Prepare yourself for an unforgettable experience when in Rome. You will, in all probability, wish to see the usual tourist favorites: the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and the Colosseum. This article features fourteen little tips learned during a recent visit that may enhance your stay in Rome.
Try to stay in a hotel as close to the center of Rome as possible. Our hotel was on the Via del Corso about a five-minute walk from the Piazza Venezia. We walked to all the places we wished to see except the Vatican – and we could have walked there too except for the timing of our tour. Image being less than two blocks from Trevi Fountain! Plus it may not be as expensive as you think.
Walking gives you a different perspective of this city rather than being on a tour bus. The center of Rome is riddled with hop-on, hop-off bus kiosks and this sight-seeing method is usually the way I recommend getting your bearings in a new city, but is not necessary here as there are many familiar landmarks with which to guide your wanderings.
Walking will give you a glance behind doors into other worlds and beckon you down narrow side streets leading to incredible surprises. Nothing prepared us on an evening stroll for Il Tempio di Adriano, a 2nd century AD Temple façade of 13 columns lit up against the black night. Or the opulent green courtyard of the Galleria Doria Pamphij with its 18th century furniture and art by Rubens or Titian. San Marcello al Corso, with soldiers standing guard outside in the Piazza di San Marcello, might elicit some curiosity but unless on foot, you might not be tempted to circle back and venture through its doors into this church’s ornate interior. All these jewels of discovery were only a block or two from our hotel. What many more gems are hidden behind heavy doors and stone walls waiting to be discovered on one’s meanderings?
The sidewalks are narrow, and you may often be forced to walk on the street for short stretches. Some sidewalks are marble, often cracked and heaved. Many sidewalks and streets are cobbled. You will hardly ever see an Italian woman with spike high heels on the street, and there is a reason for that! Sensible flat-soled shoes are recommended if you are walking any distance. And you need stamina! Rome is a city built on seven hills.
Crossing the busy streets rather than being a terrifying necessity can be an amusing adventure. It appears traffic lights are of no consequence while on foot. When the number of pedestrians gathering at a crossing point becomes large enough, it only takes one brave soul to start across the street, and the rest follow in a mass so all cars are forced to stop. After a few days, you even become the “brave” one now and then. One quickly becomes appreciative of Roman drivers, their ability to stop on a dime with perceived patience. Note: don’t be a brave pedestrian in the early hours of the day when vehicles whizz through the streets getting what ever business they need to do accomplished before the crowds emerge for the day to take over the streets.
If crowds are part of your experience of the Spanish Steps or Trevi Fountain, then ignore this piece of advice: get there early in the morning – 6 am or so – and the crowd may be a half-dozen souls like yourself who want to take photos without masses of people in the background. Even at this early hour, more and more tourists arrive every passing minute.
Likewise if you wish to tour the Vatican, either book the first guided tour time of the day or be in the line long before the doors open. By ten A.M. the place is already crowded, and outside the line-up, 2 or 3 people abreast, will be stretching many long city blocks. Bring water as it can be hot depending on the time of year but leave your big bags and backpacks at the hotel as they are not permitted.
Don’t expect too much from the Sistine Chapel. The hordes of onlookers diminishing its size, the noise (even though you are told not to talk and security reminds the crowd when the din becomes too much), and the fact that the art you really want to see is high above your head so you have to lean way back avoiding others doing the same, it all rather takes away from the moment. Remember Michelangelo painted while lying on his back! But the priceless artifacts and art though out the Vatican Museum, inside and outside, compensates for any disappointment felt here.
One thing the city of Rome does well is preserve ancient buildings or remains thereof wherever they may be. A column here, a piece of wall there, or a whole section of the city is mingled with the newer. The Foro Romano, which lies way below street level between the Pallazo Venezia (called the “wedding cake’’ derisively by locals) in the Piazza Venezia and the Palatine Hill is a case in point. Standing on the street above and looking down at the ruins spread over several acres is rather surreal, like gazing back through history two thousand years.
Near to Palatine Hill is the Colosseum. No matter what time of day you visit, this place is jam packed with people. The stairs are steep with a higher than normal rise, walking is over various uneven surfaces, and it can get very hot depending on the time of year. If you book a tour that also includes the Palatine Hill and the Foro, be aware it means a lot of climbing and steps. The tour we were on started with about a dozen people but by the time it ended there were only a couple of hardy souls left. You must be in good physical shape to see ancient Rome!
Leaving the popular touristy pastimes behind, dine in that little restaurant tucked away down the alley or in the one hidden behind the pizzeria take-out. Have a drink of wine or a brightly-colored cocktail and a dish of pasta in a street side café. The food in Rome is absolutely delicious – and one works up quite an appetite when walking all day! The great mystery over the menus filled with pasta dishes and scrumptious desserts is that you do not see many overweight Romans. A word of caution though about eating at a street café in a busy spot: you may not realize someone, somewhere, may be watching where you put your wallet when paying the bill.
Pickpockets are prevalent in Europe. The area around the Colosseum and nearby Metro station is particularly bad. One gets tired of being approached with the line” Nice shoes” when you know it is not your shoes that interests the grinning man. You need eyes in the back of your head as the saying goes because secreting your wallet where you think it is impossible to remove without your knowing (yet accessible when you may need it) is a tricky mission. You can never guarantee success. So, from experience, don’t carry much cash or credit cards around with you. Leave the majority and all valuables like your passport in the hotel safe. And note if you carry an American Express card: despite it having an international toll-free number to call if your card is stolen, this number will not work in Rome, either from a cellular phone or a landline. Even with PINs these days, you still should report a stolen card.
Like to shop? If you want to be bedazzled with designer names such as Hermes, Prada, Cartier, Gucci et al, travel up Via del Condotti. (This street also leads to the Spanish Steps.) Your head will be on a swivel taking it all in, even if you are just window shopping. But if this area is too pricey for your pocketbook, there are many fashionable shops along the main streets, especially Via del Corso, which are quite reasonable. Haggle with street vendors to bring prices down as items offered may be more expensive than the same items in shops if you are not mindful.
People watch. You can tell the natives by their great sense of style, especially the men with their lean silhouette of skinny dress pants, loafers or dress shoes, and casually worn dress shirt. It is practically a uniform (such a refreshing change from jeans and tee shirts, and never boring). One can and will see anything on a tourist including short shorts so don’t worry about what to pack for your stay. However, when setting out on your explorations of the city, one can’t be too revealing in your attire if you wish entry to religious sites. Your shoulders and knees must be covered for instance to obtain entrance to the Vatican.
If you are visiting Rome pre or post cruise, or just touring on your own, you will fall in love with Rome. Like every city, it has its flaws and its drawbacks, but the romance and magic of this city will captivate you. These fourteen observations shared may help in enjoying Rome to its fullest. And before you leave Rome, don’t forget to throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into Trevi Fountain to guarantee your return to this world-famous destination.