Should I Use Rome’s Public Transport? And Other Bus and Metro-Related Questions, Part One

Buses in romeFew aspects of a city are more necessary — or more potentially infuriating — than public transport. That's as true of Rome as it is anywhere else.

Still, many visitors come to Rome with some big misconceptions about its public transportation systems. The biggest? That Rome's public transport is incredibly confusing, and only for locals, and tourists should stick to taking taxis instead. Or that it's terrible and just so much worse than the systems in other countries.

First: It's true that cabs can be an attractive alternative to public transport. They get you exactly where you want to go, they're everywhere (usually), and they're cheaper than taxis in other cities, like London or New York.

But. All of those fares add up; spending 8 euros each time you have to get somewhere instead of the 1 euro a bus costs makes a big difference. Secondly, just when you want one, you won't be able to find one; many taxis seem to use taxi stands instead of cruising the streets looking for fares, and if it's rainy or just before dinner-time, it can be tough to flag one down. 

Finally, you have to be pretty careful when taking taxis. While it's getting better, some drivers won't hesitate to try to rip off a tourist, either by taking a circuitous route, not turning on the meter, or running the meter on the wrong rate. (Stay tuned for a future post on taking taxis in Rome).

That's where public transport comes in.

Many visitors shy away from Rome's buses and metros, seeming to think the system is terrible. It's not perfect, but it's certainly better than that of many other cities I've traveled in. Overall, Rome's buses and subways are clean, cheap (one euro per ride), frequent, and relatively reliable.

The metro system, especially, is remarkably good. I've never waited longer than 5 minutes for the next train. (I can't say the same for most other cities I've been in, from D.C. to New York). And a handy little display tells you how many minutes away the next metro is, like London's Tube.

The problem with the metro, though, is that it doesn't cut through most of the centro storico. (Line C, currently being dug, should fix some of that, but don't plan on using it unless your next trip to Italy is sometime after 2015). So the metro is great for getting from, say, the Spanish Steps to the Vatican, but not for getting to Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, or myriad other sites in the center.

That's where the buses come in. 

And while I complain about them all the time, I have to admit: The buses, too, are fairly reliable. They also go all over the place, even down those narrow, winding streets that you wouldn't expect even smart cars to venture down, never mind city buses.

But if you opt to take the bus, remember that some come far more often than others. And one bus that usually comes every 10 minutes might, when you try to get it, take 25 minutes to arrive. (Sod's Law tends to apply even more in Rome than other cities). Only some of the stops tell you when the next bus is arriving, and even that information can be wrong. 

Still. I like the bus because it goes more places, and you can look around at Rome's beautiful buildings while you're riding.

So: If you're coming to Rome, plan to walk. Plan to take a cab, maybe. But also do yourself a favor — and do as the locals do — and take Rome's bus or metro.

Coming soon  Also see: why didn't the driver check my ticket, how come the bus stops don't show routes, and other tips for using Rome's bus and metro systems.


Continue Reading

Underground at the Colosseum: How Do You Get There?

DSC_0104_004 I've gotten a lot of messages asking more about how to access the subterranean and third levels of the Colosseum, which officially opened to the public today.

Well, I've been there, done that (I was actually lucky enough to be on the very first public tour of the newly-unveiled areas at 9:40am this morning!), so I'm happy to share!

Update, April 5 2012: After being closed due to floods, Colosseum officials just announced that the underground will reopen this Saturday, April 7.

Update, October 2011: The Colosseum underground and 3rd tier will be open until Dec. 31.

Update, September 2011: After months of keeping mum, officials finally have confirmed that the Colosseum underground will be open through October.

Update, July 2011: It's been confirmed that the Colosseum's underground is now open through September… but possibly no later! Click the link for info on the three major (and only) ways to get to the Colosseum underground. (The post below gives you info on how to book by taking a tour with the Colosseum directly — but that's not necessarily, or always, the best way).

Update, March 2011: The Colosseum's underground has reopened! Some things, including the exact price and the ability to pay in cash on the day of, have changed. Click the link for more info.

Why is this special? It's the first time since antiquity that the hypogeum and third levels have been officially, safely open to the public. (Actually, even better than that, since even in antiquity the hypogeum would not have been open to the public). And it's the first time the arena has been open to the public during the daytime.

Do I have to book in advance to see the hypogeum and third levels? Yes, you must book in advance. 

But why? Because the areas are archaeologically sensitive, they don't want the Colosseum's 19,000 or so daily visitors clambering around on their own. Instead, the Colosseum's official guides are taking groups to those areas, with a maximum of 25 people per group.

How do I book? The best (and, I think, so far only) way to book is to call Rome's cultural association, Pierreci, directly. Their phone number is +39 06 39967700. Websites might start cropping up soon, if they haven't already, offering to sell you these tickets online; they'll charge you a surcharge for this, so just call Pierreci instead. 

Do they speak English? Yes, they should. If you can't follow the rapid-fire Italian for your options through the automated system, press 0 the first time you're asked a question, 3 the second time. (Assuming, of course, you're an individual booking for a group tour). That should bring you to an operator. Once you speak to someone, if you just ask, "Parla inglese?", you should be able to communicate with them in English fine. They are, after all, offering English guided tours!

The first group on the Colosseum's third level

But I don't want to make an international call. That's expensive. Download Skype ( It's a free voice-over-internet program and takes thirty seconds to download. It's intuitive, it's easy, and you can call phones internationally for much less than what most phone cards would cost you. Plus, calling Skype to Skype is free.

How much is it? It costs €12 (the normal entrance price, which includes your entrance to the Forum and Palatine), plus €8 for the guided tour, plus a €1.50 reservation fee. You do not pay in advance.

What times are the tours? I don't know, and I'm not sure there's a regular schedule. But it seems like lots of tours in both Italian and English (perhaps other languages, too) are being given. The operator will give you a list of times that you can choose.

Should I book now, or wait till I get to Rome and have more of an idea of my schedule? Book now. Seriously, everyone and their mother will want to do this. You need to get a slot as soon as possible.

How long are they doing this for? So far, till November 30. But I can't imagine they won't continue it after that.

 So I have my reservation number, and I'm in Rome. Now what? When you go to the Colosseum, you'll see a long line on your right. Don't stand in it–that's for people without reservations. You also might see a long line on your left. Don't stand in that one, either, which is for big group tours. Instead, go down the middle. When a guard asks you for your ticket, say you have a reservation. He'll let you through to the ticket windows at the end. Get in the line for reservations ("prenotazioni"), which should be very, very short. At the window, present your reservation code. You're then given your ticket, plus a little sticker saying you're one of the chosen few for the tour. The meeting point is currently in front of the elevator, but that may change (like everything does!), so make sure to ask.

What if I have a RomaPass? If you tell the person at the reservation window that you already have a ticket to the Colosseum, you can pay just the reservation and tour fee and use your pass.

Can I use my ticket for something else? Yes. It's a normal, combined Colosseum ticket, so you can use it for entrance to the Forum and Palatine for the rest of the day and the following day (the deadline will be printed on your ticket).

What does the tour cover? The tour includes the hypogeum (subterranean area), arena, Porta Libitina, and third level.

How long is the tour? This morning, it took us an hour and a half to get through it all. I don't know if that's how long they'll all be.

Can I sightsee more around the Colosseum after the tour? The tour ends inside, so yes.

Is it worth it? Yes. It's incredible. And this is absolutely how the Colosseum is meant to be seen. Once you see the Colosseum from its almost-top, and peer up at the seating from where gladiators and animals would have waited for their turn, and walk through the gate where gladiators' dead bodies were taken out, you'll feel badly for those who "only" got to see the Colosseum's first and second levels.

Whew! I hope that covers everything, but let me know if I left anything out!

Worker unlocking the door for the third level of the Colosseum A guard allowing us up to the third level of the Colosseum.

Continue Reading

How to Dial Internationally To, and From, Italy

It seems like it should be simple, but it stumps otherwise-intelligent people every day: How the heck do you call Italy from home — and call home from Italy?

Here it is, broken down in simple steps. Of course, for every phone call, keep time zones in mind; Italy’s one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so it’s one hour ahead of (i.e., later than) London, six hours ahead of New York City, and nine hours ahead of California.

Also, if you’re bringing your cell phone from home to use in Italy (and I hope you looked at your plans with your cell phone company, and your other options for international dialing, first — as well as made sure that your network will work in Europe!) know that when you call an Italian number, you’ll call it like an Italian, no country-codes gobbledygook needed. But if you’ll be calling home, you’ll have to dial home as if you were calling from an Italian landline — i.e., with all those dialing codes.

Of course, you could always just make it easy for yourself and download Skype, the free voice-over-internet program. (You can add credit to your account to call internationally, often at very cheap rates). But if you don’t, here goes.

Dial an Italian phone number from the U.S.

1. Dial 011. That’s the international access code that you need to dial out of the U.S. to another country. If the number you’ve been given says something like +39 0123456789, then the + is what you replace with the 011.

Or, if you’re dialing from a cell phone, you can often just dial the +. No access code needed, since it knows where you are. (Creepy…)

2. Dial 39. That’s Italy’s country code.

  • 3. Dial the rest of the number. Include the first 0. (For other countries, you drop that 0).

So: If someone hands you a card that says their Italian number is 0123456789, then, from the U.S., you dial 011 plus 39 plus 0123456789. Got it?

Dial an Italian phone number from another country outside of Italy

1. Dial your country’s international access code. For England and Ireland, it’s 00; for Australia, it’s 0011; from Canada, it’s 011 (yes, the same as the U.S.). You can easily find out your international access code here.Again, if the number you’ve been given says something like +39 0123456789, then the + is what you replace with this code.

Or, if you’re dialing from a cell phone, you can often just dial the +.

2. Dial 39.

3. Dial the rest of the number, with the first 0.

If you’re calling Italy from Australia, therefore, you’d dial 0011 plus 39 plus 0123456789.

Dial a U.S. phone number from Italy

1. Dial 00. That’s Italy’s international access code. If you’re dialing from a cell phone, you can often just dial the +. No access code needed.

2. Dial 1. (That’s the “1” as in, 1 (202) 123-4567).

3. Dial the rest of the number. (In the example above, that would be (202) 123-4567).

So for the example above, you would dial 00 plus 1 plus 202 123 4567, and you’re done. 


Dial another country from Italy

1. Dial 00, Italy’s international access code. Or, if you’re dialing from a cell phone, you can often just dial the +. No access code needed.

2. Dial your country’s code. For Australia, that’s 61; for England, that’s 44; Ireland is 353; and Canada is 00.

3. Dial the rest of the number.

You might also like: the worst etiquette mistakes to make at an Italian meal, how to decide if a Roma Pass is worth it and how safe is Rome… really?

Want more tips and tricks for travel in Italy? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here.


Continue Reading

Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti?

When in Rome... create graffiti!
The short answer: because as long as people in general, and Romans in particular, have been around, we've had the urge to make our mark. That's as true of cave paintings thousands of years ago as it is of "Katie + Tom 4ever" today.

And graffiti isn't always a bad thing. Without ancient graffiti, we wouldn't have the world's oldest example of written Latin, carved into the lapis niger in the Forum in 575 B.C. We wouldn't have nearly as much idea of how literate most ancient Romans were, or of how they actually pronounced their language (both of which we can tell from graffiti's misspellings and grammatical errors).

Graffiti also gives us insights — often both humorous and humanizing — into past cultures. Actual graffiti in Pompeii, for example, includes such winning lines as "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men's behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!" (bar/brothel of Innulus and Papilio); "Satura was here on September 3rd" (atrium of the House of Pinarius); "Atimetus got me pregnant" (House of the Vibii); "Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!" (gladiators' barracks); and "If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend" (atrium of the house of Pinarius) (and — aww!). 

There's also this lovely romantic triangle, played out in inscriptions on the Bar of Prima. "Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye." Successus' response: “Envious one, why do you get in the way.  Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.” The downtrodden Severus: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you."

And everyone — not just the riffraff of society — has felt the urge to make their mark on buildings and monuments, even those who, it would seem, were making more important marks in other ways. Michelangelo and Raphael scratched their names into the ruins of Nero's Domus Aurea; American settlers heading west carved inscriptions onto Signature Rock on the Oregon Trail, now a national landmark. Even Lord Byron couldn't resist, scratching his name onto the Temple of Poseidon in Attica, Greece. Picture 592graffiti

Fine, you say. But why all the graffiti now?

It's true: For a modern city, Rome certainly has its fair share of spraypainted scrawls. (Although if you head to London's Brick Lane neighborhood, or other southern European cities like Athens, you'd see just as much. Not to mention places like Olinda, Brazil, where graffiti has reached the height of an art form — just check out the image at the bottom, which puts most Roman graffiti to shame). And importance of historical graffiti aside, it's not necessarily a good thing. Aesthetically, it can be an eyesore; practically, it can't be good for the old buildings. Cleaning it up, meanwhile, is frustrating and expensive: Repainting a 4-story palazzo can set you back €40,000.

And so Rome's launched a campaign against the practice. In February, the city's conservative mayor raised the fine for graffiti from a minimum €25 to €300 and mandated that anyone caught doing it will be forced to clean the graffiti up. Meanwhile, expats and Italians have started to fight the city's graffiti in volunteer squads, armed with paintbrushes and cleaning solution.

But not everyone's thrilled about these attempts. Critics point to how long graffiti has been around for, saying that preventing Romans from spray-painting their walls is like forbidding them from ever using slang. For some practitioners, meanwhile, graffiti is an art; for others, it's part of a heated competition to claim physical space in a city where actually buying property is out of most Romans' means. 

And in a city where jobs are scarce and creative jobs scarcer, where architectural or artistic innovation rare (modern Maxxi museum aside), where the old palaces and ancient ruins can make the city feel more like a living museum than an evolving, organic metropolis, where the police aren't particularly notable for being energetic enforcers of the law — that all seems like the kind of place where it's little surprise that a teenager might grab a can of spray-paint and go "tagging" on a hot, lazy summer night. Nor is it surprising that most Romans, as much as many support a "graffiti offensive," both seem to understand the urge to make one's mark in spray-paint — and refuse to let it bother them.

Graffiti in Olinda, Brazil has been raised to a high art.

You Might Also Like:

Should I Use Rome's Public Transport? And Other Bus- and Metro-Related Questions

Top Resolutions for the Italy-Bound Traveler 

Rome's Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?



Continue Reading

Ferragosto, When All the Italians Flee Rome

Chiuse per ferie -- a common sign during ferragosto in Rome.
If you've been wondering why more stores and restaurants seem to be closed than they should be in Rome, it's because ferragosto is nearly here.

Ferrogosto — the period when Italians go on vacation, officially starting August 15 — is rooted in ancient tradition. In 18 B.C., Emperor Augustus, Rome's first emperor, instituted the feriae Augusti, or Augustan holidays. Adding to summertime festivals already celebrated, like the Consualia on August 23, the holidays celebrated the end of major agricultural work. Horse races were held; work set aside.

Two thousand years later, the holiday's origins may have dissipated — but the tradition itself continues, under the only slightly-different name of ferragosto. Italians leave the cities and flock to the seaside, taking two, three, even four weeks off work. The result for those of us left in Rome, and for tourists? Seeing door after closed door on local shops, restaurants, and drycleaner's, all with the sign "chiusa per ferie."

In other words: Come back in September.

Continue Reading

What the Heck is a Tabaccaio…and How Do You Pronounce It?

Even with the best English-Italian dictionary, some Italian words baffle. Like tabaccaio. "Tobacco shop," sure. But what else is going on in there — and why does everyone seem to think it's so useful?

First, make sure you have the pronunciation right: "ch" is hard in Italian, so it's tah-back-ee or tah-back-aye-oh, not tab-atch-ee. (One poor tourist confessed to me the other day, "Oh no! I've been saying 'tab-atch-ee' for years of coming to Italy!")

Second, a tabaccaio is not just a tobacco shop. Yes, you can get cigarettes there — but you can get a bottle of water, gum, and likely postcards, batteries and international calling cards, too.

Most usefully, it's where you can get tickets for public transport. At the counter, just ask for "un biglietto per l'autobus" or "due/tre/etc. biglietti" (the ticket works for the bus, tram and metro); it's €1 per ticket. You'll also see Italians using the tabaccaio to pay their electric or phone bills and to "top up" their pay-as-you-go phones.

When you're looking for a tabacchaio, just scan your street for the telltale blue sign with a white T. Just remember that many tabacchi, especially outside of the tourist centers, close during lunchtime and around 6 or 7 at night.

You might also like…

Can You Drink from Rome's Water Fountains? Really?

Nuovo Mondo: The Best Pizzeria in Testaccio

Continue Reading