5 Ways to Experience Pope Francis’ Rome at its Best
By Pamela Jacobs
As New York prepares—logistically and spiritually—for Pope Francis’ visit to our city (his first papal visit), it’s a reminder of just how incredible and awe-inspiring his home is. Whether you’ve never been to the Eternal City and have always longed to go, or have been many times, there’s always something new to discover about Rome, and it’s always a good time to go.
Now, especially, as we welcome Pope Francis to our city, why not start planning a trip of your own to his. Following a very recent trip there, exploring the city and uncovering the best ways to enjoy it, here are my picks for the top five ways to make the most of your time in Rome.
1) See the Colosseum through a gladiator’s eyes.
The Colosseum is truly extraordinary. You can be the most well-traveled person on the planet, and when you look at the magnificent structure that was completed in the year 80 A.D.—and miraculously still stands—you will be humbled and stunned. Just looking at it takes your breath away, but the best way to really live, breathe, and feel the Colosseum—its history, its significance, the actual people who lived and died there—is to do an exclusive Colosseum Underground Tour with the Arena Floor, Third Ring, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, through City Wonders.
On this small group tour, led by a City Wonders expert, you’ll not only skip the line, but you’ll actually go underground, through the intricate underworld of the Colosseum, seeing and touching where the gladiators prepared for their walk to the arena floor. You’ll go to the top level—the third ring—which is closed to the general public, and learn about life as a spectator, a gladiator, and even the emperor. You’ll truly feel as connected to ancient Roman history as is humanly possible (I did!) as you’re led through the Colosseum and you truly feel what life then and there was all about.
You’ll then be led to the Roman Forum, an ancient site that was a bustling marketplace, and the center of economic, government, religious, and cultural life for the Romans, that remarkably dates back to hundreds of years before Christ, with the height of its activity running from around 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Finally, you’ll be led up to the Palatine Hill for another window into ancient Roman life and that of its emperors and palace dwellers, along with a panoramic view of what’s truly one of the most breathtaking cities in the world.
(Note: ALL of City Wonders guides are extra-certified, incredibly knowledgeable, and true experts in every sense of the word, which is what makes the company stand out from other tour operators. My guide for this tour, Sev, is the Aggregate Professor of Roman Topography at the 3rd University of Rome, and he was marvelous).
2) Eat as the Italians Do.
Food and wine are as much a part of Roman culture as are its museums, priceless works of art, and ancient history. After all, Italians make arguably the best food and wine in the world (the country is the wine capital of the world, by volume, and there are 1,855 varieties of wine planted in Italy).
While much of your trip should involve long, leisurely meals at trattorias in piazzas, it is practically imperative that you do an exclusive Wine Tasting and Food Tasting Class, which is basically a journey through Italy’s wine and food regions that’s guided by an expert sommelier.
At a private wine library owned by a nearby restaurant and bakery (where they have over 400 types of cheese and 3,000 labels of wine) on a quiet, cobblestoned alley—surrounded by bottles and books, and a very small group of wine- and food-enthusiasts like yourself—you’ll enjoy six glasses of excellent Italian wines from various regions, each paired with specially-chosen delicacies, ranging from spectacular cheeses to a pesto that our group described as “life-changing.”
This is a private experience exclusively curated and offered by City Wonders, and it’s an absolute must.
3) Sleep among the art.
There’s probably more incredible art in Rome than there are leaves in Central Park—it’s everywhere, and it’s spectacular. If you stay at the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria hotel located on 15 lush, private acres overlooking Rome and Vatican City (with to-die-for views), you’ll sleep and eat among it. Their private art collection is vast and is everywhere throughout the property, with a collection of paintings, sculptures, artifacts, tapestries, and antique furnishings populating all public areas and the suites. You’ll find everything from three of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s most important masterpieces in the lobby to Karl Lagerfeld sofas and Andy Warhol paintings in the sprawling suites.
You’ll also enjoy three outdoor swimming pools, an enormous spa with themed treatment rooms and La Prairie products, a children’s club, and six spots for wining and dining, including the famed La Pergola, Rome’s only three-star Michelin-rated restaurant.
In my own Imperial Room (with access to the Imperial Lounge, featuring complimentary food and beverages all day), I couldn’t decide which was my favorite part—the balcony with panoramic views of the city, including the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica—or the wide array of Ferragamo products and amenities in the marble-covered bathroom.
4) Enter the dark heart of Rome.
With well over 2,000 years of history—much of it dark and dramatic—and an architectural system of old buildings constructed over older buildings built on top of ancient buildings (much like an archaeological lasagna), there are bound to be plenty of tales of hauntings, sacrifices, and horror-movie-worthy tragedies—the kind that make for the best entertainment.
Embark on a Rome Ghost and Mystery Night Walking Tour and when the sun is down and the street lights are on, you’ll wander the quiet, narrow streets and history-filled squares, learning about a notorious female mass murderer, a publicly-executed monk, the mistress of a Pope who now haunts a bridge, and other sites of mysteries, legends, and dark drama. All the while, you’ll get a feel for the city at its quietest and most serene, while a City Wonders guide enthusiastically shares his passion for the Roman underworld with you.
5) Be alone in the Vatican.
The Vatican: The smallest country in the world, the holiest site for Catholics, a pagan past dating back to the first century A.D., home to one of the most valuable art collections on the planet, a history that’s beyond fascinating, and the site of where thousands and thousands of travelers visit every day for the pinnacle of their secular and non-secular journeys.
Whether you’re Catholic or not, it’s awe-inspiring and wonderful. What’s not wonderful, however, is waiting in line for three hours to get inside, and then shuffling along among thousands of other people, scrambling to get a glimpse and a photo of every brilliant work of art.
Instead, through an exclusive Vatican Tour through City Wonders (they offer several varieties, from express to full-day extended tours with access to off-limits areas) you’ll completely skip the line and head through the Vatican Museums and into the Sistine Chapel before anyone else does. The Sistine Chapel is extraordinary and magnificent—when your small group is completely alone in it, there before anyone else, first thing in the morning, it’s just mind blowing. One of the people in my group had been there multiple times, yet said he got chills this time, standing under Michelangelo’s masterpiece, having it basically all to himself. I concurred.
City Wonders is one of only three Vatican partners, which allows them this highly exclusive, invaluable first-access to the Vatican. My group simply walked up to the door, entered first, and had the entire place all to ourselves. It was most definitely the best way to experience Pope Francis’ Rome.