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Italy consistently ranks as one of the world’s most popular places to visit, and first-time visitors almost always go to Rome. Who can blame them? The Eternal City boasts thousands of years of history, ancient ruins, artistic masterpieces, natural beauty and — of course — pasta. But at times, the city can feel crowded, confusing and chaotic, especially if you don’t know how to navigate it like the locals do.
I lived in Rome for two years and go back at least twice a year to visit. And while I’m not a local, I’ve learned how to blend in thanks to the many mistakes I’ve made and unspoken rules I’ve broken over the years. So the next time you visit Rome, avoid these common pitfalls and you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip.
1. Trying to See All the Major Sites in a Couple of Days
Rome wasn’t built in a day — and you can’t see it all in a day, either. Most first-time visitors to Rome want to check off the same major sites: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Vatican. While you probably could cram these sites into a couple of days, you’ll end up exhausted and frustrated by long lines. I would recommend at least three or four days in Rome, so you can balance sightseeing with exploring fun neighborhoods such as Trastevere and Pigneto.
2. Not Buying Tickets in Advance
Planning to hit up the aforementioned tourist attractions? You could wait on line for hours under the hot Roman sun to get into the Colosseum. Or, you could buy tickets in advance for a nominal fee and skip the lines. Better yet, find a guide like Fulvio de Bonis, the founder of Imago Artis Travel, who can arrange a before-hours tour of the Vatican and show you the best secret sites that don’t appear in any guidebook. Also keep in mind that certain sites (including the Galleria Borghese, which houses masterpieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Bernini and Canova) require you to purchase timed tickets in advance. Just make sure you go through official portals and don’t fall for the street vendors trying to sell tickets outside the Colosseum and Vatican.
3. Asking Your Guide to See “The Last Supper”
If you do hire a guide, it’s totally fine — preferable, in fact — to have some ideas of sites you want to see. Just make sure you’ve done some basic research. According to De Bonis, clients often ask their guide to show them Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper.” Don’t be that person: a quick Google search will tell you it’s in Milan.
4. Only Speaking English
Romans generally have a pretty relaxed attitude and certainly wouldn’t judge you for not speaking Italian, but they’ll be downright delighted if you try out a few phrases. When you enter a restaurant, cafe, shop or hotel, you’ll usually be greeted with “buongiorno” — or “buonasera,” if it’s the evening. And 99% of the time, though you’ll be completely fine ordering in English, you might just get better service if you say “per favore” (please) and “grazie” (thank you) in Italian.
5. Ordering a Cappuccino After Noon
This is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind anywhere you travel in Italy. Cappuccinos are reserved exclusively for breakfast. Yes, the waiter at that trattoria will bring you one if you order it after dinner, but he’ll be judging you. Instead, do as the Italians do and order un caffè (espresso) or un caffè macchiato (espresso with a dollop of steamed milk) anytime after noon. Espresso too strong for you? Order un caffè americano (American-style coffee). Also, keep in mind that latte means milk in Italian, so if you ask for a latte, you’re just going to get milk.
6. Trying to Hail a Cab in the Street
Getting around in Rome is generally pretty easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Rome only has three Metro lines and they don’t always get you where you need to go. There’s an extensive bus system and a few trams, but if you’re in a rush or are nervous about navigating public transit, taking a taxi is the best route.
Though Uber is legal in Rome, it tends to be more expensive than taking a taxi and there’s no Uber Pool. But unlike in New York City, you can’t just stick your arm up and hail a cab in the street. (Well, you could try, and sometimes taxis will stop for you, but they’re technically not supposed to.) Instead, look for a taxi stand in designated spots or use the MyTaxi app to hail a ride.
7. Fare Dodging on the Buses
Speaking of public transit, the way the bus and trams work in Rome can be a bit confusing to visitors. The driver doesn’t collect fares or sell tickets, so if you board a bus in Rome, it might seem like no one is paying, but that’s not actually the case. Most Romans have an unlimited monthly pass that only needs to be validated once.
If you’re using a ticket valid for one ride, you need to validate it in one of the little machines. And don’t try to buy a ticket off the driver: You need to buy tickets in advance. They’re available from ticket machines in the subway stations and can be purchased at most newsstands and Tabacchi (convenience stores that sell cigarettes and other basic items). While you could probably get away with fare dodging, metro and bus tickets only cost €1.50 (less than $2) and if you get caught without a valid ticket, you could end up paying a fine of more than €50 (close to $60).
8. Falling for Tourist Trap Restaurants
From humble trattorias to Michelin-starred temples to Italian gastronomy, Rome is full of fantastic places to eat. That does not, however, mean that you can’t go wrong when it comes to picking one. Those places with the big signs and English menus on Piazza Navona and surrounding the Pantheon? It’s best to avoid them. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid the restaurants in most tourist hot spots, unless you’re keen on paying for mediocre and overpriced fare.
9. Forgetting to Make Reservations
After you’ve picked a great (not touristy) Roman restaurant, or asked the concierge at your hotel for a recommendation, do not wait to make a reservation. Most of Rome’s popular restaurants fill up a few days or sometimes even weeks in advance, so it’s best to make a reservation. But forget about OpenTable and Resy, because no one in Rome uses those sites. Some restaurants use ResDiary, but in many cases you’ll have to go the old school route and call (or ask the concierge to call for you).
10. Picking the Wrong Pasta
Cuisine in Italy is very regional, so while you might be dreaming of the perfect lasagna bolognese, you’re not likely to find it on many menus in Rome. While there are some dishes (like spaghetti with tomato sauce and pesto genovese) that have transcended their regional origins, when in Rome you’d be remiss not to eat Roman food.
La cucina Romana is also known as cucina povera because most classic Roman dishes were born from humble origins. Pasta sauces tend to be simple, with just a few ingredients, but when they’re done right, they’re downright divine. Try typical Roman dishes such as carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at casual trattorias like Da Enzo al 29 in Trastevere and Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio.
And don’t ask for parmesan if you ordered pasta with fish or seafood. With very few exceptions, seafood and cheese don’t mix, so if you ask for parmiggiano with your linguini alle vongole, your waiter will definitely know you’re a tourist.
11. Looking for Pasta in a Pizzeria
While we’re on the subject, first-time visitors might not realize that pasta and pizza aren’t usually served at the same restaurant. Trattorias and osterias serve pasta (and antipasti, meat and seafood) while pizzerias serve (you guessed it) pizza. Most trattorias don’t serve pizza and pizzerias never serve pasta. And don’t expect the thick, fluffy crust that characterizes Neapolitan pizza. Roman pizza has a very thin crust. Try it at a spot like Pizzeria ai Marmi in Trastevere.
Know before you go.
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