Let me say first and foremost, I love Rome! Rome excites me, enthralls me, and educates me. However, Rome can exhaust me. Rome is expensive, and in the throes of summer heat and throngs of tourists, it does not make me a happy traveler.
Vacationing in Italy this summer? To see or not to see Rome, that is the question. Is it possible to have an authentic Italian experience that doesn't include the Eternal City?
Here's a look at the most popular sites, some possible alternatives, and then I leave the decision up to you:
The Colosseum and Forum:
These are truly spectacular structures to see. So are the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum, which are not far away from Rome. Paestum and The Valley of the Temples in Sicily have two beautiful, classic sites of ruins as well. While they are some of the largest and oldest ruins in Europe, to visit them is nothing like going to the Colosseum in the middle of July. It will be a sightseeing experience without the endless waiting in line, or the theatrics that mark the hawking of Rome to tourists.
This structure is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Built during the reign of Augustus, shortly after the death of Christ, it is well preserved and has been in continuous use. An interesting alternative can be found in a small, lesser-known church outside of Siena called San Galgano. A round chapel, much smaller but of similar construction to the Pantheon, the hermitage of San Galgano sits high on a hill overlooking the tranquil and lush Tuscan countryside.
The church still holds the preserved sword in the stone than San Galgano is said to have thrust into a rock in 1180. Discussions on the link to King Arthur and his sword, Excalibur, add to the intrigue of this tiny structure, as well as frescos by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Tiny windows are strategically placed to allow the sun to hit at specific points during the calendar year, again, similar to the Pantheon. But, no one dressed like a Roman soldier will approach and offer to join you in a photo ... for the small fee of 15 euros.
Estimates are that around 20,000 visitors a day come to view the Sistine Chapel during the summer months. Recent dialogue has centered on security (a high percentage of those people are looking up at any given moment) and the growing problem of pickpockets. But it's the sheer volume of bodies pushing through the small room of the Chapel that saps the joy for me. Viewing the ceiling is punctuated by loud clapping and calls for, "SILENZIO!" It is difficult to absorb the beauty of such complex and enormous paintings in a sardine-like atmosphere.
St. Peter's Basilica:
While there is no fee to go inside St. Peter's, enforcing security and a dress code creates an endless line. Once inside the basilica, crowds hover around the main sites making them difficult to see, such as Michelangelo's Pietà. Michelangelo has another Pietà that is in the Duomo Museum in Florence. It's a deeply expressive carving of four figures, including one that is a self portrait. Michelangelo completed this Pietà 50 years after the one in St. Peter's, and it resonates with the passion of a more mature artist. The Duomo Museum also houses the original "Gates of Paradise" by Ghiberti, worth the price of admission alone. While there are often long lines to go inside the Duomo of Florence, the museum is relatively uncrowded.
- Buy tickets online for the main attractions that have them available. It will be worth the extra cost, and whatever you lose in spontaneity will be made up in sanity!
- Plan to get to the sites first thing in the morning when they are the least crowded.
- Make reservations for hotel rooms well in advance.
- Consider joining a tour, buying a combination ticket, or hiring a guide to access easier entry to main attractions.
- Give yourself more time in Rome than you think you need. It wasn't built in a day, and it can't be seen in one either!