Since I started writing here back in 2014, I have noticed that readers like information. So here I am at the start of a new year, and a new decade, with some practical pointers for Rome (and some free opinion).
This year I will turn fifty. Surprisingly I woke up on the first of January feeling kind of excited about it, as if flipping from one half century to the next would come with supernatural powers and the right to be louder and more opinionated than ever. Our planet is ablaze and we need to get a move on. No good just talking about tackling climate change, or moaning about political inaction, if we haven’t bothered to implement alternatives in our own back yard.
I decided we could set our own 2020 emissions reduction target. Kind of like a household version of Kyoto/Paris/Madrid. Five years ago Leo and I drove the family Fiat an average of 10,000 kms a year, last year we were down to about 7,500 km, and this year we are aiming to get this down to 5,000 km. I think not only that we can do it, but that I will be a calmer and happier human for spending as little time as possible amongst the drivers of Rome.
What has this got to do with traveling to Rome? Lots, because planning a holiday includes all kinds of choices. Walk or taxi? Private driver or tram? Every city has its to do and not to do; here are some of my tips for getting the most out of the eternal city.
Bring a bottle – the virgin water is free
If the Roman water is so good, then why are locals so obsessed about bottled water with their meals? A good question, with a pretty straightforward answer. Roman water is very good to drink, but it does have high levels of calce (lime), which is why Romans tend to buy a lot of mineral water. But if you don’t have a particularly sensitive gut (or kidney stones) turn on the tap, or even better, fill up at a fountain.
Rome’s water comes from the alpine basin North of Rome, amongst the majestic Apennines of the Province of Rieti. So precious is this water basin that Mussolini carved off pieces of Umbria and Abruzzo and stuck them on to Lazio, forever ensuring ample water for the capital. Some of the water running from the fountains in the historic centre – fondly known as Nasoni, big noses – comes from the aqueducts built to carry the acqua vergine into the city during the time of Augustus. Visitors soon notice that the water gushing from the fountains tastes so much better than that from home taps (even though this is still perfectly drinkable), and this is because it is constantly running and most often icy cold. Why do they just run all day? Because city authorities worked out that maintaining taps is more work than wasting water.
left your bottle at home? – order a beautiful one and other travel essentials here.
visiting the Vatican? – on days when Papà Francesco says mass and at other events, water bottles are not allowed into Piazza San Pietro and have to be left with security. If you are worried about forgetting to collect it, leave your bottle (borraccia in Italian) at your hotel.
Comfort over style – Rome is a walking city
There was a period when I walked across Piazza San Pietro almost every day to get to the Ottaviano metro stop. My prize for the best dressed travelers in Rome always went to the Japanese and their ability to team quirky designer outfits with durable shoes made for walking, such a stand out from the foolish folk in flip flops and ballet flats. In a city where clocking up 10 km in a day is almost standard, good walking shoes are priceless.
p.s. Veja shoes are a dream on the Roman cobblestones – fair trade, zero big brand nonsense, and practical comfort.
APP a cab!
Uber exists in Rome, but is run by the private NCC drivers, so to counteract its impact, regular Taxi Associations have launched Apps like FreeNow and ITtaxi.it. I have been using FreeNow (formerly MyTaxi) for a couple of years now and it is quick, easy and efficient, as well as making it near impossible to be conned. I think the dodgy drivers are still waiting at the rank for a cash fare while the young, smart, and honest ones have the APP. (Oh, and almost half of the taxis in Rome are Hybrid fuel Toyotas – and with FreeNow you can actually choose an ECO car!)
Do remember that at really peak times (pouring with rain, 6pm Friday) it can still be hard to find a driver, and that if you are booking for a pick-up in out of the way location (far from the centre) it can cost more because the driver starts charging from call out.
Ciao umbrella guy
Selling stuff on the street is part of the cultural norm in Rome. Lots of daily markets are stretched out along suburban streets and bancarelle selling everything from towels to potato peelers on corner stalls along shopping strips are part of the deal, along with accordion players on the metro and windscreen cleaners at intersections. When it rains, young guys magically materialise outside metro stops and on busy corners selling cheap – horrendously manufactured I agree, and destined for the waste pile soon after purchase – umbrellas in various formats. But if you do happen to forget your umbrella these fellows are a lifesaver, because spring and summer downpours in the eternal city can be torrential. Don’t haggle, they’re just trying to make a living!
Take a tram
I took the tram to school from the age of about eight, so any kind of rattler will always have a place close to my heart. Once upon a time Rome had far more trams than it does today, but the ones that still serve the city are some of the best ways to get around. Here are a couple of them and where you can go. For a map of the network click here.
The mitico Tram number 8 runs between Piazza Venezia, passing through Largo di Torre Argentina, over the river and long Viale Trastevere and then swinging around and taking the Circonvallazione Gianicolense up to Casaletto. Good for getting to Trastevere, the Stazione di Trastevere (airport train), the very cool San Giovanni di Dio market, and the highly recommended trattoria Da Cesare al Casaletto. at the end of the line.
For many years the super Tram number 3 was off the rails and had been replaced by a much less happening bus service. Our current mayor Virginia Raggi put it back on the tracks, one of the best things she has done during her catastrophe plagued term in office. The N.3 starts at the Stazione di Trastevere and rattles its way back along Viale Trastevere (watch out not to confuse it with the 8!) before turning off towards Testaccio, passing the Piramide (get off here for the B (blue) metro line or dash down to Marigold for a coffee and a cinnamon bun, along Viale Aventino, and past the Colosseum. Yes, it’s long, it circles half of Rome. Onwards we trundle up past San Giovanni in Laterano (Rome’s second biggest church), past Santa Croce in Gerusalem and Porta Maggiore (quick stop here for the best Mercatino) and then around along Viale Margherita ending up to Piazzale Belle Arti in the middle of the Villa Borghese (heaps of fun here, walks, bike rides, boat trips and the unmissable Galleria Borghese).
Tram 19 is also handy, running from Piazza Risorgimento near Saint Peter’s and the Vatican Museum over the river toward Villa Borghese and the end of the Number 3 line.
A note about tickets: the most basic ticket is the BIT 100 minute ticket for 1.50 euro from tabacchi shops, new stands and train stations. Can be used on trains, buses and trams but for only one trip on the metro over a 100 min period. Other options include and all day, and 24hr pass. At some metro stations you can now pay as you enter by waving your credit card, a truly momentous step for the ancient city.
What about a day trip – take a train to….
These are my pick of the wonderful destinations around Rome that you really can do a day trip to:
Orvieto – not much more than a 1 hour trip on a regional veloce or Intercity (with 1st and 2nd class) with Trenitalia. You literally walk out of the train station, step onto the funicular railway and glide up to the hill to historic centre of this immaculate little Umbrian city. Pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale, local linen, ceramics and woodwork abound.
Naples – just over an hour on the FrecciaRossa fast train or Italo service. So much to love about Naples, starting with the sfogliatella. For a tailored food tour or cooking class get in touch with Casa Mia.
Santa Marinella – ‘It’s hot, I want to dip my toes in the Mediterranean’. Take the Civitavecchia line (from Termini, Ostiense, Trastevere or Roma S. Pietro) up to pretty Santa Marinella where a beach lounger or patch of sand awaits. More urbane than Ostia, you can read more about this thirties beach town here.
Just in – UBER JUMP electric bikes
You need to be signed up to Uber to use this snappy electric bike sharing service – great for folk like me who live on the steep side of the Gianicolo hill. They even come with baskets for market visits and are hard to miss in their flouro orange frames. (Check prices before you ride, a handy service but with a price tag).