive I Was Here: A Travel Journal for the Curious Minded, travelers aren't just encouraged to jot down tips, reviews, and notes. They're also asked to do things like, say, go to a local pharmacy and buy a toiletry brand they don't recognize (I always say going to a pharmacy or grocery store is one of the best ways to get a sense of the local culture!), or ask a local to draw a map to one of their favorite neighborhood spots (I can just imagine what kind of crazy drawings you'd wind up with in a city where the streets are as confusing as Rome!).

I can imagine how much fun this would be for kids to do. Or, let's be honest, for any adventurous adult.

An airplane wake-up

The kind of thing you'd never buy for yourself (aka a great stocking stuffer), this little jet lag kit (right), which is given to first-class passengers on Emirates Airlines, has two "sniff boxes". Get a whiff of "sleep," with lavender, chamomile and neroli, to unwind; "focus," with bergamot, lemon and cinnamon, energizes and refreshes. Perfect idea for those otherwise torturous overseas flights.

The best conversational Italian course around

There are a million and one Italian-language software programs out there. While many people swear by Pimsleur for learning the basic, conversational Italian you want when you go abroad, the newer Living Language Italian has the edge: it's currently the number-one bestseller on Amazon for Italian learning products, and the reviews are stellar. It's also more bang for your buck, since the $30 complete edition has 46 lessons, with nine audio CDs and three books, that take learners from beginning to advanced.

For anyone who wants to, say, order food at a restaurant or get directions in the local language, this seems like the new way to go.

The gift of Rome, revealed

Revealed rome travel planning gift_edited-1In my one-on-one travel consulting sessions, folks get an hour to pick my brain about all things Italy: what's open in August, the best day trips from Florence, how to skip the line at the Colosseum, whether to get a water taxi to their hotel in Venice. Or we can spend that hour whipping a trip itinerary into shape. Or brainstorming where in Italy they should even start to think about going. Or… pretty much anything else.

New for 2014, I offer gift certificates that can be e-mailed directly to the gift recipient (or to you, so you can print it out and pop it in a card). For more, email me at revealedrome@gmail.com.

A hilarious guide to Italian quirks

Both entertaining and beautiful to look at, Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best will whet anyone's appetite for Italy. Its 50 mini-essays explore all of the quirks of Italian culture: patron saints and pasta, hand gestures and gelato. It'll also prepare travelers for the little things that might seem particularly annoying odd on arrival — like why Italians don't queue, or what floor number won't exist (nope, it's not 13!).

The cutest (and most functional) travel containers around

Finally, travel bottles that you… can… squeeze! (And that are BPA-free, PC-free, food-safe, leak-free, and virtually indestructible. Not to mention adorable). Give these GoToob travel tubes to your favorite giftee-on-the-go to fill up with shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, or anything else (ketchup, anyone?). They're also useful to throw in a backpack: Instead of carting a whole bottle of suntan lotion around the Roman Forum, just fill one of these guys up. Smaller and (take it from me) much more spill-proof.

Organic beauty on the go

If your Italy-bound traveler hates decanting all of their favorite lotions and face washes into different containers (even ones as cute as the GoToob), make it easy on them with Juice Beauty's Organics To Go. The travel set has all of the skin essentials: cleansing milk, moisturizer, even a mini-face peel. The hydrating mist would be especially nice to have on a moisture-sucking plane ride. Juice Beauty's items are all made sans  parabens, animal testing, pesticides, phthalates, or artificial dyes or fragrances, so it's the perfect skin care set for even those with sensitive skin.

A guidebook, notebook, and map in one

I know people swear by Moleskine, but I'm (even more) old-school — when I'm on the road, you can bet I have a few spiral-bound reporter's notebooks on hand, instead. Even so, I scooped up a Moleskine City Notebook when I headed to Lisbon last year, and wow! I loved it. Having different sections to pop my various lists into, plus plenty of room for random thoughts, made me much more organized. And having a thorough map of the city's different neighborhoods embedded right in the notebook's pages was unbelievably helpful.

The Rome City Notebook comes in hardcover-only, so it's more of an indulgence. (The soft-cover Milan, Venice and Florence versions are much cheaper). But I could see it doubling as a nice keepsake post-trip, couldn't you?

Happy holidays, everyone!

Also: where to eat in Rome's most touristy areas, and a guide to Rome's neighborhoods.

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Give the Gift of a Revealed Rome Travel Session

6a013483a13a94970c0167691793f4970b-500wi“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://www.revealedrome.com/italy-travel-consulting

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

New this year, I’m offering the ability to give a classic or unlimited session as a gift. Purchase with the button below. Or read on to learn more about what each session entails!

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The Finest Gifts from Italy

Gifts from Italy
Looking for that perfect gift from Italy? Even though I’m always a fan of tracking down artisanal gifts in person, these days, you can find some pretty great Italian gifts online, too. And I don’t mean gift baskets where the “parmesan cheese” hails from Wisconsin.

Because it’s that time of year again, I spent some time scouring the interwebs to find the best gifts from Italy — as in, the finer things: from perfume to leather journals to olive oil.

And don’t miss this year’s best gifts for travel to Italy; all of my previous Italophile gift guides can be found here).

Here are just a few of the finer Italian experiences you can give — no airplane required!

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Where to Find Rome’s Christmas Markets (Updated for 2016!)

Christmas markets in Rome just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.

Today, the Piazza Navona Christmas market (which runs daily, and until 1am, from November 25 to January 6) remains the largest in Rome’s center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. (Update, 1 December 2016: After being called off last year, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is back!) Update, 18 December 2016: Psych… despite earlier news to the contrary, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is not running this year. There is, however, the market’s traditional carousel running at the piazza!).

But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.

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What to Eat in Rome — And Where

Carbonara-from-Da-Danilo

When in Rome, eat Roman food. (Duh). But to have the best possible culinary experience, go a step further: have the city's most top-notch traditional dishes… at the restaurants that make them in the tastiest, most authentic ways. And it's not always easy to know where that is, since a trattoria that serves up only mediocre meat courses might make the best pasta alla gricia in Rome, while a restaurant usually better ignored might actually be the number-one spot for carciofi alla giudia.

Luckily, here's help! Here are six of Rome's must-eat dishes — and my favorite places for trying each one — in my first piece for the Travel Channel. (Stay tuned for more!)

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