First time in Rome: what no one told me

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Italy always topped our bucket list, it was the destination we chose to start our first European trip and celebrate my grad school graduation. Some of our friends visited a few weeks before us, and came back swearing it was their first and last time in the country. 

Needless to say, expectations were very low when we finally hopped on that plane to Europe. 

Yet, Rome and all the other cities we visited, did not disappoint. It actually became one of our favorite trips thus far, and we cannot wait to go back and explore more. Today, I’m eager to share what we learned during our time exploring Rome. I hope it can help you prepare and get some inspiration for your first time in Rome!

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” – Giuseppe Verdi

Giardino degli Aranci (Oranges garden) was one of our favorite spots

Most likely you won’t find this spot when searching for top things to do in Rome. We found out about it only because we asked the locals for the best non-touristy attractions. It’s a small and simple garden, a few miles from the most popular landmarks. The park is situated in the Aventi hill, which you will need to climb in order to get there. 

From here you can appreciate stunning views of the city, including the Tiber River. We visited around sunset time, and noticed that mainly locals frequent the park. There was an artist playing the guitar and a wedding photoshoot going on…A very romantic and calming atmosphere!

The garden is supposed to be full of oranges in the winter time, but there were not many when we visited in June. Still worth the time spent to get there and to find a taxi to go back to the hotel. 

Lianet from The L Axis seating in the Giardino degli Aranci (Oranges garden) in Rome. Panoramic views of Rome in the background. Outfit Idea for Rome in the summer.
Couple selfie in Giardino degli Aranci (Oranges garden) in Rome, featuring views of the city. A great place to relax in the city.
Selfie from Giardino degli Aranci

Parla Inglese?” goes a long way

Contrary to popular belief, Italians are NOT rude! We found exceptional customer service everywhere we went. Every taxi driver, ticket clerk, waiter and local person we interacted with was gracious, professional, helpful, and friendly. However, we always tried to approach them in Italian, even though we only know a few words. I do believe it was highly appreciated, which is fair and understandable. 

Try starting your conversation with “buongiorno!” and be open to the fact that some cultures (including Americans) are just way too polite. After all, we travel to experience someone else’s culture; that’s the beauty of it all! I despise stereotypes; you can always find harsh people all over the world, and the real problem is usually tourists. 

You do not need a car in Rome

Traffic in Rome is insane, especially in the historical center where streets are tight and with no traffic lights or pavement marks. If that’s not enough to scare you, we also saw many scooters, moving in all directions (and at all speeds).

If you stay in a central area, you won’t need a car. We stayed at Hotel 87th, a few blocks from the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps. This is a great area to choose if you want to be walking distance from most popular attractions. It is also very easy to get a taxi if you are planning to venture further out. But don’t be afraid to walk, bring comfortable shoes and get lost. This is a great city to wander, especially at night, which brings me to my next point. 

One of the narrow streets in Rome, showing the beautiful old architecture of the city and cars lined up along the street. Driving is hard in Rome!
One of the narrow streets in Rome – you can get an idea of how hard driving can be!

Rome is beautiful (and less crowded) at night

Rome is beautifully lit at night.  I highly doubt you’ll regret an evening walk in the Eternal City.

We saw the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain and the endless plazas at night. They are all considerably less crowded during this time of the day. 

One of our favorite memories from this trip is walking all the way from our hotel to the Colosseum at night. Temperatures were a lot more pleasant and colors were as magical as captured in this photo.

When initially planning the trip, I wanted to have dinner at the rooftop terrace of the Michelin starred AROMA restaurant. It is located across the street from the Colosseum…but I am glad there were no reservations available! You do not need a fancy restaurant to have a great dinner and an unparalleled Colosseum view. There are a few small mom and pop restaurants all around the building, just pick one and have an experience you will forever cherish. Pizza always tastes better when you are in Rome!

Selfie in front of the Roman Colosseum at night, one of the best times of the day to visit the attraction. Magic blue and gold colors.
And here is another selfie (one of my favorite ones – ever!)

If you prefer a guided night tour, here are some great options:

The Trevi fountain is overcrowded (and overrated) 

I am sure you’ve seen perfect photos featuring an empty Trevi Fountain. That’s a sight HARD to get. It is not a secret, the Trevi fountain is overcrowded, and in my opinion, overrated. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed a beautiful fountain, full of history (and full of people in case that’s not obvious by now). We were able to squeeze into a corner to throw our coins, wishing for a return to Rome. Yet, this is not an experience we would likely repeat. Again, way too many tourists! I’ve connected with a few Italian friends on Instagram after starting The L Axis, and they’ve confirmed it…the only time it has been empty was during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. 

Personally, I don’t think waking up at 5 AM to capture the “perfect photo” is worth it. The Trevi fountain undoubtedly is a unique background, but there are many attractive and less popular fountains all over the city. If visiting at night, beware of the “night photographers” selling you the best capture of you and the monument. We were scammed and ended up with a photo of us and a completely dark background…we live and we learn! 

Not the best video of the Trevi Fountain, but I’m leaving it here…just in case you don’t believe me when I say “too many tourists!” – PS: find Robert & let me know if you see him in the comments 🙂 HAHA

Nothing is free (roses, bracelets, etc)

Rome, like most major cities around the world, is home to some quite annoying street sellers. Most people targeting tourists are genuinely working to sell their merchandise, but there are many who are just trying to scam you. 

On several occasions we were approached by vendors trying to establish conversation by asking ice breaker questions (“where are you from?”, “where did you get your shoe?”, etc). 

The problem? These people are kind of aggressive, before you know it, you’re wearing a “free” bracelet in your wrist—even without your permission. If you try to give it back, they will insist “no, it’s a gift!” A sob-story to try to get some money from you comes right after. If you refuse to “donate” you’ll be followed around until you do…or until you end up screaming—like we did (did I mention we are Cubans?). 

How to avoid the scam:

We fell in this trap simply because we wanted to be polite! However, after we saw how the game went, we decided ignoring the scammer was the best way to get out. This might seem simple, but I understand how it could be hard for some people. Just completely blank the person! If this doesn’t work, then take the Cuban approach. 

The Vatican is worth a visit, but buy a skip the line ticket

 I highly recommend you visit the Vatican if you have enough time. As I’ve mentioned before, we are not museum people, but this is a must-do. Vatican City is not only an independent country, but it is also the smallest in the world (one eight the size of Central Park). The St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and all of the museums are impressive, even if you’re not religious, they are a real work of art. 

Now, there are two things I would highly recommend:

  1. Buy a skip the line guided tour (preferably an early entrance ticket). The line to access the museums and chapels is LONG and it gets packed. We bought the First Entry Vatican Tour with Sistine Chapel tour from the Roman Guy and it was worth every penny. Here are some other popular options for every budget:

2. Make sure you wear the right outfit. Your shoulders and knees must be covered, this applies to both men and women (men are enforced to wear pants). I ended up buying a scarf to cover my shoulders because it was too hot to wear sleeves all day long. This is always an option.

Portrait in front of the Vatican City, showing the huge line to access the Vatican, and a crowd of people leaving the building.
I can’t find a photo of the line to enter the Vatican, but if you look closely, that crowd on the right is a portion of the line. It went all around the block.

For the ladies: carry toilet paper & hand sanitizer in your purse

From my experience in the city, let’s say that the bathroom situation can be interesting, and toilet paper and soap is not always available in the public ones. Before you leave your hotel, make sure to grab some and carry it around with you. I would recommend you bring some hand sanitizer as well.

If you are someone who has to “go” all the time, you could download the Flush app, which I mentioned in my post about the best free travel apps. It will allow you to find the closest bathroom within seconds. 

Another thing I do when looking for a bathroom: if I am near a hotel, I ask for permission to use their restroom (these are usually well equipped). If you don’t want to ask, just walk in like you are staying on the property and then find the bathroom that is usually located in their lobby. You could also buy something from a coffee shop (these are called bars in Italy) and use their facility.

There are cold water fountains everywhere, but water is not free in the restaurants

I was surprised to see there were nasoni everywhere in the city. These are little cold water fountains, which are free and safe to use. As long as there’s no sign that states “Aqua non Potabile” you will be fine. I did some research, and there are around 2,500 nasoni all over Rome distributing the drinking water. Just what you need to stay hydrated during your trip! You can even refill your own water bottle at every corner. 

While there is free drinking water all over the city, you have to pay for water at the restaurants. This is something I found very contradicting. Not a big deal since the bottles are usually around €1 – €2, but still, for those of us coming from the US, this will be a surprise. We are used to being served water free of charge in most, if not all, restaurants.

Photo of a nasone, one of the many fountains delivering COLD & FREE drinking water around the city
This is a nasone, one of the many fountains delivering COLD & FREE drinking water around the city

Tips are not expected, but appreciated

Another thing that highlights the cultural difference in Rome and all of Italy is their tipping habits. Turns out tips are not expected in Italy and there is actually no space for adding a tip on a credit card bill. However, if service was good, we always made sure to tip, and it was greatly appreciated.

We also noticed that we were charged for bread at restaurants—even if we did not ask for it. We did not mind it because it was always delicious, but bread that is brought to your table without requesting it is free in the US. I’ve read you can just refuse it if you don’t want to be charged.

Another thing that caught our attention is how close the tables are set up in the restaurants. We were often sitting within less than half a meter from the next table. Let’s talk about maximizing space! It will be interesting to see if that changes after the COVID-19 pandemic.

I hope you enjoyed reading what we learned in Rome, and that you find it useful. If so, don’t forget to pin it for future reference, just hover over any of the images above.

What did you learn during a trip to a different country? Let me know below!

2 thoughts on “First time in Rome: what no one told me

  1. The video made me laugh hahahaha!
    This is such a helpful post. I hope to go to Europe one day and travel around by train so I’ll definitely be keeping your suggestions and tips in mind!

    1. Haha! I’m glad I found that video, it was in my old phone…but it’s a gem!
      Thank you, Caitlin, glad you found it helpful. You should definitely travel around by train. I will talk about our experience flying around Europe on my next post…for now let’s say I will always regret not taking the trains!

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