Whether it’s your first time or a prodigal return, there are countless reasons to come to the Eternal City.
Maybe you’re a gourmand. If so, prepare to have your taste buds tantalised and your waistband put to the test.
Art historians, eat your heart out. At every possible corner, you’ll encounter a remnant of Ancient Roman civilisation, jaw-dropping classical architecture, or baroque churches housing priceless sculptures and paintings.
Or maybe you just like warm weather and photogenic locations. I hear ya, and Rome is objectively beautiful. You don’t have to care about what happened two thousand years ago in this city to appreciate it. Wear your sunglasses all day long, sit on a terrace, and watch the world go by as you sip on your Negroni.
Alright, the thing about the Eternal City is that it’s old. Really old. In practical terms, this means cobblestone central. While they look great in photos, they can be pretty tough on the tootsies if you’re either a) unaccustomed to walking and/or b) in inappropriate footwear. So bring walking shoes. I don’t mean ugly hiking boots. Sneakers, tennis shoes, or just something sturdy will do the trick.
If you’re not a walker, get walking before you get here. You’ll need stamina for this trip. Even if you’re resigned to taking cabs everywhere, the sightseeing portion of your trip will involve a LOT of bipedal action. So think twice about the flip-flops or those pretty brand-new sandals. Your feet will thank you later.
Think about what you want to see beforehand. The idea of being, hey, let’s go with the flow is lovely, but with a city like Rome, where you could spend a lifetime and still not see everything, it pays to be a little specific (with a bit of wiggle room naturally). And less is more. Crowd up your itinerary, and you’ll end up with sensory overload. The abundance of beauty really does dull the senses after a while.
Do your Homework
You don’t have to get an art history degree, but if you plan on visiting the main attractions, you’ll get a lot more out of your trips by knowing a bit about them beforehand. Again, less is more. Read a little about Michelangelo or Bernini if you like art, even superficially.
FYI: Most churches, especially St Peter’s, have a dress code. This just means no exposed shoulders or knees, so make sure you’re either dressed appropriately on the day or you’ve got a scarf in your bag. They’re more lenient about the knees. It’s more the shoulders they want to see covered up.
Best Time to Visit
Rome is always beautiful, but avoid August (and even July) if you can. The heat becomes unbearable, with Romans staying indoors with the AC on and the blinds closed until sundown. The lucky ones escape to the sea or mountains. The plus side to the summer is that there are usually a lot of nocturnal events on, but if day-tripping and sightseeing are more on the agenda, then you will find it hard going.
Any time between October to May would be your best bet.
A few things to bear in mind:
- The first Sunday of every month is free museum day, so the main attractions will be extremely busy.
- Other busy days are national holidays, including Liberation Day on April 25th, Festa della Repubblica on June 2nd, and Ferragosto on August 15th.
International flights usually bring you to Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Fiumicino (FCO). At approximately 40 km from the city centre, this is a well-connected airport with a host of trains and buses bringing you into the city.
Rome’s second airport is Ciampino (CIA) – minuscule compared to mega airport FCO, but this can actually work in your favour as the arrivals procedure is pretty painless and has the added advantage of being connected to Rome’s transport network. The city centre is a mere bus and metro ride away.
If you’re travelling in from other parts of Italy, there is an excellent high-speed train service called Freccia Rossa that can have you in from Milan in just over three hours. Naples is only 1 hour and 15 minutes away.
Even in the low season, demand is high for holiday accommodation in Rome, so don’t leave it to chance if you can help it. The centre is saturated with hotels and hostels to suit most budgets.
Here’s a little breakdown by area to help narrow your choices.
Pigneto is an LGBTQ-friendly neighbourhood east of the centre and is connected on the Metro by the C line, which will take you to San Giovanni. From there, you can visit the Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, shop, and even walk down to the Colosseum.
There are many Airbnb options in this area (other rental platforms are available). Alternatively, small independently run guesthouses like L’Oasi del Pigneto are quite easy to find.
Traditional: Piazza Spagna (Spanish Steps)
The location is traditional, but for an unconventional hotel stay, take a look at iRooms. They have rooms very close to Piazza Spagna fit with jacuzzis and home cinema walls.
Prati, on the other side of the river, is the swanky part of Rome. Its Metro station Ottaviano on the A-line, which you’ll need when visiting the Vatican City. It’s great for shopping, visiting the Vatican, and taking leisurely strolls along the river.
Try NH Collection Hotels. The closest station is Lepanto on the A-line.
Central and Connected (and on a budget): Termini
Termini is the obvious choice for many travellers as this will often be your first port of call when you land at FCO Airport. The fast train, the Leonardo Express, will bring you straight here. It’s on the A and B lines and, as Rome’s main transport hub, is super well connected to the city as well as the rest of the country.
For comfortable and trendy budget stays, take a look at Generator Hostel.
Central and Connected (and a bit of luxury): Termini
If you’d like to stay well connected but are seeking the comfort and all the trappings of a 4-star hotel, look at The Hive, which boasts a spa and rooftop bar and restaurant that is absolutely welcome news in the summer heat.
Rome’s transport network ATAC operates three metro lines; A, B, and C. You’ll probably only need the A and B unless you choose to stay somewhere like Pigneto or Malatesta in Rome’s increasingly popular southeast neighbourhoods.
There are a few tram lines, but many lines got taken out of commission during the pandemic for “essential work” and, to date, have yet to return. In their place are relatively regular bus services.
Public transport is relatively inexpensive. Fares will give you 100 minutes of consecutive travel time, meaning you can use the metro and as many buses as you like within that time limit. Tickets are available to purchase from machines at Metro stations. Alternatively, you can pay by contactless card payments on the Metro and most buses.
White taxi cabs are abundant, run on a meter and now accept card payments. Ask beforehand anyway to make sure. If they say no, I would advise smiling and sending them on their way while you find another cab.
Uber is available but tends to be a bit more expensive than white cabs. However, it’s a good plan B if no other alternative exists.
Finally, if you are courageous enough, try downloading one of the many apps available and rent an e-scooter readily available on the street. They are ubiquitous, often cluttering up the streets and sidewalks. Romans are extremely divided about them.
Extremely common with Roman teenagers and tourists alike, it’s a fun, if slightly risky, way to get around. (Full confession, I live in Rome, and I’m petrified of them, but I must admit, the idea of riding an e-scooter down the Roman Forum on a balmy summer evening, hair blowing in the wind, is rather tempting. One day…).
Things to See & Things to Do
If it’s the ancient stuff that speaks to you the most, then book ahead for:
- The Colosseum and the Roman Forum (spread across two separate days if possible)
- The Pantheon
- Baths of Caracalla
For beautiful views and classic Roman cityscapes, head to:
- The Janiculum (il Gianicolo)
- Villa Borghese
- The top of the Spanish Steps
- Altare della Patria
- Castel Sant’Angelo
For Insta-perfect cobblestoned alleyways, trattorias, and bars all oozing with charm, look no further than:
For art, art, and more art:
If you’d like to combine your love of art and wine, why not give Vineyarts a try? Their “Paint & Wine” parties in central Rome promise a fun evening for you and your friends with unlimited wine and the opportunity to paint anything from still life to life drawing. You naturally get to take your masterpiece home with you. :
And finally, what Roman Holiday would be complete without a ride on a Vespa? Try a guided tour of Rome by Vespa. You can choose between riding the Vespa yourself or riding in the back with your guide. (I know which I would choose).
Cuisine and Dining
I’ve always been pretty healthy, but not even that long after living in this country, I went for a routine blood test and, to my horror, found that I had slightly high cholesterol. What had changed? With all the walking and the fresh vegetables I was consuming, I wasn’t even in bad shape. Aperi-bloody-tivos is what happened. Too many complimentary bar snacks.
A smarter option than the aperitivo might be the apericena– it’s a portmanteau of aperitivo + cena i.e, dinner.
It might be a bit out of your way, but for a true Italian buffet-style apericena, try going to either Doppio Zeroo in Ostiense or Momart on Via April XXI in Nomentano. Between 10 and 15 euros, you get a cocktail or a glass of wine and access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of everything from pasta to grilled veggies, salads, pizza, and even dessert. You’ll never want to go back to paying 9 euros for a weak Negroni and a bowl of nuts ever again. Keep your eye out for apericena written up on chalkboards outside bars.
Roman Trattoria Classics
Let’s face it. You’re going to be spoilt for choice when it comes to food. Even “average” pasta dishes in Rome are going to be above average compared to those back home. Most likely.
If you’re keen on sampling “authentic” food, the following dishes are specifically from the Rome area:
- Trippa al sugo – tripe (intestines) in tomato sauce.
- Cacio e pepe – the classic cheese and black pepper sauce and pasta.
- Carbonara– egg yolks, pecorino cheese, and cured pork cheek. NO cream. Repeat: NO cream. When authentic carbonara is done right, it’s a delight- when it isn’t, your digestive tract will let you know sooner or later.
- Amatriciana – tomato-based sauce with cured pork cheek.
Need Something Green in the System?
Try cicoria. This is a classic side you will often see on the menus in this part of Italy, and with so many carbs on the menu, I’d urge you to give it a try. It’s basically gently pan-fried greens, often seasoned with capers, olives, chilli, garlic, and olive oil. Tasty, if perhaps an acquired taste for some. Its Neapolitan cousin is called friarielli and has a slightly more bitter taste but packed with nutrients.
Tried and tested Alle Fratte di Trastevere is a family-run restaurant offering all the staples above at honest prices. It’s in Trastevere but on a quiet street away from all the hustle surrounding the basilica.
Carciofi Alla Romana / Alla Giudia – Artichokes Roman or Jewish Style
For this classic Roman starter dish, head to Via del Portico d’Ottavia. Take your pick from any of the restaurants on this street in the old Jewish quarter of Rome, still known as the “ghetto”. Artichokes alla giudia (Jewish style) are deep fried, whereas alla romana (Roman style) are broiled and infused with a light herb stuffing of mint and parsley. It comes down to what you’re in the mood for. Paired with a chilled white wine, it’s a charming alternative to the standard apertivo when you want to take a break from Aperol and bar snacks.
Pizze, Panini, Fritti – Pizza, Sandwiches and Fried Appetisers
Whoever said that the Mediterranean is home to the healthiest cuisine in the world clearly did not have Italy in mind. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish are all here and readily available, but there is a love affair with carbs and fried goodies like you would not believe.
You Simply can’t Leave Rome without Trying:
- Supplì al telefono – deep fried rice balls with mozzarella. Kind of like Roman arancini. Supplì are ‘al telefono’ because when you pull one apart with your fingers, the melted mozzarella string that joins the two pieces looks like an old phone wire (use your imagination here). “Pronto?”. (Pronounced soo- PLEE).
- Pizza bianca e mortadella – mortadella sandwich made with pizza bread. Salty, slightly oily, so filling. Just the ticket when you’ve been walking all day.
- Porchetta – roast pork belly and rosemary. Extremely tasty roast pork sandwiches.
- Baccalà – deep fried cod fillets. Fish and chips – without the chips.
- Olive ascolane – queen olives coated in breadcrumbs and stuffed with meat and then, you guessed it, deep fried.
Any good forno (bakery) worth its salt will have these things along with freshly baked pizza by the slice, but when you’re in the centro, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees (or the pizza in this case).
A Couple of Pointers:
Tourists are a bit wise to this spot now, but with good reason. Between Via Vittorio Emanuele and Campo de Fiori, you’ll find Il Fornaio on Via Dei Baullari. Their pizza bianca and mortadella sandwiches are just what the doctor ordered, along with a range of tasty baked goods.
Alternatively, for supplì and pizza by the slice, the pizzeria chain Alice is surprisingly decent. You’ll see them dotted all over town, and they are inexpensive lifesavers.
Roscioli on Via dei Chiavari 34 has become something of a mini-empire now, with a cafe and wine shop opening up in recent years. In addition to this, their original forno. Expect long lines outside. However, everything that comes out of those ovens is a cholesterol-inducing euphoric treat. I still think about their potato and porchetta pizza when I want to go to my happy place.
For alternatively presented fritti off the beaten track, head to Via del Pigneto to a place called Mozzichi. They win massive points for originality- deep-fried, Magnum ice cream-shaped carbonara pasta on a stick called Mangium is one to try.
Finally, if you prefer a dine-in experience, head to Pizzeria Ai Marmi on Viale di Trastevere 53 for traditional pizza and Roman fried delights. Famed for their baccala and supplì in particular, you’ll also find a wide selection of thin-crust pizza.
If you’re in an especially gluttonous mood, get your chops around a maritozzo. It’s like an eclair on steroids. They are sweet brioche-style buns filled to capacity with whipped cream and finished off with powdered sugar.
Language Tips and Customer Service Tricks
Language. Parla Inglese?
The more touristy the area, the more likely they will have a pretty good handle on English – the basics to serve you, at least.
That said, a friendly buongiorno or buonasera (from around 3 pm onwards) is always welcome. Come sta (formal) or a quick tutto bene? (how are you, everything ok?) will always go down well.
Asking if they speak English, parla inglese? (formal) even if you’re 99 percent sure they do, is polite and shows them you are making an effort to speak their language. They will love you for it.
And on that note…
Allora ….. Italian is not the same as Spanish. (Just sometimes, ok?)
Please don’t assume your well-intentioned highschool Spanish is going to work by just making it sound a little bit Italian. Servers will never say anything, but they secretly hate it when you speak Spanish, like you’re assuming it’s basically the same. They will smile at you and go along with it but then curse your family once your back is turned.
So here are a few clangers I’ve overheard in my time:
- Beer is birra (not cerveza)
- Cheese is formaggio (not queso)
- The check is il conto (not la cuenta)
- Please is per favore (not por favor)
Customer service takes on a different meaning in Italy. It’s more, “Do I like the look of this guy?” kind of service.
Just because you’re the customer and are willing to part with your cash won’t necessarily mean they will bend over backward to do what you want. If you make a good impression, they will often go above and beyond.
If you come off rude (antipatico), the attitude transmitted will be very much ‘you can take your money elsewhere, I don’t care’ (Che me ne frega).
Remember you’re dealing with a dichotomy between “mi sta simpatico” = I like you and “mi sta antipatico” = I don’t like you.
If you are simpatico to the person serving you, you will get great service. It stands to reason. Come off, antipatico …not so much. Professionalism doesn’t always come into it. Often, it’s very emotionally driven.
When you come from the Anglosphere or a lot of Asian countries where the “customer is God”, this can come as a shock to the system.
Tips are welcomed, of course, but also not mandatory, so tip what you think is fair for the service received.
Final Word about Refund Policies
Full refunds for unsatisfactory service or products are hard to come by in Italy. If you complain, then you’re being antipatico, and the whole concept of “customer rights” is kind of vague and not taken too seriously.
The appropriate cultural response instead is to bring your hands into prayer mode, and while moving them towards you and away from you repeatedly, utter the words che devi fare?
“What are you gonna do?”
Shrug it off and get a gelato. Live and let live. You’re on vacation, after all.