We’re back so before work erases all memory here are a few of my tips for anyone who’s not been before and is planning a visit to Rome.
Let’s start with a map to get our bearings:
The areas you will want to spend most of your time in are all of the coloured parts except for; Via Veneto, Villa Borghese, Janiculum, Aventino, Caracalla, Esquilino & Quirinal. Your routes may well wander through these areas but they will not in themselves be a destination – not if you follow my tips at any rate!
Take as much time in Rome as you possibly can, within reason. Depends really on the depth you wish to go into but for anything more than drive-by tourism you need a minimum of four days preferably a week or two. I recommend five or six full days in Rome to see all the main things plus a little shopping/relax time.
TIPS – GENERAL
- Unless you’re really tight for cash get a taxi or hotel transfer from the airport. Fiumicino is not far out of the city so the cost is not greatly different from the bus or train transfers and would be much easier and quicker. We paid in advance for a bus which drops you at Termini (main rail station) and you get a cab from there. I wouldn’t bother next time.
- If you have a spare day go visit Ostia, the ancient Roman port and route from the Med up the Tiber. It is more or less the same area as the airport. We didn’t do this but after seeing how much stuff had to be transported to Rome centre from all parts of their Empire it feels like something we should have done and by all accounts it is worth visiting.
- Location, location, location is the key when it comes to choosing a hotel. Unless you have bionic legs you need to be in the right place. Even what seem like short distance days turn into longer ones and then when you do that day after day carrying a backpack/shopping bags it really does wear you down. My triangle of love when it comes to hotel location is if you draw lines between the A of Navona, the F of Fountain and the V of Venice. That’s the bottom of the purple ‘Pantheon’ area and is where we stayed. Honestly, when your base is here it seems that wherever you may have wandered to your hotel is a short (5-15 minute) walk away. We did everything on foot with the exception of a taxi to and from the Vatican Museum which is at the far end of the yellow Vatican area. Even that is easily managed to be fair but it was our fourth day and we needed to save legs.
- Go at an unpopular time of year – January, November, whatever. When it is hot and brimming with tourists squeezing through the narrow streets it must be hell. Even at these unpopular times, make sure you hit the big ones – Vatican Museum for example, on a weekday. We did the Vatican on Thursday and it was easy. We had a booking so didn’t need to buy tickets but even if we had there was no queue when we turned up – about 09:00. As we left Rome, Sunday morning around 11:00, the queue was horrendous. Must have been 1km long at least. Rome is a popular weekend trip so you should bear in mind the increased activity between Friday pm and Monday am. Seriously, there were more law enforcement officers in Rome than tourists most of the time we were there but it got noticeably busier at the weekend!
- Don’t bother with the roast chestnuts they were pants. Do bother with the ice cream, it’s very good! I forget the name of my favourite, it was a small modern chain. It’ll come back to me and I’ll edit later.
- Never and I mean never eat or drink near a tourist attraction. Take a side street and find a place that a) looks like it’s in serious need of a remodel, b) has nobody outside waving menus at you and c) is full of Italians. You’ll get better food at half the price. This is a generalisation of course but one worth following. Prices and quality vary greatly. We avoided expensive fancy restaurants and the lowest bill for the three of us was 45 EUR for a good meal the highest was double that at just over 90 EUR but there’s little relationship between price and quality. Same with coffees and other drinks. You can pay 5 EUR or more for each item or you can pay 5 EUR for the lot, just depends where you choose to sit.
- Food – Develop a liking for the three P’s – pizza, pasta and panini – as they are hard to avoid. Artichoke similarly seems to end up at every meal. If you’re feeling brave, build yourself up for a helping of traditional Roman tripe. Watch out for the antipasti surprise. This is normally a collection of cold meats with or without extras like olives, pickles whatever however more than once in Rome the antipasti was a collection of their hot ‘tempura style’ dishes. Things like artichoke (natch!) and other stuff dipped in a light batter and then fried. Seems to be the ‘fish and chips’ of Rome. The rest was pretty much want you’d expect from Italy. We had better food this time than last but I’m still not impressed by Roman food. There were no wow! moments and nothing that will remain long in the memory from a food or drink perspective. Hard to find any other ethnic food either – Indian, Chinese/Cantonese, Thai and so on. We asked the very knowledgeable guys on reception and they had no clue where to find anything that wasn’t Italian or International.
- Work out your coffee strategy. We like milky coffee but actually with some coffee in it. The Roman ‘latte’ is milk that once had a distant association with half a coffee bean. Utterly useless unless you like warm milk. On the other hand the macchiato is an espresso that once knew a tiny, pocket-sized cow. The only thing roughly between the two is the cappuccino, of course, but it is easy to look a fool when ordering this type of coffee in Italy where it is primarily for breakfast and it’s too frothy anyway. We didn’t really work this one out properly. An Americano con latte worked sometimes but the coffee is too watery and you have to tell them whether you want the milk hot or cold and the word for hot sounds a lot like cold (caldo) and so on. Best of luck.
- Best shopping is definitely the areas to the right of the Pantheon on the map – Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza del Popolo as well as the top end of the Pantheon area. If you want Gucci Falluci then the street from Via del Corso to the Spanish Steps is the place, Via dei Condotti. Via del Corso itself, usually named as THE shopping street is a big-time bore. There are the odd pockets elsewhere and some spectacular food stores but most of the rest is just souvenir trash. Didn’t find any shopping centres, thank God!
TIPS – WHAT TO DO
Assuming you’ve taken my advice and are based somewhere in the middle then you can split exploring the city into 4 segments radiating around the central hub:
- Four areas on the map; Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo, Pantheon. The highlights are obvious and none of them need take up more than 30 minutes each as there is nothing much to do beyond looking, reading, photographing and popping in, up or around. While in the area you can scout for shops to return to on ‘shopping day’.
- One area on the map; Vatican & Castel St Angelo. You can easily spend a whole day (or more) in this area split between the Vatican Museums, St Peters, Vatican Gardens (need to book a tour) and the Castel St Angelo. All worth seeing.
- Three areas; Piazza Navona, Campo de Fiori, Trastevere. No real megastar attractions although the open spaces of Piazza Navona & Campo de Fiori are well known and the areas are all nice and well worth visiting.
- Two areas light pink & green; Forum & Colosseum, Palatino, Circus Maximus, Aventino. Plenty of famous stuff in these areas. Mostly revolving around the Rome of Augustus, Julius Caesar, Nero and so forth. You have the obvious attractions from the names of the Roman Forum (including the Palatine hill area) & Colosseum but additionally on this day you can cover the Jewish ghetto area, the Capitoline hill plus its museums and the Bocca della Verita. If you want to skip the Aventine hill you won’t be missing too much aside from the “famous” keyhole view of St Peters. Similarly, the Circus Maximus is nothing like what it was in its heyday, now little more than a long oval field, but it lies between the Bocca and the Forum / Colosseum anyway so you’re not going out of you way to see it.
Each of these four trips can be as long or short as you like between half a day and a long day/evening. The Vatican and the Forum are the longest both in terms of walking required and with the most ‘must see’ attractions. The other two are less intensive.
There are many museums in Rome but if, like us, you can only handle a max of two museums then do the Vatican and those on Capitoline Hill as mentioned above. What you don’t get from those is a simple understanding of the evolution and history of Rome as a city, which would be nice, but I have no idea where to find that. Rome’s history is so big it might not even be possible to summarise it in an easily digestible touristic format. Of the two I mention I suppose the highlights would be the Sistine Chapel at the end of the Vatican Museum and the original of the Wolf with Romulus and Remus (the one outside is a copy) inside the Capitoline Museum but both have much more to offer. Best view over the Forum is from inside the Capitoline at basement level.
I hope this has been helpful and enjoy your trip!