View of Rome from St. Peter’s Dome. What no one tells you: how dizzying the stairs are to climb.

Ever since taking my first art history class some 20 years ago and marveling mouth-agog as slide projections of the Sistine Chapel danced across the walls, I’ve dreamed of traveling to Italy. I wanted to see ALL THE ART — all the gilded cornices, marble sculptures, and fountain-filled town centers that entire boot-shaped, pasta-laden country had to offer — but mostly, I just wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. When I finally had the opportunity to visit Milan and Rome this year, however, Michelangelo’s ceiling didn’t even rank among my favorite sites.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as the most memorable parts of travel for me are almost always the things you can’t glean from glossy coffee table books or slide projections on a classroom wall — like the scale of a building, the smell of a certain street corner where Frankincense burns in the doorway of a bookstore 24/7, or the completely distinct taste of five different kinds of pork cheek. Even though the sheer marvel of all the best travel moments can’t be captured in words or photos, I’ll do my best to share the top 10 things that took me by surprise with you…

Yup, prepare to be as shocked as this glam lady I spotted on the streets of Milan.

1. American vs. Italian pizza. First thing’s first: if you’re a pepperoni pizza fiend like me, the Italian topping you’ll like best is spicy salami. Another surprise to prepare yourself for: pizza does not come pre-sliced at restaurants, which means you need to do it yourself with a fork and knife at the table (the one exception is counter-service lunch places where pizza is sold by the slice). Truth be told, I found myself opting for some variation of carbonara instead of pizza throughout my trip because this let me indulge in my favorite combo of cured pork and cheese while also sampling as much as I could of what Italian cuisine does best — al dente pasta.

Sliced pizza seriously is so rare there that I squealed and ran across a busy street to snap this photo. Such a silly American tourist, I know.

2. Tiny animal doors? Yup, your eyes aren’t fooling you… If you lean down and take a look at gates surrounding many ancient ruins in Rome, you just might spot little dog/cat doors to let animals go in and out of the tall chain-link fences around artifact sites. There are even paw prints etched into many of them and certain fenced-off areas are known to house particularly large menageries of feral cats.

I spotted this little door at a restoration site a block away from the Colosseum. But, that’s not all…

This tiny critter home was also nestled amongst the ruins.

3. Crowds are no joke. I’d heard Rome was “touristy” or that “overcrowding” had become an issue there, but this did nothing to prepare me for the way you can often find yourself walking for multiple city blocks feeling like someone is quite literally breathing down your neck at every turn. If you’re an introverted person like me who gets a bit overwhelmed by crowds, this means it’s vital to have an “escape” plan of sorts. For me this meant seriously whittling down the number of high-traffic attractions I booked tours for (priorities, people!) and mapping out my own little walking tours to lesser-known spots. (One of my favorite things to do was map a meandering route to the river in Rome, the canals in Milan, or a fancy hotel lobby on the city outskirts and wander in and out of any old churches I spotted along the way. There’s something about a) not having a strict agenda, and b) knowing a slice of nature or a quiet café table is my final destination that makes crowded areas feel much more manageable.)

I took this photo of the Trevi Fountain a couple hours after arriving in Rome, and I feel like it comes closest to capturing how jam-packed all the most famous sites feel.

4. Villa Borghese = ♡. The Borghese Gallery & Gardens were my favorite respite from the crowded streets of Rome. The heart-shaped property features a sprawling public park that’s a great place to stroll enjoying greenery and the shade of trees, or you can even rent a rowboat on a turtle pond if you’re so inclined. While the the park and gardens are free to roam through at your leisure, I recommend booking a tour in advance of the Borghese Gallery — a 20-room mansion with the most opulent, gold-leafed spaces you’ll ever set foot in that also boast tons of famous Bernini sculptures and sparser crowds than other museums in Rome. (We visited the museum one afternoon, then made a separate half-day trip out of strolling through the park before stopping for coffee and people watching in the swanky St. Regis lobby nearby.)

A map amidst the palm trees at the tranquil Borghese public gardens.

5. Views vs. vertigo… It feels like every travel site tells you viewing Rome from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is an absolute must-do, but no one warns you what a wonky trek it is to get up there. My two cents on what to see vs. skip: definitely pay the extra couple bucks to take the elevator up to the rooftop near the domes — the view of the city is spectacular from there and it was an unexpected pleasure to stand so close to the domes and marvel up at them. At that same level, it was a real treat to go inside and look down at the interior of the church from the balconies — this helped me appreciate the intricate walls and sheer height of St. Peter’s Basilica in a way I couldn’t from the ground floor. However, I kinda wish we’d skipped climbing the stairs the rest of the way to the top of the dome — not only were the steps so tiny my husband couldn’t fit more than 1/4 of his shoes on them, but the way the walls sloped in gave me a serious sense of vertigo at multiple points (which is really saying something because I’m a relatively young, fit person who doesn’t usually struggle with dizziness). The real kicker: once you start climbing a narrow, winding staircase with 20+ tourists close at your heels, you can’t exactly change your mind and turn around.

A view of St. Peter’s Dome from the Basilica’s roof.

And these are the stairs nobody warns you about.

6. Don’t miss the Vatican’s OTHER ceiling. I loved wandering through the Vatican’s map room and was so awed by its roughly .25 mile-long hallway covered in gold leaf and painted walls. Our tour guide kept poo-pooing the space as artistically insignificant, but the experience of walking down this intricate hall and imagining how it was painted by 10 little-known artists and their assistants over the course of just two years had me so gobsmacked that the Sistine Chapel paled by comparison when we finally strolled through it.

This little-known hallway in the Vatican feels like it goes on forever… In the most magical way possible.

7. Coffee overlooking the Colosseum. One of my favorite things about Rome was seeing the scale of ancient ruins rising above a mix of giant Baroque sculptures, modern streets bustling with cars, and a sea of lovingly-preserved buildings from the 1600s. A great way to soak up this kind of view is to grab breakfast or drinks in the Monti neighborhood at one of the hotels there that have restaurants overlooking the Colosseum. (We opted to do coffee one morning and an early dinner the next night so we could watch the sun set and all the lights turn on within the Colosseum’s arches as the sky went dark.)

Oh, ya know, just sipping a cappuccino by the Colosseum. (The only thing that could make this photo more staged is if I’d actually washed my hair before breakfast.)

8. Milan! This city wasn’t initially on my travel bucket list, but I’m so glad we wound up going there for my husband’s work because it turns out Milan is the Paris of Italy. Put another way: Milan is the undisputed interior-design capital of the world, which means not only do shop windows offer a dazzling visual feast, but there were endless people-watching opportunities and I felt like everyone oozed personal style no matter whether I was at a bus stop or swanky hotel bar. Although Milan is most known for its Gothic Duomo and high-end designers like Prada, I think I loved the time I spent wandering the artsy, graffiti-covered streets by the city’s canals the most (obviously, with a cannoli or cone of gelato in hand).

Here’s just a sampling of snapshots I took wandering through the funky streets ner Milan’s Canals…

9. Da Vinci’s Last Supper is all about scale and texture. The oblong painting takes up an entire wall in a former dining hall for monks located at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, and I was truly surprised by not only how big the painting is but that at a certain point in history someone actually cut a doorway through the bottom of it where Jesus’s feet used to be. Another detail you just can’t glean from looking at the 15-foot painting in an art book is that the texture is full of tiny eggshell-like cracks and has a transparent sheen to it from many angles. The two words that kept striking me as I stared up at The Last Supper were ethereal and fragile, which maes a lot of sense when you consider how Da Vinci painted it using an experimental oil-based technique that came with the benefit of luminescence but the downside of developing a thick layer of green mold soon after its completion in the late 1400s and necessitated many rounds of restorations since. (Illustrating this more perfectly than my words ever could: there is a traditional al fresco mural on the opposite wall that stands in vibrant albeit chalky-textured contrast to The Last Supper, and Da Vinci was actually commissioned to add two figures to the mural — which he did in his experimental style no less. You can see the difference of his ghostly paintings on top of the traditional fresco mural by Giovanni Donato Montorfano in my photos below and I think you’ll agree the contrast is quite striking.)

Whereas tourists often comment on how small the Mona Lisa is in person, Da Vinci’s Last Supper is much bigger than expected…

10. Strangers on a train… We took a two-hour train ride between Milan and Rome, which came with the unexpected benefit of getting to enjoy scenic views of vineyards and Italian countryside out the windows. I also struck up a conversation with two Canadian women seated across from me who were headed to visit an ex-pat friend who’s a retired museum curator-turned-children’s-book author. One thing led to another and I ended up finding myself sitting there with a stack of adorable illustrated books in my lap that I flipped through and laughed over with my seatmates whenever we went through tunnels or the train’s views failed to entertain. For the life of me, I haven’t been able to recall the book titles or turn up any fruitful results in Google searches, but in a way this memory sums up all the best things about travel for me — they’re fleeting and oh-so of a specific moment in time. Or, to butcher the Ferris Bueller quote, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Since I have no photographic evidence of this fleeting train memory, here’s a pic of the buttery leather jacket I splurged on in Milan. Caio! xo, Coté

PS: We booked all our tours ahead of time through What A Life Tours and were very happy with the experience. (We did the “small group” option and always went with mid-afternoon time slots so we could sleep in and enjoy leisurely breakfasts or morning strolls.) Also, for those inquiring minds who wanted to know, we stayed at Palazzo Manfredi in Rome and Radisson Collection Santa Sofia in Milan. This is not a sponsored post.

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