General Rome (and Italy) travel tips…

I’m half-way through my day-by-day Rome report, so I thought this might be a good time to summarize some overall travel tips for the city, as well as the country as a whole.

Travel guides
Buy/bring several, and try to read what you can before you go. I strongly recommend Rick Steves’ guides (and videos) for great practical tips, and Eyewitness Travel for more in-depth cultural/artistic information. A Streetwise laminated map is a must. Pick up other travel guides as best suited to your interests. Every guide has its strong and weak points, so it’s good to have at least two different ones on you at any given time, depending on what you want to see.

Roma Pass
A Roma Pass is an absolute must if you want to visit certain sites like the Coliseum without waiting in endless lines. Just buy one in any Tabacchi shop. It’s good for three days from your first use, and for 23 Euros will get you access to two sites or museums (including combined Coliseum/Forum) inclusive, plus 30% discount at other sites, and included bus/rail useage, for three days. Worth it alone to avoid the ticket lines at the Coliseum!!!

Planning ahead
Rome has many sites and museums you absolutely must reserve in advance if you wish to see, such as the Galleria Borghese and the DeChirico Foundation Museum. We lucked into getting access to the latter without reservation, but at the former we saw angry people being turned away because they didn’t reserve. So plan your Roman itinerary in advance where you can, as there is so much to see, and some of it must be booked before you arrive.

Money matters
If possible, wait until you arrive before exchanging money. You’ll do better with rates withdrawing Euros from Bankomats (aka ATMs) than through exchange services stateside. (I couldn’t avoid having to make some withdrawls in advance as I needed to pay for my apartment rental in full, in Euros, upon arrival).

Call your credit cards and banks before you go, to alert them you will be traveling abroad, to avoid surprise limits and restrictions on usage.

Hoard whatever small bills and coins you can get – you’ll need them! I’ve found Italy really difficult with handing out small change in the past. Many bankomats will only dispense in 50 Euro bills, and then you’ll end up with cranky taxi drivers or bars who claim to have no change (we had a not-so-fun adventure in Rome with a driver who claimed to not even have change for a 20 on an 11 Euro trip.) Many churches have light boxes that only work with 50 cent coins, so if you want to see their artwork, you need the coins to pay for it. I found we were lucky with a bar we frequented every morning that had no problem providing change on a 6 Euro tab from a 50 Euro bill. Came very much in handy on multiple occasions…

This could merit a whole post of its own. But in general…

* Get into the groove of standing for your morning cafe and breakfast munchies. You’ll save a bundle over paying the premium charge for sitting to eat and drink…

* As a sidenote to the above, make sure that the cashier sees that you are standing and not sitting, as a touristo. I nearly was charged double one morning as it was assumed I’d been sitting when I hadn’t. 2 morning cafes and brioches should not cost more than about 5 Euros…check your bill if you’re being charges more than that and you’re standing at the bar….

* That said, paying a little extra to sit and enjoy an afternoon aperitif is almost a must. Most bars will serve you at the very least some chips and nuts if you show up late afternoon, sit and order a round of drinks. More generous places will throw in cured olives and/or canape sandwiches, often at no more than 4-5 Euros a drink. This can easily make for a filling (if boozy) light dinner if you’ve eaten a large lunch! And it’s a fun way to really feel like you’re going “native” if you find a good local bar to hang out at. Both in Rome and Venice I’ve greatly enjoyed the bar culture as a hangout/relaxation point between say 4-7pm.

* If you’re like me and don’t want to end up at tourist traps for dinner, nor have to reserve months in advance and spend hundreds of Euros for fancy meals, there are a few simple rules for finding a solid, decent meal in Italy:

1. Avoid places directly near/on main tourist attractions. That is, if you must sit at Piazza Navona or the Pantheon in a cafe, do so to order one expensive drink for the experience. Don’t expect to get good food or good value for your dollar doing so.

2. Avoid places with pictures of food on the menu or multiple language translations per page. That just screams tourist trap.

3. Avoid places that try too hard to coax you inside or to have a seat. If they have to push so hard for your business, there must be a reason.

4. Stick with “vino della casa”, either rosso (in Rome, the default, usually Montepulciano) or bianco (not all places in Rome will have it though Trebbiano is what you’ll likely get if available; in Venice, it was more the default as a Tocai). Unless you’re a wine snob, the house wine is likely to more than meet your needs for the night. And be a lot more affordable.

Look for…
1. Places on little side streets and out of tourist districts, away from the main tourist trade.
2. Places with no “menu touristo”.
3. Places with the menu strictly in Italian. You may struggle a bit in deciphering it, but study a little Italian before your trip to at least learn the basic standard dishes of the region you may wish to sample.

Check your bill carefully to find out if they include service/”bread” charge or not. It’s not so much a default in Rome as in other Italian cities; however, some places may try to con you to leave extra even if they do include bread/water/service charges. Most restaurant service in Italy I’ve encountered is pretty perfunctory and not deserving of the high tip percentages we leave in the U.S., so don’t feel like you have to leave 15-20% as it’s not expected (unless someone is trying to con you or you’re eating at a real high-end establishment…)

In Rome, not a bad choice as the city is so huge, and you can get most places you want to fairly quickly for under 10 Euros. However, do be cautious of some who will try to con you. Have small change/bills handy before getting in a cab, speak at least a few necessary phrases in Italian (“is here”/”is there”/”to the left”/”to the right”), and have some sense of where your destination is located so as not to be driven around in unnecessary circles. Drivers may try to intimidate people they think do not know better, so point out your specific destination on a map or hand the driver a card with the address/number printed clearly if you don’t think you can state it in Italian.

Many churches hold some amazing collections of art. However, be aware that their hours of visitation may be limited. Many may only be open in mornings, 9am-noon, and then later afternoon (4-7pm). Some may also disallow tourists during service hours (often around 6pm). So if you want to visit particular churches, keep these restrictions in mind when planning your daily excursions.

There are probably a lot more tips I could give, but these are at the top of my thoughts at the moment. I’ll try to re-edit this post as I think of others…


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