Many European destinations pose a challenge to budget travelers, and Rome is no exception. The capital city of Italy, Rome has been described as one of the birthplaces of Western civilization, and it is one of my favorite cities in the world. The Eternal City is expensive to visit but incredibly worth it. It is possible to enjoy Rome on a limited budget. Here’s how I do it:
Once you’re in Rome, your biggest expense is likely to be your accommodations. Hotels are very pricey, so it’s best to seek out other options. On my last trip to Rome, I stayed in a private apartment found on Airbnb. It was very comfortable, and my host was incredibly gracious. You can also check out Homeaway for private rentals. Other options include Hostelworld (not just for backpackers!) and Booking.com, which often lists bed and breakfasts and smaller independent hotels.
Stay in Trastevere.
I was initially wary of staying in the college town-like neighborhood of Trastevere because of its location across the river from the center; I thought it might be too far from the action. Rome, however, is a very walkable city, and the apartment I stayed in was right on the bank of the river, so it hardly made a difference (except to my wallet). It was no trouble at all to cross the bridge and enter the heart of the city. In doing so, I saved a significant amount of money. Trastevere is a popular destination in its own right and has great nightlife — so it turned out to be the perfect spot. Don’t assume you have to stay around the corner from the Colosseum to enjoy Rome. It’s worth getting to know its many neighborhoods.
Enjoy Rome’s famous landmarks for free.
Surprisingly, many of Rome’s most famous attractions, landmarks and historic sites are actually free. The Trevi Fountain, for instance, is located within a small enclosed piazza — there’s no charge to see it except for the coin you may want to toss into its waters; supposedly those who do so are destined to return (it worked for me!).
The Pantheon is one of the first historic monuments I saw when I first visited Rome in 2006. I had just arrived less than an hour before and was following my new study-abroad classmates through a haze of jet lag to a cafe for some espresso. I rounded a corner into the Piazza della Rotonda, and there it was: The sight of the Pantheon was like a smack in the face. I was not expecting to see the gigantic and beautiful building in such a relatively small space, squeezed between more modern (but still very old) buildings. It still takes my breath away every time I am lucky enough to be in Rome and standing before it. After a few moments, you may be curious to enter — and you can do so for free.
Many sites that normally charge for entrance also have designated free days. The Vatican Museum, for example, is open to the public free of charge during certain morning hours on the last Sunday of each month.
Skip the additional fees for guided tours.
Every ticket office will also offer guided tours for an additional fee. Get a similar guided experience without paying a dime by downloading one of Rick Steve’s free audio tour podcasts. I followed the famous guidebook author’s footsteps through the Roman Forum and learned much more than I would have on my own, without actually paying for a tour. He also offers free podcasts for sites like the Colosseum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and a few notable Roman neighborhoods.
Grab pizza by the slice for lunch.
My significant other came with me on my last trip to Rome. As a foodie who’d never been to Italy, he was excited to experience Rome’s culinary offerings and wanted to research every restaurant we’d dine at to make sure we were only going to eat the best and most authentic food. While I am normally the same way, eager to maximize every part of a trip even on a budget, I’d been to Italy before and knew that it’s absolutely impossible not to have a fantastic meal there — and that applies to every meal, not just those taken in restaurants. Italian food is all about fresh ingredients and simplicity, and Italians value it so highly that everyone takes the time to prepare it right.
On our way to the Vatican, famished and unwilling to stop for a proper meal in the interest of time, we found ourselves at a hole-in-the-wall shop that most closely resembled a convenience store. It also served pizza. In Italy, it is not uncommon to find this pizza by-the-slice option, sold by weight and rectangular in shape, available at obscure shops that don’t even have tables. Verdict? He described that slice of pizza as the best meal he had in Rome. If you need a quick bite, don’t think you’re depriving yourself of Rome’s culinary culture by grabbing a slice instead of sitting down to a full meal. The true experience of Roman food includes the “fast” food!
Tip: Fold your rectangular slice in half and eat it like a sandwich — and don’t forget to grab extra napkins!
Soak in the atmosphere.
What I love most about Rome is the atmosphere you experience just walking through its ancient streets. Many have described Rome as having a special quality of light, like a golden aura that enfolds the city. Even just strolling aimlessly through the historic center, you’re surrounded by so much art, beauty and history that it’s difficult to deny being affected by Roma. So while there’s certainly a lot to do and see, don’t forget to simply take some time to sit back and watch the world go by. Rome’s famous piazzas are the perfect spot to pause, gelato in hand, and people-watch. One of my favorites is Piazza Navona.
Rome is absolutely a city one should not skip. Spend wisely on accommodations, and indulge in her free and cheap thrills, and you can have an amazing experience of Rome even on a small budget.
Photo credit: Megan Van Groll