One of the great things about Rome is that once you’ve covered your accommodation costs you can do the Dolce Vita for relatively little. Romans are very good at living beyond their means and making not very much money go a long way. Armed with up-to-date local knowledge, and some flexibility about where and when you take your meals, it’s easy for visitors to do the same. Below are some of my tips for getting the most out of Rome on a tight budget.
- Golden Rule #1: in bars and cafés, table-service prices are generally at least double what you pay if you stand at the bar. Do as the locals do: knock back that cappuccino and cornetto (sweet croissant) on your feet, then move on.
- Golden Rule #2: in Italy, a carafe of house wine will almost always be cheaper than two draught beers.
- Golden Rule #3: if you’re looking to save by doing a snack or picnic meal once a day, make it dinner rather than lunch. The reason? Many restaurants, especially in areas with high concentrations of office workers, offer competitively-priced all-inclusive lunch menus at anything between 10 euros and 20 euros a head. In the evening, you can expect to pay double that in the same establishment for more or less the same food.
- Golden Rule #4: yes, you can drink the water (it’s actually a darn sight better than what comes out of the taps in most parts of London). Most Roman mains water comes from a huge underground lake in the Appenine mountains. It’s clean, refreshingly low on chlorine, and free – so bring your own bottles or flasks to fill up, and save on pricey (and environmentally unfriendly) acqua minerale.
- Golden Rule #5: unless you’ve been bowled over by the exceptional service, don’t waste money on 10 per cent or even 12 per cent tips. A Roman would never leave more than 5 per cent, and waiters don’t expect any more than this. In cheaper establishments, it’s perfectly okay just to round up to the nearest euro or two.
The under-5 euro lunch
Could there be a more Roman meal than gourmet pizza from a wood fired oven followed by homemade gelato? If you don’t mind eating on the move, there are some great takeaway pizza places and ice-cream emporiums in Rome’s historic centre. The following are my personal favourites:
- Roscioli Forno (Via dei Chiavari 34). They serve up slabs of oven-fresh pizza with various toppings. Pricing is by weight; 2.50 euros will get you a lunch-sized slab. They also do pasta, rice, frittata, vegetables and other hot treats, also sold by weight - a small mixed plate will be in the 5 euro range. Don’t by the way confuse this bakery outlet with the high-end deli-restaurant just around the corner run by the same family firm.
- Forno Campo de’ Fiori (Campo de’ Fiori 22). This bakery right on picturesque Campo de’ Fioro has been feeding hungry locals and tourists for decades. My favourite is the ‘fiori di zucca’ pizza, with mozzarella and courgette flowers. Again, 2.50 euros should be enough for a filling slab. Note that they also have an outlet at number 14 (separated from the main shop by Via dei Cappellari) where they do filled pizza bianca (foccaccia) and cakes. The main shop closes from 2.30pm-4.45pm, whereas the no.14 branch stays open all day.
- Da Remo (Via Pie' di Marmo 32). Not to be confused with the Da Remo in Testaccio, this is a simple pizza rustica (take away pizza place) run by a slightly grumpy old guy who makes great, classic tray pizza. I love the one with cherry tomatoes and basil. In school term come before 1.30pm as that's when the place gets invaded by hungry teenagers from the nearby Visconti high school.
- Alberto Pica (Via della Seggiola 12). I can’t get enough of the riso alla cannella (cinammon-flavoured rice) ice-cream at this old-school Roman gelateria just off busy, tram-clogged Via Arenula. A small cone with up to three flavours will set you back just 1.50 euros – and there are four green plastic benches outside where you can sit without paying the extra for table service.
- Gelateria Del Teatro (Via di San Simone 70). It’s worth seeking out this hidden gem (just head Vatican-wards along Via dei Coronari from Piazza Navona until you see the sign on the left). All the ingredients are fresh and natural, and alongside the usual standards they also do delicious ‘dessert’ flavours like pears in red wine or Vecchia Roma, which translates into ice-cream form a classic Roman Jewish dessert featuring ricotta and wild cherries. A good-sized cone with up to three flavours will cost no more than 2 euros.
The 10 euros dinner for two (with wine)
- Head for Freni e Frizioni (Via del Politeama 4/6) on the Tiber-side road in Trastevere. Between 7.30pm and 9pm this funky evening-only bar does a huge aperitivo spread featuring cold pasta and rice salad, tabbouleh, frittata (rather like a Spanish omelette), focaccia, cheese, and other gourmet nibbles. It’s free: in order to earn the right to take a plate and pile it high all you need to do is buy a drink – for example, a 5 euros glass of Chardonnay or Nero d’Avola wine.
- Public transport is one of the few things in Rome that is cheap compared to most other European cities. Single tickets, valid for 75 minutes on any combination of bus, tram and metro routes, cost just 1 euro. You can cut costs by investing in a daily, three-day or weekly pass, but do the maths before you commit: to make the daily pass worthwhile, for example, you need to make five or more separate journeys. For information on bus passes, see my How to get around Rome page.
- Time taxi journeys to end before 10pm or start after 7am, as between these times a 3 euro nocturnal surcharge applies.
- Rome bus company ATAC is offering a special spring 2010 price of 15 euros rather than 20 euros for a 24-hour ticket on its number 110 hop-on, hop-off tourist bus: go to www.trambusopen.com and print out the coupon, then present it when you board the bus to claim your discount.
- If it’s getting too hot in the city, take the train up the coast to Santa Marinella, a pretty, low-key resort that spreads out around a Medieval castle on the beach. Trains leave every half hour between 8.39 and 10.09 from Roma Termini, the journey takes around an hour, and the return fare is just 8.20 euros. The train also stops at Roma Tuscolana, Ostiense, Trastevere and San Pietro. For timetable information, go to www.trenitalia.com.
- Roma Pass (www.romapass.it) is a Rome City Council all-in-one, three-day tourist discount card that currently costs 25 euros. It gets you into two state-run or city-run museums or archaeological sites for free, gives you discounted entry to the others that participate in the scheme, and offers free travel on the city’s buses, metro and city trains. (Note that the Vatican Museums are not included on the pass.)
- Despite a price hike in February 2010, the Roma Pass is still definitely worth buying if cultural sightseeing is high on your list of priorities and you’re planning to use Rome’s public transport network fairly extensively during your stay. To get the most out of the pass, you should:
- use your two free entrances for the most expensive sights you’re planning to visit. The two front-runners on most people's lists will be: 1) the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine (entrance would normally cost 12 euros for a combined ticket, which counts as one free entrance on the Roma Pass) and 2) the Villa Borghese (entrance would normally cost from 8.50 euros to 13.50 euros depending on whether there is an exhibition on). These must be the first two sights you visit on the card.
- make the most of the free public transport offer, which includes all city buses (but not the blue long-distance COTRAL coaches) and metro lines, and trains on the Roma-Lido line from Piramide – great if you’re heading for the beach or the magnificent archaeological site of Ostia Antica.
- remember that the pass runs out, for both sights and transport, on midnight of the third day, so you’ll get more out of it if you start using it in the morning (it’s valid not from when you buy it, but from the day it’s first stamped at a museum or in an on-board bus, metro or tram ticket machine).
- The only other Roman tourist discount card that is currently worth investing in is the Archaeologia Card. Designed for those with a serious interest in Ancient Rome, this card costs 23 euros (12 euros concessions) and gives free entrance to the Colosseum, the Palatine, all four Museo Nazionale Romano museums, the Baths of Caracalla, and two Appian Way monuments, the Villa dei Quintili and the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. It can be bought at any of the sites on the circuit, or online at www.pierreci.it.
- During the Settimana della Cultura (Culture Week) in April, all state-run museums and galleries are free, cultural sites and villas that are normally off-limits to the public throw open their doors, and one-off events and exhibitions are organised. Dates for 2010 are 16-25 April. For information: www.beniculturali.it (the Italian Heritage Ministry website – typically, available only in Italian).
- The Vatican Museums – which include the Sistine Chapel – are free on the last Sunday of every month (entrance from 9am-12.30pm; museums close 2pm). But be prepared for crowds, especially inside the Chapel.
- Always carry official photo ID with you when sightseeing if you qualify for any of the many ‘free entrance’ categories for municipal and state-run museums and sights. The main free entrance category is EU citizens under 18 or over 65 (those in the 18 to 25 age bracket pay a reduced rate). There are, however, several other categories that get in free whatever their age – including journalists, artists, teachers and students of art, architecture, and archaeology, and those registered as disabled – but again, in all these cases, only with official proof of status. (Though in the Capitoline Museums recently, my 20-year-old daughter got in for 2 euros just by saying she was an archaeology student, without being asked to show any ID - so it's always worth trying!)
There are also several fiendishly complex free-entrance concessions regarding non-EU citizens – like Kazakhs under the age of five, or Chilean under-18s (but only if there are at least 15 of them!). To see a complete list, download the following pdf file: http://www.romapass.it/doc/NormativeENG.pdf.
Outside of the Settimana della Cultura (see above), when all municipal and state museums are free, sightseeing destinations you don’t have to pay for include:
- All Roman churches, even St Peter’s and the Pantheon (this may be a Roman temple, but it’s also a consecrated place of Christian worship). Charges may be made for special sections within some churches, like the excavations in the basement of San Clemente.
- The Protestant Cemetery or Cimitero Acattolico (Via Caio Cestio 6). This lovely spot, where English poets Keats and Shelley are buried, does not charge admission, though as it’s entirely volunteer-run, a donation of at least 2 euros is very much appreciated. Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm.
- The gloomy Mamertine Prison near the Forum where, legend has it, Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated.
- Private art galleries, including the recently-opened Gagosian Gallery (Via Francesco Crispi 16), which puts on world-class shows.
- There are even a few free concerts on offer if you know where to look – for example, the performances of sacred music organised by the Vatican’s Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra (check the programme at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/sacmus/documents/rc_ic_sacmus_novae_it.html). And at the church of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine hill, Benedictine monks sing exquisite, ethereal Gregorian Chants at the Sunday vespers service, which starts at 7.15pm.