Rome Survival Tips for the First-Time Visitor

by Jessica on March 16, 2009

by | March 16th, 2009  

I’ll admit it – I don’t love Rome. I want to, believe me. I want to fall head over heels for its chaotic blend of modern and ancient, its larger-than-life attitude, and its hidden gems. But I haven’t yet. This is partly due, I’m convinced, to the fact that I have yet to spend time in the city with someone who truly loves Rome to its core. I really believe that can make such an enormous difference to one’s perception of a city, that I continue to hold out hope that one day I’ll rhapsodize about Rome the way some of my friends do.

Until that time, however, I thought I’d offer what I call “Rome Survival Tips” – because if you’re anything like me and you need to visit Rome but you’re worried about being overwhelmed by it (which happens to nearly everyone on their first trip), you’ll want to know how to make the most of it. After all, just because you don’t end up loving Rome doesn’t mean you have to hate it, either.

>> For more, don’t miss my list of things you should know about Rome, too.

Rome Survival Tips for the First-Time Visitor

  • The city might feel overwhelming at first, but many of Rome’s biggest tourist sights are concentrated in a relatively small area, so the part of Rome that you will be spending the majority of your time visiting is considerably smaller than you might think. With a good map, a centrally-located place to sleep and an understanding of the public transit system in Rome, you will be able to navigate the city more easily. In particular, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get a handle on taking the bus around Rome – the bus network is way more extensive than the subway system, so there are even more places you can go without much effort. Your feet will thank you later.
  • In a city like Rome, more than in other Italian cities (at least in my opinion), it’s important to pace yourself. Will you see everything in Rome on your first visit? Absolutely not. And you’d be foolish to try. Give yourself ample opportunities to relax. Don’t try to cram too much into a day. And if the busy-ness of the city itself is starting to get you down, find a quiet place (or at least quieter) to hang out for a bit before diving back in – whether that’s a restaurant, a bench in the Pantheon, your hotel room, or a relatively car-free neighborhood like the Trastevere by day. This is, I find, an easy and enjoyable way to acclimate yourself to Rome.
  • Accommodation in Rome runs the gamut, and you can certainly find cheap places to stay – but remember that just because a hotel or hostel says it’s “in the historic city center” doesn’t mean it’s going to be within spitting distance of a major attraction. Rome’s “historic city center” is huge, so be sure to check the location of any hotel or hostel on a map before you get too excited about it. There are, for instance, a high concentration of cheap hotels and hostels near Termini station, but it’s hardly in what most people would call the historic city center. It is, however, right next to the major bus hub at the train station, so you can get anywhere you want in the city from there.
  • July and August might be the peak vacation months in some parts of the world, but in Rome they are typically exceedingly hot and humid and many residents (the smart ones, anyway) abandon the city for the coast. Do not be surprised to find lots of “closed for the holidays” signs up in shop windows around Rome. Of course, this means the city is potentially less crowded for those who do brave the heat!
  • If you do decide to visit during the hottest summer months, be smart about your time spent in the sun – bring and wear appropriate sun gear (floppy hats, sunscreen), and carry a reusable water bottle with you. Rome’s free public drinking fountains spout some of the best-tasting (and blissfully cold) water you’ll find anywhere, and you’ll need it. There’s even one conveniently located right in the Roman Forum, which is good because there’s almost no shade to speak of there.
  • Like any big city the world over, you are bound to run into higher crime rates in Rome than you might in the Tuscan hill towns, for instance. I know people who have been pickpocketed in Rome, people who have caught pickpockets in the act (and thwarted the theft), and others who’ve never had any trouble at all (including myself, though I might have just jinxed myself by saying that aloud) – so I’m definitely not saying that anyone setting foot in Rome is going to be robbed. However, I do think that it pays to be alert in Rome. If you remain aware of your surroundings and cautious about your belongings, especially on the subways and the bus “tourist routes,” you will in all likelihood have no problems whatsoever.
  • Many of Italy’s main tourist cities are also cities where people still live and work, and in Rome this is particularly true. The people you pass on the street are not just waiting to give tourists directions to the Colosseum or recommend a good restaurant – they are on their way somewhere, just like you would be walking down the street in your hometown. If you can find a tourist information office or a tourism-related shop, those are the places to stop and ask questions. The locals you pass on the street aren’t rude, and many of them may stop to help you if you’re holding a map and looking lost – but they’re also not delegates of the tourism office, so you shouldn’t expect them to go out of their way to help you.

original photo at the top by Jessica Spiegel, and may not be used without permission

Other posts about Rome

{ 13 comments }

Steve Z April 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm
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My wife and I are fortunate enough to have visited 20 countries between us. We both agreed during our recent trip to Rome that, although we were very glad we were there, we wouldn’t go back. That’s the only major city we’ve been to for which that’s true, and the reason is the transportation system.

Your recommendation about learning the bus system needs to be taken seriously by anyone visiting the city, as it’s the main way to cover large distances. Unfortunately, for us at least, it proved to be a frustrating, time consuming, and unpleasant way to get around. The metro is too limited in the areas it covers to be truly useful, and walking around the city is a series of seeming near-death experiences as you often end up walking through moving traffic while crossing the street.

By way of contrast, we were in Paris right before visiting Rome, and we’d go there again in second. In fact, that was our fourth trip to Paris, and one of the reasons we like it so much is that it’s very easy to get around the city via the metro. I understand that Paris had the advantage of essentially starting from scratch when Baron von Haussmann redesigned the city, and that Rome’s efforts at extending it’s subway are hampered by the ruins that are exposed every time they start digging, but it still leaves Rome a frustrating city to visit. It’s definitely worth the effort to see it once, but not a second time, at least for us.

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Jessica April 24, 2009 at 10:42 am
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I hear you, Steve, I really do… Rome wears me out big-time, and I don’t tend to fall in love with a city until I can relax a little bit now & then. But I will say that the bus system in Rome is incredibly efficient & makes a HUGE difference in liking the city.

Yes, buses are often really crowded, especially on the more popular tourist routes, but I find that kind of fun – buses in Rome aren’t just for tourists, after all, so you’re crammed on with actual Romans going to and from work or whatever. I like that. It makes the city more real to me.

Other than that, I’m not sure what you mean by buses in Rome being “frustrating, time consuming, and unpleasant” – what specifically was it?

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Steve Z May 5, 2009 at 2:04 pm
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There were a couple of major sources of frustration. One was being kicked off the bus as we were headed to St. Peters. It wasn’t just us, everyone on the bus was told to get off. Apparently there was some kind of traffic tie up and the bus driver couldn’t go any further. Unfortunately, neither could any of the other buses in the area, so our plans for the day were shot.

The other situation, one that occurred multiple times, and which was both frustrating and time consuming, was waiting at bus stops for over half an hour for our bus to arrive. If we knew how long it was going to take for the bus to appear, we would have walked. However, unlike the metro, which lets you know when the next train will arrive, we had no way to know when the bus would show up, so we waited much longer than we would have preferred.

Neither of these things by themselves would have been much cause for concern. However, added to the hair raising street crossings on foot, they made the trip less pleasant than we would have liked. The people in Rome were great, and the historic sites are magnificent, but, at least for us, once was enough.

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Khadine December 11, 2009 at 11:52 am
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I think that you post is great! It gives me (a first time traveler, to Rome) a great working knowledge of what to expect, what to look out for, and how to prepare for my trip without intimidating me. Thank you very much for the information and I hope that you keep posting your thoughts!

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Jessica December 11, 2009 at 4:11 pm
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I’m glad you liked the article, Khadine, and I hope you find it helpful once you’re actually in Rome!

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Claire April 15, 2010 at 5:48 pm
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Jessica,

I have read warnings about the area around the Termini Station, and I had a question about one of your hostel recommendations in that area, M & J. When you stayed there, have you ever had any trouble walking back there at night? Or, do you usually take the bus or a cab back to that area at night? I am a first time visitor to Rome and just wanted to get your opinion. I’ve used your blog to plan our entire two week trip to Italy. I can’t begin to tell you how helpful it has been. Thanks!!

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Ilham April 15, 2010 at 9:36 pm
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Yes please, like the poster Claire above, I too would like to know if the area around the Termini is safe to walk through at nighttime, when coming back from the station and returning back to your hostel? I will be a first-time visitor to Rome shortly & find your blog exceptionally detailed & helpful!

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Jessica April 16, 2010 at 8:48 am
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Hi, Claire & Ilham:

Whenever I went back & forth from the hostel at Termini, I did take a bus – because walking to the major monuments & attractions was just too far. I prefer getting there easily by bus and then wandering around. So yes, I always ended up on a bus back to Termini and then walking the few blocks to the hostel. Termini’s a massive bus terminal as well as a train station, so no matter where you are in the city you’ll be able to find a bus that gets you back to Termini. Just remember that the buses stop running at some point in the night – I don’t recall the exact hour, but I think it’s in the 1-2am range – and if you’re out after that you’ll need to catch a taxi or walk.

Ciao,
Jessica

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eric July 10, 2010 at 5:10 am
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All you need is a good bus map.

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James January 16, 2011 at 10:09 am
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I have lived and worked in Rome for nearly 3 years now and I have to say, I definitely do not love Rome. Nor do I think I ever will. It’s a place to visit, sure, but living here is like being kicked in the crotch on a daily basis.

The transportation is overcrowded and slow, constantly breaking down or stopping for seemingly incomprehensible reasons and people are downright rude. On an individual basis, the italians I meet are kind and friendly, but whenever I encounter them in groups, I want to throttle them all. I’ve never encountered people who have such a terrible attitude to public spaces, and who will push in front of you without the least concern.

I don’t really care about the absurd bureaucracy, beacause generally you can manage without it. It’s the completely base-level idiocy of the place that gets to me, in particular the fact that lots of shops close on a SATURDAY as well as Sunday!! I work a normal 5 day week, 9 to 5, so if I want to get something done, it has to be at the weekend. If the shops I need are closed then what?? Something that should be relatively simple then has to be sandwiched somehow into my working week (comprising 30 teaching hours and 15 hours travelling on public transport). How is this possible in a European capital?? In spite of all this, Rome also somehow contrives to be the most expensive city in Europe….WTF?

As soon as I can find a new job back in the UK, I’m out of here, as I just seem to be wasting my time and energy here..

you have been warned!

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Jessica January 17, 2011 at 10:45 am
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I’m sorry to hear this, James – I wonder if finding another place to live in Italy (outside of Rome) would be better for you (if you don’t head back to the UK, I mean)? And I think the things you’re talking about wouldn’t trouble people who are just visiting Rome on holiday – as you alluded to, there’s an enormous difference between visiting a place and living there, especially when it comes to Italy.

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debra January 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm
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Fantastic article. A lot of help for me as I will be travelling on my own in October. My one concern is there never seem to be any mention about the cruises out of Rome. I am taking one but for the life of me cannot figure out how to get to the port from my hotel which is in area around the Vatican and on my return to port how to get to the airport (FCO). Could you help?

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Jessica January 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

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