How hard it is to get things done, like paying a bill. This can take a long time because sometimes you do not have the bill you need to pay, then you have the wrong number, then the wrong amount, then the reminder is sent through a system that you cannot access, and so on. But, once you get the bill, the solution is to get help from your local kiosk by showing them the bill and insisting that you want to pay!
The bureaucracy (actually this can be an advantage at times because speaking loudly enough can sometimes get things done).
The slow internet.
The power outages.
The traffic. It can be deadly. There is double, triple parking on many streets. There is little attention to lanes. Cars often stop at crosswalks but with the pedestrians also walking all over the streets, it is basically a melee.
Not disable friendly. The stairs and steps everywhere. Plus, the cobblestones and broken streets make walking quite difficult.
The heat in the summer. Romans tell me that up until a few years ago, the 90+/32+ days were a few weeks. Now it starts in May and ends in September/October.
The broken streets.
The trash. Rome is a dirty city.
The lack of international food of high standard.
The dubbing of films (which hinders people from learning foreign languages). WTF.
As they say, what does not kill you, will make you better. I am always suspicious of things that are supposedly really good for you or things that will increase my sexual stamina. Usually these things are things that are terrible tasting.
Italians have an obsession with their intestinal and gut health. Drinking a little digestif, digestivo, is something many of them are accustomed to.
Digestifs are usually an alcoholic beverage that you enjoy at the end of meal. It is not meant to be downed like a shot. As with many things in Italy, most of the Italian digestifs are bitter. Oh how they love bitter here!
I have tried a few. Some made from walnuts and some made from arugula. The one made from arugula is a specialty of Ischia, an island near Capri.
If they are not too bitter, then they are often too sweet. When I tried the Ratafia, I was delighted because while sweet, it at least tasted good.
Some countries are great for tourists. Italy is one of them. Is it this way for everyone? Here is my list of diminishing joy.
Tourists: At the top, tourists. To be a tourist in Italy is a delight. All the mechanisms are here, from ATMs, efficient trains, to affordable food to make you spend your money! The average salary in the United States is almost double that of the average Italian salary, making American dollars welcome.
Exchange students: With the benefit of home and host nation working to make your study abroad semester ah-maze-balls, this is clearly a great place to be. A semester is like a long holiday filled with movie sets, people flirting with you, free things (sample this, take this, have this), and the massive moshpit of AYCE other students all here to find the dolce vita, or meet Romeo, or feel inspired by Raphael, in a land of where wine is part of daily life (and gives no hangovers because of the rules limited wine production to grapes). Every year, Florence receives over 7,000 American exchange students (80 percent women).
Digital Nomads: This new group of people will find Italy a great place to be. The limits on sitting in cafes and restaurants is fairly limitless, the Internet speed is not bad, WIFI is almost everywhere and free, and overall prices are not too high.
International organization employees: Life in Italy with the aid of your home and host nation to smooth out the transitions makes life in Italy a cushy place. Depending on how many years one is assigned to Rome, reality may set in.
Native born white Italians: Yes, life is sweet. The bureaucracy is just a reminder to slow down…
Students: This includes non-exchange students, Italian and foreign. Being a student in Italy is a life filled with optimism and discounts.
Expats/binationals: For these long term residents of Italy, it is a great place but you still have to deal with the bureaucracy which may drive you absolutely bonkers at times, but then, after a stop at a coffee bar, it will seem all okay.
Long term white immigrants who speak fluent Italian: Life is good, even sweet at times.
Newly arrived immigrants: For those who are not white and do not speak Italian, life in Italy is confusing but it will get better.
There are currently 60 million Italians. In 2019, 65 million tourists visited Italy. It may seem like there is no more room, but actually, there is. Try visiting Le Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Sicily, Calabria… or visit in the off season.
Some of the worst meals I’ve had in Italy have been in fancy expensive Michelin star restaurants. Some people get super excited about Michelin stars and deem those restaurants better than others. I do not get it. The Michelin star system started out as a way to get the tires worn out. Italy does not need these fancy restaurants. Actually the Michelin star system has nothing to do with how fancy the restaurant is but solely the food, cooking, and constituency of those things. The general public seems to not know this. Michelin is not even all over the world yet (they say that they are taking is slowly). Michelin has not reached South America yet. Imagine that! There are restaurants in Lima that should have a star, but Michelin hasn’t gotten there yet. If consistently making good food was really the reason to give a place a star, then many more would have them.
The food in Italy is already natural, local, and delicious. The various types of Italian cuisine (there are many) are based on local, simple, and delicious. Michelin seems to go for innovative, expensive, and small portions. Add to that how hard it is to get a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, and it is just not my idea of a good food experience. Some of the finest dishes I’ve tasted were not by a Michelin star chef.
One thing that many people like about small portions is that it allows them to try many things and it is a form of portion control. You can try that anyway in Italy. The portions of appetizers and first courses are not necessarily that huge. Or share with a friend. Most restaurants will even split the dish onto two plates.
The last Michelin star restaurant experience underlined why Italy doesn’t need Michelin Star restaurants. One of the dishes “invented” was a bao, a steam Asian style bun. But it wasn’t as good as the authentic ones and I do not think it highlighted the ingredients. Then we had an appetite stimulant of pickles which were the most sour I have had in Italy. I can see how this was innovative for Italy where sour is not sour. One dish was a roasted escarole (half an escarole head). It cost 38 euro.
I guess my biggest peeve with these restaurants is that they are so pricey and pretentious. Most of the places on my list are not expensive, and not pretentious. Nothing makes food taste bad like attitude.
The current system where restaurants are listed in the Michelin guide is just like Yelp or TripAdvisor. The guide in Italy is Gambero Rosso. The Michelin guide is separate from a chef earning a star, of which there are 367 (318 have one star) in Italy. I am glad when a woman gets a star but I don’t think that makes the overall system better. The Michelin guide badge is a round red sticker that you can see on many restaurant doors alongside the ones for TripAdvisor.
I tend to use Google ratings because I like the democracy of the system. It relies on average eaters reviewing places and not a specialized team of experts who want to wear out your tires in France. In Italy, most restaurants make consistently good food. Or consistently bad. Try them for yourself.
Grocery stores in Rome are small, but, you will probably be able to find everything you want or think you want. For some speciality stuff, you will need to go to the international stores as the basic chain stores have very little “international” food. While the chain stores are convenient, I actually prefer the little mom and pop stores, but they are dying away.
Pam, Coop, Conad, and Carrefour are the main chain stores in the center of Rome. Carrefour is tiny here, unlike in some places where they are megastores (like in France).
For the Wegmans/Whole Foods type stores, there is DOC (by Coop) and NaturSi (some are quite basic and others have a wider variety like the one on Piazza Farnese, which also has a cafe).
For the bargain chains, there is Todis, Lidl, Metro, and some that I can’t recall the name of, maybe Tiger?
The largest combined “super-Target” type stores I’ve seen here are Conad and Elite.
Most of the local “rione” markets will have everything for basic shopping but markets tend to close by 2 pm. Many of the specialty stores like delicatessens and bakeries have started carrying other products like milk so that you can do much of your grocery shopping there. I can find almost everything I need for grocery shopping at the farmers market on Via San Teodoro, but it will all be made locally, so no imported goods.
The hardest products for foreigners and expats to find in Rome is cilantro and corn tortillas. I notice a trend in “Mexican” food so these products should be easier and easier to find over the years. Again, finding TexMex is a subject that continually follows me around the world. Gringos are obsessed with it.
For international products, Castroni is a shopping emporium with an Aladdin’s den of dry goods, but also refrigerated goods. There are many Asian shops that carry goods from all over the world, including some fresh vegetables.
For those looking for vegetarian foods or gluten free foods, all these are now easily found in most grocery stores. “Exotic” foods require a bit more hunting. Also, sometimes, the store may not have a whole lot of the one product that you want. I consider it a victory when I can buy more than one bottle of my favorite type of milk.
When it is hot in Italy, you want to order a “caffe freddo” (cold coffee) which is sort of like a coffee milkshake. It’s a bit confusing because it is not a “frappe” which is a different drink. I include a photo here so that you can see that a frappe is a coffee which is frothed to the point where it has a frappe/froth/head on top. A caffe freddo has milk added, a frappe does not.
When you see the slush machines spinning with coffee colored caffe freddo, you know that summer has arrived. A caffe freddo is different from an iced coffee or milkshake.
As an aside, the milkshakes in Italy are quite liquid and not unlike a caffe freddo except that they are not always as cold. Also, you can get a milkshake most of the year but caffe freddo is a summer thing.
Rome is a great place to be a tourist. I’m not a tourist, but I get asked a lot of questions… so here is the info, all in one place. Even more info on the official site for Rome. I start with the most “must-do” places and what is nearby. First, COVID rules are on this site. As you can see from the map below, most of Rome is within a two-mile/three-kilometer radius, but you may end up walking ten miles/14 kilometers criss crossing it! Or 28,000 steps, for those counting steps.
Vatican City: For the museums (the entrance is on the side of the Vatican) including the Sistine Chapel, buy tickets online. For St. Peter’s Basilica (and to climb up the dome), get in line inside the plaza at the Vatican. Open most days except Wednesday when they are only open for one hour.
Castel Sant’Angelo: It’s a museum, mausoleum, has those angels on the bridge, and you can walk to the Vatican from here.
Coliseum and forum (they are combined as an open-air museum). Buy tickets here on the official site, although there are many tour companies that sell tickets. Most people are okay with the two-hour tour (which can run on, but you can leave). Open 9 am to 7:15 pm every day, with last entry one hour before closing. Times change during the winter. While over here, check out the neighborhood of Monti. It’s up the hill from the forum (above the Colosseum, on the map).
Centro historico/Historic center — Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish steps (which is near Via del Corso for shopping/people watching), Alter to the Fatherland (called the wedding cake — it’s impossible to miss. Also on the piazza where Mussolini gave his speeches, and located between the center and the forum): All free but you may need to get a timed entry for the Pantheon (open 9-7 every day but last entry at 6:30 pm). While you are in this part of the city, try to walk down Old Government Street (Via del governo vecchio), as it is picturesque in parts. I like Forno Monteforte cafe/bakery which is on this street but way down. If you have time, when you are near Monti or Trevi, visit Quirinale, the palace of the president.
Campo de fiori market: You will probably run across this when wandering around downtown. Open from 8 am to 2 pm. Overly touristy, but hey, this is Rome.
Jewish Quarter: It is famous and quaint. There were Jewish people living in Rome before the time of Christ. Look for the small brass cobblestone plaques marking where Jewish people once lived before being taken in WWII. If you need an address to locate it, go to a cheese store called Beppe and His Cheeses, Via di S. Maria del Pianto, 9a/11.
Trastevere: This is an area that was once a separate small town. Now filled with students and artsy types. It’s adorable. These days, it’s too crowded for me, but it’s probably a must-see. Get gelato at Otaleg.
Campodoglio: Is the hill with the Capitoline museum and the mayor’s office. But, I like it for the view of the forum. Free and great at sunset.
Circus Maximus: Free. It’s a huge area that was once a sports area. Near my favorite farmers market. If visiting on a weekend, I would recommend the local zero kilometer market to see the foods (fresh cheese, meats, oil, fruit, and breads — all produced within 68 miles of Rome) available. The market is closed in August.
La Bocca della Verità (address is Piazza della Bocca della Verità 18) – Mouth of Truth: Made famous by the film, Roman Holiday. It’s near the Circus Maximus. Open 9:30 am-5:30 pm. I think it’s free or you pay a small donation.
Keyhole of the Knights of Malta/Aventine hill/orange garden (good for a view and at sunset)/rose garden: The Aventine hill is beside the Circus Maximus. Open all the time and free but especially popular at sunset. The keyhole allows you to see three “lands” — the Knights of Malta’s garden (the Knights of Malta are an independent entity), Italy, and the Vatican. And according to a local, you can also see a fourth kingdom — heaven.
Borghese museum and gardens: The Borghese Gallery houses masterpieces by Bernini and Caravaggio, among others. Tickets are 27 euro and there is timed entry all day from 9 am to 5 pm (they close at 7). The parks is called Villa Borghese and it is free. It includes the national gallery, zoo, a lake, rental bikes, and so much more. It’s the green lung of the city.
Testaccio Market: This market is visited by many food and travel shows. Open 8-4 or so because it also has lunch options.
Trionfale Market: Open 7:30-1:30, located near the Vatican, this is the largest of the produce markets in Rome. There are many local markets all over Rome but as a tourist, you probably won’t visit them.
There are many churches and museums to visit as well especially if you want to see some of the masterpieces in a quieter setting. But, that’s a much deeper level of tourism than your first, second, or third visit. Here are some other things to do on visit two or three.
Via Appia: The famous road is a park just south of Rome (there are many bit os this road outside Rome) and it can be a fun outing.
There are things to do outside Rome as well making for good day trips. Here are some ideas:
Naples for a day (boardwalk, museum for the items from Pompeii, pizza, downtown). I wrote about this here.
Plus, as a tourist in Rome/Italy… gelato, tiramisu, wine (ask for the local — Italy has more varietals than France — some so local that they are only grown within a few miles of the place you try it), prosciutto, or pizza, every day. See my list of where to eat.
Now some practical matters.
Euro (each country in the euro zone makes their own euro but you can use them all over the euro zone) is the currency. There are ATMs all over the city. You can also exchange money all over the city. Most places take cash and credit card, but vendors pay a fee for credit card use so I usually use cash if it’s under 25 euro. Most grocery shopping and meals are under 30 euro and I don’t find Rome to be excessively expensive.
The general rule is that you do not need to tip in Italy. Americans have a reputation as good tippers so many places will expect that Americans will tip well. But, you do not have to tip at all. Most restaurants will already have included a “service” or “pane/bread” charge to your bill, usually around one to three euro per person. If you think the service was excellent, you can leave a tip of a few euro or ten percent. No one should make you feel wrong for not tipping. Nor for leaving one or two euro. Lots of places like gelato shops, will have a tip jar. You can use that if you want to tip them. Again, no obligation to tip.
In taxis, you can round up to the whole euro. Otherwise no tipping in taxis. At hairdressers, beauty salons, massage therapists, etc., you can leave a tip if you thought they were good. But, it is not expected. Never more than ten percent. If you go on a tour, like food tour, you can tip if you want to, but again, you do not have to.
From/To Rome airport (FCO is the airport code because the airport is in the town of Fiumicino about 30 kilometers/18 miles from Rome): There are buses that go direct from the airport to all over the city for as little as five euro. Also, the Leonardo Express to/from Roma Termini train station for 18 euro. Taxis have a fixed rate to the walls of old Rome. 50 euro from Leonardo da Vinci Rome airport and then meter. There are private limo services starting at 50 euro. Read more about this here. The SIT bus stops near the Vatican which is convenient if you are staying in Prati. Most buses and trains connect to Roma Termini.
Getting around: Most of what you will want to see in Rome is within a three-kilometer/two-mile radius. But you may get tired of walking. You can buy a 24-, 48-, 72-pass that will let you use all buses, trains, trams, and the Metro. Some passes also let you get into museums for the same price.
Taxis: Taxis are white and you should not flag one down… supposedly. There are taxi stands all over the city. You can also download the ItTaxi app and order a taxi to your location. Even as a tourist. You can pay with cash or credit card in all taxis.
To travel by regional train (to Naples or Florence, for example), there are two train companies, TrenItalia and Italo. You can download their apps and purchase tickets from your phone. Or buy them at the station, but remember to validate!
While there is a lot of WIFI and you can download maps, but if you want to buy a phone SIM card, TIM sells them for 45 euro for the first month and nine euro after that. So if you are here for more than a week, it might be worth it. Other local companies are Vodafone and Windtre.
Water and bathrooms
The water is free from the fountains. Perfectly clean and cool. Learn how to drink from one of the “nasone” fountains. Bathrooms are harder to find. Generally, you need to use them at a restaurant or coffee bar.
Rome is safe, also at night. But, don’t let your credit card out of your sight. Wear all your valuables on the front of your body, from groin to armpit. Anything on your back will be pickpocketed. Thieves are the biggest danger. Oh, and the traffic.
Rome is not a place for wheelchair users. It can be done, but there are so many steps and crooked cobblestones everywhere. Mostly, there are stairs everywhere and no ramps.
Italians speak more English than every before. I doubt in Rome that a tourist would need to learn Italian, but a “Buongiorno” is always appreciated. If pressed, use Google translate. Plus, most of the service people in Rome speak English (many are from Bangladesh and the Philippines). Also, there are more tourists in Rome than Italians, so ask another tourist. They probably have the answers, as they are going to the same places.
Having now lived in Rome for over a year, my conclusion is that Italy is an awesome place to be a tourist. As I learn more practical tips from my visitors, I’ll update this article.
With the return of visitors to Rome, people are asking me for advice on where to eat. Therefore I will publish this list before I’m really ready to as I have not found ten places off the beaten path that I would recommend. Instead, this list is mostly famous places.
First, my recommendations out of the famous places:
Pierluigi, Piazza de Ricci 144 (downtown Rome): it is on its own piazza and you can enjoy the people watching. It is a seafood restaurant, but it has the most delicious vegetarian pasta and tiramisu. You will need to make a reservation.
Colline Emiliane, Via degli Avignonesi 22 (near Piazza Barbarini): This place makes delicious food. It is the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna (Bologna, Modena, Parma, etc.). Small and with no outdoor seating. But, they have a window where you can watch the pasta being made fresh every day. You have to call to make a reservation.
Tonnorello (several locations in Trastevere): I thought it was a zoo eating there, way overcrowded and the same food you can get most places. If you go at 12:30 pm, you can probably get in to one of the locations.
La Matriciana (across from the opera house, near the Termini train station), Via del Viminale, 44: Classic place from 1870.
Then the less famous places:
Fuoco Lento, Via Flavia 63/65 (in Ludovisi/Sallustiano): Old school waiters, outdoor seating as well, never had anything bad here. It’s my “go-to” place. Open on Sunday night as well. Outside the touristy area so much easier get a table.
Da Bucatino, Via Luca della Robbia 84/86 (in Testaccio): outside the tourist areas, has outdoor seating, and is an old school place.
Tratteria Valentino (not to be confused with Trattoria da Valentino on Via Cavour, which is also fine.), Via del Boschetto 37 (in Monti): great local place on a side street in Monti. Near Quirinale palace. Hidden in plain sight because they kept the old facade from when the space was a ice shop.
And one that is not famous:
Osteria del Rione, Via Basento, 20 (near Villa Borghese): Just north of the Via Veneto neighborhood, this place is a real local place located in a basement. There is almost no other business on the street, an extremely limited menu (basically what Bruno, the owner, tells you he has), and a set menu for 10 euro.
Lastly, I recommend one place outside Rome (near the airport) Osteria dell’elefante, which I wrote about before.
Once I have been to ten places that are fairly unknown, like Osteria del Rione, I’ll write about them.
Naples deserves a longer visit, but as it is only one hour away from Rome (in the next region, Campania), it is often done in just one day. Here’s how to do a tour of Naples in one day. To read about the “new city” of Napoli’s 3,000 year history, read here. First, a warning. There is a lot of graffiti in Naples. But only in the central part near the university. The city feels really gritty in those narrow streets.
Take an early train to Naples. The train from Roma Termini goes every hour and takes an hour.
Go to the famous fish market. It is not as picturesque as in the cooking shows, but it’s located near the train station in a “dicey” part of town. I didn’t think it was all that dangerous but maybe it was because it was daylight and the sun was shining.
Go for breakfast in Naples. Try Caffè Gambrinus, on Via Chiaia n. 1, favored haunt for the presidents of Italy, if you want to go somewhere famous. Otherwise, find any local cafe for a sfogiatella (a traditional pastry from the region of Campania) and a coffee.
Visit the National Archeological Museum of Naples (MANN). If you are not going to visit Pompeii, then visiting this museum will give you a chance to see some of the art from the famous city.
This museum has a “Cabinet of Secrets” where they display some of the erotic art from Pompeii. This room is only open until 2 pm, and there is a time limit of five minutes.
Eat seafood for lunch. Spaghetti alle vongole is so famous and it seems like a natural dish to eat in this port city.
Walk the promenade, admire the view of Vesuvius. (or if you are really cheeky and want to include even more in one day, take a drive down the Amalfi Coast or a ferry along the coast.)
Grab a gelato along the way. Gay Odin is a famous chocolate and gelato chain with many locations in Naples.
Eat a famous pizza for dinner. Most restaurants should make good pizza but you can also look for a sign stating that the chef is a trained pizza expert, a “pizzaiolo” — learn about how Neopolitan pizza making is on the UNESCO “intangible heritage” list here.
You can stick to the classic Margharita or branch out. I had a spicy ‘nduja sausage one and it was the best pizza I have had in Italy.
Along the way, enjoy some wine. Ask for local wine and discover grape varietals that you have never heard of. But, traditionally, one drinks beer with pizza.
When the pizza vending machine was introduced last year, there was a small furor made about it. Would it eliminate the traditional pizza restaurant? It was all for naught. Nothing has come of it. The vending machine is still there but that’s about it. No vending machine will replace the “hand made” quality of a good pizza. No matter how blue eyed the model. It was a no-go.
To read more about pizza, Roman style and otherwise, read a previous article I wrote about it here.