Touring the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity

I’m just going to jump in and say it – if you go to the Vatican museums on your own, unguided, you’re wasting your time.

I’ve lived in Rome, on and off at first, for the last 20 years and had been to the Vatican only once.  I suppose part of that is because it’s what happens to people when they live near a tourist site – you assume you can go anytime because it’s right there, and prefer to wait for a time when it’s less crowded, which never happens.   That’s a good explanation for why I didn’t go for the first 5 years of living here.  The reason why I’d never gone back in the following 15 years is because the experience, frankly, wasn’t enjoyable.  I’ve had visits to the dentist’s office that were better.

Does anyone really enjoy the Vatican museums?  I’ve wondered this often as I hear our guests recount the days they dutifully spend there, first in line outside, then being herded through the labyrinthian hallways to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel.  Despite it being on everyone’s must see list, I’d never heard anyone go on about how amazing it was and how they wish they could have more of it.  For the art historian, I can see how it would be like a kid in a candy store.  But for the average Joe, I always wondered what they actually got out of it.

When my wife said she’d booked us on a 5 hour tour of the museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity, I first felt that this would be a great opportunity to see if I could finally, with authority, substantiate my negative opinions of the museum.  Then reality hit and I wondered how on Earth I was going to make it through 5 hours of anything.  Then I just gave up worrying about it and went with it, as zen and open as possible.

Spoiler alert – the Vatican is pretty incredible.  However, it’s not an easy museum, and it’s not optimized for its visitors in any way.  And I’m 100% convinced that it wouldn’t have been worthwhile had I wandered through it by myself without a guide.  In the end, we were there 6 hours, and all of it, except the overpriced food, was great.

A visit to the Vatican Museums is a big commitment and as is true with all big commitments, you should be well informed.  For example – know that if you go on your own without booking ahead, you’re looking at a really long wait to get in:

Perhaps an hour?  Maybe more?  As the picture shows, these folks look like they’ve been there a while already, and this line stretches all the way down the street and around the corner.  This is, of course, the line for those who decided to show up without tickets. If you buy your ticket online and print it before arrival, you can jump this queue and go right to the entrance.  From there, visitors are divided into two categories: individuals and group tours.  If you’ve booked a tour with a guide, then you get even further preferential treatment.  We walked straight past the line for individuals and went right in.  I don’t even think we came to a full standstill.  For a museum that gets about 25,000 visitors A DAY, that’s pretty incredible.

Once inside, you’re part of a crush of humanity, all wandering slowly, trying to determine where to put your attention – because there’s so many options.  Our guide, Mario, told us that if you were to spend a few seconds in front of each painting in the entire complex, it would add up to about 25 years.

Here’s the thing – there are some wonderful,  beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums and if you want to visit unguided, you can stroll around and look at lots of pretty paintings and sculpture on a variety of themes, like Jesus, Jesus and Mary, Mary by herself, the Apostles, Jesus being crucified, Jesus being resurrected…  I think you get my point – Catholicism is the main attraction.  For someone who’s not religious, and doesn’t recognize the characters in the paintings or the stories being depicted, there’s only so much you can take of this.  Maybe I’m just shallow and uncultured, but in the 1500′s it would have been amazing to see a painting that was realistically portrayed of a biblical scene.  It would have been amazing to see a painting of anything that you had never before seen in real life – like a certain city or an animal or maybe the seaside.  Throughout history, paintings were the only way to really see into someone else’s imagination, or a depiction of something outside your reality.

In 2016…  less so.

My point is that I think realistically and honestly, it’s hard for many people to get out of paintings what people got out of them centuries ago.  We’re jaded.  We’ve seen it all – and in full motion, in 3D, and Photoshopped to perfection.  Seeing pretty pictures just isn’t that amazing anymore.  What makes them amazing, and interesting, is to understand them and the time in which they were made and the history behind them.  It’s the technique and how it evolved.  It’s the politics and motivations that surround them.  It’s the life of the artists themselves.  It’s all about the context, and to get that, you either need to study art seriously, or you need a guide.

Mario, our guide, was not only well informed and passionate, but also theatrical and compelling.  Our visit combined the history of art, and how artists cultivated different techniques in different periods, to the history of religion itself and how religion and politics were (and in many cases still are) inseparable.

The visit to the museum, at that point, became a lot more than about just art.  I think to fully understand Western history, you need to understand Rome, and to fully understand Rome, you need to understand its relation to the church.  To understand that, and even more, to see it, you need to visit the Vatican Museums.

Some other tips about visiting the Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica:

* The food is terrible and overpriced, so bring a pack lunch.  If you leave after the museum to go eat, and then want to visit St. Peter’s, you’ll have to queue again, whereas if you go from the museum to St. Peter’s, you don’t have to.

* Bring little kids – if you’re crazy, a masochist, and/or a glutton for punishment.  It’s just too crowded, too slow going, and too complex for them to enjoy it (in my opinion as the father of 3 daughters).

* Get there by metro or bus.  You could walk, but it’s exhausting to stand for hours in a museum.  Get there on a full tank, because you’ll be leaving on an empty one.

* Don’t forget to wear something that covers or can cover your knees and shoulders.  It’s a sacred place, and God is weird about knees and shoulders.

* You don’t need a passport.  Yes, the Vatican  is technically a separate country, but there’s no border patrol.

* Plan to go up the dome of St. Peter’s.  You can pay to take an elevator from the bottom to halfway, inside of the dome, looking down into St. Peter’s, and then you climb up through the dome itself to the very top.  If you’re into taking photos, this is a must.

* If you want to hear the Pope’s audience on Wednesday or Sunday, get tickets in advance online, come pick them up before, and them come super early to get a good seat (like 5:30 / 6 am).  Francesco is a popular Pope.  He fills the house.

* Most importantly, go by yourself, and you’ll just be spending hours looking at old, pretty pictures.  Book a tour with a well informed guide.

Thank you to Through Eternity who hosted me on this tour.  Through Eternity is one of only a handful of tour companies we have recommended over the years and if you are staying at our hostel, The Beehive, guests there get an additional discount using a promo code.

La Taqueria – Mexican street food in Rome

For expats in Rome, and some visitors as well, the lack of good Mexican food is a hardship.  After living here over 16 years, we’ve given up on certain foods we used to love – such as Mexican and Chinese, either not finding any of it edible, or not being able to justify the high price tag for something “exotic”.  All that changed today when I popped in to La Taqueria for lunch.

Located right around the corner from the Piazza Bologna metro station, it’s impossible to miss – the three large, bright, colorful windows that face the street are in bright contrast to the monochromatic neighborhood.  Once inside, I was struck by the creative design.  Plastic crates, tires, and old gasoline cans have all be repurposed to become suspension lamps, and plant holders.

The menu has all the basics – tacos made with homemade, corn, soft-shell tacos, stuffed with either meat or a vegetarian bean and soy version.  Nachos, made with their own fried corn chips, and burritos, either with meat or vegan option, wrapped up in homemade tortillas.  They make fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, and a variety of other salsas.

All in all, I was seriously impressed with how good it was, and found it affordable as well (from 6-8 euro for tacos or a huge burrito).  The owner, a young guy from Honduras who speaks perfect English, was super nice and helpful and added the perfect vibe to his lively and delicious little place.

La Taqueria
Via Giacomo Boni, 26
Metro:  Bologna (blue line)

Open from 12-3pm for lunch and 7-11pm all week (except Sunday at lunchtime)

Scooterino – Scooter Ride Sharing in Rome

I get excited about things that make life easier – even if they’re very simple and don’t really make life that much easier.  From low-tech office supply stuff, to great high-tech smartphone apps, I’m just attracted to the idea of things being efficient and functional.

So imagine my excitement when I discovered the Scooterino App for Rome.  It’s basically a ride sharing service for scooters.  When you need to get somewhere, you open the app, which knows where you are, and you put in your destination.  It gives you an estimate of cost, and shows you where nearby drivers are and how long it ought to take for them to reach you.

I’ve basically been dying to try it out and the other day I finally got my chance.  It was 4:00pm and I had to get from The Beehive Hotel near Termini to a lawyer’s office in the neighborhood of Parioli.  By bus it would have taken me 1,50 euro and approximately forever.  By taxi, it would have probably been 10-15 euro and slightly less than forever.

On the scooter, it was 3 euro, and took about 15 minutes, and was a fun ride.

 As far as essentials, the driver provides you with a helmet and a little skull cap to wear over your hair under the helmet.

Getting around Rome can be tough.  Public transportation is unreliable and crowded.  Taxis can be expensive and time consuming, especially if you’re alone.  Scooterino is the way to go.

As a tourist, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous and want the quintessential Roman experience – this is a great option to get from Point A to Point B at the lowest cost!  For a more comprehensive and guided scooter experience check out the folks at Scooteroma tours.

Download Scooterino here in the app store. 

Best places to stay around the Vatican

by Amy Knauff

When we talk about staying “around the Vatican”, we’re actually talking about a rather large area that comprises a few different neighborhoods, each with their own distinct character.

The most picturesque and historic neighborhood by far is Borgo, which is basically a few long streets running between St. Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’Angelo, bordered by Piazza Risorgimento on the north and the river on the south. Originally called Leonine City, because it was within the Leonine Walls, the neighborhood got its name from German pilgrims who called it Burg, which then became Borgo in Italian. Stunning Castel Sant’Angelo is technically part of the Borgo rione, although locals tend to consider it part of – and probably the highlight of – the next neighborhood, Prati.

Prati is just north of Borgo, so still very close to St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums (about 10 minutes walking). The area is quite residential, with larger, more modern buildings (from the late 1800s, after the unity of Italy) – so it has a very different feel from the cobblestones and centuries-old buildings of Borgo. It’s still a great area to stay in, in my opinion: you are close to the Vatican, within walking distance from the historic center, and it’s a residential area with lots of Italian families living there, so you have plenty of good, authentic restaurants, coffee bars, and shops. Plus, the metro is nearby (Ottaviano and Lepanto stops) so it makes it easy to get everywhere.

The “Vatican Museums” area, also called Trionfale by locals after the main street Via Trionfale (so named because the Roman emperors used to return to Rome from their military campaigns in northern Europe on a triumphal march down that road), is just to the west of Prati. The buildings in this area are from the fascist period in the early 1900s, so even more modern than Prati (and in my opinion, not particularly attractive or charming). Having said that, it’s still a very convenient area (close to Cipro metro stop, plus St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums, of course) and it’s also very residential, so you get a feel of what it’s like to live as a local.

And finally, there’s the neighborhood just to the south of St. Peter’s, often referred to as the Gregorio VII area by locals (again, named after a main street, Via Gregorio VII). This area is sort of connected to the Trionfale area as it’s all part of the area behind St. Peter’s (imagine a sort of half-moon shape facing right, just behind St. Peter’s, as you look at a map). Many of the buildings are quite new (some as recent as the 1960s), and were built up around the St. Peter’s train station – which itself was built in the 19th century as a “countryside” train station, because at the time the area was farmland. The area also used to be a center for brick and clay factories, before it was residential, hence the name of one of its main streets, Via delle Fornaci (Street of the Furnaces).

We have properties in all of these neighborhoods, ranging from budget to fancy, from B&Bs to private apartments:

Agnese Guesthouse – a cheap, clean, basic option in the Gregorio VII area, close to a bus stop, from €46 per night for a double room.

Ricchi’s B&B – double room for €75 per night in Gregorio VII area. The highlight of this property is the owner, Rosanna, whose grandmotherly treatment of her guests has gotten her place rave reviews for years.

Le Finestre di Luz B&B – an excellent value and one of our favorites. Close to Castel Sant’Angelo for €97 per night.

Small Luxury in the Vatican B&B – another great middle-range option, also €97 per night for a double. Super close to St. Peter’s and just on the “border” between the Borgo and Prati neighborhoods.

Casa Yellow Vaticano – a full 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment sleeping 2-4 people from €128-162 per night. Right next to the Vatican Museums.

Appartamento Plum – newly restored apartment that sleeps 6 with two bathrooms, just a few blocks from St. Peter’s.  From €136-182 per night, depending on the number of guests.

La Cupola Vacation Home – an elegant, homey apartment on Via delle Fornaci, just a 5-minute walk south of St. Peter’s. Sleeps 2-4 people, from €95-155 per night.

 

Best places to stay in Trastevere

by Amy Knauff

Full disclosure: I live in Trastevere myself, so I’m biased about the area. Having said that, I can honestly say that if I were visiting Rome for the first time (or second… or third…) , I’d love to stay here.

You only need to look around at the architecture to see that Trastevere is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It truly feels like it’s from a different time, with buildings of all different sizes and built at different times crammed next to each other on narrow, winding cobblestone streets.

There’s not much vehicle traffic on most of the small streets so it ends up being a largely pedestrian area. It’s got loads of excellent restaurants, coffee bars, gelaterie, and wine bars (there are plenty of subpar touristy ones too, so you have to know what to pick). It has its own train station with a train that goes to Fiumicino airport every 30 minutes, so if you’re flying into/out of FCO, it’s super easy to get there. And best of all: it’s within walking distance of pretty much anything you want to see in the center of Rome (less than 40 mins by foot from the Vatican, 20 mins from the Colosseum, 10-30 mins to other tourist sights in the historic center), while still being slightly off the tourist (read: expensive) track. If you like to walk, you may never have to set foot on public transport during your stay.

I’ll be honest about the downsides of Trastevere, too: there’s no metro stop particularly close to the area, so if you’re coming to Rome in/out of Termini station, you have to take a bus, which can be a pain. I wouldn’t bother staying in Trastevere for just 1 night if your exit/entry point is Termini – too inconvenient. Trastevere is known for its nightlife (it’s pretty quiet in the daytime), so some areas can be really loud and crowded – which is a lot of fun, but just make sure you don’t book a place, say, right on Via della Lungaretta, which is packed with people walking, talking, and generally making merry until late at night.

Trastevere can be divided into two parts – or three, some might say. The two sections of the main area of Trastevere are west and east of Viale Trastevere, the big street with the tram line that cuts the neighborhood into two parts. The area west of Viale Trastevere (around Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the hub)  is the more popular area for going out at night. The area east of Viale Trastevere (around Piazza di Santa Cecilia) is the quieter, more residential side of Trastevere, so it feels more “authentic” somehow. It still has some restaurants and night spots, and therefore some noisy tourists out and about, but it’s not packed with them like the other side is.

The third part of the neighborhood is close to Trastevere train station, going away from the historic center and the river. It’s still considered Trastevere, but it’s the less picturesque, slightly more modern part of Trastevere. The buildings tend to be taller and a little newer, the streets are more trafficked and less cobblestoney, and it doesn’t have quite the same charm as the “main” area of Trastevere. Having said that, it’s still convenient because, of course, it’s near the station, and the tram line 8 takes you right up to the “old” Trastevere (5 mins), across the river, and into the historic center (10-15 mins).

We work with places to stay in all three of these areas of Trastevere, and some of our favorites are:

La Bernardon Guesthouse – double rooms for 80 euros a night with ensuite bathroom and breakfast, close to the San Cosimato outdoor market and near via Roma Libera, where there are lots of good wine bars and restaurants:

 

La Casa di Kaia from 51 euros a night for a double room with shared bathroom, just a block from Santa Cecilia church and on one of Trastevere’s quietest streets:

 

Burns B&B – one double guestroom, with friendly American host Marisa, for 85 euros a night with ensuite bathroom:

 

Truly Trastevere Studio Apartment , a typical charming old Trasteverean apartment, for 95 euros a night:

 

Ecostudio Trastevere Apartment, right in the heart of things but luckily spared from the street noise, for 90 euros a night:

 

Appartamento Fabrizi – a one-bedroom apartment, located in a truly unique apartment complex, for 105 euros a night:

 

Suite Trilussa – a classy studio apartment around one of Trastevere’s favorite squares for 115 euros a night: