Let me lay out a couple of financial facts so you can decide now if you want to read what I have to say or not.
- We stayed in a hotel for four nights. Total cost: €408 including Rome City Tax.
- We spent €128 on entrance fees for all the attractions we visited.
- We booked tickets to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatino as well as the Vatican online. The Vatican charges an online booking fee of €4 per person.
- We spent €34 total on transportation, including to and from the airport.
- We spent €210 on meals, snacks, and beverages during the five days, (four days, really, since days 1 and 5 were only partial days), so roughly €26 per person per day.
- We did not do any shopping beyond popping into 2 or 3 touristy shops.
- We did not participate in the night life of Rome. After dinner we went to bed!
- Our total expenses for the two of us for five days, not including the hotel or flights, came to €395.
- The attractions we saw which required a fee to enter were: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel, Keats - Shelley House Museum, Capitoline Museums, Mamartine Prison, and the Protestant Cemetery (donation requested).
- For us, room and board came to €77 ($95) per person, per day. Rick Steves says one can get by comfortably in Rome for €116 ($145) per person per day for R&B, and "students and tightwads can enjoy Rome for as little as €52 ($65) a day" - so I think we did pretty well.
Ok, so if all that sounds reasonable enough to you that you think we might be able to offer some good tips, read on.
Get yourself two good guide books! Honestly, I think Rick Steves became my new best friend during those days in Rome. We opted not to buy the audio guide for the Vatican Museum but read his chapter on it as we went through. He encourages travelers to browse beyond his comments, but he focuses on the highlights, which is really enough for the average tourist. We also downloaded his free audio guides for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Sistine Chapel, and the Pantheon, which we found very good! He's rather dorky at times, but truly helpful. It was Rick who recommended the restaurant where we had our best meal in Rome, not far from our hotel - Ristorante da Giovanni.
Our other one was perfect for us because we did so much of Rome on foot. It's pictured above: National Geographic's Walking Rome, the Best of the City: a Step-by-Step Guide. That book is divided by neighborhood and directs readers from one highlight to the next within each area. Both books give helpful general travel tips and included maps and guides to buses, trams, and the Metro.
Getting to and from the Airport
Unless you have money to burn or are very short on time, take the Terravision Bus. It costs €8 per person round trip and it takes an hour from Fiumicino airport to Termini Station even in crazy, heavy traffic. We bought a one-way ticket to the City Center for €5 because we weren't sure about our return trip, then ended up paying €6 for the return trip, buying the ticket at Termini Station. Taking the Leonardo Express train saves you half an hour but costs €14 per person per trip.
We stayed at the Bailey's Hotel on Via Flavia, which is an easy 10- to15-minute walk to the Spanish Steps and the same to or from Termini Station. It was a modest hotel with very friendly personnel, an absolutely fine breakfast buffet, a nice room, an elevator if you need that, and it was quiet. I read that some rooms don't have windows or windows that don't open, but ours did. We stayed in a twin deluxe room, to which we had been upgraded for free by booking directly with the hotel and simply asking if they had any special offers when we booked a few months ago.
On the day we left there was a transportation strike which pushed our flight later, and the concierge on duty early in the morning was very helpful in making some phone calls for me and helping assure me that we would be able to get to the airport in time. They also stored our suitcases after check-out so that we could do some more exploring without having to drag them around with us.
Bailey's is located far enough away from main attractions that the price is reasonable (but close enough that walking is totally manageable) and it's quiet enough, there are several decent restaurants and pizzerias nearby, and the neighborhood felt safe to me.
Rome City Tax
As I understand it, this is a tax charged to all hotel guests staying in Rome ("to help pay for repairs and maintenance to the city" - see link below) and is NOT included on the prices hotels list on their websites although they collect it when you check out. When I booked the hotel a few months ago, the tax was €3 per person per night. On September 1st, apparently, the tax doubled to €6 per person per night. So €48 of the €408 we paid was this Rome City Tax. It's not the hotel's fault that this tax exists, so don't get upset with them when you check out. You want to figure that in to your anticipated expenses, though, and perhaps ask when you check in what the current tax is in case it has increased again.
|a view from the Gianicolo Hill|
We opted not to get the 3-day Roma Pass for €36, and with that decision we nearly broke even. We paid an additional €12 for bus/metro tickets, but we visited none of the attractions covered by the Roma Pass beyond the Colosseum and the Capitoline Museums (which, according to the terms of the Roma Pass, would have been free for us). The Vatican is not included in the Roma Pass, nor is transportation to and from the airport.
By no means am I poo-pooing the Roma Pass! Just make sure you check into what attractions it covers and make sure those are on your list of things you want to see before buying it thinking you'll save money on entrance fees. If you plan to do most of your in-city traveling by overcrowded buses, trams, and trains, it may also be worth it. We took four rides - one bus ride from which we fled at the second stop and gladly walked the rest of the way to where we were going - and three Metro rides (passing on two trains and waiting for the next because they were just too full). Yes, we were tired from miles and miles of walking, but so what? We saw more on foot than we would have on buses and the Metro.
|Circus Maximo (Ben Hur!) and the Palatine Hill|
Getting around in Rome
Explore Rome on foot. You will see more, and there is something to enjoy and/or photograph around every corner and down every street. To get to the main attractions at the time when you have an appointment, take the Metro. A ticket costs €1,50 for buses, trams, and the Metro for as many transfers as you need within 90 minutes from validating, and you can buy these tickets in most tobacco shops and kiosks. Always validate your ticket by sticking it into a machine (on entering the Metro station, on every bus - and probably on every tram as well, though we didn't take any trams). Avoid Bus # 64 like the plague - it's a touristy bus which Rick Steves warns is also a haven for pickpockets, and it's so crowded you will never stand as close to strangers anywhere else in your life.
Road signs (identifying which road you're standing on) are stone plaques on the corners of buildings at about first-floor level. It took us an embarrassing four hours or so to figure this out.
Being a Pedestrian in Rome
Mopeds don't have to obey any traffic lights, signs or rules that I am aware of. Pedestrians who wait for the light indicating it's safe to cross are visitors. Cars and buses will usually stop for pedestrians crossing streets to avoid messing up their cars and delaying their mad dash to wherever the hell it is they're going, but it's generally a good idea to cross at the pedestrian crossings (Zebrastreifen, in German). Don't wait for the vehicles to stop - just step into the crossing, make eye contact with the approaching drivers if possible (they're less likely to bash into people who look into their eyes), and stride confidently - and quickly - to the opposite sidewalk.
Good luck and be careful.
In front of the main attractions you will find lots of tour guides vying for your attention and business, offering personal tours providing lots more information than you will want to read on the posted signs throughout the attractions. We did not bite, so I cannot speak to the quality of these tours. I can tell you that in the Vatican Museum, where we walked through rooms skipping some displays and stopping to read about others (on signs or in our Rick Steves book), one of these tour guides went zooming past us with a family stopping here and there to explain something and then saying, "Ok, can we move on now?" They went through even faster than we did, and we only looked at the highlights. My suspicion is that they want to go through quickly because that allows them to find another group to hire them. Logically, the more tours they do in a day, the more money they make.
I asked one tour guide in front of the Vatican Museum what the cost was, and he said €20 (I assume per person, but didn't ask). If you don't have a good guide book, don't want to buy the cheaper audio guide provided by the museum, and/or want a more personal tour with someone who can answer your questions, then give them a try. I don't like pushy salespeople and I don't like people getting in my face when I've decided for myself how I'm going to do something. Just know that there will be tour guides trying to get your business, and they can smell hesitance. If you make eye contact and sound unsure with your "No, thanks," you'll have a hard time shaking them.
|inside the Pantheon|
Here's my daughter's advice about the peddlers on every street and piazza selling whatever is currently hot - this year selfie sticks, portable chargers, and scarves: Do not make eye contact, and do not answer them in any way if you do not want to buy what they are selling. Have a stern (or downright nasty) look on your face, and if they don't go away continue to ignore them and do not, for the love of all that's holy, smile politely. I sucked at all of that, though I did wonder what went through their heads as they approached me while I was taking a photo with my Canon DSLR. Uh...this camera won't fit on that stick. I actually said that to one of them, which elicited a reproachful "MOM!" from my daughter.
What to See
Of course you want to see the main attractions on your first visit. But don't miss the free stuff and the lesser-known churches. That's where your guidebooks will help you. And here's something I wish I had done - when you go into a church (and I swear, every one is beautiful inside), make sure you know what it's called before you leave, and write it down including the time when you were there (to compare with your camera's data). Then you won't have pictures later on with captions like "a pretty church in Rome." There are more churches in Rome than days of the year, and you probably won't be able to find out after your trip the name of the churches you took pictures of if you don't make note of them right away.
As I wrote above, we spent €210 on food and drinks during those five days (call it four because we only needed dinner on the first day and lunch on the last). On the first day we bought a six-pack of water bottles and took one with us each day. We were able to sit outside during the day and even one evening, which was nice for us in December!
We always looked for a restaurant at least a few blocks away from tourist attractions, and went in where we saw & heard locals. Per a tip I read, we avoided places with lots of English outside and especially with pictures of menu items displayed near the door. We found the prices reasonable. My daughter stuck to Coca-Cola, and I had one or two glasses of wine in a day plus sparkling water.
We were not blown away by the deliciousness of the food, but we tried all the dishes we'd intended to - Spaghetti Pomodoro, Gnocchi, Pizza, Calzone, Spaghetti Carbonara, Tortellini, and Tiramisu - and the meals were good. My favorite meal, at Ristorante da Giovanni, was Abbacchio romano arrosto (roast lamb), my daughter had Saltimbocca ala Roma (veal with prosciutto and sage), and we shared a piece of Tiramisu. With drinks that bill still only came to €38 ($47). It is definitely possible to eat good and filling meals in Rome without breaking your wallet.
with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil
|Abbacchio romano arrosto|
Food noises were heard...
You'll read in most tour books that Italians don't tip and it's not expected in restaurants in Rome. We found this to be true. Several times we were able to give an extra Euro, but most often, even when I handed the waiter the check and the money, smiled and said "Grazie!", he gave back the extra Euro or two. We always strove to avoid the touristy restaurants and find ones off the beaten path with local-sounding people in them, so it's possible the ones that lure tourists expect tips.
I think that covers what I would tell first-time visitors to Rome based on our experience. If I think of anything else, I'll post an addendum.