The Italian tourist spot to beat them all – but there are plenty of travel hacks to know before visiting Rome…
We absolutely do not need to tell you what there is to do in Rome, or how to do it. However, what I can tell you is how to do it for cheaper, where to find the places you can see for no money at all, and where to get the best damn pasta for 4 euro (including wine!) you’ll ever have. Read on…
While it might be a bit disappointing on first look, given you’ve probably heard so much about it throughout the years (just me?), take a minute to understand what this church is and what it stands for. The Pantheon is a former Roman temple, located on the site of an earlier temple constructed during the reign of Augustus (27BC – 14AD). The Pantheon’s date of completion is uncertain – but any which way you think about it, it’s really bloody old. The building is so unlike other churches, it became a real testament to the architectural grandeur of the Romans when it was built. The large circular dome, with the conventional temple portico stuck on the front, was a completely revolutionary design – but went on to be copied many times by architects in later years. It’s one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings anywhere, mostly because it’s been in use just about ever since it was built. Since the 7th century, it’s been used as a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs. It’s free to enter, but you’ll pay if you want a guided tour. There are bits and pieces of information dotted around the place if you’d prefer to slum it.
Tip: Be quiet. This is a place of solitude, and you best believe there are security guards only too willing to SHUSH you loudly should your voice reach a few decibels over their limit.
Fact: Almost two thousand years after it was built, the dome of the Pantheon is STILL the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. And that is just batshit crazy – and a freaking amazing testament to the skill of the Roman people.
Altare della Patria/ Vittoriano
This is a bit of a Marmite for me, and for a lot of locals around Rome. First of all, from afar it looks rather grand and impressive, but from up close it really just looks imposing and huge, and evokes a sense of “WTF is that thing?”. The ‘Altar of the Fatherland’ is a monument built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, who was the first king of a unified Italy, and was completed in 1925. If nothing else, it’s well worth climbing the steps and heading inside to take in the Art Nouveau mosaics in the colonnade, and the view over Rome from the terraces. While the bulk of the monument is free to enter, the panorama from the top level is only accessible by glass elevator and costs 7 euro to take.
Aside from the fact that this is basically a cruel joke Instagram is playing on us all, these fountains are a sight to behold. You just have to remember the fact that you’ll be jostling to actually see this sight, while having it obscured by hundreds of people’s selfie-taking heads and such at any given time of the day. It’s also located in a rather small, confined little plaza – so there isn’t actually anywhere for said thronging mass of people to go. As long as you’re at peace with the fact that you’re never going to get that shot of you flicking a coin over your shoulder without 15 other human heads in it, it’s still worth fulfilling all your Lizzie McGuire (I mean, La Dolce Vita…) dreams and paying it a visit. It’s the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world, after all, and if it’s good enough for Audrey Hepburn a la Roman Holiday – it’s good enough for us plebs batting away a selfie stick or two.
Tip: Throwing a coin over your left shoulder, behind you, into the fountain is said to ensure you’ll return to Rome one day.
A good spot for people watching or having a break with some gelato, this is one of Rome’s most beautiful plazas. Take in the architecture and the fountains at leisure.
San Luigi dei Francesi
This fantastically luxe church is the church of Rome’s French community, and it’s unabashedly lavish inside. However, most visitors forgo the glitz and glamour and head straight for Caravaggio’s scenese from the life of St Matthew in the funerary chapel of Matheiu Cointrel. The frescoes in the other chapels are well worth a look too, even if you are suffering church fatigue.
The Spanish Steps
Make like Ms Hepburn in Roman Holiday and spend some time with your butt planted on the Spanish Steps, overlooking the Piazza di Spagna below. The name was given to the seemingly non-Spanish-at-all steps in the 1700s, when a French diplomat bequeathed funds to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy and the Trinita dei Monti church above, to the Holy See in Palazzo Monaldeschi below.
And if you haven’t seen Roman Holiday, nor the scene in which Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn made the steps famous to American audiences (heathens…), then you might have seen the steps in the likes of The Talented Mr Ripley with Matt Damon, or Everybody Loves Raymond (heathens).
After you’ve taken in the steps from this height, hike up them and take a visit to Trinita dei Monti church above. As far as churches go, it’s not the most spectacular, but the vista from the plaza above over Rome is spectacular.
(Not at all true, but you can basically get the idea by wandering around the fence line)
The Circus Maximus is an ancient Roman chariot stadium and entertainment venue located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills. It was the first stadium to be built in ancient Rome, and the largest, and in its time it could hold over 150,000 spectators. These days, it’s a large grassy public park with plenty of ruins to explore if you want to buy a ticket – but it’s just as easily taken in from the roadside through a sorry excuse for a fence.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
Beat off church fatigue for five more minutes to pop into these incredible basilicas. Trust us, they’re worth it.
Things you should pay for
What a complete and utter shit show. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s the place to see and all that in Rome – but I absolutely hated it. No matter whether you arrive at the crack of dawn or not, you’ll always be crammed in like sardines with people, and there will be scalpers galore outside having you question your faith in just about everyone you ever meet again in your life. We’d recommend showing up well before opening time, and also booking tickets online. You’ll pay an extra 2 euro for a scheduled entrance ticket online, but considering the human crush it is waiting in a line to buy one – we’d advocate for it. Also, it’s well worth forking out the 7 euro for an audio guide as the information boards on the inside are scarce, and the audio guide is EXCELLENT. We’d say allow half a day to explore this absolute marvel of architecture, but if you’re anything like us you’ll end up wanting to hurt people and leave after two hours max. Don’t get us wrong, it’s an incredible thing to see first-hand and the special exhibits are fantastic, but the crowds really get too much.
Tip: Your Colosseum ticket will also get you into the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, and these are really worth exploring.
Roman Forum + Palatine Hill
What a bloody bargain that three of the best sites of the city can all be combined into one ticket. The Roman Forum was the absolute best thing I saw in Rome, and I actually felt like I lost myself for a few hours as I explored the expansive grounds and the fascinating history that lay there. But come prepared, this place is absolutely enormous, and it’s a lot to take in.
This forum or plaza is scattered and surrounded by the ruins of several crucially important government buildings from the ancient city of Rome. This was once the focal point of everyday life in Rome, where triumphant processions were held, speeches given, gladatorial matches and criminal trials were held – basically, anything worth doing was done here.
And today, much of its remnants can still be seen in the incredibly well-preserved statues, monuments and architectural fragments. It’s impossible to describe in words alone, and all I can say is just visit. Please.
Palatine Hill is located just beside the Roman Forum, one of the seven hills of Rome, and is a great place to wander up to to take in the forum from above, and take in one of the most ancient spots in the city.
Of course, you can’t come to Rome and not spare a day for the Pope himself. Vatican City is a short bus ride from the centre of Rome, and it’s worth setting a day aside for. We can’t stress enough about the need to get out there early though, as even when we attempted to line up an hour before opening – there was probably already 60 or 70 people ahead of us. And you will need to fight middle aged Russian men from pushing in directly in front of you. Entrance to the Vatican Museums, which includes the Sistine Chapel, is 15 euro – and of course worth it to see Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling. However, you’re not allowed to take photos in the chapel, and also you’ll be crammed in with many, many other people – which will destroy any real spiritual feel of the place, but is a surreal experience all the same. The museums are also incredible to meander around, but you will be taking in a lot of information all at once.
St Peter’s Basilica is free to enter, and might just be our most favourite church we’ve ever seen. The frescoes, artworks and statues are absolutely mind-boggling, and even if you’re completely sick of churches at this point – you can make an excuse for the biggest church in the world.
Tip: Visit Sunday at noon to see the Pope speak from his window overlooking St Peter’s square.
Tip 2: Remember your passport! This is an entirely different country, after all.
*Naples: Pompeii, Vesuvius and deep fried pizza
*Tuscany: Rolling hills and wine
* Venice: how to do the world’s most romantic city on a budget
* Florence: cow innards, Michelangelo’s David and paninis
* Pisa: Hire a car for $4 a day and eat for free
Never in our wildest dreams did we think we’d be able to enjoy a steaming hot bowl of fresh carbonara for 4 euro – including wine! – on the streets of Rome, but here we are. Pastifico was a godsend for us, and we ended up visiting a few times not only because it was so cheap, but because it was so good as well. For the best lunch deal in the central city, choose from a small selection of pasta dishes (usually only two or so) that will be cooked up in front of you and doused in parmesan. It’s nothing fancy – considering you’ll be eating out of a plastic plate, with plastic cutlery, and your wine will be encased in a plastic cup – but it’s restaurant-quality stuff for a ridiculous price. It’s a tiny little shop, with only a couple of bar leaners to sit at, and it will get busy – so either eat fast at a leaner or take it to go and find a place to park outside. Considering you’re in the vicinity of the Piazza di Spagna, it’s a prime spot for people watching.
Tip: Go between 1pm and 2pm for the lunch deal.
Forno Campo de’ Fiori
Suspiciously well priced for a place well within the confines of the tourist district, this pizza joint is well-renowned for its pizza bianca of all things (yes, a pizza without any toppings). It can be enjoyed as it is, plain, or filled with cured meats, vegetables and cheese. You’ll pay by the weight, so don’t get greedy, and you should only have to fork over about five euro for a decent slice. It does get crowded, so try and visit not at peak hours.
Tip: This place is closed on Sundays, and on Saturday afternoons in July and August
Rome’s best gelateria has been a family-run business since 1900, and there’s a couple outposts across the city. The Pantheon store is conveniently located well within the tourist’s stomping ground, and this shop is actually the original one where the business was first established. It will cost you more than you’d probably like, and more than my budget guide should probably allow, but you need to sample it just once.
Campagna Amica Market
If you’re wandering nearby Circus Maximus on the weekend and you find yourself getting a little hungry – this market is worth a look. Held every Saturday and Sunday, this farmer’s market offers everything from fresh produce to paninis to baked goods to meats and wine.
Pizzeria del Pigneto
Because we were staying in the middle of butt-f*$k nowhere in Pigneto, we managed to stumble across this excellente little pizzeria – which is probably otherwise well outside the realms of our knowledge. This unfussy little eatery doesn’t look particularly great from the outside, or the inside for that matter, but what does look great is the heaping pile of calzone served up in front of you for a couple of euros. This is a pay per weight joint, but don’t worry – unless you’ve ordered enough to feed several fully-grown men, you won’t be surprised at the till.
Another hotel pretty rough around the edges, we’ll refrain from outwardly encouraging people to stay here – but if you really are on a budget it’s a good option. We paid 75 euro for three nights in a very basic room with an uncomfortable bed and ‘free breakfast’ which really was just stale bread and jam, but there were no bed bugs and we weren’t robbed. You really get screwed with tourist tax in Rome, so beware the price you pay that’s not included in your room rate, but is thrown on at the end just to ensure you never return – regardless of what the Trevi Fountain told you.