Food, architecture, history, food, religious intrigue, food, wine….that pretty much sums up my order of play whenever I visit Rome, Italy. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so you’re going to need more than one to truly experience all that Rome has to offer. You could easily spend a weekend just eating and drinking (although it would be particularly carb-heavy); and a full fortnight holiday probably wouldn’t satiate your appetite if you’re a true history buff planning to visit everything the city has to offer. As a result, and especially for a weekend getaway to Rome, I typically like to focus on a couple of key sites each day and break up the sightseeing with frequent stops for arancini balls (fried rice ball) and suppli (another fried rice ball), gelato and tiramisu, pasta with lots of pepper (a Roma favourite!), coffee and wine in picturesque market square cafes. You could try and metro or tram to all of the major tourist spots, but the real beauty of Rome lies in navigating the cobbled backstreets from Vatican City to the Quirinale district by foot with its café culture and dining dotted between famous landmarks like the Pantheon, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Be prepared for a packed few days of great food, famous landmarks, and plenty of blisters!
Unless you’re flying from further afield than Europe, chances are you’ll fly into Ciampino airport, which is about 30km outside of the city center. After hours of flying and sitting in airport terminals, I have a predisposition to toss cash at the first taxi driver I see. In theory, this should be fine from Ciampino as the Government has set a fixed fare from the airport to the city. Stress over, right? No, not really. Despite the government ‘enforced’ rates, taxi drivers still typically try to charge you more. More for bags, more for traffic, more because the sun is shining….so unless you want to become a hot-blooded Italian, then my advice would be to take an easily navigable public transport option.
Although Ciampino has a train, you can’t walk to the station from the terminal. Avoid the bus-to-train journey to the city center and go for the direct bus. There are a few options (we took TerraVision) each costing about EUR 5 and dropping you off at Rome’s Central Station (Termini). Kisoks for tickets are on the right-hand side as you leave the terminal and most of the low-cost airlines also sell them as optional extras when you book your flight tickets. Everything is easily accessible from Termini as you have a direct connection to the A and B Metro lines. Termini is also a great jumping off point for all of the sights by foot, so you could just plan to have your accommodation within walking distance of Termini for ease.
If you’re arriving from further afield then you’ll likely land at Rome Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport. The good news is that Fiumicino has its own dedicated high speed rail service, the Leonardo, which drops you off at Termini in central Rome and goes from the train station within the passenger terminal complex (just follow the signposted and covered walkways). The Leonardo is undoubtedly the easiest and quickest route in to town, but if you want something a little cheaper (and much slower) then your other options are regional trains and bus services. The regional train services require you to hop on FR1 which conducts a loop of the city. You’ll then have to hop on the Metro where it intersects with the FR1 route in order to make your way in to the city center. Bus services are the cheapest option, drop you off at Termini and are offered by a number of providers including Terravision, SIT and TAM.
As I mentioned in my opening gambit, the beauty of exploring Rome really lies above-ground and on foot. However, if you’re determined to cut your walking time down to a bear minimum, or if you’re particularly short on time, then the good news is that Rome has a fairly comprehensive system combining Metro, buses and trams. Your best bet is probably the Metro which is easy to navigate and from a tourist perspective there are only really two lines (A and B) that you’ll want to use. The C-line is still under construction and the parts that are open aren’t really great for the tourist hot spots. I’ve included a link to the Metro and Tram map in the additional resources section below. If the Metro doesn’t get you close enough to where you want to go then your other option is the bus network; which centers itself around the Termini Train Station. If you want to plan your route then head on over to the ATAC website where you can also advance purchase your tickets (you can buy tickets locally at train station and bus stop vending machines, tobacconists and bars). Speaking of tickets, the fare system in Rome is nice and easy; it combines both metro and buses and you can either buy single use tickets, 24, 48, 72 hour, and 7-day passes. The ATAC website is your best friend when it comes to working out the most cost-effective option for your trip. Just remember, as with all public transport in Italy you’ll need to validate your ticket in the stamping machines before you jump onboard…. or face the possibility of fines.
If you plan on visiting a few different sites then my advice is to look at the different tourist cards on offer. Not only do they mean you’ll probably save money but many of them also offer ‘skip the queue’ privileges which are very much worthwhile; especially in the height of the Summer tourist season. In fairness, there are so many different tourist cards on offer in Rome, and many of the differences are so subtle, that it’s probably worth its own post. However, in the absence of such a post (or in fairness, the willingness to write such a post – it’d be pretty boring, let’s be honest) my advice is to check out the websites of the biggest hitting cards on offer; the Omnia Vatican and Rome Card, the Rome City Pass (Turbopass) and Roma Pass.
Just like the tourist passes there are a plethora of hop-on-hop off bus tours that you could opt for if you don’t fancy the hassle of working out the public transportation system. As with all ‘HOHO’ services you get handed your standard issue headphones so that you can listen to the accompanying audio guide on-board. The routes and timetables between most of the major hop-on-hop-off tours are similar and so your best bet is probably to focus on the company that offers the best deals on any given week (they seemed to be quite price competitive). Head to either the Termini Station or Vatican (which are the major stops for the tours) to pick up your tickets. Alternatively, if you want to research or buy your tickets in advance then check out the City Sightseeing, Big Bus, Gray Line and Green Line options available.
Rome’s list of famous landmarks could be endless. As a result, I’ve decided to focus on my favourite districts highlighting some of the sights you can see in each. You’ll notice some major sights are omitted. If you want a comprehensive list of tourist attractions, check out the additional resources below which will also help you to plan your own itinerary.
Vatican City: No visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the City State. Across the Tiber and just downstream from the imposing (and honestly not that aesthetically pleasing) Castel Sant’Angelo, Vatican City is a must for all visiting the city whether of a religious mindset or not. Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums or Gardens can honestly be a logistical nightmare and quite often it comes down to pure timing. Check out the Rome Toolkit website for details on how to avoid snaking queues so long it would make even the most devout blaspheme. Visiting St Peter’s Square and the Basilica is free, so if you can get over the crowds, then you get to see Michelangelo’s Pieta without breaking the bank.
Trastevere: Across the Tiber river, Trastevere gets you a little further away from the snarling crowds and in the middle of what, upon first…and second glance is a more authentic, local, Roman experience. Small Trattorias on sun-faded piazza’s dot the banks of the river, and meandering streets take you up the hill to Piazzale Garibaldi and Colle del Gianicolo where you can get some of the best panoramic views over Rome. Take a camera (and be prepared for some steep hills and breathless moments if you want to get to the best views).
Trevi: As the name suggests, this area is the home of the Trevi Fountain. Was it famous before it’s iconic scene cameo in the movie La Dolce Vita? Regardless, it’s now where you go to take your very own highly personal and unique photo – just like everyone else’s. In fairness, the fountain is spectacular and it’s a must-see. So, go as early in the day as possible to avoid the major crowds, embarrassing La Dolce Vita reenactments, souvenir hawkers, and photographers offering to take your photo at the perfect angle for a price. Now you have a choice – turn one way and you’re off to the Spanish Steps with the best high-end shopping Rome has to offer, or turn the other way and you’re on your way to the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. Personally, Trevi to the Piazza Navona (see below) is a fantastic walk, and as soon as you exit the fountain area, the crowds (and prices) die down. You’ll find charming cobbled streets, tiny piazzas, alluring gelaterias and irresistible photo opportunities around every corner. Slowing down to a relaxed Roman pace, aperol spritzer in hand with the warm sun shining down, your partner may quickly forget how badly s/he wanted to go shopping by the Spanish Steps and your pocketbook still has enough Euros to get a taxi home (mission accomplished).
Navona / Pantheon: What I believe is the most picturesque part of the city – home to the Pantheon along with plenty of piazzas and the best area to eat and drink outside as the evening draws in (even in the Winter when they have outdoor heaters and a small Christmas Market in the Piazza Navona). The Pantheon is often claimed to be the only architecturally perfect building in the world, and who could argue! It’s also free to enter which makes it a must visit! One of my favourite piazza’s, Campo de’ Fiori, is also south of the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II, the main thoroughfare in the area. Here, you’ll find a busy local market selling great street eats in the morning and outdoor wine bars in the evening: the perfect place for starting your morning or evening as you mean to go on whilst engaging in some of the best people watching you’re likely to find in Rome.
Ancient City: The center of Ancient Rome hosts the Roman Forum, Palentine Hill and the Colosseum (for which combination tickets can be bought in advance – see additional resources below). Along with the Vatican, it is pretty much the first area on any tourist’s ‘hit list’. As a result, it’s typically very busy and full of street stalls selling everything tacky you can think of (including delightful calendars containing the ‘hottest’ priests of the Vatican – a must for any discerning member of the faithful). All the tack aside, you can’t miss these landmarks and they are all handily close together alongside the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II which boasts equally impressive architecture, if not quite as ancient.
Jewish Ghetto: Mostly overlooked by tourists (due to the obvious abundance of famous landmarks throughout the city), the Jewish ghetto is definitely worth a walk through. If nothing else you’ll find some fantastic bakeries (yes, that’s right, more food) in addition to the remnants of the Teatro di Marcello.
Check out the rest of my Italy content for my guides, tips and inspiration.
Leonardo Train Service Website: http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en/Services/Fiumicino-Airport
Rome Metro Map: http://www.atac.roma.it/files/doc.asp?r=4
Public Transport Website: http://www.atac.roma.it/page.asp?p=229
Vatican Practical Guidance to Visiting: https://www.rometoolkit.com/whattodo/vatican.htm
Pantheon Website: http://www.pantheon-rome.com/opening-hours/
Colosseum Advance Tickets: http://www.coopculture.it/en/colosseo-e-shop.cfm