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A quick review of travel guidebooks reveals an interesting dichotomy in how Rome is described. On the one hand, you have words like “timeless,” “fascinating,” “magical,” and “romantic” – and on the other you will find “chaotic,” “overwhelming,” “sprawling,” and even “brutal.” How can one city inspire such seemingly polar opposite descriptions?

Or are they really opposites?

Rome is all of those things and more, an incredible city with a few hard edges. All it takes is a little preparation to tilt your visit more toward the amazing side than the frustrating one.

Italy’s capital city has been an important city – not just for Italy but worldwide – for millennia. Once the epicenter of the vast Roman empire, Rome still contains some of that era’s most important structures as well the historic buildings of the empires that followed. But beyond that, the Eternal City is a bustling and often crazy modern city whose residents live in the shadow of their past without being dwarfed by it. It is precisely this meeting of old and new – with little to no buffer in between – which makes Rome simultaneously enchanting and difficult. It is, however, most people’s entry point into Italy, as most Italy flights from overseas fly into Rome Fiumicino Airport. It’s helpful to do a little research in advance to ease your time here.

Quick links to Rome travel resources:

Where to Stay in Rome

There is no shortage of places to stay in Rome, but as you might expect, the closer you are to one of the big attractions the more you’re going to end up paying for your room.

On the flip side, if you’re more focused on saving money, there are clusters of cheap hotels and hostels that are further from the main sights – but because Rome is so spread out, you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable with the Rome transportation system (buses and subway) so you don’t completely wear yourself out hoofing it all over the city.

>> Note that there’s a new hotel tax in Rome as of January 2011; learn more about how much you’ll pay and how you can avoid paying the top tax rates.

Quick search for Rome hotels:

Here are some of the articles I’ve written about accommodation in Rome, depending on what you’re looking for:

What To Do in Rome

Rome could feel overwhelming, especially if it is your introduction to Italy, so don’t feel like you need to “conquer” Rome in your first try, and do not feel like you failed if you don’t fall in love with the city right away. Sometimes Rome needs to grow on people.

While there’s more than enough to do and see in this enormous city to last the intrepid traveler easily a week or longer, you might want to limit your first visit to a few days to see the highlights and plan a second visit when you don’t also have to contend with the shock of the city itself. And plan on mastering the Rome transportation system to save your feet from untold wear and tear, too.

>> Here’s my main article about what to do in Rome.

>> On a budget? Don’t forget to keep track of all the free things to do in Rome!

For a brief trip to Rome, the following sights are the main must-see stops:

Other sights you can add to that list if you have more time, you want to skip something above, you’ve seen the big ticket items on a prior trip, or you’re not interested in just wandering: the Borghese Gallery, the National Museum of Rome, the Cappuccin Crypt (a personal favorite), Castel Sant’Angelo, the old Jewish ghetto area, the Catacombs and the Capitol Hill Museum. You can join one of the many Angels & Demons tours in Rome to cover some of those sights and see them through the lens of the popular book, as well. And if you’re craving a little quiet corner in a city that feels like it has no quiet corners, may I recommend the Trastevere neighborhood? (It’s quite in the daylight hours, at any rate. At night, it’s a whole different story.)

How Much Time to Spend on Each “Must-See” Sight

It is easy – and advisable – to spend a whole day in Vatican City, checking out the acres of treasures in the museums. And really, once you’re inside, you don’t want to think about leaving early and coming back another day – do you remember that line you just stood in for hours to get where you are? Stay, see what you want to see, and be done with the Vatican Museums once and for all. Oh, and reward yourself with a stop in St. Peter’s afterwards – with no fee and (often) no line, it’s bliss.

The highlights of ancient Rome can be seen in a day, from the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine Hill to the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. A day spent visiting those sights (and the views of the Forum from Capitol Hill) is a day spent walking – a lot. So wear your comfortable shoes, and bring sun protection if your visit is during nice weather. In the Forum especially there is no respite from the heat (ruins provide little shade when they lack rooftops). Oh, and you’ll need to save extra cash for a gelato or espresso on Piazza Navona – the prices are exorbitant, but the views are fantastic.

The Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps might be kitschy, but you sort of have to do them anyway. Get in line, stand with your back to the fountain and throw your coin – even if you don’t really want to return to Rome by the time you squeeze your way up to throwing distance. (The coins are collected once a week and donated to the Italian Red Cross, so at least there’s that.) A visit to the Spanish Steps just might make you want to watch “Roman Holiday” again, too, which is never a bad thing.

The bottom line is that although a visit to Rome might not inspire the heartfelt sighs that a view of Tuscan hills or a stroll through Venice at dusk might inspire, Rome is not a city you can skip when you visit Italy. So, rather than worry about what might happen, plan ahead to make sure that a great visit to Rome does happen.

>> For more trip-planning advice, here’s my article on what to do for a 5-day itinerary in Rome.

Popular Rome Hotels
Residenza Cellini Hotel
Hotel Lancelot
Marcella Royal Hotel
Hotel Re di Roma
Hotel Modigliani

More cheap hotels in Rome

>> For the best English-language guide to what’s going on at this very moment in Rome, the In Rome Now website is just about unbeatable. It’s updated weekly.

>> And for some tips on where to eat, check out Rome resident Katie Parla’s list of her favorite restaurants in the Eternal City!

» Rome’s official tourism website is here, and should offer some tidbits of help to you in planning your trip to the Eternal City.

Buon viaggio!

original photos, from top to bottom, by: cuellar, clayirving, cuellar, wenzday01