Rome may not be the first place that comes to mind for a winter break, but off-peak travel to the Eternal City can have many benefits.
“Sì, da sola.”
This was the somewhat comical exchange between a waitress and maître d’hôtel on a quiet November afternoon in Rome, where I spent a day during a weekend trip travelling alone. As they adjusted to the apparent shock of a young Canadian taking to the streets of Rome alone, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment; with virtually no agenda, a paper map and a free audio guide playing through my earphones, I was viewing the city from a different lens to the typical tourist.
Rome is quieter in November than in the summer months. Having visited in both seasons, I can say that there is very little that I wouldn’t recommend doing in November rather than the busy summer period. Queue size is an issue regardless of season for the major sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, but going in this tourism “downtime” gives you the space and time to absorb their magnificence – all without throngs of bustling crowds. At St. Peter’s in particular, look out for shafts of sunlight shining like beacons through glorious high windows. Other sites that would usually be teeming with tourists include the other three papal Basilicas – St Paul’s, St John Lateran and Santa Maria. These quieten down in the latter part of the month and become tranquil places of worship once again; with certain beauties revealing themselves to those tourists who take the time to look.
If you time it well, you can catch Rome at the beginning of the Christmas period. The city’s Christian roots resurface in this period, and spending an Advent Sunday in a grand Basilica or taking in the immense tree in St Peter’s square is an ideal way to kick off the festive season. Garlands wrapped in fairy lights adorn doorways and give the city a fresh ambient that at first glance doesn’t match its warm, snowless climate. Yet while some may look to the tropics for a respite from England’s cold winter, don’t discount a city closer to home that has the perfect balance of blue skies and crowd control. The weather is beautiful this time of year, with sunshine and days of around 18 degrees dominating the forecast.
All you’ll need is a light jacket (or a thin sweater if you’re from some snowy country like me) – perfect weather for discovering a city on foot. For a foreigner that wants to get past the barrier of tourist traps, a good pair of walking shoes and a few unplanned hours go a long way. This is because Rome is the perfect city to unwind in. Take a day alone, slow down, and let the eternal city reveal itself to you. Don’t be tied down to a particular destination or “must-see”, but decide on a general direction and go.
I did just this, and after making a promise to myself stop when anything caught my eye, I ended up at Circo Massimo’s Campagna Amica, a local farmer’s market that offers an abundance of fresh olive oil, bread and Italian cheeses. Around the Colosseum area, you can also find Via Monte Tarpeo, a winding road that slopes up to a spectacular view of the Roman Forum. Here, on your very own Palatine Hill, you can take time to soak in this prominent platform of history. Be sure to download Rick Steve’s free audio guide, which contains short excerpts for the main sites in all of Europe’s major cities, to achieve an experience almost equivalent to a trip inside the Forum for free!
Roaming the streets in daytime must be complemented with at least one November evening out. Rome is a transformed city at night. The Trevi Fountain, an essential stop even for the more imaginative traveller, is lit up in warm yellow lights when dusk falls. Pair this with the relative quiet of November and you might even be able to take a delightful photograph without hordes of people. Even as a solo traveller, Rome’s streets are well-lit and feel safe. The restaurants that you can find along its spider-web backstreets are thriving with life, and when returning to my hotel, I felt safe even along the lamp-lit sidetracks rather than busier main streets.
Other benefits of the off-peak season definitely include accommodation discounts. Hotels in central Rome lower their prices greatly from November onward, offering great deals. Hotel Borromeo is located on Via Cavour, just five minutes from the Colosseum, and offers a 5-night deal from £20 a night per person in this period – with breakfast included!
You thus have the option to travel conservatively and perhaps put what you save towards a trip along Italy’s coast.
The Amalfi Coast’s telltale cliffs and popular beaches provide a very different backdrop to the landlocked capital. Much like Rome, this typically tourist-rammed destination slows down in autumn and winter. Make a visit to the village-on-a-hill, Positano, and dip your feet in the Mediterranean on a beach all to yourself! While you’re in the area, perhaps pay a visit to Herculaneum too. This site under Vesuvius gives a sobering account of the volcano’s warpath in 79AD, but is often overshadowed by its infamous brother Pompeii. Herculaneum is smaller, but boasts a better-preserved Roman city. It is well worth experiencing such a critical episode of ancient history from an alternative perspective.
So whether it’s planning next year’s winter break or your next excursion during a year abroad, keep Rome in mind – a city with discounts for adventurous students, and more than meets the eye for the curious foreigner.
Featured Image: Louise Nunn