Driving in Italy: Tips for Your First Time (or Tenth)

Beautiful view in Italy for post on driving in Italy tips

Driving in Italy used to be something I found incredibly daunting. I was fine as long as I was in the passenger’s seat. But driving in Italy myself? Or by myself? Terrifying. And that’s coming from someone who will jump on pretty much any chance to do things like scuba diving, bungee jumping or paragliding.

It took me a long time to get over my fear… almost a decade, in fact. But I finally took a deep breath, rented a car and took my first trip, solo, last year. That was followed up by not one, but two more several-day road trips throughout Italy — from cities to countryside.

And you know what? It was fine. (With one caveat. More on that later…).

But knowing some key tips before I started driving in Italy definitely helped.

Whether you’re wondering what it’s like driving in Italy as an American (or Australian, or…), and whether it’s your first time driving in Italy or your tenth, here are answers to some of the most common questions I hear.

First things first: Should you drive in Italy?

If you’re planning on spending all of your time in cities, no. You don’t want a car in downtown Rome, Florence, Milan, etc (and you probably aren’t even allowed to drive one there — read on for more about why). And train connections between cities, and many towns, in Italy are very good — so it’s just not necessary and more of a hassle than it’s worth.

It’s if you want to explore beyond the city limits that it gets more complicated. It’s true that you can still take trains and buses to even rural towns in many parts of Italy. And for some people, that may be the best way to go. But you’re still limited.

I love staying at agriturismi (farm-stays) in the countryside, for example, and they’re usually all but impossible to get to without a car. Same for vineyards, hot springs and, really, many of the other things that make Italy’s countryside so special.

A rural road in Tuscany for driving in Italy tips post
Hotels like this are all but impossible to access without a car.

(While some towns will have taxi services from the train station, I wouldn’t rely on this; you’d have to book a taxi in advance. And then you’d be stuck at the agriturismo/vineyard/whatever until, of course, you hired a taxi again).

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How to Be a Responsible Tourist in Rome

Weather in Rome in fall

Sustainable tourism, particularly sustainable tourism in Italy, always has been a topic close to my heart. And while I know the phrase “responsible tourism” or “sustainable travel” sounds like a snooze, if you enjoy the places you visit, it’s so important. Being aware of how to be a “good” tourist is the number-one way we can all safeguard these places — not just for future generations, but heck, even for when we go back to them ourselves, whether in one year or five.

So I was thrilled to recently get the opportunity to share how to be a good tourist in Italy for not one, but two websites. Here are my tips on how to travel responsibly in Rome — from the moment you book flights to when you’re on the ground and even after you get home. Some of my tips were also included in a roundup of suggestions about responsible tourism from top travel bloggers at Rome2Rio.

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Do You Need to Book Restaurants in Rome? (Really?)

Do you have to book restaurants in Rome?

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the biggest surprises for first-time visitors involves whether you need to book restaurants in Rome.

Many of us, after all, are used to restaurants back home. Whether in the US, UK or Canada, unless you’re talking about a super-trendy or Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s often fairly easy to walk into a restaurant for dinner and get seated without much of a wait. It’s easy to assume that Rome is the same. Why shouldn’t you be able to walk into a humble trattoria on a Thursday evening and find a table?

Then there’s that all-pervasive myth about Italy: The idea that no matter where you eat, you’ll eat well. So even if you can’t get in to one place, the next place should be just as good. After all, the center of Rome is just teeming with good restaurants, right? And, of course, we all love that idea of “discovering” that perfect hole-in-the-wall spot — no research or reservations needed.

The problem? In Rome, none of this holds water. (Or wine, as the case may be…).

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What to Do in Rome at Night

What to do at night in Rome

No matter where you are in your trip planning, you probably have some idea of what to do in Rome… during the day. But what should you do in Rome at night time?

Here are some of my favorite things to do in Rome at night.

What to do in Rome at night when you… want to do as the locals do, part I

The funny thing about this question is that, in many ways, it’s surprisingly easy to answer. Trying to figure out how to fill your schedule between the time that the sites close and night falls and when you go to sleep? Go to dinner.

That might sound glib. It shouldn’t. Keep in mind that Romans tend to eat dinner at about 9pm — so much so that restaurants that cater to locals won’t even open until 8pm. They also tend to linger at dinner longer (and, for better or for worse, serving can be slower) — which means you’ll see many groups of friends, or couples, sit down at 9pm and not leave until 11pm or even midnight.

What to do at night in Rome like the locals
Too early: This is what a typical local restaurant looks like at about 8pm

So, obviously, that’s one way to fill your time. (And if you really want to fit in, don’t forget to read up on Italian dining etiquette first).

Which may leave you with the opposite problem: If you aren’t eating until 9pm, what do you do from 6pm until 9pm?

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The Colosseum Underground: Is It Worth It?

colosseum underground worth it

If you’ve been researching a trip to Rome, at some point, you’ve probably heard about the Colosseum underground tour. (You may even have heard about it here…  or even here). And if you haven’t visited before, you might be wondering: is the Colosseum underground worth it?

First, let’s talk about what the Colosseum underground actually is.

When people hear “underground” in Rome, they automatically think catacombs. But when it comes to the Colosseum, that’s not exactly — okay, not at all — the case. We’re not talking about a spooky cemetery; instead, we’re talking about a backstage area.

That’s right. Think of the Colosseum’s underground as where all of the work required to host these massive, bloody pageants really went on. It’s where gladiators waited for their turn to fight. It’s where the animals were caged. It’s where the mechanical lift (yes, you heard that right) was hoisted up to spring said gladiators and animals through hidden trap doors in the arena stand, stunning and, one would assume, impressing the crowd.

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Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome: What You Have to Know

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome

If you’ll be in the city for more than a couple of days, visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is a must. As well the oldest Jewish settlement in all of Europe (dating back to the 2nd century B.C.) — and, as you might expect, home to a striking synagogue, kosher bakeries and Jewish-Roman trattorias — it isn’t only worth a stop for visitors interested in Jewish history.

That’s because the Jewish Ghetto is also one of the loveliest, most atmospheric areas of Rome. Compact and very pedestrian-friendly, it’s one of my favorite places for a stroll.

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto in Rome? Here are a few things to know first. (After you read this, don’t miss my follow-up post on what to see in the Jewish Ghetto). 

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto is great for a stroll
The Jewish Ghetto: great to visit, take a stroll, *and* make furry friends

The Jewish Ghetto in Rome today

The biggest misconception about the Jewish Ghetto has to do with its name. The word “ghetto” (understandably) tends to throw up some confusion.

First, no: the “Jewish Ghetto” is not an inappropriate nickname. That’s what the neighborhood is called, and what locals (and Jewish locals) call it. Second, it’s not a “ghetto” in the modern sense — though it has its own very sad history of discrimination and poverty.

In the 16th century, the quarter was walled off as the residential area for Rome’s Jews, a heart-wrenchingly common occurrence in Italy and, of course, across Europe. (In fact, the word ghetto is an Italian word: the first Jewish ghetto was in Venice, in the quarter known today as Canaletto). Today, it’s an extremely safe, very well-heeled quarter of the city.

Visiting the Jewish Ghetto
Probably not when you picture when you hear “ghetto”: One of the many stunning courtyards tucked into the Jewish ghetto in Rome

The other thing to keep in mind when you visit the Jewish Ghetto is that this is the spiritual and cultural home of Jews in Rome. And that’s a big deal. Rome is the longest-running home of Jews in all of Europe — thanks to the less-happy fact that they were brought over as slaves in the 2nd century BC.

But when you visit the Jewish Ghetto today, remember that, despite the towering synagogue and the kosher restaurants, it’s a far cry from the thriving, bustling Jewish community it would have been a century ago.

In the Jewish Ghetto of Rome
In the Jewish Ghetto of Rome

About 2,000 Jews of the area’s 7,000 were rounded up in a single day in 1943 and sent to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. Today, Rome is said to have less than 20,000 Jewish residents, only a few hundred of whom live in this quarter.

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Which Rome Airport Is Best to Fly Into?

Which Rome airport is most central?

Having trouble figuring out Rome airport is best to fly into — or which airport is most central? I don’t blame you. Rome has not one, but two, airports — Fiumicino (FCO) and Ciampino (CIA) — and they’re both international. So how do you decide between them?

First of all, keep in mind that you may not have to decide. If you’re coming straight from the US or Canada, your flight will land at Fiumicino. Easy.

But if you’re coming from Europe or elsewhere, you may have the option. Here’s how to decide which Rome airport is best to fly into.

Fiumicino is the main international airport (but still not huge)…

Both airports serve airlines from all over. But when people talk about Rome’s “international” airport they usually mean Fiumicino, Rome’s main international airport. If you’re flying an airline like Alitalia, American Airlines or British Airways, you’ll be coming into Fiumicino.

Still, compared to international airports like London Heathrow, Fiumicino isn’t huge. There are four terminals, three of which are in the same building; only one, Terminal 5 (which serves passengers coming from the US and Israel), requires a short shuttle bus to get to. I find the size to be nice. It’s small enough that it’s always very easy to find someone after they’ve landed (and to navigate yourself), but large enough that it has some nice shops while you’re waiting for your flight. And I don’t know about you, but I’m always glad that I don’t have to walk 30 minutes from the gate to the exit.

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What To Do in Rome When You’ve Done… Everything

What to do in Rome when you've done everything

Sometimes, I get a call from a client who needs help planning their second, third, even fourth trip to Rome. The issue isn’t that they need to know how to use Rome’s public transport, or where to eat, or whether to book the Vatican Museums in advance. What they want to know is if there’s anything to do in Rome when you’ve done… everything.

The good news: I always can help. And it’s not because I’m some kind of genius. It’s because you could spend years, even a lifetime, in Rome and never see everything the city has to offer. (I’d know). As much as it seems like you’ve checked off just about every item in your guidebook, I promise: You haven’t. There are always more fascinating, unique sights to see.

So whether you’ve already seen Rome’s main attractions — or you already have them in your itinerary and have more time to play with — here are some sights to add.

Yes, there’s much, much more to Rome than sights like the Pantheon… as beautiful as they are

Nota bene: I’m assuming you really have seen “everything in Rome” for this post, so I’m not including things that have been written about many, many times already, like the Colosseum underground, Borghese Gallery or even Basilica of San Clemente or Appian Way. My litmus test for this list was whether a visitor normally would have seen these attractions in their first three or even four trips to Rome (no!) — and whether I’d recommend that they do (yes!).

(PS: There’s so much you can do in Rome once you’ve done “everything”, this won’t be the only post like this. Stay tuned!)

What to do in Rome when you’ve done everything? Here are 10 more sights to explore:

Rome’s other “Central Park”: You’ve visited the lovely Villa Borghese and seen views of Rome from the Janiculum Hill and Garden of Oranges. What’s next? Monte Mario. Little-known to most visitors, this massive park (actually a nature reserve) is located on Rome’s highest hill just northwest of the city center — and has some extraordinary views of the city. (Also shown at top of post).

What to do in Rome when you've done everything -- Monte Mario park
Views from the little-known park of Monte Mario in Rome

The ancient world of Aventine Hill: If you’ve been reading Revealed Rome, you know I’m a big fan of ancient underground sites — and that many of them can be found beneath churches. One of my favorites, though, is the Church of Santa Sabina in the Aventine.

That’s not just because of the church’s underground, which includes 2nd-century homes and a 3rd-century shrine. It’s also because, even if you can’t access the underground (open only on pre-reserved tours), you can get a glimpse of how the ancient/early Christian world would have looked: this is one of the few churches in Rome that’s been left with its 5th-century structure largely intact.

The Church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hilla
The ancient Church of Santa Sabina on Aventine Hill: stunning and often nearly completely empty

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Is a Roma Pass Worth It?

Is a Roma Pass worth it?

“Is a Roma Pass worth it?” has to be one of the questions I get most frequently — and from those who have done a bit of extra research, that question sometimes expands to “Should I get a Roma Pass or Omnia card… or some other combined sightseeing card for Rome?”.

That question has only gotten more complicated over the years. In simpler days, Rome had one combined sightseeing pass, called the Roma Pass, for tourists who wanted to skip lines and use public transport. Now, there’s a dizzying array of options. Not only does the Roma Pass now have a 48-hour and a 72-hour version, but it has competitors: The Rome City Pass, confusingly also called the TurboPass, which includes the Vatican (but you’ll pay a premium for the addition); the Omnia Vatican & Rome card, which also includes the Vatican (but will charge you even more); and the Archaeologia Card (refreshingly bells-and-whistles free, and which focuses on Rome’s ancient archaeological sites). Though what they offer varies, all of them promise skip-the-line benefits to some of Rome’s most popular sites.

If you already feel overwhelmed by the choice, I can make it simple for you.

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The (New) Revealed Rome Guidebook Is Out!

New Rome guidebook

I couldn’t be more excited to announce that, after five years, my new Rome guidebook is out.

The original 2012 version of the Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks to the Eternal City sold thousands of copies (and got rave reviews). This book builds on that success with an in-depth update and serious expansion: It’s crammed full with more than twice as many fun, easy-to-digest tips and tricks than the previous version.

Like the previous version, the new book is not your normal “Rome guidebook”. Instead of providing information easily found elsewhere, it gives you tips and tricks to experiencing Rome like a local, including items like…

  • how to pick an authentic Roman restaurant at a glance
  • budget accommodation options you may not have considered
  • the one place to never take a taxi
  • secrets to skipping the lines at the Colosseum, the Vatican and more
  • off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods that should be on your list
  • how to eat gluten-free, vegetarian or with other dietary restrictions
  • key tips for booking (and taking) trains
  • here to find drinking water, and bathrooms, while out and about
  • how to protect yourself from pickpockets
  • the best neighborhoods in Rome for shopping

New Rome guidebook

…and much, much more. Buy it on Amazon here or by clicking the cover at left.

I’m also really excited to say that, for the first three months of publication, I’m donating a significant portion of the profits (€1/$1/£1 per book, depending on location of sale) to a cause I believe in: the American Institute for Roman Culture, a nonprofit which protects and campaigns for Rome’s cultural heritage. So if you’re thinking of buying a book, now is the time to do it!

The book comes on Amazon as an e-book which can be read on any tablet, iPhone, laptop or Kindle.

Note: Bought the book before today, and now wish you’d waited for the new version? Don’t worry: You can replace the older version with this update. If you’re using a Kindle device or app, turn on Annotations Backup to back up your notes, highlights and bookmarks. Then go to the Manage Your Content and Devices page, select “Automatic Book Update” under the Settings tab and select “On” from the dropdown menu. Your e-book automatically will be updated to the new version.

If you’d prefer to receive the book as a PDF, order it through Paypal by clicking on the button below. When I receive the order confirmation, I will e-mail you the book as a PDF. (Just be aware that this is a manual process, so can take me up to 48 hours to e-mail over).




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