Planes, trains, and automobiles in and around Rome (and Florence/Naples)
June 30, 2019 7:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to Italy (based in Rome) for a week and a half in July and am ridiculously excited. For the first couple of days, I'll drive out to the countryside from the Rome airport to visit friends, and then spend six days in Rome with planned side trips to Naples/Pompeii and Florence during two of the days that I'm there. I'd be grateful for your recommendations, but I am specifically wondering about some practical details.

What should I keep in mind when driving from the airport to my friend's house (I've never rented a car or driven in a foreign country). Do you have any tips on navigating the bus/tram system in Rome? And do I need to buy my train tickets to Naples/Florence (presumably from Termnini, the main train station) in advance? I'd prefer to buy them the day of to give myself some leeway but if they are likely to be sold out I can commit. Or is to too ambitious to take side trips on such a short stay? (I rarely travel so am trying to pack everything in).

Thank you!
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The waze app works in Italy and was immensely helpful when we drove from place to place
posted by supermedusa at 8:34 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Public transport in Rome is pretty straightforward to navigate. One thing to note is you can't get tickets on the bus itself, you need to find a store/kiosk with the Tabacchi sign. If you're going to be using it more than once it probably makes sense to get a day/multi-day ticket.

What are you planning to do in Florence? The fast train from Rome is about three hours each way, you want to go on an early one and come back on a late one to have any reasonable time to do anything. I suggest you book tickets online beforehand, it's going to be cheaper too.

The museums in Florence (and Rome for that matter) have pretty long lines, and July is peak tourist season, it makes sense to book tickets in advance. Also the Duomo is well worth visiting, and the view from up top is spectacular; you need to book a specific time to go up and IIRC you can't do that on the same day so if you want to do that you're going to have to plan in advance.

Also you need to go to this place and get yourself some lampredotto, you can thank me later.

posted by each day we work at 8:59 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I found the train stations a bit difficult to navigate, but that may be because I’m used to the ones in the U.K. and they are a bit different. All the boards, if I recall, are divided by departure and arrivals, and show the time, track, train carrier and train number. Don’t look for any signs with your specific destination, it will only confuse you! Look for the train number instead. If you look confused, particularly at Rome Termini, people may come up to you and offer to “help”. Just say no firmly, i learned this the hard way, when a man offered to help me navigate the station and then grabbed my hand, led me to a random platform (not the one I needed) and then demanded 2 euros. Of course I told him no, but he distracted me and made me miss my train and I was mad. People offer to “help” you a lot in the train stations (and around the touristy towns in general). All that said if you actually need help most strangers are happy to offer it, so don’t be afraid to ask people if you need it. Just avoid the strangers who try to offer it without you asking!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cityboy and I rented a car in Italy in late May. For the first time in my memory, American drivers need to obtain an international drivers licence. I thought the info my travel agent gave me was bogus - we have rented cars in Italy at least yearly without it for decades. Nope, it was true, the rules have changed. The rental company didn't require it, which is a little confusing, but if we had been stopped for any reason by police, they want an international licence.

I went to a local drugstore for passport pictures, and took them to AAA, where they processed the licence on the spot. $22.00, I think.
posted by citygirl at 10:15 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can easily spend six days in Rome without running out of things to do, bearing in mind it will be very busy and very hot as well. Florence and Naples are not comfortable day trips. If you’re going to do a side trip pick one, spend the night there so you don’t spend all your time on the train. 2nding pre-booking tickets for things like the Vatican museum and perhaps even a tour of the place. The pre-booked tours avoid the normal queue.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:31 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

To be honest, I think it is a bit ambitious to take day (!) trips to Florence and Napoli. I mean, you could do a whistlestop tour of Florence in a day, I guess, but I can't imagine it would be particularly enjoyable and you would come away thinking of everything you'd missed or not had time to linger over. I don't know Italy around Rome very well, so I can't make specific recommendations, but I suggest for day trips you look up small towns or villages in the region. Cities in Italy are magnificent of course, but you might find (as I did) that the small towns, villages and rural spots are more memorable.
posted by tavegyl at 10:40 AM on June 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I agree with koahiatamadl that you might be trying to do too much. I recently did 13 days in Italy, Rome, Florence, Montepulciano and Sicily, and it was a lot of travel, I sort of wish I had just done Rome & Tuscany - even though Siciliy was amazing.

A couple more notes based on your question (I'm sorry, I didn't read it more closely!) - you absolutely can buy train tickets in advance, online, and then either print them at the big red ticket machines, or use the ticket on your phone.

My experience in Rome was that it was easier to just walk every place I wanted to go. The taxis and ubers were expensive and the traffic was terrible (and terrifying) and it was never more than a 30 minute walk to any place in the city, or I could take the train. If you can take a train to see your friends instead of driving to them, I would recommend that. Driving in a new country is tough - driving in a new country like Italy is probably extra tough. Driving in Rome is like olympic level tough. If you must drive from Rome to see your friends, I recommend renting a car from a place farther outside the city so you can avoid the insanity of the city itself. Perhaps your friends have recommendations?

You want cash/exact change to use the ticket machines in the Rome metro (different from the train system that you use to get around Italy). Coins are best if you have them, when I was there, the machines that took bills were often out of order.

Rome is easily seen, in my opinion, in 2-3 days. You could also easily spend all of the 6 days there, but it's crazy and exhausting. I would plan that one out the most because it is very full of tourists. Get your tickets to everything in advance, and don't sway from the plan. The coliseum and the vatican, for example, are surrounded by people who are pretending to be official tour guides and it can get really confusing. Just get your ticket directly from the museums and you can skip the line, and you can ignore all of those people shouting at you!

Also, look up tipping rules, I was told 1 euro per person, or 10% of the bill, whichever is higher. There is sometimes something called a coperto on the bill, that's like a cover charge, basically? Don't be surprised when you see that. If you sit in a nice square with a beautiful view there will likely be a high coperto on the bill and the prices will be quite high.

Florence has similar traditions, but is probably easier to wander in. It is a really interesting city with lots of cool sites and it's very fun to just get lost and eat and shop in. There are also lots of little medieval villages nearby that are more reasonable for day trips. The Duomo is great, as is the Uffizi, those are the two things you'll want to get tickets in advance to. In fact, you could buy your tickets to the actual Duomo NOW, as that sells out well in advance.

If I were you, I would either spend 2-3 days in Rome, and then skip either skip Naples and Pompeii, and take a train up to Florence for a few days. If you are flying back home from Rome, I'd stop in Siena for a night on the way back to Rome to fly home.

OR, I'd skip Florence and do the same time frame with Naples/Pompeii. Most people recommend Florence and Tuscany over Naples, though I think that's the best bet if you want to go to Pompeii. I skipped Naples and Pompeii when I went and I'm a little sad about it.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:43 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ostia Antica is a great alternative to Naples/Pompeii and is a legitimate day trip.
posted by PussKillian at 10:53 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I just returned from my first trip to Italy – so I feel your excitement!!!

Trenitalia is the site we used to book all our train tickets around Italy (Milan to Cinque Terre to Lucca to Pisa and then Orvieto to Rome. We booked the night before each trip without a problem, but we were happy with standard seating and we were not booking a high-speed train between major cities (Florence and Rome), so YMMV.

We rented a car from Avis for driving around Tuscany and into the outskirts of Florence. You will need an International Driving Permit (which Avis asked for) but it’s super easy to get. While no test is required for the permit, I strongly recommend learning about the signage and laws in Italy. For example, you must drive with your lights on at all times and, most importantly, many cities, including Rome and Florence, have ZTLs, which are zones that require a specific permit. The ZTLs limit driving/parking in the city centers and most touristy areas. Here's a link to more info on transportation and driving in Italy from the US Embassy.

Also be aware that most rental cars available in Italy are standard shift.

I recommend checking out the Facebook Group: Traveling in Italy. I found it enormously helpful in planning for my trip. Buon Viaggio!
posted by kbar1 at 12:22 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone above about Naples *and* Florence being an ambitious trip.

Since you did ask for recommendations, my favorite places in Rome were:

  • The Sancta Sanctorum, the personal chapel of Popes in the middle ages
  • The Pantheon
  • San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
  • The Vatican and Sistine chapel—famous for good reason

    I also liked Ostia but it's no Pompeii.

    If your friends live near them, I also felt moved by the Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia and Cerveteri.

  • posted by migrantology at 12:25 PM on June 30, 2019

    It's insanely cheaper to reserve rental cars online prior to getting into Italy-- renting a car in April cost us 20 euro for a week when rented online and was 128 euro if we'd waited and walked up(!I know!). However, it's very difficult to find automatic shift cars to rent, so I'd extra suggest looking and reserving online just to make sure it's possible to get a car you can drive if you can't drive stick.
    posted by holyrood at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

    July in Italy is very hot, and there is not always aircondition*. Which means that when you plan your trip, you should plan for a break between 12 AM and 4 PM, for lunch and napping and just relaxing. Get out early in the morning, and stay out a bit later at night.
    I guide people around Rome, and I do trips of four days, but I'd rather not. Just as a warning: when we go on a four day trip, we don't go into the Vatican, because that is a day in itself. Not necessarily all day, but enough that it feels crazy to do something else apart from visiting St. Peters and strolling around the neighborhood. Rome is not just about seeing the main sights, it's also about hanging out, feeling the vibe, eating gelato and lovely food, and discovering less known but fascinating places. So I agree with those who recommend choosing either Florence or Naples, or just going on trips into the countryside from Rome, Ostia Antica is a great day trip, as is Tivoli, and Frascati. TBH I wouldn't visit Florence in the high season, it seems overwhelmed by tourists to me.
    In Rome, walk everywhere. Maybe have one day where you buy a day-ticket for public transportation so you can visit places "outside the walls" (the walls built by the Romans!)
    You need to order tickets ahead for the Vatican and the Uffizi. Other places you can just get there early in the morning, and in my experience 4PM is good too, but I wouldn't count on it. Look for opening hours online. Avoid people selling tickets outside the official ticket booths.
    Driving in Italy depends on what you are used to. If you are used to driving in a city, it's fine. Italy is much denser populated than the US, so even some parts of the suburbs are more like a city than an American suburb, and just about everything between the airport and Rome are suburbs. People are a bit anarchistic, but they are also very considerate. You have to be the same.
    The public transportation is generally very good. Again, head directly for the ticket counters at the station, and get all your tickets and advice there. People are getting better and better at English, but you can bring pen and paper to avoid pronunciation issues.

    *if a restaurant advertises it has aircondition, you will often want to avoid it. Hotels usually have some, not always very good. Churches are great places to enjoy art and cool air.
    posted by mumimor at 2:04 PM on June 30, 2019

    On the Trenitalia English website, I'm seeing frequent fast trains between various Roma and Firenze train stations where the ride is ~75-90 minutes; it's the slower regional trains that are three hours each way. Searching on the English Trenitalia page and selecting "Frecce" brings up options that go to both of the stations in Florence. (The train to Firenze Santa Maria Maria Novella will put you closer to the Uffizi; choose your station for proximity to the things you want to see.)

    As long as you -
    * book an early fast train
    * realize you'll probably only see 2-3 major attractions in Florence depending on how long you spend there that day, and plan accordingly
    * choose a day where the things you want to see will be open (most museums in Italy are closed on Mondays, for example, including the Uffizi)

    - a day trip to Florence will be just fine. But I would personally at least book an overnight, if you can.
    posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:56 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

    Here's an attempt to answer all your transport questions!

    High-speed and intercity trains are all reserved seating. Tickets cannot be bought onboard - book at a station or on the websites for either Trenitalia or the privately-owned rail company Italo. Do a quick comparison between the two before buying online, as there can be a significant difference in cost. In summer prices are definitely going to be better if you book more than a few days in advance. Keep in mind that even the English versions of websites usually require you to type city names with Italian spellings (Roma, Firenze, Napoli, etc). And it seems you're already aware of this, but remember that cities usually have multiple stations, so when booking make sure you're choosing the right one.

    Fast trains between Rome and Florence are about 1h 30m (not 3 hours as someone mentioned above). Between Rome and Naples they're about 1h 10m.

    For regional trains to smaller towns just buy tickets at the station since prices are fixed and because regional tickets bought online are non-refundable and limited to a few-hour window from the time of the train you booked. If you have a paper ticket (not purchased online) for a regional train and it's not for a reserved seat, you have to validate it before boarding.

    You didn't mention any mobility issues, so I'll speak on the assumption that walking is ok for you. If you're staying in the historic center of Rome you won't be using the Metro much, as so many locations are within walking distance and the Metro isn't actually very extensive. Buses are easy to use - apps like Citymapper or Google Maps are great for identifying which ones to take - but often buses aren't significantly faster than walking over shorter distances. Buy bus tickets at tobacconists, bars, or vending machines at major stops and be sure to validate them in one of the little yellow boxes after boarding.

    Driving to the countryside from the airport won't be difficult if that's the only driving you'll be doing. Both Waze and Google Maps are very good for navigation. I can't vouch for Apple Maps. Avoid driving into the medieval centers of towns/villages and instead park in one of the lots that you'll usually see at the edge of town. Don't drive where you see signs for Zona Traffico Limitato or Area Pedonale. Right turn on red is not allowed. Signal your exit from a roundabout.

    Last time I rented in Italy my US license was sufficient, but it's actually illegal for people with non-EU licenses to drive without an International Driving Permit (IDP) so that could spell trouble if the cops pull you over. It's easy and cheap to get an IDP from AAA if you're currently in the US. Definitely book the rental online in advance to make price comparisons and to get a much better rate. Also with a prepaid rate the mandatory CDW coverage will probably be cheaper. If you need an automatic transmission it'll be more expensive than a manual and harder to find, although airport rental locations are the most likely to have automatics.

    I really understand the feeling of wanting to pack in as much as possible, but with the amount of time you have I don't think you should try to include both Naples and Florence. It really comes down to the things you want to see and do, and both cities have much to recommend them. Naples will provide a sharper contrast to Rome than Florence will, if that's important to you.
    posted by theory at 3:01 PM on June 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

    Unlike one of the above posters, I've found the Roman public transit system (especially buses) mysterious and hard to fathom UNTIL I go the app Probus Rome (they also make a version for iOS). It is immensely helpful, and will even show you where you are on the map, and how many stops to go, where to get off, etc. It's free, so do it.
    Also, I love Ostia Antica, but it's not accessible by Metro (Rome's Underground transit system, with only two lines - if it's summer, don't bother, there's no AC and it's beastly hot!). There is a train station opposite the Pyramide Metro station, and the trains there are part of Rome's transit system - Ostia is technically part of Rome! So if you get a 72-hour transit ticket, you're good to go! Look for the large "T" on signs outside shops - you may have to hunt around to get the three-day ticket, we did.
    Personally, I wouldn't recommend driving in central Rome or Florence, it's crazy and very limited. Both cities are quite walkable.
    One final note - only buy your ticket from the above-mentioned Train systems - all the other re-sellers (and some take great pains to make you think you're buying from the train company) will have wildly marked-up prices. Buy as soon as you can, and you'll get the best price -especially for popular times/routes.
    Regarding museums in Rome - if you want to go to the Borghese Gallery you *must* buy tickets in advance, they are timed, only allow a certain number of people at a time in the gallery, and are often sold out, even in slow season.
    One of my favorite slightly-below-the-radar spots is the Testaccio Market (food and a million other things) in the Testaccio neighborhood (just check opening times before you go!).
    Have a blast - I'll be in Rome and Florence again next April, and I can't wait.
    posted by dbmcd at 6:01 PM on June 30, 2019

    I have this saved for a friend, it's a travel guide by WaPo, so I don't know if you can open it.
    posted by mumimor at 11:57 PM on June 30, 2019

    one enthusiastic thumb up for the capitoline museum.

    also, i found this website to have lots of very useful, practical information.

    finally, consider smaller, closer destinations in tuscany - such as siena - rather than trying to shoehorn in florence.
    posted by fingers_of_fire at 2:16 PM on July 1, 2019

    Also, check if your friends are in a ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) area where fines are very high if you drive here without a permit.

    Driving in (northern and central) Italy and Rome is pretty straightforward ; people tend to know what is going on and look at each other and anticipate. This means that indicators are more of a luxury item, rather than routinely used, however there is a pattern.

    Nthing the IDP ~ it is a legal requirement, although you would be unlucky to be checked.

    Public transport is easy to navigate, and you can purchase long distance tickets online with a foreign credit card and use the codes sent to your phone.

    I too, think that there is no need to plan to do so much; especially if you are happy to walk and explore. The annex of the Capitoline Museum I think is a real gem: well worth exploring.

    There are food stalls and markets set up along the banks of the River around Trastevere at this time of year, worth exploring at night. Don't worry, Rome is very safe, just don't announce yourself as a clueless American tourist.

    There are also many free WiFi hotspots in Rome, and many apps in english which help you find theses, navigate the city, each attraction and get by.

    You need to book tickets to the Borghese gallery on line ahead of time (and should do, if there is a spot available!).

    If you can, try to eat, drink, gelato at least a couple of blocks away from where the tourist congregate. Expect to pay a 'coperto' cover charge or a euro or 2, and hope that there are no photos or english translations of the menu. You will do much better.
    posted by Flashduck at 1:45 AM on July 10, 2019

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