I first visited Rome in 1992, and my love for the city has only grown since. I wrote my first book about the city in college, and rarely does a year go by since then when I don’t visit my favorite piazza (Navona), enjoy my favorite gelato (cioccolato e limone con panna) or gaze upon my favorite art (Raphael’s Stanze…among many others).
Rome can seem imposing to first-time visitors, but enjoying the Eternal City and all its myriad nuances is much easier than many people think. Here are my essential things to know for everyone lucky enough to be headed for magnificent, wonderful Roma.
With a bit of planning and some patience, you can avoid the crowds in Rome © Lorenzo Montanari / 500px
1. Be the architect of your own days
Rome gets crowded, and some sights like the Vatican museums are both overwhelming and overwhelmed with other visitors. Many a tourist has lapsed into a stupor as they wander the nearly 7km (4.5 miles) of corridors. By the time they finally reach the Sistine Chapel, they gaze up at Michelangelo’s fantastic ceiling and mutter, “Oh yeah, more art.”
But with a bit of planning, you can avoid the most crowded times at the Vatican Museum. Visit Tuesdays and Thursdays; Wednesday mornings are good, too; and the afternoon is better than the morning. Monday is an especially bad day to visit as other museums in Rome are closed (instead, use the day for exploring the city’s streets, squares, back alleys and parks).
Across Rome, weekends are always busier at attractions as tourists are joined by Romans enjoying the sights on their days off.
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2. Buy tickets in advance
You’ve mastered the Metro and finally reached your sight of choice, only to discover a guide ahead of you in the line for tickets, methodically – and slowly – buying tickets for 40 people. Or you discover that a few hundred others are already in the queue for tickets. While you wait in the hot sun for your turn, you feel a prime chunk of your day ticking away.
However, you can easily avoid ticket lines by buying in advance online. The Vatican museums are a perfect example of where you’ll feel the joy as you walk past the waiting masses and breeze in. For any major sight in Rome, it’s always worth checking the website for advance ticket sales. And note that some unmissable attractions, like the Museo e Galleria Borghese, or special tours, like the secret castle tours at Castel Sant’Angelo, require an advance ticket as admissions are limited to avoid overcrowding.
3. Stack the deck to make your first visit memorable
Decide which of the unmissable top sights you’ll most enjoy – keeping in mind that you almost certainly can’t see them all unless you have loads of time in Rome, and knowing that trying to “do” places like the Vatican or the Forum in a couple of hours borders on the criminal.
And always leave extra time for wandering, café sitting and people-watching. It’s one of the true highlights of Roman life.
The Spanish Steps may be famous, but they’re not worth a detour © Apostolos Giontzis / Getty Images
4. Know what to skip
Have the self-awareness to know your limit on churches. Yes, some would cry sacrilege, but if you’re standing in some world-famous house of god, and you can’t remember which one you’re in because it’s looking a lot like the previous ten, then it’s better just to pick a couple from the long list and focus on those. Plus, you’ll have something saved for your next trip.
And a word of caution on two specific sights:
The Spanish Steps – a nice stone staircase with good views, yes, but a reason to go out of your way, no. Tourist traps, touts and fast-food jostle for space in this neighborhood. Give it a miss (and if you do go, don’t sit down! See below).
Bocca della Verità – an old stone carving of a lion head with a mouth that’s been pawed by millions of sweaty fingers. Every country seems to have one of these (hello Blarney Stone!), right down to a magical legend; in this case, the lion will bite your hand if you tell a lie. Uh-huh.
Just a few insider tips can make your Roman dining experiences even more enjoyable © SolStock / Getty Images / iStockphoto
5. Book your table in advance
Some of Rome’s most vaunted restaurants fill out their reservations list weeks in advance, so it pays to book tables before you arrive. But even if you’re playing it loose, it’s always a good idea to reserve your table in advance, even if you don’t do so until just a couple of hours before your meal (assuming there are still tables available). Having a reservation is one of those intangibles that’s essential in practice. Roman restaurants clearly give more respect to people arriving with a booking as opposed to mere walk-ins – even when there are plenty of available tables.
6. Break bread like a Roman
Most restaurants open from noon to 3pm and 7:30pm to 11pm, usually closing one day per week (often Sunday or Monday). In August, most eateries close for at least a week, although some close for the entire month.
Other essential tips:
- Dress up to dine out. What to wear? See tip #7 below.
- Bite through hanging spaghetti – no slurping it up, please.
- Pasta is eaten with a fork (no spoon).
- It’s OK to eat pizza with your hands when you’re getting it to go – in restaurants, people usually use a knife and fork.
- Like any Italian grandma, fare la scarpetta (make a little shoe) with your bread to wipe plates clean.
7. Try to keep up: know when and how to dress to impress
Roman style is world-renowned, and there’s no better way to escape the tourist cliche than to dress with panache, especially when going out to celebrated restaurants and clubs. Let sharp and smart be your bywords in this, and don’t underestimate what you can achieve with travel-friendly black and eye-catching accents like a truly special scarf. This is true for all genders.
Also, know that by day, and when you’re out in the neighborhoods, dapper casual is the rule. Still, there’s never a time when you’ll want to wear a sweatshirt, goofy shorts, hiked-up socks and the like – unless it’s your signature look and you can pull it off!
8. Don’t break the laws for tourists
Picking up the trash is an ongoing and seemingly eternal challenge for Rome, but efforts are being made on other fronts to try to bring some order. In 2019, a series of laws were introduced to reign in the excesses of the visiting masses. People caught breaking these rules risk fines of up to €400 ($450) or a temporary ban on entering the area in which they caused the offense. Among the restrictions:
- Sitting on the Spanish Steps is forbidden.
- No wading in the city’s fountains.
- No “messy” outdoor eating near historic monuments.
- No walking around bare-chested.
- No dragging strollers or wheelie suitcases up or down historic staircases.
- When drinking from the public drinking fountains known as nasoni, don’t place your lips on the spout – drink from your cupped hands.
Keeping just a few Italian customs in mind can ensure you have a wonderful time socializing with the locals in Rome © DisobeyArt / Getty Images / iStockphoto
9. Be polite and observe the local formalities
Italy is quite a formal society, and the niceties of social interaction are observed. Greet people in bars, shops, trattorias, etc, with a buongiorno (good morning), buon pomeriggio (good afternoon) or buonasera (good evening).
Say mi scusi (excuse me) to attract attention or ask for help. Use permesso (permission) to pass someone in a crowded space and always cover up at churches (that means shoulders and legs for a start).
10. Health and safety in Rome
Rome has no inherent health hazards beyond the bloating that comes from wildly excessive food (and gelato) intake. But we have a few tips that will keep you feeling tip-top.
Stay hydrated. It gets hot in summer, especially out in the open air of places like the Forum. Carry a water bottle, drink copious amounts and keep it filled at the many public drinking water fountains.
Ancient cobblestones, long staircases and hours spent wandering are just some of the features that will tire you out. Wear shoes with excellent support and cushioning.
11. Keep your wits about you
Rome is generally a safe city, but petty theft is a real risk. Use common sense and watch your valuables. Pickpockets and thieves are active in touristy areas such as the Colosseum, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Venezia and St Peter’s Square.
Stay alert around the chaotic Termini train station and on crowded public transport – the 64 Vatican bus is notorious. Keep your wallets, phones and valuables out of reach of pickpockets – wallet bulging in your back pocket? No way!
In case of theft or loss, always report the incident to the police within 24 hours and ask for a statement. The emergency number for the police (Carabinieri) is 112. Make sure you never drape your bag over an empty chair at a streetside cafe or put it where you can’t see it.
Beware of gangs of kids or others demanding attention. If you’ve been targeted, take evasive action and/or shout ‘Va via!’ (‘Go away!’).