The City of the Seven Hills, the Capital of the World, the Eternal City…. Rome, an experience of a lifetime, has got to feature right up there on your bucket list.
From history to art, food to fashion, culture to natural and manmade beauty, the 2,770-year-old Italian capital — one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited metropolises — has something for every kind of traveler. No matter where else you have been, you have not seen Europe till you have seen the city of Rome from where no less than 48 modern nations across three continents used to be ruled.
As a friend who has lived in the city for 25 years says, even a lifetime falls short when it comes to seeing everything there is to see in the city, but five-seven days are a bare minimum for doing justice to Rome.
TRAVELLING IN THE CITY
Anytime is a good time to explore the city on foot. Planning the routes in advance — making sure you cover as many must-sees as possible — is a good idea. Keep a map handy. If any area seems unsafe, go with your instinct.
You can and should cover most of the major touristy zones on foot.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can rent cars, two-wheelers, bicycles and Segways — depending on your budget.
For all local public transport, you have to buy your tickets before you board. There is a 7-euro 24-hour ticket — it goes up to a 24-euro ticket for seven days — that allows unlimited travel by Metropolitana (underground rail), bus, tram and train within the city.
The Metropolitana runs approximately every 7-10 minutes between 5.30am and 11.30pm (12.30am on Saturdays) daily. A 1.5-euro ticket will take you almost anywhere. However, there are three lines and very little of the signage is in anything other than Italian. So, figure out the journey well before you make it. Some stations like Roma Termini, or the area around them have the reputation of not being very safe at odd hours. Exercise adequate caution.
Public buses in Rome run almost 24×7 — the regular fleet between 5.30am and midnight connecting virtually every place in and around the city, then a special night service for core routes. The standard 1.5-euro ticket is valid for 100 minutes on all buses, including transfers. Don’t expect orderly queues. The buses are usually crowded.
There is also a small tram network that doesn’t cover the main districts visited by tourists. Trams and buses have the same ticketing rules.
There is no Uber — the traditional cabbies have not allowed it — in Rome, but there are apps that offer similar services with the regular taxis. The standard white taxis, to be taken from stands, are easy to get and there’s no refusal. They operate with a GPS-based meter and there is usually no cheating involved. But roads change directions or are shut off without prior notice, which would call for a longer journey and a higher fare. The taxis are fairly expensive. The base fare (for 0-400 metres) is 3 euros, 8.5 euros for 5km and 14 euros for 10km. The 30km ride between the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport and the Colosseum costs 48 euros.
WHERE TO STAY
Location, location, location… It is best to stay in a place that would allow you to walk to many key locations even at an unearthly hour and reach eateries or pubs easily, besides providing easy access to the Metropolitana, taxi stands and other modes of transport.
On my first trip to Rome, I had stayed in a hotel 10km from the city centre, which made even the most basic things unnecessarily difficult. The next time, I stayed 450m from the Colosseum and the proximity to most of the important stuff made the trip remarkably memorable. I would recommend staying as close to the Colosseum or the Piazza Navona as possible. From hotels suitable for every kind of budget to Airbnb options, there are countless places to pick from.
Pizza Bianca: From Roscioli on Campo de’Fiori, La Renella in Trastevere and L’Antico Forno near Fontana di Trevi
Carbonara: From Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio and Trattoria Da Danilo on Via Petrarca
Gelato: From Frigidarium on Via del Governo Vecchio, Come il Latte on Via Silvio Spaventa, and Gelateria La Romana on Via Venti Settembre
Drinks: From Bar San Calisto on Piazza di San Calisto, Stravinskiy Bar on Via del Babuino, Jerry Thomas Speakeasy on Vicolo Cellini, Shamrock Irish Pub — Celio on Via Capo d’Africa, and Anima Mundi on Via del Velabro
Coffee: From La Casa Del Caffe Tazza D’oro on Via degli Orfani, Caffe Sant’Eustachio on Piazza Sant’Eustachio, Giolitti on via Uffici del Vicario, and Canova Tadolini on Via del Babuino
Roma Antica: The Colosseum, the Foro Romano and the Pantheon
Religious edifices: The four Major Papal Basilicas — St Peter’s Basilica, Papal Archbasilica of St John Lateran, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls
Monuments and public spaces: The Fontana di Trevi, the Spanish Steps, Via del Corso, the Piazza Navona, the Villa Borghese, the Capitoline Museums, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Aurelian Walls, Via Appia and the Esposizione Universale Roma
Beaches: Ostia, Santa Marinello and Paradise Beach in Maccarese
Drinks: Limoncello, amaretto, sambuca and wine.
Packaged edibles: Cheeses like Gorgonzola, Pecorino Toscano, Taleggio, Fontina d’Aosta, Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Mozzarella di Bufala, Provolone, and Robiola Piemonte.
Meat: Salumi, Prosciutto, Finocchiona, Capocollo, Soppressata, Culatello, and Mortadella.
Shoes: Even if you buy nothing else in Rome, you must come back with a pair of leather shoes. They’re the best in the world. Decent pairs go for 30-40 euros (Rs 2,180-2,907) but the really good ones would cost me a kidney. But they’ll last years and look drop-dead-gorgeous till the last wear. Try Scarpe Diem behind Piazza Navona, the Fausto Santini outlet and Mencucci boutique on Via Cavour, and L’Autre Chose at Piazza Campo Marzio.
Sales: In Rome, ‘sales’ or ‘saldi’ take place twice a year. Summer sales begin on the first Saturday of July and continue till the end of August. Winter sales begin on the first Saturday of January and continue till the end of February.
Zones: The best shopping is at the ‘zones’. In and around the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna is one of the best. There is no other place in the city with a higher concentration of shops, from stand-alone stores of biggies like Gucci, Armani, Tods, Fratelli Rossetti and Prada to local brands such as Fausto Santini, as well as smaller, easier-on-the-wallet stores. Other good places are the streets behind Piazza Navona, Monti, and by the Vatican.
Hours: Shops are open from around 10am to about 8pm on weekdays but close for siesta from 1pm-3pm. First halves are closed on Monday and second halves on Saturdays. Shops are closed on Sundays.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Timing: October to April is a good window to visit the city. Tourists are relatively fewer and accommodation, at least, is going to pinch less. You will need some warm clothes, but the cold is never unbearable. There is, however, substantial rainfall in the winter months. Summer can get quite hot.
Language: Learn a few basic Italian words and phrases. Besides, knowing the history and understanding the place go a long way in ensuring a substantially better experience.
Shoes: Very comfortable shoes are a must, as most of Rome must be covered on foot and mitigating cobbled streets, countless stairs and long distances between major sites is not easy otherwise.
Dress: Being well-dressed is a good idea because most locals look like they have emerged from the pages of a fashion magazine.
Water: Free drinking water is not easy to find. Bottled water is fairly expensive.
Public toilets: Dearth of public toilets can often be a problem, especially during the long walks that are a must. Eateries do not allow you to use their loos unless you buy something.
Seagulls: Flying in 30-odd km from the Tyrrhenian Sea, these enormous, beautiful white birds are everywhere and they suddenly swoop in for food in the outdoors.
Queues: At almost every famous landmark or museum, if you’re trying to enter them that is, there are incredibly long queues. Proper time management is one way to deal with it. Buying tickets that let you skip the queues is another.
Petty crime: The city is almost always very crowded and petty crimes are not uncommon. But alertness and common sense almost always help. Watch your wallet and other valuables carefully. Don’t accept any free gift from strangers as they will demand money later.
Security: A growing threat perception all over Europe has resulted in considerable tightening of security, with significant police, paramilitary and military presence in most places. South Asians are often stopped for “random” checks. It is best to always carry your passport — they do not accept anything else as valid ID — with you and make sure you never lose it.
Hotel: Keep your hotel details handy, written down and a Google Maps screenshot.