Things You Should Know About Rome

by Jessica on August 24, 2009

by | August 24th, 2009  

rome_vittorianoYou’ve planned a trip to Rome and you’ve read everything you can get your hands on about the city. Either that or you’re the “fly by the seat of your pants” type and you just bought a ticket and are going to see what happens when you get there. It doesn’t matter which personality type you are – you should at least have a handle on some of the basics before you arrive in Rome, and some of the “must-know” things you won’t find in a guidebook.

So, whether you read nothing else about Rome before your trip or you’ve devoured the entire Rome section of your local bookstore, here are some things you should know about Rome before you arrive.

Rome is a big, modern city.

rome_know1While most of us include Rome on our Italy itinerary or lifetime vacation wishlist because of its ancient ruins and centuries of history, Rome today is modern, sprawling, and very much a living city. The stops on most must-see lists might all be concentrated in what’s called the “historic center,” but even the historic center isn’t just the equivalent of a few compact city blocks.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a good city map of Rome before you arrive, or soon after you get there (the city’s Tourist Information offices usually have good free maps available) so you can visualize how far apart the sights on your to-do list really are. This will help you figure out how to spend your days, and how much you can realistically squeeze into each day. It’s better to think about that in advance than to wear yourself out (and end up crabby and disappointed) trying to pack too much in.

You will need to use public transportation.

rome_know2The single best way to finish your trip to Rome frustrated, tired, and unhappy with the Italian capital is to try to conquer the city without using public transportation. In many cities, walking everywhere is easily the best way to get around, and it’s often the most enjoyable (not to mention the cheapest) as well. In Rome, however, you’ll need to use the city’s buses or Metro system to get around.

Some people shy away from using public transit in places they don’t know for fear of getting on the wrong bus or not knowing where to get off the bus. The solution to these issues is to buy a Rome transportation map from one of the newsstands. They’re extremely helpful – I wouldn’t ride Rome’s buses without one of those maps. Some people steer clear of the buses and Metro because they’ve heard stories about pickpockets. While there are pickpockets who make themselves veritable regulars on some of the bus and Metro routes frequented by tourists, if you’re being a smart and aware traveler you really shouldn’t have any problems with them. In fact, you probably won’t even notice they’re there.

The bottom line is that while you could get around Rome on foot, you are much better off getting comfortable with the city’s public transportation as soon as you can. And reading my guide to Rome’s public transportation is a good way to start.

You can – and should – drink the water in the public fountains.

rome_know3I’m not talking about the water in the big fountains like the Trevi or the fountain in front of the Pantheon here, but all over Rome you’ll see public drinking fountains that you absolutely should use. They often look like old-timey faucets which produce a constant stream of cold water. The water is brought into the city like it has been for centuries via Roman acqueducts, and it’s not only safe to drink – it’s really tasty, too.

Wintertime visitors to Rome may not be interested in the drinking fountains, and that’s fine, but if you’re in Rome when it’s even remotely warm these public drinking fountains are an excellent way to cool off as well as the perfect place to refill that water bottle you’re toting around. It’s not recommended that you dunk your head under the stream of water (that’s seen as a bit untidy, since people are drinking from that same faucet), but if you’ve got a damp kerchief or something around your neck or head to help you keep cool, by all means soak that.

Rome’s public drinking fountains are well-placed throughout the city, although they sometimes blend in so well you may not see them at first glance. One very handy one is located inside the Roman Forum, so either before or after you’ve walked around the Forum on a glaring hot day (with no shade anywhere) be sure you hydrate there.

Oh, and many of the fountains are designed so that if you plug the downward-facing spout with your finger, the water will come up through the top of the spout – thereby making it easier to drink from. You should be able to see a small hole in the top of the spout if it’s meant to be used this way.

Rome is very hilly.

rome_know4This is one of those things that I wish I’d internalized before my first trip to Rome, and it goes hand-in-hand with the concept above about learning to love Rome’s buses. You may have read that Rome is one of those legendary cities “built on seven hills,” but if you’re anything like me you didn’t really stop to think about what that would mean for you as a tourist. What it means, I’m here to tell you, is that you’ll be walking uphill and downhill a lot when you walk around Rome.

You can have the most detailed Rome map and it still probably won’t include elevation measurements, so you won’t know which walks are going to include hills and which directions are going to be up or down. But all it takes is one uphill hike from one attraction to another nearby to make you realize that Rome is going to wear you out more quickly than you thought unless you start taking the bus.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of times you’ll be walking around Rome – some areas are ideal for just strolling (like the Monti or Trastevere). But even if you look at a map of Rome and think you’ll have no trouble walking the distance from the Baths of Caracalla to the Vatican, just remember it’s not always a flat road you’ll be on.

You should mail your postcards from Vatican City, not Rome.

rome_know5For those of you who still write and send postcards, here’s a tip that will not only speed your postcards on their journey but be a fun memento for whoever receives them as well. You probably already know that Vatican City, rather than being a neighborhood of Rome, is its own independent country. While it doesn’t have its own currency, the Vatican does have its own post office – and it’s notoriously more efficient than Italy’s postal system.

If you time your visit to Vatican City right, you’ll have visited other spots in Rome and have postcards already written when you head for St. Peter’s. The easiest post office in Vatican City to find and use opens onto St. Peter’s Square. If you’re looking at St. Peter’s Basilica, the post office is to the left. You’ll recognize it by the bright yellow “Poste Vaticane” boxes outside the door.

Remember that Italian stamps won’t work in the Poste Vaticane boxes, and Vatican stamps won’t work in the Poste Italiane boxes. So bring your postcards to the Vatican without stamps, buy them in the Vatican post office, and send them on their way. And, as a bonus, if you know anyone who’s a stamp collector (or just a Catholic, for that matter), a Vatican stamp makes an excellent souvenir.

Rome is no more dangerous than any big city, & less dangerous than many.

rome_know6I’ve heard plenty of stories about people getting pickpocketed on Rome’s subway system or overcharged by Rome’s taxi drivers or scared witless by the neighborhood around Termini Station – and some of those stories have come from people who live in, know, and love Rome.

Are there pickpockets and cheats in Rome? Of course there are. (Just like there are in any big city.) And smart people every year get wallets stolen or pay three times the going rate for a taxi ride. (Just like they do in any big city.) There are things you can (and should) do to avoid being one of those people, but it’s important to not be so overwhelmed by the fear that you’re going to get robbed or ripped off that you don’t relax and enjoy Rome.

The important thing is to stay alert, take appropriate precautions, and be aware of your surroundings – but to learn to relax at the same time. If you’re being a smart traveler, you’re a less-appealing target and therefore are less likely to have anything taken from you.

You will not see everything there is to see in Rome.

rome_know7I may be beating a dead horse here, but I still find I get questions from people headed to Rome for the first time who want to “see it all” in their three days in the city. If you’ve been to Rome, I don’t have to tell you how impossible that is. But for those who haven’t been to Rome, it’s worth repeating what countless others have said before me: You won’t “see it all” during your Rome trip, whether you’ve got three days or three weeks or three months.

What this means is that you’ll need to read through a list of things to do in Rome and then prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Put the things you want to do and see in order depending on how heartbroken you’d be if you missed them, and then work your way down the list.

It may seem like a luxury to say, “Whatever I don’t see this time I’ll see next time,” but whether or not you have any plans to return to Rome you sort of need to adopt that attitude to stay sane. Trying to do too much in a city as big as Rome is a sure-fire way to end up tired, grumpy, and not terribly fond of Rome.

And that doesn’t make for a very nice trip, does it?

photos, top to bottom, by: laszlo-photo, robad0b, Omer Simkha, tore_urnes, summitcheese, xiquinhosilva, Eric Livak-Dahl, Ed Yourdon


{ 10 comments }

Meg August 24, 2009 at 1:25 pm
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Thanks Jessica for the article. I should point out one more thing. Recently a Japanese tourist couple were totally ripped off by a restaurant in Rome. The polite Japanese couple paid for their lunch but complained to the police. It turns out they paid close to $1,000 U.S. dollars for their meal. After the police investigated, sure enough there was a huge discrepancy. The Italian government felt so bad they offered the couple a free trip to Italy. The couple were very nice sports and thanked the Italian government but refused. They felt the Italian taxpayer should not have to pay for one person’s greed. Buyer beware in Rome. There are local prices, American tourist prices and the biggest scam of all – Japanese tourist prices!

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Frank August 25, 2009 at 3:01 am
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Thanks! great article, very informative.

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Lola August 25, 2009 at 5:36 am
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Ciao Jessica,
wonderful article, as a true Roman I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I will now move on to the related posts for more.
Should you ever wish to recruit a local for further insight and expertise for your blog posts, or an Italian food expert for a column, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Take a look at my blog to get a feel of who I am and how I write. Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino
You can also follow me on twitter @passerotto

Ciao,
~Lola

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Jessica August 26, 2009 at 7:39 am
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Thanks, Lola, I’m glad you liked the article! I’ve started following you on Twitter, too. :) (I’m @italylogue.) And if you’d like, you can email me some ideas of posts you might want to contribute to WhyGo Italy – I’m always open to having guest articles on the site, especially if it’s an area I’m not as familiar with. You can send me a note at jessica(at)bootsnall.com

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Jessica August 26, 2009 at 7:45 am
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Hi, Meg:

Rather than that Japanese tourist story being a “thing to know about Rome,” or something that happens all the time, I think it’s a fairly isolated incident. Yes, tourists get ripped off all over Italy every day, but that was an extreme case that isn’t duplicated every day – in Rome or elsewhere in Italy. It pays to look at the bill before you leave the restaurant, so that’s always good travel advice.

Ciao,
Jessica

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Felisia October 29, 2009 at 6:02 pm
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Hi Jessica…

its a nice article, very informative…i plan to go to italy next month by myself. Bit worry coz i never been to Europe before, and have no friends in Italy as well.

I will fly from Indonesia to Amsterdam, Paris, and decide to go to Rome, Florence and Venice via Paris. Since my round way ticket back to my country is via Paris, then i have to go back to Paris after Venice.

I only have 5 days to spend in Rome , Florence and Venice, which i know is not enough. However, i really want to make it done in 5 days for those places.
Well, i plan to spend 3 days in Rome, 1 day in Florence and 1 day in Venice.

Read from the web, there are few options i can take to reach Rome from Paris. If i take night train from Paris to Rome, is it safe ?? as mentioned before, i am on my own, so if i want to go toilet etc, is it mean that i have to leave my luggage unattended.

I heard that Italy is a country of pickpocket ( no offense, we have lots in Indonesia as well), but the things i worry is that i dont know the situation there, and im a foreigner, who may be a good target.

Do you have any tips for me? or do you know any areas that i should avoid ??

Thanks lots in advance for your help..

Ciao

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Jessica November 1, 2009 at 11:07 am
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Hi, Felisia:

Thanks for your message. You’re right that 5 days isn’t enough to see Rome, Florence and Venice – I really do think you should only try to see two of those places in the time you have. Remember that you have to get from one city to another, which will take time away from the time you might think you will have to explore each place. So that means you will have more like a half-day or 3/4 of a day in Florence and Venice, not a full day in either one.

Of course, I know you’ll probably still do all three of those cities in 5 days. :)

Here are my thoughts on your trip:

* I highly recommend that you don’t try to go to/from Paris via one city in Italy, because that will take up even more of your vacation to transporting yourself from one place to another. In other words, don’t do Paris-Rome-Florence-Venice-Rome-Paris – instead, do Paris-Rome-Florence-Venice-Paris (or do it the other way, with Venice first and Rome last).

* Lots of people travel through Europe by themselves every day, and they’re fine. You have to be careful and alert, yes, but you can do it and not have any bad experiences if you travel smart.

* Taking the night train is safe, yes. If you’re concerned, you might think about upgrading to a first class sleeper cabin so you’ll either have fewer people in the cabin itself or might even luck out and get it all to yourself (since you’re traveling in November, it’s not the high season and will be less crowded).

* If you’re leaving your bags in the train cabin unattended, just bring your valuables with you (purse, daypack with camera, passport, etc.). Also, it doesn’t hurt to make friends with a train attendant and ask them to help you or look after you because you’re traveling alone. Find a friendly person working on the train, and ask them for advice on traveling alone.

* Again, if you’re traveling smart and being alert, you shouldn’t have trouble with pickpockets. Sure, Italy has pickpockets, but no more than any other European country. Keep your valuables secure and you should be fine.

* For more tips on traveling as a solo woman, look at websites that are about just that – they’ll give you all kinds of tips for what you should do to make sure you and your things stay safe.

I hope that helps!
Jessica

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Khalid September 22, 2010 at 2:19 am
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very nice article and really useful thanks 4 that.

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Cathleen Crawford April 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm
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When you are sleeping or napping, put your valuables under your head or inside of your shirt and attached to and under your body. I slept with my backpack as a pillow and my passport etc under my body. A woman right next to me got ripped off while sleeping on the train in Italy and I was fine. I spent 6 months traveling all alone and had a wonderful time, makes you easier to approach and connect with interesting locals. Like the RAF pilot who had piloted the royal family (he showed me parts of Oxford that I would never have seen without his knowledge of the campus) and Jean Marie LeClerc, a high school history teacher who I was seated with me at the Louvre for lunch (because we were both singles) or the nice widowed man running the hostel in Emmen. However do not ever tell a drunken Spanish artist to get buggar off then stick your nose back in a book (shutting out the world) while on the train. You must be aware of your surroundings 100% of the time or you may end up with broken glasses and teeth and an awareness that you are thousands of miles from anyone and any place that you know. Pure adventure awaits!!! Bon voyage!

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Aldo December 31, 2012 at 2:41 am
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Di sicuro Roma è una delle Città in Europa più tranquilla e mite, dove si puo passeggiare a qualunque ora del giorno e notte in tranquillità

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