When in Rome, do as the Romans right? Wrong, you’re a Tourist, not Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck is not coming around that corner on a Vespa. Yes, I know, I had dreams of zipping around, wind in my hair too, but we’re budget travelers and really, Rome’s traffic is terrible!
So what’s a romantic, gypsy wanderlusting couple on a budget to do? Head underground to the Metro and experience the Working Man’s Rome. That means public transit and seeing all the “important sites” in Rome ticket free, from the outside. Wait what? I know that seems extreme but hang in there with me a minute and I’ll explain.
First, let’s talk getting around. While many, many Romans have Vespa, scooters and tiny cars, parking is worse than traffic. In fact the very minute Bello and I started walking the streets, I started laughing like the American I am at both parallel and horizontal parking techniques for tiny cars when… Crack! The white car in the pictures below, had just backed into a parked car, hard, trying to turn around to find a place to park.
Now really, I ask you, why take the chance of having to pay-up on that extra insurance from the rental company because Romans gave up long ago at keeping their cars perfect? No really, there are no perfectly new cars in Rome and Roman. At least not for long!
Now where was I, oh yes, saving money in Rome means getting around by foot and with public transit.
There is no doubt, descending the steps in Centro (City Center) to the subway is intimidating for a first timer in Rome, especially those like me who speak little Italian. We’re told tales of pick pockets in Southern Italy for weeks before visiting. Can this be safe?
It can, and it was, despite the graffiti laden trains that gave me flashbacks to the movie The Warriors.
The scariest thing we saw in the subway, was my tennis shoe pants combo and an ad for the city we just moved out of. In my defense, we were on Day 3 of walking Rome and the shoes I brought “only for running” were comfortable dang it!
Here are a few tips to help you get your bearings.
- Airport to Rome: Be it by bus or train, you can use public transit to get directly from FCO to Centro (city center) for as little as 3€ per person. Similar to NYC though, it’s a balance between time and dollars spent commuting. We opted for the Express Train at 14€ per person since it was departing just after we arrived and only took 32 minutes. Skip the Taxi, Rome’s traffic is notorious and you’ll spend at least 48€ and double your commute time.
- Brave the Subway: 72hr ticket for 18€ makes getting around the city via bus and Metro pretty affordable. Although the graffiti is off putting, it’s as safe as the NYC Subway. So get on it. Just don’t be the idiot tourist with your purse hanging wide open. We saw that woman and lucky for her a kind local on his way to work told her to “zip up lady!” What the Shoes Was I Thinking
- Download Rome on Google Maps: You can save yourself the data charges by downloading from the Google App directly to your phone. Now it’s truly “free to Rome.” Google maps are a great way to not stick out like a Tourist. Just step aside, look up your location, stick in your headphones for audio cues and off you go. It’s ok, look smug, walk around hands free of maps and guide books. You know what your doing Travel Pro.
- Uber All Else: Uber works in Rome too and if you’re in a pinch, you can tap out of it. Just be sure to plan ahead, update your credit card on profile to one that doesn’t smack you with international charges.
Now that you’re all set for getting around on the cheap, here the biggest tip. Skip going inside the Colosseum 14€, Vatican Museum 22€ and Via Dei Fori Imperiali with the Rome Pass for 28€ (all per person costs.) For a couple to see the “important sites” in Rome, you’re looking at 128€. Which since most of my readers are American, approximately $145. For us, that’s one night in our hotel. It’s a trade off that’s not that hard, hear me out.
Go see the Vatican, you can get in free, just not the museum. Which is fine, the Vatican itself is huge and filled with some of the most amazing Art Rome has to offer. Sculptures and painters had to be the best to get their work in there! It will take you half a day just to do that. Most Tourists don’t have more than a few days in Rome, so stop there and move on.
No guide is going to tell you this, but you can see plenty walking right up to, but not into the Colosseum. Most of what you recognize and what your obligatory “I Made It To Rome!” Selfie needs is outside the walls, where you don’t have to pay. The Via Dei Fori Imperiali is beautiful, grand, sweeping and undoubtable important history to be able to walk through, but… again here’s the honest truth. You can see it’s beauty without paying a dime and avoiding the crowd by overlooking the field of ruins from outside the gates.
Even if you buy your tickets ahead of time, you’re going to have to wait in line to get into these “attractions.” Once inside, you will be in a heard of people, you will NOT get the photo you see on the websites selling tickets for the sites. What you will see, is carpet of tourists everywhere. Stepping on each other, taking selfie after selfie with the stick they just bought on the street from the guy yelling “selfiestick, selfiestick, selfiestick.”
We visited in May and even outside of high tourist season, what you see is this. People crammed in the Colosseum in long lines to take pictures and wait their turn to see the next point on the tour.
I’ll save my full on loathing of commercialized tourism for another blog post and just say this. In most cities Tourist find themselves in, if you know where to look. You can see plenty of amazing things and get a true sense of the city, for free.
More Budget Travel Stories from Italy: Delight of Discovery Free Art in Rome, Agriturismo Italy’s Tradition of Serving Quality in Quantity, Lazy Cows Make the Best Cheese