Planning a trip to Rome? Please take me with you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most wonderful cities I have ever visited. There’s something magical in the air you just can’t describe. It’s an energy, electric in the air. A feeling that everything is happening all around you, immersing you in a beautiful slice of life just begging to be explored and experienced. The smells, the sounds, the food. It’s a place that really should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
If you’re planning your first trip to Rome but aren’t quite sure what to expect, here are my top tips on things you absolutely must know before you go.
1. There are a lot of tourists
Surprise! I bet you weren’t expecting that one. But really, there are a lot of tourists in Rome and you need to accept that before you go as it’s going to make your life easier. You may have seen some clever camera work from great photographers, making it look like they got the perfect shot of an empty Colosseum. That’s photoshop for you, folks.
2. You can skip the long lines at the Colosseum
Don’t line up at the Colosseum like a chump. We bought tickets to visit Palatino, nearby to the Colosseum and purchased our Colosseum entry tickets while we were there. It should cost you around 12€ and, honestly, exploring Palatino is pretty cool in itself so it’s worth doing both. This little trick can save you hours!
3. The best coffee comes standing up and espresso is King!
I’m not an espresso drinker normally, but in Rome, all I drank was espresso. Duck into a local cafe where it’s standing room only, order yourself an espresso and throw it back before heading off to explore. One day I had too many. That was a bad day. Everything in moderation, kids.
4. It gets really, really hot in summer
We visited in summer and, being an Aussie, I thought I had it covered. You guys, it gets really, really hot in Rome. To the point where you think you might keel over from heat exhaustion. If you’re visiting in summer, be prepared for that level of heat. Pack appropriate clothes, drink lots of water and avoid moving around in the sun during the hottest part of the day.
5. Learn the water fountain trick
You’ll find there are loads of water fountains dotted around the city, with water flowing freely all day and night. It’s free and delicious and I encourage you to drink as much of it as possible. You may notice the drinking fountains have a spout with a hole in the top. Block the end of the spout with your palm and the water will shoot out of the hole, making it easy for you to drink. It’s also worthwhile, then, to carry an empty water bottle with you to refill as you need.
6. Avoid tourist trap restaurants
The food in Italy is famous, but unfortunately, there are a lot of crappy restaurants dotted around the main tourist spots. Eating food in Rome is a visceral experience and not one you want to stuff up, trust me. So, do your research before you go and find restaurants that are worth your time and money. If you’re making a decision on the fly, try to scan the menu and look for restaurants using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients.
7. You’ll need very comfortable shoes
The cobblestones, steps and long distances between sites is no joke. Don’t be a hero and try to do your whole trip in high heels or wedges. You are going to need very, very, very comfortable shoes, my friend. I’m serious.
8. You may need to pack a scarf or two
It’s not a good idea to walk into a church in your mini dress or those weird shorts that go up between your butt cheeks. Just saying. To get around this, pack a scarf or two in your day back so you can cover your shoulders and/or wrap it around your waist to add length to shorts and skirts if needed.
9. Dinner goes down later than usual
If you show up for dinner at 7pm and find the restaurants empty, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a crappy restaurant. You’ll find the locals may not come out to eat until later in the evening, around 8:30pm or 9-ish. It’s the European way. Embrace it.
10. Beware of pickpockets and local scams
As with any major tourist spot, there are bound to be a few shady characters lurking about, hoping to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. Watch your bag carefully, never put it down or let it out of sight. Don’t keep any valuables in your pockets and don’t go around town flashing your cash. Be alert but not alarmed. Also, beware of scams, like restaurants trying to charge you $1,000 for dinner or something obscene. Never sign a petition on the street, giving your personal details to anyone.
11. But don’t let that deter you!
Yes, there are scams and pickpockets. But that doesn’t mean you should feel scared of visiting Rome. It is a beautiful city and the locals are amazing. Scammers take advantage of people who are unsuspecting and unaware, so if you stay switched on and alert, you’ll be just fine. Trust your instincts and never let a fear of being impolite stop you from following those instincts.
12. The gelato is next level, just be sure to eat freshly made stuff
You should aim to eat at least one serve of gelato each day you’re in Rome. It’s just that good. When you are choosing a store to buy from, make sure it’s made on-site from fresh ingredients. How can you tell? If it’s in a white tub and looks sort of like you could buy it at an ice cream parlour at home, skip it. You’re looking for big, whipped-looking piles of gelato, usually in silver tubs (because they sterilise and re-use them).
13. You’ll need pants with an elasticised waistband
There’s a good chance you’ll gain a bit of holiday pudge in Rome because the food is that damn good. Pack clothes that expand with your growing waistline. The diet can wait. Food memories are forever!
14. You can buy 3, 7 and 30 day passes for public transport
The trains don’t always run on time, but that’s just Rome for you. Regardless, the public transport system is a great way to get around, especially if you’re on a budget. The trams are a great way to navigate yourself around town and they keep you above ground, so you see more. Save money by purchasing a 3-day, 7-day or 30-day pass that you can use on buses, metro and trams as many times as you like.
15. There are loads of great free places to visit
Don’t get stuck just visiting the main tourist spots. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find amazing places to explore, most of which are free. Try Villa Farnesina, Galleria Spada, Santa Pressede, Santa Pudenziana and Palazzo Barberini.
16. Don’t accept free gifts from strangers on the street
No, no, no. This is a scam and you’ll find yourself in a spot of trouble when the person you accepted it from starts demanding money from you. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
17. You should learn a few essential words
Learning a few basic Italian phrases will go a long way with the locals and help you in the long run too. If you have specific dietary requirements, you need to learn how to express these. Don’t assume that because you said ‘no meat’ they understand that means ‘I’m vegetarian’. Also, ‘no dairy’ may not translate to include ‘no cheese or butter, thanks’.
18. Have your hotel details with you
If you plan on catching cabs around, or even if you don’t but discover your legs have given out on you after 7 hours of walking and you desperately need a cab, you may find yourself in a spot of bother if you don’t have the address to show the taxi driver. They may not speak English as well as you and you may not speak Italian as well as them, so meet them halfway. Show them the address written down, along with a google maps screenshot.
19. Skip the tourist spots
Don’t be afraid to wander the little back streets of Rome and let it take you on a journey. Yes, of course, you want to see the big tourist spots, but also allocate yourself some time to just wander. Stop in at bakeries and cafes, explore local boutiques and markets, buy fresh fruit from a local farmers market and just let it all soak in. The magic of Rome happens out on the streets, with the locals buzzing past on mopeds and that beautiful language wrapping itself around your ears.
20. People don’t pick up after their dogs
Eyes down at all times. Picking up your dog’s poop is not essential in Rome.
21. Some shops may or may not close for siesta
One of the most wonderful and sometimes most annoying things about Rome is the relaxed attitude of it all. You may journey quite a way to visit a specific shop only to find it inexplicably closed. Stores may or may not close for siesta from 1 to 4. They may or may not have signs up telling you this. It’s just the way they roll and it’s actually pretty wonderful!
22. Understand the history before you go
If there’s one thing I can encourage you to do, it’s to do some reading on the history of Rome. I know, I know, it’s a lot to take in. But it’ll give you a huge appreciation for the things you see and just how old and important they are (like me).
23. Carry cash
It may be hard for you to pay for everything by credit card or traveller’s card, so carry cash with you. As per above, pickpockets are around so I don’t recommend carrying large amounts of cash on you, especially in your pockets etc. My advice would be to set a daily spend budget and carry that amount of money on you only. If there are two of you, split it up between you. Hide some of it in your shoe etc.
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