As we stood in an unknown piazza admiring an unknown - but beautiful - fountain populated by naked nymphs, I realized that our travel book couldn't have given better advice. "When in Rome," it said. "Get lost".
The Italian capital, it argued, was best experienced through a random exploration - sans guidebook - that allows the kind of discovery that emerges when you discard a map and sense of purpose.
Armed with this advice, and the weathered axiom "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", it's easy to make a city break much more interesting than merely racing to the tourist highlights.
Having said this, a Roman holiday would not be complete without hitting those "must-sees" - the Colosseum, the Forum, Pantheon and other Roman ruins, the dozens of basilicas and temples, Vatican City, with its museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, as well as Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona and countless other squares around the Centro Storico.
Once those prerequisite visits are out of the way - which can be done in three days - the real fun begins, meandering through this frantic city and embracing life with the passion of a Roman.
That may entail downing coffee while standing at the bar, consuming four-course lunches washed down with Italian wine, dodging incessant Vespa scooters, shopping and plenty of people watching.
When it comes to seeing and being seen, the Spanish Steps is the place to be. These grand steps are a perfect spot to perch and watch life stroll by, or to be part of the masses - tourists, Romans, love-struck couples and youths - who are doing the same.
Across from these steps is Tridente, the most popular district for shopping. The narrow streets cutting through the lively neighbourhood are lined with high-end shops sporting famous Italian names: Armani, Dolce e Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci as well as more affordable (and accessible) stores such as Benetton and Diesel. It is in the posh designer boutiques, however, where you discover an enigma: the more empty space and fewer products, the higher the price.
When admiring life around the Spanish Steps stop by the building at 26 Piazza di Espagna. Here, about 180 years ago, is where the English poet John Keats spent his final months. Inside is something that isn't on the usual tourist's agenda: the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. Within lies a tribute to Keats and his peers, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and some interesting exhibits: original writings, letters, portraits, a death mask, even a lock of hair.
Keats died at the age of 25 - the warm Italian climate couldn't overcome his tuberculosis - and his body was buried at the Protestant Cemetery in the Testaccio district. "It might make one in love with death to know that one should be buried in so sweet a place," wrote Shelley of his friend's resting place.
The area, set aside as a non-Catholic cemetery in 1738, is a quiet oasis in an otherwise hectic city. Found alongside the 3rd century Aurelian Wall across from the Piramide metro station, this marks the final stop of many famous and not-so-famous people, including American sculptor William Story, Goethe's son Julius, and Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party.
The shaded grounds are also home to some of Rome's estimated 150,000 stray cats. Thanks to one woman, Matilde Talli, these friendly felines and well cared for. She personally financed the feeding, neutering and medical treatment of these cats, efforts now supported by volunteers.
The area also boasts Rome's only pyramid. Gaius Cestius, a first century BC Roman magistrate was so enamoured by the Egyptian monuments that he wanted his own when he died. He got his wish - although dwarfed by even the smallest of Egypt's remarkable pyramids, the marble-clad structure remains to this day.
The posh and peaceful residential neighborhood on Aventine Hill is a short walk away, where the fifth century Santa Sabina church stands. Its garden boasts one of the best views of Rome and the Tiber River - a view that has remained virtually unchanged in the past few centuries.
The hill holds another treasure: the Municipal Rose garden. When you walk among the red, white, pink and yellow rose bushes in the shadows of giant Cypress trees, listen carefully ... wafting with the gentle breeze is classical music, piped into the garden. Once a Jewish cemetery between 1645 and the 1930s, designers of this garden showed their gratitude to the Jewish community that ceded this land for a park: the footpaths form a giant Hebrew candelabra, or menorah.
Jews have maintained an uninterrupted presence in Rome for 2,000 years, making this Europe's longest surviving Jewish community. Today, the community thrives in a cramped area north of Tiber Island dubbed "the Ghetto". It's a perfect place to taste the unique blend of Roman and Kosher Jewish cuisine.
Rising above in the east is the Capitoline, the most important of ancient Rome's seven hills. Crowning the hill today is the world's oldest public museum, founded in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated several bronze statues to the city. The three buildings comprising the Capitoline Museums surround a piazza designed by Michelangelo in the 1530s. Palazzo Nuovo, to the left, houses a collection of antique statues, including the busts of philosophers and Roman emperors.
The Palazzo dei Conservatori, on the right, is renowned for its monumental statues, including the colossal head of Emperor Constantine. The buildings are linked by a tunnel, which also leads to the ancient Tabularium - an arched gallery overlooking the Forum.
At the end of a tough day acting like a Roman, the museum's rooftop terrace offers a great view of Rome and its ruins.
Only when your curiosity is piqued by an unknown arch in the distance, or perhaps a fountain with nymphs, is it time to pull out the guidebook.
Author: Doug Alexander