Rome Explorer: My Roman Holiday

We’ve been exploring Italy from Venice to Tuscany and beyond. In April we’ll be focusing on exploring the history, majesty and wonders of Rome. Before we beging to Roam around Rome, I wanted to start with an overview of my recent Roman Holiday and provide some tips I learned from this adventure.

In January I embarked on a tour of Venice, Florence and Rome with EF Tours. We had a limited window into exploring each city and every day was packed with nonstop adventure (and plenty of Italian food and wine).

My pic of Saint Peter’s Square

Day One:

Upon arriving in Rome from Florence (four hour drive), our tour coordinator took us to The Roman Colosseum, to explore one of the world’s most important relics of antiquity.

As we approached The Colosseum I was like a kid in the candy store – I’ve dreamed about visiting Rome and The Colosseum since I was in elementary school. As a history buff who originally planned to teach World Social Studies, actually seeing the Colisseum in person was a dream come to life.

Unfortunately in Venice I had sprained my ankle, and was concerned that I might not be able to navigate the ancient stairways and sites of the Colisseum and Forum, but Thank GOD, my ankle held up and I was able to see the main highlights on the tour.

Our Tour Guide provided her expertise on Roman history and the facts about how The Colosseum was built and what it was used for.

As much as it is a marvel in engineering, no doubt it also was the site of many gruesome events called entertainment. (Gladiators, Naval Battles, Persecutions, etc…)

We’ll dig into the history, architecture and facts in detail about The Colosseum in a future blog post, but here are a few quick facts I learned during the tour…

  • The Colosseum was built between 72 AD and 80 AD
  • It was a gift of sorts to the people of Rome after the death of Nero who had terrorized the city. It was built on his property near the Colossus of Nero – hence the name Colosseum (the offical name for similar colosseums to that point were arenas)
  • It is the largest amphitheater in the world (theatre in the round) – oval in shape it measues 180 m long 156 m wide and 50 m high
  • It had 80 entrances and could originally seat 50,000 people for sporting events and games including: gladitorial combats, wild animal hunts and ship naval battles. Sadly Rome’s animal hunts let to many species becoming endangered.
  • Today animals find refuge in The Colosseum – as it is home to Rome’s largest cat colony. The cats live in The Colosseum and are beloved!
  • It was FREE for ALL – the emperors paid for everyone to have entry and free food to maintain public support
  • In the blistering summer heat an awning called a velarium would be put on top to provide shade
colosseum italy
Photo by Chait Goli on

After an hour long visit to The Colosseum, our guide led us to the neighboring Forum where we learned about the ruins of Rome’s ancient gathering space and government buildings.

To stand on the foundations of something over 2000 years old sent chills down my spine. How many times have we seen The Forum projected in scenes from Shakespeare to modern Netflix shows about Ancient Rome. To stand on the actual ground where the center of what was once the largest empire in the world is humbling.

After our tour of The Colosseum, our tour group was driven to our hotel, Mecure Bologna, which is nestled on a quiet street in The University District.

While at first I thought it was odd we weren’t staying near main attraction sites like The Colosseum as we drove through the city I began to understand why The Mercure made sense.

Rome is expansive and while walkable to a point, many of the main attractions and sites scatter the seven hills of Rome. It makes sense to stay in a quiet and business focused neighborhood near the Metro Station versus by one specific historical site.

The exception to this I believe would be if you could stay near The Vatican because the Museum is so large you may want to return several days in a row and proximity would be helpful to cut down on travel time.

The Hotel Mercure had a great restaurant on site, where my friend and I ate dinner and indulged in a delicious gelato dessert dish.

  • Pro Tip: It was helpful have a tour guide from EF Tours leading us to the main sites and coordinating site tours with local experts. That being said…If I would return to Rome without guided tour group (where all travel is planned for you and you tour with a group), I would still recommend hiring or joining guided tours of places like The Colosseum and The Vatican to maximize your time and understanding of the history and culture.
    • You can then return to certain spots (like The Vatican or Spanish Steps) on a subsequent day on your own.

Getting around: Our tour guide, a local Roman, recommended to avoid driving in Rome given the intensity of the traffic. The Italians invented the Ferrari after all…The good news is you can easily take The Metro to most neighborhoods and within that neighborhood it is highly walkable to get from point A to B.

  • A member of our group used an Uber (via their phone app) to go to an off the grid restaurant with zero problems. Also the hotel can usually help you ‘call a cab.’

Upon checking into Italian hotels the main difference you’ll notice is that you have to plug in your electricity with your keycard! It was bizarre to this American Nomad who is used to flipping on the switch. Once you get used to plugging in the key for electricity it’s not a huge deal.

Day Two:

After enjoying a delicious breakfast of homemade pastries, cereal and Cappuccino our group headed to The Vatican with a private tour guide.

As a Catholic Christian this was a dream come true – seeing the art and stepping into the history was extraordinary. Even the non-faithful on the tour were humbled by the art and spirit of the space.

And while I was impressed with our guide, I was frustrated that the tour was only around two hours with no flexibility for those who wanted to stay longer.

The Vatican is one of the largest museums in the world – with numerous museums in the complex from Egyptian and Etruscan Art and History to Catholic History and more.

A big highlight I looked forward to on the trip was visiting The School of Athens by Raphael and his Transfiguration in The Raphael Rooms…unfortunately the tour guide said we didn’t have time to tour this section of the museum.

I’m not complaining, because The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s were AMAZING and gave me grace (I needed it with my sprained ankle), BUT…I would recommend that if you are on a group tour to see if you can have a bit more flexibility with the Vatican Tour or plan to go on your own. This of course depends on your interest level and what speaks to you. For many two hours at St. Peter’s is enough, but the art lover and historian and me could have stayed there the whole week!

  • Pro Tip: Pick a tour (guided) that has flexiblity…i.e. a few days of tours that are included with local guides, and a few free days in each city too. That way you get the best of both worlds.

After our Vatican tour we returned to the hotel and several of my fellow tour friends and I went to a local neighborhood eatery.

The food was phenonenal – fresh handmade pizza and pasta. They had lots of gluten-free options (I have Celiac) and an entire bottle of wine was only $12 (Euro) – dolce vita – they do live a sweet life.

Day Three:

Christ Pantocrator mosaic at St. Paul’s Basilica

We started our final day in Rome touring The Christian Catacombs and learning about Rome’s early Christian history. This was very moving and provided a deeper context to early life for Christians during and after the persecutions of the early church. Learn more here.

We continued to St. Paul’s (Beyond the Walls) – one of the major Basilica’s in Rome and the final resting place of St. Paul the Apostle. Click here for the official website.

In a bit of kismet, the day we toured the church was on the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion, so Pope Francis was going to be there later in the day.

After a jampacked morning, we had a brief lunch break near the hotel. My friend and I dined at a nearby restaurant – The Meat Market and it did not disappoint. This restaurant specializes in the best of Italian meats and wines. It seems funny to eat a burger in Italy, but hands down one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. The meat was moist drizzled with balsamic vinegar – YUM!

We reconvened with the group just after two, when our tour guide led us on The Metro to the Spanish Steps.

a stairway on a church facade
Photo by Natasa Dav on

There we met up with another local guide who spent the next three hours giving us an amazing tour of Rome from The Spanish Steps to The Trevi Fountain to The Parthenon and Piazza Navona.

Bernini’s Sculpture of The Four Rivers – Piazza Navonna

We finished the day toasting our trip with the entire group at a local eatery.

As you can see my Roman adventure was packed with fun, wonder, excitement no time to rest.

Next time I visit Rome (and there will be a next time since I threw a coin in The Trevi Fountain) I would prefer to stay around 5-8 days and have time to rediscover The Vatican Museums in depth, tour the Galeria Borghese (city’s premier art museum) and meander into churches like Santa Maria del Populo (in search for Caravaggio’s paintings).

  • Legend has it if you throw a coin in The Trevi Fountain you will return to Rome
Trevi Fountain
The Pantheon

In truth, Italy is a place you can return to over and over again and it is better to take a group tour with experts like EF Tours first to get what you could dub an ‘Italian trip Apertif’ – introduction. Then you are empowered to go back to specific spots in Italy like Rome and create your own unique holiday and adventure.

In the coming weeks follow the blog as we highlight the best of Rome, including a few off the beaten path attractions.

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