In addition to its history of gladiators battling to the death and politicians stabbing each other in the back, Rome, Italy, is seeping with Catholic tradition. The city has more than 900 Catholic churches and, of course, surrounds the Vatican — you know, that place where Pope Francis lives.
But there is much more to Rome than just the tourist attractions like the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and a bunch of pretty churches (although it’s highly recommended you see those as well).
“I think sometimes it’s really easy to get caught up in the top five major sites and miss what the city has to offer,” says Brian, a university student currently living in Rome.
To get a well-rounded experience of the city, it’s important to think like a local — or at least the temporary locals like Brian.
I.e., when in Rome, do as the transient Romans do.
Take it from a local
“When I think of being a local here, my first thought is the food,” Brian says. “I’m a foodie. I’ve worked in restaurants, I went to culinary school, so coming here is not only an educational and artistic experience, but it’s a really great food experience.”
To be clear, that doesn’t mean every place to eat in Rome is good. In fact, Brian says that many of them aren’t. In order to find the good places to wine and dine yourself, he recommended walking a few blocks away from some of the more touristy areas. This is where you’ll find the places with more authentic food that don’t make a living off of overcharging tourists.
For instance, Brian lives in a neighborhood in Rome called Trastevere, which is very touristy. So, to find good food, he says he walks for five minutes in any direction to find a restaurant with good food for a fair price. This is especially true if you’re in the mood for some quality pasta.
If you follow this strategy, it might not lead you to the flashiest place to eat in Rome, but your stomach and your wallet will appreciate it.
The best way to determine what’s truly worth seeing in a city is to figure out where you are willing to go over and over again.
For instance, Brian was in Rome this spring, and during that time he saw the majority of the tourist attractions in Rome. So, when he came back to the city to study, the places he returned to are in a “must see” category, because something about those sights called him back.
The first place he settled on is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is one of the four major basilicas in Rome. The second place is the Church of the Gesù, which is the mother church of the Jesuits.
“Those are two of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Brian says. “They are two very different-styled churches, but they are worth seeing even if you don’t normally like art. I can’t think of two places that I would suggest higher for people to see while they’re here.”
Need to try
During the summer months, there’s a series of tents by the Tiber River where a mix of locals and tourists gather. Each tent contains a different restaurant, bar, or shop.
“It’s kind of cool to see because it’s not often that you can just be right down on a river like that and see that much going on with a lot of different types of food and different bars,” Brian says. “They had live music at some places and carnival type games set up for kids.”
In fact, you can find an entire evening or afternoon worth of activities to do there, and everyone is welcome. “It’s funny because even the Franciscans had a tent down there,” Brian says. “So, it was like a sea of restaurants and bars and all that in a tent full of writers, which I thought was kind of funny.”
Make the most of your experience
In Rome, it’s hard to throw a stone without hitting a church, so while everyone feels the need to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, there are many other churches to see off the beaten path that you honestly might find more enjoyable.
These are the churches where you might discover some unknown piece of history or see a beautiful ceiling that’s not commonly found in history books.
The cool thing is that you don’t have to be religious to enjoy looking at these churches.
“If you are religious there’s a church on every corner, almost literally, to go into,” Brian says, “and if you’re not religious there’s still a church to go into on every corner.”
You just have to have a moderate appreciation for classical art and architecture that has withstood the test of time. It also doesn’t hurt if you have a unique sense of style and a desire for adventure. But no worries if you don’t — there really isn’t anything wrong with visiting St. Peter’s multiple times a day.
While in one of these churches, feel free to pray, meditate, or just marvel at what some combination of God and humanity has created.
Know before you go
Believe it or not, it’s actually easy to escape the hustle and flow of the city when visiting Rome, which can be really advantageous if you are one of those people who needs space or can’t go more than a few days without experiencing nature.
About 30 kilometers northeast of Rome there’s a town called Tivoli, which Brian says is only a short, three-euro train ride away.
“It’s great to just get out,” Brian says. “You can totally escape the city. It’s a completely different atmosphere.”
The best part is you can leave for the afternoon and be back to Rome in plenty of time to have dinner with your friends, but the environment is completely distinct.
“In the mountains, you have to think about wild animals instead of just pigeons,” Brian says, “and it’s a really great way to just kind of escape for a few hours and experience a different part of Italy.”
So whether you’re looking for great food, pretty churches, or an opportunity to get out and see the countryside, Rome offers it. All it takes is a trip across the Atlantic and then it’s time to explore.