It’s 8am, the sun is shining hot and the barometer is reading 30 C/86 F. Welcome to Rome in the summer where mid-morning feels like high noon in the desert and walking on those beautiful sampietrini (black basalt cobblestones) feels like traipsing across hot coals. By mid-June, the Eternal City literally becomes the Infernal City, a Dantean hot spot of high temperatures and lots of bodies get a glimpse of every historic and cultural site in the city.
Romans have known since antiquity that there are only two options to survive in the summer- either close the shutters, turning your home into a dark cave, and stay inside from 11am to 6pm, or else, pack your backs and relocate to the beach [or mountains] from as late as July 1st through September 1st. But that’s not going to cut it, you’ve got places to go and churches, archaeological sites, museums and restaurants to visit. Here are my five tips to beating the Roman heat.
Rise and Shine
I’m up every morning by about 6.30 am, an unnatural and ungodly hour to rise but I do so because summer sun comes in high and strong (we don’t do caves), and we like to take advantage of the city in the early morning. At 7.30am, Rome is still somewhat empty of tourists so I get a front row spot at the Trevi Fountain, and snap an empty shots of the entire Piazza Navona. Just before it’s 8.30am opening, I’ll swing over to the Pantheon (soon you will need to by a ticket) so I can have that look up at the Oculus all by myself. But those are just the basics.
If you want to spend time in must-see sites like the Roman Forum, Colosseum and St. Peter’s Museum and Dome that require tickets, set your alarms and plan to arrive at the site by no later than 15 minutes before doors open (8am or 8.30 depending on the site). Each site require visitors to queue for entry in outdoor spaces- piazzas and areas that offer absolutely no shade and whose lines can be hours-long waits, and by midday, sites like the Forum and Colosseum become Petri dishes under intense sun.
Give Yourself a Break
Romans are absolutely right. By midday, you need to give yourself a break and ricaricare, recharge or better yet replenish all those electrolytes you lost just by walking down the street. To the Roman, this means a long lunch, a few hours indoors, or preferably both. I know, I know, you are here to see the sites, not sit around or stay inside, so here’s my pro-tip: plan to visit Rome’s not-to-miss museums during the midday break.
Here are my favorite air-conditioned art spots: for Baroque art Galleria Borghese (reservation required) and Palazzo Barberini (park yourself on the velvet divan in the Grand Salon and look up), for ancient Palazzo Massimo and The Capitoline Museums, for modern and contemporary: La Galleria Nazionale. N.B. This does not include churches as clergy and staff take a lunch break too.
I’m lucky, I live with the uber-archaeologist Darius Arya who thinks that the best kind of date means a trek a few meters below ground level to ancient Rome. Sexy times include investigating Roman insulae, Republican temples, imperial cisterns, Christian catacombs, pagan necropoli and even a 2500-year-old public sewage drain all for the love of antiquity. Over the years, I’ve realized that there is nothing better than a trip down under- plus a great pair of shoes. There is an underground site open every day of the week, so you can jump into a cooler climate for a few hours every day.
My latest line-up includes Domus Aurea – Nero’s Golden Palace with its kickass VR, old faithful San Clemente is always a crowd pleasure with its multilevels, the somewhat overlooked Citta dell’Acqua and any catacomb(Santa Domitilla is a favourite).
Pro Tip for the church goer- ask any priest at any centro storico church if there is something below the pulpit, and you’ll find a few Republican-era buildings or an imperial temple.
One of the most important lessons to learn in Rome is that just as the city was not built in a day, nor do you have to see it all in a day. That’s why night visits were created. Rome has an incredible cityscape of ancient monuments, Renaissance palazzi and Baroque domes, gorgeous as much in an inky navy blue evening, as in daylight. Over the past few years, cultural sites have finally caught and opened theirs doors to unforgettable evenings.
Why walk with the masses to the Sistine Chapel when you can have the Vatican Museums to yourself- and have an aperitivo in the Cortile della PIgna? How about a walk around the Colosseum and its underground chambers? Personally, I’m all about the flashback experiences at the Fori Imperiali where animated projections are set to melodramatic musical scores as you walk through history , and the evening visit to Castel Sant’Angelo never ever gets old.
The only word you need to memorise is grattachecca, the onomatopoeic solution to surviving the Roman heat, and everyone’s favorite treat. Not to be confused with granita, Italian ice found at the local gelateria, grattachecca is a cup full of hand-shaved ice flavored with fruit syrups and preserved cherries or fresh lemon juice and pieces of coconut. Ingested quickly, it is a ferocious brain freeze. Savored over an afternoon walk, it is a hand-held cooling system that can change your attitude as quick as it changes your body temperature.
Where can you find one? Walk along the Lungotevere – the street-side sidewalk that borders the Tiber river – from the Ara Pacis to Isola Tiberina and you’ll bump into a green chiosk lined with bottles of syrup and manned by two grattacheccari– one person for shaving the ice and the other for flavoring it. FYI- Grattachecca is usually a cash-only operation, so remember to bring spare change. For more- here’s my map of grattachecca spots in Rome.