Even when on vacation, it’s hard for a travel editor to stop working. In May of 2012, my family embarked on an 11–day Italian adventure, including stops in Venice, Lake Como, the Cinque Terre area, Pisa, Florence, and finally, Rome. Needless to say, I kept jotting down notes and little tidbits of advice to bring home with me—and share with all of you. From free sites to deflecting insistent street salesmen, here are seven things to keep in mind when visiting Rome.
(Free) art is everywhere
In a place as historic as Rome, you don’t have to look too far to find amazing art and architecture, especially in places of worship. Most churches around Rome house magnificent works of art that you can see free of charge—we viewed Caravaggio paintings at Santa Maria del Popolo, and saw Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Vatican Museums are normally closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of each month when they offer free admission from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We were able to save about $25 each by braving the crowds (the line to get in wrapped around the block, but only lasted 25 minutes). Well worth it to get free access to Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel.
Plan ahead for popular sites
Try to reserve tickets to popular places like the Borghese Gallery and Vatican Museums ahead of time online to avoid long lines. Or invest in a Roma Pass, which gets you a three–day metro pass and entrance to sites like the Colosseum and Roman Forum (though not the Vatican) using a much shorter line.
Carry a water bottle and umbrella
The sun can be brutal in Rome. While water bottles only cost a couple bucks each, it can add up fast. Bring a refillable container and stop at any of the public drinking fountains around the city (but watch for signs saying “acqua non-potabile,” or non-potable water). I also recommend carrying an umbrella around at all times, for both shade from the sun and in case of a sudden shower.
Just say “no” to insistent street salesmen
The biggest pet peeve of our trip to Rome was the seemingly omnipresent salesmen on the street, offering umbrellas, scarves, knock–off purses, parasols, and—the biggest scam—“free roses.” They can be quite insistent—one man even put a rose in my jacket and then tried to charge me for it. Just avoid direct eye contact, say no, and keep walking.
If you can’t find a good hotel deal in the city center, expand your geography
We scored a great price at Villa Paganini B&B;, an 18th century villa four stops from the Colosseum on the northeast side of town near Villa Paganini Park. The Rome metro is easy to navigate—its just two main subway lines that intersect at the Termini train station—and rides cost a mere 1.50 euro each. Or opt to stay at one of our favorite secret hotels of Rome to be closer to the city center and stay within your budget.
Budget for airport transfers
You basically have two choices here: cab or metro. Rome's airport is 25 miles outside the city center, and a cab ride costs 50 euro (about $62) each way. It's the more economical choice for four people, but if there are just two of you, take the Metro. The 45—minute ride on the Leonardo Express train costs 15 euro (about $19) per person and puts you right at Termini station.
And, most importantly, eat your weight in gelato
Ah, gelato, the most delicious part of our trip. We stumbled upon Gelateria della Palma right near the Pantheon and paid about 3 euro each for two gigantic scoops. There were 150 flavors to choose from; my favorites were melon (it tastes exactly like cantaloupe!), strawberry, mango, and anything involving chocolate. Yes, we went more than once. They also had a large display of Pope Benedict lollipops for sale—the perfect souvenir for everyone stuck back at the office.