September 11, 2017 – Our early morning skip the line Vatican tour with What a Life Tours had us up before the sun. We were to be at What a Life Tours office by 7:10 am. Since we were walking, we had mapped out the route the night before so we knew exactly when to leave. It would take us about 20 minutes to get to the office. The Vatican was very close to our apartment, but the office was on the opposite side of the Vatican from where we were. So we had to go around the Vatican to get to where we needed to be.
Once we arrived, we were greeted by Joseph, the owner, and offered any type of coffee beverage we could ever want as well as a light breakfast. They even had freshly baked pastries from the bakery next door! It was definitely a plus since we weren’t able to eat breakfast before the tour.
Our guide for the morning was Patrick. We had about 10 other people in our group, which I was really happy about. It’s hard to get anything out of tours with a ton of people. We made our way over to the entrance to the Vatican around 7:30 am. It would open at 8:00 am so we wanted to be sure to be one of the first groups in line (which we were).
It started to drizzle on us as we were waiting to go inside. Luckily, we had an umbrella. I was glad because even though it was just a drizzle, the people without umbrellas got pretty wet.
Patrick explained that we would be touring the museum first since other early morning skip the line Vatican tours took people to the Sistine Chapel first. He said we’d have a better opportunity to see most of the museum without the massive crowds if we took that route. We saw some incredible sculptures and paintings. Of course, many works by Raphael and Michelangelo. The Vatican museum itself is a work of art!
Of course, he was right. We didn’t really hit any crowds until we got to the long hallways with the massive tapestries and maps. The only trouble with the skip the line Vatican tours is that there are many of them. So you might be skipping the line, but you won’t be able to escape the crowds for very long.
From the maps and tapestries, we entered the papal apartments, or Raphael rooms, where the popes used to live. Some of Raphael’s most elaborate and famous works of art are on these walls and ceilings.
Once we reached the Sistine Chapel, it was chaos. Even our tour guide said it usually wasn’t that crowded. Even so, seeing the Sistine Chapel for the second time in my life was unreal. Most people don’t even get to see it once and there I was seeing it again. Our tour guide gave us this nifty paper guide for the chapel as sort of a map of artwork. The human guides are not allowed to speak at this point of the tour, so the paper guide was helpful.
Of course, I have no pictures since they aren’t allowed. People think they’re so clever when they sneak a picture of it, but I wasn’t about to be that person. When you’re in the Sistine Chapel, you just want to look up and admire the amazing work by Michelangelo. But my gazing was constantly being interrupted by the guards yelling, “NO PICTURES!” and “SHHHH” I wanted to tell them to shhh and smack the phones out of the hands of the idiots thinking they were being sneaky.
Once we had a good look at the chapel, we made our way over to St. Peter’s Basilica. At this point, we lost a tour group member. It was the husband of this lady in our group. It was so strange. She wouldn’t call or text him and just wasn’t really concerned. It was weird.
Patrick made sure to warn us before entering the basilica that there would be stealthy pickpockets dressed like tourists wandering throughout. We kept our things close as we had been the entire time in Europe… besides Switzerland.
I felt the same feeling entering St. Peter’s Basilica as I did 10 years ago: awestruck. Patrick took us around explaining little details here and there. The history of the Vatican is so interesting and way too much for me to explain here. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. Oh and that guy randomly appeared back with our group. No one knew where he went. I don’t think he even knew where he went.
The Vatican was just as beautiful as I remembered from 10 years ago. I tried to book a Scavi Vatican tour, but I requested too late. Only 250 people are allowed down there per day. I requested a month in advance and was denied, so keep that in mind if that’s something you want to do in Rome. The tour takes you below St. Peter’s Basilica to the tomb of St. Peter. I’ve heard it’s incredible. Maybe we’ll get to go back one day!
As our early morning skip the line Vatican tour ended, Patrick made sure to mention the changing of the guard would be happening soon. We definitely wanted to check that out so we said goodbye to Patrick and went down the stairs where the guards were standing at their posts.
After the changing of the guard, we went back into the basilica to wander on our own and see a few things we hadn’t had a chance to see yet. I remembered when I was there last, I got to see the tomb of the Popes. I kept looking for the entrance, but I hadn’t seen it anywhere.
We finally found it as we were wandering towards the back of the basilica. We hadn’t seen it earlier because it had been closed off for some reason. We entered the tomb of the Popes to see many of their final resting places. It’s amazing how old some of the tombs are. Incredibly, nearly half of all the papal tombs were destroyed when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. No pictures here, apologies.
It was about 11:00 am so we decided it was time to move on. We made a stop at the Vatican gift shop first to buy some postcards. It’s a little pricey, but sending a postcard from the Vatican city was pretty cool. We always send postcards to ourselves when we travel as a souvenir. We write what we did that day and then send it on. It’s fun seeing it in the mailbox when we get home.
It was time for lunch. We did some brief research on TripAdvisor and found a little place near our Airbnb called Baguetteria del Fico. This place was TINY but so cute. The owner looked like a young George Clooney, so that didn’t hurt. It was a sandwich place, but not just any sandwich place. They slice all the meat and cheese fresh from a case and you get to watch the entire process. The sandwiches were incredible.
We were getting ready to leave when young George said, “WAIT! I have something for you!” He ran to the back and brought out these little desserts on the house. I’m not sure what they are actually called, but it was like a cake ball cut in half then put back together again with chocolate in the middle. A cake sandwich of sorts. It was delicious and I was rushing to take this picture so I’m sorry it’s out of focus!!
We left lunch full, happy, and ready for our next adventure.
Our wandering brought us to the Pantheon which I didn’t realize is actually a church…a really old church built in the 2nd century AD. I also had no idea Raphael was buried there. It is quite an impressive structure!
Next, we walked to the beautiful Trevi Fountain. This meant a lot to me because of course when I was there 10 years earlier I threw a coin in. It’s said that if you toss a coin in, you’ll return to Rome one day. I’m not a superstitious person, but there I was back in Rome. I obviously had to throw another one in so we made our way over.
When we got to the fountain, it was closed. Closed? Yes, closed. It was off and they had the entire thing blocked so you couldn’t get near it. Someone told us they were cleaning it, which meant draining and scooping out all the money (which gets donated to various charities in Rome). So we waited since we didn’t know if we would be back over that way.
About 10 minutes later the police removed the barricades and the fountain turned back on. While they had it blocked, people were still trying to throw money in the fountain. I’d say about 85% of them missed so there was money all over the ground. We grabbed 2 coins, tossed them over our shoulders, and went on our merry way. A little girl next to us, maybe 3 or 4 years old, was having the time of her life picking up all the money on the ground. It was hilarious.
After the fountain, I was really wanting some gelato; we had been in Italy now for almost 4 days and I had only had gelato ONE TIME. That’s what I get for marrying someone without a sweet tooth (and allergic to cats, but we won’t get into that right now). We stumbled upon a really fancy gelato place and I decided this was the one. It was called Venchi and there was chocolate EVERYWHERE. No joke. They had a wall of pure chocolate flowing constantly.
I got in line and ordered my cone. When it was my turn, I got caramel and something with chocolate that I can’t remember. Before the lady scooped my gelato, she asked me the most wonderful, unnecessary question, “Do you want chocolate in your cone?” Yes ma’am. What kind of ridiculous question is that? Who in their right mind would refuse warm chocolate FROM A TAP (they had a chocolate tap) in their cone!? She handed me my treat and I was just overwhelmed with excitement. You know when a dog realizes that he’s getting a treat he’s just wiggling and shaking because he’s about to get something delicious? That was me.
It was expensive but totally worth it. I highly recommend Venchi if you ever find yourself in need of gelato near the Trevi Fountain.
I was 100% full of gelato and 100% satisfied. Time to go home! Just kidding.
Next, we went to the Altare della Patria. We were actually looking for the cat sanctuary, but we stumbled upon this first. This was one thing I hadn’t seen when I was in Rome previously. I also really didn’t know what it was. I did know that it was a massive, iconic structure in Rome.
We walked over and went up the stairs to the top of the monument. The views were pretty from there. The monument is a dedication to the first king of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also located there.
We decided to go in the museum at the monument because we didn’t have anything else to do. I’m glad we did because we got to see some beautiful panoramic views of Rome.
We headed out of the back of the museum towards the Colosseum. One thing that struck me as we wandered through Rome was the random ruins just everywhere. Some labeled, some not. In some places, it looked like buildings were torn down only to reveal ancient ruins underneath. Once ruins are discovered, they can’t touch them. This is why the metro system in Rome is so awful; whenever they try to expand, they run into more ruins!
Speaking of ruins, that pretty much sums up the rest of our afternoon. Ruins, after ruins, after ruins. The Trajan Forum, Forum of Caesar, The Roman Forum, and I’m sure there were more. There’s so many. There’s not much left, but it’s so impressive to me how some of the structures from before Christ are still there. It was almost mind-blowing.
We ended our ruin-filled afternoon with the Colosseum. We were actually touring it the next day, but we were so close we just had to go over and see it.
We were pretty far from our Airbnb, still within walking distance, but about as far as one would want to walk after walking all day (about 1.5 miles). So we made our way back.
We still hadn’t seen the cat sanctuary so we altered our route so we would walk by it. I know I’m calling it the cat sanctuary, but it’s actually more than that. It’s also the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination. The real name of it is Largo di Torre Argentina. There’s a team of volunteers that run the no-kill shelter for the stray cats. They work to spay/neuter the many cats of Rome as well as keep them fed and healthy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through our travels it’s that the Romans and Greeks love their stray cats and dogs.
I think the cats were hiding from all the rain Rome got because we only saw a few running around. It was still cool to see!
We returned to our Airbnb to lay down for a quick minute before seeking out a dinner spot. We never had to worry about finding a good place to eat near our Airbnb; there were endless options! We ultimately decided on a place called Mimi e Coco. The reviews were awesome and it was less than a 5-minute walk from where we were staying. Win-Win.
Once again, we arrived at dinner early for European standards (about 7:00 pm) so we had no problem getting a table. We sat down and ordered a bottle of Toscana, a Caprese salad to start, then I got some kind of flatbread thing with ham and mozzarella and Eric got ravioli. We waited and waited but never received our wine. Our salad even came out and still no wine. Italians take wine very seriously so we were confused.
Our waiter seemed to be newer, so once we were able to get his attention he realized he completely forgot to bring us our bottle. He apologized profusely, but we are very easygoing so of course, we said it was no big deal. I mean seriously, what’s the point in getting all huffy about a mistake; we all make them and he was already so upset at himself. We continued on with our meal (which was incredible).
As our meal went on, a line started to form outside of the restaurant. To keep the waiting people happy, they brought out a bottle of limoncello and started pouring shots for everyone. I don’t know about you, but if I was waiting for a table and someone brought me complimentary limoncello, I definitely wouldn’t leave. The owners of this restaurant know what they’re doing!
After we finished our meal and wine, we decided dessert was in order. We got the attention of our waiter and he gave us a “hang on a sec” motion. We didn’t think anything of it because the place was beyond packed. He came back out with a bottle of wine, filled up our glasses, and continued on. Wait, what just happened? All we wanted was dessert!
We tried to get his attention again and finally, we were able to order some tiramisu. We obviously didn’t let the wine go to waste and finished up the glasses before our dessert came out. He noticed our glasses were empty and filled them AGAIN! This was when we realized our tolerances had gone up considerably. We finished our glasses like champs and then asked for the check. Our waiter was obviously saying sorry for his mistake earlier in true Italian fashion: free wine. Lots of wine. Our bottle was only €8, to begin with, but we ended up drinking about a bottle and a half between the 2 of us. We definitely got our money’s worth.
As our waiter ran our card, someone else came out with limoncello shots and put them on our table. Who did these people think we were? Drunk Americans incapable of letting alcohol go to waste?! The answer is yes. We took them. They were delicious.
Thank goodness our Airbnb was close! We stumbled home and crawled into bed. Our Colosseum tour wasn’t until later in the afternoon the next day so we both decided to sleep in a little bit. I was thankful after having to get up so early for our skip the line Vatican tour.
Continue reading the Travel Diary here: Day 14: Colosseum and Rome Sightseeing