I was fortunate enough to travel to Rome for the first time just this past month. As amazing as Rome is, it can be an overwhelming destination for tourists, especially for those that don’t travel overseas often. Experiencing a new city, language, and culture can be difficult, but I’ve assembled some tips to help you navigate through Rome problem free.
Many of the streets and walkways of Rome are made from cobblestones. While the historic stones add charm and uniqueness to the city, they easily can become a nuisance. Walking on uneven surfaces for long periods of time is irritating. Pushing a stroller or pulling a suitcase isn’t easy on cobblestones either. Children bounce and suitcases clammer along the bumpy walkways. Also, most stones are smooth and can be extremely slippery when wet, thus making walking potentially hazardous. It’s imperative to leave your high heels at home and wear good walking shoes (with good traction) when navigating Italy’s streets and sidewalks. Be prepared to expect some challenges if you bring a stroller as well.
Driving in Rome is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, even after visiting other European countries. It seems as if cars have the right of way in Rome, not people. Of course, not every experience I had was like this, but the vast majority were. Cars are supposed to stop when pedestrians are standing in the crosswalks, but that doesn’t always happen. Rome’s small streets are filled with cars, trucks, mopeds, and motorcycles that won’t slow down for walkers or cyclists. You might come across places where you’d expect vehicles to be prohibited, but aren’t, like in large plazas. My family and I would walk down small, narrow alleyways where you’d not expect to see a vehicle, but would have mopeds dart around us or supply trucks forcing us to hug the walls and let them pass. Scooters and motorcycles rule the road and they can come zipping by you at any moment. Just use caution and if you’re traveling with children, keep them close.
Rome is hot in the summer (at least to this Chicagoan!). The average high in July is 79 degrees. Now, that may not sound all that hot, but keep in mind that there is not a lot of shade in outdoor tourist locations. Also, many buildings do not have air conditioning, or if they do, it feels like it’s barely on. Try to avoid traveling during the hot summer months, if you can. Otherwise, try to sightsee in the morning or evening hours. Dress in lightweight fabrics, bring a brimmed hat, and avoid the heat of the day.
Most public bathrooms (also known as water closets or WC) in Europe require a euro or more for usage. In some places like train stations, payment is via an automatic machine that opens a gate after you put the money in. It might be irritating, but paying for a restroom usually results in cleaner, well supplied restrooms. Expect to pay in restaurant bathrooms as well, as there may be an attendant on duty.
Unfortunately, pickpockets are numerous in touristy areas of Rome (and most of Europe). These people are professionals in their craft and can easily find victims. They target people in popular tourist attractions, especially crowded ones. Stay alert while on crowded buses, subways, in museums or anywhere there are large groups of people. Be wary of anyone that tries to distract you or engage in random conversation. Wear your backpack in front, keep a hand on your purse, and keep an eye on your belongings at all times.
As with any foreign experience, I find it respectful to the people and the culture to try to learn at least a few words in the language of the country you are visiting. With that being said, English seems to be the second language of Italy. Especially if you are visiting the popular tourist locations, you will find most Italians will speak some English; if not, they can point you to someone who does. Usually, younger Italians are more likely to speak English than older generations.
Roman public transportation is over capacity. There are not enough trains and buses to handle the amount of residents and tourists that need to use their services. My family and I took a city bus around 9:30am on a weekday and could barely get on the bus. (I would have figured most locals would be at work by 9:30, but I was wrong.) It was so crowded that people were shoving others, just to make room. The bus driver, enclosed in a glass space (and seemingly not caring about those of us trying to get on), even closed the bus door on my foot! Everyone standing on the bus was smashed against another. It was hot and incredibly uncomfortable. Although buses are a cheap form of transport, it might not be worth the discomfort. Also, taxis often overcharge tourists. Uber is present in Rome, but it’s also pricey; even so, we should have used Uber – it beats being smashed on a bus.
The same goes for Rome’s subway system. The metro in Rome is standing room only during morning and evening rush hour. Throw your personal body space bubble out the window as you won’t have that on the subway at these times. Be cautious for pickpockets in these cramped compartments as well.
All around tourist locations, there are people trying to sell you selfie sticks, cold water, and more. Many times these people will get right in your face and ask you to purchase. Sometimes, they will continue to bother you, even as you walk away. You’ll also find salespeople in places where you’re standing in long lines, like at the Colosseum or outside St. Peter’s Basilica. These people will try to sell you a “skip the line” tour that will be more expensive than usual, will likely result in a larger than normal tour group size, and will likely be a rushed tour. Do your homework before you leave home to optimize your experience and not get burned with a quick sale on the street.
Along with the salespeople, there are also pushy employees of restaurants that will thrust their menu at you while you walk by. Being asked to dine at a restaurant all the time was rather irritating. When we did select a place for a meal, I specifically chose restaurants that did not have people reaching out for customers. Also, be wary of eating in popular tourist locations. Prices will be much higher. In Piazza Navona, I paid 7 euros (almost $8) for a can of soda. If prices aren’t listed on the menu, ask! Sometimes even the English menu has higher prices than the Italian menu. Ask for an itemized receipt, study your bill, and make sure pricing is accurate. For more info on dining in Italy, check out WalksofItaly.com.
It’s important to be respectful in Rome’s historical attractions, museums, and churches which includes keeping yourself covered. Especially important to know during the summer, tourists have to be covered from the knees up (no shorts, short skirts, etc.) and your shoulders need to be covered (no tank tops, spaghetti straps). This is imperative in the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Pantheon. Prior to my trip, I knew that you had to be covered at the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, but I didn’t know that you had to be covered at the Pantheon as well. Needless to say, I had to purchase a pricey shawl from a street vendor to allow my daughter to join us inside. Not everyone in tank tops or shorts got stopped by security; it depends on whether or not security sees you when you enter. Just make sure you follow protocol anyway, so you won’t be stuck waiting outside.
Tourists to Rome are never far from a gelato shop. Italians pride themselves on their speciality treat, most often serving three flavors on a small cone to happy tourists. Often, whipped cream or a sugar wafer is added to the top. Gelato is smoother and silkier than ice cream, uses more milk, has less butterfat, less air, and is served 10-15 degrees warmer. And it is an amazing delicacy!
Rome is really a very vibrant city, with passionate residents that are happy to share their city’s history with the world. I hope these tips will help you in any future endeavors you have to the ancient city of Rome.
Know of any other tips for traveling to Rome? Let me know in the comments!