In 2009, I moved from Brooklyn to Rome because my buddy, Dave sent me an email.
He asked if I’d like to work with him as a hostel receptionist in exchange for free accommodation and €15/day (each solo “shift” was 24 hours long 6pm – 6pm). I didn’t hesitate for a second, and I’ve been in love with the la citta eterna ever since.
So, believe me when I say that you can have the time of your life in Rome for pennies a day. All you have to do is get there. Here’s a comprehensive guide to Rome for a layover, 3-day trip, week-long vacation, or for the rest of your life. Hopefully you visit more than once.
Getting There: From the Airport (FCO) to the Sights
Rome is pretty big, but in reality there are really only two neighborhoods you should stay in, especially for your first visit—near Termini (the central train station), or near the Vatican Ottaviano). If you’re in town for a quick visit, layover, or just in town for a few quick photos of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Forum, stay near Termini (the central train station).
Where to Stay
Staying Near the Hub: Termini
You can catch the express train from Fiumicino (FCO) for €15 and be in the center of Rome in around 30 mins. Trains run every 20 minutes from 6:23am to 11:23pm, so keep that dead zone in mind if you have an early flight or late arrival. Cabs from FCO will cost around €50, which might be worth it if you have a lot of luggage.
My old hostel (sadly out of business), was located on Via Cavour, a main thoroughfare from Termini to the Colosseum. Cavour, a major road that connects to other easy to navigate arteries like Vittorio Emanuele II, and leads to a lot of the major sights.
The best part about staying near Termini is easy access to all of the metro and bus lines that connect the Rome.
Getting Around: Rome’s Metro
The Roman metro is fast, cheap (€1.50), and reliable. Most of the popular sights from the Vatican to Termini are on the East/West running red “A” metro line (the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps). You can connect to the blue “B” line for the Colosseo, Pyramide, and Circo Massimo (although I prefer to walk), but honestly, I lived in Rome for nearly a year and never rode the Blue Line…ever.
Trains come often—every few minutes during peak hours—and the metro runs until 11:30pm Sun-Thurs and 1:30am Fri-Sat. Keep that closing time in mind if you don’t know the bus system, but don’t panic if that last glass of vino makes you miss the train home. Your metro ticket or pass works on the busses, which run 24 hours.
If you stay near Termini, you’ll be within walking distance of some great sights.
What to Pack
Here’s what you need in a daypack for exploring Rome:
Smartphone: You can still navigate with Google maps even without service (although T-mobile’s international plan will give you pretty sweet 3G everywhere). It’s also your camera and your…well…phone.
Shorts: Rome is hot in the summer. Sometimes, really, really hot. Pants are great for going out at night, but it’s all shorts all the time for walking the city and seeing the sights during the day.
Linen Shirt: Like I said, Rome is super hot. A nice short-sleeve linen shirt will keep you cool while also separating you from the tourist herd.
Pro Tip: Dressing a little like a Roman will save you hassles from aggressive hawkers at the touristy spots.
Sunscreen: I know it’s not cool to lather up for a day in the city, but you’ll spend more time than you realize in the sun – which is totally a good thing! Get that vitamin D, but slap on some SPF 30 and avoid that oh so chic lobster look.
Bandana or Small Scarf: If it’s really hot, the best strategy to beat is to use that beautiful network of water fountains to keep you cool. Simply wet your scarf every few blocks and keep it around your neck or head. Personally I avoid walking during the heat of the day (go see a museum or sit in the shade with a caffe and a good book), but if you’re on a tight schedule and want to see it all, keep cool with a wet rag. Seriously.
Polarized Sunglasses: I don’t wear sunglasses, but I get the appeal. You can buy a cheap knockoff pair on practically any street corner for €5, but if you get a properly polarized pair, you can use the lens as a cool photography filter. Experiment with it, you’ll like what you see.
Coin Purse: American wallets and purses just aren’t awesome at dealing with coins…because coins aren’t really worth that much in the states. In Europe, especially Italy, coins are the preferred currency for small transactions like coffee (€1) the metro (€1.50) and a hundred little things.
Try to buy a cappuccino with a €50 note fresh from the arm and watch what happens. You’ll think they’re trying to break $1,000. Also, vendors love to give change in €.50 pieces for some reason. You’ll have a lot of them in no time.
Change adds up quickly, and if you don’t have a good way to keep it organized and at hand you’ll either lose it or you won’t use it.
Boat Shoes: A lot of people opt for sandals, but I’m not a fan of open toes shoes on cobble stones. You stub your toes, step in weird puddles, and they’re schlubby for such a beautiful city. Boat shoes keep your feet safe, dry, and they look great doing it.
GoPro: Set it up on Ponte Sisto and capture the perfect time lapse.
Mini Tripod: If you’re shooting any video, it’s worth having for a steady shot.
Portable Charger: Leave this in your room unless you take a LOT of pictures…in which case you’re probably taking too many pictures. Just be in the moment, my dude.
DSLR: Again, unless you’re looking for professional grade shots you just don’t need a heavy dslr weighing you down all day. Your phone can get the job done and leave you free to explore without looking like a typical tourist.
Hat: Never a bad idea.
City Maps 2Go: This app lets you download and actually navigate city maps while you’re offline. I know. The free plan let’s you download two maps at a time so just delete as you go and never get lost again.
Things You DON’T Need
Water Bottle: Rome’s extensive network of fountains and faucets ensures that you’re never more than a block from fresh clean water. Use the spina (Italian for “tap”) just like the Romans do and you’ll keep cool on even the hottest days.
Selfie Stick: Stop it.
An Italian/English Dictionary: Everyone and I mean EVERYONE speaks English in Rome. By all means do your best to speak Italian (they appreciate the effort) but don’t sweat skipping your Latin homework.
What to See
It’s been done to death, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be wowed by the sight of this ancient gladiator arena. The Colosseum is an absolute must for history buffs and first-time visitors to Rome despite the price of admission (€12 entry + €5 for a guided tours +€2 online reservation fee to skip the lines).
This ancient landmark was once the heart and soul of ancient Rome and is well worth the price of admission and audio tour/tour guide to give you context. But be warned, this is the hub of Roman tourism. Hawkers, vendors, aggressive tour guides, gladiator clad street performers, and high school class trips will be everywhere. The only time you’ll find an unmolested moment and a picturesque shot is at night time after the tours and the vendors close. After dark, the Colosseum can be the backdrop for some amazing photos and even some well needed quiet contemplation amongst the marble and granite bones of the past.
I don’t know why, but somehow this epic architectural masterpiece is consistently overlooked by nearly everyone that comes to Rome. People tack on a visit to the Pantheon as an afterthought, even though it is one of Rome’s oldest and most impressive structures.
Often dated back to 27BC – 14AD, (that’s older than the Colosseum, kids) the Pantheon is still in magnificent—almost confusingly—good condition, despite most of the rest of Rome falling to raiding barbarians, riots, and fires at various points in its history. The story of the Pantheon is a long and complicated one, but it’s been in constant use for two millennia and has seen Rome transform into the center of the world and back again. If you’re not a history freak like me, just walk through the Corinthian columns of the portico and marvel at the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and lose your mind thinking how people built this 2,000 years ago.
The main feature is the open “eye” called the oculus at the center of the dome, where rain, sunbeams, and moonlight fill the dome if you’re lucky. Despite the raw feeling of being exposed to the elements (a.k.a. all the gods “The Pantheon”) the precise mathematics of the dome are on par with other ancient structures like the Pyramids of Giza. The distance from the floor to the top of the dome (142 feet) is exactly the same diameter of the dome. That’s insane.
Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
In stark contrast to the brutal history of the Colosseum and the ancient gravitas of the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain stands as a glorious monument to beauty, innocence, and hope. Equally packed as the Colosseum (sadly, no difference there), the energy at the Trevi Fountain is light and relaxed. Scrounge around in your pocket for a €.05 coin and wait patiently for your turn at the perfect profile photo. Throw the coin over your left shoulder into the fountain and wish for your speedy return to Rome. I can personally attest to the power of this fountain—I’ve been back to Rome five times since my first wish.
Pro Tip: The Trevi Fountain never really gets “quiet,” but visit it on your way back home from Campo di Fiori and you might stumble upon the equally stoic solitude and frivolous exhibitionism that make this fountain one of the most beloved spots in the world.
The Forum (Foro Romano)
The Forum isn’t really one particular site, but rather an interconnected web of ancient political buildings, temples, and residential ruins. It’s awesome. Wander through the ruins at your own pace or take a guided tour and marvel at the fact that this city is so packed with history that people take these strident ruins as just another part of their daily commute. I can’t sometimes.
You can’t miss this grandiose monument to the founding of the Italian Republic. Seriously, there’s no way you can miss this place. The horse statues alone draw the eye from miles around, not to mention the massive flags flapping in the wind. The hub for most Roma Bus lines, and the intersection of metro lines, Via del Corso, Via Nazionale, and Vittorio Emanuele, you’ll end up here sooner or later.
Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)
One of my favorite places in Rome, and home to two distinct, if underappreciated landmarks—Bernini’s fountain and the Keats/Shelley Memorial Museum. Bernini’s Fontana della Baraccia at the foot of the alabaster stairs (the perfect place to people watch) celebrates the routine flooding of the Tiber (a boat once washed up in the Piazza di Spagna). Freak people out by sipping from the water fountain at the end of the fountain (it’s great!)
Keats-Shelley Memorial Museum
I’m a lit nerd and history fiend, so visiting the Roman home and (final) residence of the English writer and poet John Keats fills me with all the feelings. This timeless writer of works like Hyperion and Endymion died at age 25 from tuberculosis, but left an impression that lasts through the years despite his name being “writ on water.”
Other Notable Sites
Site of the infamous assassination of Caesar—”Et tu, Brute?!” this recessed square in the center of town is home to hundreds of feral cats. Beware the Ides of March and dander allergies.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Founded in the 4th century, this stunning cathedral is one of the five great ancient basilicas. If that’s not enough for you, there’s a sweet (a.k.a. divey) late-night bar behind the chapel called Old Station. It’s an absolute mess. There’s also a great hot dog spot nearby. So good.
Campo di Fiori
As cool as the after hours parties at Old Station are, the real party is in Campo. A bustling flower market during the day (Campo di Fiori is Italian for “Field of Flowers”), Campo transforms into a bustling…meat market at night. Staples like the Drunken Ship are where many foreign students “practice Italian” in between classes.
Tamer than Campo, Piazza Navona is definitely prettier. Home to one of Rome’s epic fountains (this one honors the four great rivers of the world). Navona is a foodie’s dream destination. Cobblestone streets connect Navona to cafes and restaurants that radiate from the center. Wander until your nose tells you it’s time to stop.
This Irish pub just near Piazza Venezia is the place to watch a soccer match, rugby game, Presidential election, World Cup, Olympics, or just a great place to have a beer. They’ve added a “club” to the side where you can scream your face out to some epic karaoke during the week. My jam is “Pony” by Ginuwine. Just saying…
The winding streets on the “other side” of the Tiber are home to a surprisingly untouched, yet easily accessible area of Rome that few tourists know about (although that is slowly changing).
When I lived in Rome seven years ago, we’d wander to the bridges of Trastevere to bum smokes and and a beer from locals. Now the same bridges are the gateway to the vibrant Lungo il Tevere, a new(ish) addition to the nightlife that thrives along the shore each summer.
Lungo il Tevere begins in early June and stretches til fall, with bars, cafes, shops, vendors, and all sorts of organizations setting up shop under the crisp white tents that dot the sidewalks. The youth and energy of Trastevere is the perfect counterpoint to the heat and dusty ruins that can overwhelm you during the summer.
Remember, Rome is a lot more than old buildings. Pull up a chair by the river, smoke some hookah, eat a panini, have a coffee or grab a beer and relax as locals and tourists alike meander past this ancient river. When in Rome…
Pro Tip: Carlo Menta in Trastevere has excellent food at ridiculously cheap prices. Margherita Pizza for €2. Seriously.
Staying Over the River: The Vatican & Ottaviano
The Vatican, Vatican Museum, and St. Peter’s Basilica are all amazing. Even if you’re not religious, don’t care about the Pope, and are more interested in the ancient Roman history of the Colosseum and the Forum, the sight of the Vatican is…profound. Yes, it’s super crowded and touristy during the day; yes, the lines are hilarious during peak times, and sure, the Vatican Museum tour will take up most of an entire day, but man, it’s worth it.
The Vatican Museum (Ottaviano)
One of the few places where I paid for a tour, the Vatican Museum puts other European museums to shame. It’s just unreal how much culture and influence have originated within the Vatican’s ancient walls. The Sistine Chapel being just the most obvious example of the excellence contained within, pay attention to the tapestry halls (they’re woven with an ancient technique that makes the eyes in the rugs follow you as you walk past), and the sculpture gardens. For instance, there’s a massive purple porphyry bathtub that contains something like 90% of all the porphyry on the planet. That’s power.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s is to Rome what the Empire State Building is to New York City…if the Empire State Building was the seat of power, culture, beauty, history, art, and influence for centuries. It is, however, similar in that this picturesque dome dominates the city, and is visible from practically everywhere.
Use the dome as a focal point to navigate while wandering the streets (and as a beautiful photo backdrop). If you look really hard and pay close attention, you can find the perfect shot with St. Peter’s in the background. All you have to do is find the key…
Time of Year: (It’s Always Crowded)
Rome is great (and terrible) to visit any time of year, so timing isn’t a huge concern. Beware of peak times around Christmas and the high summer season.
Rome is especially crowded with tour groups and school trips during June, it’s muggy and brutally hot in July, and many businesses close down completely in August (for the month-long holiday Ferragosto). Take a second and make sure you can handle the time-sensitive obstacles before you book that ticket.
General Rome Tips
Drink the Water
The aqueducts of ancient Rome were legendary, and the numerous water spigots you see along the streets are a continuing part of that legacy. Don’t buy overpriced water bottles. Drink the water like a real Roman.
Pro Tip: Plug the water spout opening to make the water shoot through the narrow hole at the top for easier drinking.
The metro is nice for covering long distances or maximizing a short visit, but the real spirit of Rome only comes out when you wander the streets. Let Rome pass you by at a leisurely stroll and bask in unexpected finds around every corner.
Eat Like an Italian (a.k.a. Don’t Put Cheese on Seafood Pasta)
It’s obvious, but you’re in Rome to experience… Rome. Don’t pick safe menu items that you recognize. Go off book, experiment, and roll with the punches even if they’re not what you anticipated because (surprise!) real Italian food is a lot different than Olive Garden.
Pro Tip: A cappuccino is exclusively a breakfast drink. Ordering one after 11am will mark you out as a tourist. And a “latte” isn’t a coffee drink—it’s a glass of milk.
Buy an Extra Metro Ticket
If you take the Metro, buy two tickets so you have one in your wallet in case you need to ride the night bus. They don’t sell tickets on the bus, and the tabacchi shops and corner stores that sell them might be closed when you really need a cheap ride home.
Rome is awesome. Once you visit, you’ll want to come back. The best part about Rome is that you’ll get better and better at navigating this wonderful city each time you arrive, and Rome won’t change a bit between each visit.
- Walk Everywhere
- Stay Near Termini or the Vatican
- Visit the Pantheon
- Drink the Water
- Stay Out Late
- Take Tours: It’s Ok to be a Tourist
If you’re planning a trip to Rome, let me know. Odds are I’ll be there already.