Our Trip to Italy
At the end of September we went to Italy on a vacation we’d been planning since our honeymoon the year before. It was my first time, though Allie had been before, including a six-week “study” abroad program in college. I’m a huge Europhile but must admit Italy had never been at the top of my list of countries to visit. Having visited, and loved, France and Ireland, I was pushing for someplace neither of us had ever been before, or Ireland again. But just like this blog post, I was overru- I mean we compromised and decided on Italy. Our itinerary included three days in Rome, Florence, and Positano on the Amalfi coast. I was certainly excited, but a bit suspicious my wife was just taking me to Italy to relive her college days.
We were flying United, and here’s my first travel tip- if you are flying out of O’Hare, gate-C, do not pay for access to the United Admirals Club. If you get free access that’s fine, but it was not worth the $75/person, as it’s a mini-version of the real clubs in the other gates. Three in the afternoon on a Friday must also be a busy time because it was packed. Despite the crowd and lack of hot food offerings we made the best of it and started sucking down adult beverages, Allie with her usual chardonnay, while I went for champagne. They did have cheese and USB outlets which was nice but not worth the price.
We flew Economy Plus as I’m kind of tall and get stir crazy on long flights. I had wanted to listen to white noise to try and sleep but forgot to download it. The flight over was kind of rough though the flight attendant did help me out with some champagne from first class, however despite the champagne, eye mask, and Xanax I wasn’t really able to fall asleep. My plan was to try and get a few solid hours of sleep on the plane, and then when we landed it would be morning, and feel “normal” but it didn’t really work that way and when we landed I just felt like a slightly hungover, pill-popping jackass hoping to get my own show on Bravo.
We had a driver booked to take us from the airport to our hotel which brings me to another travel tip- while you might see a few drivers/tourist pickups right outside of customs, the majority of them are outside the baggage claim area. We learned this the hard way after walking back and forth multiple times looking for our driver.
The hotel was about a 45 minute drive from the airport and I’ll just get this next travel tip out of the way now, and it’s an important one. Do not attempt to drive in Rome, just spend the money and arrange drivers or pay for taxis. Everyone speeds, the signs don’t make any sense, there are scooters and motorcycles everywhere who don’t seem to have to follow traffic laws, and many roads are one-way and as wide as a checkout lane at a grocery store. Do not attempt to drive yourself unless you are comfortable with death and dismemberment of yourself and/or others.
We dropped our bags off at the Hotel Stendhal, but the room wasn’t ready so we started walking around. On the first day we saw the Spanish Steps, and despite Allie having been there before didn’t know the historical significance, and since we never found out all I have to say about them is it’s a big white staircase. I think there’s a fountain too, and lots of tourists and street merchants. From there we made our way to the Trevi Fountain– which again, I do not know the historical significance, and again, lots of tourists and street merchants. We decided to walk back towards the hotel and get a quick bite to eat before checking into the room and taking a nap.
After sleeping for a few hours we decided to wander around the city a bit. Most of the days we had a tour planned in the morning, but left the afternoons free for us to wander at our own leisure. I really liked this because it gave us plenty history but also the freedom to relax and take things slow. In a city like Rome you could absolutely book eight-plus hours worth of tours, but I feel like you’d really miss out on the experience of the city and culture itself. It was nice to be able to spend the afternoons strolling through the streets, drinking and eating. We also took to the Italian lifestyle pretty easily and would take a nap in the late afternoon.
As it was our first day, we didn’t have any tours planned and since we felt pretty good after our nap we had a late lunch and hit up a few bars. We made our way back to the hotel and asked the concierge for restaurant recommendations. One of my biggest regrets with the trip is not researching restaurants ahead of time. There are so many options it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and while the hotel concierge is generally a good resource we found it’s easy to get burned on recommendations (more to come on that). Our first night however was fine, and we found a place around the corner, Il Giardino di Albino.
The next day and day after we had tours in the mornings and free time in the afternoons. Our first full day in Rome we had a Colosseum & Palatine Hill tour booked with this great private tour company called Context Tours, which offered detailed, educational tours with no more than six people per group. Travel tip: spend the extra money on tours with a front of the line pass.
Rome is a city everyone should see at least once. The Colosseum is incredible by any standard, but even more so when you consider how long ago it was built. It’s pretty mind blowing to imagine Ancient Roman life, and you are truly walking through history at places like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Forum. The Roman impact on civilization is unquestionable- take time to marvel at its splendor, and reflect on all the ways modern life was shaped by ancient life.
After the tours we started the long walk back to the hotel. We were there in late September which meant hot during the day, and cool at night (or even in the shade)- if you plan on visiting this time of year, prepare to pack for two seasons. After freshening up a bit at the hotel, we went out exploring a little more and found this really nice part of the city with all of these fancy hotels and restaurants. We ended up getting a drink at Harry’s Bar, which was nice but pricey.
That night we ate at a place called Ristorante al 34 based off of a recommendation from a friend. The ambiance was bustling, but the food and service were so-so. One thing we realized about restaurants in Italy is they expect you to have your full order ready the first time they stop by, and then don’t typically ask if you want more drinks- ordering a full bottle is your best bet, plus wine seemed to be pretty cheap.
The next day we had a morning tour of the Vatican booked through the same outfit. The number of tourists at the Vatican was overwhelming. Again, we skipped the lines, but once inside the whole thing is a giant line anyway. The tour was very informative, but you’re generally herded through like Catholic cattle which makes it hard to really appreciate everything. Unfortunately, this was the experience once inside the Sistine Chapel as well. There’s a famous scene in the movie ‘Good Will Hunting’ where Robin Williams’ character says to Will “but you can’t tell me what it smells like inside the Sistine Chapel’- I get the point of the scene, but the answer to that question is ‘B.O.’ from the other 800 people packed into the room. Also, there are ushers who constantly ‘shhh’ you, as you aren’t allowed to talk in there. The artwork is without a doubt incredible but it’s hard to appreciate it given the crowd and the barrage of shushing.
After the Sistine Chapel we went to St. Peter’s Basilica. Up to this point of the tour, including the Sistine Chapel, you’re pretty confined so maybe that plays on your perception a bit, but, St. Peter’s Basilica is big, really, really big. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of it. Easily one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen. The scale of everything messes with your mind- and for that, plus the centuries of history, I would also say Vatican City is a must-see.
Important travel tip here- during our time at the Vatican it had been raining pretty steadily. I hadn’t noticed but the shoes I was wearing (a pair of old Merrells) had zero tread left, and I was basically walking on a flat rubber surface. You don’t realize how important shoe treading is until you step out onto a piece of wet marble and realize you have zero traction and are basically on an ice-skating rink. Make sure to bring shoes in good condition, with plenty of tread.
After the Vatican we had lunch closer to our hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring, eating and drinking. That night we went to Ristorante Life for dinner. It had a bit more of a contemporary feel than the prior nights, but that was ok. We both had seafood and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Our last meal in Rome was dessert in a small bar where we talked Roman life, and Chicago property taxes with the bartender. Upon hearing how much we paid per year he proclaimed, “You should have a revolution!”; I wholeheartedly agreed.
Rome was incredible, and it feels like a big city- it’s big, crowded, vibrant, and loud. If you’re planning a multi-city trip to Italy, start with Rome.
Il Giardino di Albino – a bit off the beaten path, but great food. Decent ambiance, seems a bit contrived though
Ristorante 34 – busy and bustling feel, decent food, great ambiance, iffy service
Ristorante Life – contemporary feel, outstanding food, especially if you like seafood and truffles
Guided Tours through Context Tours – highly recommended, groups of no more than 6, very informative, local tour guides, below are the tours we selected:
Group walk: Roman Forum Tour: Roma Antica
Group walk: Vatican Art Tour: Arte Vaticana with Skip-the-Line Tickets
Hotel Stendhal, Rome – nice, ‘apartment style’ suite, great breakfast, located on a busy street corner