Destinations Europe Italy travel guide

Touring the Eternal City: Your complete essentials guide

ancient ruins in the middle of fort imperiali

Rome began before other cities did. It’s the birthplace of Catholicism, age old architecture, the greatest minds of the ancient world, and well, the most gastronomical dining experience you’ll ever have.

You can only think of a handful of things you can’t do while in Rome. From feeding your hunger of history to literally feeding yourself, from 5-star luxury villas at its outskirts to sleeping in hostels for a dollar, from beautiful baroque art to circus inspired ones on the street, Rome pretty much has you covered.

The entire city is chaotic yet friendly at the same time. You’ll meet locals who will try to trick you into buying their overpriced goods and ones who are the friendliest people in the world. I’m thinking about the restaurant server whom I met while dining at Trattoria Angelo while regaling to me his adventures in Sri Lanka.

When in Rome, it’s impossible not to feel like you’ve drifted back in time to the era of gladiators and kings, to when life was completely different. And well, when you’re in the eternal city, life really is so different. I admit, Rome isn’t for everyone. But I must also admit, that this is the one place in the world built on so much character, history, and everything about life as we know it.

Despite the traffic, crowds, and old elevator shafts, there’s really no place like it on earth.

artist sitting in front of the cathedral at piazza navona rome

What to know before you go

#1 essential: personality

You’re crazy if you think Rome will be like any other place to visit. It’s tourist-season all year round, which means there will be plenty of people everywhere you go. And so when booking a flight to Rome, I honestly encourage you to be patient and be optimistic about what the city will throw your way.

You’ll be greeted with angry tourists, beeping cars, and a street so long it will make you dizzy. You’re going to need perseverance to walk a few hundred metres and not be tempted to eat at the restaurant. You’re going to need lots of courage to brush your way through millions of shops. And you’re going to need every ounce of restraint as not to overload your credit card with too much spending.

Believe me, you’re going to need a lot to take on Rome. But it’s so worth it.

#2 essential: your requirements before you visit Rome

As a Filipino passport holder, I need a Schengen visa to go to Italy. If you’re in the EU, you don’t need one and relatively, if you’re also from Australia or the USA, you can stay up to 90 days.

Aside from the obvious, you’ll also need tons of sunblock since it’s hotter in Rome than other countries as its near the Mediterranean. However, despite it being hot, you’ll also need to consider the dress code when entering the Vatican and some museums throughout your stay here.

#3 essential: know the weather and costs when you go

Although I mentioned Rome having the tourist-season all year round, there are some months during the year where its exceptionally full.

Since a lot more go to the city around June-July, I think the best time to go would be around March-May, and September-November since the wind tends to be cooler than the summer months. Plus, hotel prices tend to be cheaper around these times as Europe is known to have price hikes during peak season!

Hostels can go as low as 10EUR a night for 4-8 people in a room. When my mom and I stayed at Bettoja Hotel Atlantico, it was about 100 EUR a night for a good 7 days (including breakfast). However, I also heard other hotels at their cheapest rates can be around 40-50EUR a night. This really depends where you’re staying as we stayed in near famous tourist areas while the cheaper ones, as always, are far from them.

Because of our location, I walked most of the time. I think I only took the metro once, on my last day in the city, since I wanted to get to Piazza di Spagna faster. The cost for this fare would be 2 EUR for a single way and about 5 EUR for a roundtrip fare.

Food is probably the most expensive entity you can purchase when in Rome. But then again, it’s going to be completely worth it (as with everything else). For a full course meal which will include the appetiser, main course, dessert, and a good bottle of red wine, would be around 50 EUR. I highly recommend saving and spending just for this experience alone.

#4 essential: Create a guide map on where you want to go

If there’s one thing I’d like to change about my experience in Rome, it’s not strategising about the places I’d like to go to at least per day. So, I ended up not seeing a lot save for the tourist spots and wherever the bus would take me.

As you may figure out later on, the city can be divided to four parts:

Part I: Historical centre

This is where the Colosseum is, the Roman Forum, City Hall, and where many tour buses have their starting point.

Part II: Shopping

You have Via Condotti, Piazza di Spagna, Fontana di Trevi, lots of shops, and (admittedly) tourist traps around this area.

Part III: The Vatican

Admittedly, going to Rome without the Vatican is difficult. I’m not a religious person, in any way, but I couldn’t help but be excited about book a tour to see this small country.

Part IV: Restaurants

You’ll find restaurants every corner around Rome. But if you’re truly seeking out the best ones, look no further than their local markets and Piazza Navonna. Which are all also very near the Vatican.

 

girl holding small gelato cone in rome

What to do while in Rome

essential #5: knowing your obvious choices in Rome

You’re both a tourist and a traveller when in Rome. That’s just how it is. You won’t have the chance to roam around without finding a gallery, or a historic artifact. Whether you plan to book a tour or not, always the best way to explore Rome is to just go. Take it as you are.

And so obvious choices when in Rome would include these:

Colosseum

I was fortunate to have booked a hotel near the Colosseum (Hotel Atlantico is at Via Cavour), and thus, had the chance to take as many photos as I could around the historic building. There are many tours for this, usually packaged deals, as well as the opportunity to enter on your own.

Palatine Hill

From the Colosseum, you can climb Palatine Hill which will give you a great view of the city’s historic centre. But please be aware that the hill is quite steep, and you won’t have access to a water fountain until you reach the top.

The Roman Forum

Going down from Palatine Hill, you have the Roman Forum. Here you’ll find so many ancient relics since this used to be the city centre a few centuries back. Aside from the relics, you’ll also find many audio tour guides telling you about shows and festivities that happened here a long time ago.

Fontana di Trevi

Arguably my favourite part in all of Rome, the Fontana di Trevi or Fountain of Trevi, is really a sight to behold. It took a few wayward signs and missteps before Mom and I found it  flocked with tourists. But either way, you’ll be giddy to throw your 3 coins here and make a wish. They say if you do it, you’re sure to return to Rome in this lifetime.

Spanish Steps

Located at Piazza di Spagna, near Via Condotti, climbing the Spanish steps can be quite fun. At 500 steps, you’ll be awarded with a view overlooking the more ‘modern‘ part of Rome. There are also restaurants here and gift shops you can visit.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon is a worship sanctuary for many Roman Catholics and is actually one of the most well-maintained buildings in the entire world.

The Castel Sant’Angelo

If you’ve seen the Da Vinci Code, you’d find the Castel Sant’Angelo very familiar. As this is an underground passageway to the Vatican which has served as both a Papal residency and prison for others.

What to see when you visit the Vatican:

It’s quite impossible to visit Rome and not know about the Vatican. Lobert Langdon can tell you that much. But I digress. I’ve always been enamoured with history and since the Church is the centre point for most of it, I really wanted to go to visit the Vatican.

One of the many things I can tell you about is this: always book the earliest tour. Mom and I decided to visit the Vatican on the afternoon in our first day at the Eternal City. We expected to have avoided the crowds. Instead, we were greeted with thousands of people flocking the entrance and exits, the streets, and even the bridge. And so, we decided to book a tour with Viator to make sure we wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost inside (plus, many places in the country can only be accessed through a tour). Which also means, there’s really a reason why guide books will tell you to visit the Vatican at the earliest hour available since there are more tourists in this area than any part in Roma!

Sistine Chapel

For many art lovers, including myself, a visit to Sistine Chapel can’t be missed! Painted by Michaelangelo, you’ll find two of his most popular works and greatest masterpieces: Ceiling Frescoes and Guidizio Universale (also known as the Last Supper). Pictures are strictly prohibited as it ruins the restoration process.

The Vatican Museums

I’ve been fascinated with Rafael since I read Angels and Demons. Not kidding. And entering Stanz di Rafaello (Rafael’s Rooms), you can tell why his work is considered as one of the best in the world, especially if you notice how incredibly detailed they are. Unfortunately at the time of my visit, they were undergoing the restoration process so one of his rooms was not available for public viewing.

Other than that, you’ll marvel at the beauty of Renaissance art, gold, sculptures, and tapestries which can all be found at the many museums.

St. Peter’s Square

The entire square is your first sign to knowing you’re entering the Vatican. You’ll be greeted with gelato shops, Ferraris, and gift shops that adorn Pope Francis’ face (and bobble head! Haha).

Most notably, the Pope offers mass for the public on Sunday and Wednesday Mornings. The mass usually lasts about 2 hours or so.

essential #6: going beyond the obvious choices in Rome

I loved my experience in Rome, despite being underwhelmed (I can’t lie). And I believe that’s mostly because I got to experience the city in a more…err, authentic way. Which would include all the quirks Italy is famous for but not in the way, you’ll feel stuck being a tourist forever.

I also made many discoveries myself and have found that the best way to truly experience Rome, is to find what makes it unique beyond the ancient history. This would mean lots and lots of food, shopping, and places that aren’t usually in guide books.

So here are some of my top picks for exploring Rome!

Aventine Hill

A lesser known hill in Rome, Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills throughout the area where Ancient Rome was built on. If you’re looking for great views and a less crowded place to relax or read a book, this would be a great one to begin with.

Borghese Gallery

Probably one of the best galleries you’ll ever come across in Rome — if not, the best. The gallery is housed in the former Villa Borghese Pinciana which houses many sculptures by lesser known Italian artists but are also true to Renaissance form.

Fountain of the Four Rivers

I’ve read about tourists being underwhelmed by the Fountain of Trevi during my pre-trip research, and tried to find alternatives just in case it happened to me. Ha ha. The Fountain of Four Rivers or commonly known as: Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, can be found in Piazza Navona. The rivers represent the four continents where Papal authority has spread. Namely, Africa, Asia, America, and Europe.

Trattoria Restaurants

Our driver at the car service we rented in the airport told us to avoid all restaurants near famous landmarks. Well, he encouraged us to try eating at Trattoria restaurants instead since they’re mostly family-owned, taste better, and will give you the real Italian dining experience you’ve always dreamt about.

He was right, you know. Having my fair share of eating at tourist traps and Trattoria owned ones, I can safely say that the food is better and the servers more friendly. They’ll willingly give you insider tips about the city, the markets, and other great Trattoria Restaurants to eat at.

My favourite one is Trattoria Angelo at Via Cavour, right beside our hotel.

Secret Gelato shops

The best gelato shops are usually found near Piazza Navonna, one is beside Fontana di Trevi, and a lot of them can be seen while walking around from the historic centre to the shopping point of the city. Although I’m wary about the names, many of them aren’t near tourist traps, as with many great Roman secrets.

You’ll be able to find 5-scoops worth of Gelato, topped on a cone with 5 different flavours for only 10 EUR as opposed to paying 10 EUR for 2 scoops of gelato near Fountain of Trevi. In all honesty, I was surprised when I posted that photo on Instagram and a friend of mine mentioned that gelato was the biggest he’s ever seen in Rome. Well, it’s the smallest one I’ve seen/eaten so far. So, word to the wise: find good gelato and eat only the best ones — which is almost everywhere!

Scouting for good leather shoes and bags

While in search of a great messenger bag built with Italian leather, I’ve found the best shop to be at Piazza Barberini. There’s no name for it, unfortunately.

But if you come out of the metro, find the centre of the Piazza, and come across 3 leather shops at the corner of the intersection, then those are the ones. God, I’m bad at this. Oh, and if you continue down the street, you’ll also be able to find great leather bag and shoe stores, which will lead you all the way back to Via Cavour.

Since Italians are known for their leather, they also tend to oversell it. If you have a good eye for…well, the good stuff, you would understand why you simply can’t purchase every time of leather bag in Rome. Some of them are just fake. That’s a fact.

In terms of shoes, I love the brogues I purchased from Angelo of Rome, as they have the best Italian shoes I’ve seen during my stay.

Buying perfumes or body oils

One of the most expensive yet best buys I’ve ever had involved tons of small fragrances from the local perfume shops. They’re everywhere around Rome and if you look hard enough, there are many outlets which sell Italian scents — which are arguably, the best ones I know so far.

Another great buy would be the body oils which are imported all the way from Florence. They’re sweet and floral but are incredibly subtle too.

Umbrella and dining experience at an alleyway inside Rome

essential #7: How to Roam while in Rome

I find that people sourly underestimate how much walking you’ll be doing when in Rome. And I strongly go against having to take a taxi, uber, or the metro, simply because it’s Rome.

To really understand the city, to learn all about its quirks, and to meet the friendliest locals, you’ll have to walk. Walk a lot. It isn’t like going around Paris via the metro, or through Barcelona in a tour bus. Rome is one giant real-life museum that you can’t help but get lost in and love at the same time.

I agree, Rome isn’t for everyone. But you wouldn’t know if the city is for you if you haven’t experienced the heat during summer, the angry locals throwing water from their balconies, and even the constant debate with your server: still or sparkling water.

You won’t know the best parts of Rome like hidden alleyways, fruit stands, and fresh food if you don’t walk everywhere as much as possible.

My favourite experience in the eternal city is simply to walk all the way from Via Cavour to Via Condotti, from the Colosseum to Fontana di Trevi.

Rome is chaotic, it’s noisy, it’s magical. It’s eternal.

 

Over to you: Was this guide helpful or a mouthful?

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