Eternal Summer in Rome

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Roam through Roma in July or August when the natives are gone and the prices are low, low down.

ROME, Italy - Tourists generally shy away from the eternal city during the heat of the summer. And probably for good reason since everyone knows the temperatures soar and amenities decline. Or at least that's the way it used to be. Now summer can be one of the best times to visit the Italian capital, especially this year when meteorologists are promising below-normal temperatures.

There are no guarantees on the weather, but one thing is for sure: Romans will desert the city as they always have, heading for the mountains or the sea and leaving Rome--and all its glory--traffic free and pedestrian friendly, and much of it for a fraction of what it would normally cost.

Museums and major sites like the Coliseum are priced the same year round, but under the "Estate Romana" or Roman Summer program, visitors can buy special summer passes that often let you into a collection of three to five museums for the price of a single ticket if you use them within a three-day period. Museums and galleries offer free entrance on the last Sunday of each month, too. And normally jam-packed sites are often eerily empty in late July and August. The Vatican museums are notoriously so. You could conceivably be one of a dozen or so tourists inside the Sistine Chapel on a quiet August morning, something that would never happen during the rest of the year.

Italian shopkeepers generally take either the first or the second half of August off and many close up for the whole month. Those which stay open often offer incredible deals to lure customers and justify sticking it out for the month. Some of the year's best sales happen in July and August, from designer clothing and footwear to furnishings and household decorations.

Hotel rooms may not reflect similar savings; in fact, many charge high rates even though it is considered the low season, so skip that route all together and book a self-catering apartment. Many Romans give up their houses to tourists while they're away, and while you'll have to cook and clean, the savings can be well worth it. A week in a one bedroom apartment (with kitchen/bathroom/living area) near a picturesque site like Piazza Navona can cost just 450 euro ($550) for the week, according to the website .touristapartment.comwhile a hotel next door costs that for just one night. When searching the internet for apartments, try to find multi-listing agencies rather than individuals to avoid potential scams. Many, like (domusconnect.com/) are British-run and offer great follow-up service.

There's nothing like dining out on the cobblestone streets of center Rome on a summer's night, but it can get expensive. If you are in a self-catering apartment, keep restaurant outings to a minimum and cook like the Romans do from the fresh produce and seafood you can buy for next to nothing from the many central open air markets like Campo Dei Fiori or Piazza Vittorio. Or just head straight for one of Rome's summer festivals and eat at the myriad of stalls there.

Outdoor fests

One of the best summer festivals is the annual world music festival called Fiesta! (fiesta.it) at the Ippodromo delle Capannelle, Via Appia Nuovo 1234 (tel: +39-06-1299855) which runs from mid-June through August. The massive fairgrounds are just outside the city center and cover 90,000 square meters and promise 4,000 hours of Latin and Caribbean music, with ample jazz and blues tucked in. Exhibits, shops selling ethnic garb and plenty of food stalls are highlights. Admission is only 8 euros ($9.75) for the whole day, including all concerts.

Closer to the center is the annual Jazz & Image festival in a lovely green park up the hill from the Coliseum at Villa Celimontana, via della Navicella (tel: +39-06-5897807). This annual event is the longest running jazz festival in all of Europe and starts in mid-June and runs into September. While listening to international jazz artists, take in the food or enjoy a wine tasting and gaze out over the city from the park's many vistas. Ticket prices depend on who is headlining that day, but day passes are rarely above 10 euro ($12.25).

Along the Tiber, check out the open air film festival on Tiber Island where you can see films (many in original language) for just 5 euro ($6.10). In the Bohemian district of Trastevere, often called the Left Bank of Rome, the summer-long Festa di Noantri from July 20-28 offers a wealth of artisans and local food to choose from with no entrance fee. Also free is the annual book festival on the grounds of Castel Sant'Angelo, featuring kiddie parks, concerts and cabaret performances. This festival is known for its booths featuring alternative therapies.

For those with a flare for nightlife, Testaccio Village, via di Monte Testaccio, 34 (info: +39-0657301420) is quickly becoming Rome's hottest spot for a summer night with three performance areas, snack areas, pizzerias and post-concert clubs that stay open most of the night. Ticket prices are around 12 euro ($14.65) for the evening entrance, but sky-high drinks make up for the low price to get in.

A day at the shore

And if the summer turns out to be a scorcher, why not head to the beach? Most people don't associate Rome with a beach holiday, but the eternal city is just half an hour by car, bus or subway from the Mediterranean Sea. And if you avoid the weekends and head out in the middle of the week, you'll have more sand and sun to yourself. The city subway takes you from center Rome right to the closest shoreline (Metro Line B to Magliana, local train to Ostia Lido). From there you can walk to a variety of "free beaches" where you don't feel like you have to have a designer bikini or even a tan like you might at the beach clubs which charge anywhere from 10 euro upwards ($12.25) just for an umbrella and towel space, with added costs for chairs, changing rooms and a key to the restroom. In Ostia Lido, the closest shoreline to Rome, wander down the lane of clubs and you'll easily find the free-access beach entrances. There are plenty of restaurants and snack bars mixed in if you get hungry, plus there is a steady stream of concessioners selling refreshments along the shoreline.

There are much better beaches than Ostia, which is situated where the polluted Tiber River spills into the sea, but they are further down the coast. Spiagga Libera di Castelporziano, accessible by Cotral bus from the Cristoforo Colombo train station. The seaside resort town of Fregene (Subway Metro A to Lepanto, then the LILA (blue colored) bus to Fregene). Further South, past Anzio, is Sabaudia, a pristine free beach area that begins to hint of the turquoise blue waters one associates with the Mediterranean Sea. Take the Metro B line to EUR-FERMI, then the LILA (blue) bus to Sabaudia). Check return schedules on (atac.roma.it/) for schedules and prices before you go, night service back to Rome may be limited.

When coming to Rome for a summer holiday, just remember to check schedules and ask about opening times before you make definite plans. If you can, avoid the major holiday on the 15th of August, when what's left open will be closed for sure. Flexibility is key since spontaneous closings and late openings are the norm, and many times waiters and clerks who are stuck working over the summer holiday are disgruntled at best. But you'll never get a quieter, more tranquil look at the eternal city than spending summer in Rome.

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