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How to Explore Umbria on a Day Trip from Rome

While there’s enough to do and see in Rome that you may not feel the need to explore beyond, many great day trip options are available from the capital, including some into the neighboring region of Umbria.

Orvieto is the easiest day trip destination in Umbria from Rome.

Orvieto is the easiest day trip destination in Umbria from Rome.

Umbria is one of Italy’s few land-locked regions, and it’s often overlooked in favor of its famous neighbors (Tuscany being one of them). The region is known for gorgeous green landscapes, excellent wine, charming hill towns and one of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage sites.

Many of Umbria’s top destinations can be reached by train, so you can day trip from Rome into the pretty green countryside. Trains leave Rome’s Termini station bound for Umbrian cities on a regular basis. These are not high-speed trains, and they stop frequently, so the trip isn’t usually a quick one (to really explore the region, you may want to consider a car).

Orvieto makes the easiest day trip from Rome into Umbria. The train trip takes an hour and 15 minutes; the Orvieto station is at the base of the hill, but there’s a funicular across the street you can ride all the way to the top. It’s still a bit of an uphill walk to the very center of Orvieto from the funicular station, but take it slowly and enjoy the scenery along the way. Don’t miss a visit to the beautiful cathedral and a tour of the underground caverns.

Pretty Perugia

Pretty Perugia

Perugia is Umbria’s capital and just under under three hours from Rome by train. It’s known as one of Italy’s chocolate capitals, home of the Perugina chocolate company and an annual chocolate festival. Even if you miss the chocolate festival, though, the center of the city, with its many historic buildings, is full of charms. A bus connects Perugia’s train station with the hilltop town center; the 1.3-mile bus trip takes about 10 minutes.

Assisi is home to one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage sites — the Basilica of St. Francis, where the saint’s remains lie. Outside the town center, you can also visit the hillside retreat where Francis had the visions that led him to establish a religious order. Most trains from Rome to Assisi require a change along the way, meaning the trip takes a bit less than 2.5 hours. A direct train option is also available and takes a little over two hours, leaving Rome just before 8am. Again, the train station is at the base of the hill, but a regular bus connects it with the hilltop town center, and the ride of roughly 2.5 miles takes about 12 minutes.

Assisi's famous basilica

Assisi’s famous basilica

For those who would rather leave the logistics and transportation to someone else, there are organized tours you can take to different parts of Umbria from Rome. You can book guided tours of Assisi to see the basilica and learn about the town’s centuries of history, or go on a guided tour of Orvieto to visit the ancient underground caverns and learn about the symbolism of the ornately decorated front of the town’s cathedral.

– Jessica Spiegel

How to Explore Umbria on a Day Trip from Rome from Viator Rome



Where to Find Bernini in Rome

Rome is a city full of art, and while many have left their mark on the Eternal City over the years, there are a few whose names come up again and again; Gian Lorenzo Bernini is one of them. The Baroque master’s artistic talents can be seen in churches, galleries and piazzas around Rome. Here’s a list of the best places to see some of Bernini’s most famous works.

Galleria Borghese

Bernini's iconic David at the Borghese Gallery

Bernini’s iconic David at the Borghese Gallery

The fantastic Borghese Gallery is an excellent place to visit for any art lover in Rome, not least because it has several Bernini works. The artist had a close relationship with the Borghese family (one of whom was a pope), so many of his works were commissioned by them and are on display in the Galleria Borghese. Four of the highlights of the gallery’s Bernini collection are his sculptures of Apollo and Daphne, David, The Rape of Proserpina, and Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, all completed between 1619 and 1625.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Bernini later became close with the powerful Barberini family, just as one of them rose to the papacy. Among his first works executed under the new Barberini pope in the early 1600s was the massive bronze baldacchino that stands over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. He then redesigned the four huge columns at the base of the dome, including sculpting one of the figures that stands in the column balconies. Under later popes, from the 1640s through the 1660s, he created the ornate Chair of St. Peter at the back of the church, and designed the double-colonnaded arms that line two sides of St. Peter’s Square.

Piazza Navona

Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers

Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers

One of Rome’s most famous squares, Piazza Navona is decorated with two fountains designed by Bernini. The one at the center of the piazza, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, is the most famous. Four huge figures represent the four rivers of the world that were known at the time, with an Egyptian obelisk towering over them. Another fountain in the square is also by Bernini — the Fontana del Moro, with a figure standing on a shell at the center.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

One of Bernini’s most famous sculptures is that of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria church. The piece was completed in 1652 after roughly five years of work, commissioned by a Venetian cardinal. The sculpture is based on St. Teresa’s description of a vision — and ecstatic experience with — an angel wielding a spear. The sculpture and church feature in the many Angels & Demons tours of Rome.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk

Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk

Just around the corner from the Pantheon is what many see as a whimsical statue of an elephant holding up an Egyptian obelisk. The monument stands in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and while there are Bernini works inside the church, it’s his elephant that attracts the most attention. Bernini designed the monument (it was carved by a pupil), and the obelisk is the shortest in Rome.

Sant’Andrea delle Fratte

You may have heard that Bernini is responsible for two of the angels along the Ponte Sant’Angelo — the bridge from the Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber River. While that’s true, the Bernini-designed angels on the bridge are actually replicas; the originals are inside the Sant’Andrea delle Fratte church near Piazza Barberini, donated by descendants of the pope’s family in 1731.

– Jessica Spiegel

Where to Find Bernini in Rome from Viator Rome



Why Art Lovers in Rome Love Churches

No matter what you believe (or don’t), churches in Rome are probably on your itinerary in the Eternal City. They’re historic monuments as well as places of worship — and they’re also often full of famous art. Here are some of the art-filled churches that should also be on every art lover’s itinerary in Rome, in addition to the city’s many great art galleries.

Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo

Santa María del Popolo

Santa María del Popolo chapel

One of the churches on the Piazza del Popolo — the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, built in the late 15th century — contains a wealth of artistic treasures. The Cerasi Chapel has two large Caravaggio paintings, the Della Rovere Chapel has paintings attributed to Pinturicchio and the Chigi Chapel has sculptures by Bernini. The latter chapel was also designed by Raphael, who drew the plan for the mosaics on the domed ceiling.

Basilica of Sant’Agostino

The Basilica of Sant’Agostino is not far from the Piazza Navona, and dates from the 15th century. The main artistic draw is a Caravaggio painting called the Madonna di Loreto. There is also a fresco by Raphael of the prophet Isaiah on one column, right above a sculpture by Andrea Sansovino.

Santa Maria della Pace

The church of Santa Maria della Pace is a 15th-century church built upon an older church and rededicated to the Virgin Mary. The artistic highlight of the interior is in the Chigi Chapel, where Raphael painted a fresco of the Four Sibyls in 1514.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Around the corner from the Pantheon, many stop to admire the sweet sculpture of the elephant carrying an obelisk without realizing it’s a work of art by Bernini. The church behind this statue, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, dates from the late 14th century and also contains frescoes by Filippino Lippi, a Christ sculpture by Michelangelo and a memorial monument by Bernini.

St. Peter’s Basilica

There are many reasons to visit St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, not least being the famous Pietà sculpture carved by Michelangelo. The precious artwork is behind a transparent (but bulletproof) wall to protect it from would-be vandals — ever since a 1972 attack on the piece by a man with a hammer.

San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli

The church of San Pietro in Vincoli, or St Peter in Chains, dates from the fifth century. Pope Julius II is buried inside, and his tomb has a Michelangelo sculpture of Moses front and center. It was originally meant to contain several more Michelangelo sculptures, but the project was put on hold midway through and never completely realized.

San Luigi dei Francesi

The church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the national church of France in Rome, was built in the late 16th century and isn’t far from the Piazza Navona. The Polet Chapel near the altar is decorated with frescoes by Domenichino, but it’s the three large Caravaggio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel that are the main draw.

Jessica Spiegel

Why Art Lovers in Rome Love Churches from Viator Rome



Learning to Be a Gladiator at a Roman Gladiator School

As soon as I knew my upcoming visit to Rome would be with family, including the 10-year-old stepdaughter, I booked a session for her at a Roman gladiator school. I had heard so many wonderful reviews from friends whose children had done it, and thought it would be a great way to offer some context for the ancient Roman monuments we were seeing.

Gladiator School isn't just for kids

Gladiator school isn’t just for kids.

In the end, I’m not sure whether she made the connection between our visit to the Colosseum that morning and her sparring session with a gladiatorial combat instructor that afternoon, but I know she had fun.

We managed to keep L’s trip to the gladiator lesson a secret from her right up until the last minute. In fact, she was so preoccupied with a stray cat on the drive leading to the school we had to point out the big sign at the entrance. She was the only student for that time slot, so when the family before us finished, we walked to the small sand-covered ring behind a bamboo wall to meet Paolo, L’s instructor.

A gregarious Roman who happened to be a former martial arts instructor, Paolo immediately kitted L out in a tunic with a rope tie around her waist and led the whole family into the small museum behind the ring. It’s about the size of a two-car garage, and full of artifacts the organization has collected over the more than two decades they’ve been in existence.

Gladiator helmets in the school's museum

Gladiator helmets in the school’s museum

This is, yes, the same group whose members are often seen in the historic center of Rome for reenactments. Paolo told us he’s a senator. They take their work there and at the school very seriously, and have amassed quite an impressive collection in the museum. Some of the pieces, Paolo told us, are original, though most are replicas made specifically for them. It’s no ordinary museum, though, as we discovered when Paolo asked L to choose which of the various combat helmets she liked best. When she chose one, he plucked it from a shelf and placed it (gently) over her head.

And that’s when she started getting into it.

Heavy metal helmet removed, Paolo led L into the ring and tasked her with putting together three pieces of wood in the star shape we had seen in the museum. These, we had learned, were carried by Roman soldiers and could be quickly assembled in a ring around an encampment as a defense against intruders. The puzzle proved to be too challenging for L, though, and even when the rest of the family chipped in with suggestions it took Paolo coming back and demonstrating the method — twice — for us to get it.

Paolo offering combat instructions in the ring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Paolo offering combat instructions in the ring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Paolo then began training L in a series of offensive and defensive movements Roman gladiators had to learn. He made it fun, but he was serious about it — when L stopped doing the exercises, he made her do 10 push-ups. Instantly more focused, L mimicked Paolo’s motions and was eventually able to put together a few combinations.

Paolo rightly determined she would be more comfortable sparring first with her dad before she sparred with him, so he handed soft swords and shields to both and walked around them in a circle, offering instruction and keeping score. L did get a chance to spar with Paolo before a couple more rounds with her father, and when it was time to lay down arms she said, “Can we get some of those swords at home? I want to do that again.”

“It was definitely challenging,” L said when I asked for her review of the experience. “But it’s also really fun.” The hardest part, she said, was right at the beginning — putting together the star-shaped pieces of wood — because it “looked so easy when Paolo did it. But it wasn’t easy at all.” The most fun was, unsurprisingly, the actual sparring. She said Paolo was “serious but also funny,” especially when he would demonstrate what the wrong move would have cost the gladiator (such as an arm or his life). “If people are wondering whether they should do it, I think they should,” said L, “But only if they’re up for a challenge. It’s fun, but it’s also hard.”

I asked L for one piece of parting wisdom she’d offer to future gladiator school participants. After some thought, she said, “If I was doing it again, I would pay more attention to the training. It would save time, if you got the moves faster. I guess I didn’t think it was going to be so serious, but now I know and I’d pay attention sooner next time.”

– Jessica Spiegel

Learning to Be a Gladiator at a Roman Gladiator School from Viator Rome



A Lesson at a Roman Gladiator School

As soon as I knew my upcoming visit to Rome would be with family, including the 10-year-old stepdaughter, I booked a session for her at a Roman gladiator school. I had heard so many wonderful reviews from friends whose children had done it, and thought it would be a great way to offer some context for the ancient Roman monuments we were seeing.

Gladiator School isn't just for kids

Gladiator school isn’t just for kids.

In the end, I’m not sure whether she made the connection between our visit to the Colosseum that morning and her sparring session with a gladiatorial combat instructor that afternoon, but I know she had fun.

We managed to keep L’s trip to the gladiator lesson a secret from her right up until the last minute. In fact, she was so preoccupied with a stray cat on the drive leading to the school we had to point out the big sign at the entrance. She was the only student for that time slot, so when the family before us finished, we walked to the small sand-covered ring behind a bamboo wall to meet Paolo, L’s instructor.

A gregarious Roman who happened to be a former martial arts instructor, Paolo immediately kitted L out in a tunic with a rope tie around her waist and led the whole family into the small museum behind the ring. It’s about the size of a two-car garage, and full of artifacts the organization has collected over the more than two decades they’ve been in existence.

Gladiator helmets in the school's museum

Gladiator helmets in the school’s museum

This is, yes, the same group whose members are often seen in the historic center of Rome for reenactments. Paolo told us he’s a senator. They take their work there and at the school very seriously, and have amassed quite an impressive collection in the museum. Some of the pieces, Paolo told us, are original, though most are replicas made specifically for them. It’s no ordinary museum, though, as we discovered when Paolo asked L to choose which of the various combat helmets she liked best. When she chose one, he plucked it from a shelf and placed it (gently) over her head.

And that’s when she started getting into it.

Heavy metal helmet removed, Paolo led L into the ring and tasked her with putting together three pieces of wood in the star shape we had seen in the museum. These, we had learned, were carried by Roman soldiers and could be quickly assembled in a ring around an encampment as a defense against intruders. The puzzle proved to be too challenging for L, though, and even when the rest of the family chipped in with suggestions it took Paolo coming back and demonstrating the method — twice — for us to get it.

Paolo offering combat instructions in the ring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Paolo offering combat instructions in the ring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Paolo then began training L in a series of offensive and defensive movements Roman gladiators had to learn. He made it fun, but he was serious about it — when L stopped doing the exercises, he made her do 10 push-ups. Instantly more focused, L mimicked Paolo’s motions and was eventually able to put together a few combinations.

Paolo rightly determined she would be more comfortable sparring first with her dad before she sparred with him, so he handed soft swords and shields to both and walked around them in a circle, offering instruction and keeping score. L did get a chance to spar with Paolo before a couple more rounds with her father, and when it was time to lay down arms she said, “Can we get some of those swords at home? I want to do that again.”

“It was definitely challenging,” L said when I asked for her review of the experience. “But it’s also really fun.” The hardest part, she said, was right at the beginning — putting together the star-shaped pieces of wood — because it “looked so easy when Paolo did it. But it wasn’t easy at all.” The most fun was, unsurprisingly, the actual sparring. She said Paolo was “serious but also funny,” especially when he would demonstrate what the wrong move would have cost the gladiator (such as an arm or his life). “If people are wondering whether they should do it, I think they should,” said L, “But only if they’re up for a challenge. It’s fun, but it’s also hard.”

I asked L for one piece of parting wisdom she’d offer to future gladiator school participants. After some thought, she said, “If I was doing it again, I would pay more attention to the training. It would save time, if you got the moves faster. I guess I didn’t think it was going to be so serious, but now I know and I’d pay attention sooner next time.”

– Jessica Spiegel

A Lesson at a Roman Gladiator School from Viator Rome



Exploring the World of the Dead on a Skip-the-Line Crypts and Roman Catacombs Tour

Mosaics in the Basilica of San Clemente

Mosaics in the Basilica of San Clemente

The Capuchin Crypt in Rome isn’t the unknown attraction it was decades ago, but it’s still just enough off the tourist trail that many visitors miss it. The same can be said of the Basilica of San Clemente in the city center, which may be easy to reach but is still nowhere near the top of most must-see lists. And the Catacombs of Rome, while relatively well-known, are outside the city center and therefore a little harder to get to for many tourists.

Enter the skip-the-line crypts and catacombs tour, which offers transportation and a guide for all three places.

After meeting our guide, Rebecca, in Rome’s city center, two tour groups climbed aboard a big coach for the drive out to the Domitilla Catacombs — so named because Flavia Domitilla, granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian, donated the land for the catacombs after she converted to Christianity. The network of underground tunnels and rooms, each lined with burial niches, is immense — it’s spread out over four levels, and there are more than 10 miles of tunnels. In all, there were once nearly 150,000 people buried in these catacombs.

The part of the catacombs which visitors are allowed to see is quite small, relative to the size of the Domitilla Catacombs, and any human remains have been removed from the public areas — early tourists actually took some of the bones and other fragments of burials, so the church thought it best if the rest were moved to another part of the catacombs off-limits to greedy visitors.

Catacombs are still sacred places, so conservative dress is required.

Catacombs are still sacred places, so conservative dress is required.

Rebecca led us through the narrow hallways of the catacombs, and it was hard to imagine that these dim places would have been even darker — not to mention would have had few sources of air — when the ancient Romans were using them as burial grounds. Given how little time a person could spend in the catacombs before the air ran out, it’s astonishing to consider the vastness of the tunnel network and that many burial niches were decorated with frescoes; excavators, painters and those responsible for burying the dead had to work quickly.

Of the 70 known catacombs in and around Rome, only five are open to the public, and the Domitilla Catacombs are among the largest. In addition to the tunnels, you can also visit an underground basilica at the Domitilla Catacombs, dating from the fourth century CE; it’s still in use today, and only accessible with a guided tour.

The next stop on the tour was back in central Rome at the Basilica of San Clemente, which has much more to it than meets the eye. Rebecca calls it an “archaeological lasagna” because beneath the 12th-century church at today’s ground level lies a fourth-century church, second-century Mithraic temple and first-century structure.

Although the 12th-century church has some gorgeous golden mosaics in the apse, we didn’t get to spend much time above ground. Rebecca led us deeper under the church, first to the excavation of the fourth-century Basilica of San Clemente. It had been so damaged during an earthquake that officials opted to simply bury it and build a new church on top. Burying the church meant that, eventually, it was forgotten, until the 1860s when a Father Mullooly claimed to hear running water underneath the church, and excavations revealed the remains of the basilica. In fact, Father Mullooly is buried in this older basilica.

We went down another level to see the small room containing the second-century Mithraeum, dedicated to the god Mithras; when the religion was outlawed in the fourth century this, too, was simply buried. Visitors aren’t allowed inside the temple, but a replica of its original second-century altar stands outside for better viewing.

One more level down and Rebecca informed us we were now more than 65 feet below Rome’s modern ground level. This, we learned, was street level in the first century. Archaeologists aren’t sure about the function the building served, though they believe it was destroyed during the Great Fire of 64, which burned for nine days and devastated much of the city. It’s here that you can understand why Father Mullooly heard water — a hole in the floor reveals the rushing water from an underground spring. He didn’t live long enough to see the source of the sounds, but thanks to him we know about the many layers under the basilica today.

The final stop on the tour was the Capuchin Crypt, where the bones of roughly 3,700 Capuchin friars are artfully displayed on the walls. We spent only a brief time in a museum about the Capuchin order before entering the crypt, but I was thrilled to see the Caravaggio painting of St Francis on display.

One chapel in the Capuchin Crypt

One chapel in the Capuchin Crypt

Five small chapels are in the crypt, each with a different theme. Rebecca said that, after careful research, she believes the Capuchins themselves did the work of exhuming their brothers’ bodies and arranging their bones in decorative patterns on the walls, and she  believes they did so lovingly. These friars had been given the privilege of being buried in the holy soil of the crypt — it was brought from Jerusalem — but there was only so much soil and burial space to go around. It was only right, then, to give every brother who died the same privilege.

Nothing in the crypt has changed since 1870, however, when a law was enacted prohibiting decoration using human bones. If pieces fall from their place on the wall today, the Capuchins aren’t even allowed to repair the existing work. It’s hard to say how long the crypt will look as it does, but one cringes at the thought of the damage an earthquake would do.

The tour covered a lot of ground in 3.5 hours, and each of the three places visited left me wanting to know more —  an excellent introduction, giving us a glimpse of how much more there is to see and know about this multilayered city.

Note: Photographs are not allowed in any of the three stops on this tour.

– Jessica Spiegel

Exploring the World of the Dead on a Skip-the-Line Crypts and Roman Catacombs Tour from Viator Rome



Rise Above the Crowds with a Guided Tour of the Vatican Museums

Apollo of Belvedere in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Apollo of Belvedere in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

During the high season in Rome, the Vatican Museums regularly see 25,000 to 30,000 people come through the doors.

Think about that for a moment, and then book a spot on a Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour.

When I arrived, the line outside the museum entrance already snaked down the block and around the corner. But the only wait time we experienced was on the opposite side of the security checkpoint, as the rest of our tour group made their way through.

Our guide, Eleonora, reminded me of the other reason booking a spot on a tour is an excellent idea. If you stood in front of every piece in the Vatican Museums for only one minute each, you would still need an entire week to see everything. Without a week to spend inside the museum — or the art history education necessary to understand what’s what — your best bet is to join a knowledgeable guide on a tour; they not only point out the most important pieces, they tell you why they’re important.

Our guide discussing the Sistine Chapel paintings. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our guide discussing the Sistine Chapel paintings. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Once inside the Vatican Museums, Eleonora led us to a terrace at the top of the entrance escalator for what she said is one of the best views of St Peter’s Basilica dome. She talked a bit about the dome, and about the basilica, but since it was a Wednesday morning tour we weren’t going to visit the church with her. On Wednesdays the pope holds his weekly address in front of the basilica, so it’s closed to visitors. This means guided tours spend more time in the museums and visitors go through the basilica on their own instead.

We then walked into a small courtyard with placards showing images of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Since time is limited in the chapel itself and there’s no talking allowed, guides use this space to give you information. Pay attention: The Sistine Chapel is at the very end of the tour and this explanation comes at the very beginning.

We followed Eleonora into what’s known as the Pinecone Courtyard for the ancient bronze sculpture of a pinecone at one end. It’s a central courtyard inside the Vatican Museums, where a 16th-century pope used to bring his pet elephant out on parade.

Eleonora showed us the first piece in what would become the Vatican Museums collection, the Apollo Belvedere. The sculpture was in the private collection of Pope Julius II, who recognized the value of ancient artifacts and spent many years of his papacy acquiring more. Another reason this Apollo is worth a second look today is that it inspired the head of Jesus in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Our guide discussing the ancient sculptures in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our guide discussing the ancient sculptures in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

We learned that the different colors of marble used in objects and floor or wall mosaics indicated the status of the people for whom they were made. Certain colors were rare, and therefore expensive, so they were reserved solely for the imperial family. We discovered that maps lining the gallery walls are accurate even today, although the people who painted them certainly didn’t have aerial views of the regions they painted. Eleonora called this gallery the “Google Maps of the Renaissance” — these maps weren’t just art, they served a function.

By the time we reached the series of rooms painted largely by Raphael, which is right before the entrance from the Vatican Museums into the Sistine Chapel, the crowds had gotten so thick it was difficult to move through an area and still stay within range of the audio headset by which we could hear Eleonora. She said during the high season you almost don’t have to walk from room to room — you’re carried by the sheer press of bodies.

Map detail in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Map detail in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Despite the crowds, the work of Raphael is stunning to see in person, and by the last room it’s not very challenging to pick out the one wall of four which he painted rather than his students.

Eleonora then suggested we take a break in the museum cafe before going into the Sistine Chapel so that we might wait long enough to get into St Peter’s Basilica directly from the chapel (there’s a shortcut between the two). The cafe was as crowded as Raphael’s rooms, but in the end her advice was a good idea. We spent time staring at Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling and altar wall, keeping in mind what Eleonora had told us at the start of the tour, and then made our way into the basilica for a self-guided visit using a provided brochure.

Crowds in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Crowds in the Vatican Museums. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

After walking past countless pieces of artwork on this tour, I couldn’t imagine going through this museum without a guide.

Learn about more skip-the-line tours of the Vatican.

– Jessica Spiegel

Rise Above the Crowds with a Guided Tour of the Vatican Museums from Viator Rome



Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

One of the most (if not the most) recognizable monuments in Italy is the Colosseum in Rome, so it’s not surprising that there’s a long line at the entrance almost year-round. That’s why, if you’re taking a guided tour of the arena, you want one that comes with skip-the-line access.

But just seeing the Colosseum on its own doesn’t give you a complete picture of life in ancient Rome. To get that, you need to also see the Palatine Hill and the Forum – and you need a guide with the knowledge to rebuild the ruins in your imagination. You get the whole package with a Skip the Line Walking Tour of Ancient Rome and the Colosseum.

Our guide for the day, Alessia, began the tour with a walk up the Palatine Hill, the most important of Rome’s ancient seven hills. It sits just to one side of the Forum, and is where legend says the city was founded. It’s where the wealthy of ancient Rome had their private residences, and because of this it’s where we get the word “palace.” It’s central to the geography of ancient Rome, being the central hill, and to the mythology and history of the Roman Empire.

So it’s the perfect place to start.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Alessia led us through the ruins of an imperial palace, and as we walked she pointed to the tunnels nearby. They were clearly man-made, with arched ceilings made of stone, and without context might have looked like passages from one part of the Palatine Hill to another. But they were more than just convenient.

“It’s hot today, even in March,” said Alessia. “Rome is always hot, and it was even in ancient times. These tunnels were built so the nobility could go for walks during the summer months without being exposed to too much sun.”

Aqueducts above for bringing in water, and tunnels below for shaded summer strolls. Oh, those clever Romans.

There’s a garden atop the Palatine, among the ruins, and a terrace with the best view over the Forum that you’ll find anywhere in Rome. It’s not hard to imagine the upper classes enjoying their palaces, their gardens, and this amazing view – though at the time, of course, they wouldn’t have been looking at ruins.

Alessia led us deeper into the Palatine Hill to what remained of the throne room dating from the 1st century CE, with a semicircular indentation in one wall still standing. This, she said, is the kind of building that served as the model for Christian churches, with the semicircular wall behind the main position of power (the throne) leading to the apse of a church behind the altar. The structure was recognizable to people of the time as one of authority.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Walking back down the hill, Alessia led us to what is believed to be the oldest part of the Forum – a small area with grass growing in odd patterns that archaeologists think was part of an ancient cemetery for children, dating back to before the 6th century BCE. She described different buildings of the Forum, and added that the word “forum” itself meant “square.” This particular square, however, didn’t need a name or any descriptor. It was the most important square, so it was simply called “Forum,” just as it is today.

The highlight of the walk through the Forum was the recently-opened church of Santa Maria Antiqua. It dates from the 5th century CE, making it the oldest Christian structure in the Forum, and the inside walls have some remarkable frescoes from the 6th-8th centuries. The church was just opened to the public in 2016 after more than 35 years of restoration work, and it is still sometimes closed for further excavations and restoration, so getting to see the frescoes was truly a delight.

We continued through the Forum, pausing to see where the Temple of Julius Caesar once stood (where people still leave flowers), and then made our way to the final stop on the tour – the famous Colosseum.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Ancient Romans who went to the Colosseum for games got their tickets for free, but of course today they cost money – and, as mentioned earlier, there are nearly always lines at the ticket windows of the Colosseum. With Alessia, we marched right past those and inside the first walls of the arena. There, she handed us over to Laura (there are very strict rules that only allow certain guides to lead tours inside the Colosseum).

Laura led us out onto the partially-reconstructed floor of the Colosseum, covering one end of the oval. We learned about what the ancient Romans called the building (it wasn’t “Colosseum”), how it only took eight years to build the whole thing, how almost all of the marble covering the surfaces we see today was either burned to make cement or used for other structures, and how there was once a retractable cloth roof that could be raised to cover the heads of the spectators.

We had chosen the upgraded tour option, so next we descended a flight of stairs to walk through part of the network of chambers underneath the Colosseum floor. These once held animals waiting to be raised into the arena on pulley-operated lifts (there’s a reconstructed lift visible from the arena floor). While in this lowest level, you can also see water sources – these were once used to fill the Colosseum for water games in its earliest years.

From the lowest level, Laura then led us to the uppermost level of the Colosseum by a series of steep staircases (the last one behind a locked gate). The views from the top tier are fantastic, looking down into the Colosseum itself and out over the city.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour concluded after heading back to the main level of the Colosseum, where we had not one but two tour guides to thank.

This tour includes a lot of history, and without a background studying ancient Rome or archaeology it’s likely that not all of it will stick. I was taking notes furiously the entire time and I still didn’t capture a fraction of what I was learning. Still, I’d recommend taking a guided tour of these incredible monuments over visiting on your own, partly for the access to places you wouldn’t see without a guide – and partly because with a good guide you’ll feel smarter afterward.

- Jessica Spiegel

Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour from Viator Rome



How to Visit the Amalfi Coast From Rome in a Day

Pretty Positano overlooking the sea

Pretty Positano overlooking the sea

The luxurious Amalfi Coast is one of the most popular destinations in Italy for visitors, but if time is tight and you don’t plan to stay for a few days in one of the towns, a day trip is the next best thing. Amalfi Coast day trips from Rome can be done, but the two areas sit a good distance apart — which makes for a very long day.

Travelers making the trip on their own should plan on a combination of high-speed train and local bus services, which is the easiest way to get from Rome to the Amalfi Coast without a car. The train gets you as far as Naples, where you’ll switch to a separate train. That takes you to Sorrento, where you’ll board a bus — the towns of the Amalfi Coast are not served by trains.

Amalfi Cathedral

Amalfi Cathedral

The train trip from Rome to Naples is relatively quick, just over an hour. In Naples you’ll switch to the Circumvesuviana train line which serves both Pompeii and Sorrento. The Circumvesuviana trains depart from a different part of the Naples train station, so be sure to look for signs pointing you toward Napoli Garibaldi — that’s the Circumvesuviana station underneath Piazza Garibaldi. You don’t have to leave the Naples Centrale station, you just have to get to the underground tracks.

Circumvesuviana tickets are inexpensive. A one-way ticket from Naples to Sorrento costs only €4.50, but if you’re planning to make this a day trip you can get a day pass instead of a ticket, which is only good for 180 minutes. The trip from Naples to Sorrento takes about an hour.

Sorrento isn’t technically part of the Amalfi Coast, but if this is as far as you’d like to go, then you can begin enjoying your day trip once the Circumvesuviana arrives in the station. Those wishing to get to the actual Amalfi Coast, however, must at this point get on one of the buses that wind along the coastal road toward Positano and Amalfi.

Panorama of Positano

Panorama of Positano

Again, bus tickets are inexpensive, in the €3-5 range for a timed ticket. The drive from Sorrento to Positano takes about 50 minutes. All told, the journey from Rome to Positano requires about four hours to complete from start to finish — and then, of course, you get to do it all over again on the return trip.

To cut down on quite a bit of the confusion of Italian public transportation and eliminate some time spent waiting for trains and buses, you can choose instead to book an Amalfi Coast day trip from Rome. Transportation is taken care of, and — in some cases — a visit to the excavations of Pompeii is included in a day trip. Choose an Amalfi Coast small-group tour from Rome or Amalfi Coast and Pompeii day trip from Rome.

– Jessica Spiegel

How to Visit the Amalfi Coast From Rome in a Day from Viator Rome



5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Rome is never really a quiet city. It’s the busy Italian capital, and gets constant tourist attention on top of that. But Rome in the winter can be a refreshing alternative for visitors who don’t love big crowds – and who don’t mind cold weather.

Here are just a few reasons why you’d want to visit Rome in the winter months.

Smaller Crowds

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

No, Rome never empties of tourists entirely. In the winter, however, you’re far more likely to find there’s no line outside the Vatican Museums, allowing you to walk right in without buying a ticket in advance, and plenty of elbow room in the Sistine Chapel when you get to the end of your tour. The piazzas, churches, galleries, and restaurants aren’t as full, either, all of which gives you more time to enjoy Rome’s beauty in relative peace and quiet.

Lower Prices

Visitors to Rome in the winter months get to take advantage of what are typically lower prices on things like airfare, accommodation, and even sometimes tour prices. Prices often spike around holidays or winter festivals, such as Christmas, but you’re still likely to get a better deal if you travel to Rome in the winter than in the summer.

Christmas Markets

German-style Christmas markets are cropping up in lots of other European countries recently, and in Rome there’s a big one in Piazza Navona each year. There are others around the city, too, many of which have more authentically Italian goodies. Christmas markets in Rome can be festive places to pick up a unique souvenir or sample a local seasonal treat or two. These markets usually run from late November through Epiphany on January 6th.

Holiday Events

Rome, like plenty of cities around the world, gets festive around the holiday season with special events. There are often concerts in performance theaters as well as churches throughout the city, and New Year’s Eve especially is a night for fireworks. Check with the tourist information office when you get into town to find out what special holiday events are going on in Rome when you’re there, as the calendar for these changes each year.

Winter Sales Season

In Italy there are two official sales seasons when all retailers put “discount” signs on their goods. One is in the summer, and the other is in the winter. The winter sales period usually begins in early January and lasts for 5-6 weeks – each region can set their own dates. These dates change annually, but if you’re in Rome in January or early February chances are good you’ll see sale signs in every window.

- Jessica Spiegel

5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter from Viator Rome