destinations, resources, saving money, travel tips

How to Save Big Money in Rome

While planning a European trip to a different destination, I was recently contacted by a fellow magazine editor¬†asking about money-saving tips for her upcoming trip to Rome. I realized I hadn’t shared much about my time in Rome. Although it was over three years ago, I spent nearly three weeks there and have a lot to say about it! So instead of just telling her how to save on her trip, I thought I’d share my tips with everyone!

See the Free Sights

You don’t have to pay admission to see beautiful and historic masterpieces. Rome has many piazzas, each worth exploring. Even for attractions you have to pay for (such as the Colosseum and Castel Sant’Angelo), you can still get pretty good views from the exterior. Here are a few of my favorite free sights:

Trevi Fountain Restoration, Rome, Italy
The Trevi Fountain was undergoing restoration while I was there, so they set up a little pool so we could still make our wishes and throw coins.

Trevi Fountain: Technically this isn’t entirely free since you’re supposed to throw two coins in. (I tossed in two one-cent coins to make it as cheap as possible!) But this is definitely one of the must-see Italian statues.

scala sancta rome italy
People praying their way up the Scala Sancta

Scala Sancta: This “Holy Staircase” was imported from Jerusalem and believed to belong to Pontius Pilate. Jesus Christ would have walked these steps several times on the day of his crucifixion. Tradition is to pray as you climb these steps on your knees, and anyone is invited to participate.

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy
Just a few steps of the entire staircase… it’s huge!

Spanish Steps: No matter how exhausted I was, it was always worth climbing the massive Spanish steps. This is also a good place to sit, eat a snack, and people watch. Being a popular tourist area, you can hear many languages spoken and get a glimpse of all the stunts put on for tourists (“floating” people, rose selling, etc.)

Bocca Della Verita
Close call with the Bocca Della Verita

Bocca Della Verita: The “Mouth of Truth” is an ancient piece of art that supposedly bites off the hands of liars. When I stuck my hand in, I said: “you will bite my hand now”. I think it was too confused to know what to do.

Villa Borghese Map, Roma Italia
So much to do… and I love that the park is heart-shaped!

Villa Borghese: This giant park definitely has some fun things you can pay for. I ended up renting a Segway here. But it’s also a good place to have a picnic, overlook the city, and go up to the zoo entrance. (The zoo has an admission fee, but they have a few free displays before the ticketed area.)

Stay in a Hostel

You can get a downtown hostel for around 20 euro, depending on location and time of year. I ended up staying in three hostels during my time in Rome. I wasn’t thrilled with the first one. I loved the second one but it was small and only had a few days of availability. I finally settled into the third one. Since hostels can be so diverse, make sure to carefully read the reviews on a website like Hostelz.com.¬†(Fun fact: I wrote the description for Italy and many of the Italian destinations on that website!)

Try to get a reasonably-priced hostel that includes breakfast to save even more money. Breakfast can include a lot of things, such as breads, spreads, juice, and croissants, but my favorite hostel breakfast treat was cookies. Yes, they have cookies for breakfast! While you’ll want to eat out at least a few times in Rome, it’s also an experience in itself to visit a grocery store like the locals. See what kinds of things the other shoppers buy, and then head to your hostel’s kitchen to try your hand at an authentic Italian meal!

Walk

Walking by Tiber River, Rome, Italy
Carrying a backpack meant I could spend the whole day out and about, like walking along the Tiber River

Rome has a subway system, but not one worth getting excited over. Due to the buried historical artifacts under Rome’s surface, it would require too much expensive excavation to build a subway that takes you everywhere you want to go. I only rode Rome’s subway once (and only because someone handed me a free ticket), and it was overly crowded. Street traffic and taxi prices are even worse.

What’s a better solution? Walking! Most Rome sights are all within a few miles of each other. As you walk from one place to another, you’ll likely find dozens of other interesting stopping points along the way. Some ancient artifacts and ornate architecture are just casually located throughout the city.

Go to Church

Pope Francis in the Vatican
The closest I got to meeting Pope Francis

When in Rome, it doesn’t matter if you normally go to church. Going to church here is a must-do. Of course, you’ll have to visit the Vatican, the world’s smallest country and headquarters of Catholicism that just so happens to be encased inside Rome. When the Pope is in town, he speaks on Wednesdays and Sundays. Go to both if you can, as they are different experiences. When the Pope’s not speaking, go inside St. Peter’s Basilica. You could spend hours there! Vatican City also offers admission-based activities such as climbing to the top of the Basilica (take the stairs to save on the elevator fare) and the Vatican Museums (plan an entire day here and don’t just visit the Sistine Chapel!)

Outside of the Vatican, there are still plenty of other churches that are worth stepping into. They’re all open most of the day to visitors, and can be a welcome cooling-off point during warm months. I made a point to stop inside every church I passed, and I was never disappointed.

Although most churches in Rome are Catholic with services held in Italian, I did end up attending a Sunday morning Protestant service held in English. In fact, it turned out that the pastor was from Oregon like me! Rome Baptist Fellowship is a centrally-located international gathering of travelers, expatriates, and even locals gathering together, which was a fun experience.

Stop at the Palatino

Palatino, Rome, Italy
I spent at least as much time at the Palatino as I did at the Colosseum- so much to walk right up to!

This is more of a time-saver than a money-saver, but you want to make your time in Rome count! Don’t wait in a long line to buy a ticket at the Colesseum. Instead, head over to the Palatino, an attraction in its own right lurking in the shadows of the more famous attraction. Buy a ticket and enjoy the sights there, and then head over to the Colesseum and skip the line there. Tickets are good for both attractions, but for some strange reason, many people skip the Palatino.

Tour with Rick Steves

Rick Steves Audio Tour, Jewish Ghetto, Rome, Italy
With Rick Steves coming through my ear buds, even this street sign in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto had an interesting history behind it!

If you like guided group tours, Rick Steves probably has the best ones out there. I prefer to travel solo, but Rick Steves still played a major role in much of my European travel. If you download the free app, you can access tons of audio tours and more advice for your travels. In Rome, I took audio tours through places like the Jewish Ghetto, the Colesseum, Heart of Rome, and Trastevere, just to name a few. I discovered a lot of interesting things I would never have noticed on my own.

At night, I would often fall asleep in my hostel dorm with my earbuds in, listening to Rick Steves tell a story about one of his European adventures or interviewing another travel expert. It made me excited to wake up the next morning and explore Rome more!

Eat the Lunch Specials

Italian Pasta in Trastavere, Rome
Course 2…

I was told by multiple people to go to the Trastevere area for lunch. Or, if you like eating dinner at an American time (like 5) instead of an Italian hour (like 9), lunch specials can still apply. At most of the restaurants in this part of town, you pay a fixed price and then get to choose what food you want for each of the three courses off a special menu.

Trastevere is an interesting part of town not for its famous attractions, but because you can get a taste of what life in Rome is really like. Burn off your lunch calories with a walk around these cobblestone streets. Since it’s located on the Tiber River, walk along there too. There are sometimes special events along the river, such as a Nutella street fair that I happened to find there! That resulted in a free Nutella snack that I saved for another meal!

To save money at nearly any meal, drink water! And not the bottled kind. Rome has safe drinking fountains throughout the city where you can fill up for free.

Eat Gelato

Fassi Gelato, Rome, Italy
Move over, Baskin Robbins with your 31 flavors… there were so many unique flavors at Fassi!

You can’t go to Italy without indulging in gelato. It was a great snack, dessert, or sometimes even a meal-on-the-go! My favorite gelateria was called Fassi. It’s a little ways away from most tourist attractions, so the price is lower and you know you’re getting the real deal. A hostel roommate introduced me to this place, and in return, I introduced several more roommates. Now I’d like to introduce everyone to Fassi!

Another Italian treat you must try in Rome is tiramisu. For both gelato and tiramisu, I’d recommend seeking out a dessert at least once a day and trying a new flavor each time!

save big money in rome

Thinking back to my time in Rome is making me realize that despite spending a few weeks there, I left so much of it unexplored! Do you have any money-saving suggestions that I missed? Help my friend out by leaving them in the comments!

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Bucket List, culture, destinations, faith

Hipster Pope

My sister constantly tells me that I’m not a hipster, and can’t even begin to understand “her” type. But with my Facebook feed and online news feed blowing up with people analyzing what the Pope said while visiting the United States, even she will have to admit I’m “hipster” in at least one way.

I saw Pope Francis before it was cool!

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I didn’t necessarily start the trend. On the contrary, I was just one of tens of thousands. I didn’t even realize that the Pope was coming to America until just a few days before he left for Cuba. But I saw him a week before anyone in the USA did. All I had to do was go to The Vatican.

I first learned about Vatican City when I was in sixth grade. The religious connotations didn’t matter much to me at the time, but I made it my goal to someday go to the world’s smallest nation. When I got to Rome three weeks ago, the person checking me in asked, “do you want to see the Pope?” Um, sure! I hadn’t really thought of that as feasible, but she told me that all I had to do was show up at the Vatican on Wednesday morning.

So when Wednesday morning came, I excitedly walked all the way across the city and entered the fifth country of my Mediterranean Trek. When I got there, the event was already in progress. I’m not sure it it’s officially considered a mass, but there was singing, Bible reading, and a couple people spoke, one of whom was Pope Francis himself. I got my bag searched at the country’s entrance (which I learned when I returned another day is not an everyday thing, it’s just for the Pope’s safety when he’s so close to so many people), and I found a good place to stand. If you make a reservation ahead of time, you can get a seat that’s a little bit closer. But the standing room was nice and open, and there were jumbotrons so that you could see everything that was happening onstage.

After the service, most people left, but none of the Vatican’s attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or the temporary exhibit, opened up, and security was still tight. I decided to stick around to see if something else would happen. Over an hour later, one of the seating sections was emptied out and some of the rowdy, Argentina-national-anthem-chanting crowd had moved there, so I got up closer to the basilica, too. Finally, Papa Francesco appeared again and waved at us all as he rode away. Soon after, the Basilica entrance opened up, and I was able to walked by the stage and see the chair where Pope Francis had sat that morning.

This is a weekly occurrence every Wednesday morning. Just a day or so later, I switched to another Rome hostel. Someone there told me that the Pope also gives a message every Sunday that he’s in town. It wasn’t as formal as Wednesday, but rather just a 15-minute speech given from his window. That sounded interesting! So on Sunday, I walked back to the Vatican. Since I guess his window is far enough to make it difficult for assassins, there was no bag check at the border this time. It was also less crowded, and the seated section was closed off since you couldn’t really see the window anywhere but from the standing area. I wasn’t really sure which window he would appear at, but a few minutes before the scheduled time, someone opened a window and hung a banner out of it. Right on time, Papa Francesco appeared, waving back to the thousands of people below!

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As he spoke, I took pictures of him in his window and got a better look from the jumbotrons (to make sure it really was him), but didn’t really listen to the message. One benefit that the Americans had over me is that they could hear him speak in English, which doesn’t happen in the Vatican! I am very limited when it comes to Italian, mostly just knowing food words, but all I really know is that Pope Francis was not telling us what he was going to eat for lunch! He spoke very eloquently and didn’t really use any simple words that I could make out. Sometimes people would cheer about what he was saying. I wasn’t sure what to do. Had he said something that I would also cheer for, or did he say something that was completely against my personal beliefs? I don’t really know for sure, but just having the rare opportunity to see the world’s most famous living religious leader was amazing!

I went to Vatican City two other times. While there, I enjoying the country’s other offerings, like climbing to the top of the cupola, straining my neck to admire the Sistine Chapel, and seeing a museum featuring many past Popemobiles. These were all great experiences, but there was something extra special about being there with the Pope! My last full day in Rome was a Sunday, but sadly, Papa Francesco had already made his way to Cuba. I attended an international English-speaking Baptist church that morning instead, and after the service when I headed over to the Vatican for one last goodbye, the nation was eerily empty.

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I’m not Catholic so I obviously don’t support everything that the Pope says or does. But I am a Christian and I think that he and I have a few of the most important beliefs in common. But I didn’t write this post to make any political statement. Besides, like I said, I really don’t know what he was talking about in the two occasions I visited him. All I know is that I got to see Pope Francis before most other Americans, and that makes me pretty hipster!

Have you ever seen the Pope, whether it was recently in America, previously in Italy, or even just on TV? What European celebrity would you like to meet?