Cacio e Pepe & Potato Chips
Good news, you’re going to Rome! Bad news, so is everyone else on the planet. Rome is a fun and vibrant city. It’s also massive, choked with traffic, and mobbed with gaggles of tourists from all over the planet. And every one of those tourists wants to see the exact same sites as you.
How’s a person supposed to tackle the laundry list of “must-see” attractions and maintain their sanity? Planning and patience. So, pick the sites you absolutely have to see and leave the others for your next trip because there is no possible way to see all the classics in Rome in one trip. Then, plan your days out in a sensible manner; mixing in down time for people watching in cafes along with your museum visits. Mix strolls in lesser-known neighborhoods with your visit to the Vatican and its crush of tourists.
I’ll give you a list of the sites you can’t miss on your trip to Rome, along with a few hidden gems, and some tips to make your trip go more smoothly. And, of course, what to eat as well.
A Short History
The very first humans were in the area of Rome about 14,000 years ago. The earliest settlements were likely on what is now Palatine Hill, above the site where the Romans would later build the Forum.
Rome was ruled by a series of kings until the Republic of Rome was established in 509 BC. Rome quickly expanded; first taking over the Italian peninsula, followed by north Africa and much of Spain. Then, after the Macedonian Wars, the Roman Empire effectively took over the entire eastern Mediterranean.
As the empire expanded, it became unwieldy and vulnerable. Corruption and infighting at the highest levels of Roman government didn’t help and in 410 AD, the city was sacked. Rome’s population dropped by 80%, and the Middle Ages began.
After Pope Boniface VIII was killed in 1303 on order of the French King Philip the Fair (ironic name, much?), a pope supporting France was elected and the papacy was moved to Avignon, leaving Rome to rot. It wasn’t until 1418 that the Papacy fully returned to Rome. It was through the patronage of these 15th century Popes that brought Renaissance artists to Rome, creating such masterpieces as the Sistine Chapel and works in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini marched on Rome, bringing Fascism to Italy, and eventually dragging the country into WWII as an ally of Nazi Germany. Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 and the war ended two years latgeter, beginning a construction boom and a period of economic prosperity that would last into the 60’s.
Getting Around Rome
First off, don’t get a car. Yes, if you’re going to visit the hill towns of Tuscany or some other rural area, you’ll probably want a car. But in Rome, you’d have to be crazy. These people drive like maniacs. We once spent a hair-raising taxi ride in Rome with a driver who had a canolo in one hand and, for our benefit, gestured at famous sites with the other. All this while balancing a saucer and cup of espresso on his knee! Trust me, stay safe; walk, use public transit, take a cab, and be sure to look both ways (twice), those vespas will clip you without a second thought.
Or, consider this; the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. I know, it’s just about the most touristy thing in the world, but hear me out. These buses run on a constant loop and stop at many of the most popular sites. Yes, public transportation is much cheaper, but with Hop On Hop Off, you don’t have to worry about reading a schedule, transferring, or making sure you get off at the right stop. I often use this bus when I’m in a big city to get an overview and maybe stop at a couple of top sites to check them off my list. We’ve discovered neighborhoods we adored and visited sites we never would have gone to otherwise using Hop-On Hop-Off in Barcelona, Glasgow, and Malta. Rome is huge and the distances can be far. Not to mention the oppressive summer heat in Rome.
Things to Do
There’s certainly no shortage of world-class attractions in Rome. But, if your time is limited, you need to choose which sites to see and which to skip.
When you go to the Vatican, you’re actually entering another country; Vatican City State. They have their own post office, telephone service, radio station and newspaper. It’s fun to mail a postcard and get a Vatican City postmark.
St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, two of the main sites in Vatican City are free and easily accessible. But, the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel, the gardens, the Pope’s villa and all the other attractions require a ticket. Be sure to buy yours online to bypass the long, long lines.
Wander around the square before going inside the basilica. This is where the Pope addresses crowds on holidays and some Sundays. Once inside the church, spend some time here. This is by far the most important church in the world and is filled with artistic masterpieces including Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s Baldachin, and the bronze statue of St. Peter.
The square, church and Sistine Chapel can easily be done in half a day, but know that the crowds can be stifling, especially in the Sistine Chapel where you are often elbow to elbow with thousands of your newest friends. That said, don’t miss it. Even if you’re not religious, Michelangelo’s master work is breathtaking. If you decide the add the Vatican Museum to your visit, you’ll need to spend an extra half day and even then, you won’t see it all.
Within the last few years, the Vatican has added a tour of the catacombs underneath the basilica, which is where Peter’s bones supposedly lie. I haven’t taken this tour, but everyone I know who has taken it has raved about it. But, it’s not easy to get a ticket. You have to email the Vatican requesting a ticket and then they may, or may not, reply with a time and date. My suggestion is to send your email request far in advance.
The Colosseum and Forum
After the Vatican, the Colosseum is probably the most popular spot in Rome. Everyone goes here, it’s crowded, and you have to go. Like the Vatican, buy your ticket in advance. Then, try to avoid the gauntlet of hucksters dressed as gladiators outside the Colosseum trying to separate you from your Euros. If you must have your picture taken with them, heed this bit of advice; negotiate the price upfront. Many a tourist has found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being shaken down by a gladiator demanding some huge sum for a simple photo.
Also to be avoided, the so-called “tour guides” who try to tell you they can help you “skip the line” by paying to go on their tour. No thank you, you’ve already purchased your ticket online, so you’ll be skipping the line anyway.
After visiting the Colosseum, walk over the Forum, it’s very close by. You can do both in a half day. Take the guided tours if you like, or you can download one of the many free audioguides available online. Play and Tour and Rick Steves both have a large selection.
I think the Trevi Fountain is best visited at night when it is lit up. But, no matter when you go, it’s going to be crowded. And, like all popular tourist attractions, that means pickpockets are nearby. Guard your valuables. But still throw some coins in the fountain. Just make sure you do it properly to ensure a return to Rome. That’s with the right hand over the left shoulder.
And, don’t imitate Anita Ekberg who famously frolicked in the Trevi Fountain in the cinematic masterpiece “La Dolce Vita.” Tourists have been arrested and heavily fined for this behavior; that little swim could cost you over $500.
Another don’t. Don’t drink the water from the Trevi Fountain. There was a time, years and years ago, when people would use the water from the fountain to make coffee and tea. Today, that water is treated with a cocktail of chemicals to keep the water clear and the pipes from clogging.
But, you will definitely be thirsty from all the walking in Rome. Look for one of more than 2,500 nasoni (large nose) located all over the city. These cleverly designed drinking fountains supply clean, cold water for anyone in Rome. Bring you water bottle and fill it up for free! Or, you can plug the spout with your finger and grab a drink. Just be aware that the water arches high in the air so you could be in for a big splash in the face! 2017 saw one of the worst droughts in Italian history. Critically low water levels forced the city government to shut off nearly 20% of the nasoni in order to conserve water.
This architectural marvel is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world and has been in continuous use since Roman times, first as a temple and now as a church. The Pantheon is close to the Trevi.
I must be in the minority because I’m solidly underwhelmed by the Spanish Steps. They are pretty, but for all the fanfare, I say “ho hum.” There are grand staircases like these all over Italy, and nicer ones, in my opinion, in Sicily. Still, stop by, take a selfie, it’ll look nice on your Instagram feed.
Oh, and don’t dare eat gelato on the Spanish Steps. Local cops have cracked down on the practice, issuing fines to tourists who dare enjoy a snack here.
Rome has so many churches, some dating back over 1,500 years that it could take a lifetime to see them all. But, it is a worthwhile endeavor to visit some while you are in Rome. There are almost 1,000 churches in Rome, so you can’t possible visit all of them. After all, for many centuries the church was the only patron for the arts. If you wanted to be an artist, you created something for the church. And the churches kept these works, which include many masterpieces.
St. Peter’s and the Pantheon, that’s two. Now, what about the rest? Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Giovanni in Laterano are famous as well and certainly worth a visit, but almost any church you wander into will have something of interest.
Or you could visit the Capuchin Crypt under Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini where the bones of almost 4,000 Capuchin friars lie. Creepy and eerie and utterly fascinating.
And here’s a fun fact. That cappuccino you drink? It’s name means little hood and is named for the wardrobe of Capuchin monks.
A little more uplifting is the open air museum in the Quadraro neighborhood. Street art fills the walls of the streets with new murals being added regularly. In a city filled with classical art, it’s refreshing to see modern pieces out in the open and not in a stuffy museum.
Visiting the Jewish Quarter in the Trastevere district is a must. For five hundred years the Trastevere has been the center of Jewish culture in Rome. Because Jewish people were effectively exiled and segregated from the Catholic population of the city, the residents practiced their traditions and even developed their own dialect in isolation. This is a great place to learn about Jewish people living in a country that is 99% Catholic. And a great place to get a meal.
While you are there, look for the pietri d’inciampo or stumbling stones. Small brass memorials, the stumbling stones are placed outside the homes of Jewish families (and anyone else deemed an enemy of the state). Each stone contains a name and the details of their death during the Holocaust. There are over 200 of these stones in Rome, sometimes clustered in multiples, one for each family member. Most of these memorials in Rome are in the Trastevere neighborhood.
The stumbling stones have been installed in 21 countries all over Europe as a remembrance for those who were killed by Nazi atrocities. There are currently over 60,000 stumbling stones as part of project started by German artist Gunter Demnig.
We’ve been to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which is very moving. But, these small memorials individualize the genocide in a way that is often difficult to do when thinking about six million lives being extinguished.
Rome is a fantastic food city. And, it’s great for lunch. I like to plan my museum and church visits for the morning so we have time to linger over lunch. There are tons and tons of casual little spots where you drop in, point at your favorite sandwich in behind the glass of the display case, get a soda or a glass of wine. Or get a slice of pizza. They’ll often charge you by weight of your slab, but most of these places are inexpensive and unlike other cities where a good, cheap lunch is difficult to find, Rome rarely disappoints.
If you have more time, sit down at a café, preferably outside, and enjoy the show. Unfortunately, a lot of Romans smoke and since smoking isn’t allowed inside restaurants, many will light up while dining outside. If this bothers you, ask for a seat inside. Unfortunately, if you eat inside you’ll miss the show that is Roman street life. Something is always up for discussion. By that I mean a city worker might be fixing a light or sign and everyone within a two block radius will join in giving their opinion to the worker about what he is doing wrong or a better way to complete the job. Or, better yet, a cop might be writing a parking ticket. If the offending motorist sees this, a half hour shouting match complete with gesticulating will ensure. Highly entertaining.
After lunch, I like to wander neighborhoods I’m not familiar with. Take in the atmosphere, maybe pull out a city map and unfold it; that’s a great way to get a conversation going. I’ve mentioned Trastevere, but maybe try Testaccio, where lots of young people live and the home of the Protestant cemetery where notable non-Catholics like Keats and Shelley are buried. Or, Garbatella, a 1920s neighborhood which is virtually unvisited by tourists. It’s not the prettiest neighborhood, but an old electricity plant is now an unusual museum, the Centrale Montemartini. Here, hundreds of Roman statues, the excess inventory from other museums, sit on display alongside obsolete boilers, engines, and other industrial equipment.
Our favorite restaurant in Rome is MaterMatuta. Or, it was. Maybe it still is.
The first time we visited MaterMatuta, it was in a basement off a side street. You would go down a long flight of stairs to the restaurant. Inside, there were several tiny dining rooms. Some had a single table, others had two or three. The maître d’ led us through a maze of rooms to a private table in the back. Here we had one of the most exquisite meals of our life. We start with some grilled vegetables, which pair perfectly with the local wine suggested by the owner of the restaurant.
But the star of the show is the cacio e pepe. I’m a sucker for simple dishes and it doesn’t get any more simple than water, salt, pasta, pepper, olive oil and cheese. If you’ve tried cacio e pepe you undoubtedly thought there was cream in the dish, but no, the creaminess is a result of whisking water and cheese together.
Except, it’s not simple. I’ve tried to make this dish numerous times and have failed many times. Cacio e pepe is some kind of Italian Jedi mind trick.
Here’s how it is supposed to work. You boil the pasta (spaghetti, or better yet, bucatini) in just enough salted water to cover the noodles. Yes, I know, normally you want to use a lot of water, but there’s a reason, hold on. Once the pasta is cooked al dente, drain the pasta and retain the water. This is very important because the super starchy water is the key to the recipe. Then, add grated parmesan (and pecorino, if you like) and whisk the water and cheese together. But, this is where you’ll go wrong. Instead of beautiful, creamy sauce, you’ll get a glob of cheese sitting in warm water. Yuck.
Instead, drain the pasta and retain the starchy water. Then, add the cheese to the cooked pasta and combine. Then, slowly add some starchy water to the pasta, being careful not to add it too fast, thus avoiding the gloppy mess. Add lots of coarsely ground pepper to the pasta and don’t forget to invite me over!
For an after dinner digestiv, we had limoncello and a lovely anise liquor from Sardinia called Mita. The owner of the restaurant joined us but has to leave early because he has a birthday party to attend. He says everyone was told to wear gold to the party and points to a gold kerchief in his breast pocket. He says his chef made it out of a plastic bag.
MaterMatuta has moved to better location with outdoor seating. We haven’t been since the move, but if you go, ask for Daniel. He is gregarious and outgoing and will make your evening memorable.
Or just have potato chips for dinner
The complete other end of the spectrum would be our most recent night in Rome. We were only there for one night. We had spent several days in Naples and were flying out of Rome, so we went a day early so we could walk around and enjoy the city. By the end of the day, we were so tired that we didn’t want to go out for dinner. Our hotel had a nice courtyard with chairs and tables so we went to the little convenience store down the street. For our dinner we picked up a bottle of limoncello and a bag of paprika chips.
In the States, there’s been a flood of potato chip flavors recently. Everything from dill pickle to biscuits ‘n’ gravy. Yuck. Yet, for some reason you can’t find paprika potato chips in the US. But we love ‘em. And you can find them almost everywhere in Europe. So, in addition to our dinner of chips and limoncello, we grabbed several cans of Pringles (the bags tend to leave you with paprika potato dust when crammed into your luggage) to stuff in our backpacks for the trip home.
Flights to and from most major cities worldwide
Rome has an extensive public transportation system of buses, trams, and trains that reach every corner of the city. The Hop-On Hop-Off bus is more expensive but hits all the main tourist sites in one loop, which makes it a good option if you’re in Rome for a quick trip and want to see the highlights. A car is not recommended; Rome traffic is famously hair-raising.
Index of Things to Do in Rome
There are several sites including the Sistene Chapel, the Vatican Museum, and the Vatican Gardens. Get your tickets early and avoid long lines.
The Vatican has started offering tours of the catacombs below St. Peter’s Basilica, supposedly the tomb of the first pope, Peter.
Again, buy tickets online and early. Don’t fall for scammers on site saying they’ll get you in quickly.
These three churches are much less crowded than the Vatican and contain incredible works of art.
15th century church containing works by Rafael (he designed the Chigi Chapel which contains his mosaics), Bernini (who was in charge of the 17th century reconstruction), and Caravaggio (two of his important painting hang in the church).
Santa Maria Maggiore
Bernini’s “Saint Cajetan hold the Holy Child” is on display in the church (Bernini’s tomb is here as well). There are also fantastic frescoes by Passignano, Domenico Fontana, and Guido Reni.
San Giovanni in Laterano
One of the most important churches in Rome. First consecrated in 324 AD, burned twice during the Avignon Papacy, and finally reconstructed in 1735. Six papal tombs are in this church. Highlight is the sculptures of the twelve apostles, each standing in their own niche.
Who says Rome is expensive? Everyone, because it is. But these three places are free!
The most famous fountain in Rome, if not Europe. Toss a coin to ensure a return trip to the Eternal city.
Former Roman temple is now a church. One of the best preserved ancient buildings in Rome.
Elegant and always crowded 18th century staircase.
Final resting place of almost 4,000 Capuchin Monks. Their bones have been arranged in various designs like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in order to demonstrate human mortality.
Outdoor museum of street art in the Quadraro neighborhood. Tours available. (reported closed in 2022)
Small stone memorials to Holocaust victims, mostly found in the Trastevere neighborhood. You must look for the stones, they are not readily visible, but you can find five which seem to commemorate the same family at:
Largest synagogue in Rome with an excellent museum.
Interesting cemetery for Protestants in the Testaccio neighborhood. Shelley and Keats are buried here.
Museum in the Garbatella neighborhood contains Greco Roman statuary and lots of other artifacts that are overflow from other museums. The setting of the museum in an old powerplant (with boilers and industrial equipment still on site) makes this a unique stop.
Classes teaching you how to make mosaics from experts. If you have deep pockets, they can make a custom mosaic for you.
Award winning cookbook author offers private food tours of her adopted city.
Several excellent food tours of Rome
Everything from espresso to risotto balls to gelato. Don’t eat before!
Index of Food & Drink in Rome
Fantastic Roman restaurant. Used to be in a basement, but has since moved.
Great spot to get a slice of pizza for lunch. In Trastevere.
Grazia & Graziella
Great moderately priced restaurant in Trastevere. Save room for the Tiramisu. (Reported closed 2021)
L.go M.D. Fumasoni Biondi 5, 00153 Rome, Italy
Cajo e Gajo
Excellent cacio e pepe. In the Trastevere neighborhood. (reported closed in 2022)
Jewish bakery with excellent ricotta cherry cake.
Not only a great bakery, but excellent gelato, too. In the Testaccio neighborhood.
Famous for tortello d’uovo, Reservations required.
Restaurant in Testaccio famous for their carbonara.
Trimani Il Winebar
Excellent wine bar. Michelin recommended.
Not a restaurant, but a network of Italians who cook in their home. Book a dinner and enjoy local cuisine and make friends.
Excellent food, the place to get cacao e pepe.
Vegan restaurant offering vegan sushi, soup, pasta, smoothies and more.
Index of Shopping in Rome
Accessories, gadgets, and tools for your kitchen. Great selection.
Food hall adjacent to Termini train station.
Small shop for spices and herbs.
Bistro, bottle shop, and gourmet food shop all in one.
Perfume, beauty care, toiletries, and men’s shaving needs. Make great gifts. Several locations including:
Via Del Governo Vecchio
Street filled with small, vintage shops
Stalls with all kinds of produce, prepared foods, household goods, and apparel. Explore.
Open-air farmers market overflowing with fruit, vegetables, cheese, prepared foods, and gifts.
Index of Places to Stay in Rome
Nice hotel in Campo de Fiori. Reserve rooms well ahead of time.
Wallet friendly boutique hotel in the Navona neighborhood.
Navona neighborhood hotel with fresco fragments on some walls that were revealed during renovation.
Cute boutique hotel centrally located near the Colosseum.
Near the Colosseum. Ask for a room with a balcony.
Central location with rooftop spa overlooking the Forum.
Friendly staff, good location in the Celio neighborhood.
Breakfast served on the lovely roof terrace of this guest house. In the Testaccio neighborhood.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written several Foodie Travel Guides to cities in Italy including Rome, Naples, Palermo, and the Cinque Terre. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.