City Guide to Rome, Italy: Part 1 | Travel Tips & Tourist Information
If you're looking for things to do in Rome, Italy and want the inside tips to booking the best Colosseum tour, you're in the right place. On the other hand, if you're simply looking for tips on transportation, Rome's airports, food, and hotels, we have you covered too!
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You can’t get much more iconic than Rome when it comes to European travel. Needless to say, we were both very excited to visit the large, historic, bustling capital of Italy. As soon as we got off the plane we were swept into the crowds of tourists and drawn into a city that’s entrenched in history and traditions.
We may have been tired when we landed, but as soon as we started to see the city and experience the culture of Rome, we were quickly invigorated and couldn’t wait to start exploring!
Arriving in Rome, Italy
From the airport (FCO in our case), the most economical way to get into Rome is by bus. So, after passing through passport control and customs, we walked out of the airport, took a right and walked past terminal three to where the bus stops are.
There were several bus operator options, but we knew that Terravision offered service non-stop to Termini Station (where we needed to go) and to boot was slightly cheaper than other bus operators were.
We settled into the bus ride and, since the airport is a bit out of town, it started as a drive indistinguishable from any other highway. But as soon as we approached city center, it was clearly apparent that we were in Rome! Scooters zoomed past us, monuments in large piazzas (public squares) towered above us, and magnificent churches sparkled against the bright blue sky.
Once we arrived at Termini Station (which is the central station for buses, trains, and the metro in Rome, Italy), our adventure began. While other passengers had to wait to retrieve their luggage from the compartment under the bus, we strapped on our 36L backpacks and headed down one of the many narrow and busy streets of Rome. Our goal was to get to our Airbnb, settle in, switch out our backpacks for our daypacks, and then set out to do a bit of exploring.
Check out our City Guide to Rome, Italy: Part 3 | Airport Tips & Beyond for options on getting to and from Rome from CIA and FCO airports.
Hotels in Rome, Italy
With every new city comes new accommodations, and for us that ranges from a house sit, to a hotel (paid for with points), or an Airbnb (use our link and save up to $40 on your first stay!). And, just like every city has its unknowns, so does each new place we stay at.
Whether it’s a hotel, a rented room, or in the case of a house sit someone’s personal space, we never know what the hospitality will be like, how comfortable the mattress will be, or what amenities to expect. So, when we arrived at our Airbnb in city center Rome (about a 20 minute walk from the Colosseum), we breathed a sigh of relief when we had the kindest and most enthusiastic welcome from our host, Ricardo, at the Guest House Meraviglia.
The space was less of a traditional Airbnb where you expect to be in someone’s home, and more of a private hotel room. We had a private room with an ensuite, a mini fridge, a small television, and daily cleaning service.
Book your Airbnb early! Rome is a popular city, so Airbnb listings come and go quickly. If you book early, you'll save money and have more listings to choose from. Alternatively, book Meraviglia through Hotels.com.
It may cost more to stay in downtown Rome, however you'll have easy access to all amenities and attractions.
Traditional Roman Food
In our humble opinion, there isn’t a better way to immerse yourself in a city and its culture than to put on your walking shoes and get moving. So, we did exactly that!
Our first order of business was to look for grocery stores in the area, which is a fantastic excuse to see the areas of town that are often left unseen by tourists. It was however a Sunday evening, so we knew we'd have a 50% success rate in finding stores that were open. But, what we found along the way was a sense of the streets, the people, and what’s considered typical cuisine in Rome.
If you’re wondering, our go-to backpacker's food oats (‘avena’ in Italian) isn’t a common food in Rome, Italy and is relatively costly. No surprise however, there are entire aisles dedicated to pasta and olive oil!
Save money and live like a local by purchasing food from the grocery store.
Rome, Italy has many street markets that have local produce, fresh pasta, and meats at great prices.
Enjoy eating out and exploring Roman Cuisine, but don't let staying at a hotel be an excuse not to prepare your own meals either. There are plenty of things to eat that don't require a stove or microwave (salads, canned beans, sandwiches, yogurt, cereal, etc.). Eating 'in' is a huge budget saver!
Meeting Friends For Dinner
Before we had a chance to finish searching for supermarkets, we had to make our way to dinner. We'd been in Europe for almost 11 months at this point and in that time we’d seen only two people we previously knew (a colleague of Shannon’s in the Netherlands and a childhood friend of Sergio’s in Austria).
Thus, when we heard that friends of ours from Idaho were going to be in Rome, Italy we looked at our schedule and tried to see if we could match our calendar with theirs. It took a bit of finessing, but ultimately we were able to have our first two days in Rome overlap with their last two days. After more than a year since we’d seen them, we had dinner plans with them and boy was it great to see familiar faces!
We’d done our due diligence ahead of time to find a highly rated restaurant for some great traditional Italian food, but unfortunately it wasn’t only a Sunday, it was also early in the evening. Let us explain...
To put it into perspective, Italians observe ‘Siesta’ (afternoon naps and relaxation) and usually don’t eat dinner until 8 pm or later. So, while our internal clocks were still an hour ahead from having flown in from Sofia, Bulgaria and we were planning on waking up the following morning to set off for sightseeing an hour before sunrise, Rome wasn’t having any of it.
The restaurant we really wanted to go to was altogether closed on Sundays, and it turned out our second choice didn’t open until 7 pm. Consequently, we had to settle a bit on the restaurant, but fortunately we found a place that was serving food and we had a great dinner with our friends!
Romans stay up late and eat late, so if you're looking for a Roman cultural experience, be sure to hit the town in the evening/night.
If you're eating out and want to find the best restaurants follow these rules of thumb:
Stick to non-tourist streets. Instead focus on side streets to find restaurants that cater to locals.
Eat where the locals eat. If the restaurant isn't filled with Italians, consider finding a different restaurant.
Eat after 8 pm. It's when restaurants that cater to locals are open for dinner.
Sightseeing in Rome, Italy: Early Bird Gets the Worm
It’s amazing how an early dinner turns into a late dinner, and the stories and jokes continue even on the street outside. Begrudgingly we made ourselves say goodnight and headed home. We tucked ourselves in and got a few hours of sleep before starting our day well before dawn.
Rome and everything it had to offer: Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, ancient ruins, and piazzas surrounded by churches, palaces, and market places, weren’t going to wait for us!
We love the calmness of the early morning hours and even more so the few hours we get alone before the other tourists and tours start their day. When we wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, it can be hard to convince our still sleeping bodies that it’s time to rise, but we've yet to regret it once it’s all said and done!
Even though we visited in the down slope of tourist season (early October), it was still one of the busiest and most crowded cities we’d been to so far. For most hours of the day walking from one popular tourist area to the next, especially on large streets could be challenging because of the number of people squished onto a small sidewalk. And don’t even think about getting a picture in front of Trevi Frountain or the Colosseum without copious amounts of people surrounding you.
Therefore, if you can pull yourself out of that warm cozy bed a few hours earlier than everyone else, you’ll have a great head start!
Avoid crowds by sightseeing early in the morning before other visitors have arrived, or late in the evening when the crowds have dissipated.
Use Google's "Popular Times" bar graph as an estimate to when the least (and most) busy times are. Simply search for an attraction in Google and on the right side panel of the search page will be several sections including site information, hours of operation, and popular times. You can also find this information in Google Maps.
Public Transportation in Rome, Italy: Getting Around Rome
Getting around Rome, Italy isn’t too difficult; between public transportation and walking, we were able to get everywhere we wanted to. The city is relatively pedestrian friendly, with most areas having a sidewalk, albeit sometimes a very narrow one.
Crosswalks are common, although many don’t have pedestrian signals, which means that vehicles need to see you and stop for you to cross. We learned quickly that if you’re timid while crossing the street, it may take a while for cars to stop and give you the right of way. Instead, be like the locals and step out into the crosswalk where cars will usually stop.
During our time in Rome, we found that we only used public transportation to get to and from the airport and a few times for sightseeing. The tourist areas of Rome are almost all located in the center of the city and are pretty close together.
We were up for the challenge, so we did all of our sightseeing (inclusive of off the beaten path areas that are further out) and only took the metro once. We tracked over 22 miles of walking! If we’d stuck to only the major tourist sites (Colosseum, Pantheon, Spanish Stairs, and even the Vatican) we would've cut our walking by 50% to 75%.
There’s a good reason scooters are known as an ‘Italian’ thing, because they’re everywhere!
There are streets lined with parked scooters, alleyways with them parked and leaning against the walls, and the streets are filled with them zooming every which way. It certainly set a European and even more so Italian tone for our time walking the city!
If you’re not ready to walk a marathon, public transportation (atac) in Rome consists of regional trains, a metro, trams, and buses, and is fairly inexpensive.
A single journey ticket is €1.50 and an all day, unlimited pass is only €7.00. Be sure to have cash on you, since automatic ticket machines only accepted banknotes and coins during our visit.
To and From Rome Airports: CIA and FCO
There are two airports in Rome: Ciampino Airport (CIA) and Fiumicino Airport (FCO).
Be sure to check your flight itinerary to see which airport you’re flying into, and which one you’re flying out of. Typically, long haul international flights use the main airport, FCO, while inter-Europe flights on low cost carriers use CIA.
In our case, we arrived at FCO but departed from CIA. We quickly learned that since both airports are located outside of city center Rome, Italy, public transportation is a great way to get into and out of the city.
Don’t miss our exhaustive guide to getting to and from both airports, navigating Rome’s hectic Termini Station, and our mini-adventure and insiders tip on saving on fare to CIA.
We had such a great time in Rome and saw a TON of stuff, be sure to check out our City Guide to Rome, Italy: Part 2 | Must See Attractions, but like every place we visit, we had a few places and experiences that stuck out for us...
Roman Colosseum Tours and Tickets
In fact, on our first evening in Rome, when we weren’t planning on seeing any sights, we ended up walking on a street that had a clear view of a portion of the Roman Colosseum. We had just a peak, but that was enough to make our hearts skip a beat and get us even more excited for our tour the next day!
We’d done our research ahead of time (six weeks actually) and learned that if we wanted the full Colosseum experience, we’d need to take the Colosseum Underground Tour, which included entrance into the underground area as well as to the third level of the Roman Colosseum. Unfortunately, getting the tickets for this tour isn’t easy.
So knowing that, we got on the website 10 minutes early, used three browsers on two computers and we still couldn’t get the English Tour tickets. The website’s servers were so overloaded that they couldn’t accommodate the sheer number of concurrent connections. Every time we attempted to ‘check out’ we couldn’t complete the transaction!
So instead, we moved to ‘Plan B’, and scored Spanish Tour tickets. Sergio's first language is Spanish, so it worked out well. He was able to interpret the highlights for Shannon (she understood about 50% of the tour) and for a Japanese couple we met while on the tour who didn’t speak any Spanish.
Since we'd purchased our tickets online in advance, on the day of the tour we were able to skip the ticket lines and simply pick up the actual tickets at the reservations desk. Our tour commenced about twenty-five minutes after we arrived (don’t forget to arrive early!) and to our enjoyment, the guide was engaging and willing to answer questions.
The best part of the tour was of course the exclusive access to the underground and upper levels which have only been accessible since 2015. The big bonus for us, was that a week before we arrived we received an email letting us know that they were opening up our tour to go not only to the third level, but all the way up to the fifth level, which hadn’t been open for over 40 years! We couldn’t believe our good fortune, and trust us, the views are amazing. Not only could we see all areas of the Roman Colosseum from the fifth level, but we had a great view of the city and its surrounding ancient ruins!
Roman Colosseum Tour Update!
Since the opening of the fifth level of the Roman Colosseum, the ticket options for tours have changed. We purchased the Colosseum Underground Tour, which included access to the underground areas as well as the upper levels. However, there are a few different options now:
Underground Tour (access to the underground and the arena) €9.00*
Panoramic View Tour (access to the upper levels) €9.00*
Underground + Panoramic View Tour (access to both the underground and the upper levels) €15.00*
All Roman Colosseum tour options can be seen and purchased on the Colosseum tours page of the Coopculture website.
When purchasing tickets online you'll be charged an additional €2.00 reservation fee.
When we purchased tickets online, we received two emails, one with ticket vouchers and one with a receipt.
Print the vouchers and bring them with you when you visit the Roman Colosseum.
When we arrived we waited in the reservations line (about five minutes) at the Roman Colosseum and received our official tickets for entry and a sticker that allowed us to join the Colosseum Underground Tour.
Book your choice of tour online by selecting the appropriate tour on the Coopculture website. Each tour is individually listed on the page, so be sure to scroll down to see all of the options. Also, there's a separate listing for each language offered.
Tours sell out FAST,usually within 15 minutes! Tickets are released online at 9 am (Rome time, UTC +01:00) on the third Monday of each month for the following calendar month.
If you can’t get the English tour of your choice, then try the Spanish, French, or Italian version of that tour. Since the only way to access the underground and upper levels of the Colosseum is with a tour, it's not uncommon for people to purchase tour tickets in other languages, even if they won't understand the tour guide.
Tours aren't available on the first Sunday of the month.
The Roman Colosseum is closed on January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th.
Making New Friends
It seems that every large city we visit has a prerequisite number of vendors selling selfie-sticks at all of the major tourist sites. We’d think that by now they’ve sold enough selfie sticks to put one in the hands of every man, woman, and child on earth, but apparently not!
In our case, we’re not your selfie stick kind of people, we go at it the old fashion way, by using a standalone camera for the majority of our photography. One downside of using a standalone camera is that we have to ask other people to take pictures of us if we want to both be in the photograph. We’re always careful on who we ask and we never give our camera over to someone who offers to take a picture for us, since we don’t want our beloved camera stolen or held hostage for a payment. This might seem far fetched, but we actually saw it happen in Cairo!
In Rome, we found we weren’t alone in our choice to forgo a selfie stick. While we were on our tour at the Roman Colosseum, there was a very friendly couple, Javier and Antonio, that asked us to take a picture of them. We were happy to do so, and took pictures of them just as we’d want someone to do for us, meaning several pictures at different angles and orientations (landscape and portrait). They kindly offered to return the favor, and we took them up on it.
As the tour went on, we started to talk with them, and we learned that they were from Valencia, Spain and were touring Italy for a few weeks. They were incredibly friendly and even practiced a bit of Spanish with Shannon. We exchanged contact information with Javier and Antonio and have since been in touch! So, while it was great to meet up with old friends in Rome, Italy, we very much appreciated making new ones!
Ancient Roman Ruins in Italy
We came to Rome knowing that we’d see ancient walls, aqueducts, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum, but what we didn’t realize was how extensively visible the ancient ruins are all across the city.
Looking back it makes sense, as Rome was one of the cities at the epicenter of the ancient world. Our tour guide at the Roman Colosseum even commented that sometimes when they dig up an area for construction and find ancient ruins (very common as you'd expect), they just cover them back up. She continued by saying that it was often too resource intensive to excavate. Also, when considering how much has already been learned, they'd likely not be learning very much new information from new sites. (Please don’t quote us on this, we took it with a grain of salt – and please comment below if you know otherwise).
So, with the idea in mind that the city is uncovering more ruins than they’d like, it’s no surprise that everywhere you go there seems to be some sort of ancient ruin. Whether we were in the tourist areas around the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, or further out walking around neighborhoods, we commonly came across large and small ruins.
For Italians it’s just ‘everyday life’ and quite possible that your commute is through an ancient aqueduct or past a building that was built 2,000 plus years ago!
Walking through local grocery stores is a great way to see what locals eat, which really gives a peak into the culture of the place and its people.
In Rome, Italy, we’d been through a few stores and had walked the aisles full of pasta and olive oil when we entered a store by the name of Conad. While perusing we found their fish counter which had a sword fish proudly on display. Naturally, we’ve seen swordfish before, and we’ve of course seen fish counters at super markets, but we’d never seen one displayed quite like this. At first, we theorized it was only for decoration, but in the end, concluded it wasn’t.
Finally, just in case there was any doubt left, a few days later when we returned to stock up on groceries we found that only a small portion of the swordfish was left!
Rome, Italy lived up to everything we’d heard of it, from the ancient ruins and crowds of tourists to the lively culture and indulgent food! We had a great time, partaking in the cuisine, experiences, sights, and culture of this amazing ancient city!