September 30, 2014

Mapping My Month: October 2014

Yet another month has come and gone.  Weather-wise, I think September has been my favorite of all the months we've spent at home this year.  The mornings have been cool and refreshing, but we've still enjoyed a few hot and sunny days as summer gives out her last few gasps for the year.

As anticipated, September was a quiet month in terms of travel and events.  Although we began the month in the Outer Banks over Labor Day weekend, our other weekends were spent here in the Old Dominion, celebrating a wedding in the family, showering presents and love onto friends at a "Baby-Que" shower, sneaking in two last float trips on the James River, and enjoying a little bit of Bavaria here in Richmond at St Benedict's 10th Annual Oktoberfest.  And with our foray into the Oktoberfest celebrations, our travel bug has been inflamed once again, and we've started researching in earnest as to where our international travels might lead us next year.

I have a feeling that October (and probably every month until spring) will have only modest travel activity.  International travel is certainly out of the budget for a while as we continue to save, and the holidays will keep us (and everyone else!) quite busy.  But we do plan to pet a few bunnies and coo over some baby ducklings at the State Fair of Virginia, check out the Deutscher Club of Richmond's 46th Annual Oktoberfest celebrations (can you tell I'm a little obsessed with all things Oktoberfest lately?!), sip more than a few Virginia wines at the 12th Annual Powhatan Festival of the Grape, and wrap up October with a little bit of Halloween shenanigans.  Oh, and a little kitten showed up at our doorstep and decided to adopt us, so we've got our hands full with a curtain-climber and dog-tail chaser!

The as yet unnamed feline we refer to as "Kittles and Bits" until we come up with a proper name!

As always, I'm so excited and blessed at all the comments you all continue to leave on my blog posts and am continually amazed by the camaraderie of the travel blogging community in general!  Although our feet may be firmly planted in the East Coast of the U.S. for the next few months, I still feel like we can continue to "travel" vicariously through your trips. too!

So what's on the books for your October?

Linking up with Bonnie Rose and other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

September 28, 2014

Oktoberfest, Richmond-style

The end of September brings a bevy of festivals and events to Richmond, not least among these St. Benedict Catholic Church's Oktoberfest celebrations.  Last weekend marked their 10th annual Oktoberfest in which they remember the German heritage of Richmond with traditional Bavarian polka, dancers, food, and of course, beer!

The Low'n'Brows German Band
The festival takes place in the large parking lot and adjacent streets around St Benedict's in the Museum district of Richmond from Friday through Sunday on the same first weekend of Munich's Oktoberfest.  We chose to visit on that Sunday with my mother-in-law, herself an immigrant from northern Bavaria, when the crowds were smaller and more family friendly.  The strains of an accordion tiptoeing through the notes of polka music and the sight of Bavarian flags dancing in the breeze greeted us as we arrived.  Entry is free of charge, so we walked right on in!

The bierzelt dominated the parking lot and housed the musicians and plenty of blue and white checkered tables for beer drinkers and sausage eaters to enjoy the atmosphere in the shade.  Although we did not partake in the beer that day, we were happy to see many familiar beers both from Germany and from local breweries on tap: Franziskaner's Hefe-Weisse, Original Munchner's Helles Lager, Oktoberfest Marzen Lager, Midnight Brewery's New Beginning Koelsch, and Hardywood's RVA IPA, just to name a few.  The food tents also evoked pleasant memories of all our visits to Germany: large pretzels, various wurst (sausage), kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and the sharp, delicious smell of sauerkraut.  And there was plenty of Lebkuchenherzen (a traditional gingerbread cookie in the shape of a heart) for sale in the market section of the festival!

By far, the highlight of our afternoon was watching the Schuhplattler dancers.  Schuhplattler is a traditional dance from Upper Bavaria (the southern, alpine portion of the state) which features knee-slapping, thigh-thumping, foot-stomping men in lederhosen and alpine hats, accompanied by a few dirndl-wearing ladies to soften the overall performance.

(Video from YouTube and not of the St Benedict Schuhplattler dancers themselves)

We couldn't get enough of these dancers and wish they could have danced through the entirety of the afternoon!  Between the dancers, the frequent refrains of Ein Prosit, and a few platefuls of wurst, German chocolate cake, and pretzels, our pining for Germany was slightly alleviated and inspired us to start researching a return trip to our European home!


Next month the Richmond Oktoberfest Committee will be presenting their 46th Annual Oktoberfest celebrations at the Richmond International Raceway!  According to their website, they draw large crowds on both their Friday and Saturday night celebrations.  Will I see you there?!

Have you been to the Oktoberfest in Munich?  Does your hometown host Oktoberfest celebrations like this one?

Linking up with A Southern Gypsy for #WeekendWanderlust and...

...with Chasing the Donkey for #SundayTraveler!

September 23, 2014

The Price of War - Stuttgart's Birkenkopf

War is a terrible thing.  Whether justified, unprovoked, for religious or for political reasons, war is a very terrible, yet unfortunately common thing.

In an effort to remember the fallen and also as a reminder to make war the last resort, monuments and memorials are prevalent in the western world.  I can think of several dozen just here in the Richmond-metro area, yet perhaps one of the most interesting monuments I've ever visited was the Birkenkopf just outside of Stuttgart, Germany.

View of Stuttgart from the Birkenkopf.
Measuring at 511 meters and easily the highest point in the area, the Birkenkopf (roughly translated as "birch head" probably due to the trees) differs from other hills in that it is not wholly natural.  The Birkenkopf grew nearly 40 meters in height after World War II when the rubble from Stuttgart was carted to the top of the hill.  Allied bombers destroyed 45% of the city (including almost all the city center), necessitating reconstruction after the war.  As one walks around the summit, you can see the remnants of beautiful carvings, plumbing, columns, and other indicators that the rubble once adorned more than just a hillside.

A cross marks the highest point of Birkenkopf, and a plaque stands by with the admonition: "This mountain piled up after World War II from the rubble of the city stands as a memorial to the victims and a warning to the living."  (translation)

The walk up to the summit is not arduous and affords wonderful views of Stuttgart.  On clear days, you can even see as far west as the Black Forest.  Although not the biggest attraction in Stuttgart, the Birkenkopf touched me with its solemnity and insight into the brick-and-mortar price of war. 

Have you visited the Birkenkopf?  What monuments or memorials have you visited that moved you?

Linking up with Bonnie and other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

September 21, 2014

How To Get Kicked Out of the Vatican!

This post is dedicated to all the unbelievably oblivious tourists attempting to visit the Vatican when we were there in July.  May your ignorance, rudeness, and obtuseness know no end, amen.*

How To Get Kicked Out or Denied Entry to the Vatican
In Three Simple Steps!

1.  Bring your multi-tool, kitchen scissors, pepper spray, or your spray paint!  I know you think it'd be funny to show off your Swiss Army knife to the Swiss guards, but I'm sure that joke has lost its touch on them by now.  Attempting to bring a weapon of any type into the Vatican is strictly prohibited and doing so could win you a free trip to the Vatican jail.  Now that would be an interesting stamp in your passport!  But if you forgot to pack the machete in your luggage, proceed to step two.
2.  Wear your best street-walking outfit.  That's right, ladies; if you got it, flaunt it.  Work what your Maker gave you!  Bare those shoulders and show off those upper thighs.  You might get a few glances before you're given directions to the red-light district.  And don't think you're off the hook, gentlemen.  Wearing a t-shirt with "F--- You" written on it might give you street cred, but it's not going to fly when it comes to the Vatican.  The Swiss Guards will be eager to give you a finger of their own... as they point the way to the door.  Oh, and they don't perform their wardrobe checks until after you've stood in line for security, so the last laugh is theirs, bro!  But if you're fresh out of inappropriate or profane clothing, never fear - there's still one more way you could get yourself kicked out.  Proceed to step three.

Yep. That'll do it.
3.  Break out into a raucous rendition of "Wrecking Ball" accompanied by your best imitation of the music video.  Preferably stage yourself right in front of the high altar for full blasphemous effect.  Or if you're not into Miley, I'm sure Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Eminem would be equally inappropriate as disruptions are sure to give you a fast-track ticket for eviction.  I'm sure they wouldn't frown upon a good Gregorian chant or a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, but if you can't remember any of the Latin you learned in middle school, just start humming sanctimoniously.

Bonus Tip:  How to Anger Your Fellow Tourists!
Cut in line!  Yes, that's right - if you're looking to anger, infuriate, aggravate, provoke and enrage your otherwise civilized fellow tourist, just stand to the inside of the line waiting to get into the Basilica as you pose for a photo with St Peter's behind you.  Then just keep inching towards the line and act as if you'd been there the whole time.  Line cutting is the perfect behavior for visiting the capitol of the largest Christian organization in the world!  Oh, and to absolve yourself from any misplaced guilt you may have about not waiting your turn at the back of the line, pretend you don't understand any of the muttered complaints uttered in every language known to man by the people you just gypped.  Just act like you only understand Klingon, smile banally, and go on with your line-cutting ways.

Have you ever witnessed inappropriate behavior like this?

*In case you aren't familiar with my humor (you should see what I wrote about Italy's Public Transportation System!), this is a very tongue-in-cheek approach to describe our visit to the Vatican.  These things did and do happen to varying degrees.  However, we had an absolute blast at the Vatican, and a more upbeat and "serious" post about our visit will hit the blogosphere in the future!

Linking up with Chasing the Donkey for #SundayTraveler!

September 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Lake Victoria, Uganda (2007)

This photo (which unfortunately is rather grainy as I lost all originals when my college laptop died) is a view of Lake Victoria in Uganda.

For better pictures of Uganda, you could check out Crane Media's Facebook page, particularly this photo.

September 17, 2014

Why Travel Boycotts Are NOT Unethical

Recently I came across a travel blog post which made the argument that it is unethical to boycott travel to a country.  For any reason.  Here is the progression of the author's argument:

1.  Travel boycotts hurt the locals more than the government you're boycotting.
2.  The tourism industry is unlikely to wield enough power to incite change in their government.
3.  So therefore, when you travel to a country with which you may have ideological disparities or which you can't condone at all, consider the fact that your travel monies are supporting the "innocent people" of the country who would otherwise be unemployed without your tourism.*


At first, I could see the author's point.  Well, sort of.  Calls for boycotting certain companies over social issues is not uncommon here in the United States, but are they really effective?  Against large corporations, probably not, unless you're able to engage in an intense public relations attack simultaneously.  Against a smaller, local business (or in comparison, a smaller country) a boycott or the mere threat of one could potentially be more damaging and result in changes made in regards to the issue you're challenging.

But whether boycotts are successful or not is irrelevant.  The article wasn't about effectiveness, but about ethics.  The author charged that "it is unethical to participate in a travel boycott. Plain and simple."

It takes a certain level of naivete or arrogance to claim that all travel boycotts are unethical.  Here's why I think the author's position is wrong:

1.  Personal Safety
As an American Christian woman, there are just certain places, or entire countries for that matter, which would be dangerous for me to visit.  Some are more dangerous than others, of course, and even in the most civilized of countries you can become a victim.  However, I can understand and support those who choose to boycott entire localities or countries.  Why would a Christian want to vacation in a country where they imprison, torture and kill Christians?  Are you going to call a gay man "unethical" because he boycotts traveling to a country where they beat and behead homosexuals?  Why would a woman want to be a tourist in a country that charges rape victims with illegal sex, a crime that carries jail time, or a country where crimes against women, whether citizens or visitors, is a regular occurrence?  Even if I personally don't have a boycott against a country, it would be unconscionable of me to accuse those who do of being "unethical."

2.  Moral Hypocrisy
Duplicity has become very prevalent in our culture, but I believe that hypocrisy is unethical.  If you believe that crimes against gays are wrong, why would you want to spend your money in a country that's openly and exultantly killing them?  "Put your money where your mouth is," as they say.  I wouldn't want a single red cent to go towards a country that currently sentences entire families to hard labor merely for opposing their government, or hacks people to death with machetes for belonging to the "wrong" religion, or beheads infants in the name of their god!  There is true evil in this world, and while I am not naive enough to think that withholding my paltry travel funds will topple regimes or change the world, I certainly will not endorse such behavior by visiting those places.

3.  The Slippery Slope of the "It Does More Harm than Good" Argument
Essentially, his article could be summed up with the "it does more harm [to boycott] than good" argument.  However, this is a very slippery slope.  Should I justify all my travel actions and purchases by this standard?  "Yes, I will buy this item from a supplier that I know uses slave labor because at least some of my money will go towards supporting those people."  "Yes, I will visit a country that degrades and kills its own people because at least a few farthings might help the poor blokes at the bottom of the food chain there."  This is a weak argument for weak ethics.

This is not the first time that I have encountered an article, travel-related or not, with which I cannot agree, nor will it be the last.  However, this is the first one which compelled me to form my own argument, and I feel very strongly that the author made a grave mistake in insulting current and potential followers who have very valid reasons to avoid certain countries.  It's neither just nor prudent to label someone "unethical" simply because you don't agree with their reasons to boycott a location or country.

What do you think?  Should people who boycott countries be called "unethical?"

*I chose not to link to the author at this time.  If you wish to read his article, you can find it by searching for "Travel Boycotts and Why They're Unethical."

September 16, 2014

The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill

What is there to say about the once-beating heart of the Roman empire that hasn't already been said?

As I surveyed the wrecked and ruined remains of marble and stone scattered haphazardly where the Palatine and Capitoline hills meet at the Roman Forum, I couldn't help but recall the words from Shelley's Ozymandias sonnet:  "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"  What once stood proudly, embossed with gold and bright paints, now lies broken.  All the power and authority which once ruled the entire civilized world is divided or dissipated - just a few broken pillars mark where the Roman Forum once stood.  And yet the legacy of Rome continues to fascinate centuries later, and arguably, all roads still lead to Rome.

Looking up at the Palatine Hill
I did find it difficult to picture what the Roman Forum would have looked like.  Unlike the Colosseum, which only needs a little bit of imagination to fill in a few missing seats, pillars or arena floor, the Roman Forum requires a stronger imagination as not much remains unbroken.

Nevertheless we spent four or five hours wandering the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline hills where one of the greatest civilizations this world has known came into existence.  Thanks to the detailed podcasts by Rick Steves (available for free download on iPhones and Android devices), we were able to refresh our knowledge about what once existed here.  Having an audio guide or book is necessary to interpret the rubble as there is limited signage.

Temple of Romulus (left) and Temple of Antonius and Faustino (right)

In the remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins

Where Julius Caesar's body was cremated

Temple of Saturn

View of the Circus Maximus from the emperor's palaces

View across the valley between Palatine and Capitoline hills

Have you visited the Roman Forum?

Linking up with Bonnie Rose and other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

September 13, 2014

Weltmeister: Celebrating Germany's World Cup Win!

When we booked our tickets last winter for a summer visit to Europe, we knew we'd be in Germany for the final matches of the World Cup.  Danny spent his childhood summers watching fuβball in Germany, cheering on FC Bayern-München and the national team, and we were hoping to recreate some of those memories with our visit this year.  But although we hoped, we never really thought we'd be so lucky as to be in Germany when they won the World Cup for the first time in 24 years!

After a day spent touring Strasbourg, France, and driving through the Black Forest, we made it back to Stuttgart in time to change and then do a little pre-gaming on the S-Bahn (I don't exactly look my best when mid-sentence in a buzzed state!...

We watched the game in the "fellowship hall" of a church. I can't think of many places in the U.S. that would condone any drinking where a church regularly meets -- and a Protestant one at that! This is one liberal aspect of Europe that I can fully embrace!

We had a few nail-biting moments... but ultimately exploded in celebration!  As did German fans across the globe!

Götze dank!

Full of elation (and beer!), we made our way out into the streets and towards the Königstraβe, the pedestrian-only center of the city.  Apparently, so did everyone else in Stuttgart!

There were ten times as many people out celebrating compared to the German third place finish when we were visiting in 2010!  Here we were four years ago...

...And here we are in 2014!  Same pose, same group of friends, same love for Deutschland!

A HUGE thank you to our Stuttgarter friends, D. and E. for being such wonderful hosts, and for making all the arrangements to meet up with D.F., A.W., and J.B. to continue our World Cup viewing tradition!  We can't wait to do it again in 2018!

Have you experienced a World Cup celebration like this?

Linking up with Chasing the Donkey for #SundayTraveler!

September 11, 2014

God Bless the U.S.A.

In honor of those who were murdered thirteen years ago today.
In honor of the police and firefighters who went out to save lives and lost their own.
In honor of the survivors who bear the scars of that day.
In honor of our military who sacrificed life, limb, personal comfort and family.
In honor of the families of the fallen.
We remember you, we mourn with you, we honor you.
Thank you.

An especial thank you to my husband Danny, who served in the Marine Corps after 9/11 and was deployed twice; my cousin M., NYPD and USN (two deployments); my sister-in-law H., USA-National Guard; my brother-in-law B., USAF-Reserve; and my neighbors, Mr. C. and Mr. B., USA-National Guard, for their multiple deployments and countless sacrifices.


September 09, 2014

The Arch of Constantine, Christianity's Unofficial Monument

One day you're being thrown in jail and threatened with death; the next, you're being released and celebrated.

This was the overnight transformation Christians experienced in 313 AD when Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in the Roman empire with the Edict of Milan.  As such, the triumphal Arch of Constantine commemorates not only the victory of Constantine over Maxentius, but symbolizes the first sanctioning of Christianity in the civilized world.

The Arch itself sits in the piazza between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  Even for visitors on the most shoe-string of budgets, the Arch of Constantine is a must-see: it's free!

Enjoy views of the Arch from all sides and admire its juxtaposition against the backdrop of the Colosseum.

Have you seen the Arch of Constantine?

Cost:  Free!
Time Needed:  15-45 minutes depending on your interest
Accessibility:  Located immediately next to the Colosseum and accessible from the Colosseo stop on Rome's Line B metro.
Money-Saving Tips:  Picnicking at famous sites is technically prohibited, but if you're discrete, you probably won't be bothered.  There are food trucks which sell cheaply-made but not wholly unappetizing paninis, pizzas, and various drinks.  Although it's not the best meal you'd find in Rome, it's convenient if you're short on time.

Linking up with Bonnie Rose and other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

September 07, 2014

The Colosseum, Symbol of Ancient Rome

"While the Coliseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Coliseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall." 
- The Venerable Bede


It really exists.  The Colosseum, that is.

Not that I had my doubts, you see.  But looking at it in person is certainly a pinch-me-I-can't-believe-it's-real experience.

On our first full day in Rome, we followed the "Caesar Shuffle" (as dubbed by Rick Steves) through various famous Roman ruins, starting with the Colosseum, which is a must-see even if you only have a few hours to spend in the Eternal City.  Originally known as Flavian's Amphitheater and eventually gaining the moniker of Colosseum (presumably because of its colossal size), the Colosseum has become the de facto icon of Rome.

In spite of feet tired from our explorations of Pompeii, Sorrento, and Vesuvius, we opted to walk from our hotel, located a few blocks from the Termini train station, all the way down Via Cavour to the Colosseum, a distance of 2.4 kilometers.  We were eager for a street-level feel of Rome!  Gelato shops bustled with tourists capping off their breakfasts with a creamy cone; souvenir shop tables overflowed onto the sidewalk with magnets, shirts, and key chains.  Casually glancing down an intersection, we stopped abruptly.  It was a surreal moment.  The Colosseum just stood there above the rooftops, a stately reality over the nondescript buildings.

"Wow,"  I sighed appreciatively.

Even the encircling arms of scaffolding couldn't diminish the commanding presence of the Colosseum, but thankfully only a small portion was under renovation.  As we neared the monument, I was surprised to see that the Colosseum was beneath the modern-day street level; but on second thought, realized that 1,900 years of dirt, dust, and construction certainly would change the landscape!

Making our way through other gawking tourists and chain-smoking Italians in gladiator garb, we were met at the entrance of the Colosseum with an excitement-squashing monster of a line for the ticket booth.  Feeling just a little bit gleeful and only just slightly sorry for all those tourists who didn't plan ahead, we skipped that line and walked right on up to the gate, Roma Passes in hand!  (See my post about the Roma Pass here.)

We popped in our ear buds and began playing Rick Steves' podcast on the Colosseum (free downloads are available on his app for iPhones and Androids!) as we walked through the colonnade entrance and out into the seating area.

In spite of the tourists, in spite of the absence of the arena floor, in spite of the highest part of the Colosseum being ravaged by centuries of stone-thieving builders, the inside of the Colosseum overwhelms and dwarfs you.  I didn't find it difficult to imagine the stone seats stretching up to dizzying heights; wood and cloth canopies stretching over the bloody-thirsty masses; the shouts and screams of man and animal in the deathly struggles that once occurred here.  The mental images were at once both exhilarating and chilling.  How many people and animals died in the over 300 years the Colosseum was in use?  During the day, it's easy to imagine the fights and matches in your mind from the perspective of a spectator; I almost wish we'd been able to take a night tour to think more somberly from the viewpoint of someone about to be killed or wounded.

Part of the arena floor has been reconstructed to better aid your imagination of what the Colosseum once looked like, and a cross was erected in the 1700s by Pope Benedict XIV as a memorial to all Christian martyrs.  Otherwise you are viewing the skeletal remains of Flavian's Amphitheater.  Centuries of stone scavengers, earthquakes, wars, and economic hardships truly have reduced it to its structural bones, but those are impressive enough.  Fallen pillars are so big that it would take three or more people to wrap their arms around them.  And the ingenious honeycomb of passages which used to be under the arena floor are now visible, revealing the secrets of the Hollywood-worthy shows and mock battles which once occurred there.  There were nearly 80 elevator passages alone!

We wandered through the two accessible levels of the Colosseum (the third level and the "basement" floor are only available for special tour) for several hours, just marveling at the architecture and engineering.  Did you know that it could hold between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators and that it was designed so that even at full capacity it could be emptied in under 15 minutes?  Those ancient Romans were geniuses!

It is no wonder the Colosseum has become the enduring symbol of the Eternal City.

Have you visited the Colosseum?

Cost:  12 euros per person; if you have the Roma Pass, visit with one of your free admissions as it's one of the more expensive sites applicable with the Pass. 
Time Needed:  1-3 hours depending on your interest
Accessibility:  The Colosseum is accessible on Line B at the Colosseo stop.  As you exit the station, there's no way you'll miss it.
Money-Saving Tips:  Download Rick Steves' free podcasts on your smartphone for an extensive audio guide on the history and construction of the Colosseum.
Other Tips:  Buy the Roma Pass!!!  If you forget water, there are generally quite a few people wandering the piazza, selling bottled water.  Don't pay more than 1 euro per bottle, though, and don't be afraid to say "no" or haggle them down if need be.  The food carts outside can be quite pricey for the quality; 2-3 euros for a Coke and 5+ euros for a panini or slice of pizza.  However, it's good for a quick meal if you're going from the Colosseum straight to the Roman Forum with no time to search for a sit-down restaurant.  If you are seen taking a picture of the "gladiators" around the Colosseum, be forewarned that they will demand payment for the privilege.  We took a discrete photo from about 100 meters away, using the zoom function on our camera, to avoid the harassment.

Linking up with Chasing the Donkey for the #SundayTraveler!

September 04, 2014

Advice for a First-Time Visitor to Rome

If I had to give advice to anyone planning their first visit to Rome, I could sum it up in three words:

Preparation!  Preparation!  Preparation!

Ok, so that's only one word, but I can't emphasize it enough!  Although serendipitous traveling can lead to great discoveries, I wouldn't recommend it for your first visit to Italy or Rome in particular.  Lack of planning will be disastrous if you show up with a list of things you want to see but no idea where they are, how to get there, what it costs, or when they're open, especially if your trip is on a strict time schedule.

Instead of spending a few hours marveling at the Colosseum, you spend an hour in line - just to buy the tickets!

Instead of seeing the Sistine Chapel, you go away disappointed - because you didn't research that it's closed on Sundays!

Instead of seeing Bernini's David statue at the Borghese Gallery, you get turned away at the door - because you didn't make a reservation!

These are just three instances in which your trip could be jeopardized due to lack of planning.  We Americans have such precious little paid time off that we must capitalize on every minute.  One minute spent standing in line is one less minute spent enjoying the actual sites!

So here are a few specific tips for making the most out of your time in Rome:

1.  Read a guidebook or do extensive research online before your trip.  Don't wait until you're there to frantically search for information on your smartphone.  Map out the places you want to see and figure out how many of them are realistic within the time-constraints of your visit.  Know the whats, whens, wheres, and how much for each site.  Personally, I buy a Rick Steves guidebook for almost every trip and also do my own research online.

2.  Invest in a good map.  Digital maps are great, but if your battery dies, what then?  We used Streetwise's maps for both our Prague and Rome trips.  The laminated maps are perfect for using dry erase markers to circle all the sites we want to see and know where they are in relation to each other, making it easy to plan out our daily itineraries.

3.  Buy the Roma Pass.  Honestly, this pass is an absolute MUST for anyone on a time-sensitive or budget-conscious trip to Rome.  Here's what it provides:

  • Three days of unlimited metro and city buses in Rome.
  • Free admission to a total of three museums/archaeological sites (complete list of applicable sites can be found here).
  • Discounted admission to any other sites on the list during the three day window in which your Roma Pass is active.
  • Line "skipping" at the Colosseum, which has lines almost as colossal as the building itself.  Roma Pass holders have their own line, which is a breeze to go through.

If you're planning on visiting the Colosseum, at least one other of the sites, and want the convenience of using the metro/buses, then buy the pass.  In my opinion it pays for itself simply in bypassing the long queues at the Colosseum!  At the time of our visit, the Roma Pass was 36 euros per person.  There is also a 48-hour Roma Pass (for 28 euros) which works similarly, so figure out which would be best for your trip.  You can buy either pass at almost every Tabacchi shop or newsstand in Italy.  Ask your hotel clerk for the closest one!  The website for comparing the 72 and 48 hour Roma Passes can be found here, and although they can be purchased online, I'm almost 100% certain that you still have to pick the Passes up in person when you arrive, so I wouldn't bother buying in advance.  We arrived in the height of tourist season and had no problem acquiring one.

4.  Be cautious against scams but don't put up a wall against genuinely friendly Italians.  Rome could be called "The City of Scam Artists and Thieves" thanks to its reputation for attracting various miscreants.  Flower-toting men try to press a flower into your hand "as a gift" because "it's tradition and good luck to give a flower to a beautiful woman in Rome."  Despite their protestations that it's free, it most certainly is NOT.  They will hound you for money if you take anything.  Keep your hands closed and your answers firm.  And be aware of "helpful" strangers near the metro ticket machines.  They'll try to help you navigate the automatic system and then take the change the machine issues back to you (or they may try to snatch your wallet while you're trying to pay).  As these machines have an English option, tell the would-be scammer that you don't need any help.  If they continue to insist, walk away and find another machine.

Be mindful of your surroundings and your possessions, but don't assume that everyone is out to scam you or you'll spend your entire vacation paranoid!

Of course there are probably a lot more things I could advise you, but these four things would be the first out of my mouth.  Do you have any advice for a first-time visitor to Rome?