My best advice for a visit to Rome is how to make the most of a short stay. More than any of the other cities I visited in Italy, the regional and foreign visitors to Rome appeared almost manic in their desire to see and do everything in the few days that they were there.
If there is one thing I can assure you of, it is that even with my Top Tips for every Traveller, a 48 or even 72 hour stopover would not even scratch the surface of what the Eternal City has to offer.
Anyone intending to travel to Rome during the summer season should start planning the trip and comparing prices for flights and accommodation a few months in advance to score the biggest savings.
I travelled on Emirates Airlines from Dubai to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport (Fiumcino), located 30 km outside Rome. There is another airport at Ciampino that is not served by flights from this region.
My travel day was exhausting for numerous reasons and with the benefit of the hard lessons learned, I advise the following:
- It took about 2 hours to get through Immigration that appeared to be located in an area undergoing construction or repairs. If you have any mobility impairment, request a wheelchair service for your flight, in advance. If they are not waiting with a wheelchair when the flight disembarks at Leonardo Da Vinci airport, ask the flight staff to call them.
- Ensure that you know where to collect your travel pass if you have pre-purchased one online. I located the airport tourist office to collect my Rome pass and was told by the unsmiling person guarding the door that they were closed for maintenance and I should collect it at Termini Station.
- Ensure that you buy the official Roma Pass, valid for 48 or 72 hours, and not similarly named passes offered by tour agencies. It can be used on the Rome metro, busses and trams of the public transportation system, as well as free entry at the first two museums and discounted ticket prices at a host of events, theatres and tourist services. The Roma pass can be purchased online, at museums, at Tourist Information Points and Trenitalia ticket offices. The Roma pass may not be used for connections to or from Fiumcino or Ciampino airports.
- If you are using public transport the quickest and cheapest way to get from the airport to central Rome is the Leonardo Express train. I obtained directions to the train link from a very helpful airport information desk officer who guided me outside to the road crossing. Two minutes later I was inside the train terminal and took the 30 minute train ride into Termini Station in Central Rome.
Upon reaching Termini Station I was directed to the furthest end of the station to collect the pass. I queued for another twenty minutes and the polite Customer Service consultant handed me a map of Rome and Vatican City and advised me that I was in fact at the wrong place. I would have to collect my OMNIA pass from a tourist office near the Vatican. It dawned on me at that moment that I had purchased the wrong Pass, and had done it through a tour agency that offered it along with free or reduced price access to the major sites.
Off I went to the Vatican City by bus and finally took my first walk down the cobbled streets, map in hand, trying to locate the tourist office. With sweat dripping down my back, I finally laid eyes on the sight I’ve seen so many times on television. The facade of St Peter’s Basilica at the end of St Peter’s Square was striking, and because it was a week day my walk to the square was unhindered.
Over the cobblestones I went with my trolley bag in hand and after a few direction enquiries from security around the periphery of the square, I finally found the tourist office. I scrambled for real estate amongst the overheating travellers taking a break in the shade, and others queuing to collect their OMNIA passes too.
An hour later, sweat dripping down my back and off my brow, I reached the front of the queue to collect my pass. The customer service officer was so sweet and apologised profusely for the long wait. She explained how to use the pass and even how to get to my apartment from there; as well as how to get back to the Vatican Museum’s entrance in the evening when I was scheduled for the Vatican Night tour.
The walk to the Metro station probably felt much longer than it actually was, and en route I saw the first sign for a McDonalds. When I reached the metro station an older gentleman standing at the subway entrance asked where I was going. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck rising and answered that I was going to Spagna metro station. He offered to drive me to my hotel or sightseeing and I said ‘thank you but I’m meeting my family there and the train will be fine’. He gave me directions on which metro line to take and wished me well. That was only the first of many strange encounters during my trip.
There are hotels in luxury, mid range and budget category but be prepared to pay for conveniences.
I had no idea where to stay in Rome when I started planning my trip, although my first choice was the Intercontinental located at the top of the Spanish Steps. I was disappointed when I learned that they had closed down, and searched for an alternative that fulfilled three criteria to accommodate any discomfort from the Rheumatoid Arthritis:
- Close proximity to a metro station.
- Within walking distance to some of the major attractions.
- Ground floor accommodation or a building with an elevator that worked.
- Similar price range to a 5 star UAE hotel.
After reading about the beautiful sunset that could be seen from the Spanish steps I found a self-catering hotel apartment close by at Babuino 79, in Via del Babuino. The hotel apartments are located in a high ceilinged building where every level was so high that they could fit in a mezzanine level in the apartment.
The building has an elevator to the upper floors and the front office staff assist with the luggage if required. On the day I checked in I was assisted by Carlos, who gave me the instruction leaflet to operate the huge automated doors at night and on Sundays when they were off duty.
PS: This was the start of my love affair with majestic Roman doors and doorways.
I showered and changed into fresh clothing and promptly fell asleep on the bed, waking up at the same time my pre-booked Vatican Night tour was starting!
TOP EXPERIENCES IN ROME
- Embark on a guided Food tour or a self curated one, if you do research ahead of time. I had pre-booked the Taste of Testaccio food tour on the Eating Italy website and you can read about my experience here.
- Before the start of my trip I had already resigned myself to bread, eggs, fruits and yogurts for the duration because I was not sure whether I would find halaal eateries or foods. Alhamdulillah there many vegetarian and vegan options as well as fish and seafoods.
- I recommend the Testaccio or Trastevere neighborhoods as you will find very few tourists, but fresh fruit and vegetable markets and local artisanal businesses that have been there for generations abound.
- These food artists are proudly preserving the food traditions of their forebears. You can read about my experience on the Taste of Testaccio Food tour soon.
- As far as possible, try to find the spots where locals go for their meals. The restaurants and cafes around tourist attractions serve mediocre food that does not compare to the fresh and authentic food served in traditional neighbourhood eateries.
- One of my favourite meals in Rome was breakfast at a cafe down the road from my hotel apartment. The clientele consisted of locals and tourists and they catered for both the typical Italian standing breakfast, as well as the more leisurely American and British choices. I enjoyed a perfectly cooked mushroom omelette with a coffee cream and received a complimentary plate of cookies with my tea.
- As a solo traveler I expect that there are eateries that would rather seat a couple or a group instead of a single diner, especially without a booking. Make reservations if you intend to have dinner at a busy restaurant as you may be turned away at the door.
- I stopped for lunch at Ristorante L’Arcano on my way to the Trevi Fountain. By that time I was hot and needed a place to cool down and have a bite. This place was perfect for me because it was quiet and appealed to a different crowd than the surrounding noisy eateries. Although the restaurant had other guests, I was never made to feel overlooked or forgotten and the service was always attentive without being annoying.
- My least memorable meals ever were at the Fashion It Artfood cafe, in Piazza Mignanelli near Via Condotti. It is one of the few restaurants that were within walking distance in the area around Piazza de Spagna.
- An unexpected downpour led me to Babbington’s Tea Rooms, adjacent to the Spanish Steps, for afternoon tea. I had forgotten my umbrella on that day and danced myself right into the warm and welcoming tea room where I enjoyed the wonderful service and delicious afternoon tea.
Painting, sculpture, architecture
- Try not to limit yourself to organized tours and find a few hours to take in the winding streets, the cafes and the street artists. You may miss the best part of the experience if you do not.
- Rome has an abundant artistic heritage as the city has been in existence for 3000 years. This is a city where the churches and world class museums house priceless treasures of art and sculptures from successive periods over the millennia.
- It is also a city where ancient buildings are found slap bang in the middle of the modern metropolis… like the recently restored pyramid of a politician at the side of a busy Testaccio road.
- At the time of my visit the Spanish Steps were in the final stages of restoration and cleaning, and were not accessible to the public. It has since re-opened and I would love if you watched the sunset from The Spanish Steps and tagged me if you post it on Instagram.
- I decided to explore the areas around where I stayed, and visited The Pantheon located in Piazza della Rotonda, as it was within walking distance from my hotel apartment. The Pantheon is still standing after nearly 2000 years, and recalls the glory of the Roman Empire. It is considered an architectural marvel as the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Admission is free and if you are early you can attend mass on Sundays at 10:30am.
- A short walk from the Pantheon is the Trevi Fountain (Fontana Di Trevi) located in Piazza di Trevi. It is the largest fountain in Rome at 26 metres high and 20 metres wide. The Trevi Fountain was recently restored to it’s former beauty by the fashion house Fendi at a cost of approximately 2.2 million euros, as part of the ‘Fendi for Fountains’ project.
- No amount of photos could have prepared me for the drama of the Pantheon or the majesty of the Trevi Fountain. I had heard people complain that it wasn’t as grand as they expected, but I found it breathtakingly beautiful.
- As beautiful and breathtaking as these monuments were, I found the crowds to be disconcerting, and this was during off-peak time. Fortunately, there appeared to be a heavy police presence to deal with disturbances or emergencies.
- On my ramble I watched talented buskers singing to pedestrians and street artists creating the most amazing art.
- I purchased photographs of familiar Roman street scenes and every now and then peek at it as a reminder to return.
- Rome has all the international brands and designers represented and there is no shortage of places to spend your hard earned cash. From trinkets to designer clothing to exquisite glassware.
- I confess, I wasn’t exactly dancing in the rain, but there is no better place to be caught in a downpour than Via Condotti. There are gelaterias and cafes dotting the street, nestled between various designer clothing shops and a good excuse to have a break and a hot drink and snack.
- If you are staying in an apartment try to find a local market for every day essentials like milk, bread and cheese. I stayed a few hundred metres from a small supermarket, but the produce was far inferior to that tasted at the Testaccio fresh produce market.
I didn’t see the Colosseum or climb up Palatine Hill or even see the Vatican Museums, so I was quite surprised when I realized that I had fallen in love with Rome.
Not with the monuments or art, but with the pace of life in Via Babuino, where Romans still peddled slowly on bicycles to their homes and tourists walked quickly frantically to their next attraction.
I fell in love with the narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, the grandeur of the colossal doors and imposing doorways of high ceilinged Roman buildings.
I hope that you found this post on how to make the most of a short stay in Rome useful, and will remember to relax and enjoy the trip.
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