Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors
The Eternal City is one of Italy’s most incredible attractions. As the country’s capital, Rome offers a spectacular array of attractions, from breathtaking Roman ruins, to golden churches, to astounding art collections. It’s truly no wonder that Rome remains one of the world’s most visited cities. If you’ve never visited Rome before, here are some tips to avoid the tourists and make the most of your time in Rome.
Visit in the Off-Season
No matter what time of year you visit, you will never find the city devoid of tourists. However, visiting outside of the summer high season can make a world of difference. In the summer, prices, wait times and temperatures will be much higher than if you visit in the off-season. Temperatures are still mild in the spring and early fall, but regardless of season, Rome always retains its charm.
This tip cannot be stressed enough, especially if you are visiting in the summer. Almost every popular museum and attraction have online booking platforms, meaning that it’s easy for you (and everyone else) to avoid the line. Don’t wait until you get off your flight to get your tickets. As soon as you know your itinerary, book your tickets. This is most important for the Vatican Museums, the Colosseum and the Galleria Borghese. Tickets for these sites can be booked out weeks in advance. If you do end up unable to get tickets, see if you can book a tour. You’ll pay more for the service, but they will always get you past the ticket line.
Get Up Early
It’s really amazing what a big difference a few hours makes in Rome. Even if you get out of your hotel by 9am, you’ll find at least a quarter as many tourists as you would at 12pm. One of the most incredible experiences you can have in Rome is having a place like the Roman Forum all to yourself. Exploring amazing sites without dodging hundreds of other tourists makes getting up early more than worth it. For the best results, try to arrive as close to opening time as you can. If you’re booking timed entry tickets in advance, book the earliest time you can find. If you’re visiting somewhere that doesn’t have advance purchase tickets, like St. Peter’s Basilica, or if you don’t have tickets booked, arrive at least 15 to 30 minutes before opening time. This isn’t just for museum sites either. Try taking an early morning walk to explore all of Rome’s beautiful piazzas and monuments freely.
Find Lesser-Known Activities
Some of your best memories from Rome might end up being from somewhere you’ve never heard of before. Rome is mostly known for its powerhouses like the Vatican and the Colosseum, but it’s full of some amazing hidden gems. There are several private homes and mansions that are now open to visitors: like the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Villa Farnesina, and Villa Medici. You can also find some lesser-known Roman sites, like the Appia Antica and the Baths of Caracalla. Also worth checking out are Rome’s other beautiful churches like Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and some of the city’s calmer neighborhoods, like Trastevere and Monti.
Take a Day Trip
Rome has more than enough to do within the city limits, but a lot of visitors overlook the surrounding area. If you can’t get enough of ancient Rome, check out Ostia Antica, a preserved city that’s now an open-air museum. Ostia Antica is also a stone’s throw from Lido di Ostia, Rome’s closest beach. Also close to the city center is Tivoli, a small village containing ancient Roman villas, as well as a 16th century mansion. All of these attractions are less than 90 minutes from Termini station, and can be reached for as little as $2 each way.
If you want to see a different side of Italy, you can venture a little further north to the villages of Orvieto and Civita di Bagnoregio. The former is a gorgeous hill town built around its spectacular cathedral. Orvieto is also home to hundreds of underground caves, many of which are open to the public. Civita di Bagnoregio is a bit different. This village is home to only 11 people, and is one of Italy’s most picturesque sites. Orvieto is just over an hour away by train or bus, while Civita di Bagnoregio is accessible only by bus via Orvieto.
Make Friends with Public Transport
Rome is a huge city, and even a hotel with the best location won’t leave you walking distance from everything. As in any city, taxis can be quite expensive, and are not the ideal way to get around. It’s also worth noting that, due to Italian unions, Uber is only available in the form of Uber Black, the most expensive option. (If you’re traveling outside of Rome, keep in mind that Uber is only legal in Rome and Milan). Thus, your best bet is going to be public transportation. However, Rome is extremely well-connected, with two subway lines (and a third under construction), and over 300 bus lines.
Google Maps gives very accurate data on directions using public transport, so just jot down your route beforehand if you don’t have data. It’s also recommended to buy tickets early as well. Tickets are not sold on busses, and ticket vending machines at metro stops are notoriously finnicky. You can buy tickets at any tobacco shop or newspaper stand. One-way tickets are only 1.50 euros. There are also multi-day transport passes available.
Rome is the center of the Catholic church, so it’s no surprise that there are so many churches within the city limits. However, most churches have strict dress codes. Exposed shoulders and knees (for men and women) are prohibited. Make sure you bring a pair of pants or a long skirt, and a sweater or shawl for days you plan to visit holy sites.
Watch Where You Eat
If you’re going to Italy, there’s a good chance you’ll want to have a classic Italian meal while you’re there. To get the best experience, avoid any restaurants near tourist attractions or popular piazzas. Restaurants near sites like the Vatican or the Pantheon are often outrageously expensive, and the quality is much lower. Definitely don’t eat at a place with waiters outside on the street waiting to usher you in. They’re just looking for tourists. Find where the locals are eating. You can ask at your hotel or airbnb for some off-the-beaten path recommendations, or check on websites like TripAdvisor.
If you absolutely must have lunch with a view, try making your own lunch and picnicking. Grocery stores are shockingly inexpensive in Rome, and they are full of great, fresh food. A great option is to pick up a baguette, and some meat and cheese to make your own sandwich. Do be careful where you decide to set up, though, as certain sites like the Spanish Steps, levy some hefty fines for eating on the street.
Bring Your Own Water Bottle
If you’re looking to save money, definitely don’t spend anything on bottled water. Rome has very clean drinking water, and the city is filled with public drinking fountains. Save your own water bottle to fill up whenever you pass one.
Watch Your Bags
Like any major city, Rome has a lot of pickpockets. However, the crowded and touristy nature of the city exacerbates this problem. It’s a good idea to keep valuables close to your person, and have a bag that goes across the shoulder and is front-facing. If you have to carry a backpack, make sure you keep it in front of you when stopped or on public transport. When you’re at a restaurant, keep your bag on your lap, or loop it under a chair leg. Never leave your belongings unattended, even for just a second. If you’re worried about having something stolen, it may be best to just leave it at home or in your hotel room.
Extend Your Trip
Rome is jam-packed with sights and experiences, and there’s definitely no way to fit them all into just a few days. Trying to do that may leave you feel as if you are missing out. If you’re set on seeing the whole city, try to plan for at least one whole week in the city, but the longer the stay, the better. Staying for an extended time will allow you to become better acquainted with the city, and explore beyond Rome’s main sights. However, any time in Rome is better than none, so if you can’t stay any longer than a few days, don’t despair. Think about which sights are most important to you, and plan your time to make sure you get to your must-see attractions.
Rome is a magical city that everyone should experience at least once. With these tips, you’ll be able to have the trip of a lifetime!