We watch what we spend at every place we visit on this early retirement budget travel tour, and Rome was no exception. However, we wanted to see many of the attractions, so we couldn’t get around entrance fees and higher transportation costs – in addition to the elevated prices on everything else in a large city.
Because things cost what they cost, I instead will offer how we stretched our money while in Rome.
Three tips on this one: buy tickets from the official source; consider the self-guided audio tour; schedule an early entry time to ‘skip the line’.
Don’t buy your tickets from the guy on the street corner wearing a badge that reads “Official Tour Guide.” He tacks on his finder’s fee, and the Vatican does not have any ‘guides’ in the street.
Also, tour companies tack on their fees, so you will pay more if you buy from anyone other than the official Vatican site. Also, in a large tour group, you get less for your money because you are herded through the museums on a time limit.
I saw large tour groups rushed through the Sistine Chapel in 10 or 15 minutes, while I got to stand there marveling at the masterpiece for nearly 90 minutes. Because we were not rushed, we also had the opportunity to pray with a priest from Nigeria who announced the offer at the top of the hour.
We bought the self-guided audio tour through the Vatican’s site, and it was so worth it the few extra dollars for the audio explanations. We paid $36 USD each, and that included the ‘skip the line’ privilege.
If you want to try to get through all of the museums, go as early as you possibly can. Our entry was for 10:00 a.m. (spouse is not a morning person) and I feel like we rushed through some rooms to see all the art. We didn’t have time to wander the gardens.
The official website to book your visit is here.
Extra tip for self-guided audio tours booked with the Vatican: Go to the designated reservation line at your entry time. Exchange your reservation for tickets on the first floor. Go up the stairs to get your audio tour gear on the second floor. This path was not clearly marked and the first floor was loaded with large tour groups.
How we saw the Pope without General Audience tickets
At St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Pope Francis holds what’s called a “General Audience” each Wednesday when he’s in town. He guides followers with a special message of peace or love or faith, and sometimes has current events commentary.
If you research how to get tickets for this, it’s not exactly easy. It involves ordering months in advance, and fax machines, and correspondence with the Vatican. It’s mostly used for large groups who travel to The Vatican. We saw many large groups from churches in countries all over the world.
Or, you can just show up the day of the event and try to beat the crowd, because it’s first-come, first-in. This is what we did. We arrived just after 8:00 a.m. and went right in. However, I think we may have been simply lucky.
I was also lucky to get this shot:
I didn’t realize the Pope rode around to greet people before his message. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time (trying to leave the fenced area for the bathroom).
Tedly got a bunch of great shots with his fancy camera, including when he zoomed in on Pope Francis blessing children.
And my pano shot gives you an idea on what it’s like from the square:
If you don’t want to try your luck like we did, you can request tickets ahead of time. Try this site here for instructions, but note it’s not an official site (I could not find any official information on the Vatican’s site).
Extra tip: Even if you have tickets, if you arrive too late, you may not be able to get in. So go early regardless of your ticket status.
We did not buy advance tickets for this. In late April, we arrived at about 8:30 a.m., and waited on line for about 30 minutes. We bought basic entrance tickets, and used Rick Steves’ Audio Tour of the Colosseum as our audio information. It was helpful and I learned some things, but it also was a bit corny.
As part of the basic entrance tickets for the Colosseum, you get to visit the nearby Roman Forum and Paletine Hill. Do not skip these! These are great spots that you can see from other points around the city, but it’s quite something to walk around on these sites, and the view from Paletine Hill cannot be beat. We went right after the Colossuem on the same day, and we used Rick Steves guide to the Forum.
After all that walking in the hot sun, we plopped down on the grass in the shade on the Hill and took a little nap. We weren’t the only ones. It was a gorgeous spring day and it felt so good to lie on Earth.
If you want to buy advance tickets to the Colosseum and Forum/Hill, the official site is here. Search for Rick Steves on your app store.
Extra tip: You can visit the Colosseum one day, and go back to visit the Forum/Hill another day. This may be helpful for your planning, depending on your objectives and the size of the crowds. Or, do them in one day with an early entry. We fit all three sites into about eight hours, our 30-minute nap included.
Best picnic ever
The day we visited Domus Aurea, which I previously raved about here (my favorite ancient site for tourists), we decided to picnic near the site, which also happens to be close to the Colosseum. It was the best picnic I’ve ever had.
As budget travelers, we often bring snacks to our sightseeing tours and take breaks in parks. This time, we loaded up with a full meal at a nearby grocery store, and Tedly found a great spot overlooking the impressive ruins of the Colosseum and part of the Roman Forum. Locals wearing Roman costumes for tourists came with the view.
Sure, there are many cafes around the Colossuem if you want table service and higher prices. We were happy to munch out while sitting our asses on the ground. It was an giant spread I’ll never forget: spring mix salad with assorted veggies, Greek yogurt, squash I’ve never had before (like a cross between a pumpkin and carrot), coconut, crunchy bread bites, hard cheese cubes, green olives, potato chips, soda for me, beer for spouse… and the best picnic view ever!
Churches, churches, and more churches
One way to explore a city’s history is to visit its churches. We’ve done that all over the world, and Rome, of course, was special.
I don’t know who many churches we entered – 15 or 20? One that really stuck out to me was The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Wow. Just wow. The ceiling and all decorations are real gold – not gold-plated. The precious metal was gifted to the Vatican by Spain from the New World.
Just the amount of gold alone would make this place impressive. But it also has other incredible features, like part of the manger. The Vatican calls the wood “The Holy Crib”. It’s in a crystal urn at the main altar.
Just off to the side of the main altar is the grave of Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The church also features Bernini’s famous “hidden” spiral staircase with no center support – the first of its kind. (You can only see this with a guide because it connects the church to apartments in use.)
The first “Sistine Chapel” is in this church, and this church features the iconic image of Mother Mary, where Pope Francis has gone to pray 59 times so far, according to our tour guide.
We took a short tour of the second floor front balcony, the papal room, and Bernini’s staircase. It cost five euros, or about $6.25, and lasted 30 minutes. Entrance to the church was free, but keep in mind there might be a long line because you have to pass through a security point with a metal detector to enter this beautiful place.
There are so many other wonderful churches – you can’t go wrong with just walking into any one you pass on your Roman explorations.
One other church-related point — this one about St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course entrance is free into the church, and it’s amazing to experience.
While you are there, for $10 USD you can climb 551 steps to the top of the basilica that will give you a view over St. Peter’s Square, and also of the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel. The views from the top of the dome are worth it! We spent close to an hour up there. For another two bucks, you can ride the elevator more than half way up.
On the way to the roof, you can stop by an indoor, upper level railing to view the basilica from high up. The mosaics in this area are impressive.
Extra ways we stretched our money
There also are many other free places to visit: the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, other decorative fountains and bridges, parks, a walk around the ruins of “Teatre di Marcello” (built before the Colosseum). That’s just as a small sample.
Also, it’s always interesting for us to try to talk with the locals – language limits be damned.
A few final ways we stretched our money:
- We rented a tiny one room studio that was more like a hotel room than an apartment, since we were only in Rome for nine days. We were only there to sleep and shower anyway. Usually we rent apartments with kitchens.
- Walked, walked, and walked some more. We had to buy subway tickets to get from our room to the places around the center of the city. But once we were in the heart of Rome, we walked to everything. This way, we spent only about $7.25 total each day on public transportation (two people round-trip).
- Tedly bought beer at the corner store and enjoyed a cold one one our walks around town, instead of frequently visits to pricey cafes. (You are allowed to drink in public places in Rome, but not too many people do it.)
This blog entry would be four times as long if I covered everything we did in Rome. Whatever you plan to do in this city, you’re likely to see and experience amazing art, history, and the warm, gregarious Italians! And while you’re likely gonna drop serious cash, it’s best to accept beforehand so you can fully enjoy the moment.