Tourist Information for Rome

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.

Most of the green dots are tourist attractions. From tiramisu to gelato is about 3 miles/5 kilometers.

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.

Ask for this place to get to the keyhole and walk down from there.

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.

Baths of Caracalla: Open for concerts in the summer. Closed on Mondays.

Baths of Diocletian: Closed Mondays.

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.

Pompeii: Info on how to get there and buy tickets.

Wine tasting lunch at Torre in Pietra: I love this.

Sabine valley wine tasting/olive oil tasting: I also love this.

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.

Money

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.

Tipping

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.

Transportation

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!

Phone Card

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.

Safety

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.

Accessibility

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.

Language

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.

This photo of the Trevi Fountain was taken last year, empty due to COVID.

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.

How to Parallel Park a Ship

As it’s hurricane season, I’ve been thinking back to my time in hurricane countries. When I was in Port of Spain, I enjoyed mornings watching the ships. s6HhejqZjTneQZHV7T83n8hEu4BoIPB9llcOKD5-bNFZA2kDIVwrlvQO3rwZlu9tQlV1Bar_zcaOUPJkurtQUPojqZ7VrxoVB9YYTsMW-Gx3qzMcuj0nvsJ5je6Ic2fcbArlDsSplZcpkm_FH0Ad6zOG6rhulMs6OOVkO_50loDrjKlt8Otl4dN5MCOne day I watched this and I wondered, how do you parallel park a ship?

Well, you don’t. You push it in with the help of “tug” boats.

 

 

Playa Bonita at Las Terrenas

nI-JCyIIkicfFpz-fbRg6XvKuaTCF9-p7PiY3j74gQQqlxrbM015LvTp2OKUwxS_GM77paf9LZ38zmEzUr8y5K0qbFHry9-yrwA_xE_S1OSeP2yI2c2vvT5tTmnn8UHEoyQCyBjUD62cmlT_X_Y5HtUH23tRKS2g6hhPUmS2cYKZUNHtD5v5meqtPGIt’s not Punta Cana. I hear that Punta Cana is popular. Instead, the beaches at Las Terrenas are not as populated. Hardly anyone to be seen. Which is slightly surprising considering all the villas and hotels on the beach.

Szo6e03G7tzJe__tD4PJs3jbp32HdjNF9hfnXoLWtpxS7EmqECZiwyokghF_942yaDhjq4KJVDvbcKJ-OlwcEut5YGCLSbJdtAs-iTclVEEyiYNbr1G8h57gQVQ4akwP4JYaFcXmmhXjeMN-7Br4HM4GN6hukBinFQiumbScNnqe-Xqk59hgEUD-ThI was lucky to get driven there so I don’t know how to get there. But, I do know that we paid many tolls of hefty amounts (as in 8 bucks, 8 there, etc.) in Dominican cash. The drive took about three hours and went through an area of natural beauty.

1P90szb-4IVEZixPRAEgAZl6-CuNv8EmTE-bRTxSguU9SFQJuV25Uz6s5-gFAwu7yHFmYJaz_ids6_uXoipCe7_2bqzBA1gT5gQm5YiMSFfxgO09KG7zQJpLxGyUL-TXNYOWExubkkJ8mnh98vxI1MCFHgOjiyA_720xGb98B8zRFDBdaB8Wwn6k50Along the way, we stopped for some famous barbecue, at a gas station. It’s the Gran Parador Bellamar, Autopista Nordeste, Carretera Samana KM 1, Santo Domingo. After the first toll. It’s a good pitstop with toilet, cash machine, kiosk, etc.

dlTrmzkFwNOtb_t2x0-fmvTSVfDqJPMiRi-4nm_u1CNCEQ0lxqXdUZJMfJI1W05mNNzJNiDNJABcB7JCHKp3OKAIsBC1_vNNitOEmhlHvVCkQRoPhROaA5XmKfeLLroEtHl8sSRaEsownzQHwMKoV-eCyEienpi-eLu-6-Kdk64PkBKOuBKesviYm1We rented a luxury villa. I think there were enough beds for 10 or more people, and it was a good party house. But, also great for relaxing.  Our villa cost $500 per night but I’m sure there are much cheaper options.

l8XNYRx4W90alMLhaVppD7K0Z_QL_GcF7Xp668Rq0pWQVmHVFsd4PfYBNCDbDubeBcPYBhdcERSTRUnX_QEchXrqQz0TouKuplMSXoC1jwJRmBxrWE5ihY0dulEgI9LY-QtMLCQa89O93xvogARmD4jcNRzcupNUJgERVrluR8ZcGXVUBPo5AmWP_SSo pack up the cooler with drinks and food! You can probably find a colmado that will deliver!

GxhmvFNR0mVxjCAbyM0U1agKbIqD2QmqRW1KiKl8Jkj2Z0NvscNxxK1qtIiFD7p5fiRzUrTlCjUsX4x2IRa8MA8bkQaACTeTYUKRuFqEAYjwiw3jn22lejKeMF_mbd5zi1D0hhnB6sznd85nXDpxQ8ykOfJRjprcbUbgUNyjl3yK_57yjaeIc_2TwgOn the way back, we stopped for some chicharron. Chicharron is pork rind but with meat attached. It’s not like pork rinds in the U.S. This is like greasy barbecue.

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I can’t tell you the location because it simply appeared, like magic.

Porpoise Watching in Vancouver

Actually, it was whale watching. Except that we didn’t see any whales. We saw three orcas, or killer whales. Orcas are the largest member of the porpoise family. But, it was a nice boat ride and Steveston is cute (where they filmed Once Upon a Time).

MEi6-vd6hk0TVaTuD94JumJgWEJLyyg4-T3czPqqD3VGlbU0IUZJdYVud3ClX0qE8w9svbUXK5QaQFPpdqbnwszpDnHAKULnivpkvSFHpjqQM9w4YJEHyQ_o-0j0eXZcW5q0PM193kfXldg0G3zT_IqNIwDBIPG9OcjwyAtbOYRMXJ2dbDTAh_GyS_At 140 Canadian dollars for the five hour boat trip, you can decide if it’s worth it. I enjoyed the rough waves and the bouncy roller coaster ride. We took our own snacks and drinks which helped the time go by. Plus, the waters around Vancouver are beautiful. The photos of the orcas were not very impressive as taken on my iphone. On the other hand, we got closer to some of the other wildlife which was easier to photograph. And a lot smellier.

sCa3r7GJxm2InJm-Ux-6Lp5ZRL1RxcuFJi8ZgrUEoG45dTASi4m1mnOBoUjRONbHP658Zs_-gGN2gruIYo6-I_PQjMz7gQpXQJC4JLiT1_RabNfefHErj2fwqTSftF-Hp9kcKtxb70DZBT9KLcRzvBu7CbcseHN_xrJDetA6PSOCFRs7SvihOWAr93Strangely, the night before, our waiter told us not to go whale watching as she had barely escaped going on one of the boats that tipped over and sank. Why would one share that story?

Coconut – The Water of Life

I’ll admit that I’m nuts for coconut water. When I see fresh coconut water being offered, I immediately develop a thirst. I’ve had them in Aruba, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Denmark, Singapore, El Salvador (where the photo is from), Virginia, and many other places.

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In some cultures, the coconut is revered. In Sanskrit, the coconut is called the “kalpa vriksha” or “the tree that supplies all that is needed to live.” In WWII, coconut water (the clear liquid inside the coconut), was used as emergency blood plasma. Amazing!

There is sometimes some confusion with coconut water and coconut milk. The water is the clear stuff inside (which takes a coconut nine months to produce and nine seconds to drink) and coconut milk is made from water mixed with grated coconut meat. Hence the white color.

I think the best tasting ones I’ve had have been in Thailand at the airport. But maybe, it’s that when exhausted, getting rejuvenated with a fridge-cold coconut does the trick. Coconuts are restorative and have useful electrolytes which you need when exhausted or rundown. Like when jet-lagged. After all, castaways have survived on coconuts alone. Sometimes, a long flight can make you feel like you are adrift in an endless ocean of security checks and body odor.

El Dorado – The Source of the Legend

An "atmospheric" photo of the lagoon.
An “atmospheric” photo of the lagoon.

Imagine that is an inky morning, just before dawn, six hundred years ago. A warming amber light spreads first on the crest of the crater, and then rays of light rush, like happy children, down the banks of the emerald green slope, to skim like eagles across the opal water. Your eyes are fixed on the center of the lagoon. On a youth covered in gold dust. From the shore, he is small, like a pebble. As dawn breaks, he appears, his body, nude but for gold dust, shimmering like flecks of sunrise on a lake. When his raft reaches the center of the sacred lagoon, the youth offers gold artifacts into the water. He then performs ablutions in the lake, the gold dust disseminating like a million stars on the milky way. Once again, he, the golden seed, has impregnated the female lagoon. The cycle of life ensured once again.

One of those boxes of mangoes cost 12,000 pesos ($5).
One of those boxes of mangoes cost 12,000 pesos ($5).

That is the tale you will hear, sort of, from the guide as he tells you about the Muisca people who lived in the area outside Bogota before it became Bogota.The guide will tell you about the local people and the pitiful grams of gold that the Spaniards and others dredged out of Gautavita Lagoon, centuries ago, and then again, a century ago. Until, finally the Colombian government put a stop to it. It took longer for the government to make this area a protected area, but it is now. About a decade ago, the organization that runs the tours, was set up and now, it runs like Disney for adults.

The steps up.
The steps up.

The Details: I recommend making a day of it via the town of Guatavita and the reservoir, not to be confused with the lagoon. Try to go in an SUV as the last stretch of road is a dirt road pitted with potholes (perhaps also take motion sickness pills if you don’t take well to being jerked about in a car. Or swaying and sashaying up the “dangerous curves” of lovely Colombia). From Bogota, set out to the east along the toll road (it costs around 3,000 pesos or $2). It’s a pleasant drive that starts with a good view of the mega-city. Then it goes through some industrial looking towns before a turn off at a mango stand. Once you get to the town of Guatavita, stop at a bakery and pick up some guava bread or some other snack.

The plant from which Scopolamine is made.
The plant from which Scopolamine, the date rape drug, is made.

Along the way, one of the towns is Guasca (like the herb they put in ajiaco), also known as the town of the Muisca people. It is a village and has a pleasant feel to it. I enjoy seeing all the old men in hats and ponchos.

The el dorado raft in the gold museum.
The el dorado raft in the gold museum.

Then head off to the sacred lagoon. The last seven kilometers (about 5 miles) is dirt road. There are many great photo opportunities along the way like picturesque fincas (country houses), cows being milked by hand, and great swathes of countryside that looks like New Zealand.

Ajiaco, with guasca leaves, from my lunch in Guatavita.
Ajiaco, with guasca leaves, from my lunch in Guatavita.

Once you get to the entrance of Guatavita Lagoon, take a tour to the actual lagoon (you may not walk their by yourself). The tours start every half hour and are guided. The cost is around 17,000 pesos ($7), but I can’t remember the exact amount. There are gift shops and bathrooms. The tour actually takes about two and half hours and is one way, up a lot of muddy steps. The end of the tour is at a local corn and drinks stand. To return to your car, there is a bus service that costs 1,500 pesos ($.75), or you can have your driver bring the car to the end point.

A display at the Guatavita museum.
A display of el dorado himself at the Guatavita museum.

I won’t spoil the tour for you by explaining it. That said, without the legend, it does just look like a small pond (hence why most Bogotanos seem more into visiting the “lago” which is really the reservoir). It’s basically a 45 minute walk interspersed with 90 minutes of educational talk (about the planet, about nature, and preserving the native plants, oh, and about the legend), and about 40 minutes of selfie-stick photo ops. The nice part is that once you get to the top, the guide leaves you to take lots of photos and walk downhill by yourself. In terms of difficulty, I’d guess that this is about 900 steps at 9,000 feet elevation. But, mostly, the steps are done in small segments. Just enough to make you regret the guava bread or empanada that you ate for breakfast.

I would have liked a laser and smoke show with an ethereal gilded (hence “el dorado”) youth appearing out of the water. Apparently, there is one somewhere nearby.

After a refreshing three hour walk, it’s nice to settle in back at Guatavita town and enjoy a lunch. Guatavita town was re-located 40 years ago when the Bogota reservoir (“reprisa” in Spanish) flooded the old town. The town has a museum, tourist shops, lots of bathrooms, and restaurants. It is also possible to rent a horse to ride down to the reservoir. Or you can walk, drive down, or take the mini-train. At the reservoir’s edge, people like to picnic and enjoy the view. Up until two years ago, it was possible to rent a launch and visit some of the islands and ruins. I noticed lots of yachts and yacht clubs but for the common folk, well, I don’t know if they are allowed out on the water anymore. The reservoir is very large (the hydroelectric dam provides the power for 8.5 million Bogotanos) and beautiful.

A chat in Guasca.
A chat in Guasca.

But, it’s not a sacred lagoon (or maybe it is since it creates the power which fuels Bogota) where legends start and greedy conquistadors project their dreams of wealth. Gold was the oil of their time. Perhaps the guide was right that conserving the planet is the new quest. Perhaps, the quest for potable water is the new el dorado.

The road to el dorado.
The road to el dorado.

 

Essential Bangla — Bengali Language

Mum is the brand here.
Mum is the major brand of water here.

While a smile will get you far, as a foreigner in Bangladesh, learning a few phrases of Bangla is a good idea. I am not a linguist so I’ve made up my own system of phonetics. These are some of the phrases I have learned:

PAH-nee — water — This is the Bangla word I used most in this hot, hot, hot land.

DON-ah-bawd — thank you (foreigners like to use this but I’m told it’s not really part of the culture. I’ve seen nods of the head or a closed fist to the chest used as “thank you” and that works too).

Sah-ley-al-eh-kyum — greetings (it’s from Arabic and is how you greet people or announce your presence) — I often just say “good evening/good day/hello” and that seems to work.

DECK-A-hawb-aa — see you later.

AH-che — gotcha or yes, I’m listening to you and I understand that you are speaking. I like “gotcha” because it rhymes with the Bangla word.

EK-tah — one of (EK is one).

SHESH — done as in “enough” and “it’s over.”

LAWG-bey-nah — No need or I do not need it (useful when rickshaws try to run you over in their eagerness for your custom). This is the phrase I have found most useful.

Half a million rickshaws, all trying to give you a ride.
Half a million rickshaws, all trying to give you a ride.

Rickshaw in Monsoon Photo

In the long hot rasping breath before the monsoon, my mind turns once more to images of Bangladesh. Decades ago, the only impression I had of Bangladesh was monsoon rain and flooding. Now, I have met the man who took the rickshaw photo of my imaginings.

The photographer, Zahid "Badol", with his photo of boys playing in the mud.
The photographer, Zahid “Badol”, with his photo of boys playing in the mud.

Obviously, to my vivacious and educated Bangladeshi friends, this image is so passe. “Why must you foreigners have only such images in your heads?” To which I reply, “This is not a bad image.” I see the rickshaw puller in the monsoon flood and find it an image of tenacity and perseverance. Not a bad thing to be known for, wherever you are.

A rickshaw puller in the monsoon.
A rickshaw puller in the monsoon.

Fishing for Rocks in Jaflong

Medieval misery in Jaflong's rock fisheries.
Medieval misery in Jaflong’s rock fisheries.

As an alluvial delta, Bangladesh has few rocks. In Jaflong, in the northeast corner of Bangladesh, they fish for rocks. The rocks are fished from the river, broken, loaded onto trucks and taken off to be turned into cement. Jaflong sits on the invisible border with India and was once considered a beautiful place. Even now, amidst the horrors of backbreaking labor and touristy traps, you can still see the faded glory in the bridge and the hills.

Moving rocks from river to boat to truck.
Moving rocks from river to boat to truck.

It’s hard to see the beauty through the lifeless eyes and the maelstrom of medieval tableaux.

Sun sets on Jaflong.
Sun sets on Jaflong.

India is on the far side of the crowd.
India is on the far side of the crowd.