The Sweet Spot: Rome

by  Christina Garofalo | Jul 5, 2017

Bringing you the world’s best travel destinations — and when you should visit them for the best value.

The ancient Romans believed that no matter how many empires rose and fell, Rome would live forever. And they were right: La Città Eterna remains one of the world's most visited capitals, and its art, architecture, and culture have influenced the world over.

It is home to some of the world’s most impressive sights -- the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel, to name a few. But beyond the grand basilicas, the city’s winding Medieval streets reveal another Rome: one of family-run pizzerias and quiet piazzas where old men play chess.

It’s clear why the Italians invented the term la dolce vita, and after a well-executed trip to Rome, it’s nearly impossible not to fall under its spell.

The Perfect Time to Visit

April and May; October and November

With hot, crowded summers and cold winters, Rome is most pleasant in spring and fall. Temperatures in April and May are from the high 50s to 70 Fahrenheit, and in September and October they’re in the 60s and 70s.

April is one of the most beautiful and tranquil months to visit the Eternal City, but avoid Holy Week, which falls in late March or April (check the liturgical calendar). Otherwise you’ll be met with massive crowds and scant hotel vacancies.

Crowds begin to build in May and start to die down in September. During these months, the weather will be better and it will be easier to find bookings. Prices are generally a bit steeper than they are in April and October, but still cheaper than in the height of summer.

The Cheapest Option

December to March

Rome is at its quietest during the winter, but it can be surprisingly cold and damp (the average high in December is 55 Fahrenheit, with a low of 37 Fahrenheit). If you can deal with the weather, this is when you’ll also find the cheapest airfare and accommodations. Just avoid the two weeks before Christmas, as the city will be gridlock (Italians leave shopping — like everything else — until the last minute).

It's also possible to score some good deals in August. However, you have to time it right. Mid-month, the entire country goes on vacation for ferragosto, so you’ll want to visit early in the month and double-check that points of interest are open, as many restaurants and bars close for all of August. Also note that many Roman hotels do not have air conditioning and summer gets hot (though the evenings are cool). If this isn’t your first visit and you don’t mind missing a few sights, there are definitely deals to be found.

The Smart Place to Stay

Generator Hostel Rome
The design-focused Generator brand is known for sleek hostels that feel more Left Bank than backpacker, while priced with the latter in mind. Their first Rome property recently opened an elegant 19th-century building with 80 rooms, a rooftop terrace, and free wifi. The lowest rates for private rooms were in December and January for $60 per night, followed by slightly higher rates of $69 in early August and November. Even at $102 per night in April, you can’t beat the value -- situated between Termini and Vittorio Emanuele, it affords easy access to navigate the city.

The Corner
Located in the Aventine district, a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum, this 1930s Art Nouveau villa has a lounge garden, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and a small hip late-night club. The 11 air-conditioned rooms are fitted with modern minimalist furnishings, rain showers, flat-screen TVs, and iPads. We found rates for $95 per night midweek in September, from $114 in October, and as low as $63 per night in November.

D.O.M. Hotel Roma
Another recent addition, the 18-room hotel D.O.M. is a nod to its former digs—a 17th century palazzo and monastery—mixed with a cool, urban vibe. Renaissance marble fixtures seamlessly blend with poppy Warhol prints, and the swanky lounge, restaurant, and rooftop bar attract the city’s glitterati. Rooms at this 5-star property can be found for as low as $213 for a midweek stay from November through January; from $242 in August and October; and from $290 in April. While it’s not exactly cheap, when you consider that it’s a luxury property that often runs $500-plus per night, it suddenly feels like a steal.

What to See and Do

Rome is a walking monument. The entire center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompassing the Forum, the Pantheon, and its other famous attractions.

The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum have all recently been restored by Italian luxury brands Fendi, Bulgari, and Tod’s, respectively. The best way to experience them in peace is to go before 9 a.m., or -- our favorite -- at night, when everything is lit-up and magical. They're all within walking distance of one another, but there's an inexpensive foolproof two-line Metro system that can transport you as well for 1.50 Euro (or under $2 USD).

Vatican City requires an entire day of its own. You’ll almost always encounter exceedingly long lines to see St. Peter’s Basilica and Michelangelo's famed mural in the Sistine Chapel (though they're definitely thinner in winter). Once you finally finish, early evening will be setting in. Stop for a libation at Chorus -- a Fascist-era reception hall at the Vatican's Auditorium, turned swanky cocktail lounge.

Near the Vatican, check out the underrated 16th-century Villa Farnesina, where you can admire Raphael’s frescoes without the crowds, and take a stroll through Trastevere, the center of Rome's artistic life.

Explore the neighborhoods of Aventino, Testaccio, and Pigneto for a slightly more off-the-beaten-path experience with great food.

With new visitor programs, the Pyramid of Cestius -- a more than 2,000-year-old tomb -– and the Fascist monument Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (better known as the Colosseo Quadrato) -- now Fendi’s headquarters –- are worth a visit.

Where we Americans have happy hour, the Italians have aperitivo -– small bites, like olives and nuts, with wine. Just about every bar and eatery offers this, just ask. Aperitivo is central to Italy’s drinking culture and should be part of your daily, post-sightseeing routine.

Visit Rome’s Jewish Ghetto for lunch, though remember that most places here are shut down on Saturdays, so it’s a better Sunday activity.

For an early lunch, grab street eats at Mercato di Testaccio; stalls begin closing around 1:30 p.m.

When you’ve had enough of the tourist-filled Piazza Navona, make your way over to nearby Piazza del Fico, where you’ll have a more local experience -- the perfect place to set up your own picnic or read a book.

Don’t miss Moriondo e Gariglio, Rome’s oldest chocolate shop, where the owners sit out front hand-wrapping bonbons in gold foil.

In autumn, the small villages along the outskirts of the city host sagra -- weekend feast markets where you celebrate and sample the local food, wine, and culture. Luckily, fall is all about chestnuts, mushrooms, and truffles.

Don’t end the day before getting a double scoop of gelato at Gelateria del Teatro.

Tips to Save Even More

Fortunately for frugal travelers, the majority of the city’s famed sights are free, with the exception of the Colosseum and the Vatican City complex.

However, if you’re planning to cover a lot of ground, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which gets you a three–day metro pass and entrance to the city’s major sights (excluding the Vatican) using a much shorter line.

MAXXI, the gorgeous Museum of Art and Architecture of the 21st Century, opens its permanent collections for free on weekdays.

During August, in an attempt to keep people in town and appeal to visitors, the city hosts a series of free outdoor concerts and other cultural events.

Most churches around Rome house magnificent works of art that you can see free of charge. View Caravaggio paintings at Santa Maria del Popolo, and Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria.

The Vatican Museums are normally closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of each month when they offer free admission (usually $25 the rest of the week) from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

For a ridiculously cheap aperitivo, stop by Fiaschetteria Marini in Rome’s Via Cadorna. This gem has been run by the Marini family for 90 years and is the best deal on aperitivo in the area.

Though there is no shortage of delicious wine on offer, when dining out, we like to order the house wine. It’s always cheaper and never disappoints.

Lastly, do as the Romans do. One of the best ways to experience Italy’s capital is to grab a bottle of wine, bread, cheese, and cured meats and make a picnic in the piazza. Try famous salumeria Vol­petti, where they’ll vacuum-pack cheeses and meats for you to take away. At some alimenteri (small convenience store markets), you can even bring your own container and fill up as much wine as you can carry, for just a couple of Euro.

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