The Colosseum at Sunrise (Photo: Envato)
A short disclaimer and some basic rules to keep
Rome is famous for its many churches and the treasures hidden within them. Naturally the religious Jewish tourist is confronted with a major issue regarding visiting these sites and usually skips them. Everyone should act according to her/his own feelings, but this guide will not mention any churches or places Halachically prohibited for the observant Jewish traveler.
Because there is so much information to share, I didn’t mention the names of the various artists responsible for many of Rome's beautiful artifacts. It shouldn't be too difficult to find information about them with just popping out your smartphone, when needed.
When to go and what to avoid?
Every travel guide will tell you that the best time of year to visit Rome is between April and June or September and October and not in July or August when the city is full of tourists from all over the world. The temperature is usually at least 86 degrees in the summer or rainy and cold in the winter. The ideal times to visit Rome don’t work for a Jewish family with kids since those times of the year are either High Holidays, Passover or when the kids are in school.
So Summer can be crowded and hot, but as long as you dress appropriately, use sunscreen and make sure to drink enough (buying water in kiosks across Italy is much cheaper than you’d expect!) you should be just fine. Bring comfortable shoes because it's always better to walk (public transportation isn't too bad but watch out for pickpockets). Bring light snacks for the way and plan your meals according to the area that you're touring. There are many Kosher restaurants across the city. Google maps and such will help you find your way but it's also a good idea to use the City Map which you can get for free at the tourist information centers or the hotel. This map covers all the important sites in Rome and is very helpful when planning your tour. The most important rule is to let your instincts guide you along - simply ‘follow your gut’. Let the city guide you with its special charm, side streets and beautiful alleys.
Important! Plan your day of touring to end before it gets dark. It's not advisable to walk through some of Rome's side streets during the night. At night keep to the main busy areas and watch out for pickpockets. Rome is a reasonably safe city and you'll always see police walking about, but unfortunately there are still people who make a living from tourists and I don't mean souvenir shops.
Very Recent History
The first time I visited Rome, about 30 years ago, the city was quite different from today - 2023. Well, most of the historical sites and beautiful buildings haven’t changed but the city is, by far, friendlier to the Jewish kosher observant tourist than it was in the past. Thirty years ago, there were about one and a half kosher restaurants (that since have closed) and a couple of kosher grocery shops. I remember Coke and Osem Crackers were sometimes an essential energy source and it was also hard to find a minyan for Shabbat, if you didn’t stay in the area of the Jewish Ghetto or Piazza Bologna.Today you can find many different types of kosher restaurants in Rome. There are also two big Chabad centers and three Shuls with a regular minyan. There is a kosher products list put out by the Italy Kosher Union so that you can go and shop for food in any supermarket, as well as several kosher grocery stores and dedicated sections for kosher products in selected Carrefour shops, located in Jewish areas.
La Taverna Del Ghetto Kosher restaurant in Rome (Camelia.boban, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Rome is one of the very few destinations where you can leave all your canned food at home and enjoy a kosher vacation for a reasonable cost. Click here for information about restaurants, hotels, Shuls, Mikves etc.
So let's Start
I will describe a number of places that are worthwhile visiting. You can plan the exact route on your own. Most of the places are not far from one another (walking distance between the two furthest places is no more than two hours). Use a map but remember to always let yourself wander around the small alleys.
The Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere area
The Jewish history of Rome is the longest and most continuous in the whole of Europe. The Jews of ancient Rome enjoyed many privileges. The authorities usually permitted them to practice their religion. When Rome became Christian, the Jews lost all their wealth and were moved to the Jewish Ghetto which was called the Jewish neighborhood (Judaeorum Domicili). The Ghetto was situated between the Tiber River and the ancient center of Rome at Via del Portico d'Ottavia. The original size of the Ghetto was not bigger than seven acres.
I strongly recommend coming here to the main Shul on Shabbat and spend some time just walking through the Ghetto alleyways and streets of Trastevere. You can order (before Shabbat) meals from one of the kosher restaurants in the Ghetto (when I last visited, three restaurants offered Shabbat meals). Make sure to come again during the week to visit the Jewish Museum next to the Shul. In the museum you will find religious articles, 17th – 19th century Megilot, replicas of inscriptions from Jewish gravestones, papers and documents about the history of Jewish Rome, as well as material from the time of the Holocaust. Check the Jewish Museum’s hours before you go.
Page from a siddur of the ancient minhag Romi - the Jews were forced to change the content of the prayer by the church (Photo: Yaniv Madar)
The Jewish Ghetto is also home to the St Angelo in Pescheria church where the Jews were brought by force to hear sermons (on Shabbat) and suffered much violence. The Jewish Ghetto went through many changes and only received its name at the end of the 19th century when all persecutions ceased.
Arch of Titus near ancient Colosseum in Rome (Photo: Envato)
The Colosseum and Arch of Titus
When I first visited Rome, entrance to the Colosseum was free (for the ground level only) and quite small so no lines. In 2019, it was a two-hour wait to get inside, unless you booked your tickets in advance, online (make sure to do that, also for other sights, when possible!).
Vespasian started building the coliseum in 72 ce. It could seat 55,000 spectators who would usually come to watch gladiators fighting. The Colosseum has four levels. There is a large statue of Nero nearby. As mentioned before, the Colosseum, as well as other tourist sites during the summer, get very busy so it is best to buy tickets in advance. Click here for the official website to book tickets in advance for the Colosseum as well as combi tickets that include the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. There are many other websites to purchase tickets but those will be more expensive.
Close by is the triumphal arch that is known as the Arch of Titus. This monument represents a painful memorial for the Jewish people but nevertheless it is an important historical site worth visiting. The arch was built after Titus’ many victories against the Jews during the Great Rebellion of 70 ce in which Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash were destroyed. The arch is famous for its relief showing the holy vessels such as the Menorah being taken from the Bet Hamikdash to Rome. Sad memory but important and inspiring to see.
Relief on the Arch of Titus showing the holy vessels being taken to Rome (Photo: Yaniv Madar)
Fontana Di Trevi
Its one of the must see, so you have to go and see the Trevi Fountain which is situated in the Piazza de Trevi. This is the most famous of Rome’s water fountains and for a good reason. What makes it special are the many sculptures that decorate it and their positioning in the water. At the bottom of the pool you can see thousands of coins. The traditional legend holds that if a visitor throws a coin into the fountain, he will eventually return to Rome. The place attracts tourists all day and it is worth visiting at night as well, to see the fountain lit up.
Trevi Fountain (Photo: Yaniv Madar)
It’s impossible to ignore the many works of art scattered across the city. Some of the most impressive are the beautifully designed plazas and squares (Piazza in Italian). The largest one is the Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) which can be found at the foot of the Vatican. The many sculptures around the square make this huge Piazza stand out.
Another large piazza is the Piazza Navona which is known as the most romantic squares in town. This oval shaped piazza was built on the ruins of a stadium and has two impressive fountains and tens of marble sculptures. It’s best to come during the evening but art lovers may prefer visiting during the day.
Piazza Navona - beautiful during the day and even more stunning at night (Photo: Yaniv Madar)
Piazza Navona - beautiful during the day and even more stunning at night (Photo: Yaniv Madar)
The Piazza di Spagna which can be found at the foot of the Spanish steps is an interesting piazza which is always full of tourists, day and night. It is well worth climbing the steps, the view from the top is spectacular and you get a nice perspective of the piazza. During the spring the steps are decorated with flowers. The piazza is situated at the beginning of the streets known for their top fashion designer shops.
One of the most impressive piazzas and my personal favorite is Piazza Venezia with its large monument in memory of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of united Italy. On the right hand side of the piazza you can find the 15th century Palazzo Venezia.
Villa Borghese – the gardens and galleries
Villa Borghese can be found in the center of Rome’s second largest park. There is a lot of greenery and a few small lakes which make it an ideal place to escape the bustling city. It’s a good place to come to if you’re visiting with young children. There are attractions for young and old such as a zoo that children will enjoy more than paintings and other works of art. In the villa there is a museum with many interesting art exhibits (mainly sculptures). In the park you can find some more museums.
As you tour the city you are bound to encounter many more piazzas, monuments, and tourist attractions.