Rome. Roma. The eternal city and indeed one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe. I have just spent 5 days in Rome and it certainly impressed me. If you haven’t visited Rome before, you could waste a lot of time and money doing all the wrong things. There is just so much to see and do in Rome so here are ten useful tips for you to follow to make sure that your Roman holiday is as good as it can be!
|At the Altare della Patria|
1. Avoid summer
Rome can get extremely hot in the summer months: June to September. I visited in the last week of May and day time maximum temperatures were already exceeding 30 degrees, making any kind of sightseeing extremely tiring in that heat. Temperatures could exceed 40 degrees during the summer heatwaves and trying to do any kind of sightseeing when the weather is in the high 30s is frightfully unpleasant. You will be hot, tired, sweaty and might even fall ill in that kind of weather. Many of Rome’s most beautiful attractions such as a Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are all outdoors – do you want to be climbing Palatine Hill when it is 39 degrees? No way. Any other time of the year is fine, even the winters in Rome are remarkably mild (snow is usually confined to the north of Italy and rarely ever makes it down to Rome). The wettest months of the year are October and November, so you may want to avoid those months too.
2. Avoid the crowds
Rome is extremely popular with both domestic and international tourists – if you try to visit anything during the weekends, you may find yourself queuing with schoolchildren and other locals who have made a day trip to see Rome. Yes, Italians from other parts of Italy enjoy visiting Rome too! You should be aware of the time table for the school term in Italy: avoid visiting Rome during the school holidays. You must try to avoid Italian public holidays during your visit as well because the queues for any of the tourist attractions would be absolutely crazy: if you do find your trip coinciding with an Italian public holiday, then plan to spend the day doing something like walking through the charming streets of Trastevere, having a big lunch there before chilling in the park on Gianicolo hill rather than try to queue ages to enter St Peter’s Basilica.
|At the Spanish Steps|
3. Avoids the aggressive touts
This took me by surprise: the vast majority of the tourist touts in Rome are South Asian. That’s right, they are appear Indian (well, they could be Pakistani or Bangladeshi) and speak English with a strong Indian accent. Here’s how they make money: a combined ticket for the Sistine chapel and the Vatican museum would cost you 12 euros (S$18.12) if you were to queue up and buy it in person. If you were to buy it online through a ticketing agent, you could spare yourself the long queue and pay something like 16 to 20 euros. As I was walking to the Vatican from the metro station, I was stopped by an Indian ticket tout who offered me the same combined ticket for 50 euros. I burst out laughing as I couldn’t believe his audacity and told him, “no way, not at that price.” He chased after me, “You cannot come to the Vatican and not see the Vatican museum, people from all over the world come to see this museum!” I told him that I am an atheist and was not interested in dead popes, so I would pass on the Vatican museum. He then quickly dropped his price to 40 euros and I still said no. Never ever buy anything from these touts, they are out to rip you off! If you want to visit the Vatican museum, either be prepared to go very early and queue or just buy the tickets online.
4. Indian Selfie stick sellers
There are literally thousands of Indian touts trying to sell you everything from selfie sticks to toys to souvenirs to drinks – most of these touts would leave you alone when you tell them no, but I met a persistent one in Piazza Navona who just wouldn’t give up. I suppose it was getting quite late and there were fewer tourists around, this poor guy was desperate to make a sale. I had to literally tell him to stop following me around and to go harass some other tourist. I was surprised to see this many Indians in Rome – some worked in the restaurants, roadside cafes, shops and hotels (and they spoke some Italian) but those who didn’t speak any or enough Italian were restricted to selling tacky crap on the streets to English speaking tourists. If you want a selfie-stick, then shop for one online but do not buy it from an Indian tout on the streets of Rome. I do feel sorry for them though, there are just too many of them selling the same tacky crap and I can’t imagine any of them being able to make much money like this despite working very hard.
|At Piazza Navona|
5. Avoids the ‘sign against drugs’ scammers
In front of a few major tourist attractions like the Santa Maria degli Angeli church and the Foro di Augusto, you would be approached by an Italian who would ask you, “do you speak English? Can you help sign against drugs?” If you say yes, s/he will then ask you, “Could I ask you to sign a petition please? We’re involved in a campaign to help young people stay away from drugs and to help raise money for those who need rehab.” You will then be taken to a table nearby where you would be asked to sign a petition and offer a donation. “Most people give about 10 euros.” That was the point when I just walked away – but you will be amazed just how many tourists are too embarrassed to walk away when asked for money at that point. Are they genuinely raising money for a drugs charity? I don’t know – but it seems somewhat dodgy to me. If you see these people, do realize that they’re after more than just a signature on a petition from you.
5. How the public transport network works
The public transport system in Rome may be a little bit confusing at first but once you figure it out, you’ll be amazed how incredibly efficient and cheap it is. For a flat fee of 1.50 euros (S$2.28) your ticket is valid for the central Rome transport network and you can have unlimited access to the buses and trams and you make one metro or train journey on that ticket. Most journeys in central Rome will be under 30 minutes, so you still have plenty of time to spare on that ticket: make the most of your 100 minutes. For example, the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome is a novelty that is probably worth a photo or two, but really it can be done in 10 to 15 minutes – you can’t actually go into the pyramid, all you do is walk around it. What you can do is to get the metro there to Piramide station (travel time less than 25 minutes from anywhere in central Rome), spend about 15 minutes there and then you still have over an hour to get back to get to your next destination in Rome using the buses or trams. Do note that the express train from Fiumicino airport from Termini station costs 14 euros (about 35 minutes) but the slow train costs 8 euros (56 minutes) – if possible, leave enough time for your journey back to the airport if you prefer to get the cheaper, slower train to save 6 euros.
|The fountain at Repubblica|
6. How Italian meals work
A proper Italian meal is a real treat and a highlight of any visit to Italy – but be warned about the huge portions. You would usually be given an antipasti to start with which could include slices of ham, salami, cheeses and olives. This will be followed by a pasta or risotto dish which is known as the ‘primi piatti’ – the first dishes. The portions are usually fairly substantial and you may think, oh that’s it then, time for desert, bu no, here comes the ‘secondi piatti’- the second and main dish: this is usually a meat or fish main course, accompanied by salad, vegetables and/or potatoes. That’s the part surprises most people as that’s like eating two meals: finer restaurants may choose to keep portions smaller but use finer ingredients so you can actually finish your food, but I am amazed at just how many tourists leave a lot of food uneaten because it is just too much for them. And there’s desert at the end of all that, It is an experience of course and some restaurants will offer set menus at good prices, but I would recommend that you only do a proper Italian meal once a day and have something lighter like a slice of pizza, a salad or a sandwich for the other meal.
7. Learn a little Italian
You will find that most touristy places in Rome are staffed by English-speaking Indian-looking staff (who probably don’t speak much Italian themselves) but certainly, when shopping or dining, I would always avoid places like that. I refer you to point 3 above (ref: aggressive touts) – these people will charge you what they think they can get away with on the basis that you are too afraid to deal with an Italian person who can’t speak English. There are these restaurants with overenthusiastic Indian waiters who would corner me the moment I come anywhere close to their restaurant and badger me, “Sir, you wanna have dinner? Do you want pizza? Pasta? We have the best Italian food in Rome. We have great prices, we have a fantastic wine list. What do you want to eat? Let me get you a nice table. Come my friend, come with me.” And all this while I’m literally running away, shouting, “no, no thank you!” There is absolutely nothing subtle about their approach, they are extremely pushy and I wonder if it has any other effect apart from scaring people off.
|At St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican|
There are restaurants and shops where nothing is in English and the staff speak little or no English – this is because they are primarily serving a local clientele and not tourists: but what this means is that there is no price inflation to rip off tourists and you pay what the locals would pay. I stayed in the suburb of Nomentana – it took me about 20-30 minutes to get into central Rome but it was far enough out of the touristy areas for all the signs in English to disappear and I was in an English-free neighbourhood. The local pizzeria in Nomentana charged about half the price of what one would pay in town and their pizzas were incredibly good: the staff spoke virtually no English and their menu was only in Italian. So it would be useful to know enough Italian to be able to order food in a place like that and make sense of a menu in Italian; though I suspect that if you like Italian food, you probably already have a pretty good range of Italian food-related vocabulary: words like pesto, penne, mozzarella, prosciutto, tiramisu, lasagna, polenta, ravioli, gelato, biscotti and risotto should all be familiar to you already even if you don’t speak any Italian.
9. Finding a toilet
Whilst I was in Rome, it did get very hot and I had to drink a lot of water throughout the day – however, that meant having to go to the toilet quite often. It can be tricky to find a toilet in Rome as there simply are not any free public toilets the way you would find in other cities like Copenhagen or Singapore. But fear not, here are the following options should you need a toilet in central Rome:
- – Most cafes will have a toilet and if it is crowded, you don’t even need to ask for permission to use it – just wander through the crowd and look for the toilet.
- – Most tourist attractions which require a ticket will have toilets.
- – Most fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King will have free toilets.
- – Some hotels will have toilets in their lobby/foyer area.
- – Failing which, just go to a restaurant and ask nicely – the worst they can do is say no and you just try the next one, but I have seen many people ask like that and they have never been refused.
|At the Rome Colosseum|
|My handstand at Gianicolo park with great views over Rome|