I first visited Rome in 1992, and my love for the city has only grown since. I wrote my first book about the city in college and rarely a year goes by since then when I don’t visit my favorite piazza (Navona), enjoy my favorite gelato (cioccolato e limone con panna) or gaze upon my favorite art (Raphael’s Stanze…among many others).

Even though my love for Rome runs deep, I can see why it seems imposing to first-time visitors and that's why I'm here to help you. Enjoying the Eternal City and all its myriad nuances is much easier than many people think. Here are my essential things to know for anyone lucky enough to be headed for magnificent, wonderful Roma.

Pretty young female tourist studying a map at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City in Rome
With a bit of planning and some patience, you can avoid the crowds in Rome © l i g h t p o e t / Shutterstock

1. Pick your moment for key attractions

Rome gets crowded, and some sights like the Vatican museums are both overwhelming in scale and overwhelmed with other visitors. Many a tourist has lapsed into a stupor as they wander the nearly 7km (4.5 miles) of corridors. By the time they finally reach the Sistine Chapel, they gaze up at Michelangelo’s fantastic ceiling in a daze and are out the other side before having time to enjoy it.

But with a bit of planning, you can avoid the most crowded times at the Vatican Museum. Visit Tuesdays and Thursdays; Wednesday mornings are good, too, though the afternoon is better than the morning. Monday is an especially bad day to visit as other museums in Rome are closed (instead, use the day for exploring the city’s streets, squares, back alleys and parks).

Across Rome, weekends are always busier at attractions as tourists are joined by Romans enjoying the sights on their days off.

2. Aim to spend at least three days in Rome

Start your trip at the Colosseum, Rome’s ancient amphitheater. Early risers need not get gladiatorial as long queues only start to form around mid-morning, at which point you’ll be poking around the Palatino, breathing in the majesty of the once-powerful palace and its perfumed pine trees before roving around the ruins of the Roman Forum.

A well-earned espresso should be enjoyed among the cobbled streets of Centro Storico (try Caffè Sant'Eustachio) and then sweeten the coffee by pre-booking tickets to the Vatican – home not only to the Pope but a myriad of masterpieces including the Sistine Chapel. Visitors who are first in line at the Vatican will also be at the head of the line at Bonci Pizzarium when it opens for lunch. Nothing recharges your sightseeing energy like a slice of the city’s best pizza, still warm from the oven.

Of course, Rome has plenty more museums to offer, but it’s also a living city offering la dolce vita. Indulge by strolling through the designer boutiques of Via del Corso stopping only to stoop into the devilishly cool Salotto 42 for one of the city’s very best cocktails.

Owner of Rome 500 EXP day tours, Alvise Di Giulio, takes a group on a tour of 7 Roman gems in a 3 hour tour. The drive includes off-the-beaten-path spots, mysteries, miracles, legends, architecture renaissance gems, breathtaking panoramic views and archeological surprises which are waiting to be revealed.
Buy your tickets in advance and you could save time for other things. Like selfies © Claudia Gori/Lonely Planet

3. Buy tickets in advance

You’ve mastered the Metro and finally reached your sight of choice, only to discover a guide ahead of you in the line for tickets, methodically – and slowly – buying tickets for 40 people. Or you discover that a few hundred others are already in the queue. While you wait in the hot sun for your turn, you feel a prime chunk of your day ticking away.

However, you can easily avoid all this by buying in advance online. The Vatican museums are a perfect example of where you’ll feel the joy as you walk past the waiting masses and breeze in. For any major sight in Rome, it’s always worth checking the website for advance ticket sales. Note that some unmissable attractions, like the Museo e Galleria Borghese, or special tours, like the secret castle tours at Castel Sant’Angelo, require an advance ticket as admissions are limited to avoid overcrowding.

 

4. Prioritize your favorites and don't forget to wander

Decide which of the unmissable top sights you’ll most enjoy and face the fact that you won't get to see everything on your first trip to Rome. Any attempt to "do" places like the Vatican or the Forom in a rush will leave you unsatisfied and stressed – these are incredible experiences that are worth your time.

And always leave extra time for wandering, café sitting and people-watching. It’s one of the true highlights of Roman life.

Beautiful biracial couple hugging at the Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy on a sunny morning
Rome's Spanish Steps may be famous, but they're not worth a detour © Kathrin Ziegler / Getty Images

5. Know what to miss 

Have the self-awareness to know your limit on churches. Yes, some would cry sacrilege, but if you’re standing in some world-famous house of god and you can’t remember which one you’re in because it’s looking a lot like the previous ten, then it’s better just to pick a couple and focus on those. Plus, you’ll have something new to see on your next trip.

6. Skip the Spanish Steps (or at least don’t sit down)

The Spanish Steps – a nice stone staircase with good views, yes, but a reason to go out of your way, no. Tourist traps, touts and fast-food jostle for space in this neighborhood. Give it a miss. And if you do go, don’t sit down! Fines are issued by police for those who dare use the steps as a seat.

7. Swerve Bocca della Verità too

Bocca della Verità, an old stone carving of a lion head with a mouth that’s been pawed by millions of sweaty fingers. Every country seems to have one of these (hello Blarney Stone!), right down to a magical legend; in this case, the lion will bite your hand if you tell a lie. Uh-huh.

A front-view shot of a young man enjoying a delicious meal of spaghetti in Italy, he is wearing casual clothing
Just a few insider tips can make your Roman dining experiences even more enjoyable © SolStock / Getty Images / iStockphoto

8. Book your table in advance

Some of Rome’s most vaunted restaurants fill out their reservations list weeks in advance, so it pays to book tables before you arrive. No matter if your travel style is loose and easygoing, it’s always a good idea to reserve your table in advance, even if it's just a couple of hours before your meal (assuming there are still tables available).

Having a reservation is one of those intangibles that’s essential in practice. Roman restaurants give more respect to people arriving with a booking as opposed to mere walk-ins – even when there are plenty of available tables.

9. Break bread like a Roman

Most restaurants open from noon to 3pm and 7:30pm to 11pm, usually closing one day per week (often Sunday or Monday). In August, most eateries close for at least a week, although some close for the entire month.

Other essential tips:

  • Bite through hanging spaghetti – no slurping it up, please.
  • Pasta is eaten with a fork (no spoon).
  • It’s OK to eat pizza with your hands when you’re getting it to go – in restaurants, people usually use a knife and fork.
  • Like any Italian grandma, fare la scarpetta (make a little shoe) with your bread to wipe plates clean. 
  • Yes, there are vegan restaurants in Rome these days too.

10. Try to keep up: know when and how to dress to impress

Roman style is world-renowned, and there’s no better way to escape the tourist cliche than to dress with panache, especially when going out to celebrated restaurants and clubs. Let sharp and smart be your bywords in this, and don’t underestimate what you can achieve with travel-friendly black and eye-catching accessories.

Also, know that by day, and when you’re out in the neighborhoods, dapper casual is the rule. Still, there’s never a time when you’ll want to wear a sweatshirt, goofy shorts, hiked-up socks and the like – unless it’s your signature look and you can pull it off!

    Group of happy friends drinking coffee and cappuccino at a bar outdoors in Italy
    Keeping just a few Italian customs in mind can ensure you have a wonderful time socializing with the locals in Rome © DisobeyArt / Getty Images / iStockphoto

    11. Be aware of laws that are specifically for tourists

    Picking up the trash is an ongoing and seemingly eternal challenge for Rome, but efforts are being made on other fronts to try to bring some order. In 2019, a series of laws were introduced to reign in the excesses of the visiting masses. People caught breaking these rules risk fines of up to €500 or a temporary ban on entering the area in which they caused the offense. Among the restrictions:

    • Sitting on the Spanish Steps is forbidden.
    • No wading in the city’s fountains.
    • No “messy” outdoor eating near historic monuments.
    • No walking around bare-chested.
    • No dragging strollers or wheelie suitcases up or down historic staircases.
    • When drinking from the public drinking fountains known as nasoni, don’t place your lips on the spout – drink from your cupped hands.

    12. Be polite and observe the local formalities

    Italy is quite a formal society, and the niceties of social interaction are observed. Greet people in bars, shops, trattorias, etc, with a buongiorno (good morning), buon pomeriggio (good afternoon) or buonasera (good evening). 

    Say mi scusi (excuse me) to attract attention or ask for help. Use permesso (permission) to pass someone in a crowded space and always cover up at churches (that means shoulders and legs).

    Close-up of two women washing their hands in a city fountain in Rome
    There are numerous public drinking water fountains in Rome, so pack a water bottle © frantic00 / Shutterstock

    14. Health and safety in Rome

    Rome has no inherent health hazards beyond the bloating that comes from wildly excessive food (and gelato) intake. But we have a few tips that will keep you feeling tip-top.

    Stay hydrated. It gets hot in summer, especially out in the open air of places like the Forum. Carry a water bottle, drink copious amounts and keep it filled at the many public drinking water fountains.

    Ancient cobblestones, long staircases and hours spent wandering are just some of the features that will tire you out. Wear shoes with excellent support and cushioning.

    13. Keep your wits about you

    Rome is generally a safe city, but petty theft is a real risk. Use common sense and watch your valuables. Pickpockets and thieves are active in touristy areas such as the Colosseum, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Venezia and St Peter’s Square.

    Stay alert around the chaotic Termini train station and on crowded public transport – the 64 Vatican bus is notorious. Keep your wallets, phones and valuables out of reach of pickpockets – a wallet bulging in your back pocket won't remain there for long.

    In case of theft or loss, always report the incident to the police within 24 hours and ask for a statement. The emergency number for the police (Carabinieri) is 112. Make sure you never drape your bag over an empty chair at a streetside cafe or put it where you can’t see it.

    Beware of gangs of kids or others demanding attention. If you’ve been targeted, take evasive action and/or shout "Va via!" ("Go away!").

    This article was first published Jan 16, 2022 and updated Feb 27, 2024.

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