They call it the Eternal City; a city of mythic proportions and endless history. Long ago it was the center of a vast empire, and it has been welcoming travelers for centuries since. Today it’s the capital of Italy, a country whose amazing culture, food, music, and art need no introduction.
What could I, a tourist who visited Rome for only a few days, possibly have to say about this great capital of Western civilization? I can tell you it was a lot, that it lived up to the hype, and that you too should go there.
Honestly, my first impressions of Rome were not overly positive. I arrived in the evening in the pouring rain. I was with a tour group traveling through Italy for about a week. We made our way through the crowded Termini train station and marched together through soggy streets that looked basically like any other city. I can usually get a feeling about a new place, a gut reaction that tells me how much I will like it there. That night I didn’t know what to think–my radar screen was blank. Our guide narrowly saved the evening by taking us to a good pizza place later.
The next day, we geared up for a big day of sightseeing, visiting the things you “must see” when you go to Rome. We took the metro down to the Colosseum first (it seems strange to say it so casually). There is a definite wow factor to emerging from the modern subway and seeing this wonder of ancient Rome towering over you, weathered stones in graceful yet imposing arches. You instantly appreciate the accomplishments of the Romans who built it and how long it has been since their empire passed into memory.
We walked through waves of other tourists, dodging pushy salesmen offering tours, and we made our cliche photo stop at a hill nearby. It was totally worth it, though. I love those photos of our group!
After the photos, we walked around the area near the Colosseum together. This is the point where I think Rome began to win me over. Walking past the forum, seeing all the crumbling bits of ruins, the ornamented domes of a dozen churches rising up all around us. I began to imagine all the infinite places to explore in the city. We climbed the steps of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument to give us a better view of the city, which seemed to stretch on forever, rooftop after rooftop toward the mountains in the distance. It was like no city I had ever seen, so sprawling but with so few indications of the modern world. Almost timeless.
We spent the rest of the day visiting the Vatican, both the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s basilica. I was thankful to have an official guide. The Vatican feels like a fortress, with lots of guards and a confusing layout. It helps to have someone who knows the way around, the history, and a few secrets for ducking away from big crowds of tourists. What else can I say about visiting the Vatican? It’s overwhelming in scale and in beauty. When you walk through the marble halls and see the endless artwork, you feel as though you might be at the center of the world.
I stayed in Rome for a few days after our tour wrapped up so I had more time to enjoy the city. I switched hotels from the just-okay one near Termini station to a more enjoyable one in the Monti neighborhood, only a few minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. It was a good home base for exploring more of the sights.
I went back to the Colosseum and made it inside. Yes, it was a pain to get a ticket and wait in line, but it was completely worth it. The scale of the place is incredible–you can tell it’s as large as a modern stadium. I spent a morning exploring the forum and Palatine Hill, which were also fantastic. Most of the structures are stone foundations and a few fragments of walls, but a good audio guide was all I needed to imagine the heart of ancient Rome. As a history nerd, it was a joy for me to walk in the footsteps of the emperors and see what remains from their world.
I started feeling lonely without my tour group, so I decided to explore as much as I could with my last day in Rome. I saw amazing sculptures at the Capitoline Museum. I walked everywhere, looking for fountains and statues with guidebook in hand. I found the Trevi Fountain (so beautiful!), the Pantheon (a feat of engineering), Trajan’s Column (neat but hard to see), and the Spanish Steps (sorta underwhelming). I was in hyper-sightseeing mode.
As I walked around Rome, I was surprised that it didn’t feel like a big city. Step away from the main drag, and it’s like you’re in a small town. Narrow jumbles of cobblestone street suddenly spill into a piazza lined with little restaurants and cafes. The sights don’t announce their presence like an Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. You stumble upon them, like turning an ordinary corner to see the sweeping cascades of the Trevi Fountain. Each neighborhood is another town, with its own sights and its own places to eat.
Rome is big, though. A few days was not enough time in Rome. A week would not have been enough for me. I missed out on museums filled with artistic treasures and piazzas lined with restaurants, and who knows what else. There is so much in the city’s well-charted core, I can scarcely imagine what it would be like exploring the wider and more diverse city beyond.
On my first visit to Rome, I knew I could only scratch the surface of what the city has to offer. I imagine a lot of people have that experience: feeling overwhelmed with so much to see and not enough time. Maybe that’s one of the cool things about visiting Rome. You join the ranks of countless travelers who have come to see its wonders and feel that sense of awe, whether they came long ago or just yesterday. If travel is largely about connecting with people, then Rome has a special ability to connect you to all those people who have walked its eternal streets.
One thought on “Rome: Reflections from a First-Time Visitor”
I went to Rome when I was 12 and I had a similar impression. I remember being on our tour bus and coming around this large circular road and then bam, there was the Colosseum right there mixed into this modern city. We went though it quickly too and it’s definitely a place I’d like to get back to and just have the chance to walk around a bit more.