Vatican City

We’re not particularly religious people, but we felt like we had to spend a typical touristy day and check out the Vatican. There were some things we knew to expect - and were mentally and physically prepared for. Famous Renaissance masterpieces, long lines, crowds in organized tours with selfie sticks, elaborate Catholic relics, all that jazz. If you ever go to the Vatican, preparation is KEY. By reserving tickets online weeks in advance and arriving at the break of day, we were able to skip impossibly long lines and stampedes of tourists. 

First off, I do have to admit that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura really are worth the hype. They are such impressive works that they definitely deserve all the attention they get. But to our surprise, we found much more than what we expected to see in the Vatican. Pagan statues, astrology, cartography, mythology, and contemporary art all have a place to shine within those holy walls. 

One of my favorite discoveries was the Gallery of Maps. It's basically a huge corridor that most people will rush through on their way to the Sistine Chapel. They’re unfortunately missing out on a collection of beautifully painted topographical maps from the 16th century. Curiously, within these huge frescos you can also find mermaids, griffins, and all sorts of mythical creatures. If you’re lucky you’ll also notice the beauty in the many terrestrial and celestial globes in the halls of the Vatican Museums. These were used in ancient times to aid in the study of geography and astronomy by charting and illustrating both the earth and our surrounding constellations. These allusions to the praise of science seem appropriately placed near the “Raphael rooms” which display some of the famous frescoes of the Italian Rennaissance master. My personal favorite is The School of Athens. It highlights the importance of knowledge and features many of the philosophers and thinkers that still influence the world we live in today. It’s a painting that celebrates the cosmos and whatever lies beyond as well as the physical earth and mankind.

There’s also SO much modern and contemporary art. The art showcased includes works by very well known artists such as Rodin, Van Gogh, Dalí, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee, Chillida, and Picasso. Then, as a grand finale, you have the Bramante Staircase. All in all, there’s definitely a lot more to the Vatican than the Pope.

Rome, Italy

After a quick improvised “tour” of the city by our very kind and knowledgeable taxi driver, we arrived in our adorable little apartment in Rome. This cute little spot we found using, was wall-to-wall with an old church and had windows that faced directly into a small piazza. The friendly owner at the local gelati shop below our flat made us feel right at home in what would be our neighborhood for the next few days. This is not the Rome I heard about from friends…

Yes, Rome is filled with stampedes of tourists (just like any other big city with important monuments), but yes, you CAN avoid the crowds… for the most part. We stayed in that little apartment in a side street close to Campo di Fiori which feels is a bit less touristic that staying right by the Coliseum like I’m sure many tourists do. By day, Campo de Fiori is an open air market, and by night it fills with young local Italians. It’s also just a short walk from Trastevere which is a “hip” area filled with cute restaurants and bars.

Of course, there are certain things you just have to see if you like history and you’re in Rome. Those few main historical sites, unfortunately, will be filled with tourists regardless of the time of year and time of day you choose to go. “Off-peak” season will of course be more manageable, but another little trick that can help you out is to purchase tickets to main attractions ahead of time and show up as bright and early as possible.

During our few days in Rome, we tried a few “aperitivos” which are an Italian version of a happy hour where you get seemingly ENDLESS amounts of hors d'oeuvres or tapas for the price of one drink. My life will never be the same. Highly, HIGHLY recommended as well as some good ol' cacio e pepe. Mmm...