I’m just back from a weekend in Rome. My head is still spinning from all the impressions, my legs are sore and, despite of walking more than 46km (29 miles) in three days, I’m afraid I gained a few pounds… I want to share some advice for a more enjoyable travel experience in the Eternal City and give you some useful tips on how to get the most out of your time in Rome. From where and when to go, to where to eat and where to stay, to what shoes to wear – find out all you need to know when planning a trip to Rome so that you can get the most out of your visit and truly enjoy it.
Rome is a beautiful city. One of the most impressive cities in the world, actually. I often refer to it as the city-museum because it feels as if you are walking through a huge museum. Every street, every church, every building breaths history. It’s a city like no other and one everyone should visit, at least once in their lifetime.
Unfortunately, it feels as if everyone is actually visiting Rome at the same time as you are… Rome is crowded. It’s certainly the case for the main tourist sights. Visiting the Trevi fountain in the middle of the day is really no fun. It’s so busy that it makes many other popular destinations look like a rather quiet experience…
Despite the crowds, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Rome. Find out…
Tips for planning a trip to Rome – how to get the most out of your visit
If you are traveling to Rome, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you want to see. The Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican… You will quickly realise that you are not the only one. There are huge crowds at each of the most famous landmarks. It’s so busy that it’s difficult to truly appreciate the beauty of the place and enjoy it.
1. Skip some must-see places or get ‘skip the line’ tickets
If you are like most tourists, you have just two or three days in Rome and want to see it all. Do you really want to spend 75% of your time queuing at the most famous landmarks and completely miss out on the more authentic travel experience? If you don’t, then you should consider skipping some ‘must-see’ places or book ‘skip the line’ tickets. Spend your time getting to know the city and don’t follow the crowds.
- Skip the lines at Colosseum or don’t go inside at all. Don’t skip Colosseum completely, just don’t spend the whole day in order to see the inside. Are the ruins of Colosseum’s basements really worth 3-4 hours to you or are you ok with just seeing the exterior of the building and spending the extra time exploring the less known places? Skip the line tickets might cost you a few extra euro’s, but considering how much your trip costs, it’s really worth spending that tiny bit extra and get more out of your time in Rome.
- Skip the lines at the Vatican Museums or plan your visit at quieter times. Do you really want to spend 4 hours in a queue at the Vatican museums in order to spend 2 minutes inside the Sistine Chapel to see the famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo? I understand that you want to see the Vatican museums, they are worth it, but try to at least plan your visit in such a way that you spend more time at the museums and not waiting to get in.
Going very early in the morning or on the less busy days can be a good option. I would consider paying more for the ‘skip the line’ tours. I just don’t understand how people choose to travel somewhere as beautiful as Rome and then spend most of their time queuing instead of discovering…
2. Outsmart the crowds
- Go to the Vatican late in the afternoon. We tried the Vatican in the morning, but all the streets leading to it were so crowded that we quickly gave up and turned towards Trastevere instead. We came back at around 6 PM and were inside St. Peter’s Basilica in less than 10 minutes (security check included)! By the way, the entrance to the Basilica is free and, unless you really need a guide and are interested to hear lots of historical facts, I see no reason to pay for the guided tours for this part of the Vatican. You do need a ticket to go up to the top of the Dome. In that case you may want to get these priority tickets in advance.
- Visit the Pantheon half an hour before the closing time. Pantheon is also extremely crowded, but we managed to see it completely empty by visiting it right before it closed. You have to make sure you are not too late as they don’t let people in just before the closing time, but once inside you can stay till it closes and everyone leaves. Great experience!
- The Spanish Steps are probably best visited very early in the morning or late at night.
- Go to the Trevi Fountain late in the evening. It will still be busy – it always is – but it’s nothing compared to the crowds during the day. I wonder if Trevi Fountain is ever quiet; I suspect it might be at night, 3-5 AM would be my best guess, but I was too tired to actually find out if it’s the case.
- Skip the busiest museums (=save lots of time). If you like art, consider some of the less busy places, like e.g. the art gallery at Villa Borghese (has to be booked in advance) or visit some of the churches and admire some of the most amazing pieces of art for free and without the crowds.
3. Discover the less known parts of RomeI have shared some great suggestions for the off-the-beaten-path, different places to see in Rome in one of my previous posts.
If I could give one general advice on how to avoid the crowds in Rome, it would be to go in the opposite direction of where most of the people go! Take a side street, look around, enter a narrow passage, try the closed door of the church… We visited a couple of amazing places just meters away from the main streets where – literally- thousands of people were passing by focused on their main goal and completely ignorant to all the rest.
4. Avoid tourist restaurants
A big part of any Italian trip experience is related to the food. Food in Italy can be absolutely delicious, but don’t just assume it will be everywhere you go. If I can give one piece of advice it would be to avoid tourist places. Eat where locals eat! Here you can read more about how to find the best food in Rome.
5. Stay in the city centre – close to Piazza Navona
If your budget allows, try to find a place in the old city centre, in the area close to Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. You can find the best deals for Central Rome accommodation here. That way you do not need to use public transport and can discover most of central Rome on foot. If you want to see some other areas, renting a bike or joining a guided bike tour can be a very good option – read further.
6. Rent a bike to get more out of your time in Rome
The old city centre of Rome is pretty compact and you can easily walk to the main sights such as Piazza Navona, Pantheon, The Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. Even the Vatican and the Colosseum are within walking distance from the city centre. But if you want to explore more of Rome and discover some of the less known hidden gems of the city you may want to consider renting a bike or joining one of the guided bike tours. You can cover big distances in less time and get more out of your time in the city.
7. Visit Rome in shoulder season
Most travel guides will probably tell you that spring and early autumn is the best period and they are absolutely right. I think that May and September are the best months weather-wise, but it’s extremely busy in that period. On the other hand, you really want to avoid Rome (or any other cities in Italy for that matter) in summer.
We visited Rome the first weekend of May and with temperatures of just 18-22°C it was pleasant most of the time and sometimes it even felt too warm. I cannot even try to imagine how hot it feels there in July or August when temperatures rise above 35-38°C (around 100°F)…
Visiting during the cooler months might be advisable for those wanting to avoid the crowds and save some money on accommodation. My best bet would be the ‘shoulder season’ – end of March – beginning of April (but avoid Easter!) and October.
Extra tip: wear comfortable shoes in Rome
Don’t underestimate the importance of good footwear when visiting a city and especially Rome. The distances in Rome are very big and you will be walking a lot. If your feet are hurting you will not be able to enjoy the sights much, are you? At a certain moment we realised that we could tell what shoes people were wearing just by looking at the expression on their face. People who seemed to be enjoying themselves were also the ones with the most comfortable footwear.
Forget about all the ‘Italy is about looking stylish’ advice and pack comfortable shoes. OK, I don’t really like wearing sports shoes in the city and it’s not really done a lot in Europe, but given the choice I would go for the old Nikes instead of some sandals with a thin sole… Also, there are so many fashionable comfortable shoes available that you don’t even need to sacrifice comfort for style.
And one last piece of advice. Don’t plan every minute of your day in advance – allow yourself some time to explore the places along the way. Look around you and you will be amazed to see how many hidden treasures you will find in Rome: most beautiful churches, wonderful architecture, secret alleys and little squares… All you have to do is keep your eyes open and your mind flexible. Enjoy!
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