Before I moved my family from the US to Rome, whenever I traveled to a foreign country, it was just… foreign. Now, things are different. With my family I had to navigate the rough seas of change figuring out just how this place works because not all mannerisms and practices are universal. Every area of the world has unspoken ‘rules’ and behaviors hidden within them. Seasoned and unseasoned travelers alike may benefit from some of these tips I have compiled to make your stay in Rome even better. No matter where you are traveling from you can feel like a true Roman following these simple tips…
Cash is king in Italy. Unlike the credit card phenomenon I am use to back in the States, Italy is a cash culture. There are two main reasons why this is so: the card machines cost the shop owner too much money or to avoid government tax. Regardless of how you pay, make sure to get a receipt (even for a soda), called scontrino. Although it has never happened to me, tax authorities have the right to stop you on the street to verify your purchases. It used to be that they could impose a ticket on you if you could not produce a receipt, but back in 2011 the law changed and no more tickets should be issued. Now, it is just an annoyance and a way that they can record which stores may be avoiding taxes.
Stores have specific return policies which are not as accommodating as you may be used to. I rarely find a store where they will refund my purchase even with a receipt, it will be store credit if anything. Without a receipt good luck even exchanging sizes. So, make sure you try on your goods and are pleased with the purchase before you leave the store.
Before you go into a restaurant make sure you ask if they take credit cards, if that’s how you prefer to pay. American Express and Discover cards are not accepted at many establishments. So, if possible tuck a Visa/Mastercard into your wallet before heading out (along with some cash). Also, if the restaurant sells caesar salad with chicken, head for zee hills. They are trying to appeal to the American traveler instead of doing what they do best, cook authentically.
There is not a day that goes by while walking in the center that I see visitors trying to hail a taxi from the street corner. They cannot understand why so many empty taxis are passing them by. It’s like watching a helpless bird trying to fly, and inevitably I go over and let them know that you can only pick up a taxi at the official taxi stands (unless your Italian is good enough to phone them: if so one of the most reliable numbers to call is 06 3570). At the official taxi stand you will (hopefully) find taxis lined up waiting to take you where you need to go.
The transit system in Rome works well if you know how to use it. I suggest you take advantage of it. But, as a visitor you may be confused as to which bus line or route to take. This is where my favorite app comes in: Moovit. This app identifies your current location and all you need to do is type in where you want to go. Then, Moovit will give you different options of transport, listing how long it will take, what route it will go, and what time your bus will arrive. It even gives the walking directions to the bus stop and also to your destination once you exit the bus and wonder which way to go from there. I highly suggest this app as it will make your tour through the city much easier and cheaper than a taxi.
Believe it or not, tickets can be picked up either at a Tobacco shop (Tabacchi) or the entrances to the subway. You can identify a Tabacchi by the large T sign on the outside of the shop. It costs 1.50 euros and is valid for 100 minutes on the bus, metro, tram, and trains once it is first run through the meter. Don’t walk on the bus without the ticket, because the driver is not going to sell you one!
Wherever you go, bargain! I suggest that before you come you learn the simple phrase “Quant’è questo?” (How much for this?) and learn some basic numbers so you understand. No matter how mangled my pronunciation may come out, I try my best to speak Italian, I know it is really appreciated and shows attempt at immersion in the culture.
Moving to Rome from America I found it hilarious at some of the things that you can bargain for here. Most of these examples will not apply if you are just visiting, but I just have to share:
Going to a private doctor, bring cash. First, they might not take credit cards, and second they may give you a ‘discount’ when you pay with cash. It never even occurred with me to bargain with my doctor. Another example is bargaining with our landlord for the amount of rent we would pay. I can understand if you were to purchase a property this is a must, but rent? Wow!
Walking the City
A tip for travelers who need a rest from the summer heat: plan to visit churches and basilicas during the hottest part of the day. First, they are free, BONUS! Upon entering, you can feel the temperature drop due to the heavy stone construction. Generally, near the entrance there are collection boxes and the money is used to help maintain the church. Also, in front of some of the beautiful inlets filled with painting and mosaics you will find illumination boxes. Drop a coin in those and the dimly lit artwork will come to life with light. With over 900 churches in Rome, you have more than ample opportunity to cool off while you see what artistic gems are hiding within its walls. Another side note is to make sure you tuck a scarf in your bag (during the summer months) to cover your shoulders as some churches enforce their dress code. This goes especially for Vatican tours which have a list of do’s and don’ts on their website. I highly suggest you read up on those as you would not want to miss out on such an amazing sight!
Sometimes, I have a difficult time finding a specific shop or item when I am in the center. If I happen to pass a hotel I frequently walk into the front desk and politely ask them for help. First, they usually speak English, and second they are very familiar with the area. Recently, I was in the center trying to find school supplies for my son I used this trick. They not only pointed out the direction to go, but gave me a map and circled the destination. I would like to note that common sense says if it looks like a busy time for the hotel, keep walking until you happen upon another.
Hitting the Bars
You may wonder why so many people stand at the bar rather than sit at a table. This serves two purposes, first, it saves time and more importantly, you pay extra to sit down and have someone serve you. When I first came here I could not understand why many chose to stand, I mean I can’t imagine walking into Starbucks and seeing my American friends elbow to elbow with strangers enjoying their goods. Which leads me to my next tip which is personal space…
HAHAHAHA! Let’s just leave this one blank since personal space is not in the Italian vocabulary. As a transplant from the US I am use to having a reasonable amount of personal space as I go about my day. Well, I guess ‘reasonable’ is a relative term. Let’s just say I go to a park where there are three empty benches and I sit on one. Next comes along a well-dressed man and where does he sit? You would think he would choose one of the other benches to have all to himself, but no he sits right next to me. My initial response is to pull my purse closer as he must have ulterior motives. This is not the case, and although I have not yet figured this one out (read my blog No Rules Apply in Rome) maybe he joins me to feel an unspoken connection. This is not to say that thieves do not take advantage of this practice here in Rome, because just like any big city thieves will get up close to take your wallet. So, do keep some sense about you while letting your boundaries go a little and feel like an Italian.
Another example (which you may encounter if you have children) is when my blonde hair, blue eyed kids are always being touched on the head by some stranger who says a sweet word to them. This is something that I just had to get used to, that is part of this culture. If strange men and women, young and old were touching my kids heads in the States, my guttural reaction would be “get away weirdo”. And it is funny because at first, my two little boys would always give them a curious look as they were being touched. Now, it is second nature to both the boys and I to say a warm ‘grazie’ replying to their complements and love for my boys.
Hopefully, you can use some of these tips while exploring the beautiful city and culture Rome has to offer. I would love to hear from you with your tips and experiences while traveling. Please leave them below in the comments section and share this blog with your friends.