ROME, Italy – A friend’s toddler’s favorite phrase is “By Self.” Everything must be By Self, from taking off her socks (“By Self?”) to putting them back on a minute later (By Self!). This fall, I spent 10 days in Rome By Self. What follows is my guide to Rome for those lucky enough to spend time in this gorgeous city on their own.
Things to Do When In Rome By Self
Live it up single-style.
Stay in a single room at any one of a number of small family run hotels, such as the Hotel San’Angelo, located right off the Ponte Cavour. The meticulously clean room is so comfortable and cozy that you’ll be quite pleased to not have to share it with anyone. Breakfasts are included. The cornetti – flaky and stuffed with thick custard – are perfect, as is the cappuccino.
Guide your own way.
Buy and carry with you a good guide to Rome. My DK Top 10 Rome was fabulous. Small enough to fit into my purse, it was helpful and realistic, which some tourist guides are not – am I really going to go to a 4-hour meal By Self in one of Rome’s trendiest nightspots at 10:00 P.M.?
Carry a small purse. I had a black one that perfectly held my guidebook, a miniscule wallet with euros, a small container of coins, a pen, and some lipgloss. Most museums have you check any bags larger than a lunch box; I never had to check mine, thus avoiding the long check-in lines.
Do all the top tourist stops – without the tourists.
Go in the morning or even better, in the rain. It rained my first 3 days in Rome; as a result, I experienced the Coliseum, Foro Romano, and St. Peter’s almost By Self. The early morning hours and/or rain kept most tourists away, and gave my visits an intimate feeling completely absent when one must perform snake-like contortions to slide through immense crowds just to get a glimpse of a corner of the Trevi Fountain. Also: Watching – and hearing – rain cascade from the battlements of St. Peter’s is an amazing sight.
Now, despite the ever-present hordes of tourists, the top tourist spots are worth seeing. I climbed St. Peter’s dome on a perfectly sunny day, choosing the sans ascenza (without elevator) option. I climbed 300+ steps while sweating tourists waited for the single, creaking elevator, and then I climbed 320 more into the dome itself. The views were stunning. I then walked down from the cupola to a terrace-like roof behind the statues adorning the Colonnade. The terrace houses a tiny bar serving water and cornetto (soft-serve ice cream).
While I was waiting in line, a group of nuns ordered cornetto and I secretly paid for them all. They found out who had paid for them from the barkeep and thanked me profusely. We chatted for 20 minutes about who they were, who I was, our purposes in Rome. The characteristic dome of St. Peter’s was to our right; the Colonnade to our left, and the rest of Rome scattered out below us.
Once you’ve seen the top hot spots – visit others. The Borghese Gallery in the Borghese Gardens is one of the best art museums I’ve ever experienced: Among other stunning art pieces, four of Bernini’s powerful sculptures are displayed within a gorgeous villa amidst gorgeous gardens.
Do veer off your track by a street or three. As crowds thronged by Caesar’s cremation spot (which you should see of course, but once you have… veer away!) I strolled down an empty, cobblestone Via, peeking into the lovely San Sebastiano gardens on my left. Explore and enjoy the windy, twisting streets of Rome. These are so colorful, so full, so vibrant, so unlike anything back home. Also, they made my propensity for getting lost (I was making my way to the Spanish Steps my first afternoon and stumbled onto the Coliseum instead) an adventure instead of an annoyance.
When in Rome, drink like a Roman.
Whilst experiencing the above, drink as much espresso, caffè e latte, and cappuccino as you can manage. The smooth elixir is best drunk standing at café bars like the locals do rather than sitting at tables amidst other tourists; accompany your drink with one of the delectable fresh pastries offered, or perhaps just gaze at them lustfully.
Walk a mile in your shoes.
Wear comfortable shoes and walk as much as possible. Walking not only ensures burning off all the pastries, but allows you to experience a more intimate Rome.
Enjoy the companionship of an audio guide.
Partake of the audio guides offered at most spots, and use the headset, which is more comfortable than jamming a clunky, ’80s looking phone against your ear. Most of the guides include music and a posh British voice expounding on various interesting tidbits. Also, you’ll feel as if you’re in a soundtrack of your own. In the Borghese Gallery, for example, one such deep male voice explained that Caravaggio’s work known as the Sick Bacchus was quite possibly painted as a self- portrait by moonlight and thus the pallid features could very well be the result of moon glow rather than sickness.
I had so many blisters after my first day of walking that I bandaged Self the next morning like a ballerina preparing for the most arduous pas de self.
Be a local.
Find a café or restaurant where you feel comfortable and make it a regular hangout. I’m aware, as the guidebooks espouse, that there are hundreds (thousands?) of places to mangia in Rome, but Self did not always feel like traipsing all over to eat and drink By Self, especially at night. I found two osterias near my hotel with good food and good wine and frequented them regularly. And while you’re being a local, ask the waiters for their recommendations. They know best and you’ll be guaranteed their freshest and most authentically Italian food.
I initially balked at indulging in the various pastas, breads, pastries, and sweets the city’s establishments offer… and yet my first plate of pasta was perfection. The noodles were al dente, the wine a smooth accompaniment; the obligatory digestivo (after meal drink such as a cordial or grappa) delicious. I rose from the table expecting to feel stuffed but felt satisfied and light. I then strolled down the via Condotti, found the Spanish Steps, and treated myself to a gelati.
Things to Avoid When in Rome By Self
Dress to impress.
You are a tourist but you don’t necessarily have to look or dress like one. You should, of course, wear comfortable walking shoes but must they be shiny white athletic shoes? Little screams “I’m a tourist!” louder, except perhaps a fanny pack/shorts combination, or a backpack worn in front, cameras strung on straps around one’s neck, bewildered expressions, etc. etc.
Do not be offended if Roman men don’t whistle at you. Much has been written about Italian men’s open admiration of females. My guidebooks warned to expect any amount of evils, from open staring to bottom pinching. The best I got was a sort of clucking noise from an elderly gentleman who may have been calling his lost chicken. Roman women are gorgeous. Their long wavy locks stream behind them and dance around their cleavage. I, an average girl from Chicago with pale Polish skin, short hair, and considerable lack of cleavage, inspired nothing beyond the obligatory first glance.
Avoid Tour Groups.
Avoid them like the plague, which incidentally ravaged Rome in the year 1334. These (tour groups, not the plague) are characterized by an overzealous guide holding aloft a group marker of some sort; maybe a huge felt flower, an umbrella with a colorful sash; perhaps the impaled head of an innocent Chicagoan who asked them one too many times to shush in the Sistine Chapel.
One such sneaky group snuck 15 extra people into the line to the Vatican Museum right in front of me. Angry and self-righteous American (me) and English (4 Brits behind me) outrage fell on pretending-not-to-understand-English ears. Do not hesitate to single-handedly take on the education of such groups. I myself shushed whisperers at a performance of “La Traviata,” while my mother last year commanded, “Silenzio!” near the Pieta to a particularly chatty group.
By Self can be tough. It may seem as if the world is teeming with rosy-cheeked couples adoringly trading licks of their respective gelati. And yet, many of these very same couples I secretly observed were, well, silent. Silent couples sat next to me in restaurants, rested on the steps of churches alongside me, observed artwork. Almost as if they were talked out and had just run out of things to say. Or maybe they had reached that perfect symbiosis where they were just channeling each other’s brainwaves… who knows?
Rome is truly a romantic city. Walks along the Tiber amidst greenery (although not necessarily looking into the Tiber itself, which can be a muddy repository of green soda and brown beer bottles), beautiful views, and all that artwork and sculpture dedicated to love of every dimension.
There is, however, a deep romance one can have with the city itself, with its gem-like churches and chapels, its stunning art collections, its vibrancy and beauty. And while there were times when I wanted to burst out to the stranger nearest to me, “Isn’t that just fantastic?” the actual being By Self added a depth to my experience; a depth that comes from silence, from an inner listening, an intimacy created between me and that before my eyes, with nothing and no one else to buffer that depth.
I would love someday to experience Rome again, perhaps with someone who I can feed a forkful of my carbonara and lead to my favorite spots. But until then – the grappa is distinctly bitter, the espresso is smooth, and I am sitting outside in Rome in the moonlight. Scooters whiz by; the candle on my table has almost burned down, and Self is good.