Heaping plates of light-as-air pasta. Art by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini. Some of the most entertaining people-watching on the planet. Rome is a city like no other. But as welcoming as it can be, to the first-time visitor Rome can also feel a little like an upscale hazing ritual, with winding ticket lines, expensive meals, and crowds, crowds, crowds. With the help of actual Romans and some well-traveled Budget Travel editors, we’ve put together some can’t-miss tips for making yourself at home in the Eternal City.
Eat Like a Local
It’s easy to eat great in Rome, but keeping the tab reasonable is another story. We turned to Rome resident Elizabeth Minchilli, author of the bestselling app Eat Rome and host of the blog Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome, for affordable restaurant recommendations. Her picks:
Forno dei Campo dei Fiori
“This outpost of the famous bakery sells one thing only: Panini,” says Minchilli. “The bread is actually the bakery’s much-loved pizza Bianca and filling includes mortadella, mozzarella and tomatoes, and frittata.” (Vicolo del Gallo 14)
This wine shop also does a brisk business as a working-class restaurant. “The real action is in back,” says Minchilli. “Paper-topped tables and wooden chairs are all original. A daily menu is thrown on the table, with dozens of Roman specialties like meat-stuffed zucchini, osso buco, and thick and delicious faro soup. Don’t miss the gnocchi on Thursdays!” (Via del Gesu 87)
With creative riffs on traditional Umbrian and central Italian cuisine, this restaurant is jammed and pricey at night. “But at lunchtime, the fixed menu is one of the best deals in town at $17,” says Minchilli. “Three full courses, plus wine and water, but it’s cash-only at lunch and make sure you reserve ahead.” (Via del Boschetto 73)
See the Vatican After-Hours
With one of the greatest art collections on earth, it’s no surprise that the Vatican Museums are packed during the day. Time was you needed to hand over hundreds of extra euros for a less-crowded tour during the evening. But each Friday between May 3 and July 26, and September 6 and October 25, the Vatican Museums will be open from 7p.m. to 11 p.m., with the last entrance at 9:30 p.m. For $21 at mv.vatican.va, you can enjoy relative peace and quiet on a self-guided tour of the Pio Clementino collection; Raphael Rooms, the galleries of the Candelabra, Tapestries, and Maps; and the Sistine Chapel. Bring binoculars to view Michelangelo’s paintings on the Chapel’s ceiling, but remember that photography is not allowed (the company that funded the chapel’s recent renovation was given rights to the iconic images and does not allow them to be photographed by visitors).
Beat the Lines at the Colosseum
The most famous site in Rome is remaining open to the public during a $30 million, 2+ year renovation that will create an underground visitors’ center and expand access to underground tunnels. While the amphitheater has been thrilling visitors for 2,000 years, that doesn’t mean you should have to wait for centuries at the back of a seemingly endless ticket line. Instead, buy your tickets (about $14) to the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill at the Palatine box office on Via di S. Gregorio 30. Then, you can proceed right past the line to the entrance turnstiles. (If you have visited Rome over the past 10 years or so, you may recall that the Forum was once free, but now tickets are required.)
Get Into the Galleria Borghese
Don’t make the rookie mistake of showing up at the popular Galleria Borghese without tickets. Only 360 visitors are admitted every two hours (at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m.), and advance tickets (about $14) are required before you can see the heartbreakingly beautiful works here, including those by Titian and Bernini. You can drop by a day or two in advance to make your reservation for a specific date and time, or reserve at galleriaborghese.it. Then, collect your tickets in person at least 30 minutes before your scheduled admission time.
Don’t Eat Ice Cream on the Spanish Steps!
Sure, Roman Holiday may be the most, well, romantic movie ever, and the sight of Audrey Hepburn eating gelato on the Spanish Steps is indelible. But if you try parking on the steps — or any other public space — to chow down these days, you may end up being slapped with a fine. Last year, Rome’s mayor was horrified when he saw the city’s historic landmarks jammed with people scarfing pizza and panini and licking ice cream cones. A new ordinance forbids eating and drinking anywhere in Rome with “particular historic, artistic, architectonic, and cultural value” (yeah, that’s pretty much everywhere). And we’re not talking about a minor traffic ticket here — fines can total up to more than $600.