Eight Tips When Planning a Trip to Rome

If you don't think about what time of year you're coming, you might end up here during ferragosto. Goodbye, shopping and fine dining!

Yes, your passport’s important. But that’s not what I mean. As much as many people seem to plan their trips to Rome down to the detail, there are some mistakes that can be easy to make… from using TripAdvisor for restaurants to coming during ferragosto. Below, eight items to keep in mind while planning a trip to Rome.

1. Bring your student ID. If you’re a university student, bring your I.D. card with you. It’s true that this gets you fewer discounts than it does in more student-friendly countries like, say, Greece, but it does get you a discount at the Vatican (€8 instead of €15) and can come in handy elsewhere, too. If you’re an E.U. citizen, also make sure to bring an I.D. with you whenever you’re sightseeing: You lucky Europeans get discounts at almost all of Rome’s sites, including the Colosseum, forum, and Borghese Gallery.Everything's closed during ferragosto... so don't come then!

2. Don’t come in July or August Think about what time of year you’re coming. Yes, little Johnny gets the summer off from school. But so do everybody else’s kids, so this is when the hotels are full (and pricey), the Colosseum’s packed, and you have to stand on tiptoes to get a look at the Vatican’s Laocoön. Not to mention that it’s hot, sweaty, and in August, Romans celebrate ferragosto — meaning that the city’s best restaurants and family-run shops are closed. (For proof, see photo above). Scheduling limitations are understandable. But if there’s any way to sweep away to Rome in June, or better yet, spring break, fall, or Christmas, you’ll have a much more relaxing, rewarding experience. Little Johnny will thank you.

3. Do your restaurant research… Understandably, a lot of people come to Rome and think, “All these restaurants serve Italian food. They MUST all be good!” Sadly, that’s not the case. You would wind up eating in a tourist trap if you showed up at Times Square hungry and confused (I know I have…), and you will wind up having the same experience in Rome. Not might. Will. It’s a tourism-based city, and lots of restaurants take advantage of that, shoveling their customers terrible, microwaved food along with a gut-wrenching bill.

So if you’re spending any amount of time thinking about what museums and sites you want to see in Rome (and who doesn’t?), then do yourself a favor: Use some of that time to think about where you’ll eat, too. You’ll be spending at least two hours a day dining, three or four if you’re doing it the Italian way.  You don’t want to feel like those hours, or euros, are wasted.

4. …but don’t do your restaurant research on TripAdvisor. Yes, TripAdvisor is good for some things. It is not good for restaurant recommendations, at least here in Rome. It’s too easy to play the system — aggressively asking clients to post 5-star reviews, having cousins and siblings put up fake reviews, etc. I’m not casting any aspersions on the restaurants that are listed as Rome’s “best” on TripAdvisor. But. Suffice it to say that I’ve never heard of most of the TripAdvisor top-15 (Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, a local favorite, and Babbo’s, which is pretty good for the value, aside), among anyone claiming to be a “foodie” or even “very enthusiastic eater.” And those restaurants have never, ever come up as recommendations to me from any Roman or expat friends in all the times I’ve asked.

But the bad news continues. Also be wary of guidebooks, since as with all restaurant scenes, things change quickly here in Rome, and guidebook-info is often at least a year behind. (Not to mention that as soon as a restaurant winds up in a guidebook, it often starts resting on its laurels). For proof, just check out my post on Ristorante Montevecchio. In 2007, it had a glowing review from NPR. But three years is a long, long time in the dining world.

If you do your research, you can have pizza like this. Formula Uno, RomeSo what do you do? Well, research elsewhere — preferably in recent newspaper articles like, okay, mine, and on good Rome-food websites like Katie Parla’s www.parlafood.com. I’ll also be adding more and more restaurants to the “Food and Drink” part of this site, so stay tuned.

5. Think ahead of time about taking a tour. Because if you’re interested in the concept at all, what will happen is this: You’ll get to the Colosseum. You’ll see the line. Some nice-looking 20-something holding a clipboard will stop you and say “Hey, do you speak English? Do you want to skip this twenty-three-hour line?” And before you know it, you’ll be hustled into a tour that, well, might get mixed reviews, to put it nicely.

Instead, do your research in advance and think about what you might want to take a tour of. (The Vatican can overwhelm visitors, and those companies worth their salt arrange for you to skip the line; the Forum can seem like a pile of rubble without a knowledgeable guide; an evening city walk can help you get your bearings). Then book it. Done. You don’t have to think about it again — nor do you have to get swept into a group of 50 with a barely-English-speaking guide, all because you didn’t book a well-researched company in advance.

6. If making a strict itinerary, know your closing dates. I never fail to be saddened — and surprised — by the number of visitors who come to the Vatican Vatican museums on Sunday, expecting to waltz right in. Why do these downtrodden hordes surprise me? Because the Vatican museums (including the Sistine Chapel and Raphael rooms, of course) are always closed on Sunday. (Except for the last Sunday of the month, when it’s free, but that means the line snakes for miles and miles, so….).

If you’re planning your sites day by day, make sure you know what will be open when. If you can’t find out opening dates for a museum/restaurant/site through a quick search online, give them a call on Skype. Also, remember that if you want to go to the Borghese Gallery (and you should! It’s lovely!), you must reserve in advance.

7. Don’t get a RomaPass. Necessarily. A lot of visitors do this ahead of time because it seems like a great idea: Once you activate it, your first two entries to sites are free, the rest are discounted, and you get free public transport, for three days. Sounds pretty great, right?

Before you spring for it, though, consider which sites you’ll be going to first — and if “skipping the line” is worth it. (The only RomaPass site that tends to have a long line is the Colosseum). A RomaPass costs €25. Let’s say you’re coming to Rome and you’re doing a Colosseum tour with a company that lets you cut the line. So instead, you immediately do the Capitoline museums (€7.50 saved) and the Palazzo Barberini (€5 saved), neither of which have lines that I’ve ever seen. In the next three days, you would have to take the bus or metro six times and hit up three more sites that charge you entry for the card to even pay for itself. (Are you even going to three more sites that charge you entry? Most top spots, including the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St. Peter’s Basilica, and other churches, don’t have an entry fee. Plus, the RomaPass does not include the Vatican museums, a €15 entry).

You also don’t have to buy a RomaPass in advance: If you decide you want to buy one once you get here, you can purchase it from any of the ticket desks of the participating sites or from ticket desks at some metro stops, including Termini, Spagna and Ottaviano.

For a RomaPass FAQ, click here; for a list of the museums it includes and their respective discounts, click here.DSC_0103

8. Forget the traveler’s cheques. Or, at least, don’t go too crazy: They’re nice insurance, but can be way more of a hassle than they’re worth. Bringing a big wad of cash and expecting to change it when you get here is a bad idea, too, only because any of the money-exchange places you find will give you a “you-must-be-kidding” (and not in a good way) kind of rate.

Easier: Bring a couple of ATM cards and use them when you get here. (At least one will work. Really.) For bigger purchases, use a credit card, like Visa’s CapitalOne, that doesn’t bang you with a surcharge for international fees. Both options will give you the “High Street” exchange rate, not the rate that some guy with a storefront and some pretty currency symbols came up with.

Just remember two things. First: Credit cards are accepted far less often in Italy than they are in other countries, including the U.S. and U.K., so you should always have cash on hand. Second: To be on the safe side, make sure you call your bank and credit card companies in advance to inform them that you are going abroad, so charges that they see won’t be the nefarious workings of some Roman scam artist.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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23 comments

  1. A little dramatic 🙂 I never had problems to use credit cards in Rome, I had instead in other countries including US and most of Western Europe. Being a Roman I would visit Rome in July & August instead ;), for certain tourists can be a valuable option if ready to face the difference with the crowded and chaotic city of the rest of the year. Last but not least i had the opportunity to play the “tourist” in my own city last few years and the tourist-trap restaurants are really less than I always thought. Even if I am in a better position than a first-time visitor in judging roman restaurants from their exterior appearance and menus I think most of them should not pass the filter of the common sense for a normal traveler (waiters pulling people in, photos of meals Mc Donald style, multi color banners in many languages etc). My bet with the luck has so far almost 100% of success in trying unknown new locations… I was really surprised by the average quality and prices as well as were the exigent guests with me. I really did not expect it considering the endless tourist invasion.

  2. A lot of your “tips” are inaccurate. The Vatican is NOT closed on Sundays. The Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays. The basilica is open for visitors. You don’t need to be on a tour to bypass the line at the vatican museums or at the colosseum, the two sites that usually have very long lines. You can use the romapass to bypass the line at the colosseum while still taking a tour and you can pre-purchase tickets or a tour to the vatican museums from them online which allow you to bypass the lines.

  3. Hi Hunter,

    Thanks for your comment! You’re absolutely right, I should have made it more clear that by “Vatican,” I meant the “Vatican museums.” (The “Vatican” is a country. So, of course, it never closes!) I’ll make an edit now.

    And no, you absolutely don’t need to be on a tour to bypass lines. In fact, I think I write about how you can bypass the lines with the RomaPass in the RomaPass section. However, for a number of the issues I listed, I still don’t think buying a RomaPass *necessarily* the best choice for every single traveler – it just depends. Lots of people have already booked walking tours when they buy a RomaPass, for example, and for those folks, they might not necessarily need one.

    Prepurchasing Vatican tickets online is also a good tip – thank you for reminding me. (Readers, just go to the official Vatican “biglietteria” online to do so).

    Other than that, I only say think about taking a tour in advance if you think the situation I describe could happen to you, because I see it happening on a daily basis to hundreds of folks – they arrive at a site, get completely overwhelmed (not just by the crowd and the lines, but also by realizing, uh-oh, I don’t REALLY have a clear idea of what I’m seeing), and get swept into a maybe-mediocre “skip the line” tour. My point was that if you think that might be you, weigh your options in advance, rather than on the spot when you get there and are feeling overwhelmed. As with everything, planning can be key!

    Hope that clears up some of the misunderstanding. What do other readers think? Anything else you’d like to add?

  4. Hi Prez,
    I’m glad you had such a good experience “eating blind” in Rome! I do have to wonder how much being Italian might have helped you out; it’s sad to say, but when I go to the same places with Italian friends versus with American tourists, I get different treatment (and sometimes even different-tasting food… hmm!) But it’s great you found good restaurants, and yes, basic tips like not going to places with photos on the menu are important.

    Were there any restaurants you tried that you particularly enjoyed?

  5. You are right that many/most restaurants in Rome will be overpriced tourist traps. I have found that one general rule of thumb that usually works is….never eat at any restaurant within eyesight of a tourist site as it’s virtually guaranteed it will be a tourist trap. Also, if there is a ‘barker’ outside a particular restaurant throwing out witticisms in your particular language (they’re usually very quick to size up what country you are from!) and/or their menu is available in a few different languages, it’s more than likely a tourist trap. If you SEE tourists eating there, that’s also a clue.

    So net, net, restaurants that are off the beaten track, with menus in Italian only, and with locals eating there, are USUALLY going to be a good bet! 🙂

  6. Regarding the Roma Pass. I was planning on getting it, but do you think it is worth it based on my plans?

    Getting into Rome on a Friday morning and see the Galleria Borghese (Roma Pass), then maybe the Colosseum (Roma Pass).

    On Saturday was planning on visiting the Vatican Museum and St. Peter Basilica.

    On Sunday visiting Forum, Palatine Hill, and National Museum of Rome.

    On Roma pass website, it states if one of the first 2 sites you visit is a combo (like the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine), you can go to the remaining ones within the 3 day period.

    Not certain if the Roma Pass public transportation will get me to the Vatican Museum though.

    Thanks!

  7. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for stopping by!

    First off, “Roma Pass” transportation is the same as Rome’s public transportation. So yes, of course you can get to the Vatican using Rome’s usual buses and metro. But it’s only a euro anyway if you didn’t have a pass (as is any other ride on the bus or metro in the Rome city center).

    So, let’s do the math. By buying the Roma Pass, you get into the Borghese (currently 13.50 with the Cranach exhibit) for free, and into the Colosseum and forum for free (another 12 euros saved). The 25 euro Roma Pass has already paid for itself. (This wouldn’t necessarily already be the case if the Borghese didn’t have an exhibit on — that the pass includes that is one of its perks). Then, the Museo Nazionale’s normal price of 7 euros is half off to you, so you save 3.50. And you get your public transport anywhere in Rome for free.

    In your case, therefore, yes, I’d say get the Roma Pass. But remember that you STILL have to book the Borghese in advance.

    Hope that helps!

  8. Thanks for the reply Amanda.

    I have a followup question concerning the Roma Pass. Bringing a 7 year old child with us too. Do you believe it’s necessary for a child to get a Roma Pass also?

    How do places know if the child is a European (besides the obvious fact that we will look like tourists)?

  9. Hi Peter,
    I’d look into the specific sites you’re planning on going to with the RomaPass to see if your child is eligible to enter for free. Generally, though, seven is just a little too old and most sites I’ve seen require a ticket. Riding the metro and bus, only kids 5 and under are free. So I’d probably recommend getting a RomaPass for your child to be on the safe side.

    As for how they’ll know if s/he’s European, they would and do ask to see his/her passport. That’s the only way to prove that you are eligible for EU discounts.

  10. Having little or no idea about sightseeing in Rome, this article has explained things very nicely in detail. It covers many of the queries that a tourist has while planning. The style of narration with the humourous touch makes it very interesting to read. However, I still have one question that hasn’t been answered here. We are pure vegetarians and would like to know the kind of places that serve decent, pure veg food at reasonable prices.

    1. Hi Susmitha,
      Thanks for your kind words. Vegetarian restaurants aren’t especially common in Rome, but this list should help you get started. It’s also worth noting that pretty much any trattoria or cafe in Rome will have vegetarian options: at a pizzeria, you can always get a pizza margherita, verdura or another option without meat; at a trattoria, many traditional Roman pastas have guanciale (pork jowl), but you can ask for something like pasta all’arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce); and in the contorni section there are always grilled vegetables and/or a salad. At a paninoteca, look for panini like mozzarella con melanzane (mozzarella and eggplant) or spinaci (spinach). I hope that helps!

  11. Hi Amanda..Great tips for starters. I am planning a 3 day trip in July end (don’t kill me for this :P). I am staying near Trevi fountain and assume that I won’t need the 3 days Roma pass as I would be walking mostly.I am tight on budget, so I want to know which sites (free or small entrance fee) should I cover in these 3 days so that I don’t end up missing on essence of the city and it does not burn a hole in the pocket..

    P.S. I am doing the Colloseum !
    Thanks

    1. Hi Shalini,
      Don’t worry, I won’t kill you… this time! 😉 I agree, give the Roma Pass a skip. In three days, you can cover a surprising amount of ground — a surprising amount of it free. Here are some things you can’t miss that are completely free: the Pantheon (make sure you go inside), outside sights like the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo and the lovely Piazza Farnese, the Caravaggio masterpieces in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi and at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Michelangelo’s Moses in the church of San Pietro ai Vincoli, the beautiful walk through the Jewish Ghetto past ruins and over Tiber Island, and the view from the top of the Campidoglio over the Forum. St Peter’s Basilica is also free to enter (but be prepared to queue). Sights you might want to budget for, because while they cost they are essential Rome, include the Vatican Museums (home to the Sistine Chapel) and the Forum/Palatine/Colosseum (these are all on one combined ticket).

      I hope that helps you get started! You might want to also check out my page of useful posts to get you started on your planning: http://www.revealedrome.com/start-here

      Happy planning and safe travels! You’ll love Rome even on a tight budget, promise.

  12. Hi. fab article, loads of tips and I’ve bookmarked it to have another read closer to my trip. I am going to a wedding on an organic farm in borgo di tragliata next April. As my ultimate dream to see all of Italy isn’t happening anytime soon with two small kids (someday, in 18-21 years, I’ll take off for a month or two and see it all haha) I’ve decided to at least see some of Rome, couldn’t live with myself travelling past it to go home and not seeing any of it. So I am booking one night extra after the wedding for myself, after researching it I will be staying in the rione morti area in nerva boutique hotel, it seems to the most authentic Italian area still close to the city (I walk a lot, and HATE touristy areas, I know attractions will be touristy but I also want to “feel” I’m in Italy when I return to my room, mingle with Italians, just want as authentic as possible in Rome, correct me if I’m wrong about the area) I will be in Rome city centre from midday saturday, until my flight home Sunday at 8.50pm.

    Do you have any tips on how to squeeze the most out of this tiny timeframe? I was going to book a full day tour with overome but they said as the tour ends at 6pm I wouldn’t have time to get to the airport. Also worried about being rushed on a tour of that makes sense. I’ll only have carry on luggage so a backpack essentially.

    Also. Apart from the obvious precautions, any worries about a mid twenties Irish female travelling around Rome alone? Or tips?

    Again. thank you so much!

    1. Hi Ciara,
      Happy to help! I’d say that as long as you make peace with the fact that in that timeframe, you’ll only get a taste of the city, you’ll have a wonderful time. You’re staying close to the Colosseum and Forum, so I’d suggest seeing those sites on the afternoon of your first day (if you don’t do a tour of them, then make sure to book your tickets in advance here to avoid waiting in line). You could then easily walk from there to see for example Capitoline Hill and Michelangelo’s piazzetta; down the hill into the Jewish Ghetto with its (slightly more off-the-beaten-path than the Forum) ancient ruins; and either have dinner there or walk across the river into Trastevere, a lovely area at night. Or if it wasn’t already too late, you could do a loop taking in the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona. That would leave you the next morning to either see the city center and the sights above or to see other sights around the Monti neighborhood — the church of St Peter in Chains with its Moses statue, for example, or the beautiful mosaics in the Church of Santa Prassede — and relax a little bit more. Anyway, just some first suggestions that come to mind! Really, though, you’ll have a wonderful time no matter what. And no need to worry whatsoever as a 20-something woman in Rome by herself (I lived there as that myself!). Just use the same awareness and savvy you would in any city.

      Enjoy your trip!

  13. Hi, great article, loved it and have bookmarked it for future detail study before my trip. I plan to go to Rome end May and would be staying either 2 and half or 3 and half day. Plan to prebook my entry tickets to Colosseum and Vatican museum through their websites. Just have one querry about Colosseum if you can help. I want to visit the underground of Colosseum and all the websites and even the official sites talk about guided tour. Does the entry only ticket purchased online from the official website has any restrictions regarding areas you can visit inside the Colosseum? Can’t I visit the underground myself with the entry ticket purchased online or is it mandatory to buy a guided tour for it. With online tickets purchased in advance do I still have to stand in a very long queue or these tickets are so called “skip the queue” type. Is Colosseum doable in half day(from 2 Pm) or can I plan to add a few more attractions?
    Will be happy if you can help me with your valued suggestions.
    Thanks and regards

    1. Hi Prosenjit, good question! The underground can indeed only be visited with a guided tour. It is not open to anyone with a pre-booked ticket as it requires special/separate access. They say it’s because it’s an archaeologically sensitive area (which is true) that they want to limit the number of visitors to – of course, the more cynical among us could also say that it’s because they want to make extra money off the tours! That said, it’s well worth doing, and you don’t have to go with a Colosseum guide; the company Walks of Italy, for example (which I used to work with), offers a tour that includes the underground with their own guide. As for your second question, no, with online tickets purchased in advance you can skip the (main) queue – the whole benefit of buying them, of course! And finally, yes, the Colosseum is doable in half a day. Most people spend around 45 minutes to an hour and a half inside. In half a day, you could also visit the Roman Forum and/or Palatine, which will also be included on your ticket. I hope that helps!

  14. I visited Rome in July last year. It was indeed really really crowded, especially at the main tourist sites. A bit annoying, but not enough to make it a bad trip. Still loved it!

  15. Hi Amanda, a number of very interesting articles. We’re thinking of coming to Rome for 10 days at the end of July (me, my wife and 2 children 3 & 8. Noted the caution around how busy it will be, but we can’t do it any other time this year. We’d like to do a 2 base trip, ideally with one part in Rome and another somewhere more traditionally holiday, a hotel with a decent pool etc. Where would you recommend for part 2 and any insider tips on family friendly locations/hotels? Thanks Mark

    1. Hi Mark, apologies for the delayed reply! If you haven’t already decided, I’d say you might want to consider a hotel in Umbria or Tuscany — there are lots of big, rambling old villas in both regions with pools, etc that are frequently used for holidays, weddings, conferences etc. The countryside in either region is beautiful, the little villages are lovely, and it won’t be as incredibly hot as it would be further south. I hope that helps, and let me know what you decide!

  16. Hey im staying in the caravel hotel in rome colombo 124 and i was wondering how much and what places to visit its my first holiday and im not great at planning. So can you please help me out?

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