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My best advice for a Rome vacation is 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 weekend in Rome or even 4 days in Rome would not even scratch the surface of what the Eternal City has to offer.
Anyone intending to travel to Rome for vacation 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 usually start my planning for September a year before and make bookings six to nine months prior to my Rome vacation.
The first thing I would recommend is to book a food tour of Rome and I highly recommend the Taste of Testaccio tour.
When is the best time to visit Rome
‘All roads lead to Rome’ as the saying goes. That was because Rome was the center of the Roman empire and every city in the Roman empire had a road into the city that led from Rome.
Rome is a travelers dream throughout the year but the most popular times for tourists are during the Summer holidays when schools have an extended break and many workers take their annual vacation. This means that every tourist attraction is crowded and that you will have little time to enjoy the sights.
My favorite time to visit for my Rome vacation is in September at the start of Autumn when the heat of summer has abated but it is still quite warm and balmy. Many of the tourists have left the city and although there are still crowds it is not thronging with bodies at every attraction.
How to apply for a visa for Italy
Citizens of countries that are outside the European Schengen Zone must apply for a Schengen visa from the embassy of the country of first entry on their trip or the country where they will be spending the longest time. You can check this list to see if you need a Schengen visa before your trip.
How to travel to Rome
I travelled on Emirates Airlines from Dubai to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport (Fiumicino), located 30 km outside Rome. There is another airport at Ciampino that is not served by flights from this region.
- Even on a good day the wait to clear Immigration at the Fiumcino airport takes at least two (2) hours. 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 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 during your Rome vacation, the quickest and cheapest way to get from the airport to central Rome is the Leonardo Express train. It is a 32 minute train ride from Fiumicino airport into Termini Station in Central Rome. At the time of writing tickets cost €14 one way.
- If you have opted for the Rome travel pass for use on public transport only, ensure that you know where to collect it if you have pre-purchased one online. The collection office at Termini station is not that easy to find and you need to get proper directions to locate it. The Rome pass may be used on public transportation like busses, metro and trams.
- On my first visit I purchased an Omnia pass that included some free entrance to museums and reduced entrance fees at others. 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.
Where to stay in Rome
There are hotels in luxury, mid range and budget category but be prepared to pay for conveniences. Check rates and availability.
I had no idea where to stay in Rome when I started planning my first 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.
Most of the areas around the historic centre are very tourist centric and have a good selection of hotels, guesthouses and apartments. Having stayed in Spagna neighborhood and visited The Vatican City, Trastevere and Testaccio, I realised that my favorite area to stay in Rome is around Spagna metro station. The neighborhood is very refined and quiet despite the central location.
Babuino 79 – Spagna
After reading about the beautiful sunset that could be seen from the Spanish steps I found a self-catering apartment close by at Babuino 79, in Via del Babuino. The closest metro station is Spagna and there is a taxi rank on Piazza Di Spagna if you prefer that option. Check rates and availability.
- 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. This was the start of my love affair with majestic Roman doors and doorways.
- The apartment was clean and well maintained and had a pretty little outside area on the lower level.
- The kitchen was small but suitable for one person and had some basic essentials like coffee, sugar and tea as well as kitchen utensils, crockery and cutlery.
- The en-suite was spotlessly clean and had all the necessities for a short stay. However there were no windows and there did not appear to be adequate ventilation.
Rome Barocca Suite – Spagna
On my second trip I decided to try a different apartment close to Via Del Babuino but realised that they had no elevator. When I had to rebook the options were limited but I found a lovely apartment a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain and is closer to Piazza Barberini than to Piazza di Spagna.
- The Roma Barocca Suites are self catering apartments located in Via Francesco Crispi. The closest metro station is Barberini and there are bus stops and a taxi rank on the main street. Check rates and availability.
- The apartment is spacious and well laid out and the decor is exactly like it looks online.
- There are restaurants and cafes on the same street and it is within walking distance of Piazza di Spagna, the Trevi Fountain and The Pantheon.
- At the time of my visit the air conditioning unit seemed to be out of order and it made the nights very uncomfortable. The large double glazed windows blocked out all the street noise but when they were opened the sounds were quite loud.
Best Places to Eat on a Rome vacation
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 as I had taken an East End Food tour with them in London and was not disappointed.
- 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 neighborhood 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 and you may read about my experience on the Taste of Testaccio Food tour.
- I visited the Trastevere neighbourhood but found it to be very drab and uninspiring during the day with a mediocre produce market. I passed a few funky cafes and a beautiful flower shop staffed by a Bangladeshi expat.
- 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.
- 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.
Read more: Taste of Testaccio Food Tour
La Buvette – Via Vittoria, 44-47, Spagna
One of my favourite meals in Rome was breakfast at La Buvette down the road from my apartment at Babuino 79. I passed it on my way to and from the Carrefour market in the same road and just had to go there because it seemed to have a relaxed ambiance and the food always looked appetising.
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.
Ristorante L’Arcano – Via delle Paste, 102
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.
Babbington’s Tea Rooms – Piazza Di Spagna, 23
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.
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. The food is rather bland and tasteless and seems like little care is taken.
Rinascente Department stores (various locations)
I used to pass the Rinascente located a few blocks from the apartment on Via Francesco Crispi whenever I walked to the Trevi Fountain, the market or the bus stop. Finally, one night after a day out to the Coliseum and Trastevere I decided to go in and see if they had anything suitable for a quick bite. This is definitely one place I would recommend you not miss during your Rome vacation.
- They have an extensive food hall as well as numerous cafes and restaurants on the upper floors.
- The prices were quite reasonable and I had a delicious pasta meal as well as the most interesting desert that included olives and rosemary. Unfortunately, the waiters were young, insolent and not very congenial.
Top attractions in Rome
There are many different things to do in Rome and I would suggest that you try not to limit yourself to organized guided tours. Try to find a few hours to take in the winding streets, imposing beautiful doors, the cafes and the street artists. You may miss the best part of the experience on your Rome vacation 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 Coliseum or the Pyramid of Cestius a recently restored pyramid of a politician at the side of a busy Testaccio road.
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.
The Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti)
At the time of my first 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 there have already been complaints of the tourists sitting on the steps and leaving the remnants of their food, beverages and cigarettes behind.
I decided to explore the areas around where I stayed and walked to The Pantheon located in Piazza della Rotonda from Via Babuino.
- It is within walking distance from the Spagna and Barberini metro stations and a number of bus routes pass close by.
- 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 un-reinforced concrete dome in the world. Admission is free and if you are early you can attend mass on Sundays at 10:30am.
- 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.
The Trevi Fountain (Fontana Di Trevi)
A short walk from the Pantheon is the Trevi Fountain located in Piazza di Trevi. It is the largest fountain in Rome at 26 metres high and 20 metres wide. The walk from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain is quite charming with many artists and buskers along the well signposted route.
- 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.
- During the day it seems like thousands of tourists squeeze into the small area with everyone jostling for a small piece of real estate.
- I went again in the evening at 11:30pm and there was significantly fewer people and it felt much more relaxed.
Coliseum and Roman Forum
The Coliseum or Flavian Amphitheatre and the Roman Forum are located within walking distance of each other and accessible by metro or bus. There are numerous information galleries along the route where visitors can see exactly how these buildings looked when they were constructed nearly 2000 years ago.
What to buy in Rome
- 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.
- The aged balsamic vinegar and cheese from Salumeria Volpetti at Via Marmorata 47, Testaccio is of the best you will find and prices are reasonable.
On my first Rome vacation 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 city.
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 and 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 returned two years later to soak up the majesty of the Vatican Museums and the ancient antiquities within and gaze upon the Coliseum with it’s bloodthirsty legacy. 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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