Un-Confusing Rome and Vatican City

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.


St. Peter’s Basilica. The long line is to my right (in the photo).


Michelangelo’s Pietà. Do not miss this at St. Peter’s Basilica. When you enter the church, it will be on your right.

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. 🙂


The famous spiral staircase. You’ll see this when you exit the museum.

  • 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.


Roman Colosseum

  • Pantheon

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.


Entrance is free and is on the right (when facing building).

  • 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.


Facade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran


Holy Steps


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.


A Margherita. 🙂


Make your own sandwich at Franchi Gastronomia

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

Morocco on a Shoestring

I’m finally feeling better. At least, better enough to write a blog entry. It’s been a tough 2 months to say the least. It started out with a conference in Norway, followed by a teaching stint in Kyrgyzstan, a 4-city trip in Morocco, and a 3-city trip in Turkey. Before leaving for Morocco, I had guests in Copenhagen that I felt only right to show around. I have not been in the office for a month and a half since the crazy travels started. I miss working.

Three weeks ago, Andrew and I spent 5 full days in Morocco visiting Casablanca, Fes, Chefchaouen, and Marrakech. It was hectic. We spent one full day in each of these cities and almost a day (in sum) of traveling. It might not look like it in the map, but the distance between cities is huge and it takes a least 3-4 hours to get from one city to another.

We were supposed to meet up with two of my college friends and then go to Turkey together, but that did not happen. While they decided to do a 6-day Private Tour via Morocco Sahara Holiday for 549 EUR (582.60 USD) per person (check out their tour here), we decided to keep our budget within 500 USD for two people (250 USD per person). And surprise, surprise (or maybe not :p), it worked +/- a few dollars! We pre-booked our hotels using Expedia, ate local cuisine, and took public transportation. It was an amazing experience that did not leave a gaping hole in our wallets. We got to interact with the locals and saw how Moroccans are in Morocco. Public transportation was quite comfortable. Comfortable enough that if I had an option between sitting in a car or sitting in a train to get from one Moroccan city to the next, I’d sit in a train. Trains allowed me to walk around and stretch my legs. Rest rooms were available, food and drinks were carted off every so often, and seats can be transformed to beds when traveling after rush hour (For more information on traveling in Morocco, check out my blog entry on Moroccan commute).

Our first city for the trip was Fes. It’s the second largest city in Morocco and was the capital city of modern Morocco until 1925. To get there from the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport (Station: Aeroport Med V), we took a train from the airport to Casablanca (Station: Casa Voyageurs) and from Casa Voyageurs to Fes (Station: Fes). Since the trip from airport to Casablanca only took 30 minutes, we decided to buy second class train tickets. It was not bad. There were no reserved seats and just one big space at one end of the compartment to store bags, but the seats were comfortable and there was enough space for everyone’s bags. The travel from Casablanca to Fes, on the other hand, was a different story. The trip was estimated to take 3-4 hours. So we decided to buy first class train tickets. We were so happy we did since, for reasons we cannot fully understand (because they were in French), the train took 6 hours to get from Casablanca to Fes.



Upon arriving in Fes, we needed to get to our from the train station to the medina (the old town, city center) and find Dar Al Ouali, our hotel in Fes booked via Expedia. We took a cab, haggled it down to 20 MAD. The cab driver agreed but asked us if he could pick up one other passenger. That did not sound so bad for us, so we agreed. He never found that one  other passenger.

With Google Maps on our smartphones, it was not difficult to find our hotel. It was crazy inside the medina. The streets were narrow, souks lined the streets, and there were people everywhere! My first impression of it was a very colorful, very lively, and slightly more organized version of Divisoria in the Philippines. The Moroccan lamps were eye-catching, the leather jackets hung like they were not genuine leather, and stomach growled to the smell of tangine and couscous.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were met by a receptionist who knew very little English. She called the hotel owner and it was him who checked us in. The hotel is a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with a garden or a courtyard. The courtyard was the size of a normal living room. There were four floors and a rooftop room that guests can use to hangout. Our room was on the second floor (thank goodness for that, because the staircase was pretty narrow). We had a double sized bed, a ensuite shower area with toilet, airconditioning, free towels, and a small TV. Half the room was carpeted, and the carpet looked old. Other than that, and especially for the price that we paid for it, it was not bad. And it came with a traditional Moroccan breakfast, which was one of the things I have learned to look forward to in Morocco. Breakfast was amazing. 🙂

The hotel owner, recommended that we eat at Restaurant Salon de thé Hiba Chez Hakim (or Restaurant Hakim, for short). It is his favorite restaurant in the medina. Since the owner knows him, he asked us to mention his name so that we get treated well. And so, like the obedient tourists that we were, we went there, mentioned his name, and yes, we were treated well. Andrew and I both ordered the tangine set menu with Moroccan mint tea, and we both loved it (enough to return to the restaurant at another day). I should say that one should NEVER leave Fes without having a tangine and a cactus fruit.


The hotel owner also recommended that we rent a tour guide for 3 hours for 200 MAD. The tour guide was local and trained by the state, so he should be knowledgeable. He also should not try to rip us off. What we were NOT told, however, was that the tour guide does not keep time and if we exceed 3 hours of touring, we get charged 500 MAD (for a 5-hour tour). Our tour guide was pretty good. He showed us the architecture in the Fes medina, described the history and what the government is doing to preserve that. He took us to the famous mosques, explained what made them famous and willingly took our photos. We went to the tanneries, the carpet maker, the cactus scarf maker, the carpenter, an embroidery shop, and the argan oil maker. In each of these places, someone would explain how the good was created and then showed us samples of finished products. I especially enjoyed the visit to the carpet maker. The owner was very warm and welcoming. He served us tea, had us sit down and rolled carpets in front of us while explaining the difference between carpets. We then get to decide (by swiping our hands back and forth) whether we want to keep or reject a carpet, just like they do in the movies. After the tour, our guide brought us to an extravagant looking restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed the views but not the prices. After lunch, he picked us up from the restaurant and brought us back to our hotel. It was only when we got to our hotel that he asked for additional money because they tour went beyond 3 hours. Since we were unwilling to give him 500 MAD, we agreed on 250 MAD.


NOTE: We tried buying leather jackets. They’re more expensive near the tanneries. The one from the tannery started at 8000 MAD while the one just beside our hotel started at 800 MAD. The one from the tannery was made of camel skin but the lining was not very well done. The one near our hotel was made of sheep skin but the lining was very good. According to online guides to haggling, you should start at 1/4 of the opening price. So if the opening price is 800 MAD, you should counter with 200 MAD. Very slowly go up (slower than the salesperson). Ideally, you should end up at either 1/3 or 1/2 the opening price.


Chefchaouen is my favorite city in Morocco. Since it was at the foot of the Rif mountains, the weather was cool. To get there from Fes, we had to take a cab from the medina to the CTM bus station. The day before we were scheduled to leave for Chefchaouen, we had our hotel owner buy us tickets for CTM, to reserve our seats. At the CTM bus station, we checked in our luggages (I think it was 5 MAD per bag). The bus stopped halfway to Chefchaouen for lunch and a toilet break. The lunch place only accepts cash, which, unfortunately for us, we did not have enough of. Good thing we came prepared with sandwiches of our own and a couple of bread that we packed from last night’s dinner.

We stayed at the extremely charming Casa Annasr, just 5 minutes walk from the CTM bus station. From Casa Annasr, we had to walk uphill for 20-30 minutes to get to the medina. Breakfast was not free and cost 50 MAD per person. Our hotel room was amazing. The bed was comfortable and the ensuite bathroom was squeaky clean. In fact, our rooms look like it was newly renovated. The hotel is owned by a family: 2 brothers (we assume). The older brother is bossy and short tempered, but the younger brother is very friendly and accommodating.

The medina in Chefchaouen was blueeeeeee, and we spent most of our day walking and exploring and looking at what the souks had to offer. It was lovely and relaxing. We had lunch at Sindibad Restaurant (which had pretty good desserts!) and dinner at Aladdin Restaurant. The latter is highly, highly recommended. It’s a bit pricey for a Moroccan meal, but the food is delicious (and servings are huge), the view is amazing, and the ambiance is great. Right before dinner, we went inside the Kasbah Museum which only opened at 3pm (Opening Hours: 9-12, 15-18.30). There’s really nothing much there, except a breathtaking view of the medina from the tower. For that, it is worth the wait. 🙂



From Chefchaouen, we took the Supratours bus to Souk el-Arbaa and then the ONCF train from Souk el-Arbaa to Casablanca and then from Casablanca to Marrakech. It was a long day of mostly traveling. We left Chefchaouen around noon and arrived in Marrakech very late in the evening. Our train to Casablanca was delayed and we thought we would not make it to Marrakech. It turns out the train to Marrakech waited for us.

Upon arriving in Marrakech, we again took a cab to the medina. We were staying at another riad called Hotel Riad Dar Tuscia. The hotel was nice and breakfast was free. This was our most costly hotel, and I could already feel some sort of foreboding for the next day, when we tour the city. Marrakech was a city like many cities. The souks were organized into categories, the items were costlier (compared to Fes), and the salespeople were meaner. We visited a couple places of interest and rode a camel. Lunch was at Jemaa El Fna. Food was not exceptional, and it was expensive. I did enjoy (and highly recommend), drinking a fresh orange juice from one of the fruit stands. It was heaven! Just perfect for the hot summer weather.



Our last stop was Casablanca. By then we were extremely exhausted from all the traveling. It was not fun to travel through desert sands so much. If I were to do this trip again, I’d pick 2-3 cities and stay longer in each city. If I had a longer time in Fes, I would have loved to explore the souks some more (and maybe eat more cactus fruits). If I had a longer time in Chefchaouen, I would have liked to see the waterfalls that everyone is raving about.

We stayed at Manzil Hotel. Also booked using Expedia. In fact, all our hotels and flights were booked via Expedia while all bus and train tickets were bought in Morocco. Manzil Hotel was in an industrial zone. It was near the train station though, so it was easy to find it. Rooms were clean and spacious. Breakfast was not free. We didn’t really get to see much of Casablanca. By this time, we were so exhausted all we wanted to do was go home. I do recommend seeing the largest mosque in Africa, Hassan II Mosque.

This is what I have to say at the end of the trip: it was fun, but extremely exhausting. I’m pretty sure our friends who travelled to more cities that we did are more exhausted. Here’s a summary of our expenses. Not bad, eh? You can download our full itinerary here. If you have questions, holler! 😀

Item Description MAD USD
Breakfast 2 days 200 20
Lunch 5 days 470 47
Dinner 5 days 590 59
Fes Hotel: 2 nights 532.4 53.24
Chefchaouen Hotel: 2 nights 819.4 81.94
Marrakech Hotel: 2 nights 283.6 28.36
Casablanca Hotel: 2 nights 488.7 48.87
Tavel: Airport to Casablanca 42 4.2
Travel: Casablanca to Fes 348 34.8
Travel: Fes to Chechaouen 150 15
Travel: Chefchaouen to Marrakech 610 61
Travel: Marrakech to Casablanca 296 29.6
Travel: Casablanca to Airport 42 4.2
Fes Cab 40 4
Marrakech Cab 40 4
Casablanca Cab 40 4
Tour Guide Fes 250 25
TOTAL 5242.1 MAD 524.21 USD
Notes: Items in red are the actual amounts.

First written: November 22, 2016 | Published: December 18, 2016 | Copenhagen, Denmark