EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE EXPLORING ROME'S TOP ATTRACTIONS
This is one long heck of a post so here's a break-down for you. Feel free to skip ahead to the topics that interest you:
Travel Tips + Etiquette Suggested Read
Pre-booking (Omnia Pass holders)
My favourite free Audio guide Suggested Read
Vatican Museums & the Sistine Chapel
St. Peter's Basilica
The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, & Spanish Steps
Trastevere: The Authentic Roman Neighbourhood
Travel Tips + Etiquette
1. Beware of Pickpockets
When travelling in tourist areas, it's always best to be extra cautious, and Rome is no exception. Pickpockets often act in groups where someone tries to get your attention as others step in while you are distracted. Be careful around crowded monuments and bus routes, as they are notorious hotspots for theft.
2. Avoid Dining in the centre
While convenient, try your best to avoid restaurants in the centre of dense tourist locations. Remember that you're paying for the view in addition to your meal. Instead, walk down a few blocks and you'll almost always find great food for much less of a price.
3. Ordering Coffee
Asking for a simple "caffè" in Rome is actually pretty ambiguous. After all, the Italians did invent coffee culture. A typical "coffee" is generally a single shot of espresso, so if you're looking for something more like your Starbucks brew, try ordering a cappuccino, caffè americano (espresso/regular filtered coffee), caffè macchiato (coffee spotted with milk), latte macchiato (milk spotted with coffee), or caffè shakerato (kind of like a frappuccino).
4. Bring change + tissues for the Washroom
While we didn't have too many experiences with Rome's public toilets, I'd suggest keeping a few cents in your pocket in case you need it ;)
5. You aren't expected to tip
It's good to know that Italy doesn't have much of a tipping culture and restaurants will usually add a service charge to your bill. A 1-2€ tip at small restaurants and pizzerias will often suffice.
6. Free Museum Entrance
On the first Sunday of each month, numerous sites such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill among others are open for free!
The OMNIA Vatican & Rome Card is a sightseeing pass that gives the holder free/fast track entry to certain attractions in Rome and the Vatican City, and a hop-on-hop-off bus tour.
*This kit is not for everyone, so please do your research to help decide if it is right for you!
The Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's require pre-booking. Once you've booked, you should receive a confirmation email with the user/passcode for your free audio guide to St. Peter's Basilica (more to come later in this post).
*Remember, the Vatican and St Peters have a strict dress code. Basically no bare shoulders or shorts.
Regardless if you’re a history fanatic or just a visitor in Rome, I would highly suggest getting some sort of guide for your visit to the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and even the Colosseum. They’re an excellent way to add random knowledge to your arsenal, and definitely create a more enjoyable experience.
Contrary to what many tourists think, there aren’t many information plaques in the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel (hardly any at all, actually), so having a guide is super beneficial. Multilingual audio guides usual sell for about €10 per person on site. Guided tours are also available. You can find the exact prices for the time of your visit here.
I pre-downloaded several guides on my phone for free before my visit, and was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out. If you’re looking for a great alternative to traditional tour guides (and would like to save a few euros!), I would recommend Rick Steves Audio Europe which you can download for free. It’s super easy to use and has guides to many of Europe’s popular attractions. It includes clear directions as well as a map within the app to guide you throughout the site. If you do decide to use this, be sure to open the app and download the tracks before your visit!
*The Rick Steves Audio Europe is only available in English. If you have any other audio guide recommendations available in different languages, please feel free to share them below!
Vatican Museums & the Sistine Chapel
If you're an Omnia pass holder, you must "check-in" to the meeting point located just ahead of St. Peter's (San Pietro) Square. Facing the basilica, it's a small easy-to-miss room to the left. However, your information might be a little different so refer to the instructions listed with your order! From here, a person will lead you to a side entrance to the Vatican Museums.
As a general note, it's super important to plan ahead when visiting Vatican City. While the museums close at 6pm, the ticket office closes at 4pm and they're usually pretty strict with enforcing this time. The Vatican also tends to close sporadically be sure to check that it will be open on the day of your planned visit.
In case you were wondering, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are commonly mashed together into one common phrase because the Sistine Chapel is technically a part of the Vatican Museums. They can only be accessed (as far as I know) with tickets to the Vatican Museums. From the stunning sculptures of Da Vinci to the early works of Raphael, I can't even begin to describe the magnificence of this museum. Regardless whether or not you are an artist, it is simply spectacular. I have heard of time-saving shortcuts to skip straight to the chapel (though I would strongly suggest walking through the Vatican- it really is beautiful). I haven't tried any of these myself, but you can read about them at your own risk in this post from good ol' tripadvisor.
As I frequently mention, I really recommend an audio guide for this visit. The Vatican Museums track from The Rick Steves Audio Europe is definitely my favourite of the tracks, and covers most of the huge museum.
St. Peter's Basilica
If you're an omnia pass holder or have direct entry/skip-the-line tickets to St. Peter’s Basilica, make sure to get in the correct security line. There usually aren't any signs to guide you, so it's always best to ask a staff member where to go.
Standing with your back to the Colonias (facing the basilica), you’ll find the direct entry line on the RIGHT. You’ll probably see a line already starting to form near the fountain. Walk towards the line but instead of joining it, walk into the Colonias (shaded area). Here you’ll should see the direct entry line almost perpendicular to the lonnnnng general line- it’s just past the Vatican Post office (big yellow letters). If you're still confused, please ask an official for directions. Seriously, don't make the same mistake I did, and make the most of your pass!
If you're an omnia holder, you also get free access to an audio guide app for St. Peter's Basilica (this does not included guides to the Vatican/Sistine Chapel. However, you may purchase these at the door). Make sure to download the app before your visit. Once you've done that, go ahead and enter the password and username listed in you booking confirmation email. I personally haven't used this audioguide myself (I was really happy with the guides I had pre-downloaded), but I believe they would be pretty standard. If you forget to download ahead of time, don't worry. There's a kiosk once you enter where you can tap into the WiFi and downloa the app.
*While you're hanging around Vatican City, consider visiting Castel St. Angelo, the Castle of Angels!
If you don't have an omnia pass/direct entry make sure to get in the security line that moves faster (obviously) which is easier said than done. When I went in late August, there were only two metal detectors. One served both direct entry and general lines while the other served just the general line. These two lines are side by side, so watch as best you can and observe which moves faster.
GENERAL NOTES- St. Peter's
Regardless of what pass you hold, here are a few general notes for once you get past the security checkpoint:
Based on my experience, the crowd starts coming in at about 10am. Having entered at 8:45, we had plenty of time to fully enjoy the Basilica before the big groups and crowds.
Buy souvenirs in the Basilica gift shops. I was surprised to find that souvenirs were, in fact, significantly cheaper in the Basilica than surrounding shops. If you have the chance, try browsing around some shops nearby before you visit the Basilica and mentally make note of their costs. Pick out some gifts you like but resist the urge to buy them right away. When you reach the Basilica gift shops, find those same items and compare their prices. Remember, you can always go back to the neighbouring shops if you liked something there!
Complementary "locker" cubbies are available free of charge, but are NOT mandatory. On our visit, we got confused when a sign said no backpacks or cameras were allowed (they are). It was nice to be able to see the basilica hands-free, so I'd suggest leaving your big bags back at your hotel if you're staying nearby. Though we didn't have any mishaps, you always want to have an eye on your belongings in Rome!
Photography is permitted in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's but not in the Sistine Chapel. Flash is strictly prohibited.
The Roman Colosseum is perhaps one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in the world. Remember that there isn't a roof over the arena, so be sure to bring water, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen because it gets really hot and sunny! The best tip I can offer, though, is to learn about the famous amphitheatre before seeing it. There's some cool history behind just about any place in Rome, and you'll probably find yourself appreciating the site a lot more.
Here are some facts to get you started:
Formally known as the Flavian Theatre, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built
It was comissed around 70 A.D. as a gift to the Roman people following the death of the Roman emperor Nero
Predominantly used as an arena for public entertainment, the Colosseum hosted 100 days of games in celebration of its opening, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights
Keep in mind that this 'celebration' was not one to take lightly. It involved gladiators fighting each other to their dying breath, and occasionally, fighting for their freedom
You'll notice that the floor of the main stage is actually made of wood boards in contrast to the surrounding stone and concrete. This is because wood could absorb blood most effectively- and believe me, there was a lot of blood and death
The Colosseum is not just a magnificent marvel of architecture, it's also a silent reminder of the thirst for power and the shedding of blood. How a few men of power can impact the culture of civilizations.
After some four centuries of active use, by the 6th century, the Colosseum was virtually abandoned (thanks to shifting values) and its materials were used in a number of famous building projects such as the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. John Lateran, and Piazza Venezi
While restoration efforts began in the 1990s, a combination of weather, natural disasters, neglect, and vandalism, have destroyed a significant amount of the Colosseum. What remains of the structure is merely two-thirds of the original.
The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
The Roman Forum, often referred to as simply The Forum, was once the heart and centre of ancient Rome. In present day, it's a rather confusing collection of various ruins, but it once served as a popular marketplace surrounded by important government buildings. They include the Tempio di Antonino e Faustina and the Tempio di Giulio Cesare, built by Augustus in 29BC (where Julius Caesar was cremated following his assassination).
My favourite is The Casa delle Vestali, which was home to the Vestal Virgins, The vestals tended to the sacred flame in the adjoining Tempio di Vesta (Vesta, being the Roman goddess of hearth). Because the flame was a symbol of health and prosperity to Rome, the fire was not allowed to go out. If a vestal allowed the flame to die or broke her vows of chastity, she would be buried alive (gruesome, I know). At its centre is a grassy space lined with a string of statues (mostly headless) depicting the Vestals.
*Note that the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill all have separate ticket entrances but often share the same admission ticket valid for all three sites
The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, & Spanish Steps
On our trip, we ended up hitting these three landmarks all in one go. The big tip here is that you want to get to the Trevi Fountain as early as possible to avoid HUGE crowds! The crows are almost identical to Times Square on Christmas Eve! Bring some water, comfortable shoes, and treat yourself to some gelato! Hopefully that will distract you from all the sweaty bodies :)
*The Pantheon is a free public site and there are no tickets to enter!
Trastevere is a Roman neighbourhood known for being a prime spot for nightlife. Many say that it truly comes alive after the sun sets. Here, you'll be able to enjoy some of the the best food in the city, the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Isola Tiberina- the only island in the Tiber River.
Thanks for reading until the end! As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or book recommendations- seriously, I'd love to hear from you! Until next time,