The Cool Girl's Guide to Rome

The Eternal City has endless options. Here's how to navigate them.

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Julie Bensman)

Fresh Pasta or BustCampo de Fiori MarketStumble-Upon ShoppingPrivate Tour of the VaticanOpt For the Affogato

Things I've learned: When in Rome, it can be difficult to restrict usage of the phrase "When in Rome," whether you're consuming a double scoop of gelato or purchasing a pair of custom, handmade leather sandals. But I'll try mightily to here!

As the last stop on my epic Trafalgar guided vacation in Italy, Rome did not disappoint. The weather was perfect, the crowds weren't too crazy and the food, wine and people (including our steadfast travel director, Tony, and our local specialist, Cristina) were spectacular.

And because our trip was all about seeing the real Rome—in other words, the off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall wonders—we didn't just visit the big name spots. Sure, we made pitstops at the usual suspects (Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and my favorite, the Pantheon), but we also discovered secret gems, like a spectacular cold-pressed juice stand. Even better, Tony and Cristina had all the right hook-ups—like getting us a super-exclusive, private tour of the Vatican. "Roma is like lasagna," Cristina told me. "It has eight layers of history—and I'm here to help show you the best layers."

Here, five of the most memorable spots during my time in beautiful Roma.

Fresh Pasta or Bust

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(Image credit: Marie Hennerchart)

After eating our weight in pasta during the course of the trip, it only seemed appropriate that we try making it ourselves... under the supervision of a pro, of course. We turned to Chef Fabio Bongianni, of Rome's famed That's Amore restaurant (he also told me he's scouting Los Angeles to potentially open his second location—you heard it here first!). Chef had us make two kinds of fresh pasta—with egg and without—and the rest of the ingredients were just flour and water. How easy it that? As for equipment, you really just need a simple pasta machine like this one, as well as a whisk and a fork. My favorite pasta was a fresh ravioli with spinach, ricotta and Parmesan, which is, according to Chef, "The original Italian recipe." What better way to enjoy the fruits of our labor than with a Prosecco toast on the roof, followed by a multi-course dinner surrounded by good food and new friends?

Campo de Fiori Market

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(Image credit: Marie Hennerchart)

Campo de Fiori is the perfect place to purchase souvenirs of the culinary sort, including fresh fruit, colorful vegetables, dried pastas, truffles galore and local delicacies like handmade jams, honeys, mustards and pestos. Because of new Roman shopping habits (i.e. fancy grocery stores) and rising real estate prices, Campo de Fiori is sadly one of the last open air markets left in the center of Rome. The good news is that locals do still shop the dozen or so stands that continue to offer the best produce in the city, sold by families who have done so for generations and generations.

Stumble-Upon Shopping

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Rome boasts tons of charming, independent boutiques full of authentic Italian treasures and passionate locals excited to talk about what's en vogue in the city right now. One afternoon, I stumbled upon this tiny sandal shop off the Piazza Nerova called Di San Giacomo, where the owner will custom create a pair of real Italian leather thongs within the hour, using the leather color of your choosing and adorning them with your desired buckle or bauble. Then there's Mercato Monti, a rotating collection of vintage clothing and unique accessories handmade by local designers, in the trendy Monti neighborhood. Finally, I'd be remiss to leave out at La Pietra Stregonia—just be sure your suitcase is big enough to bring all your new haori kimonos home.

Private Tour of the Vatican

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(Image credit: Marie Hennerchart)

You hear so much about the Vatican and you see it in pictures, but live, up close and in person (and on a private tour exclusive to Trafalgar without the crowds there), it's a totally different ball game. It's its own city state, for goodness' sake! It's overwhelming and humbling. With Cristina providing historical context, plot twists, suspense and trivia, I truly got lost in the experience. Not to mention our private tour of the Ethnological museum—how special! Of all that we saw, the Sistine Chapel was the most magical place. And Michelangelo wasn't even a painter, he was a sculptor! (Insert don't quit your day job joke here.)

Opt For the Affogato

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Gelato is a given in Rome, but after too many fragola cones, one starts to get, well, sluggish. For a pick-me-up, I started getting into the affogato game: one scoop of vanilla gelato drowned with a shot of hot espresso. (Do as the locals do and roll up to a sidewalk shop, order, and sip while standing at the bar). It's simple, but the complexity slowly reveals itself: The first sip (or bite, depending on your style) is still hot from the espresso, but the follow-up sensation is a cold, buttery vanilla cream. When you get the bottom of the cup, you're left with a rich, frothy, milky soup not unlike the last bite of waffle soaked with all the syrup. It's heaven, is what it is. And so is Rome.

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