Rome offers some of the best food, sightseeing and history in the world all jam-packed into 2 square miles. On first glance, it can seem noisy, overcrowded and tourist-driven and it's very easy to be swept up in the chaos. Underneath the bustle, the internal clock of the city is actually very slow. Lunches are long, business hours are short and people tend to linger and chat. The city is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace with late breakfasts, slow strolls and early evening cocktails facing a piazza. Late at night, when the early-rising tourists have gone to sleep, the city empties and the monuments light up. Grab a gelato at midnight and stroll the streets with the locals.
If you're planning to visit three of Rome's major sites on your visit, consider getting the Roma Pass which covers two and offers discounts on many other locations. While it's recommended to book some tickets in advance to avoid lines, places like the Borghese Gallery (which houses several Bernini sculptures) it's necessary to book at least a month in advance.
John and I are working to arrange tours of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Sistine Chapel and the Vatican for the 18th-20th. If you're interested in going on a tour with us, let us know.
Colosseum and the roman forum
The Colosseum is best combined with the Roman Forum; there's also a combination pass for the two sites. The Colosseum is the least crowded in the afternoon when the tour groups have left. If you are not going on a private tour and haven't bought a Roma pass, buy the combination ticket at the Palatine Hill entrance (and consider doing the Roman Forum first) to avoid the long line. Both sites are fantastic to see, but it's sometimes difficult to tell what you're looking at. Thousands of people walk right past the place where Julius Caesar's body was cremated, without even realizing it. A guided tour with a historian is probably the best way to experience the sites, but Rick Steve's walking guides are fantastic if you want to go on your own.
St peter's basilica and the vatican museum
St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican museum are two separate sites within Vatican City. The entirety of Vatican City enforces a dress code; your shoulders must be covered, shorts should be avoided and dresses/skirts must be below the knee. St. Peter's (the church) is free to enter but climbing Michaelangelo's dome is worth the €7. There's always a really long security line so it's good to plan an hour of waiting into your day. Avoid Sundays or days when the Pope is making an appearance as they sometimes limit where you can visit in the church.
The Vatican museum is home to the Sistine Chapel, but also some top notch art like the Laocoon statue. Lines are extremely long and they have a tendency to shut the doors early to ensure guests inside will leave by the time the museum closes. The experience is often over-crowded and the museum security, especially in the Sistine Chapel, bear a close resemblance to club bouncers. Buying tickets in advance or arranging a private tour are highly recommended.
Walk through the heart of rome
Some of Rome's best sites are free and open late, if not all night long. You can easily connect the major sites on one stroll through town. Start at the Campo de' Fiori outdoor market, travel through Piazza Navona, past the Pantheon (grabbing a coffee at Sant' Eustachio along the way), walk through piazzas and ancient columns to the Trevi Fountain, pick up a gelato at San Crispino to enjoy while walking (a la Audrey Hepburn) towards your final destination at the Spanish Steps. If you want to add some education, pair the walk with Rick Steves' audio guide. I like to guide myself via a Google Map with stars saved in the locations I'd like to visit. However, Rick Steves also has a handy map available that you can download on your phone.
Eating in Rome
Eating in Rome is both a joy and a frustration. The city center is small and crowded and most of the best restaurants are well-known and booked ahead of time. Choosing a restaurant with no prior knowledge is a gamble, you’re just as likely to have an amazing cheap meal as you would a terrible expensive one. Italians don’t seem to rate restaurants online, which means a great review on TripAdvisor is likely from tourists, or worst, tour groups.
The best advice is to plan ahead. Book the restaurants you absolutely must visit a couple weeks (or more) ahead of time. Make note of several recommended restaurants that correspond to sites you’ll be visiting that day so if one is full you know where to move onto next. If all else fails, rely on the reliable - street food like pizza, supplì or arancini (fried balls of rice and other ingredients), trapizzino (triangle pizza cones) or sandwiches. It’s very hard to resist the urge to want every meal in Italy to hit it out of the park, but in a pinch you’re much better off to have something inexpensive but tasty than an unknown sit-down restaurant that may be expensive and mediocre. Eating takeaway on the side of a fountain in a piazza is sometimes the best option.
Here are some local specialties...
Tips, coperto and servizio
No matter where you eat in Europe, you will most likely always have to ask for the bill. Waiters tend not to offer services for fear of being intrusive or appearing as they are rushing you to leave. Instead, you will need to signal to your waiter that you need something or you would like the bill. The bill can be summoned by the signing-your-name-in-the-air gesture or by sneaking in an “il conto, per favore” as your waiter passes.
A lot of restaurants in Rome charge “coperto” or a cover charge. This is most common in popular restaurants or those with prime real-estate, like an outdoor table on Piazza Navona. The cover charge usually includes bread or a small snack, like pretzels, but will be charged whether you eat anything or not. Don’t be too put off by a cover charge, it’s more aimed at the expectation that your meal will last hours than by the fact that you are a tourist.
Servizio is a service charge, or a tip for service. This is usually notified on the menu or the bill by “servizio incluso” and it’s typically 10%. If there is no service included, a 10% tip is typical and expected.
If a restaurant is charging both a cover AND service, it’s highly likely that this is a more tourist-oriented restaurant.
Coffee in Italy is a lot different than America. Italians, in general, drink a lot less water or milk with their espresso, so while a cappuccino in Italy will essentially be the same as one from America, the portion will be a lot smaller. The rule is as the day gets longer and hotter, you order less milk in your coffee. This is why cappuccinos traditionally aren’t served past noon.
If you’re looking for filtered coffee, the closest you will find is an Americano, espresso mixed with hot water. Avoid ordering “coffee”, or caffè, unless you want a single shot of espresso. (single shots of espresso are very popular post meals) Since “latte” is the Italian word for milk, you may be served only milk if this is what you order. Latte macchiato is the closest match to a Starbucks-style latte.
Not only is the coffee itself different, so are the coffee shops. Rome’s best coffee can be found at standing bars served in small porcelain cups. There is typically a cash register where you pay first before proceeding to the bar where a different person takes your order. If there are tables available, that means there is service, or waiters to take your order. Menu prices at the bar are cheaper than those at a table (table prices are 2-4 times as expensive). You cannot order at the bar and seat yourself at a table. If you order at a table, a small tip for service is expected.
Italy is home to some world-famous cocktail inventions. Venice created the Aperol Spritz and the Bellini, Florence is home to the Negroni, and Milan the Sbagliato Negroni. Limoncello, invented in Capri, is often served ice-cold in a shot glass at the end of dinner in the south of Italy. Prosecco, not champagne, is Italy’s choice for sparkling wine. The most famous beer brands are Birra Moretti and Peroni. There has been a recent popularity in craft beers, with Baladin showing up in more and more restaurants (in additional to their gastropub of the same name).
One thing important to note is that if your order a beer in Italy, a large (grande), usually means a full liter of beer. A “media” is roughly a pint and a “piccola” is about the size of a bottle.