Rome Travel Guide, Italy

Fontana del Moro, Rome, italy. Photo Livioandronico2013

The Moorish Fountain, Rome. Photo by Livioandronico2013

Why Rome Travel?

Forum Romanum, central Rome. Photo by Jose Ramon Polo Lopez

Forum Romanum, central Rome. Photo by Jose Ramon Polo Lopez.

The home of one of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations, this magnificent city is loaded with history, artistic and architectural treasures, piazzas, pizzas and the Pope.

Rome’s easily walkable and 3, 000 years old Centro Storico is a must-see even for iconic sights, dramatic art – and it’s not an expensive city either, unlike Venice or Florence.

This is a city that combines the feel of a village with the culture of a vital and sophisticated European metropolis.

Rome weather

Rome, Sant Angelo bridge. Photo by Jebulon

Rome’s Sant Angelo bridge. Photo by Jebulon

Best: May-October, very best May, June, October.

There’s no real off season in the Eternal City but spring and autumn are the busiest tourist seasons, with a peak at Easter as Vatican pilgrims swell visitor numbers.

Winter from mid-January through February can be a great time to visit if you’re lucky with the weather as hotel rates are low and restaurants uncrowded.

July and August get oppressively hot, humid and overcrowded so avoid them if possible but if you don’t mind the heat this is another good value season.

Romans celebrate October for especially beautiful weather, but who knows these days? Midsummer temperatures average highs of over 30C (86F) and lows of 15C (59F).

Winter sees most rain (and even snow), though not that much, perhaps one day in three, with average low temperatures of 3C (37F) and highs up to 13C (55F).

Main Attractions

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome italy

Castel Sant’Angelo. Photo by Thomas Wolf.

 Built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his family in 139 AD,  Castel Sant’Angelo  is near the Vatican and became useful to various the popes as a fortress in times of trouble, with a secret tunnel connecting the fort and the Vatican.

It also saw service as a prison (one prisoner was the famous artisan/warrior/assassin Benevenuto Cellini) but is now a museum displaying medieval art, statues and itself. Castel Sant’Angelo makes an appearance in the opera Tosca as the heroine jumps to her death from the castle’s walls.

Rome (Roma in Italian) is a very romantic, walkable experience and bikeable too, or you could do the Dolce Vita thing and rent a scooter.

Apart from the vast numbers of lovely piazzas (as in square, not thin crust), Roman relics and gorgeous Rome churches you will want to see at least the mega-rich, independent state of the Vatican and its museums (see Top Three Museums below).

Also the vast Basilica of St. Peters (not as interesting or spectacular internally as many other Roman churches, but big).

Then there are the classic attractions:

The  vast Colosseum amphitheatre (see Skip the Queues).

The remains of the Roman Forum and its triumphal arches.

The Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain (try it at night).

ThePantheon (built by angels according to Michelangelo, more impressive outside than inside).

Piazza Navona with its fountains, artists and cafés.

Campo dei Fiori open air market.

The busy narrow streets of Trastevere for a real Roman night dining experience.

How to organise your Rome sight-seeing

The challenge is deciding what not to do: there are so many churches, archaeological sites, piazzas and paintings to see that a lifetime is hardly enough. Don’t try to cram too much in: Rome moves at a slower pace than many northern cities, and to enjoy it you should take time out in pavement cafés as well as shuffle round the Sistine Chapel.

Colosseum

Inside the Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Photo Jebulon

Inside the Colosseum. Photo Jebulon

Half circus, half sports arena, Rome’s most famous Classical ruin is unmissable – especially now that they have extended the visitor route to the underfloor passageways through which gladiators and wild beasts made their entrances.
Piazza del Colosseo. Open daily 8. 30am to one hour before sunset.

Roman Forum and Palatine

Come armed with a plan of how it all used to look (buy one at the visitor centre in Via dei Fori Imperiali ) to make sense of the majestic ruins of Rome’s power centre and, on the Palatine hill, its upmarket residential district. Sign up for the guided tour of the Casa di Augusto, the early emperor’s surprisingly modest and intimate private house with vibrant frescoes.
Via dei Fori Imperiali/Via di San Gregorio. Open daily 8. 30am to one hour before sunset.

Pantheon

Pantheon at night, Rome, italy, La Rotonde, Jorg Bittner

The Pantheon. Photo by Jorg Bittner

It’s difficult to believe that this temple to all the gods has been standing here for almost 2, 000 years. Even the bronze doors are still intact. The dome, with its oculus, was the biggest in the world until the beginning of the 20th century.
Piazza della Rotonda. Open Mon-Sat, 8. 30am-7. 30pm; Sun 9am-6pm. Free admission.

St Peter’s Basilica

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City, Italy. Photo Max_Ryazanov

St Peters Basilica, Vatican City, Italy. Photo Max Ryazanov.

Some find its gigantic scale a little overwhelming – but Catholicism’s mother church was designed to shock and awe. Don’t miss the view from the top of the dome.
Piazza San Pietro. Vatican. Open daily, 7am-6. 30pm. Admission free except for a visit to the Dome, 8am-5pm; €7. Photos and more information

Vatican Museums

Sistine chapel ceiling, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. Photo boutique-creativa

Sistine chapel ceiling, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. Photo boutique-creativa

Otherwise known as ‘the rooms full of papally collected or commissioned art that you have to schlep through to get to the Sistine Chapel’ – but in fact there’s plenty to enjoy along the way, from classical statues such as the Laocoon to Pinturicchio’s delightful Borgia Room frescoes. Book via the website – or be prepared to queue.
Viale del Vaticano 100. Photos and more information

Galleria Borghese

Galleria Borghese, Hall 14, Rome Italy. MrPanyGoff

Galleria Borghese, Hall  14. MrPanyGoff. So are the upper walls statues or trompe l’oeuil?

One of the world’s great private art collections, the haul that Cardinal Scipione Borghese assembled in his Roman garden villa includes Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, a gaggle of Caravaggios and Bernini’s sublime sculpture Apollo and Daphne. Later generations made some worthwhile additions, such as Canova’s risqué statue of Pauline Bonaparte.
Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5. Open Tues-Sun, 9am-7pm.  Booking is obligatory, though can sometimes be done on the same day. More information

Caravaggio’s Rome

One of the joys and frustrations of Rome is the fact that its artistic highlights are so spread out, many still in situ in the churches or palaces for which they were commissioned. The masterpieces of the wayward genius of Baroque chiaroscuro painting are a case in point: as well as the Galleria Borghese, you will need to visit three centro storico churches to see the best.
Between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, San Luigi dei Francesi has three dramatic scenes from the life of Saint Matthew; Sant’Agostino nearby has the movingly realistic Madonna dei Pellegrini; and in Santa Maria del Popolo , on Piazza del Popolo, you can catch two dazzling studies in the use of light: The Martyrdom of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul.

San Clemente

One of Rome’s most worthwhile but least publicised sightseeing treats, this historical layer cake descends from a street-level medieval and early-Renaissance church, with frescoes by Masolino, via a fourth-century early Christian church to the basement remains of a second-century insula (apartment block), complete with shrine to Mithraeus.
Via Labicana 95. San Clemente. Open daily 9am-12. 30pm, 3pm-6pm.
Upper church free; lower church and excavations €5.

Museo dei Cappuccini

Children with a love of the macabre will enjoy the main Roman church of the Capuchin friars, who were buried in the crypt in a small patch of earth from the Holy Land – then dug up to make room for the next lot, with their bones being used to make decorations and chandeliers.
Via Veneto 27. Museo dei Cappuccini. Open 9am-7pm, 3pm-6pm daily.
Admission €6

MAXXI

Who cares if the building outshines the art when the building is this exciting? Designed by Zaha Hadid, this new contemporary art and architecture museum in the northern suburbs radiates 21st-century energy and dynamism.
Via Guido Reni 4A. MAXXI. Open Tues, Wed, Fri, Sun, 11am-7pm; Thurs and Sat, 11am-10pm; closed Mon.
€11.

Getting around

Column of Marcus Aurelius, detail, Rome, Italy. Photo Jebulon

Column of Marcus Aurelius. Photo Jebulon

Public Transport: Run by the municipal transport agency ATAC, Rome’s bus network is extensive and quite efficient – which is more than can be said for its metro system, currently consisting of just two lines, A and B, which intersect at Termini Station.

A is useful if you are going to the Vatican (direction Battistini, get off at Ottaviano), while B will take you to the Colosseum (direction Laurentina, get off at Colosseo).

Single tickets, which can be bought at metro stations, in most tabacchi (cigarette shops; look for the blue T sign), or at newspaper stands and are valid for 100 minutes on any combination of buses, plus one metro ride.

There are also whole-day, three-day and weekly passes. All tickets and passes need to be stamped on the first bus or at metro turnstiles. Children under the age of 11 travel free.

Cars: Car parks and directional signs are more or less non-existant and outside the centre streets are stuffed with cars parked higgledy-piggledy so don’t bring a car here unless you have GPS, nerves of steel and a hotel in Rome with parking!

A Smart car would be an excellent choice of vehicle, or – four wheels bad, two wheels good – get around by scooter, though beware cobblestones in the rain.

Taxis: Roman taxis aren’t cheap: though the official minimum fare is a few euros most journeys have a strange way of coming out at considerably more and a long crawl in heavy traffic can set you back a lot. There is a night surcharge between 10pm and 7am.

Walking: Pedestrian crossings are common but walkers need to develop a system to use them effectively because vehicles will not stop at crossings unless compelled to do so. e. g. by your lurching body.

This is the way it works: stand at the beginning of the crossing and look at driver’s eyes. If they don’t stop (most unlikely), start to cross confidently when there is a reasonable gap in the traffic, but maintain eye contact with drivers to check they are actually slowing down.

By law they should stop, though Italians have a well-known disregard for the law – but at the same time they really don’t want to maim or kill you.

The Top Three Museums

Vatican Museums courtyard in Rome, Italy. Photo Karelj

Vatican Museums courtyard in Rome. Photo Karelj

Arts/Culture
Museums and Galleries: Rome has an amazing variety of art offerings, not just a line up of pricey paintings; hundreds of spectacular and sometimes bizarre marble statues for a start. . .

The Vatican Museums, Musei Vaticani. Perhaps the richest collection of art in the world, the 12 museums include Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s four fresco rooms as well as the best of Roman, Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian and modern religious art.

The museums are always crowded and a long line may be anticipated to get in.

The full 7kms (4 miles) and 1, 400 rooms of sights will need at least two days of attention but there are colour-coded highlight walks.

The museums are not in St. Peters Basilica. They’re a little out of the city centre but easily walkable from the Piazza Navona area or take the tube to Cipro-Musei Vatican. Skip the Vatican Queues. More Vatican information.

The Capitoline Museums are dead centre Rome, built on the low hill where the city originated and designed by the city’s favourite artist, Michelangelo. No queues here, plenty of space and focussed on wonderful Greek and Roman sculptures though there are some excellent paintings too.

Galleria Borghese: A small but perfectly formed collection of sculpture and paintings, including Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, this museum requires a reservation in advance to get in. How to get into Galleria Borghese.

When visiting museums and galleries, make sure you have your passport or other official photo ID with you if you qualify for free entrance – for example, if you are an EU citizen under 18 or over 65.

Dance/Opera

Teatro Olimpico has the best reputation for dance.
The Filarmonica is for ethnic and contemporary.
The Opera season runs from Nov-Mar at Teatro dell’ Opera; in summer it moves outdoors (eg. Stadio Olimpico, Baths of Caracalla) and the prices come down.
Theatre: Teatro Agora holds a short season of international theatre in other languages, while the Colosseo Ridotto presents English language shows every week.
Live Music: The city’s more in favour of jazz than rock with plenty of venues
Check ‘Time Out’ for event info/listings. Ticket Office ‘Orbis’ is at Piazza Esquilino.

Rome has plenty of little trattorias that serve excellent meals at the right price, but don’t expect much other than classic, low-end Italian cuisine. . . pastas, pizzas, salads and excellent ice-cream (gelato). International cuisine or even wildly different Italian is hard to come by on a budget.
Snack culture has been spurred on by the recession, and there are now places where you can grab a decent stand-up or carry-out meal for €10.

Fast foods and sandwiches (tramezzini) are common.
Some establishments don’t have English menus so if you are a gourmet or even just like to know what you’re eating then study up on the Italian language of food.

BTW, one guide book of much repute had several pages of food names in Italian but overlooked the most important: the translation of ‘the bill please’! (il conto per favore).

The Trastevere area on the left bank of the river is a bit of a hike to reach (no metro stop) but interesting, evocative, very local (as opposed to touristic) and bursting with tiny eateries, while streets around Piazza Navona offer nice little places with reasonable prices, though prices often get silly at restaurants on actual piazza’s.
The oldest pizzeria is said be Da Ricci in Via Genova, the best is Dar Poeta in Trastevere.
For vegetarians try Margutta Vegetariano in via Margutta.

Note that Romans rarely dine before 8pm.

Day trips out

Why bother when there’s a lifetime of sights in the city? Well, if you must escape for a few hours. . .

Try Ostia Antica for ancient Roman ruins (n. b. not tacky Ostia seaside town).
To get a real sense of the life and layout of an ancient Roman town, head for Rome’s former port, which has been excavated, complete with theatre, apartment blocks, baths and communal loo. It’s just as atmospheric as Pompeii but far less touristy.
Head for Piramide (south of the Colosseum) and take the Roma-Lido train line (20 minutes) to Ostia Antica; from here the entrance is a 10-minute walk.
Via dei Romangnoli 717, Ostia.
Open Tues-Sun, 8. 30am-6pm.

Also Tivoli for Hadrian’s spectacular Villa Adriana, fountains and landscaped gardens (40kms out of Rome); medieval Viterbo with its great town wall and nearby Bomarzo’s tranquil, wacky scuplture garden Parco dei Mostri (a favourite of Mr S. Dali); Terracina for big, calm, uncrowded white sand beaches with minimum life support or Sperlonga for the full monte Italian beach resort experience.

Note that if you’re driving signposting is dreadful and views are generally not much better.

Accommodation

Italy is still the European country with the highest average room rates, though a dip in tourist numbers over the past couple of years means that reductions and special offers are frequent so look for internet reductions and don’t be afraid to haggle.
Longish-stay visitors or those on a tight budget who like to cater for themselves may like to rent an apartment, though they are often a bit of a walk from the core attractions, so check for good value, well-organised Rome self catering apartments especially in centrally located places near popular sights. Try to book ahead or go out of season.
The subway system is neither very convenient nor safe during busy times from tourist hot-spots when pickpockets roam with apparent impunity but if you’re going in/out from a suburb there should be few problems.
If it’s possible, stay in a Rome hotel near the centre, this is a wonderful walking city but you’ll need to recharge your batteries (literally and metaphorically) frequently!

Shopping

Rome offers some stunning high quality goods in original and imaginative designs and fantastic varieties of colours. Shoes, gloves and other leatherwear, cotton clothing, kitchenware, all stylish but reasonably priced.

When entering  or leaving shops, bars it’s traditional etiquette to say ‘buon giorno’ in the morning or ‘buona sera’ in the afternoon or evening ( it covers both hello and goodbye). ‘Ciao’ is informal, for use with friends, young people or kids, or among work colleagues.

If somebody thanks you by saying ‘grazie’ it’s polite to say ‘prego’ (you’re welcome) in return.

Markets

For good value try the market in Piazza Testaccio which offers a mass of stalls selling good-quality shoes and bags at knock-down prices.
You will need to sift carefully to find quality at the Porta Portese flea market, which unfolds along Via Portuense. It’s entertaining and atmospheric but watch out for pickpockets.

Thievery

Termini station (Stazione Centrale Roma Termini) is  where the metro, overground rail networks, buses and tourist buses all meet near Rome’s centre.

It’s a huge place  complex, busy and not short of pickpockets, so don’t leave wallets in unsecured pockets and put shoulder bags around necks to the front.

Italy also suffers from the less subtle snatching of valuables by scippatori, who may rip jewelry, wallets, handbags or even watches off and disappear, sometimes on scooters.

The Bugcrew saw no evidence of bag-snatching, but caught strange fingers fumbling at a velcroed Bugpocket in the subway!

It is advisable to tone down the blatant wearing of expensive goodies in Rome. Save the flash for Paris.

See Safety Guide

Rome Map

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