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?


  1. These are great tips! I would say that depending on time it might be great to sign up for tours - the Vatican tours are AMAZING and you get to beat the lines!

    1. Good point! We didn't take an official tour this time. We wandered around the Basilica listening to Rick Steves' podcast, and we toured the museum with the help of the rented audio guides.

  2. Great tips! I certainly did not know that some places were closed on Sundays or you needed a reservation for them!

    1. I wouldn't have known if it weren't for great guidebooks! But yeah, the Vatican has limited hours on the last Sunday of the month and otherwise is closed. It makes sense, due to a mass being in progress, etc., but sometimes we "forget" these things in the excitement of a future trip!

  3. Fantastic tips! I'll be making note of these!

  4. Great tips! I will pin this to remember about the pass!

    1. Glad to have helped! I'll be sharing more tips in the future!


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