Tip #1: Adapt to and take advantage of the local pace and customs
Wake up before the sun rises and stroll through the streets at dawn. The temperature will be very pleasant, the city will be empty and quiet (even in summer). It will allow you to take photos like these, with literally no one around:
Around 8:30-9am, Romans start crowding the streets with their vespas to go to work, but you got a good 2 hours before that to enjoy this museum of a city just for yourself.
During those 2 hours at dawn, sit at a café and delight yourself with an espresso and a cornetto. Italians don’t have corn flakes breakfast in their homes. So adapt yourself to your local environment, get out of your hotel and head to the neighbourhood café. Sit outside as you watch the warm sun rays slide along the buildings’ facades.
Restaurants usually serve lunch from 1pm to 3pm. So eat at 2pm, then spend the (hot) afternoon in your apartment. Take a nap.
Tip #2: Visit Rome by night
Go out again around 7pm, have dinner, and stroll through the streets of Rome at night. The streets around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, as well as Trastevere, are prime spots to see the nightly beauty of Rome. Past 11pm, the streets are mostly empty, clean and well lit, making a night visit a very pleasant proposition. Unlike other cities (like Paris), the risk of violence, insults, and sexual harassment at night are almost nil, so it’s an ideal destination for a couple.
Tip #3: Going out
Rome is not a nightlife / clubbing city. The youth population likes to club in the Testaccio neighbourhood, but it’s a rather tasteless place. Young tourists usually go out to drink in backpacker’s pubs on Campo di Fiori. But you don’t go to Rome to club like you do in Berlin or Amsterdam. If you do want to go to an amazing club though, I advise Il Bosco delle Fragole. It’s a bit outside the city, but it’s a great outdoor club in the woods (next to the Olympic Stadium), with great DJs, where Rome’s rich and beautiful go out to party.
If you want to stay in the city, and enjoy some nice bars, the quays of the Tiber river along Trastevere have some nice temporary open-air lounge bars in the summer.
Tip #4: Moving around
Taxi to and from the airport need to be negotiated like in a third world country. If not, you WILL be taken advantage of. It is not uncommon for the credulous tourist to be charged 200€ for a trip from the airport to the city centre. If you wear expensive clothes and a Louis Vuitton bag, you WILL be seen as a patsy. So the same advice applies here as in every other countries: make sure it’s a real taxi (it will usually have the proper certification stickers, that the taxi meter is on, and agree on the price beforehand.
In the first place, I would avoid taxis to go to and from the airports. Take the train. Buses are to be avoided as their itinerary is more of than not a headache.
Once in Rome, walking is the perfect way to move around. But if you want a faster and more original way, a young startup called Buzz4tours rents mini electric cars and Vespas. It’s worth taking a look, even though a bit expensive (50€ for 5 hours): http://www.buzz4tours.com/
Tip #5: Avoid tourist traps in restaurants
Many people come to Rome thinking “All these restaurants serve Italian food, they MUST all be good.” Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not the case. This is a tourism-based city, and lots of restaurants take advantage of that.
The first trap to not fall to is to look at TripAdvisor for the “best” restaurants. It is very easy to game the system to get top star reviews, and savvy tourist restaurant owners know that. Ask any real foodie or Rome local and the likelihood is that they haven’t heard of the majority of restaurants in TripAdvisor’s top 15.
The best restaurants are isolated and discrete. If it’s a street full of restaurants with a guy holding a menu outside trying to get you in, don’t go there.
Waiters also have many little tricks to get some of the naive tourist’s money. A common one is to offer dishes or drinks that aren’t on the menu. If the waiter doesn’t give you a wine list and tells you to choose a bottle on the shelf without seeing the price, don’t take it. Local wines are very good and cheap (less than 10€ a bottle), but pick it from the menu.
Some waiters (often when the boss is not here) will charge you whatever they think you’re worth (if they ask you “Where are you from?” it’s not because they’re genuinely interested; it’s to determine how profitable you are).
Don’t let yourself be convinced to take the day’s special. As multiple chefs (such as Anthony Bourdain) have said, the day’s special is usually whatever old food they couldn’t sell, repackaged as an expensive overpriced dish.
For these reasons, it’s good to carry cash in small units. That way, if you see they’re trying to swindle you, you can put down the correct amount of cash and leave.
Tip #6: Eat cucina romana
Oh, cucina romana, how I love you so! This is the local cuisine of Rome, which consists of simple dishes of vegetables, meat and cheeses sourced from local regional producers. Yet, so tasteful! Did you know specific dishes are often assigned to the days of the week, such as gnocchi on Thursday, baccalà (salted cod) on Fridays, and trippa for Saturdays? Some dishes are as ingrained in local menus as starlets from Wyoming are in Los Angeles pursuing their Hollywood dream: coda alla vaccinara (oxtail), pasta amatriciana, pasta cacio e pepe, pasta gricia.
To be honest, I love this structure and old-fashioned way of doing things. These restaurants and gastronomers have been doing the same food for hundreds of years, from generation to generation. Who am I to require pineapple on my pizza or ask for pancakes when I got delicious tiramisu? This would be heretical, and Lord knows you don’t mess with religion in Rome (just look at the Prada-wearing special agents at the entrance of the Vatican). Side note: religion in Rome is a Holy Trinity of the Pope, Francesco Totti, and food). It’s similar to this Montreal bolony sandwich shop which charges you 10 cents if you want to remove mustard.
My restaurant recommendations:
The first time I went to Rome, I created a Google My Maps with all the best trattorias and gelateria, and today I am sharing it with you. It’s a good way of knowing where to stop to have ice cream when you wander around the city.
Three standout restaurants where I personally ate are:
We ate there with Jarelle, as mentioned in my first Rome article. Great local food, full of flavors, at a decent price.
I last ate there 2.5 years ago but I remember exactly what I had (pasta with truffle oil and sausage meat, then a lamb shank with delicious vegetables). That’s how good it was.
Flavio al Velavevodetto
Situated in Testaccio, this restaurant is exactly what you imagine that a typical Italian restaurant is.
With 2 old dining halls (and even a theatre) inside, and big noisy crowds, it’s like going to your local cantina. This place is very famous for its pasta, having won the Best Carbonara award for example. It also has an extensive wine cellar. Everything is local and homegrown, so go there and stuff your mouth with Cacio e Pepe, Amatriciana and pasta gricia.
Tip #7: Places to Stay
The best accomodation advice I can give you is to rent an Airbnb (they’re usually cheaper than hotels, which are quite expensive in Rome). Trastevere is the perfect spot, but anywhere around Piazza Navona is great as well.
If you do choose an hotel (even though I recommend an Airbnb), make sure the hotel you choose has free wifi in the rooms. Not because you need to spend your whole evening on social media. But because if the place doesn’t have free wifi, it means it has financial difficulties, which means it has trouble to modernize and that the rooms will probably lack in maintenance. A well-managed hotel puts aside 3-4% of its revenue to maintain against obsolescence. The more South you go in Italy, the truer this is, as buildings are older down south.
Finally, if you feel adventurous or original, you could sleep and eat in a monastery, in the middle of Rome. This is an atypical way to experience the city, but highly relevant (given how religious the city is). http://www.sixtina.com/index_en.php is a good resource to book a night.
Tip #8: Know how to visit the Vatican
The two popular attractions in the Vatican are the Vatican Museums and the St Peter Basilica.
If you are going to visit the Vatican, reserve your tickets online (via the Vatican’s official website). It helps to do this before you go as you need to print out a voucher to bring to the ticket office. Wear pants and long sleeves to visit.
The Vatican museums are very big, so make a list of things you want to see to fasten your visit. Recommended things to see in the Vatican museums are:
- Raphael Rooms
- School of Athens (in the Raphael Rooms)
- Gallery of Maps
- Laocoon (sculpture)
- Apollo Belvedere (sculpture),
- Sala Delle Muse (statues of Apollo and nine muses, plus the Belvedere Torso)
- The Entombment of Christ (painting by Caravaggio)
- Sistine Chapel
- some Egyptian art
Also, don’t do a guided tour, it’s not needed.
If you want to visit the St Peter Basilica, book your ticket online, and go at the opening time (7am) to skip the gigantic queues. Be careful, because the throng of tourists arrive at 9am. Also, do make sure you’re not going on a day the Basilica is closed (we stupidly did!).
Tip #9: Visit the lesser known attractions in the city centre
For more lesser-known attractions worth seeing in the city, have a look at Lonely Planet’s article.
Tip #10: Get out of the city centre to see some unique historical sites
In no particular order, here are a few highlights slightly outside the city centre that you should definitely check out:
Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla are some of the best preserved ancient buildings of the Roman times. The Roman thermal baths were Rome’s second largest public bath in their times. They were the place where the Roman population would come as one of the only sanitation facility in the city, and it was also a great place to socialise. Here’s a guide to plan your visit there.
Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, also known as the Square Colosseum
An icon of New Classical (and Fascist) architecture, built under Mussolini. It’s a great stop on the way from the international airport to the city centre, though it will mean a 30-45 min delay just to adjust to the public transport options.
This popular spot with tourists is corny and underwhelming, but HOW could it not feature on anyone’s bucket list? Look through a keyhole in a door, and you can see through THREE countries. How amazing is that! The doorway in question leads to the Priory of the Knights of Malta, the legendary crusader knights and religious order. So this is effectively part of Malta (the tiny Mediterranean island which was ‘given’ to the Templars as a base of operation for almost 3 centuries). Then you can see some of Rome, and in the distance the perfect shape of the Vatican’s St Peter Basilica dome. Three countries in one fell swoop!
Be sure to go to the Orange Garden next to the keyhole to take in the beautiful panoramic view of Rome.
Ostia was Rome’s seaport, and today it is a large and well-preserved archeological site, with impressive frescoes and mosaics.
Villa d’Este and Hadrian Villa (in Tivoli)
Take an entire day to go to the hillside town of Tivoli (about 2 hours from Rome) and visit the Renaissance-era Villa d’Este and its wonderful Italian gardens and fountains.
Then, go down from Tivoli to the plain below and visit the villa of Emperor Hadrian, an archeological site of epic proportions (villa is an understatement; this is actually a vast area of land with multiple pools, baths, gardens, theatres and palaces).
For a little light relief from Rome’s heavyweight sights, take a stroll in the Quartiere Coppedè, northeast of Villa Borghese. This pocket-sized district, designed in the 1920s by a little-known Florentine architect, Gino Coppedè, is a fairytale mishmash of turreted villas, towers, gargoyles, arches and graceful palm trees. To access the area, go through the monumental arch on Via Tagliamento to Piazza Mincio, home of the charming Fontana delle Rane (Fountain of the Frogs).
Tip #11: Take in the best panoramic sights of Rome to finish your trip in style
You have three options:
From the Terrazza del Gianicolo (go there at sunrise):
From Giardino degli Aranci (next to the Aventine keyhole):
From the Villa Medici gardens: