Travel tips for Rome for first time visitors and not only.
I had visited Rome twice before my December 2019 trip, but both times it had been for 3 days only. And I always went there unprepared, so I didn’t even know what places to visit, and I knew even less about practical things needed for an enjoyable trip.
Below are my travel tips for Rome which include my observations and some realities of the city that are good to know before going there.
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Tourist tax is real
Yes, every person who wants to see Rome has to pay for the pleasure. Usually this fee is collected by hotels. It is 3,50 EUR per night per person, so I paid additional 24,5 EUR for 7 nights in Rome. Add this up to your calculations.
Best area to stay
I am going to repeat what I have said multiple times: I prefer to stay in the city center. I know it is more expensive, but it is convenient: no need to spend money and time in the transport and every interesting place is in the neighbourhood. And then again, when you compare the prices for a central hotel and one farther, is the difference so big?
In my opinion, the best areas to stay in Rome are Prati and Centro Storico. I stayed in Prati which is really close to the Vatican. Yes, there were many tourists in the street, but once inside the hotel, it was quiet, so I do not regret my decision. After a long search in Booking, I opted for Ottaviano Guest House: they have nice reviews, they provide rooms with private bathrooms and excellent Wi-Fi, the hotel is close to the Vatican and a metro station. I will definitely stay there again when I am in Rome. You can read my review of the hotel here.
When to travel to Rome
Well, travelling to Rome in summer is a bad idea. I know this is a period when the majority of us have vacations, but just think of the crowds of tourists and the unbearable heat. Temperatures easily climb to 35 ℃. September is quite hot as well, it becomes more comfortable in October. In October 2013, me and my friend made a quick tour of Italy visiting Rome, Florence, Verona, Bologna, Venice and Milan, and if my memory serves me right it rained only when we were in Venice.
If you want less crowds then end of November – beginning of December is a nice time to visit. I went to Rome in the second week of December. It was still crowded, but it was not very bad, and the temperature was around 15 ℃. Luckily it rained two days only: it was a quick rain one day, but on Friday 13 Rome received its share of showers 🙂
I guess January and February are risky as the probability of rain is higher, but then again Italians have discounts in January 🙂 March and April are good as the weather is nicer and it’s not the tourist season yet.
Waiting in lines
This thing is real: you can easily wait for hours to get inside St Peter’s Cathedral, Colosseum and other places. Despite the fact that I travelled to Rome off season and there were not so many people, I had to wait a lot in the queues. I even put down the time:
– St Peter’s Cathedral: 35 minutes.
– Vatican Museums: 25 minutes
– Colosseum: 30 minutes
I cannot even imagine how long people have to wait in lines when the tourist season is in full swing.
Should you book tickets online then?
Fortunately, there is a way to avoid the queues: booking tickets online. Every place of interest in Rome offers this possibility, which is really nice. But the convenience comes at a price: online booking is not free. The fee is usually 2 EUR and it quickly adds up when you buy multiple tickets. To make things better, Vatican Museums charge 4 EUR for an online ticket 🙂
I didn’t book anything online as I knew that Rome wouldn’t be crowded in December. Should you do it? I probably would if I travelled to Rome during the tourist season.
Colosseum and Roman Forum
If you didn’t buy tickets for the Colosseum and Roman Forum online and the line is long, head to the Roman Forum first. The thing is that the Colosseum is more popular and everyone queues there first. When I first travelled to Rome in 2012 we went straight to the Colosseum, waited in the line and when we came to the Roman Forum, there was no one there 🙂
Having an audioguide is nice, but they are not included in the ticket fee. The cost for an audioguide is around 5-6 EUR, which is pretty expensive. The one for Vatican Museums is 7 EUR.
I rarely take audioguides, only if I know nothing about the place. I still don’t know why I decided to pay for an audioguide at the Colosseum: they didn’t say anything new to me. When I complained to my brother about wasting 5,5 EUR on that, he said: ‘You should read less’ 🙂
Still, there is one place where I should have paid for it. Well, it’s not exactly an audioguide, but a VR device. I was at the Baths of Caracalla where only the walls are left and this device allowed to see how the place looked before with swimming pools, statues in niches and marble floors. It cost 7 EUR, and I decided I didn’t need it. I regretted my decision when I was walking in the baths.
Don’t plan to visit too many places
There are different kinds of travellers: some take it slow, others want to see everything in a couple of days. I am somewhere in the middle: I make a huge list of places to see, create a detailed itinerary, never manage to follow it and just say to myself: ‘I will see it next time’. You should have seen the list of places I wanted to visit in Rome 🙂 I had six full days in Rome and my list included about 50 tourist attractions. And I was sure I would manage to see them all. Frankly, I would have managed to see them but my sightseeing day usually starts at 11 or 12 and many places close at 6 or earlier.
When you make your itinerary, do not stuff it and consider waiting time in lines as well. For example, a day in Rome: start with a visit to St Peter’s Cathedral, climb its dome, go to Vatican Museums, have a nice meal and then go to Castel Sant’Angelo. Absolutely doable in a day.
There are only three metro lines in Rome: lines A, B and C. Frankly, for tourists it is enough as there is a metro stop close to almost any important landmark in Rome. You can get to all major sights by the red line A, except the Colosseum which is on the line B. Anyway, it is an easy change between lines at Termini station. The ticket cost is 1,50 EUR, there are 1, 3 and 7 day passes available. I wrote a bit more about passes here.
I don’t know whether it is of any interest to you, but I noticed the stations were announced in English only on the line B.
Pay attention to opening times of tourist places
Many tourist attractions have the so-called summer and winter opening schedule. The winter schedule starts in November and lasts till the end of March and this is when many places close earlier.
But that’s not the only thing to pay attention to: check the days off as well. Some places like the Baths of Caracalla and Borghese Gallery are closed on Mondays, and Domus Aurea is open only during the weekend. The pyramid of Caius Cestius is open only on the 3th and 4th Saturdays and Sundays of the month and closed in August.
Weather influencing opening hours
I don’t know whether you followed the news, but it rained a lot in Italy this November. I checked the weather every day before my trip hoping the rains would stop. Luckily the weather changed and it was sunny every day, except, as I mentioned already, showers on Friday. So I was quite surprised to find out the next day that some places were closed because of the weather. I went to the Non-catholic cemetery and there was a sign that it was closed due to weather conditions. The famous orange garden with stunning views over Rome was closed as well, though there was no sign stating the reason. It should have been open as the garden nearby was accessible. I can only suppose they decided to close it because of the Friday rain.
I am sure there are only a few places that do that, but still it was an unpleasant surprise.
The best views from the Janiculum Hill
Yes, you can climb the dome of St Peter’s Cathedral and Altare della Patria, go to Terrazza Caffarelli and the orange garden, but the best views of Rome are from the Janiculum Hill or Gianicolo in Italian.
The hill is in Trastevere which means that the historical part of Rome is clearly seen from there. And when you climb down in the direction of the Vatican, you will get a glimpse of the cathedral and a nice view of Castel Sant’Angelo.
As it is a hill getting up takes some effort but it is so worth it!
Visiting Borghese Gallery
I decided to mention Borghese Gallery separately because visitors can’t just show up at the museum and buy a ticket. According to the official website of the gallery, anyone wishing to visit it has to book a ticket by phoning them. If you don’t feel comfortable calling them, you can buy tickets online. Either way, you will have to pay a booking fee of 2 EUR per ticket in addition to the entrance fee. More info is here.
There is another way to get a ticket without booking it in advance: you have to come there 30 minutes after a group has entered and ask whether there are tickets available. I think it is risky to do that during the high season but it might work off season.
With the pyramid of Caius Cestius the situation is the same: you can either call them or book tickets online.
The Spanish steps in Piazza di Spagna are very famous. Until recently visitors to Rome would sit on every inch of the stairs so that it was impossible to see the steps. Now it is banned, and I saw a municipality worker to ask everyone trying to sit down to stand up.
Visitors still can take pictures, but it is not so crowded anymore.
PS: I know there was a ban on eating and drinking next to the famous Roman landmarks, but I am not sure if it’s still applicable. Anyway, better safe than sorry because you will be fined for that.
Opening times of restaurants
For the first time in my life I decided to take a trip seriously in terms of researching the restaurants with the best reviews. It took me quite some time but I marked restaurants in all the areas I planned to visit so that I knew exactly where to go. And here is what I noticed: many places are closed in the morning and open at 11 AM or later. Many restaurants are closed from 2-3 PM till 6-7 PM. Some places are closed on Sundays, but some take days off in the middle of the week. If you have a restaurant in mind, check the opening times in advance.
Potable water in fountains
When the weather in Rome is excruciatingly hot, you will drink a lot of water. Instead of giving your money to street sellers find a drinking fountain with safe potable water. They are called nasoni (big nose from Italian) and there are thousands of these fountains around the city, so here is a handy map. Just make sure you have a bottle with you 🙂
These are my travel tips for Rome, and I have a handy guide with actionable advice on saving money in the city. If you have just one day in Rome, I have an itinerary for that as well 🙂 3 days in Rome? I’ve got you covered 🙂
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