Rome in a Day
September 20, 2013 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to Rome. I have one free day to use as I see fit. What should I do?

I am going to a conference in Rome next week! My talk is on Friday and rehearsal is on Thursday, but... I arrive Wednesday morning and I can spend all day enjoying the glories of Rome! So how do I spend this time?

There are, of course, complicating factors, to wit:

* I will be alone. I come across as a young and bright-eyed woman. My hair is dyed a not-quite-natural color.
* I do not speak Italian.
* I'll be landing on the red-eye at 7am local time on the one day I have free.
* I am staying in Trastavere.
* I am gluten intolerant.
* I love to see and experience interesting things, but it is OK for me to not see All The Things. There will be another time.

So! Given predicted levels of exhaustion, what do you recommend I do?

Should I try to sign up for some sort of formal tour, or will I be able to make my way around by myself all right? Are the buses easily navigable, or are the taxis inexpensive? Or is it all walkable to someone accustomed to walking around Manhattan?

Where should I eat? How much money should I bring? What are the one to three things I absolutely must see or do? Should I invest in a translation app for my iPhone?

Ahhhh panic panic!
posted by Andrhia to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite memory of Rome is just hanging out at the Colosseum. Unlike a lot of other historic places there, it's full of life and easily accessible. I walked everywhere.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:22 AM on September 20, 2013

I am also accustomed to walking around Manhattan, and find Rome very walkable. One thing it has over Manhattan, actually, is tons of clean public water fountains, so you can head out for the day with one water bottle and refill as needed without spending a cent. Trastevere to the imperial fora/Coliseum is a nice walk, maybe 30-40 leisurely minutes.

As for what you should do, it depends what your interest is. If I just had a day to spend in Rome, I'd spend it right in the center, hanging out at the Capitoline museums, the Forum Romanum, the Palatine, and the Jewish Ghetto, but my interest is in the ancient stuff. If you like medieval/renaissance/modern things, there are tons of other options.

FYI, Wednesday is Papal Audience day, so you might want to steer clear of Vatican City.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:28 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I spent a day in Rome, prior to a cruise, we did a guided tour. We drove around, went to the Coliseum, had lunch. So it only took half a morning, and it was easy because our guide knew where to go and what to do.

This tour seems good and it's reasonably priced: Dark Rome

Steak is a good choice in Rome (although spendy) or a nice salad and a piece of fish. Gellato. Lots and lots of gellato.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:29 AM on September 20, 2013

Oh, and re: this:

*I will be alone. I come across as a young and bright-eyed woman. My hair is dyed a not-quite-natural color.
* I do not speak Italian.

Don't worry too much. Tourist season is over, so the most obnoxious of the grifters will have settled down. Just act like you're in any other major city (expect that anyone who approaches you is looking for money, act like you know where you're going, keep your bag zipped and close to you at all times). People in restaurants, stores, and tourist sites generally all speak at least a little English, and even if they don't, they're used to dealing with people who don't speak a word of Italian. Say "grazie" a lot.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:34 AM on September 20, 2013

the Palatine Hill complex is awesome. I think there is any entry fee but its not a lot.
beautiful place to stroll around, ruins, cool buildings, park like spaces, great views of the city. there is a small museum of the Etruscan-era civilization beneath Rome that was being excavated when I was there 8 years ago (so probably still being done now...(the site, not the museum. the museum is not being excavated!))
posted by supermedusa at 8:42 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

For getting around, I recommend the hop-on hop-off 110 Open bus tour. It is a circular route and has narration. One ticket is good for 48 hours and you can just ride around on it if you are too tired.
posted by soelo at 8:45 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Should I try to sign up for some sort of formal tour

I wouldn't, honestly, it's a short enough period of time and it sounds like you're game for adventuring. If you did, I just saw this one that involves the Mithraeum under the Circus Maximus and honestly, even if it's in Italian, it would certainly be a unique way to see the city.

Or is it all walkable to someone accustomed to walking around Manhattan?

Super, super walkable, and the buses are very easy to use. I would look up a recent guide to getting tickets (I vaguely remember getting them in the tabacchio but it's been a few years.)

Where should I eat? How much money should I bring? What are the one to three things I absolutely must see or do? Should I invest in a translation app for my iPhone?

1) Ancient Forum/Forum Romanum-- you pay to walk through the central bit, but it's surrounded by a variety of ruins of other fora exposed to the air that are free to see from above.

2) View from the Gianicolo hill, the one that curves around Trastevere [I recommend this every time but it's because I love it so!]

3) Museum/shopping/modern stuff: this will depend much more on what you want to do and what you're interested in. Rome has a huge amount of fascinating churches, ancient basilicae, more modern stuff from the Baroque (ha) and even some actual modern art...on top of the couture and endless amounts of window shopping, people-watching, parks, etc. The Mercato di Testaccio is close to Trastevere and you could swing by there and up to the Colosseum if you really liked walking, but there are also several buses. The Via Condotti is great for the fashion-saavy; the Via Margutta (and actually a lot of the Campio Marzio) is a good place to look at galleries and weird workshops and violin makers and things. Lots of small streets with hidden gems.

Translation app:

I doubt you'll need it, but it's nice to be able to do basic Italian transactions, like Hello and I would like X. There are quite good online tips for dealing with gluten-free (phrases, pictures, written cards...whatever works well for you) so I'd pick some phrases and have them written out.

Gluten free:

Italy has some of the best packaged gluten-free options around, for one thing. This seems like a great list of gluten-free-friendly places in Rome though many options will be gluten free, like risotto, grilled meats, fresh fish, most vegetable contorni (like rabe in olive oil.) The last time I was in Rome, the chef's son was gluten-free and so he kept a box of gf pasta around just in case (and he knew about cross-contamination for the pasta water.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:51 AM on September 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could book a tour online for either the Vatican or the Colosseum, but just wandering around either of them would take less time and be enjoyable as well. We had 2.5 days there in August and did one tour each day, and spent the rest of the time just wandering around eating and drinking.

Sights like the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon aren't that far apart from each other and very walkable. I would also recommend a quick peek inside Sant'Ignazio church for a beautiful Trompe-l'œil ceiling, and it's free.

We didn't take transit, mainly because we could walk to most places from our hotel (around the corner from the Spanish Steps). YMMV from Trastavere.

We found taxis were reasonably priced, and all drivers spoke decent English. Having said that, we learned and used basic Italian phrases to be polite and have fun with the language but in general had no issues being understood. I memorized the phrase "Non mangio uova" (I don't eat eggs), so you may consider the same for your gluten intolerance.

We had a great time with Katie Parla's Rome app - lots of good food recommendations there. We went to Salumeria Roscioli and Zoc for dinner, and I can highly recommend them both. If you have time, read Katie Parla's criticism and suggestions after she watched Anthony Bourdain's Rome episode of The Layover.

As for getting around, I fell in love with the app Rego. It doesn't need WIFI, and while it was a bit of work in advance to create a list of addresses for restaurants, shops and points of interest, I was super happy with how well it could tell me where I was in relation to where I wanted to go. We found WIFI a bit hard to find as we wandered around, so I was very thankful for Rego to keep us on track during our walks.

As for budget, we were on a tight one, and didn't feel that Rome stressed us out too much.
posted by champagneminimalist at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2013

You could get to your room and then leave to look at the churches in Trastevere, which include a few with large mosaic cycles. Trastevere itself is a fine place to spend a morning. Maybe you could have lunch there, where I think food tends to be somewhat cheaper than other parts of the city. A walk to look at the Colonnade at St. Peter's would probably be easy, though you'll be tired. If you feel up to it, you could walk on over the river to the Piazza Navona, and then, if you are still capable of enjoying the walk, you could continue on to the Pantheon. There's a cab stand there, and a cab to the Colosseum or the Palatine will be 8 euros or so, I think, and not much more to get back to your room.

There's so much to see in Trastevere, though, that you could spend a happy and memorable day just walking there.

I don't eat fish, but I know it can be good in Rome. If you like fish, ask the server for a recommendation, or order the special. (Bronzino, rombo and soglia are some of the fish I recall my traveling companions ordering frequently.)
posted by Francolin at 9:04 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

One word: Gelato
posted by dukes909 at 9:21 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely the Palatine Hill complex. Lovely, open, historical, beautiful, totally walkable. You can take a taxi there easily, walk around, and head back to your hotel. And the Colosseum is the most awesome place in Rome. Pick up a children's book on the backstory, and it'll curl your hair.

Also, Trastevere is lovely, so you really needn't find transportation anywhere. Also, plan to take a nap.

I would avoid the Vatican at all costs. I found it crowded, miserably crowded, and really just sooooo over-the-top ornate it was laughable. Even the Sistine Chapel is better appreciated by looking at a good book of photos of it, instead of standing in a crowded room with obligated tourists and annoying guards shouting, "SILENCE!! NO PHOTO!!!"" every two minutes. It's definitely not a serene experience, or an art historical experience. Just a mad cow crush. Ugh. You could not pay me to go back there without promising me the room would be cleared.

Have fun! It's an awesome city, and very beautiful. You will have a wonderful time.
posted by Capri at 9:26 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Because they are close and walkable to one another, my suggestion would be Piazza Navona/Campo de Fiori/Pantheon.
posted by ersatzkat at 9:53 AM on September 20, 2013

Gluten intolerant - senza glutine
Italy is still not terribly advanced in the science of cooking without, but specify before hand and everyone will try to be helpful. Do not trust gluten free pizza, to avoid cross-contamination it will probably be frozen.

Public transport tickets are cheap, 1.50€ the single, 6€ the daily but be advised that Rome's busses are not fast nor on time.
Tickets can be bought at every newsagent, underground stop, most bars and tabacchi (big T sign outside).
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 9:57 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rome is extremely walkable. In fact, I'd suggest that if you have only one day, you head directly to the most walkable part of the city and just wander. Start at the Piazza Navona. From there you can check out a few of the churches that have Caravaggio paintings in them, the Pantheon, Trajan's column, several of the best places for gelato, plenty of gorgeous fountains (including the Trevi if you head up Via Del Corso), that huge crazy type-writer looking monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, and the Piazza del Popolo if you want to walk that far. It's a great area for just wandering and people watching and getting kind of lost and eating snacks and then turning a corner and HEY AN AMAZING OLD THING THAT IS BEAUTIFUL. It's also a heavily touristed area (but not in an overwhelming way), so it's easy to pick up a free or cheap map and hard to get too lost or into any real trouble (watch your pockets in Piazza Navona, though).

Re some of your specifics:

* I will be alone. I come across as a young and bright-eyed woman. My hair is dyed a not-quite-natural color.

Not to worry. I've been to Rome three times. I'm a young "bright-eyed" woman, super white/Anglo looking, and had either blond or red hair the first two times I visited, and on my last visit my hair was its natural light brown. On my latest visit, in 2011, I didn't get even a single cat-call in the street. From what I understand, Rome has gotten A LOT better about street harassment and casual sexual assault. That said, I visited at 17, 24, and 30, so I dunno, maybe I'm just an old hag now. Either way, I absolutely would not hesitate to spend a day wandering Rome as a woman alone, and wouldn't have back in the bad old days when I was a 17 year old blonde girl, either.

* I do not speak Italian.

Neither do the other hordes of tourists in the part of Rome I'm pointing you to. Learn how to order gelato and you're good.

* I'll be landing on the red-eye at 7am local time on the one day I have free.

This is my one reservation about your whole plan, since, if that "red eye" is from the US, you might be significantly jetlagged on arrival. Also, if your international flight arrives at 7, you have to go through customs, get your things, travel from the airport to where you're staying, check into a hotel, get something to eat, etc. Which can really cut into your day. It might be more realistic to plan on enjoying an afternoon in Rome rather than a "day". That said, things in Rome stay open pretty late, and it's not like there's nowhere to eat dinner.

* I am staying in Trastavere.

In that case, if you do find that you're jetlagged, you could just spend your free afternoon in Rome exploring Trastavere. I've actually never been, but I've seen tourist guidebooks spend pages on Trastevere alone, so there's definitely plenty to see and do there.

* I am gluten intolerant.

Two options about this. If by that you mean that you get indigestion or feel itchy or generally don't enjoy eating gluten, I would say just live with the consequences of eating some gluten in Rome, because, ummm... yeah dude seriously you're in ROME. If by that you mean you get severely ill and cannot under any circumstances eat gluten for any reason, well, just binge on gelato and coffee all day. In all seriousness, if you cannot under any circumstances have gluten at all during your entire stay in Italy, on pain of serious health consequences, you might want to pack some meal replacement bars, a jar of peanut butter, or some gluten-free snacks you can eat. Italy is pretty gluten-ful though there may be things you can find on a restaurant menu. Certainly most of the street food beyond ice cream is going to be off limits.

Re the Vatican: I love the Vatican Museums, and despite not being Catholic or even Christian, St. Peter's is breathtaking. That said it's not what I would do on my only day in Rome. The same goes for any of the big sights that require basically your whole day to do justice, like the Forum, the Capitoline museums, etc. In my opinion Rome is best experienced on foot, in the streets, actually Being In Rome rather than in some sprawling tourist complex. (Though the Forum and its associated museums are really amazing.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:13 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

we loved the bone church.
posted by obol at 10:18 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and having read some of the advice upthread, I would NOT opt to be driven around Rome on a guided tour. If you want to book a walking tour or some time with a guide who can give you proper context for what you're seeing, that could be cool, but Rome is definitely not a city to be experienced through the window of a car.

On the back of a cute boy's Vespa could be OK, though.
posted by Sara C. at 10:18 AM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I vaguely remember getting them in the tabacchio but it's been a few years.)

Yes, it still works this way, or at least it did in 2011, everywhere I traveled in Italy on that trip. I'd be really surprised if it had changed.

Also good to know is that when you get on a bus, you don't pay the bus driver or hand your ticket off to someone, you cancel it in a little machine that is in the back of the bus near the seats. YOU MUST DO THIS despite the fact that it's theoretically possible to just get on and take a free ride without canceling your ticket. You probably don't want to spoil your day with a bust by a transit cop.

When I was in Rome for a few days, I bought something called a Roma Pass. It was like 25 Euro and covered all public transit as well as entrance to some of the more expensive tourist sights. I'm not sure this is for you because it's good for 3-4 days and you can buy a few bus tickets for much cheaper than that. But if you'll be using mass transit to get to your conference or to get around the city after formal conference events are done, it might be worthwhile. I bought mine at the same sort of tabacchio where you can buy bus tickets.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 AM on September 20, 2013

I once had one day free in Rome. Here's what I did:

I studied the map really carefully, but left my guide books largely in my pocket. Then I walked all day. If I saw something "interesting", such as a church or some square or building or whatnot, I first looked about for a while and then took out my book to check up on things I was wondering about. I took a bunch of pictures, too.
This is probably the most intense touristic experience I've ever had.

I ate ossobucco and contorni in a restaurant at the Piazza Navona. Unless they dust the meat with flour early on during the preparation (one never knows; strictly spoken it shouldn't be necessary because the veal juices gel nicely by themselves) this would be classic and gluten free. And make sure to take advantage of the now-beginning Porcini mushroom season!
posted by Namlit at 11:42 AM on September 20, 2013

I was just in Rome in May and my Italian sucks; I still made myself understood, and I found people were really forgiving and accepting of my "use the two words you actually do know and pantomime a lot" approach. One of my favorite conversations was between me and a shopkeeper - we only knew two or three words of each other's language, but we still managed to have a fairly complex conversation concerning hot cocoa by using a lot of Broad Gesturing. A lot of people do know at least a smattering of English.

Seconding what people say about public water fountains - those things are everywhere.

A few Big Name touristy things are fairly close to each other, and I actually liked them even though I'm fairly scornful of Obvious Touristy Things - they're also all walkable from the bridge to the Trastavere. The Spanish Steps make for a nice place to sit and chill, and if you go up to the higher level it's much less crowded and makes for a better view. (My father gave me that tip.) At the base of the stairs, too, is Babbington's, an English Tea Room that's been catering to English guests and expatriates since the days of Keats; so that could be a place to eat if you're leery of speaking Italian.

I also ended up returning to both the Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain twice during my trip, because the people-watching was great fun - at Trevi, there was something incredibly charming about watching dozens of tourists from all over the world all doing the same giggly "throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain" photo op over and over. I didn't - I just settled for parking myself next to the fountain and just watching them. And at Piazza Navona, I ended up getting fascinated watching the intricate interplay between the police and the different streetside souvenir vendors who weren't supposed to be there, and the guys dressed as centurions hawking photo ops for tips. Piazza Navona and Trevi are also pretty close to a couple of really good gelato places, as well as being close to St. Eustachio's, which purportedly has the best espresso in Rome. (I'm not an espresso person, so I couldn't speak to that.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:00 PM on September 20, 2013

Yes, fish! And cheese and produce. You can get better caprese in other parts of Italy than you can in Rome, but you'll still be able to find better tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala there than you will just about anywhere in North America. You should be okay with risottos, too.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:01 PM on September 20, 2013

Unless you really like guided tours, I would skip it. I went with my SO a couple years ago and he had never been before, so my (somewhat aggressive) itinerary for us was:

-Colosseum/Palatine/Forum area in the morning
-Vatican City in the afternoon with a short stop to see the Sistine Chapel
-Baths of Caracalla - late afternoon
-Pantheon area for dinner
-Trevi Fountain after dinner

Taxis are expensive, but public transportation is fairly easy to navigate if you have a decent map.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:14 PM on September 20, 2013

Or is it all walkable to someone accustomed to walking around Manhattan?

Absolutely. I say this as someone who once spent weeks doing a lot of daily walking around Rome; I almost never used public transportation. At that time, I wasn't even accustomed to walking around Manhattan, though I am now. You couldn't find a nicer big city to walk around in than Rome.

Though you generally don't need to speak Italian to get around, it is incumbent on you to learn how to ask any questions you'll need to ask about gluten-free food and drinks. Don't be like the tourist I saw in Rome who asked a waiter, in English: "Does this have eggplant? I'm allergic to eggplant!" — repeating this in an annoyed way, as if it's entirely the responsibility of Italians to know obscure English words, and not at all the responsibility of tourists to know how to express their needs in Italian. I'm guessing you don't know off the top of your head how to say phrases like "gluten-free" and "gluten-intolerant" in other languages; likewise, most Italians aren't going to know what you're saying about this in English.
posted by John Cohen at 4:48 PM on September 20, 2013

Just looked it up — fortunately, the Italian word for gluten is very similar — "glutine." If you speak Spanish, you can pronounce that as if it were a Spanish word (the "e" isn't silent). So, just learn how to say phrases like "Do you have anything without ___?"
posted by John Cohen at 4:52 PM on September 20, 2013

I just remembered - this sign means there are gluten-free things available. (Took that picture at a restaurant across the street from the Vatican.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:18 PM on September 20, 2013

There's definitely plenty of great food in Rome other than pizza and pasta. (I lived in Trastevere (the 'Trash') for 6+ years.) Alle Fratte is in the heart of Trastevere. The owner, Francesco, speaks perfect English -- he's married to a Long Islander -- as do many of the staff. Why not have a seafood antipasto, meat or fish main with spinach or cicoria as a side. Wonderful food! (And of course mozzarella di Bufala!)

Trastevere is wonderful. It's a short and pleasant walk over Ponte Sisto, up to Piazza Farnese and through to Campo de' Fiori (with a market in day time). And then over to Piazza Navona, Pantheon etc.

There is terrific ice cream everywhere in Rome. As noted above, the Trevi Fountain has some great ice cream nearby -- in spite of its touristy vibe. Round the corner from it is the best ice cream place in Rome (or at least considered so for many years): Gelateria di San Crispino (Via della Panetteria 42) No cones, just cups – philistines!) Last time I was back however, 'Gelateria del Teatro' (Via di San Simone, 70, 00186 Rome - just off Via dei Coronari) seemed to have taken over the crown.
posted by NailsTheCat at 8:52 PM on September 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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