Our trip to Italy made me realize what kind of traveler I am. I always described myself as budget conscious, slightly adventurous, and down for any destination. I typically like sightseeing and partaking in experiences that are off the beaten path, but I’m also not opposed to the touristy places that other travelers have added to their “must see” list. Ultimately, I thought I was easily adaptable.
The busy city of Rome provided a realization that I was slightly aware of. I’m not a city person, I extremely dislike crowds, and I don’t like people in my face. Unfortunately, Rome was all of those things. It’s a giant city, filled with millions of tourists, and everyone is in your face trying to sell you something.
I had romanticized the idea of Rome while failing to realize that it is one of the most visited cities in the world. I put my best attitude on and tried to make light of the situation, but I couldn’t help thinking that I wish I was prepared for this. And I wish social media hadn’t given me unrealistic expectations of what I would encounter.
So here’s my list of the harsh realities of Rome and what I wish I knew before going.
Reality #1: Mass with the Pope was not a spiritual experience.
I’m Catholic (not the best Catholic), but mass with the Pope was at the top of my bucket list. I’ve watched videos of Pope Francis that have made me cry, so I thought he was going to give out this amazing life changing homily and I’d have this crazy spiritual experience.
So what really happened? I had about 50 selfie sticks blocking my view and all the Pope did was give shoutouts to everyone attending. I found a spot with some shade, sat down and felt my eyes get watery with disappointment. I looked around at everyone taking selfies with the Pope in the distance. They looked like they were having a great time. I sat there wishing I could find the same joy in taking a picture of myself.
Reality #2: Group tours are a necessary evil.
I’m not a group tour kind of person. I like doing things at my own pace and as an introvert, I find large groups of strangers frightening. In Rome, every five feet you walk, someone will be in your face trying to sell you a “skip the line” tour. Initially, I found it incredibly annoying. It’s an overpriced tour that allows you to skip the line at several sites, and if you ask these guys how to buy a regular ticket, they won’t give you an honest answer.
I yelled at one guy who was in my face at the Colosseum. He claimed we would wait in line for over an hour, but for over double the price of regular admission, we could skip the line. We took our chances and got through the line in 15 minutes. Several Euros were saved!
A different story at the Vatican Museum. The Sistine Chapel was number one on my list of things to see and of course, the line was insane. Not sure why, but everyone in the regular line to buy tickets were not being admitted inside. We waited until it started to look grim… it was my last day to see the chapel and I wasn’t getting in through regular admission.
I finally gave in and paid 40 Euros for a “skip the line” tour when admission should have only been 16 Euros. Clayton waited for me outside because it was too expensive for all of us to go. Our tour was the last group admitted, and that ended up being incredibly dramatic as well! With three tour guides yelling at the guards and only part of our group running inside without our guide (I led the way and got reprimanded), it was quite the shit show, but I got in.
Reality #3: Your bucket list item is on everyone’s bucket list. Prepare to push and shove while taking in the sights.
When I finally got into the Vatican Museum, I was so pumped to see the Sistine Chapel at the end of the tour. I pictured myself sitting in the chapel, taking a seat, looking up and admiring that famous ceiling. Here’s what really happened: we got pushed in like a can of sardines and we weren’t allowed to stop and admire anything. A guard is constantly yelling to keep people moving while simultaneously moving everyone towards the exit. I was literally shoulder to shoulder with other people the entire time while slowly moving forward. In addition to being the biggest fire hazard I’ve ever been a part of, I couldn’t even take a moment to take it all in. I looked up, felt extremely claustrophobic and after 5 minutes, I ditched my tour group.
It was the same story at every other famous sight. All I remember from the Trevi Fountain is hoards of people, and the constant sounds of whistles being blown by police because people would stop to take a picture or try to sit at the edge of the fountain. Seriously, as I type right now, all I hear are whistles in my head.
Reality #4: Hospitality is nearly nonexistent and you will encounter people who hate tourists.
Don’t even bother asking a bus driver a question. Ours literally told us he had better things to do! I guess he was right, he had a bus to drive. One girl on our bus was from Turkey and couldn’t figure out how to get back to her hotel. The bus driver refused to help. She got off with us and we tried our best to help her find her way.
We had a few unpleasant interactions with locals. One group thought it was funny to mock us as we asked for directions in Italian. Another woman put both of her hands on my back and literally pushed me a few feet forward because I apparently was in her way.
I learned to start asking local Filipinos for directions because they were so helpful and friendly. One Filipino man walked us all the way to the metro station after we missed the right bus stop to catch a train. Another Filipino woman gave me directions to a restaurant. I learned, when in Rome, ask a Filipino!
Lastly, we learned that hotels will try to take advantage of you. At one place, they tried to charge us 210 Euros instead of the listed 105 because we had our 6 year old with us. I told the guy we would pay extra for our kid even though we were all sharing a bed, but there was no way we were paying double. He wouldn’t budge so we didn’t either. Next time, we won’t waste our time at a hotel.
Reality #5: Other people will always be in your photos.
Taking a nice family photo became an impossible task. It got to a point where I gave up and stopped caring that people kept walking in front of our camera. I then remembered that several people on Instagram had told me to go out before sunrise to take photos. We were jet lagged the entire time and I wasn’t going to wake up my exhausted 6 year old for a picture at dawn. So if you want a nice photo, you need to literally be out there before the sun.
In the end, I am so thankful that I got to see Rome. I know that I am incredibly privileged to travel and see these amazing places, and even though I was met with some disappointments in this city, I was able to see this as a learning experience.
So what did I learn? My husband and I are a great team. When we realized asking for help was out of the question, we figured things out on our own. From the buses to the metro to the suburban trains, we had it down pretty well. We even jumped on a couple buses without being 100% sure of the destinations and quickly became very familiar with the streets.
I also learned, you don’t have to be completely in love with every place you visit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our preferences, and an awesome time for me might be completely boring to another person. We’re all different and because of our differences, I now know to choose our future destinations and activities based on our personalities, and not by the suggestion or pictures I see on social media.
We had a great time over all. We made amazing memories and have some funny stories to tell! But I think it will be a while before we go back to Rome… or possibly any city.