The first thing I learned in Rome was that developing-nation smugness ('Ah, you think Toronto has traffic jams, that's cute.') is completely misplaced here. When they say the city's crowded, they really do mean it's like a Mumbai commuter train on a weekday morning... and that's in April, when it isn't even peak tourist season yet! The average person really will at least witness a robbery, if not be victim to one, when using public transit. Rome is noisy and hot and busy and overwhelming, and everyone talks with their full face and both hands, occasionally throwing in their hips and feet to really make their point. Believe me, you don't need to know Italian to communicate here, knowing body language will do just fine.
So here's my pro tip for the city, especially if you dislike chaos: wake up early. You will not regret it. First of all, many of Rome's busiest attractions are outdoors - all the fountains, most notably the Trevi; the Spanish steps; the grand columns. I woke up at 5:!5am and fell in love. It's indescribably awe-inspiring to have the whole city belong to just you. Obviously it's majestic at all hours, but when you're one of about 25 people walking around these imposing structures, and the only sound is of water echoing powerfully through the aqueducts under your feet, it's otherworldly. I'm convinced that this is the way the fountains were meant to be seen. I've never felt so small.
And if you don't have the Tam-Brahm gene that makes waking up that early second nature, then I can assure you that there were still less than 50 people around when I headed back to the hostel at 7:45. But in case romanticism alone isn't enough to convince you, here's the train station before and after 8:30am. Seriously. I think I may have hated the city if I hadn't already fallen in love with it.
Here's some of my favourite trivia about some Roman sights. These aren't my best photos, or even the most well known sights, just the stuff that's a bit more eclectic... I suppose, this tells you as much about me as about Rome. For the more pragmatic, who are actually looking for usable information - the full list of places I went to, opening hours & prices are here; pictures + stories are here; and my FAQ doc is here. It seemed like a pity to let all my compulsive researching go to waste.
Via del Corso: Once a racetrack for unmanned horse races (abolished after an accident in front of Princess Margharita), it became a butcher’s lane (so much better). When it became one of the first gas lit roads in Rome, the butchers were replaced by high end shops. It's one of the most expensive shopping roads in Rome today.
The Trevi fountain: If you want to come back to Rome - throw in a coin over your shoulder. Over 700,000EU is fished out from here each year, and given to charity. Stealing coins from the fountain is illegal.
Bernini's Fountain of Four Rivers: This grand fountain represents rivers from the 4 countries known in 1650 – Nile, Ganges, Danube, and… Uruguay. No wonder Uruguay looks so stunned. I loved seeing how the world 'changed' in different works of art & architecture through Europe.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva: The only Gothic church in Rome, the altar particularly fascinated me as it's where Galileo, aged 70, knelt and declared the earth didn't revolve around the sun after all, on his way to trial.
The Colosseum: I wasn't expecting to be so awestruck given only a third of the original structure remains.. but it struly is stupendous. I don't condone violence, but I particularly enjoyed seeing remnants of the 'elevator shafts' which were used to mysteriously make animals and props appear & disappear - apparently several gladiators were killed without ever knowing what attacked them. And so many facts about this place that I love. Such as the fact that they pioneered the use of concrete with the Colosseum. And the word 'vomit' comes from vomitarium, the name of the hallways leading to seats, which would 'vomit' people out at exit time.
Arch of Titus: This arch commemorates Roman victory over Israel in AD 70, and was built by 50,000 Jewish slaves who were forced to work on this & the Colosseum. It shows Titus being crowned by Victory, and depicts the spoils of the war. One thing that blew my mind was that post this, and another war 60 years later, there was no more Jewish Israel till after World War 2.
It's hard to cut myself off, I think Rome has some of the best stories - all amazing because they're so clearly true.
Next: Vatican City.