I can imagine being in a relationship with me can’t always be easy – I’m the girl who always travels. Even though I’m doing a full-time PhD and have several part-time work commitments, I’m gone all the time. Sometimes just for a weekend, on other occasions 2-4 weeks at a go. I’m constantly dreaming of faraway places, and no vision of moving abroad or simply running away is ever crazy enough for me. Let’s not get started on the effort that goes into capturing that perfect photo – whether it is a dreamy snapshot of me in front of a mountain, or a perfectly styled photo of our dinner…
But being with a Travelette also comes with its perks. Such as, my priorities are so that there is always time and money for travel. After my birthday present for my partner last year kind of fell through due to ill-planning, I wanted to make up for it this year, and take him away to a place he’d never been but always wanted to go: Rome.
With Rome being an incredibly touristy place, whether you come for the history, the gelato or religious reasons, it was all about timing and preparation so we wouldn’t run into any tourist traps.
After spending three wonderful days in the Eternal City, I thought I’d share a few tips with you in order to guarantee you also succeed at a perfect off-season trip to Rome!
1) Stay in Trastevere
Many hotels are in the area around Termini, the main train station, because that’s where all the tourists arrive (trains and buses from the airports stop here too). Staying in Termini might save you a long walk with your luggage through narrow cobble-stone lanes, but it also means you’re basing yourself in Tourist Central.
Trastevere is a bit harder to reach (taking the bus H from Termini for about 20 minutes), but it’s worth the trek. It’s a great neighbourhood with a mix of locals and visitors. Many airbnbs are in this area and you can’t walk 5 steps without finding another restaurant, gelato shop or bar filled with locals.
Our airbnb was a bright ground-floor flat in the back of a typical Roman apartment building. The courtyard was filled with plants and in the late morning we could hear the clatter of plates and cutlery coming from above. It was a great atmosphere, and we were based within walking distance of all the major sights, from the Colosseum to the Vatican.
2) Walk instead of taking public transport
Rome is a big city – over 5 million supposedly roam the streets of the Eternal City. Yet, the historical centre of Rome is incredibly walkable and you can save some money by going on foot everywhere. Mind that walking also burns calories, which justifies that extra gelato you’ll have before dinner!
3) Buy bus tickets in advance
If you do want to go a bit further, or simply can’t be bothered pushing your suitcase through the cobbled lanes upon arrival, remember to buy your ticket before boarding in a tabaccheria (a tobacco shop). Single tickets are EUR1.50 and need to be validated when you board. Once validated, they are valid for 100 minutes on all buses, trams and metro regardless of transfers!
4) Do the Colosseum Dungeons Tour
Our main aim for this trip was to eat our body weight in pasta and gelato and get some sightseeing done while walking from one foodie area to the next. Indeed my list of recommendations had more restaurants on it than anything else, but knowing that my partner’s life-long dream of going to Rome was also connected to its history, I wanted to make some room for proper sightseeing. Seeing that I’m not one to read out loud from guide books, and I barely remember any facts from Latin classes in high school, we turned to The Roman Guy.
The Roman Guy is a company that offers guided tours with small groups in Rome, Venice and Florence. We chose their Colosseum Underground Tour because it gives you exclusive access to areas individual visitors can’t go to, and it includes a stroll across the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Our guide Lea, who studied archaeology and really showed a true passion for the stories of the past, took us around the forum and explained how it used to be buried underneath several feet of dirt and rubble. Together we walked along the Via Sacra, saw the exact spot where Julius Caesar was cremated, and learnt about the Vestal Virgins and the various Gods that the temples were dedicated to. After that we climbed the palace hill Palatine, where the Roman Emperors used to live.
By the time we finished exploring these archaeological sites, the Colosseum was pure icing on the cake. Our group could skip the line and enter right away. Unfortunately it had rained heavily the days before our trip and the dungeons were still flooded and inaccessible to visitors. We still got some access to restricted areas, such as the arena platform and the third level of the entire structure – or what remains of it anyway. From up there we got amazing views down into the arena, but also out across the city.
What I particularly enjoyed about the tour was that we were such a small group (12 is the maximum group size) which enabled Lea to create a really nice group atmosphere. We all had a little ear piece so that she didn’t have to shout at us, and we could wander off for a photo without missing any of the interesting stories she told us. The tour lasted 3.5h which gave us plenty of time to explore, take photos and soak up the views.
5) Drink your coffee at the counter
A typical Italian breakfast is made up of an espresso and a croissant (or other pastry) traditionally eaten standing up at the counter of a bakery. Whether it is early in the morning, or in the middle of the afternoon – if you need a kick of caffeine and a sweet pick-me-up pay up first and then pick up your coffee at the counter. This way your espresso will cost you around EUR1. If you sit down on the other hand, you might be charged three times as much.
6) Visit the Vatican at 7am
Cue my partner: “Getting up at 6.30am is not a holiday for me, but OK” – on vacation getting up early can be the best thing you do, especially when you want to visit a usually busy tourist attraction like the Vatican. My friend Scott, who used to live in Rome and still frequently visits, gave me the tip to hit up St Peter’s Square and Basilica as early as 6.30 or 7am.
We waited for this until our very last day, when the sun finally came out early in the morning – the only problem was that it was a Wednesday and the Pope holds his weekly audience on the Square every Wednesday morning. We had no idea and reached the Vatican around 7.30am only to find out that the church was closed until the afternoon and that in two hours time we could have the chance to see the Pope. And while that was enough for some people to rock up in their wedding outfits – I guess to receive the Pope’s blessing in full gear – we were not dedicated enough to wait in the cold for two hours… Next time we won’t try on a Wednesday!
Note that the Basilica normally opens at 7am, but places like the Cupola, the Catacombs and the Vatican Museum open a bit later and you need to purchase an extra ticket for these activities.
7) Mercato Trionfale
Not being able to visit St Peter’s Basilica early in the morning, we decided to check out a local market instead. Mercator Trionfale, just north of the Vatican, is an indoor market with rows and rows of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and of course pasta. We particularly enjoyed watching the merchants peel their artichokes and made sure to remember how it’s done! This is a very local market; we didn’t see any tourists, and there is nothing touristy to do here either – it is just a great place to buy fresh produce and marvel at the quality of food in this city.
8) Come in November
It is the most quiet month and the historical city centre is a bit less crowded. Check out the Roman Guy’s video about tricking the crowds.
9) Don’t let rain turn you off!
It rained on three out of four days on our trip – but when you’re in Rome you gotta enjoy it!
10) When it’s raining, head to the Pantheon
The rain falls inside right through the hole in the ceiling – a truly spectacular sight!
11) Explore the back lanes of Trastevere
Trastevere is a favourite among locals and tourists, and the main roads are dotted with restaurants, bars and touristy shops. The back lanes however have a more authentic feel to them, and you will discover colourful doors or laundry flying high up in the air.
12) Food tour in Trastevere
When I travel to Italy, it is all about the food, which is why we signed up for a Local Food Tour in Trastevere with The Roman Guy (the same company that took us to the Colosseum).
Our guide Fiona had been living in Rome for over 20 years and knew all the ins and outs of Italian cuisine. She took us to six different places, to taste locally produced cheeses and prosecco, and to indulge in some fried fish and 0 km bruschetta; we tried two essentially Roman pasta dishes as well as typical minimalist pizza bought by the slice. The tour was topped off with some sweet gelato. The website promises a 3.5h tour, but Fiona spent an extra hour with us, because our group of 8 Roman holidayers got along really well.
In addition to filling our bellies with delicious foods and wines, Fiona told us everything about Italian food philosophy, traditional recipes and how to order local favourites. In between the food stories she wove in information about the city and more particularly the Trastevere neighbourhood. It was a delightful evening and definitely a tour I would repeat and recommend!
13) Always order house wine rather than bottles!
Half a litre for EUR4-7 – it’s as simple as that.
14) My favourite pizza: Ivo a Trastevere
I’m not going to claim to have eaten the best pizza in the world, in Italy or even in Rome – I need another ‘research’ trip for that – but the pizza at Ivo a Trastevere was most definitely the best pizza I have ever tasted. The tomato sauce was so fresh and easy, the vegetables and olives so delicate and the absence of cheese so refreshingly light – this was the best pizza of our trip!
Ivo a Trastevere, Via di S. Francesco a Ripa, 158
15) The richest Cacio e pepe: Da Lucia
The little restaurant Da Lucia is tucked away behind the busy main roads of Trastevere and a really great find in terms of atmosphere and traditional Roman food. It fulfils all the stereotypes of Roman cuisine that Fiona told us about – gnocchi are only served on Thursdays, tiramisu only during the weekends, and artichokes only when they are in season. We went for another Roman classic, pasta cacio e pepe, which was served with a wagon load of pecorino cheese – to die for!
Da Lucia, Vicolo del Mattonato, 2/B
16) My favourite pasta: Ombre Rosse
My favourite pasta dish was served up at Ombre Rosse though, where we ate our final meal before heading back to the airport. What a choice! The pasta at Ombre Rosse is homemade, thick pasta – almost like Udon noodles – and the tomato sauce was pure perfection!
Ombre Rosse, Piazza di S. Egidio, 12-13
17) Eat artichokes – fried or Roman style: Popi Popi
We were lucky enough to visit Rome at the beginning of artichoke season and got to indulge in all the various traditional styles of preparing it. Our favourite way was Carciofi alla Romana (Roman style) – the artichokes are stuffed with mint, garlic and pepper, and subsequently boiled – a real delight! We tried this at Popi Popi, a restaurant you should try if only for its super-friendly staff (don’t get me started on the pasta and pizza again).
Popi Popi, Via delle Fratte di Trastevere, 45
18) Have all the gelato
My favourite scoop of ice cream was at Gelateria Artigianale Corona, a little shop not so far from Piazza Farnese (Largo Arenula, 27).
19) Hit up the bars of Trastevere
We didn’t always have much energy left after devouring our body weight in pasta or pizza for dinner, but in Trastevere the next cozy bar is never far. There is always room for a little more cheap house wine or a shot of Limoncello. My two favourite discoveries were Akbar, a cool bar with a mixed hip crowd and Berlin flair in the eastern part of Trastevere, and Chakra Cafe, a small bar just off Via della Lungaretta, where we spent half of an eternity testing their beer and cocktail menu.
Akbar, Piazza in Piscinula
Chakra Cafe, Piazza di Santa Rufina, 13
20) Know your quickest ‘escape route’ from the narrow lanes
This tip comes right from a photographer’s heart, because as much as I love this photo I captured halfway down Via dei Coronari, I am still a bit gutted that I missed the entire scale of this pink and orange sunset sky ’cause we were caught up in the narrow lanes.
Rome is a touristy city, but equipped with some insider travel tips and a list of local favourites your trip to Rome will be a huge success. Did I miss any must-see’s or dos’s? Share your top travel tips for Rome in the comments!
Pin this for later:
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.