Ask a local: Rome travel tips from Elyssa Bernard

The Rome travel tips to know before you go

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Elyssa Bernard

Elyssa Bernard is the creator of Romewise, an online resource for all things Rome. She has lived in Rome for over 20 years and is passionate about sharing the best ways to experience her adopted hometown. On her blog, you can find even more ideas for your trip to the Italian capital and how to plan the perfect three-day Itinerary.

What tips would you give to someone visiting Rome for the first time?

The most important thing first-timers should do is make a plan, a loose itinerary of what you most want to see, but don't fill every moment. Leave time free for shopping, wandering, napping, or whatever will allow you to absorb everything. Even sightseeing can feel like an extreme sport in a city as jam-packed with history as Rome. Take a water bottle and refill it with free clean water from the drinking fountains all over the city, and stay somewhere in the historic center — it might cost a little more, but you'll save time and money getting around.

Is there anything that should be avoided in Rome?

I definitely wouldn't say avoid it, as it's incredible, but don't stress too much about getting inside the Colosseum if time is limited or you didn't book in advance. It's amazing from the outside, especially if you walk (or jog) by it in the early morning or late evening when few people are around. Other unmissable landmarks in the city are a great way to experience the architecture and grandeur of Ancient Rome, such as Castel Sant'Angelo, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla, and Ostia Antica.

What is one thing that surprised you about Rome?

Rome can be crowded, busy, and a little intense at times, but there's an abundance of green space in the city too. Most of the city's parks and gardens are free to explore, including right in the historic center and near the big sights. Quiet time, shade, and calm are always nearby when you need them.

What should I do on my first trip to Rome?

It's no wonder most first-time visitors to Rome will want to see some of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, St Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon. They're simply incredible and absolute must-sees. There are tons of hidden gems in Rome, but don't even think about them until you've ticked off the big deals.

What are some hidden gems to see in Rome?

Rome is packed with hidden gems. If you love art, don't miss the Galleria Doria Pamphilj or Palazzo Barberini. The Museo Barracco is a free museum worth a quick visit. If you love the ancient stuff, visit the Domus Romana at Palazzo Valentini, the Domus Aurea, and the Baths of Caracalla. Take a tour of Trastevere, a fascinating neighborhood full of history and ambiance, for even more hidden gems.

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How much time should I spend in Rome?

You need at least three days in Rome to see the highlights. Avoid visiting the Vatican and the Colosseum on the same day, as both are huge with lots to see, and it can be tiring. You'll also want to fit in other sites like the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon. And if you want some additional time for strolling, shopping, and just soaking up the atmosphere, you really need about five days.

What food is Rome known for?

Every region of Italy has its own cuisine, and Rome is no exception. The city is famous for its four classic Roman pastas, all made with Pecorino Romano cheese: cacio e pepe, gricia, carbonara, and amatriciana. Rome is also famed for its artichokes: braised (alla Romana) or deep fried (alla Giudia, or Jewish-style). A large part of Roman cuisine is based on "cucina povera," which translates as "kitchen of the poor," and is derived from the meals that peasants would make with simple, inexpensive ingredients like offal. This is a rich topic, so I highly recommend trying out some local trattorias and taking a cooking class or food tour.

What are the best neighborhoods for food?

You can eat well in just about every Roman neighborhood. Local favorites include Trastevere, Monti, Campo dei Fiori, and Testaccio. Some of my favorite restaurants are around the historic center near the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Pantheon — some are tourist traps, but there are many authentic gems to discover with a little research.

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Where is best for shopping in Rome?

Rome is full of great shopping areas, perhaps none more famous than the neighborhood surrounding the Spanish Steps, where Gucci, Fendi, and other Italian designer names congregate. For more boutique-style shopping, head to the Pantheon, Monti, or the area around via Cola di Rienzo on the other side of the Tiber River not far from the Vatican.

What are the best areas for outdoor activities around Rome?

Rome is blessed with vast green spaces. You can spend time in the Appia Antica Park and not even feel like you are in a city. This archeological park is full of things to see and do, such as visiting the catacombs, renting bicycles, or exploring on foot. The Villa Borghese is another of Rome's most beloved parks. It offers stunning views over Rome at one end, one of Rome's best museums, the Borghese Gallery, at the other end, and a gorgeous, shaded, well-kept park in the middle. You can do all kinds of sports here, visit other smaller museums, rent boats on a lake, or take a picnic.

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