We spent a couple of days in Rome, Italy and fell in love with all its chaotic, breathtaking splendour. The glorious historical sites, the most exquisite pasta dishes, the heady summer evenings where the streets are awash with the golden sunset light. This is one capital city we can’t wait to return to.
Here are five things we learnt from our trip that could come in handy if you are planning to travel to bella Roma.
FREE ENTRY TO MUSEUMS AND HISTORICAL SITES – On every first Sunday of the month, Rome’s state museums and historical sites are open to the public completely free of charge. This government initiative runs across all of Italy. Pretty neat! However, take note that during peak seasons you might need to brave some insane queues.
Since Davinia and I were in Rome for the first Sunday of August, we decided to take the state up on its offer and visit the Colosseum for free. We woke up nice and early, set off from our hotel, and arrived an hour before the gates opened to find a queue of literally a few thousand people snaking around the amphitheater. It takes a certain type of person with a certain constitution to be able to wait several hours in a never-ending queue whilst being steadily baked to ultimate lobster-red in the morning sun. It is safe to say that neither I nor Davinia are that type of person. We immediately gave up on the idea of entering for free and bought tickets to join a guided group tour around both the Colosseum and the neighbouring Palatine Hill, thereby skipping the queues and wasted hours waiting. The tour lasted close to 3 hours and was certainly worth every penny thanks to the two brilliant tour guides we had (more on tour guides below).
While our attempt to get into the Colosseum for free was ill fated, later that same Sunday we did manage to see an amazing concert completely free of charge under the same scheme. The concert was by Peppe Servillo and the Solis String Quartet who performed a selection of re-interpreted classic Neapolitan songs in the courtyard of the impressive Palazzo Venezia. Easily one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended and I’ll try write more about this event soon. Only mentioning here to show that if you do your research and plan ahead, you can certainly make the most of these first Sundays of the months.
GET A GOOD GUIDE – You could of course go around the famed Roman sites with nothing more than a travel book or a Wikipedia page open on your phone. But standing around reading paragraph upon paragraph of well-researched historical information in the baking sun will almost certainly make you lose the will to live, no matter how enlightening the facts are. You’ll definitely get so much more out of the sight-seeing experience with a great tour guide.
Two guides we would particularly recommend are Roberto (senza Cavalli, his words not ours) of 7 Hills Tours and David Battaglino. Roberto was our guide around the Colosseum. As well as being knowledgeable, he was also extremely engaging and funny. From the get go he had the whole group in fits of laughter, picking on everyone without fail, and our one hour walk around the amphitheater flew by in flash.
David took us around the Palatine Hill. Besides his vast knowledge on all things Rome, what made him stand out was his passion for his home city. David was as quick to mock and rubbish the aspects of Rome he disliked (the modern art exhibitions currently on display in the ruins of the Palace of Domitian got a good thrashing), as he was to go into great detail about the parts he adored, such as the Pantheon and the Basilica of Maxentius, with much gusto. We really wanted to join David on one of his evening tours but didn’t find the time. If we are ever back in Rome however, he is the first tour guide we are contacting.
FREE WATER – There are so many drinking fountains pumping out clean ice-cold acqua around Rome that you never really need to buy bottled water. This water is safe for consumption, is used by the locals, and is apparently tested for purity around 250,000 times a year! So just keep a bottle on you at all times and refill at leisure. All around central Rome, you’re bound to see street vendors selling bottled water. DO NOT BUY from such sellers. We were told that it is illegal for them to be selling water like this. More importantly, some of these sellers are known to fill up empty plastic bottles from drinking fountains, dab a few dots of super glue on the inside of the lid to make the seal appear intact, then sell them off to parched tourists desperately in need to cool down from the intense summer heat.
THE HIDDEN CHARGES – There are quite a few extra charges tourists seem to unknowingly agree to incur as soon as they enter Rome. So it’s good to take a better look at the fine print.
Firstly, be aware of Rome’s City Tax. Anyone above the age of 10 who is staying overnight in a hotel or rented accommodation will be charged city tax up to 10 consecutive days. The tax ranges from €3 to €7 per night, per person depending on what star hotel you are staying in. The amount is separate to your hotel bill and will be settled with reception upon check-out. This isn’t really an extra cost you can dodge, unless you are staying with friends in the city. If you aren’t, maybe it’s time to find yourself a Roman pen pal.
Restaurants and cafes in Rome will include a service charge, but prior to receiving the bill, what that charge amounts to is anyone’s guess. Waiters will most surely not go out of their way to inform you about these extra costs. Sometimes it can be as little as €1.50 per person, but we did hear of stories where people were charged up to €5 per person, and even service charges according to the number of plates eaten per person. So it’s always best to check with a member of staff before you actually sit down at a table. We made this mistake once. Desperate to get out of the sun, we entered a cafe outside the Colosseum and ordered two coffees sans menu to later be charged €10.00 when leaving! That’s €10.00 for two basic americano coffees, not any specially sourced brews or anything, and for the privilege of sitting down at their establishment. Moral of the story is, before entering any restaurant or cafe, especially those that are central, always ask about additional charges before taking a seat. Because as soon as buttocks hits seat, they’re charging you.
Another dining related tip. If you are having a proper meal at a restaurant (i.e. not just a coffee and sandwich), most of them will put what most people would assume is a complimentary basket of bread on your table. This in fact incurs another charge of around €2 or so on your bill. So if you aren’t feeling overly peckish, you could always notify your waiter beforehand to not bring out the bread. Of course, what’s an extra €2 really. But if you’re dining out every night these little extra costs could easily amount to a museum entrance fee or a metro ticket back to your hotel.
SAVE MONEY ON AUDIO TOURS – Not really a Rome specific tip but certainly applicable. If you’re going around one of the museums/historical sites that offer audio tours, then you can save a few euro by checking if their device-packs have a headphone output. If yes, then you can easily share one pack between two, either by wearing one ear piece each or by bringing a headphone splitter along and attaching two sets. Obviously, if you are visiting a small operation where every penny helps them with upkeep then I would suggest not doing this. But if you’re visiting the Vatican Museums for example, where each audio tour pack costs an additional €7 on top of the already pricey entry ticket, where information on panels next to exhibits is quite scant, and where thousands upon thousands of visitors are entering the premises every day, then I can’t really see the harm in cheating the system a little bit.