My first impression of the eternal city was not the best one. I found it noisy, too much traffic and overcrowded with tourists at all the key sightseeing spots. However falling in love with Rome is a bit like appreciating a bottle of fine old wine. Older you grow, the better it tastes, the more you appreciate its ageing gnarled beauty. One way I grew to love Rome is to get up early and explore the city by foot. There’s something ethereal, almost illicit about the beauty of walking the empty streets of Rome bathed in the light of dawn. All the key sights like Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps are pretty much devoid of tourists. Beside the practical reason of avoiding Rome’s chaotic transportation system, with all the delicious gelatos and pizza you may savour, walking helps not also to reduce the guilt but possibly your waistline. Plus if you get up early, on your way back to your hostel or hotel, you’ll be in time to pick up freshly baked bread at one of the century old bakeries. Just like Romans do. My preference is Antico Forno Roscioli. They also do great pizza al taglio-by the slice. Despite being almost 2800 years, Rome has many hidden secrets like this. Below I’ve revealed the 20 best things to do in Rome on a budget, with the help of some passionate locals.
Where to eat in Rome
There are loads of resources out there both in print and online of what to eat in Rome: where to find the best Carbonara or enjoy great artisan gelato. While pizza and pasta are always top on the menu there are often many local Roman dishes that visitors overlook or don’t know about.
The Roman classic, Cacio e Pepe is a must. A good place to try this is its namesake trattoria: 1.Cacio e Pepe, an old trattoria located in Prati district (Via Giuseppe Avezzana, 11). It is composed of a small place inside and another space outside. Being a very busy place please book in advance. Another typical roman delicacy to sample is Trapizzino, a type of pizza pocket stuffed with your choice of a variety of Roman delicacies like eggplant/aubergine parmigiana. For more Roman classics is 2.Flavio Velavevodetto , especially if you are in a group and want somewhere easy to get to. Definitely visit 3.Emma near Largo Torre Argentina for their thin pizza (alla Romana) and their great suppli. ‘Alla Romana’ Yup. The Romans have their “local version” of pizza. Let me explain to you. It’s thinner and more crispy than the classic one. Lorenzo from the RomeHello is a fan of Pizzeria “Il Buchetto” in Via Flaminia.
‘If you go there you’ll find yourself immersed in a simple and authentic environment, and you’ll feel like being in the past. The business is run by a family and the service is quick and simple. If you’re a fan of fancy furniture don’t go there, but if you’d love a local experience it’s the right place for you. Ah last but not least, they don’t take reservations but usually the queue is never too long, just grab a beer while waiting…’
Lorenzo Busi, The RomeHello
For pizza ‘alla Romana’ Linda from the Beehive however prefers going to 4.Pizzeria Ostiense for a typical, bustling, noisy pizzeria; paper tablecloths; fast, friendly, casual service and thin, crispy Roman-style pizza from their woodburning oven.
Plus if you are looking to get off the beaten path , hop to the not so well known neighbourhood trattoria called 5.Da Emilio on Via Alessandria in the neighbourhood north of Termini called Porta Pia. It is family run, wood panelled place,with no tourists and great food.
PS Also checkout our updated guide to the best cheap eats in Rome
Where to drink and party in Rome
From red wine and chocolate bars to cocktail joints with mystical vibes, let go on a crawl of Rome’s best drinking spots. If you are looking to kick of your evening in style on a budget, I recommend you look for an Aperitivo bar. Aperitivo concept, which was born in Milan is pretty simple: just buy a drink from the bar and you can help yourself to a pretty sweet buffet of food that varies from bar to bar but may include some pasta, slices of pizza, sometimes mini sandwiches or some slices of salami, mortadella or cheeses. One place to sample this tradition is 6.Enoteca il Covino in the heart of Rome (Via Ostia 21) It’s basically a wine shop where not only you can get some wine to bring home with you, but you can also enjoy a nice “aperitivo” (which is just another excuse for Italians to drink more wine) for a good price. 7.Il Vinaietto across from Emma near Largo Torre Argentina is another Roman favourite for a pre-dinner drink (before going to Emma for pizza and suppli) If wine and chocolate make sense to you, pop into a converted chocolate shop in the student quarter of San Lorenzo called 8.SAID where you can get a nice glass of red wine and dark chocolate and sit on the comfy couches.
Linda from Beehive recommends 9.Al Vino Al Vino, a wine bar in the Monti neighborhood with a lot of great wine choices as well as a caponata that is to die for.
‘Freni e Frizioni is a bar in the Trastevere neighborhood that was created from a former clutch & brakes auto shop. Lots of creative cocktails on one of the funkiest menus I’ve ever seen and an excellent mostly vegetarian all you can eat buffet in the back room. Salotto 42 not too far from the Pantheon is an elegant option for a cocktails night out. ‘
Linda, The Beehive
If cocktails is your thing, escape hustle and bustle of the city and head to the 10.Sanctuary Exotic Bar (Via Delle Terme di Traiano, 4A). between Colosseum and Monti district. Surrounded by nature, soft illumination from torches and neon lights along with exotic and different flavors, this place has a spiritual and mystic vibe, where you can enjoy excellent cocktails and really lose yourself to the groove of electro house beats.
‘If you are not yet tired and feel like continuing your evening on the dance floor try 11.Lanicifio (via di Pietralata, 159A) a multifunctional space that represents the creativity of the Roman designers. A space dedicated to art and new artistic musical forms. At Lanificio Roma you can find an informal and peaceful environment, a place dedicated to people who know how to have fun.’
Pia Lauro, The Yellowsquare
After party. If you are a fan of “dive bar” then head to 12.Bar Fondi for an after dinner glass of wine or negroni where you will meet Alessandro the bartender and a bunch of other local neighbourhood characters. For partying late at night, without the hassle of the crowds and idiots, San Lorenzo is a safe choice with lots of live music (like the clubs, Le Mura or Wishlist) which are perfect for hanging around outside, drinking and chatting. There are other great live music venues throughout Rome depending on your musical tastes such as 13.Black Market in the Monti neighborhood and Quirinetta near the Trevi Fountain to name a very few. Plus if you want to party and meet fun people, definitely afield to head over to the 14.Yellow Bar of one of our featured luxury hostels, The Yellowsquare where you can sample live music, dancing, and inexpensive drinks.
15.Best walks in Rome
As I mentioned, walking in Rome, day or night for me is a pretty magical experience. That feeling of twenty centuries of history, art and beauty gazing down on you-few cities in the world can beat it. Go for a walk along Fori Imperiali on a Sunday or around Monti, one of the oldest, most picturesque neighbourhoods of Rome. Or how about a walk in the big pedestrian area downtown, not only because it has some of most beautiful monuments of the city such as St Peter Square, Colosseum, Imperial Forum, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps or the Pantheon, but also because this way it is possible to immerse yourself in the real essence of Rome.
16.The best way to get around town
Rome has the most registered number of scooters in the world. However given the congested traffic, lack of respect for traffic rules, unless you are local, is it a crazy idea to hire a Vespa? Just ask Gregory Peck , Audrey Hepburn or one of Roman locals.
‘Rome is not a city for bike lovers’ Pia argues but in the historic centre of the Eternal City, I know some well marked pedestrian areas where it is very easy to ride a bike and discover the city’s alluring alleyways. On the other hand if you love to get around town on scooter try scooter sharing company Zigzag or the electric scooters by ecooltra. All you have to do is sign up on their app but you can do it with a foreign driver’s license too and the app is in English.
‘If you’re looking for more than the bare minimum, and have experience driving a scooter, this is probably worth looking into.’
Steven Brenner, The Beehive
Tip: If you are planning to visit Rome and other cities around Italy, highly recommend 12Go to help book trains, buses or plane for all your intercity travel.
17.The best places to relax
Bursting with art galleries, century old ruins, old historic churches, Rome can be quite an overwhelming city and sometimes you might need a break to relax, rewind.
You can find your tranquility at Villa Doria Pamphilj, a historic residence that includes the largest urban public park in Rome. It is located on the Gianicolo hill (between via Aurelia Antica and via Vitellia). What is now a public park, in the past was the country residence of the Roman noble family Doria Pamphilj. This charming place offers the perfect environment if you are trying to disconnect from the chaotic life of the 21st century.
If you really need to tune out try Ryoga or Zem Yoga. Otherwise, if you feel like escaping the chaos of the city, there is a little caffe in Colle Oppio near the Colosseum or the Limonaia in the Villa Torlonia park : both are great places.
There are a number of beautiful green spots around Rome to sit in and relax. The very central Villa Borghese which overlooks one of Rome’s most overlooked museums, the Villa Giulia National Etruscan museum is an excellent spot. The Villa Celimontana near the Colosseum and the Villa Torlonia about 20 minutes walk north of Rome’s central train station Termini.
18.What is the best viewpoint in the city?
Rome with a view? My favourite view is the terrace of Viale del Belvedere of Villa Borghese. For Lorenzo, from his adolescence, the best viewpoint in the city has to be “Lo Zodiaco” at Monte Mario. Going there on a clear night with all those city lights and the stars shining in the sky was something really magical for him.
Linda and Steve on the other hand think the best viewpoint in the city is the Pincio, above Piazza del Popolo, or from the top of St. Peter’s dome. I also recommend grabbing a drink at one of the rooftop terraces of many of Rome’s 5-star hotels. The views are breathtaking and you don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy them.
19.Unusual things to do in Rome
A city as ancient as human civilisation, you would think this city would hardly have any secrets to bear but this city still has the ability to surprise. The Acquario Romano is a building which houses the Casa dell’Architettura and is situated in a lovely green and quiet small park with lots of benches. It is about a 5-minute walk from Termini train station. At the busy, bustling roundabout that is Piazza Venezia is the Palazzo Venezia. It has an inner courtyard which blocks out all the sound of the traffic and where you simply hear the water from the fountain and birds. It is a lovely “secret spot” in the middle of the city. The Chiostro del Bramante is a building tucked away near Piazza Navona and is a beautiful, calm spot to get a coffee or other kind of drink or something to eat as they have a cafe and although they host a lot of popular exhibits there now so it’s less “secret” during those times. Another ‘secret place’ is actually one of the most crowded and central places in Rome: Piazza della Rotonda. Hundreds of people pass every day and stand before the majestic facade of the Pantheon. This crowded place is where Pia used to spend most of my days in the first period after I moved to Rome. If you stop to look at the details of the Pantheon you get trapped by its beauty making the lazing and the noise around suddenly disappears, transforming such a busy place into an intimate and peaceful one.
Steve has no secret spots he argues since he shares all with his guests. However there are some that he likes to surprise people with. For example, he likes to go into the neighbourhood of Monti and then take people up a set of stairs through an ivy covered wall to Saint Peter’s in Chains and show them Michelangelo’s Moses. He also likes to duck into Santa Maria degli Angeli at Piazza della Repubblica which has a gorgeous, enormous interior that you’d never expect from the unassuming facade. He also loves showing people the 2,000 year old trash dump of the Monte dei Cocci from the glass windows inside Flavio Velavevodetto in Testaccio. There’s also restaurants that have ancient Rome underneath them, such as in Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo where you can ask them to turn on the lights and go see how their wine cellar is thousands of years old.
I’d say there isn’t any one secret destination but loads of secret, or easily overlooked curiosities along the way if you know the city well.
Steven Brenner, The Beehive
Finally, do visit the tip of Tiberina Island. You just have to go down to river level and walk to the end of the island (be careful, it’s a tight passage). If you sit there with a beer and close your eyes you’ll feel like you’re on the prow of a ship, with the water flowing right beneath your feet. That’s why they call this place “le Polene” which were the vessel’s figureheads in the past.