If, like me, you have tried DIY-ing your trip to Rome and Vatican City, you will have discovered how utterly confusing everything is, not because of language (Google Translate!) or of unavailability of information (there is, in fact, too much online!), but because of this overwhelming feeling that there is not enough time to sort through everything – opening hours, skip-the-line, best times to visit, sunsets, sunrises (I spent 2 weeks planning Rome!). Not only are there so many things to see and do, there are also so many different (and not-so-different) tour packages to choose from. My advice? If you don’t want to wade through the mess and you have the money to spare, book a tour and get it over and done with. Lots to choose from. Pick one. With a booked tour, you won’t need to bother with individuals marketing their tours to you (before and during your visit!). When you see the LONG, LONG lines, you will feel justified spending 25 – 40 EUR for a tour. If this is your choice of a Roman vacation, you’re good to go and this blog ends here. 😉 BUT – major BUT – if, like me, you don’t want to break the bank and end up spending 200 EUR in 2 days just for tours, then read on.
Tour packages (also known as third-party skip-the-line tickets) are usually relatively quite expensive (relative to buying the ticket from the source). An admission ticket to the Vatican Museum, for example, costs 16 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee). But if you book it through a skip-the-line tour company, you’ll end up paying 26 – 30 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee) for the exact same thing! So, why don’t people just buy directly from the source, i.e. online from the Vatican Museum? Because it’s confusing! And the source is usually not the first thing that appears when you do a Google search! Below are some tips for saving $$$ and making the most out of your Rome and Vatican City trip.
If you have international roaming mobile phone data and Google Maps, you won’t have trouble finding your way in Rome and Vatican City. Public transportation tickets can be bought from kiosks near train stations and these tickets can be used for metros, trams, and busses. You can buy a one-way ticket (1.50 EUR), a 24-hour ticket (7.00 EUR), a 48-hour ticket (12.00 EUR) , a 72-hour ticket (18.00 EUR), a weekly ticket (24.00 EUR) or a monthly ticket (35.00 EUR). A one-way ticket is valid for 75 minutes, unlimited transfers. The first time you use your ticket, the machine stamps a date and a time on it, so you will know exactly when your ticket expires.
Most sites have extremely long lines, so you will need to book in advance (maybe a week in advance) for the sites that you want to visit. When booking online, you will usually be charged an online sales fee of 4 – 6 EUR per person. That’s normal, don’t worry about it. Be very careful, however, that you are actually booking your tickets from the official website. It’s tricky. Many websites claim to be “official”, but they are not. Here’s a list of official sites from the places I’ve visited:
- St. Peter’s Basilica
Church admission is free but dome admission is 5-7 EUR. The church is open from 7.00 – 17.00 (April – September) and 7.00 – 18.00 (October – March) while the dome is open from 8.00 – 16.00. The line for the church is LONG, and you might be tempted to get a 3rd part skip-the-line ticket. But if you have time and patience, fall in line after lunch, anytime from 1pm – 3pm. The line won’t be as long as the morning lines. I lined up at around 3pm and got in within 30 minutes. Once you get past security, head directly to the dome. You can explore the church at leisure after the dome. There are paid audio guides available inside the church, if you’re interested in that . 🙂
There are two options for the dome. You can either climb 551 steps for 5 EUR or take the lift and then climb 320 steps for 7 EUR. If you book a 3rd party skip-the-line ticket, you might be paying somewhere between 30 – 40 EUR.
The Vatican Museum ticket can be booked online for 16 EUR (+4 EUR online sales fee) using the Vatican Museum link I provided above. It’s huge, so be very conscious of how you are spending your time. You can spend an entire day in the museum and not run out of things to see. If, however, you’re mainly there see the Sistine Chapel, be aware that the Sistine Chapel is near the end of the museum tour route. And, if I were to be perfectly honest, the only interesting thing after the Sistine Chapel is the relic of the true cross.
The Vatican Museum has an audio guide for 7 EUR. They don’t provide earphones, so if you don’t want to hold the audio guide right next to your ear all the time, make sure to bring your own earphones. TIP: the audio guide has two earphone jack outlets, so if you have two sets of earphones, you can share the guide with a family member or friend. 🙂
- Papal Audience
Getting an audience with the pope is free, but you will have to book a ticket in advance. To do so, you can call +39 06 6988 3114 and +39 06 6988 4631, or fax +39 06 6988 5863. The office of the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which is in charge of issuing tickets, is open from 9.00 – 13.00 on Mondays and 9.00 – 18.00 on Tuesdays. My advice: call. Load up your Skype account and call, because if you don’t a 3rd party skip-the-line ticket will cost you 25 – 30 EUR.
There is only one ticket for the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill. Tickets cost 12 EUR (+2 EUR online sales fee) and are valid for 2 days (but you can only enter each place once). You can book the tickets online using the link I provided above. Every first Sunday of the month, admission is free and is on a first come, first served basis.
The Pantheon admission is free, and is open from 9.00 – 18.30 from Monday to Saturday and from 9.00 – 13.00 on Sunday. DO NOT book a skip-the-line ticket. First, because it’s free. Second, because there really isn’t much of a line and the line moves fast. Third, because there’s really not much to see inside. Inside is a big dome and several chapels. If you’re looking to book something, maybe a guided tour of the Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, and Forum would be money better spent than a skip-the-line ticket.
- Basilica of St. John Lateran
Although this is the papal seat, it’s not as famous as St. Peter’s Basilica. There is no line. Do not buy a ticket whatsoever, unless you want a guided tour. Near the Basilica of St. John Lateran are the Holy Steps, the steps Jesus used when he was brought to face Pontius Pilate. Admission is also free. If you want to go up the stairs, you have to ascend it on your knees.
Basilica of St. John Lateran is open daily from 7.00 – 19.00 during the summer and 7.00 to 18.00 in the winter. The Holy Stairs is open daily from 6.30 – 19.00 during the summer and 6.30 to 18.30 during the winter. It’s good to visit it early though because sometimes they close early for one reason or the other.
It’s hard to go wrong with food in Italy. Eat as much as you can! And try out as many new things as possible. But be careful. My Italian friend warned me to never eat at trattorias and osterias in the city because they’re usually tourist traps. And many of them are! On my first day in Italy (not in Rome), I decided to not follow my friend’s advice and eat at a trattoria. I ended up paying a whopping 50 EUR for an antipasto, 2 primi and a 1/2 liter of wine. If I ate like this everyday for 10 days, I’d be broke before my Italian holiday finished!
A sandwich usually costs 5 – 8 EUR and would definitely fill you up for lunch. *yes, I know Asian friends, no rice for lunch* An entire pizza usually costs 6-10 EUR. You should definitely eat a pizza in Rome, at least once. Order the basic, traditional pizza – the Margherita – and you won’t regret it. Plus, since it’s basic, it’ll be the cheapest pizza on the menu. 😉 If you’re into the slow-food movement, drop by Eataly and learn where your food is from. For local food places that won’t break the bank, try Podere Rosa (outskirts of Rome), Franchi Gastronomia (walking distance from Vatican City), and Ristorante Colosseo Luzzi (near the Colosseum). A meal from these food places costs 5 – 8 EUR. Podere Rosa is a pizza place but also serves other Italian dishes. Franchi Gastronomia is a small corner shop that has food items you can point at and order. You can also have them make you a sandwich. Ristorante Coloseo Luzzi is a sit-down restaurant that serves all kinds of Italian food – pasta, pizza, etc.
When you eat at sit-down places, the waiter will keep asking you if you want to order natural water. Don’t order it. It’s expensive. Always bring with you a water bottle filled with water. Italian water from the tap is drinkable. When asked what to order, order wine instead. Wine is just as costly (sometimes even cheaper) than water, and oh boy, it is soooo good! 🙂 Ordering wine in Italy is a bit weird though. I’m used to ordering wine by the glass, but in Italy, you order by the volume: 1/4, 1/2, or 1 liter. A 1/4 liter of wine is enough for two people who are not used to drinking wine all the time with their meals. 1/2 makes for a more happier shared wine. Take note, restaurants usually levy a 3 – 5 EUR service charge per person. And of course, you are not obliged to tip. In fact, don’t tip at all.
I hope I’ve un-confused Rome and Vatican City. If you have any questions, feel free to write a note or comment below. Enjoy your vacation! 🙂
April 9, 2017 | Rome, Italy