Want to know the best things to do in Rome—beyond seeing the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum? Then put away your guidebook. When they go beyond the main sites, too many books (and magazine articles, and television shows) provide the same tired, touristy list of things to do and places to go in Rome.
The problem: These places aren’t only overrun with tourist crowds, but often just don’t tick the box they’re supposed to.
Here are five of Rome’s most overhyped activities—and what to do instead.
1. Instead of having a coffee at Piazza del Popolo…
Don’t get me wrong: The large, obelisk-topped Piazza del Popolo is worth a stop. (Don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its Caravaggio paintings). But it’s not where to go for a cup of coffee. The couple of cafes on the piazza are scams expensive (think €4.50 for an espresso) and the service is terrible—which is why you won’t see any locals there.
…enjoy a gelato at Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina.
A 10-minute walk from Piazza del Popolo is the lovely little Piazza of San Lorenzo in Lucina. If you must sit and have a coffee or a snack outside… on a pedestrian piazza… in the heart of Rome’s historic center (and who can blame you?), this is where to go. The main cafe here, Ciampini, is also pricey. But the (also jacketed) servers are actually nice, the clientele is mostly made up of upscale Italians, and the gelato is among the best gelato in Rome.
2. Instead of shopping on Via del Corso…
Oh, yeah, Via del Corso’s just great for shopping. If you want to browse the same merchandise from H&M, Gap, Athlete’s Foot, and Zara that you’d find back home. No, thank you.
…shop on Via Urbana, Via del Boschetto, and Monti’s other side streets.
For shopping, you can’t beat the little rione of Monti, located near the Roman forum and Colosseum. It’s chock-full of well-priced, trendy boutiques and artisans, and there’s only one chain store (an American Apparel, yuck) in the whole district. Whether you’re looking for handcrafted jewelry, or vintage clothes, or gorgeous home goods… this little area’s got it all. (Don’t miss my post on shopping on Monti’s Via del Boschetto!).
3. Instead of observing the locals at Piazza Navona…
Seeing Piazza Navona, a gorgeous, Baroque fantasy of a piazza: a must. Going there to “observe the locals”: a mistake. Nine out of ten of the folks you see strolling by are tourists. (The one exception is over the holidays, when Roman families head to Piazza Navona’s Christmas market). And, yes, that also means that all of the so-called restaurants on the piazza are tourist traps.
…people-watch (the Romans) at the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti.
It’s not in your guidebook? Exactly. This is where the locals hang out from morning to the night, either grabbing a seat at the 16th-century fountain or an outdoor table and a (reasonably-priced!) coffee or glass of wine at the Bottega del Café. For real local cred, just call it the “piazzetta,” like Monti’s residents do.
And if you come on a Friday or Saturday night when the weather’s warm, be prepared. This little piazza is shoulder-to-shoulder with 20- and 30-somethings meeting friends, chatting, and drinking wine. (No open container laws here!). Talk about atmosphere!
4. Instead of taking in the view from the Victor Emmanuel monument…
You won’t be able to miss the Vittorio Emanuele monument at Piazza Venezia even if you want to: It’s obscene enormous. But you can choose not to fork over the €7 to take an elevator to the top. Yes, there’s a good view of Rome from here. But there are good views of Rome elsewhere, too… ones that won’t cost you a dime.
…enjoy peace and panoramic views at the Giardino degli Aranci.
The Giardino degli Aranci, or Garden of the Oranges, is located on the Aventine hill, behind the Circus Maximus. The views from here take in everything from the Pantheon to St. Peter’s. And you’re accompanied by lovely orange trees, a Renaissance fountain, and the next-door Basilica of Santa Sabina.
5. Instead of searching for la dolce vita (and luxury hotels) on Via Veneto…
Thanks to Fellini, everyone’s heard of the Via Veneto. But when it comes to where Rome’s VIPs go, that was so 50 years ago. While the Veneto is still lined with 5-star hotels, they’re a bit like the austere grandmothers of Rome’s luxury accommodation scene: elegant and moneyed, yes, but also a little worn around the edges… and hardly hip. You’ll also find few good restaurants, cafes, or bars on the street (just touristy ones!), and forget nightlife.
Let’s just say this street has seen better days. (Not to mention is still banking on the dolce vita connection: Yes, the lit-up sign above is on the Via Veneto).
…stay in a luxury boutique hotel in the Spanish Steps area.
The Spanish Steps area is expensive and, yes, still touristy. But if you’re looking for a taste of la dolce vita (and a luxury hotel), there’s no better quarter. These days, this is where Rome’s most upscale and newest boutique hotels—not to mention most high-end boutiques—are located. And the cobblestoned streets are way more atmospheric than the asphalt Via Veneto. Plus, the area’s more convenient to Rome’s major sights.
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.