Top 5 Things to Do “When in Rome”

by Christa Page

It has been said a time or two: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But what exactly do the Romans do? There are certain things one must do while studying abroad or visiting Rome.

See the Pope up close.
See the Pope up close. Photo by Christa Page

1. Attend the Papal Viewing 

On Wednesday mornings at about 10:00 a.m., the Pope comes outside to a crowd of thousands to see the people, wave to fans, believers and tourists, and share a brief but encouraging speech. It takes place right in St. Peter’s Square, the main outdoor area of the Vatican directly in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is recommended to arrive by 8:00 a.m. at the latest to get a decent place to stand. It is also possible to reserve a seat in the middle of the huge square for free. However, standing allows you the chance to get closer to the gates which are right next to the lane down which the Pope will ride on the “Popemobile.” If you get there earlier enough, you can stand within feet of where the Pope will ride, allowing you to get a very close look at this historic religious leader. Many people take children and infants and get close enough to have the Pope kiss their child, serving as a symbolic blessing for their family.

The atmosphere at this event is unbelievably charged and guaranteed to stick with you whether you are Catholic, religious, or none of the above. Thousands of people crowd the area and many of them traveled there for the sole reason of seeing this one very important man. Some people are so filled with emotion they cry while others simply stand in awe of St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City, appreciating for the first time the immense history of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. 

2. Sit Down For a Meal at a Classic “Ristorante”

Movies have portrayed the scene numerous times: a couple sits at a quaint Italian restaurant complete with a small table decked out in a red and white checkered tablecloth, two glasses of Italian wine, or vino, and a heaping plate of pasta. Truth be told, one of the most enjoyable meals will be that dinner that everyone has stored in their mind under “Italy.”  Try this in a nice square, like Piazza Navona. This square has several famous fountains to admire and street musicians often sit here playing music. The classic accordion music combined with Italian food, wine, and the beautiful surroundings are sure to make for a fun, authentic evening. However, be sure to not rush the meal – real Italians sit for hours at meals talking, visiting, drinking, and relaxing with friends. 

3. Go Shopping

Italians find fashion and appearance very important. While visiting, put effort into the clothes you wear. Almost everyone dresses nice whether they are going to school, to work, to the park, or just to grab gelato. If you really want to fit in with Italians, t-shirts and sweatpants should be reserved soley for sleeping. This gives you an excuse to check out the shopping scene in Rome. You can find an H&M in Rome near Piazza del Popolo but the small, Italian boutiques lining the cobblestone streets have the more unique, chic clothing you won’t find back home. Another suggestion - look for markets. Flea markets and antique booths pop up (usually just for a certain window of time in the morning until the early afternoon) and these markets give you one advantage that boutiques do not – haggling with the merchant for a better price. Plus, there is a lot more to see at these markets than clothes. Antique furniture, postcards, jewelry, paintings and more can be found. When it comes to souvenirs, try out these markets before settling for the typical tourist souvenir shop. Those tourist shops all have the exact same products and are very over-priced. Your friend or family member would probably be a lot more impressed with a souvenir from a unique Italian market. 

If you make your way to Florence for a weekend trip, find the large leather market in the middle of this wonderful city. The leather is a lot cheaper than you’ll find in the U.S. because it is made right there in Firenze. Purses, leather jackets, wallets, and belts can be purchased and haggled for and will be lasting souvenirs well worth the price. 

4. See the Classics…But Don’t Stop There

If one is planning on staying in Rome for an extended period of time, it can be easy to put off seeing the most famous, historic sites like the Coliseum and the Roman Forum until the last minute. This is bad for several reasons. You want to try to plan your trip to these spots in advance to avoid going when they are most packed. You also don’t want to wait until the last minute just to find out they closed earlier than you thought. Some may think these sites are overrated or overpriced, but trust me – you don’t want to return home to a ton of friends and family who will inevitably ask about the Coliseum only to tell them you didn’t make it to the most well-known Roman site in history. Apart from just telling people about it, these places are so rich in history it wouldn’t be a trip to Rome unless you saw the ruins of the ancient city. 

That being said, you will only go to these sites once most likely but will find other sites (that are free) and that you go to quite often. A bit of advice – walk into all the churches you possibly can. There are a seemingly infinite number of cathedrals in Rome but each one has its own way of drawing you in. Whether it includes the original Caravaggio paintings still shown in San Luigi dei Francesi or the incredible, high ceilings designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, even the smallest church in Rome has the ability to take your breath away. 

5. Get Lost

It may sound cliché but going off by yourself to explore Rome is the best decision you’ll make. Grab a cone of gelato, preferably a flavor you haven’t tried yet. Then walk until you find something that grabs your attention. Trust me – it won’t take long. Rome is a city of history, of culture, of art, of religion, of food, of wine, of adventure. Each turn you take will lead you to a new and exciting opportunity to learn more about Italy and its history. If you are anything like most people, you’ll find yourself falling in love with the Eternal City. You will be frustrated sometimes. You will almost get run over by an Italian driving a tiny car. You will be bumped into and have to ride a crowded, smelly bus and sometimes feel like you are going to get pick-pocketed. But you will also have the time of your life. 

“Paese che vai, usanza che trovi.” – A phrase Italians use meaning, more or less, that each country you go to will have its own set of traditions and customs. Traditions for you to discover. Traditions for you to appreciate. It is their own special way of saying “When in Rome.”