If you missed it, you should definitely check out Day 1 of Our 3-ish Days in Rome before you read any further.
But assuming you’ve read all about Day 1 and how we ended up in Rome for our summer vacation, and once again, at the risk of sounding like a spoiled baby as I tell you all the things that didn’t go our way, I bring you Day 2 of our 3-ish days in Rome.
The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica
What we did:
Just like we did with the Colosseum, we booked our tour straight through the Vatican. Also because we learned our lesson on day 1 and knew things were taking significantly longer than seemed necessary, we left the hotel at 7:30am even though our tour didn’t start until 9:30am.
Thankfully we found the Vatican without any issue. In fact, we arrived before they even opened the doors to the public. To our surprise, we were inside and through security more than an hour before the start of our tour. But because there really isn’t much to see or do before you officially enter the museum, we had no choice but to sit around and wait.
Thankfully our tour was significantly better than at the Colosseum, although the group was about the same size and we still had to use headphones to hear our guide. I still wouldn’t give our tour rave reviews, but overall it was worth the cost.
The guide was a 70 year old woman who got in three separate altercations within the course of a 1.5 hour tour. In addition, along with another couple, we got separated from the group. Even though we were right in front of our guide when we walked into the wrong line, she didn’t even notice. We missed 3/4 of the tour through St. Peter’s Basilica as a result.
Overall, we felt like we didn’t have as much appreciation for the whole Vatican experience as we would have if we were Catholic. A lot of the significance was lost on us. The most exciting moment for Sean was standing in St. Mark’s Square because, “That’s where CNN always shoots.” So that tells you how emotionally invested we were in the whole thing.
The Sistine Chapel was an odd experience. One minute you’re in the art gallery and the next minute you’re in a stairwell, and then BOOM you’re in the Sistine Chapel with “security guards” (read: “mall cops”) YELLING at everyone to be silent. Maybe it’s all the people or the yelling guards, but it definitely did not feel like a church.
So although our trip to the Vatican was not a spiritual or enlightening experience; we felt like it was a fun and interesting morning.
What I would tell a friend to do:
Just like with the Colosseum, even though it’s a complete zoo, if you’re in Rome you have to see the Vatican!
I would recommend the tour we chose depending on my “friend’s” circumstances. It’s totally possible to wander through on your own, but the experience is significantly enhanced by a guide.
If you really want a human tour guide but you don’t want to spend a ton of money, I would recommend booking through The Vatican. The process was really straightforward and although the tour guide was a bit nutty, the tour was decent. If The Vatican is the thing you’re most excited to see in Rome and you don’t mind spending a little extra money, I would recommend hunting Viator for a well reviewed tour company and booking through them.
If you’re fine with foregoing the human tour guide, purchase your entry ticket online ahead of time so that you don’t have to stand in the mob scene that is the ticket counter line and then use Rick Steves’ audio tour. We can’t say enough good things about his audio tours and bonus – they’re FREE! Looking back, we should have picked this option. Since we arrived when the doors opened, we could have been done with our audio tour before the crowds got really out of control. Instead, we wasted an hour waiting around for our tour to start.
It was definitely time for some lunch! Since we read that food near the Vatican is 10 times more expensive then food just a few blocks away, we started walking.
Once we found a restaurant that looked good, we sat down, ordered, and pulled out our Lonely Planet map. After starring at it for no less than 30 minutes and still not being able to find our current location and asking our waiter (who couldn’t find our location either), a fellow tourist one table over handed us one of her extra maps.
That single act of kindness changed everything for us. Turns out the source of our constant frustration and confusion was NOT our inept ability to navigate. We simply had a crappy map!
Armed with our new map, we found our way back to the hotel without too much hassle, rested a little, and then set off for the Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum
What we did:
The original plan was to see the Roman Forum the same day as the Colosseum because they are right next to each other. However, as you remember from my previous post, after our Colosseum tour, I couldn’t imagine walking one more step, so we had to postpone our trip to the Roman Forum, hoping we had time to circle back on Day 2. Luckily, we did!
Before we left the United States, we had already planned to use Rick Steves’ audio tour for our trip to the Roman Forum. Even though I’ve already beefed up Rick Steves’ audio guides multiple times in my posts, the Roman Forum is where we used one of Rick’s audio guides for the first time. We immediately fell in love with it!
A lot of tourists (and tour guides) complain about the Roman Forum. I will agree, it’s SUPER hot and there is ZERO shade. However, we found it to be one of our favorite things from our time in Rome. We were able to go at our own pace, and the audio guide made it really interesting. We learned a ton. Did you know the grave of Julius Caesar is there? Way cool!
What I would tell a friend to do:
Definitely take the time to see the Roman Forum; and definitely use Rick Steves’ audio tour. Oh, and DEFINITELY take plenty of water. The heat is brutal, but the experience is worth it.
What we did:
This tour came on recommendation of a friend’s parents. I’m so glad we decided to splurge and take this tour! It was my absolute favorite thing in Rome! First of all, the tour group was small – less than 20 people. There was no need for headsets, and it felt more like a group of friends eating their way through Rome then a formal tour. We loved getting to know the other tourists in our group, who ranged in age from 20’s to 60’s and were from varying home countries.
We learned that in Europe, becoming a tour guide requires a college degree and months of additional training. It’s a career, not a job. Our guide not only loved food, but was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the geographic and structural history of Rome. This tour was so much more than pasta and gelato and after a few less than impressive tours, I was so appreciative of this experience!
For me, the most touching moment of the whole trip happened on this tour. We were standing in the Jewish Ghetto eating something fried and amazing while our guide told us to keep our eyes peeled for “stumbling stones.” You can read about them here. But they are basically cobble stone sized memorials to individuals who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The “stones” were created by a German artist and placed outside the homes of victims. Apparently you can find them all over Europe.
Sure enough, just one block away, there was a set of three “stones” just near the front door of an apartment that is still in use today.
What I would tell a friend to do:
TAKE THIS TOUR!
Day 2 Conclusions
Travel Lessons from Day 2:
- The threat of being late stresses me out and waiting around upsets me even more. This is more of a personal realization then a travel tip for the general public. However, this realization will definitely serve the McGrath family well in the future. Because of these personality traits, I’m going to approach organized tours differently in the future. Unless the tour guide picks us up at the hotel, or I know exactly where the meeting place is located, we should probably opt for the self-guided route or audio tour when possible. It seems that when we can operate on our own timeline, we enjoy the experience so much more!
- It’s not our fault we yell! Our experience with our verbally aggressive Vatican tour guide made us both stop and think that maybe all of my family’s yelling really is genetic! It’s a proven fact, Italian’s yell about EVERYTHING!
- If your map is causing frustration, get a new map! A new map made all the difference in the world. Turns out, our Lonely Planet map totally sucked. Find a kiosk and get a map specifically designed for tourists. It will most like include everything you need to know.
- Eating and meeting are the best parts of a vacation! Although the rising trend in vacation planning seems to be renting a house from Airbnb and making your own meals to save money; for us eating at local restaurants and meeting new people is always the highlight of our trip. Although it may not be the cheapest option, choosing our lodging and planning meals that allow for unique “eating” and “meeting” experiences will make for a much more enjoyable and memorable vacation.