Rome: Things to Know Before You Go to the Eternal City

We’ve all seen it in the movies, now let’s see if it’s true…

It’s easy to get carried away by the romance of Rome – just the thought of ‘La Dolce Vita’ fills my head with images of lemon trees and terracotta streets draped in ivy, of perfect carbonara and oven-warm pizza.

So here are a few thoughts to help you adopt that all-important Roman state of mind before you land in the ‘Eternal City’. Andiamo!

Things to Do in Rome, Italy - an insider's travel guide by travel blogger Ben Holbrook

Words & photos by your Rome roaming guide, Ben Holbrook.

Rome is a large and imposing city, a giant living museum.

But the good news is that many of Rome’s famous attractions are squeezed into the Centro Storico (Historic Centre), which you can explore entirely on foot (with a decent pair of shoes on at least). See my guide to the best things to see and do in Rome here. 

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Rome was once the centre of the world/universe.

At its height, the Roman Empire covered some 2.5 million (MILLION!) square miles and made its indelible mark on most of what we now think of “European culture”. In fact, Rome’s nickname ‘Caput Mundi’ is Latin for ‘capital of the world’. The Romans built a road network of over 50,000 miles throughout the empire. At one point in time, all roads literally did lead to Rome.

The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's Basilica

Legend has it that Rome was founded in 753 BC by twin brothers Romulus and Remus.

It’s said they were abandoned by their mother but a she-wolf (as in an actual female wolf) found them and raised them as her own. The brothers found great success with their city, Rome, but trouble struck when, as so often happens, the brothers fell out and Romulus killed Remus.

To this day, Rome’s mascot is a she-wolf with two babies suckling. There are copies of Rome’s famous Capitoline Wolf statue all over the world, because Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave them as gifts, but the original can be visited in Rome’s Capitoline Museums in Piazza del Campidoglio.

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Rome is not perfect.

Rome is a grand city with almost 3,000 years of history and culture, but it’s also a large and sprawling metropolis with modern problems. It may once have been the leader of civilisation, but today it is a loud, dirty and often maddening city, a city that struggles with political instability, poverty, homelessness and petty crime (pickpockets are a real problem for tourists in Rome).

I felt a wave of horror wash over me on the bus from Fiumicino Airport into the city centre as we drove through the grey and grungy suburbs. It was bucketing it down with rain and it just wasn’t what I imagined.

You can’t go anywhere in Rome without finding graffiti, and I don’t mean the good kind – this is not ‘street art’, this is crappy tagging, delinquent territorial pissings. Even the Centro Storico is covered in it. There are beggars, homeless people and pickpockets everywhere and there’s often a sense of something sinister resting under the surface.

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

The view over the Roman Forum and Colosseum from Palatine Hill.

Caffé and gelato is everywhere, all the time. 

And it should be enjoyed like the locals: frequently and liberally. Order caffé (espresso) at the bar and don’t take forever over it. Note that you’ll be charged double or even triple for sitting down at a table. Coffee breaks in Rome are not supposed to be long and drawn out. Instead they should be enjoyed ‘briefly but often’. Remember, this is Rome – people here are busy leading the civilised world, gifting us with beautiful design and artistic masterpieces.

The same thing can be said of gelato (ice cream), which is an important part of daily life for everyone from toddlers to tycoons. Be aware that it’s considered the norm to ask for two different flavours. I suggest choosing the first flavour yourself and asking for suggestions for the second. I enjoyed ‘Kentucky Tobacco Chocolate’ with ‘Zabaione’, Rome’s most popular gelato flavour.

More tips on how and where to enjoy the best gelato and coffee in Rome here. 

An illuminated ice cream / gelato sign in Rome - by Ben Holbrook

Quality drinking water is available for free across the city. 

The Roman’s were famous for their skill at moving water around. It’s said that they were even able to flood the Colosseum to stage navy ship battles during the day and drain it in time for gladiator battles by the evening. So perhaps it doesn’t come as such a surprise to hear that you can fill up your water bottle at various water stations across the city for free – and I’m talking about quality drinking water here, not the sort that tastes like it comes from a children’s swimming pool.

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Rome is ravaged by mass tourism.

You will be harangued at every turn by people trying to sell you tours, tickets, umbrellas and selfie sticks. The bus drivers do not want to be bothered by you asking for directions and they will make sure you know. Restaurateurs seem to see you as little more than money on legs. Service is brisk and often poor – don’t take it personally.

See my survival tips here and make sure you see Rome the right way.

Tourism in Rome, Italy

You will get screwed over. One way or another.

Whether it’s being billed an extra couple of euros for bread you never ordered (as was our experience) or pick-pocketed on the metro (luckily not our experience), you will be robbed blind at some point or another. You will be seated and ignored by your waiter for ridiculously long periods of time and instructed to be patient if you dare ask to place your order during a busy rush (also our experience). Just keep an eye on your stuff and check your bills before you pay them.

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The stereotype of Romans being vain, hot blooded, short tempered and arrogant is true. 

OK, that may be a massive generalisation, but it’s not completely unfounded. These are the people who literally put the ‘rome’ in ‘romance’. These are Romanos we’re talking about here – emperors, conquerors, popes, mobsters, gladiators, dictators. This is a land of Michelangelos and Raphaels, of Donatella Versaces and Giorgio Armanis.  And this is their city, not ours.

Cheese shop in Rome's Trastevere neighbourhood - by Ben Holbrook

Rome is a walking city, but…

The cobble-stone streets may look pretty, but they’re riddled with potholes that make walking something of a challenge, especially for ladies in heels (seriously, you really need to wear comfortable shoes). As I say, most of Rome’s attractions are situated in the Centro Storico, but your feet will ache and swell with all the walking and you will suffer from claustrophobia-induced panic attacks as crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists and Vesper-weaving locals crush your toes and invade your personal space. Prepare yourself mentally for this and, where possible, be sure to book skip-the-line tickets and tours so you don’t end up wasting half of your time in Rome waiting around.

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It’s often quicker to walk than take a bus or taxi.

The traffic is just awful in Rome and I felt frustrated to be squeezed onto a bus that was either stationary or moving at a snail’s pace for the entire journey. “We should have just walked,” was something I found myself thinking all too often.

A vintage Fiat car parked on a cobbled street in Rome - by Ben Holbrook

Buses are poorly maintained.

On one bus, the vital organs of an air conditioning unit swung perilously above our heads, dangling by a couple of stretched cables. Timetables are not to be entirely relied upon. And it was strange to me that no one ever asked to see our bus tickets (which, by the way, you buy at random little newspaper stalls and tobacco shops, not from the driver or from ticket machines as you might be used to). It’s funny, I didn’t see a single person get on a bus and validate/stamp their ticket in the machine.

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Crossing the road is a game of chicken.

Many of the crossings don’t have lights and Rome’s notoriously aggressive drivers will not stop for you to cross unless you display some serious balls. As Lindy, our guide from the Vatican City told us: “The idea is to just go, to be confident. They will stop. I always offer a smile as I cross. A fake smile, but a smile nonetheless.”

Rome in the Rain - by Ben Holbrook

When it rains in Rome… just get an umbrella and carry on.

It’s always high travel season in Rome.

We visited in February hoping that we’d miss the crowds, but it was still as busy as ever, despite the cold and rain – oh and it even snowed. God only knows how we made it to the airport.

“Us guides kept telling everyone that the best time to come to Rome is in January or February, and now it looks like people are listening to us, but the problem is that it’s always high season in Rome now,” our guide told us on our food tour of the vibrant Trastevere neighbourhood.

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It will all be worth it. You will fall in love with the place. You won’t want to leave.

Despite its quirks, you will fall in love with Rome, with the gelato, the coffee, the pasta, the pizza, the wine, the art, the grandeur and ostentatiousness of it all, even with the vanity and arrogance of the locals. It really is just one of those places.


MORE ROME:

Best Things to Do in Rome ~ A Guide for First Time Visitors in the ‘Eternal City’

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