Ah, the Eternal City. This ancient, ancient town is steeped in history, comes topped by 2,000-year-old temples, gilded with the great art collections of the Vatican Museums, and crowned by bucket-list sites like the Colosseum. Millions of visitors flock here to sample the tasty food (mmm…deep-fried artichokes) and explore the historic center each year. But are there things to avoid in Rome that you should know about?
There sure are! Whizzing taxis, wonky roads, inauthentic tourist areas, bad dining etiquette – there’s a whole trattoria menu’s worth of things that you really should be dodging when you touch down in the enthralling capital of Italy.
Look at this guide as a bit of a 101 to all the things to avoid in Rome for a hassle-free trip. It’s got the lowdown on where to eat, the scams to steer clear of, and – perhaps most importantly of all! – the route to making the most of the city’s legendary culinary side. Notepads at the ready? Good. Let’s begin…
Taking a taxi
First off, we should say this: Taxis aren’t considered unsafe in Rome. If you really need to get home late at night or transport the little ones around town without too much trouble, then they can be a great option. They are almost always available and generally do a good job of getting you from A to B.
However, they are expensive. Like, super expensive. Like the cost of a whole three-course meal with wine sorta’ expensive. We’re talking €20-€30 for a simple romp across town! And that’s not it. Taxis will have to navigate the often traffic-clogged streets of the city. There’s a perfectly good metro network that costs just a fraction of the price and dodges that by going below ground.
Finally, the taxi drivers of Rome can be ruthless crew. That’s not the case everywhere, but there are a series of well-known scams that have seen visitors to the Eternal City charged whopping great big fares that run in to the hundreds of euros. Remember that there are now officially set rates for key trips (you can never be charged more than €48/£49 for a trip to Fiumicino Airport, for example). What’s more, all official taxis in Rome are white, have a taxi sign on the roof, and a meter on the dashboard.
Rushing your meals
Food is often at the center of Italian holidays and it’s hugely important in Roman culture. Most of the faux pas you can make in Italy are centered around dining etiquette and eating times. It’s important to understand some of them if you don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb when it comes to chowing down.
First of all, mealtimes are sacred. The locals here do not like taking food on the go. Even though street food is a popular concept in Rome, it’s still common courtesy to pull up a stool, perch at the bar, or find a park bench to devour your hot slice of pizza rather than eat as you walk.
Much better is a true sit-down meal in a local osteria or trattoria. If Italians have the time, they’ll always settle in and take their time over a meal. Many restaurants in the center only manage one cover per table on weekend lunchtimes because of this tradition, with families arriving at around 11am and not finishing up until 3pm or later.
Ordering a cappuccino after 12pm
It might be the norm to have a cappuccino following your lunch or dinner back home, but this is one of Italy’s steadfast rules: Cappuccinos are breakfast coffees and are typically consumed first thing with a small pastry. That’s it. That’s the only time that the humble cap is allowed to shine here. The reason? Locals think that the high proportion of milk will hinder digestion, which Italians care a lot about because of those aforementioned long, long lunches!
Coffee after lunch is fine, but it should be black and fast – an espresso is the most popular choice for Italians on the whole. You could also spice things up a little more and opt for a digestivi, a digestive liquor. That could be sweet – a zingy Limoncello from the Amalfi Coast perhaps? – or on the more potent side – choose a Tuscan grappa for that!
Eating on the piazzas
This isn’t a rule everywhere you go in Italy, but Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, recently issued a ban against eating and drinking near famous fountains in the Eternal City. Several of the fifteen or so fountains affected are located in main squares including Piazza di Spagna – the home of the Spanish Steps – and Piazza Barberini on Quirinal Hill.
The fountains in Rome were once places to wash clothes for locals but have also become cherished meeting spots over the decades. However, the ban comes in an effort to crack down on littering, mainly thanks to badly behaved tourists who visit and leave their rubbish. There’s now a hefty fine of up to €240 that can be issued to violators. Yikes!
So, you can say arrivederci to tucking into your gelato next to the Trevi Fountain, but it shouldn’t make your experience any less exciting. There are plenty of pleasant park benches and quiet steps in the city to enjoy an ice cream or pizza slice anyway, without the Trevi crowds around. On top of that, the places to buy food on piazzas tend to be the pricier of the lot, so this tip could even save you some dosh along the way.
Confusing meal times
You might have noticed but eating is pretty big in Italy. Meals are some of the most important parts of the day and it’s rare to see folks, even in the big, modern, capital of Rome, bending the rules on times to chow down…
Breakfast in Italy is nothing like it is in the UK and US. Big cooked plates of greasy food or delectable deserts served as late brunches are hard to find. They are really only available at touristy restaurants or hotels. Here, the morning meal usually consists of a sweet pastry and a milky coffee and portions are tight. Depending on specific opening times of cafés, breakfast is usually eaten between 7 and 10 am, and you’ll struggle to get served a brioche (croissant) after 11am.
Next up is lunch. The Italians tend to give themselves plenty of time to sit down and enjoy multiple courses at lunch for at least an hour, either at home or in a restaurant or bar. You’ll want to join them on this because come 2/3pm, most restaurants are shut until dinner – they call it siesta. Dinner is also a late affair. It doesn’t really begin until at least 7.30pm, but the Romans don’t tend to emerge for the evening until closer to 9pm.
Going shopping at lunchtime
Siesta time still stands in Rome. Not even the bustle of the big city can trump the tradition of shutting up shop to dodge the heat of the day. Thing is, siesta happens in winter just as it does in summer, so we remain a touch suspicious that it’s all about the thermometer readings.
Either way, the point here is that a lot of this town closes in the early afternoon for a couple of hours. Shops big and small lock up their doors and don’t open again until the evening hours. The upshot? You’ll need to find a different time to seek out your Roman snow globes and handmade leather bags.
There are some exceptions to this rule…The shops on the main high streets in Rome will probably stay open throughout the whole day, especially big European chains and department stores. It’s mainly the independent stores and souvenir shops that will shut their doors so that the employees can enjoy lunch like everyone else.
Not knowing what course is what
Apart from breakfast, meals are never as simple as just one course in Rome. It’s even the norm to have a starter and first course before your main at lunch, but the more courses, the more confusing things can get, especially with all the different names flying about.
Let’s break it down:
- Antipasti – This is the starter and it consists of a light dish like bruschetta, Caprese salad, or a charcuterie spread. A cold antipasti is most common but they can be warm too.
- Primi – This is the first hot plate and it is often meatless but can involve seafood. Pasta, risotto, and soup are all typical first-course dishes in Italy.
- Secondi – This is the meat or seafood dish at the heart of the meal. Protein will be the focus, but it will be served with a contorni (side), like vegetables, potatoes, or polenta.
- Dolce – This is the dessert course, and it is usually cold. Tiramisù, pana cotta, tartufo al cioccolato (chcolate tart), and affogato (espresso served over ice cream) are popular desserts in Italy.
It might sound like a lot and you’re probably wondering how Italians stay so slim. Portion control is always tight and Italians don’t tend to snack outside of their set meal times either. Fresh, homegrown Italian food is usually very healthy too, and free from additives, despite all the carbs. You’re not obligated to eat every course for every meal when visiting Rome, but this is the tradition so we’d say try it at least once.
Not checking opening times
As we’ve said, restaurants and shops operate on limited schedules in Rome, while family-run businesses move to the beat of their own drum even more. On top of lunch breaks and late openings, many businesses close one or two days a week. This is usually a Sunday or Monday, but sometimes it can be a Wednesday or Thursday, so always double-check those details before you plan to drop by.
It’s also important to note that most of Rome’s museums are also closed on Mondays, with the exception of the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum. The Post Office also has infamously ad-hoc hours and usually won’t open again after closing for lunch. Adding to all that is the potential for short-notice closures to buses and metro services. We’ve been to Rome before and found that all the city trains were off because of a strike. That’s not really something you can plan for but it’s worth knowing it could happen.
Tipping is not typically a custom in Italy. If you do want to leave gratuity for your server, it doesn’t need to be as much as the 25% that is expected in some parts of the world (USA – we’re looking at you!). Waiters and bartenders make normal salaries and there will likely be a coperto (cover charge) applied the table and bread. You can round up your bill but there are no set rules, so don’t overtip by accident.
For this reason, you also shouldn’t expect customer service to be quite the same as it is back at home. Waiters and waitresses aren’t grafting for tips and, while there’s no reason for your waiter not to be polite, they probably won’t be the hands-on servant that the pursuit of that extra percentage makes them elsewhere.
With less workplace mobility in the hospitality industry and leisure also taking precedence over productivity in Italy, customer service isn’t held in the same regard as it is in more commercially-minded countries like the US and UK. Employees don’t undergo rigorous service training, and remember, in Italy, the customer is not always right, the waiter is! Try not to be offended by brash service and just take it for what it is.
Forgetting the dress code
There isn’t a dress code in Rome, although if you want to do as the Romans do then having an eye for fashion and keeping things slightly formal will definitely make a better impression on the streets. Nevertheless, religious sites like the Vatican do enforce dress codes and you have to wear modest clothing if you want to get in.
T-shirts, jeans, tennis shoes, sundresses, and sandals are all appropriate for wandering the city streets, whoever you are, but you can’t enter the basilicas, cathedrals, churches, and some museums with exposed shoulders, knees, midriffs, or, for women, cleavage on show. This means no shorts, mini skirts, or sleeveless tops. These rules are also applied to all the Vatican buildings, like the Sistine Chapel and museums, as well as the Vatican gardens – entry policing is pretty strict too, so it’s not likely that you can simply slip by and hope to get away with it.
Some churches provide wraps but many don’t, so it’s best to plan ahead. While Roman fashion is laid-back in most other senses, one thing to also watch is your training gear. To run through the city center you should be dressed appropriately. Police will stop you if you’re shirtless or wearing a revealing sports bra. If you want to go for a run, it’s best to do so in a park or along the river, and very early in the morning, but that’s because of the heat more than anything!
Eating at the first restaurant you see
When looking for somewhere good to eat in Rome, there are a few things to keep in mind. Yes, you might have just spent four hours exploring the Vatican gawping at priceless da Vinci’s, but don’t just wander into the first restaurant you find, even if the staff is beckoning you in with open arms.
Generally speaking, restaurants directly next to tourist sites are going to be significantly more expensive. That’s not to say the meal won’t be good, but if the waiter also has to ask for you to come and sit down, chances are it’s not going to be the best food you’ve ever had. Italian cuisine speaks for itself and a packed restaurant with a line at the door is usually a good enough testimony to quality.
If it opens before 7.30 pm, this is also an indication that it could be a tourist haunt, rather than a real hidden gem. Look for holes in the wall that open late and close late, and avoid touristy areas for a true taste of Rome.
Not doing day trips
Rome is amazing and all, but we think too many a traveler ignores the potential of day trips from the big city. Sat smack dab in the heart of Italy, Rome is the hub of the uber-gorgeous Lazio region. It’s one of the lesser-known parts of the boot, but it’s truly wonderful. You can whiz out west to swim in the Med, or head north and east to get into the mountains.
Here’s a look at just a few of the top day trips that we’d recommend considering during your Roman vacation…
- Ostia – An ancient port town that’s connected by rail to Rome. It’s on the Med to the west, has beaches, and some amazing archaeological sites.
- Orvieto – A stunning Umbrian hill town a few hours north on the train, Orvieto is a trip for those who want to taste rural Italy at its finest.
- Lago d’Bracciano – One of a few volcanic lakes that dot central Italy, Bracciano has beaches and windsurfing clubs.
- Viterbo – A beautiful regional town with medieval streets and pretty piazzas to the north of Rome.
Visiting in the peak, peak season
Rome is one of the most visited cities in the whole of Europe – nay, the world! It sees in excess of 10 million people flock to its monuments and sites each year. That’s double Venice! It’s also no secret that the vast majority of those folks come in the peak summer months between June and August, many of them spurred on by the start of the main school breaks in Northern Europe and the US.
Our advice? Dodge that time altogether. We’ve jostled with the crowds in Rome in the midsummer many a time. It’s not a pleasant experience. Unless you’re up at the crack of dawn, you’re looking at snaking queues for key sites. Plus, the cost of hotels, flights, activities, and just about everything else can skyrocket.
We much prefer the late spring and early autumn in Rome. Those are shoulder seasons, so see WAY fewer people hit the streets. However, it still tends to be warm and with plenty of sunshine, though prices haven’t cranked to the stars just yet.
Not taking some time out
It can always be a challenge to fit in downtime in big cities. It’s the same in Rome, which, together with Milan up in the north, is one of Italy’s economic powerhouses. Between the body-packed streets of the Centro Storico and the Vespa-purring streets of Monti district, it can feel positively overwhelming.
Thankfully, Rome has stacks of fantastic green spaces that are perfect for that much-needed R&R between sightseeing bouts. They’re places you can go with a picnic and settle down under the shade of a lanky stone pine, watching the world and the people go by.
Our favorite Roman parks include:
- Villa Borghese – Probably the most famous park in Rome, the Villa Borghese sits on a bluff above the Piazza del Popolo. It has wonderful views of the cityscape, contains a museum that houses a Carravaggio, and extends backwards into pine forests where there’s plenty of room to spread out and relax.
- Villa Doria Pamphili – The vast grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili sit above the La Trastevere area of Rome. They’re not really seen by tourists but are wonderful, with haunting mansions that have been left to dilapidate sitting next to the swan-speckled Lago del Belvedere.
- Parco dell’Appia Antica – This one’s a little further from the downtown of Rome, straddling the ancient Appian Way as it leaves from the south side of the city. It’s a very chilled park space with loads of pine trees and hidden Roman ruins.
- Parco del Colle Oppio – You can find a spot here under the trees gazing head on at the Colosseum.
Not getting a tour guide
Rome is one darn complicated place. It’s a layer cake of history and culture with a story that reaches back through time to the days of myth and legend. You can come here to learn stories of heroes raised by wolves, battles fought on Italian plains, and emperors both mad and maverick. But a guide book simply won’t be the same as a tour guide, who can help bring it all to life with pro storytelling techniques and whatnot.
Obviously you’re going to want to be vigilant against scam tour operators here. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck on a walkthrough of the Roman Forum with some charlatan who doesn’t know their Nero from their Nerva, their Tiberius from their Trajan. These days, best way to score the top tours is by booking online or asking at your hotel. That way, you can check reviews and ensure you’re getting tried-and-tested services.
There’s also another bonus to pre-booking tickets for tours in key Roman attractions: The queue jump. It costs a little more but saves a whole load of time at spots like the Colosseum and the Vatican, where people who refuse the planned groups can be waiting around for hours to catch their glimpse of the old lion pits or Carravaggios.
Things to avoid in Rome – our conclusion
There are a whole host of things to avoid in Rome that we’d recommend first-time travelers to the Eternal City get to grips with. First off, meals and dining in these parts follow a strict set of unwritten rules – breakfasts are small, lunches are large and long, dinners are late. When it comes to shopping, don’t expect to be able to do your retail therapy in the afternoon, since the siesta still reigns supreme. You’ll also want to be aware of taxi drivers, potential scams, and the right seasons for visiting – some are better than others!
Is Rome safe?
Rome is a big and bustling city that attracts millions of tourists every year. Visitors should exercise general precautions as they would in any capital and keep belongings close at all times. However, Rome is a safe place to visit and demonstrates lower crime rates than many Italian cities, including Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Naples. A well-trained police force keep the streets safe and tourism is a huge contributor to the economy so visitors are always looked after.
How many days do you need in Rome?
Rome is an enchanting city and one of the most iconic vacation destinations in the world. You could spend months exploring its narrow alleyways and incredible historic sites but still not uncover all of its mysteries. Nevertheless, you’ll need at least four days to see all the top attractions but we recommend allocating at least five or seven if it’s your first visit to Italy, or splitting your time between Rome and Tuscany, to get a real taste of Italian culture.
When is the best time to visit Rome?
Italy has a temperate Mediterranean climate and Rome experiences its best weather between June and August, with highs in the late 80s and plenty of blue skies. However, summer holiday crowds descend on the city at this time of year and it can be hard to navigate. Consider visiting between April and May, or September and October for pleasant weather and fewer tourists. However, note that visiting too early or too late in the year can denote which attractions will be open with normal operating hours.