It was 4:25 a.m. as we bid arrivederci to Rome en route to the airport. We must have passed more than 20 historical sites—the major kind plastered on the pages of history books—when our driver pointed out Teatro di Marcello and mused, “It was finished in 11 BC; there’s currently a concert series happening there right now.”

Even though my mind was a little foggy due to the frighteningly early hour, I appreciated the final history lesson courtesy of my Expedia-booked shuttle, and thought, “The Eternal City, indeed.”

I will never get used to Rome’s history, its ancient ruins between modern restaurants, its relics of storied tales scattered on every street, or its scent that combines the sweetness of gelato with the mustiness of a city built over thousands of years. It’s almost too much to take in. 

For this reason, I wanted to revere Rome properly during my summer 2015 visit: through the eyes of historians, via skip-the-line loopholes, and with my taste buds.

As it turns out, this tall order was as simple as grabbing a coffee from Starbucks—or sipping an espresso from a caffè.   

Let’s start with lines, a norm at many sights strewn about Italy’s capital. I don’t understand why a person would wait in line when he can prebook tours for the same price. There is no reason. I repeat: There-is-no-reason. (You know the screen that prompts you to book activities after you buy your flight and hotel? Next time it pops up, don’t close the window.)


Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

Skipping the line at St. Peter’s Basilica

Case in point, I passed a three-hour queue to get into St. Peter’s Basilica by booking a skip-the-line tour ahead of time via the Expedia Local Expert® activities page. Due to Vatican rules, if you opt for a special-access tour, only Vatican-appointed guides can lead tours, ensuring detailed insight into the most crucial Catholic church in the world.

Exclusive access to the Colosseum and Caesar’s Palace

Viewfinder Tip: For an overview of Rome’s symbolic sights (and to taste gelato all over the city), start with a hop-on hop-off bus tour.

Same goes for the Colosseum; I wanted a small-group tour worthy of the ancient site’s significance. After all, I didn’t travel across the Atlantic Ocean to wander aimlessly through the brick-and-marble structure that still holds records as the world’s largest amphitheater. 

My Walks of Italy guide, a jovial graduate student about to embark on his PhD studying ancient Rome, took my family members through the mega marvel with a keenness to match our own, constantly tailoring his “colossal” wealth of information to our interests. Oh, and again, we skipped the line and went through at our own pace, stopping to learn fun facts such as the Colosseum’s wood floor used to be covered in sand, and the Latin word for “sand” is “arena,” as in a sports arena.  

Small-group pasta-making class 

With a few history lessons under my belt, I felt it was high time to let loose at a pasta-making class. I say “let loose” because it was experiential learning at its best—our classroom was a rooftop chef’s studio and the course materials were flour, water, and prosecco.  


Mixing flour and water for my pasta

As a lifetime devotee of Italy’s art of al-dente pasta, I was ready and willing to toil over my tagliatelle amatriciana with the drive of a Harvard student (and I did). But the whole evening was an A+ from its start of prosciutto-wrapped melons to its finish of the chef’s homemade, laurel leaf–infused digestivo

I was a good student (I promise), but it was hard to concentrate from the rooftop of Rome. The skyline paired with my made-from-scratch pasta was fulfilling in every sense of the word, which made me grateful for the chefs, history experts, and local guides who helped me really find the heart of the Eternal City. 

What are your must-do activities in Europe?