With busy lives, schedules, and distance in-between, it’s difficult for my family to get together, let alone plan a vacation together. This past July, my parents and sister were privileged to plan a long overdue family vacation, back to one of my favorite cities—Rome. With tickets purchased, we ventured across the pond to experience the Christmas season in Italy. Rome—a Catholic city—really dresses up for the holidays. Here’s a glimpse into our vacation. (Hint, most of it involves eating a lot of bread and drinking really, really good Italian wine and coffee).
Day Zero (Christmas Eve)
Eating all the Salami and Cheese, and attending mass in Saint Peter’s Square
Flying from separate locations, we planned a meeting spot in the Fiumicino airport at a small café. Around noon, we departed by train to the location of our Airbnb, or home for the week. Guilia, our Airbnb host, kindly met us at the San Pietro station and walked with us to the apartment. The place was cozy, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, up six flights of stairs.
Only a five-minute walk from Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the location was perfect and within walking distance from some of the best spots in Rome. After getting settled in, we crossed the river and found an excellent meat and cheese deli, La Salumerie. Ravenous from our travels, we ordered a large plate of meat, cheese, bruschetta, and olives, a bottle of Chianti Classico, and got to work.
After sitting for a bit, we walked a bit further to find some gelato (I mean when in Rome, right?) and then continued to walk around for the rest of the afternoon, taking it all in. One thing I love about Rome is the feeling that you know where you’re going, but don’t quite know where you’re going. If you are okay with not having an agenda and allowing yourself to wander, eventually you’ll stumble upon what you’re looking for. Or if not, you'll stumble across some equally amazing stuff. I felt my way back to the street I lived on during a summer in college, Corso Del Rinascimento.
That night, we ventured to Saint Peter’s for Christmas Eve mass. Tickets were all sold out for the basilica mass, but the square provided tv screens to see Pope Francis do his best work.
Day One (Christmas day)
A Walking Tour
To get acquainted with the city, my mom had booked a four-hour walking tour to explore the major parts of Rome. Walking, I believe, is the best way to see Rome, but these four hours were not for the faint of heart. Luisa took us all over, from the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona to Saint Peter's, and everything in between.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was a visit to Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola, a Jesuit church near the Pantheon. Surprisingly, I hadn’t been to this church during my study in Rome, and it boasted a really amazing artifact, tucked away in a small corner of the entry-way. The man who build and designed it was a devout Catholic, but he recognized that the world’s religions should all be united together in some way, as ultimately, most preach the same teachings. He created a representation of a future, unified religion, with the central structure surrounded by small replicas of existing churches, mosques, temples and pagodas from the furthest corners of the world. Pretty boss.
We hadn’t made reservations for Christmas dinner, but after the tour we fatefully stumbled upon the sweetest restaurant, near Piazza Navona on Via dei Coronari (one of my favorite streets in Rome!). The atmosphere was cozy yet energetic, with only about twelve tables and a man playing classical piano in the corner. The food was good, but this restaurant got the most points for atmosphere and experience (and wine).
Exploring the Jewish Ghetto
A bit tired from the miles we’d accumulated the previous day, our family decided to go a little slower, and wander on our own. We explored about a mile south of our apartment, in the Jewish Ghetto. We found an open exhibit in the Jewish museum, and learned about the capture of Jews in the city during the Holocaust. The museum was really well done, and paid homage to the lives of those lost and those affected during this extremely tumultuous point in history.
A tour of the Vatican and Vatican Museums, finding our favorite restaurant in Rome
We had another tour planned for the Vatican Museums, a “skip the line” tour through EnjoyRome tours. Despite it not being tourist season in Rome, the Vatican has long lines year-round.
It’s hard to say a lot about the Vatican museums, except that they are really, really spectacular. Even if you’re not a fan of Renaissance Art (trust me, I need a little break from it after this trip), there is a ton of history to be appreciated.
We also explored Saint Peter’s Church. Full of public and private works of art, famous tombs, and awe-inspiring architecture, the largest church in the world seems to go on forever.
The day ended at La Caletta, an amazing restaurant near Saint Peter’s Square. Specializing in seafood, my sister and I splurged on two dishes, a seafood pasta and a Mediterranean “stew,” a chilled mixture of calamari and fresh tomatoes and herbs.
Wandering around the Roman Forum and reminicing at Hosteria del Moro
We had a walking tour scheduled to discover Ancient Rome. Our tour guide met as at the Arch of Constantine, in between the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. We started with the Colosseum, learning about it's ancient history and its use for gladiatorial games. The Roman Forum was next, with endless ancient ruins scattered everywhere, all historically significant, and with a grandeur that still leaves you dumbstruck.
A day in Florence
Deciding to venture out of the city for a day, our family booked a one-day tour through Viatour which included round-trip train transportation on TrenItalia, a one-hour walking tour around Florence, admission to and a private tour of the Uffizi Gallery, lunch, and a visit to a leather factory. While our family agreed that we would have preferred to choose the lunch spot on our own, the rest of the experience was optimal. It gave us a good balance of Renaissance Art, city history, and time to explore on our own.
Rather than going to the Academia to see David inside of the Duomo (both highly recommended if you’ve never been to Florence), we explored the lesser known Church of Santa Croce, famous for housing the tombs of Dante and Michelangelo.
Shopping on Coronari and experiencing Italian wines (the right way)
Feeling a bit lazy after our busy excursion to Florence, my mom, sister and I took the day to shop, stopping in small boutiques and antique shops near Piazza Navona. We found a British café, sipping on coffee to warm up. When I was studying in Rome during college, I’d discovered a small jewelry store on Via dei Coronari, and I was on a mission to go back. Wandering around, we finally found the store, a small front tucked away. The shop is an artisan workshop and storefront, called Sancesario Emilio. I showed the man in the shop the earrings I’d purchased almost four years ago and his face lit up in delight. I love the store because this man is true designer and crafts person. He draws each design to produce at an enlarged scale, testing each design carefully before molding the metals and jewels together. Additionally, he creates custom pieces and was even generous enough to fix the pair of earrings I had purchased for my sister.
After shopping, we headed back to the apartment to take a quick nap and get ready for dinner. Our splurge for this night’s dinner was a wine and food pairing at Bolla su Bolla, a restaurant and bar owned by Rimessa Roscioli. Hands down, this was my favorite experience we had in Rome. We’d purchased tickets in advance through and they included eight wine and food pairings. Part of a group event, we were joined by about fifteen others, mostly travelers from the EU, but some Americans as well. Ironically, our sommelier was a fellow Midwesterner—she’d fallen in love with wine during her time studying abroad, and eventually quit her corporate job to pursue her passion full time. Not a bad life, I’d say. She taught us all about the history of Italian wine, the regions they come from, and the nuances that make them all unique. The food pairings were astounding as well—fresh cheeses, cured meats, pesto, authentic amatriciana (pasta with crushed tomatoes, bacon, and pecorino cheese), and tiramisu for dessert. I’d highly recommend splurging on this type of event if you ever find yourself with the opportunity. Not only did it expose and educate me on the culture of Italian wine and food, but all the food was sourced from local family-owned shops.
Falling in love again with the Villa Borghese, more Renaissance Art, and celebrating the New Year
If you ever get the chance to go to Rome, you MUST visit Villa Borghese. Located right off of the Piazza del Popolo, the Borghese Gardens seem to go on forever, and they are a spectacular refuge from the small streets and busy piazzas of Rome. They’re my favorite place to wander around, taking in all the greenery and seasonal attributes of the diverse Mediterranean vegetation. I’d been to the gardens a number of times before, but only during the summer. The fall climate boasted a mix of earthy browns and golds that were juxtaposed with bright green grass and cypress trees, helped along by the recent winter rains.
We finally made it to the Borghese Gallery, tucked away in the southwest corner of the Villa’s grounds. You need to purchase tickets for the gallery in advance, but it’s well worth the planning. The Bernini sculptures were truly the main event, but I also appreciated the many Caravaggio paintings, and especially the educational introduction to his eminence in still-life painting—his unique style was passed along for generations to come.
For dinner, we’d made reservations at Porto di Ripetta, a fancier restaurant near Piazza del Popolo. With an intention to celebrate our trip and the upcoming new year, we ordered a bottle of prosecco and enjoyed the food, a lot. Lobster ravioli, fresh tuna, braised lamb—it was a night to splurge, and celebrate. On our way home, we grabbed another bottle of bubbly from a local bodega and watched fireworks from our back apartment balcony.
Catholic rituals and sister time
An earlier morning that usual, my parents and I decided to venture back to the Chiesa di Sant' Ignazio di Loyola Church for New Year's Day mass. We arrived a little late, and the mass didn’t seem to be happening, so we took a little time to explore the church again. Near the Pantheon, we decided to grab a few coffees and croissants from a beautiful café.
Many things are closed on New Year’s Day in Rome, so I decided to meet my sister at Piazza Navona. Near there, I found a man painting watercolor scenes of Rome, and picked up a few for gifts. We found a cozy sport for lunch and enjoyed the rest of the day in each other's company.
Shopping in Trastevere and back to La Caletta
With only a day left, we picked up some last minute gifts for friends and family and ate at a lovely restaurant in Trastevere. Back to La Caletta (our decided favorite!) for dinner and then packed our bags to head home. Ending the day, I felt truly inspired, privileged, and grateful to have had such a wonderful experience in such an amazing city. Arrevederchi, Roma!
Planning a trip to Italy? I’d be happy to help build an itinerary or give recommendations for things to see, places to go, and restaurants to experience. Christmas is a wonderful time to go, as it’s not as touristy and the weather is moderate (compared to the hot, hot summer temperatures!) Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a post in the comments if you'd like to get in touch.