12 Unforgettable Experiences to Have in Rome

We bought our tickets to Italy on a whim. We got an email from one of our favorite travel websites offering 6 days in Rome and Milan–airfare, hotel, breakfast, and a train ticket–for a base price of $499 each. I forwarded it to my sister and jokingly asked if she felt like going to Italy, and then promptly forgot all about it. A few hours later she replied that she and her husband were in. The whole thing was supposed to be nothing more than a shared afternoon daydream, but when she said she was in . . . well, we decided we were in too.

The thing was, our family had planned to move to France for 6 months in June. So I felt a little overindulgent booking a spontaneous trip to Italy in January. But in the back of my mind the thought kept ringing “always take the trip.” Sage wisdom that I felt was maybe echoing back through time from my future self. How glad I am that I listened to that voice. At the time I didn’t know that the world would unravel in 2020. That our carefully laid plans would crumble. That we would be among the last to witness an Italy that was fully alive and vibrant and bustling with activity before it was brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic.

This week was the highlight of my year. When things were especially dark and hard, I clung to the memories of this carefree week and it lifted me. It was a reminder that my life is already full of beautiful memories, and that even though all of us will experience periods of trial and difficulty–many incredible moments of joy and astonishment lie ahead.

As I write this, Italy’s borders are still closed and my favorite travel website is not offering any deals. But someday that will change. Someday the world will be healed and the gates flung open and your passport will ache for a stamp. And if your dreams include a Roman holiday, I have a few recommendations for you.

12 Unforgettable Experiences to Have in Rome

01 Be awestruck at the Colosseum. Definitely take a tour if you can, and spring for the fancier tour that includes the rooftop. I loved getting away from the crowds and having amazing bird’s eye views of the Colosseum and the surrounding grounds. Even many months later I am still marveling at everything I learned–some of it very distressing and uncomfortable and appalling–but I guess most of history is if you are paying attention.

02 Walk through history at the Roman Forum. If you love ruins, then this place is for you! As the heart of Rome for centuries, the Roman Forum is layered with history and mythology and has so much to discover. Take your time, as it was also just a lovely place to walk or to sit and relax.

The famous Laocoön and His Sons has been on display at the Vatican since 1506.

03 Take a tour of Vatican City. While I was incredibly excited to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, I didn’t expect to also see so many masterpieces in the Vatican Museums. Raphael is very present, and there are incredible sculptures at every turn. We were lucky to go in January when crowds were small. Our guide told us that things get very hot and crowded and crazy in the summer (i.e. people passing out). If you can, go during the off-season. If you are there in the summer, I would go first thing in the morning to avoid heat and hopefully have smaller crowds.

04 Eat pizza in Trastavere. I loved the vibe of this part of the city. It was moody and romantic and cobblestone-y and relaxed. The streets were filled with the aroma of delicious food and the restaurants all oozed with ambiance. Do yourself a favor and find a cozy table and enjoy some of the best pizza of your life.

05 Gaze upward in the Sistine Chapel. It is very surreal to stand under the Sistine Chapel and see Michelangelo’s masterwork in real life. Soak it in! If you’ve been, you know that photography is not technically allowed. However, our tour guide gave us the entire history of why–which has nothing to do with protecting the art and everything to do with money and a Japanese corporation, and then gave us tips on how to take stealth photos if that were something we should hypothetically want to do (wink, wink). And so we have the above photo of my husband’s face and Michelangelo’s creation of Adam.

06 Test a myth at the Mouth of Truth. This giant marble mask is said to cut off the hands of liars–so clearly I had to stick my hand in there. Also, Audrey Hepburn did it, and one should always do what Audrey Hepburn does.

07 Count the Spanish Steps. A lot of famous people have walked up and down these steps–John Keats, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon (just to name a few)–and you should too!

08 Gelato. Gelato. Gelato. The best gelato I had on our trip was at the gelato shop near our hotel in Rome: Gelateria La Romana. They fill the cones with your choice of either white or hazlenut melted chocolate. Next, you pick one or two flavors of luscious gelato made from the best ingredients, and they top it with fresh whipped cream. The shop was cute and bright and very Pinterest-worthy. We went every night we were there, and I still visit in my dreams . . .

09 Find peace at the Rome LDS temple. Even though I am a committed member of the LDS faith, I have to admit that visiting the new Rome temple grounds was not a must-see for me. I thought it would be very Salt Lake City visitor’s center-y, which is fine, but I was in Italy to see old, Italian things. I was wrong. Our trip to the temple ended up being one of the highlights of our entire trip. The temple itself is breathtaking–and the stained glass windows are the most beautiful I have ever seen, and I have seen A LOT of stained glass windows. The Christus statue and the statues of the apostles were gorgeous. The grounds were calming, elegant, and perfectly cared for, with fountains and olive trees being central features. Because the temple requires a drive to get to it, chances are good that you will have plenty of serenity and alone time–which is so welcome after the crowds in the city.

Go. You’ll see.

10 Climb the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. While you are at the Vatican, make sure that you leave time to climb the dome. The climb itself is an experience–you wind up an endless spiral staircase with the walls arching around the dome so that you can’t stand up straight (even short ladies like me had to tip sideways, lol). But it’s fun. The 360-degree view from the top is one of the best places take in the city and is not to be missed!

11 Take a selfie at Trevi Fountain. Trevi Fountain is about as extra as it gets. We’re talking a giant Oceanus in a shell chariot and Tritons guiding horses out of the waves. It’s big and Baroque and absolutely fabulous. It really does take your breath away. It is considered lucky to throw coins into the fountain, with your right hand over your left shoulder. One coin means that you will return to Rome. Two coins means you’ll return and fall in love. Three coins means you’ll return, fall in love, and marry. The money ($1.7 million a year on average!) is supposed to go to support the needy in Rome. Also feel free to indulge in selfies because Oceanus isn’t going to judge you for being vain.

12 Go back in time at the Pantheon. This place is two thousand years old. Two. Thousand. Years. Old. We went to see it twice because my husband couldn’t get over how amazing it was that a building this old is this well-preserved. The dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. I was fascinated that the oculus at the center was just open to the sky and that every kind of weather had just fallen to the floor for two thousand years. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to. Fun fact: Raphael is buried here.