The reality of Rome: the place to be, or not?

Colosseum, Rome
Visit the Colosseum without the crowds

Visiting Rome was a mistake.

We were supposed to be smooching in a candlelit cave retreat down in Matera, but thanks to a ‘slight’ annual leave ‘oversight’ by a certain hubbie (who shall remain nameless), we no longer had the time to travel down south and instead found ourselves with 5 days to kill in Rome.

I know, you’re all wondering why that could possibly be a bad thing.

We’re not really big city folk, and a day or 2 in the metropolis is about all we can generally tolerate. I’m not good with crowds either, and something told me Rome in the summer was NOT the place ‘to be’ for someone with anti-social tendencies.

Still, Rome is one of those places that every traveller should visit at some point in their life. Or so I’m told. We decided to make the best of it and see the sights properly rather than just giving them a fleeting glance.

What was the verdict?

The Colosseum

So we’re in Rome. The sun is shining, we’ve experienced rapture with our first gelati (it turns out kiwi, pineapple and white chocolate are a match made in heaven), and found that wine is cheaper than a can of coke. So why do I not feel on top of the world in a place that was once deemed to be the centre of it? The truth is, we’ve just visited the Colosseum.

And I was disappointed!

Despite it being one of the world’s most iconic structures, the Colosseum didn’t impress as expected and I left feeling a little cheated. Maybe my imagination just wasn’t good enough (not something hubbie would normally accuse me of), but it was difficult to picture the roar of the crowd as gladiators strode out to their fates. It was hard to believe the seats were ever crammed with the toga-toting citizens of Rome who had come to enjoy a day of entertainment at the Emperor’s pleasure. In fact with all the modern brick and concrete repair works suffocating the dynamic of the Colosseum, it was a challenge to appreciate that the entire structure was more than about 100 years old.

At this point some clever dick will point out that the Romans invented concrete, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Colosseum, Rome
The modern concrete skyline of the Colosseum in Rome

Once inside you can appreciate the vastness of the monument, although the renovation work has spoiled the structural fluidity and aesthetic ancient shapes, especially the upper arches which no longer stand proud and photogenic against the blue sky. To say it is devoid of charm is perhaps a little harsh, but fencing around most of the ground level areas, and visitor access restricted to just 2 levels (unless you pay for separate tour of the underground area) just didn’t help bring the place to life.

If you’ve never visited a Roman amphitheater, then go to Rome. You will be impressed and able to tick it off the ‘must-see’ list. However, next to amphitheatres such as El Djem in Tunisia (the 3rd largest Roman arena in the world and used in the filming of Gladiator), for us the Colosseum experience in Rome just seemed a little too commercially-orientated and spoilt. Bigger does not always mean better! It seems that the Colosseum suffers unfairly from an affliction common amongst the much-hyped great icons of the world – so much has been made of it over the years and in the media that the reality just doesn’t live up to expectation.

It’s sadly a thumbs down from me, but you should go anyway, and make up your own mind.

Tips for visiting the Colosseum

Photography – Many people (me included) think the best views are from the outside. You can snap it from the chaotic road that runs rings around the structure, which seems to be somewhat stranded on a roundabout. The best external (and most iconic) view however, is from within the Roman Forum complex area. The Forum is included on your Colosseum ticket, and definitely worth visiting if you’re into your ruins and history.

From the road:

Colosseum, Rome
The best view of the Colosseum has to be by night from the road

And the iconic picture from the Forum:

Colosseum, Rome
This iconic view of the Colosseum is from inside the Roman Forum

Avoiding the crowdsyou all know that it’s better to visit tourist hot spots either first thing in the morning, or later in the afternoon after the coach tours have had their fill. But to really avoid the crowds, visit in the evening just after dusk on a dark tour. Groups are usually limited to 25, so you need to book in advance. This is one of the only ways to explore the underground too.

Colosseum entrance and skip the queues – no-one wants to spend half their holiday standing in a long line, slowly baking in the sun and fending off over-enthusiastic blokes playing dress-up and looking more suited to the role of peter pan than gladiator, despite the tans. Buying a Roma Pass is one of the best ways forward if you are staying more than a couple of days. It is valid for 3 days, giving ‘free’ entry and queue jumping powers for the first two tourist sites visited (make sure they are the most expensive e.g. Colosseum/Forum/Palatine; Borghese Gallery or Capitoline Museum). After that you get reduced entrance fees (although no line skipping) to all the attractions on their approved list, as well as free transportation within the city.

Audio guides are available inside, and although not very comprehensive, they are better than nothing (signage and information boards are pretty poor). Alternatively take one of the tours or hire a guide, but make sure they come recommended. There have been hundreds of reports of guides not knowing their history, let alone being able to make the place come alive for their audience.

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Roman Forum, Rome
The Roman Forum

Despite the site essentially being a large collection of ruins and piles of rubble, this was a place where I could finally envisage the Rome of imagination. Strolling down the overgrown grassy avenues amongst the proud pillars and outlines of properties it was easy to feel like we were finally following in the footsteps of caesars and senators.

Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill is one of the oldest parts of the city, and one of the famous seven hills of Rome. It’s where the first people settled under the watchful eye of Romulus, and the area eventually became a rich residential district for the nobility (it was here that Caligula was murdered if you’re into a bit of history).

The building remains have a slightly abandoned feel, yet whilst some visitors prefer their history to be extensively preserved, for me these forlorn but important ruins are the ones with stories to tell.

Capitoline Hill, Rome
Stadium of Domitian’s Palace at Capitoline Hill

Roman Forum

For us, the Forum was where it was at, with the famous government buildings, temples and basilicas once being the very centre of political and social Roman life. The muddle of ruins is today a little confusing, but it’s a wonderful jumble and we couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe as we stood among the very same stones touched by the hands of the Roman greats.

The best view to really appreciate the Forum is in fact from the balcony of the Capitoline Museum…

Roman Forum from the Capitoline Museum, Rome
The best view of the Roman Forum is from the Capitoline Museum

Tips for visiting the Forum and Palatine Hill

It’s a huge site so allow a few hours if you want to do it justice, and take plenty of water as there isn’t much shade.

Begin your visit at the Palatine Hill entrance to avoid the long queues at the one by the Colosseum. This also ensures you’ll be mainly walking downhill towards the Forum rather than uphill the other way around. Maybe a bit lazy but boy does it get hot there!

There’s not a lot of information around the sites, so take a good guide book so you know what you’re looking at. There are also audio guides and walking tours available.

Roman Forum, Rome
The Arch of Septimus Severus, Roman Forum

Capitoline Museum

I’m not a fan of museums. I prefer my history to be tangible, and in situ, rather than sitting forlornly and out of context in a sterile display cabinet. However I was prepared to be enthusiastic about the Capitoline, after all it is the oldest public museum in the world, packed with famous sculptures and artefacts. For a while I was a little awed (a rare occurrence), and have to say it is probably one of the best museum collections I’ve visited.

But then we got lost.

Capitoline Museum, Rome
A giant marble ‘Oceanus’ guards the entry to the Capitoline Museum

The lower levels of the museum are like a labyrinth, and we spent at least half an hour wandering the galleries and running up and down stairs, trying to find the exit. The signage was terrible, and the staff were snooty and indifferent to our woes. Tempers began to fray (meaning I got stroppy and impatient, sorry hubbie) and we began to think we’d be spending the night with Romulus and Remus. Eventually we spied daylight and thankfully scrambled up the steps into the open air.

Only to discover we were on the wrong side of the piazza.

It turns out the museum is actually housed in both buildings on either side of the square. Yet since our bags were in lockers back near our original entrance, we had to retrace our steps all the way back through the museum. I was not amused, and afterwards required at least 3 scoops of gelato and an entire carafe of vino to make me sweet again.

Capitoline Museum, Rome
Lots of marble busts at the Capitoline Museum


Originally built as a temple to honour all gods, Michelangelo is reported to have declared the Pantheon as looking ‘more like the work of angels, not humans’.

The Pantheon, Rome
The Pantheon, Rome

Not wanting to disagree with a guy who clearly knew what he was talking about, we still found the Pantheon a little disappointing and felt that once again the reality didn’t live up to the hype. Mainly because the interior seemed rather dull and lacked any sort of vibrancy, and of course was heaving with other tourists. Sure, we can’t expect to have these places to ourselves (after all we’re tourists too!), and we did visit in the height of the afternoon, but the main niggle was that the floor was all on one level. This meant we couldn’t take any decent photographs without hundreds of heads.

I know I know, it’s not all about pretty pictures, and perhaps for once we appreciated the building through our own eyes rather than a lens.

The Pantheon, Rome
Inside the Pantheon

Baths of Caracalla

If you really want to escape the crowds yet not compromise on the history, check out the Baths of Caracalla.

It was quite frustrating trying to find the entrance (don’t believe all the maps you see!) but once there, we were glad we’d put up with the embarrassment of walking back and forth past the same set of highly amused policemen. Sometimes dignity has to go out of the window.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome
The Baths of Caracalla are enormous yet uncrowded

The ancient bathing complex once held up to 1600 bathers, yet we had it pretty much to ourselves. It’s a little away from the main sights and many people don’t bother visiting. We weren’t complaining. With a little imagination we could picture the Romans enjoying socialising and networking in amongst the water and steam. There were also two libraries and extensive gardens to enjoy. Modern day spas having nothing on this place. It’s colossal!

Tips for visiting the Baths of Caracalla

Hire an audio guide as there is little other information around the site.

The Vatican

I’ve saved the best until last. We absolutely LOVED the Vatican, hands down the best Museums ever, and St Peter’s Basilica wasn’t bad either.

The Vatican Museums are notorious for being rammed with visitors, and not wanting to have to use our elbows to manoeuvre around the exhibitions, we had a plan.

On most Wednesday mornings in the summer, the Pope appears on his balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square to give his Papal Audience to the masses. Although seeing the Pope would have been pretty cool, we instead used this opportunity to visit the museum whilst everyone else was being blessed outside. Good move.

Vatican Museums, Rome
Relative quiet inside the Vatican Museums

It was quite a special experience seeing masterpieces we’d actually heard of, by artists whose names had been committed to memory since those distant days at school. The walls were dripping with vibrant tapestries, the ceilings glinting with painted gold, and the corridors lined with marble. If you only ever visit one museum in your life, make it here!

Inside the Vatican Museums
All that glistens is gold inside the Vatican Museums

The supposed jewel in the crown however, didn’t quite live up to it’s name. Yes, the paintings inside the Sistine Chapel were nothing short of jaw-dropping, but the atmosphere inside was far from sacred. In an effort to preserve a serene ambience talking (and understandably photography) was forbidden, yet the professional “shush-ers” spoiled it by making even more noise than the giggling culprits who had been whispering a little too loudly. What a job.

On exiting the Museums we decided that despite having to join one of the biggest queues we’ve ever seen, we couldn’t miss sticking our noses into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome
The crowds are back again in St Peter’s Square

After hubbie perfected a little queue jumping, which involved vaulting bollards and scrambling over plinths, arguing with a Mexican and joining forces with some Turks, we were in. Who says the British can’t join the other more fiery nationalities in undermining one of their favourite UK pastimes?

Well worth the effort it was too.

Divine light inside St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
Divine light inside St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Tips for visiting the Vatican Museums

The Pope gives his audience around 10am most Wednesdays when he is in town. Security is open from 8am and most people arrive to grab seats this early. Tickets are free but it’s first come first served. To check the Papal Audience schedule, check here.

As with many other iconic sights around the world, it is unfair to ask Rome to live up to the expectation generated by touched-up images in glossy magazines, or the romantic dramatisations we see in films. Although it would be wrong to say we didn’t enjoy our visit to Rome, and I agree the city should be on every traveller’s agenda at some point in their life, I have to say it didn’t really win my heart. Cue sharp intake of breath from the aficionados out there.

Am I the only one who purposefully didn’t thrown coins into the Trevi Fountain as I didn’t feel the need to return?

Trevi Fountain, Rome
Throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain is said to ensure you will return some day
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  1. says: Beth

    Ha, I’ll admit that when I wasn’t immediately charmed by Rome. I threw my coins in the Trevi Fountain, and joked that i really shouldn’t have, since I wasn’t overly impressed thus far. Yes, it was overcrowded, and NO, I do not want a selfie stick/knockoff purse/rose, thank you very much. 😀 But by the end of our short trip, I left wanting to see more. We missed the Vatican City (I know), but your post makes me want to see it more than ever!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Glad it’s not just me who wasn’t totally bowled over. You have to get to the Vatican though, it’s worth a trip on it’s own!

  2. says: Grietje

    Yes! Great, really great post. We were in london earlier in november, and I have to say it was not my favorite travel as well. Well, for the place, not according to the people we traveled with – we had great fun! The colosseum was definitely disappointing, though I really respect how you made much better pictures and gave the place a better chance than I did. I just saw it and thought: ok, let’s go.

    I am not a great fan of citytrips in the first place, and in Rome I actually discovered why: When I am in a place of beautiful stunning nature, I am sitting there thinking: this is impossible to catch on a picture as beautiful as I see it now. Let’s just enjoy this moment, breath and be alone with it 🙂
    In the city I mostly think: this is potentially very beautiful: if not for the construction signs, the people, the traffic, etc. etc. Mostly the pictures look much better. I enjoy your pics above here more than the actual sights in rome!

    Great you just say it like this, thumbs up!!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Thanks Grietje! Sorry you didn’t fall in love with London (funnily enough I DO love London, but then I’ve been dozens of times so it’s had a chance to work it’s magic on me!). And happy that someone else wasn’t thrilled with the colosseum, it’s all about preconceptions isn’t it. I’m with you on the countryside v the city, the fresh air and nature will win every time 🙂

  3. says: Kimberly Erin

    This one kinda hurt my heart…..see I am a medit. medieval hisorian. A lover of the idea of this city of control….And on top of that I am an art history girl….I just cant deter people from any architecture that magnificent…. While I am sure there are lines…you really do have the think about the feet to create, the material, the design, the innovation.

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Sorry Kimberly! Hope your heart recovers 🙂 I’m a history nerd too, though more into 17th Century British history, and agree Rome is still impressive, even if my imagination failed me on this occasion. Hope you recover soon 🙂

  4. says: Erica

    Thanks so much for the Vatican idea, we’re heading to Rome next June and one thing Im really worried about is the crowds (I can’t stand them either) and I was thinking about skipping it altogether but now I’m thinking I’ll be canny like you and pick a Wednesday morning! Brilliant!

  5. says: Klipdrifters

    This is such an informative post and love all the insider tips! It will probably be one of the next European cities that we visit. We went to UK, France and Netherlands. Thank you for sharing!

  6. says: Small Town Washington

    Sounds like you and I might be cut from the same cloth. I’m not big on crowds or big cities either. I really appreciate your honesty and how you’ve broken down these famous sites with what to expect and insider tips. Rome isn’t really on my list, but this has made me rethink a visit.

  7. says: Greig

    I’m sorry to hear Rome wasn’t quite what you were expecting! It’s funny as I was looking at another picture of the ‘modern’ Colosseum this morning taken by another blogger, and the first thing I did was imagine the arena as it would have been in ancient times. I think that’s the only way to fully appreciate the spectacle. Your picture of the Forum from the Capitoline Museum balcony is IMPRESSIVE! For me, standing in that spot where so much history occurred would have probably made the trip alone.

  8. says: Rob Taylor

    I feel like every city in Europe needs a post just like this. I like that you gave helpful tips instead of just the bummer of reality. It’s nice encouragement. 🙂

    1. says: Heather Cole

      So many people just write about the good stuff rather than the reality, I think if people go with realistic expectations they won’t be disappointed!

  9. says: Anna & Thiago

    Well, we must say that we have the desire to visit Rome together, but it isn’t in our Top 5 destinations ranking for now. As every city it has probably its pros and cons but for sure it’s a place to visit at least once in life! In time, we loved your photos and text! 🙂

  10. says: Amy

    What a great idea, visiting when the Pope was giving his audience! I remember the Vatican being insanely crowded when I visited fifteen years ago.
    I would love to go back and give Rome a second chance! I was fifteen and it was at the end of a city-hopping tour, so I only got the briefest of impressions. In general, there’s so much more of Italy that I want to see!

  11. says: Els Mahieu

    Oh yes, not sure I’d enjoy it in the heat of summer either! It’s a very very busy city indeed! I do really like it though, the various fountains are absolutely stunning and I love the lesser known piazze too!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      It was boiling, and not even peak season. I do get ratty when I’m hot so maybe I didn’t give the city a fair chance, ha ha!

  12. says: Frank

    Ok, you managed to make it sound thoroughly unenjoyable.
    And I had to laugh about the clever dick and the concrete because we both know that dick was a chick. You’re like me, remember all the slights of the past and make sure to slam them down at some point. It’s why we love you Heather! 🙂
    You managed to squeeze out some nice photos though.
    Honestly, Rome not high on my list. And if we did go it certainly would be in off season when there would at least be fewer tourists.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Ah, there were some good bits (and not just the gelato!). I’m sure not everyone will share my opinion, but hey, it’s my blog and I’ll moan if I want to 🙂

  13. says: Kirstie

    I thought I would hate Rome because I heard it was overhyped, but I ended up enjoying it, perhaps because my expectations had been so low! Sorry the trip didn’t end up the way you wanted it to!

  14. says: Aileen Adalid

    Aw, I’m sorry to hear that there were some parts of Rome that disappointed you. I haven’t been there yet though so I wouldn’t really know but I’m glad to read some of your tips! That would be helpful when I finally come to visit 🙂