The commotion caused last September when Pope Francis made his first visit to the United States was unprecedented. There were TV specials, magazine covers and, in an unconfirmed first, several hip-hop-inspired memes posted on Instagram. Somehow, the fervor caused by that trip has carried over to the new year, largely because of the Extraordinary Jubilee, the Holy Year of Mercy, the nearly yearlong religious event consisting of papal audiences, festivities and other spiritual celebrations. Through November 2016, people from all corners will flock to Rome and the Vatican to be a part of the historic happenings. If you feel so inclined to visit during this time, we have laid out a first-timer’s itinerary that’s equal parts history lesson, scenic tour and culinary adventure.
When it comes to hotels in the Eternal City, the options can go on forever. (The actual origin of the moniker stems from ancient Romans’ belief that the city would endure, no matter what ails plagued the world.) Places like Baglioni Hotel Regina and Hotel Majestic Roma rest in the center of it all. Villa Spalletti Trivelli is close to everything but still feels quaint. And once the beloved Hotel Eden completes its massive restoration project in the fall, it’ll again be a must-stay destination.
Since you’re in the land where Tiberius and Nero once reigned, though, it makes sense to stay as royalty yourself. The majestic Rome Cavalieri exudes an air of aristocracy from the moment you step into the gold-leaf- and tapestry-adorned lobby. Rooms speak with a similarly opulent verve through lush sofas, marble baths and Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries. And then there’s the priceless view of Rome and Vatican City from atop Monte Mario, the tallest hill in the city. You can see the Borghese Gallery, Castel Sant’Angelo and other landmarks from your balcony.
Once you finish surveying the land you’ll conquer over the next few days, hop in a cab for the 20-minute ride down to the Colosseum. You could pose in front of the iconic amphitheater like most or wait in line for entry like others. But if you want to skip the long queues at the 1,900-year-old attraction, the only way to go is with the Colosseum and Ancient Rome tour from City Wonders, a tour provider that prides itself on delivering stimulating experiences you can’t get anywhere else. When you schedule your 3 p.m. excursion, make sure to request Sev as your guide. Like the coolest professor you had in college, Sev has a way of making quarry mining and vaulted arches sound a lot more fascinating than they probably are. And you’ll appreciate the way he doesn’t romanticize the times; he speaks of slaves and living conditions in a manner you won’t get from a rented headset.
Another truth: The tour takes up every minute of its allotted three hours. Needless to say, you’ll be primed for a rest once the session ends. Ride a taxi back to the hotel and prepare for your pre-dinner treatment at Cavalieri Grand Spa Club. Don’t worry — the nearly 27,000-square-foot facility remains open until 10 p.m. daily. Try the stress-relieving Ritual Treatment for legs or go all out with the Ultimate Caviar Lift Facial if you want to add luster after a few hours in the sun.
By now, your body might be thinking more about an actual bed than a bed of lettuce, but fight the urge just a little bit longer by heading up to the renowned La Pergola for dinner. The menu from charismatic chef Heinz Beck is filled with traditional Italian favorites such as risotto and spaghetti, but most are done with a clever culinary twist. The latter dish, for example, comes topped with scorpion fish. No matter how adventurous you choose to go at the table, expect everything to feature only the freshest ingredients Beck’s team is able to gather from local purveyors.
Your day is starting pretty early, so you may only have time for fruit and coffee on the balcony. As you peer across the stunning landscape, look to your right just a bit; you should be able to spy the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s where you’ll need to be by 7:30 a.m. We promise getting up at the crack of dawn will be worth it.
Amid the throngs of folks trying to get into Vatican City, you’ll spot your City Wonders guide for the Sistine Chapel Express and Vatican Museums tour. (Even if Sev isn’t with you this time, you’ll be in great hands.) Like a VIP who knows the pontiff personally, you’ll be whisked past everyone in line and granted access to the Sistine Chapel and halls of the Vatican before anyone else that morning. As you ask your guide questions about the Jubilee and snap away at artifacts — whatever you do, however, don’t be that person who tries to sneakily take a picture of “The Creation of Adam” after the guard warns otherwise — you’ll feel like you seemingly have every inch of the museums all to yourself.
After a few hours in the presence of Michelangelo’s most prized pieces, make the 12-minute cab trip over to acquaint yourself with Apollodorus of Damascus’ finest work, the Pantheon. Arguably the best-preserved building of Ancient Rome, the A.D. 118-erected temple still mystifies today with paintings, sculptures and the tombs of several Italian luminaries, including the artist Raphael.
Work your way around the guys incessantly hawking selfie sticks and other trinkets at Piazza della Rotonda to get to Scusate il Ritardo. Though a bit of a tourist trap with regards to its shaky service and steep prices, the place is a perfect detour for some cheesecake or mixed fruit gelato. For a proper pasta lunch, go a few blocks away from the crowds to Ristorante Grano or La Nuova Capannina.
Walk off the carbs by trekking 15 minutes past cute boutiques and even more gelato shops to Piazza di Spagna, where you’ll find the Spanish Steps. Take your obligatory pics at the site and drink from one of the nearby fountains, but before you leave the area, make a point to do a little shopping, too. You’ll see familiar names such as Prada and Gucci, but you’ll also stumble on lesser-known places like Ju’sto, a snazzy bag company that lets you customize handles and straps on the spot.
When all of the sightseeing (and fighting for space in crowded public squares) takes its toll, hail a cab back in the direction of the Rome hotel. But instead of going straight back to your room, stop off first for dinner at 384 Ristorante, a contemporary-style eatery that has made its mark over its two-year existence with locals, not loud vacationers. With a decent-sized dining room and patio, there’s plenty of space to rest your feet and enjoy a superb four-cheese pizza or paccheri topped with shrimp and olives alongside a well-earned glass of Lazio IGT Il Gelso.