Rome is one of those cities which propel visitors into sensory overdrive in every possible way. The sheer force of it is incredibly captivating, the traffic chaotic, the ancient sites bewildering, the art phenomenal, the crowds infuriating and the food! Ooooh the food….it’s enough to make you want to quit your job, leave your life behind and move here permanently.
The Eternal City may be home to more museums than most other countries, yet it’s the city itself which is the most interesting museum of all. In Rome, your breath history, devour culture and get hopelessly drunk on its astonishing energy. There’s a side to the Italian capital which manages to hypnotise everyone: from the shopping to the architecture, religious and archaeological landmarks, epicurean delights, a dynamic nightlife and more UNESCO heritage listed sites than any other city in the world, Rome has a way of kidnapping your soul and holding it hostage…forever.
What started as a small village over 2,500 years ago blossomed into the seat of the Roman Empire, before cementing its role as the headquarters of the Catholic Church and nowadays one of the most interesting and historically complex European capitals one can visit. Rome’s historic centre comprises no less than 22,000 points of interest and 22 suburbs (rioni), all enclosed within the ancient Auerlian Walls which date back to the turn of the first millennia. In Roman times, the walls were almost 20kms long, and nowadays only 12kms remain intact. As Pope Gregory XIV once remarked “a lifetime is not enough to explore Rome”.
Well…you gotta start somewhere! Here’s a concise breakdown of Rome’s most visited central districts, to help you better plan your eternal vacation.
Rome Guide – Il Colosseo
Rome’s Colosseum area is considered the very heart of the city’s historic centre and is traversed by the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a breathtaking avenue comprising a collection of ancient Roman Forums. The road is serviced by buses, by this is one ‘street’ which can only really be experienced on foot. Here, you can walk past the Arch of Constantine, the Piazza del Campidoglio, the Vittorio Emanuele Monument as well as a plethora of forums, temples, museums and a mind-boggling amount of ancient relics just lying on the side of footpaths. If you want to stroll through 2,000 years of history, this is the place you should head to.
No matter what your religious inclination may be, a visit to the Vatican City is an absolute must-do, despite the expense, the crowds and the fervently faithful. Religion significance aside, the Vatican is the proud owner of more priceless art than any other ‘institution’ in the world so this is where you’ll need to head to admire Michelangelo’s Pieta’, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica and Square, not to mention epitome works by Bernini and Raffaello as well as an incredible underground tour of the ancient Roman Necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica. Expect extensive queuing and sore necks!
Old Rome is the delightful centre of the city’s baroque and renaissance architecture, and is home to the Pantheon, Piazza Navona (with its extremely handsome Neptune) and Campo de’ Fiori. Narrow cobblestone streets, an infinite amount of gorgeous fountains and squares, a wide choice of affordable restaurants and trendy boutiques, old Rome is nestled snugly between the Vatican and the Colosseum, making it ideal for those who want to be in the centre of all the action.
One of Rome’s oldest suburbs is becoming a hit with tourists, thanks to its edgy, alternative and modern feel. Still just a hop and skip away from the major sites (on the western banks of the Tiber), Trastevere is a brilliant choice if you want a real young, Roman flare to your holiday. Popular with students and struggling artists, Trastevere boasts some brilliant clubs and bars, hippie flea markets, colourful characters and charm on every turn.
By road: We cannot stress enough that driving in Italy, and Rome in particular, should only be attempted by those who have been declared clinically insane. Italians are as demonic behind the wheel of a car as they are angelic at any other time, so if the world’s most confusing road signage, horrid traffic conditions and infuriatingly stuuuuupid local road rules aren’t enough to make you go bonkers, don’t expect anything resembling courtesy from locals when you’re driving around. We should also mention that foreign plated cars seem to get a lot of unwanted attention here, so don’t be surprised if you simply traffic and get stopped and fined on the spot for doing something you saw everyone else do too. Italian cops love to hand out on-the-spot-fines, which require rather hefty on-the-spot payments to boot. If this isn’t enough to discourage you from a self-driving holiday to Rome, perhaps you need more convincing. ‘Every road leads to Rome’ is a poignant reminder that every road actually does lead to Rome, even ones which start in Singapore and head West, so you know, just because you see a sign saying ‘Rome’ do not make the amateur mistake of believing it must be the straightest/shortest/most logical route to the Italian capital. Those routes aren’t signposted. Yes, it’s a conspiracy.
Here are two much more sane options to consider…
By plane: Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci (or Fiumicino) and Ciampino airports serve the city rather well, with the former being the ‘mainstream’ arrivals’ port and the latter the low-cost airline option. Ciampino is not extensively serviced by city-bound buses, but what it does have is constant connection to Fiumicino, from where you can get both buses and trains to Rome’s city centre. Terravision online offers €4 bus transfers to Termini, Rome’s central train station.
By train: Getting to Rome by Eurostar from anywhere in Europe is gaining popularity, considering just how time-consuming even short flights can be. If coming from London, it’s super-easy to make an overnight pit-stop in, say, Milan and continuing on Italy’s Frecciarossa the next day. The average ride from Milan to Rome on a high-speed train is just a little over three hours and the whole journey would cost merely €100-120 one way. Sure, cheap flights abound nowadays, yet a long-haul train ride through Italy is actually quite stunning. The scenery is gorgeous, the comfort unbeatable, and the travelling to and fro can actually become a highlight of the trip, so it’s well worth considering.
Getting out and about:
If you’ve managed to reach your hotel by car, you really deserve an award. Now, leave your wheels safely parked and don’t even consider getting around Rome by car!
The new Roma ComboPass http://www.conciergerie.com/rome/pass/rome-combo-pass.php is an invaluable addition to the city’s touring scene and includes free entry to two sites of choice, as well as access to all public transport AND the city’s hop-on/hop-off bus and boat, which are a personal favourite. A 3-day pass costs €75, can be pre-purchase online and you can have it delivered to your home before you even leave. Tip-tops! Use the hopping-bus on your first day to get your bearings and you’ll soon realize that although Rome seems like a huge, sprawling metropolis, the areas you’re likely to concentrate on are actually rather compact and very easy to navigate on foot. Most ancient sights are clustered in pedestrian-only zones, so there’s a lot of walking to be done in Rome, regardless of your preferences.
The city is serviced by a semi-respectable metro (red M signs point to stations) and even less-respectable public bus system. They sort of run on time, although routes change constantly, as do bus numbers and destinations. Best advice is to ask at your hotel when you arrive, for the latest (and likely more accurate) directions.
Italian taxi drivers are notorious for their inherent ability to choose the longest route possible between A and B, and overcharging top Euros for the privilege. A taxi in Rome (in Italy in fact) should be considered a last-ditch option only.
A note of caution!
Where there are tourists…there are cons, pickpockets and robbers; no-where is this truer than in Rome. Here’s a list of a few used and abused dodgy-spots and cons:
Stazione Termini: Central train stations the world over are renowned for being magnets to less-desirable folks, and Rome’s is about as bad as it can get. Termini has received a lot of bad press in the last few years, ALL of it completely justified. People have been mugged, conned and there have even been cases of rapes recently so this is one part of town you’ll want to get through VERY pronto. Keep your belongings close, study your walking route before you arrive and get in and out as fast as you can. Should you happen to arrive on a late-night flight to Rome, DO NOT take the bus/train to Termini, but rather pay a small fortune for a direct hotel transfer, especially if you are female and traveling alone.
The public bus route through the historic centre is known locally as the ‘pickpocket express’, which should tell you a lot about the major problems in Rome’s tourist centres. Cons are many: from the kid who will distract you while his mate slides your wallet out of your bag/pant/jacket, to the teenager who will slash the bottom of your backpack, the lady who accidentally ‘bumps’ into you and so on. By and large, all involve an abuse of your personal space, something Italians would not do on first contact. If anyone approaches you unsolicited, feel free to step back, hold your bag close, or even shove them away. It’s OK, better to be thought of as rude rather than naive.
Overpricing is strife in most tourist cities, but Rome really takes the biscuit. This is one city where you can be charged €20 for an ice-cream or €200 for a pizza. The local authorities are trying desperately to reverse the bad image Rome harbours about being one of the biggest rip-offs in the tourist world. This is not a ‘scam’ per say, as prices are actually listed (somewhere) in the restaurant/bar/cafe; it’s just that waiters will do their utmost to lure you onto a seat before you actually get to see a menu, so it’s just a matter of knowing about it and sticking to your guns. Know how much you will be charged for that delicious gelato across from the Spanish Steps and you won’t have a thing to complain about.
Moyan Brenn via Flickr
Russell Yarwood via Flickr
Moyan Brenn via Flickr
Moyan Brenn via Flickr
Christopher John via Flickr
Jeremy Vandel via Flickr