Rome from Palatine Hill

Budget Travel Guide for Rome, Italy

All roads lead to Rome. It certainly looks that way when you look at a map of Italy! I spent 3 days in Rome, which was not nearly enough, and perhaps too much.

Rome is one of the most famous cities in the world, and one of the top five most visited. While I had my own activities over the three days I was there, I have many tips to pass along to you when you travel there yourself, which you must do at some point if you haven’t already.

Rome City Card

Along with many European cities, Rome has City Cards available for purchase. What’s nice about Rome is that there are two options. The first is the Roma Pass. This card is active for three days, and gives you free access to the Colosseum, Forum, Palantine Hill, the first two museums you visit and most transport within the city, along with a bunch of other benefits. The Roma Pass 48-hours is the same pass for two days instead of three, and you only get one museum free. If you are only planning to do one or two museums or not use a lot of public transportation, these cards are not necessarily a good deal. Otherwise, you will definitely save money with them. Most museums are €10-€15, the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine shared ticket is €12 and tickets on the metro are €1.5 each. I personally didn’t get my worth out of the card, which I will mention later. The three-day pass is €36 and the two-day pass is €28. They can be ordered online or purchased throughout the city.

Accommodations

Lodging in Rome varies widely, from very cheap to extremely expensive, just as in most cities. Personally as a budget traveler I look for the cheapest options. After failing at getting a couch surfing host I looked for a good hostel. The one I picked was the Two Ducks Hostel. I had some trepidation on booking it as it had a very low review score. It turned out to be completely different from what the reviews portrayed.

First of all, the location was perfect – only a couple blocks away from Rome’s central Termini train station. While many of the reviews said the hostel was in the dodgy part of town, the truth is that nearly all the hostel are in this location within a couple blocks of each other. The rest of the buildings are cheaper hotels, various restaurants and other services.

As to security, the room itself didn’t have a locker in it but there were three separate keys to get to the room – one for the building, another for the apartment and a final for the room itself. Also, it turned out that the room only had two beds in it, so that was comfortable. The hostel didn’t have any real central activity location for guests, so there wasn’t a lot of interaction with other travelers. But that was a small sacrifice in a city with so much to do.

The staff were five floors up and not very visible. The cleaning wasn’t bad and the mattress was comfortable. Overall it was a decent hostel.  The price was €8 a night, which was certainly the cheapest in town. If you are traveling on a budget, I would recommend them for you. If not, there are plenty of other options throughout the city.

Transport

Rome has minimal public transportation. There are only two metro routes, although a third is under construction. It’s hard for them to dig tunnels when the whole city has buried Roman ruins! But if you plan to visit all the attractions, including the ones on the outskirts, you’ll want to use the metro.

There is also an extensive bus system within the city, but I personally couldn’t decipher it. The one time I did jump on a bus, it ended up turning around right away and going in the wrong direction. While I had my pass for free bus rides, I found that no one else bothered with bus tickets, except for tourists who didn’t know any better. Maybe I shouldn’t mention that in my blog, but it was simply what I observed. Anyway, if you can figure them out or find a map and timetable, there are definitely buses available. Just know they might not be the fastest way around the city with the absurd level of traffic and narrow, one-way streets.

Of course, if you’re like me and want to see everything while getting in your exercise, the best way to get around the city is just walk. I didn’t even walk 60 km in the three days I was there, compared to the 80 km I walked in three days in Barcelona. Most everything is in walking distance from the Termini train station, especially if you plan to see as much as you can and go from attraction to attraction.

For your final decision, you’ll just have to work out where you plan to go in Rome, and then see what kind of transportation you need. Of course, if you get the Roma Pass as mentioned above, you won’t need to pay for any transportation for the two or three days your card is active for.

Food

I think Rome specializes in one cuisine above all others; the tourist cuisine! It actually wasn’t until I visited Venice when I found out how to truly find authentic, Italian restaurants that the locals eat at. But I did manage to find one good place when I was in Rome. Da Enzo 29. What a find! This place is so much for the locals, you can’t even find it when you’re in front of it; it has a tiny sign hidden behind the awning. The place is family run and they only speak Italian. The food was absolutely perfect. What I ordered wasn’t even a really complicated dish. But it was made to perfection, and it was also really filling. When I finally made it through all the pasta, I ordered tiramisu for desert. Now I’ve had plenty of tiramisu over the years, but never like this. What I had before was soggy and sugary. This was a thick, rich custardlike desert with the right kind of ladyfinger cakes inside and delicious powdered cocoa on top. Boy was it good. I had a great conversation with another American family who also manged to find the place, and we both agreed it was one of the best meals we’d had in Italy.

Other than that one, I didn’t have much luck with finding amazing meals in Rome. The pizzas were less than spectacular, the pastas were not on par with what I’d eaten in Cinque Terra or Sarzana, or what I would later eat in Venice. I did have one good meal of fries which was almost as good as the ones I had eaten in Belgium. And I found a gelateria similar to the one I found in Pisa, which made their gelato wholly from natural ingredients and kept them in closed containers.

Rome is also where I discovered what an aperitivo is. An aperitivo is technically a pre-dinner cocktail, but over time has developed into more of a substitute dinner. At many restaurants and bars, you can order a drink or two and receive a buffet or other snacks, salads and other dishes. Drinks can be €5-€10 each, but then the food is free. Sometimes the food isn’t great, such as at the first aperitivo I went to, but the second one was better. Definitely not restaurant quality, but decent. Aperitivos originated in Turin a couple hundred years ago, but now have spread to most parts of Italy and surrounding countries.

For the full details on how to find a genuine Italian restaurant, you’ll have to skip to my post on Venice, as that’s where I learned about it myself.

Attractions

Rome has dozens and dozens of archaeological sites, museums, palaces, basilicas, churches, gardens and other attractions. If you took your time visiting all of them, especially all the museums and churches, it could literally take you weeks. It wouldn’t even be fair to say which are the best ones as so many are great and everyone has their own personal interests.

My two personal favorites were the Vatican City and the Colosseum.

Vatican City, with the Sistine Chapel, Basilica of St. Peter and the Vatican Museum, is quite impressive to visit as the headquarters of the world’s largest religion. The tour can be quite long, but if you get there on the last Sunday of the month, you’ll have free admission. As a tip, arrive in the 10 AM hour. I got there before 9, and the line was several blocks long. While it moved relatively fast, when I left a little after 11 AM the line had only a few dozen people. Another local had given me the same advice, and now I wish I’d heeded it myself.

The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum are all purchased on the same ticket for €12, or they come free with one of the Roma Cards. I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the ruins. In peak seasons when the crowds are thick, it’s easy to spend an entire day in just these three attractions. If you want to go to the special levels of the Colosseum, such as the third floor and the catacombs, you’ll need to pay for one of the guided tours. If you already have your ticket or Roma Pass, you can get a discount on the tour.

Other than that, I’ll let you do your own research and make up your mind as to which museums, archaeological sites, churches and other attractions you want to visit in Rome. There are quite a few of them. As I said before, they are really just based on preference.

The Culture

Rome is definitely a unique city. Very tourist oriented and rightfully so with the ruins of the greatest empire in history and the headquarters of the largest religion. Walking around the streets will get you constantly accosted by the hackers and vendors trying to sell their newest product (which was selfie sticks while I was there). It was interesting to find that selling without a permit is actually illegal in Italy, as well as in many European countries. While I was quite happy to see a couple hawkers fined with their merchandise confiscated, it didn’t happen nearly enough.

The climate is Mediterranean and fickle. Sometimes it would be sprinkling, and a few minutes later there wouldn’t be a cloud in the sky. I was lucky enough to go in the last week of March when it wasn’t that hot (about 10°), but I was told that the summer months can get much hotter (24° average).

As the city is based on tourists, a good majority of the stores and restaurants speak English. But if you’re like me and look for the places where the locals frequent, don’t expect to find anything but Italian. I personally didn’t run into any animosity from locals despite warnings I received from others. I will say though that I noticed the police and regulations get a little more lax the further south you go in Italy. There were even several train rides that I didn’t get my ticket checked on. However, I wouldn’t recommend taking the chance and not having a ticket, as someone humorously said I should try.

My Three Days

Photos of Rome

Please note, I didn’t spend the time to label my 500 photos of Rome. If you want to know where any of them are or a story behind one, feel free to ask me.

Although I only spent three days in Rome, I definitely made the most of it. While I would have liked to go to more of the museums, I had my fill of churches and ruins, and I was ready to move on. I also spent more than I was planning to, and more than I had in any previous city, which why I was happy to leave when I did.

My first day, arriving from Pisa on Saturday afternoon, I dropped off my 20 kg bag at the hostel as soon as I arrived and spent the rest of the day walking around the city. I purchased the 48-hour Roma Card (which is activated the first time you use it, not when you purchase it) and then scoped out where to go in the city over the next couple days. In truth, it was a rather uneventful day.

Line for Vatican CitySunday started off fast. I got up early, activated my Roma Card at the metro station and got over to the Vatican City as fast as I could. I had found out that the Vatican City, including the museum and Sistine Chapel tour, are free on the last Sunday of the month from 9:00 to 12:30. I arrived around 8:30 and found the line was .67 km long (thanks mapdevelopers.com). Seemed like the wait would take forever, but it actually only lasted less than an hour, in which time I got a couple more chapters done in my Brandon Sanderson e-book. Tip – always have an e-book available for long waits. They can happen rather frequently when you travel! And another tip – if you plan to visit the Vatican, travel lightly and wear comfortable shoes. The security at the entrance is quite tight, and the tour is long even without the museums and gardens.

I took my time wandering from room to room, getting photos of all the artwork. There’s a huge amount of it. Some rooms have paintings and murals, others have tapestries, others have sculptures and still others have old artifacts. I took several dozen photos and still only captured a small percentage of what there was to see.

Sistine Chapel SignThe highlight of the tour was definitely the Sistine Chapel. For one thing, the room was packed. You’ve all seen pictures of it, I’m sure. But one thing I personally wasn’t expecting was the size of the room. After seeing one massive basilica after another in my travels, I wasn’t expecting a room that was only 13×40 meters (a little less than a quarter of a football field). There’s a lot more I could say about the chapel, but Wikipedia says it far better than I.

I will mention one more thing about it. The Sistine Chapel was the only place in my travels where the “no cameras” rule was strictly enforced. After having my fill of the artwork, I pulled out my camera and almost immediately was escorted out of the room by an armed guard. So much for capturing grand art to fill the blog.

After the tour, I went through the Vatican Museums. They were good, but after so many museums in my travels, it takes something like the Statue of David in Florence or the Rosetta Stone in London to impress me. Oh well.

Service by the PopeFinally I left, and followed the massive crowd that was rushing through the streets to get somewhere. I got there…and found myself in Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) in a massive service delivered by the Pope himself. That was cool, and certainly unexpected. Not a long service, but you could definitely sense something palpable in the audience. Hmmm.

Villa BorgheseNext I went to Castel Sant’ Angelo. After waiting in line for the museum, I decided I’d rather use my free museum pass on my Roma Card for the Borghese Gallery and Museum. So I walked across town, up the Spanish Steps and into the Villa Borghese. Now that was impressive. I didn’t realize how extensive the gardens, trails, ponds and zoo were. I actually spent more time walking through them than I did in the Vatican City (shows you how much I prefer nature to cities). Finally I made it to the Borghese Museum on the far side of the villa, only to find out that the museum was sold out for the day, and closed on Monday. So that was a bust, as I was leaving on Tuesday. Since most of the good museums were closed on Monday, and I was too far away from Castel Sant’ Angelo to want to go back, I actually never used my free museum pass and ended up losing money on the Roma Card. All the museums I did go to were free anyway.

Basilica di San Giovanni in LateranoAfter the villa, I jumped on a metro headed south, grabbed a late lunch and then visited the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. Now that was definitely impressive. To take a line from Wikipedia, “It is the oldest and ranks first among the five Papal Basilicas of the world and the four Major Basilicas of Rome (all of which are also Papal basilicas), being the oldest church in the West and having the Cathedra of the Bishop of Rome.” In fact, it is so massive it is 37 times the size of the Sistine Chapel!!! It has a huge crypt, lots of statues, tombs of popes, etc. Definitely hard not to be impressed by something of that magnitude.

Finally I made my way to the Colosseum, just up the street. I had been planning to visit the Colosseum and Forum on Monday when the museums were closed. But I just couldn’t wait.

Wow!

Selfie in ColosseumI have to say that out of all the exhibits and attractions I’ve done so far in my travels (basically anything not nature-related), the Colosseum is my favorite. Standing in that massive arena, built nearly 2000 years ago and capable of seating somewhere between 50,000 and 87,000 people, it was just…not even sure what adjective to use. Something better than anything I’ve used before. I can’t really describe the concepts and feelings I had walking around, but suffice to say, they were deep.

Pantheon EntranceAfter having my fill of the experience, reading all the information panels and getting enough pictures, I finally begrudgingly left. By that time it was too late to also visit the Forum (a ticket for one of the sites is valid for 48 hours at the other two, or all three are free with a Roma Card). I took a tour of the Piazza Venezia (which had been closed the day before), went back to the Pantheon (which I had also seen the day before), had a free sample of lemoncello (didn’t find out that’s what I was drinking until later) and finally made it to a apertivo hosted by a couch surfer. Met some new friends, had a nice buffet and a Mai Tai, went to another meal afterwards (since technically an apertivo is an appetizer) and finally called it a night.

Palatine HillMonday was my day for the Forum and a walking tour I had booked earlier. I spent several hours walking through Palatine Hill and the Forum, reading every information sign, taking plenty of photos, going to the free museums there and watching the information videos, and basically soaking in as much data as I could. I was fortunate to have a day when rain was forecasted, so the crowd was relatively sparse. I think it did start to sprinkle for a couple minutes, which was fine with me.

After that I went to lunch at Da Enzo, as described above in the food section.

Spanish Steps from AboveAt 5:30, I met up with my free walking tour. This one started from the base of the Spanish Steps and requires a reservation which should be booked at least a couple days in advance. As with every city I go to, I always try to find the free walking tour. They are always great and highly recommended, and this one is no exception. It lasted two hours, traveled about 2-3 km and covered many places and facts I would have never known about had I not done the tour. I never spoil tours in my blog, so you’ll just have to take it yourself and get all the fascinating data and sights. I do hope that Trevi Fountain restoration is complete when you visit. That was the only blemish on the tour, or of all the things I saw in Rome for that matter.

That night I wandered around trying to find another local restaurant with good food, and found another traveler doing the same. We spent the next hour searching together. We didn’t find a true local restaurant, but what we did find was close enough. Good food and a decent price. The best part was that they’re traveling to the same cities as me, so we hope to meet up in the future at some point.

Tuesday morning I got up early, grabbed the first train to Florence, and ended my stay in Rome. A fascinating city. Lots to do. More museums than you can see in one trip. Wonderful archaeological sites. I’m glad I went, especially for the Colosseum. But the nature side of me wishes I had gone to southern Italy. The Amalfi Coast is calling for me, I’d love to go back to Cinque Terre, someday a whole week will need to be dedicated to Sicily, and I’m sure there are other beautiful places in Italy that I’m missing. Oh well. Florence is next.

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