As soon as we booked our holiday to Rome, we faced tourist regret almost immediately after the inevitable onslaught of ‘helpful’ advice was thrown our way. It was mostly centered around us getting pickpocketed, then ripped off and finally burning to a crisp in the July heat. The former two, having spent last year ambling around Paris, didn’t phase us. We had plans for how to carry our belongings safely (satchels are the way to go), planned areas and sights we wanted to see in advance (more on that later) and as I would repeatedly bore Chris, knew how to spot a fake pistachio gelato from 100 paces (anything brighter in colour than a lime and piled high like a cloud if you’re interested).
But the heat. We, it seems, are not heat people. Specifically sightseeing mixed with scorching temperatures of 35oc and above most days. As the days crept towards our holiday and the predicted temperatures continued to rise, we did panic. With pale skin, a tendency to burn and long days of sightseeing planned out, I wondered how on earth we would cope without throwing in the towel and just hiding in our Airbnb for a week. But with a little preparation, it is easy to survive Rome’s scorching heat in the summer and still enjoy the best sightseeing holiday in the eternal city.
PLAN YOUR WARDROBE
During the summer, any city will be virtually melting to the ground, a mix of ankle-burning exhausts, kitchen fans and throngs of crowds. While in most cities it would be perfectly acceptable to throw on camis, floaty shorts and bardot mini dresses in the heat, in Rome the way you present yourself is actually quite important. Chanel, Versace and Hermes at Piazza del Popolo aside, your real fashion concern is keeping your shoulders and knees covered if you plan to visit a lot of the Roman Catholic sites in the city. I decided to reverse my wardrobe, wearing shorts and bardot dresses at night with maxi and shirt dresses during the day to ensure I was dressed appropriately.
Rome is one of these magical places where you can explore different architectural styles and stunning frescos every few metres – and thankfully most are air conditioned, making them perfect for a quick stop for some shade. But churches are strict, many posting signs at the door forbidding ‘revealing clothing’. Tie a lightweight scarf like a pashmina around your handbag or camera strap to ensure you always have something to cover yourself up with and maintain a quiet sense of awe whilst enjoying the architecture. You may not be religious, but be respectful and stay as quiet as possible when in churches and places of religious significance. Some of our best memories were from churches stumbled upon before lunch that we just couldn’t have visited on a whim if I wasn’t dressed appropriately. For men, try to wear collared shirts and light trousers, but some churches do allow men to wander in wearing long shorts during extreme heat.
LEARN SOME ITALIAN
Of course, you can survive Rome by simply speaking English, especially in the tourist hot spots, but I decided to download the Coffee Break Italian podcasts a few weeks before we left and it was one of the best pre-holiday decisions I could have made. Rather than reading the back of Lonely Planet on the plane and butchering the pronunciation, the classes have a teacher, a native speaker and a learner who works at the same pace as you to guide you through the language. While I only took around 13 classes before leaving, I played them relentlessly on the way to work and wrote down phrases with phonetic spellings in a little notebook I carried with me throughout Rome. My skills were limited to ordering drinks, food and asking for the bill but when all you want is to sit down in the shade and enjoy a bicchiere of vino rosso della casa, it almost makes it easier speaking in the native language. It was particularly helpful in tiny trattorias run by lovely Nonnos who spoke limited English and I was rather proud that I could pick out certain words during the Pope’s mass. As with any foreign country, at least attempting to speak the language was welcomed wherever we went. If I was to return, I’d just make sure I knew how to ask for three scoops of gelato in a fancy waffle cone.
Chris will tell you that probably one of the things he was most grateful for on our holiday was my instance we booked ahead for our ‘must see’ attractions, and when we sailed past crowds of sweltering tourists caught in the baking sun, it was plain to see we made the right choice. Italian websites can be a confusing nightmare, but it was actually very easy to book ahead, print out our confirmation and collect tickets. But the queue jumping was the most worthwhile part. We practically skipped into the Colosseum, walked straight onto Palatine Hill, and were looking at sculptures and artworks within the Vatican Museums in under ten minutes. Honestly, it will save you making the heartbreaking decision to skip an attraction all together, searching for an overpriced guide with a selfie stick just so you can skip the queues or buying tickets from touts gathered at nearby metro stations. Head here to buy advance tickets for the Colosseum (remember if you are 18 to 25 years old and from the EU, you can use your driver’s licence as ID to get reduced admission) or the Vatican Museums here, where you simply pick a date and time to arrive with a print out of your booking.
PLAN A DAY OF AIMLESS EXPLORING
Because we visited Rome for six nights, we managed to pack in a lot of sights thanks to a combination of pre-planning and aimless exploration. We had planned to spend our last day exploring St Peter’s Basilica and had booked tickets to see the Sistine Chapel, leaving us two of Rome’s quieter days (Sundays and Mondays) to simply wander. We were lucky enough to enjoy a few lie ins, lazy cafe espressos, and terracotta jugs of vino della casa without stressing over bookings, reservations or that idea of ‘seeing everything’. If you’re only visiting for a couple of days it’s of course not essential, but for anyone travelling for a week, make space in your schedule to do nothing but pick an area and wander around it. We discovered some of our favourite churches, saw attractions like the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon during different times of the day, discovered hidden trattorias for lazy lunches for under €30 and just enjoyed being in holiday mode. While we love immersing ourselves in city breaks, they can often leave you exhausted especially when it’s hot so taking some time to stop and smell the fresh peaches in the market at Campo di Fiori was heavenly. A word of warning, if you are visiting on a Sunday, many restaurants will be closed and the city’s museums are closed on Mondays as well as many shops. A perfect excuse to aimlessly wander if you ask me.
GIFTS ARE NEVER JUST GIFTS
Oh how I wish I could scoop up the hundreds of sad-looking roses at the Trevi Fountain, tell the peddlers to go for a beer and just hand them out to spread a little joy rather than inciting tourist fear. While I can appreciate there may be more than meets the eye to peddlers, these guys have moved on from trying to hand you a rose or a light up toy and literally push it into your hands or worse, call it “a gift’. I saw a lot of poor guys handing over wads of euros to men with flowers who got mean pretty quickly over one sad little rose, many of which were being rinsed in fountains to keep them looking fresher. A stern no should suffice and don’t bother accepting an offer for a photograph at Trevi – despite holding a DSLR and an iPhone, it took me saying no to the point of yelling that made one guy finally give up on his moment of money making. There are pickpockets, although we never specifically saw any, but they are apparently fast fingered at night near restaurants. Keep your handbag at your feet or across your body and never leave your phone or sunglasses sitting in easy reach on a table.
ACQUA IS A BIG DEAL
A few restaurants we visited were positively baffled when we refused bottles of mineral water and opted to go straight for the wine or coca-cola instead. At home we would usually order a jug of tap at a restaurant no problem, but as it isn’t really drinkable in Rome you’ll end up paying over the odds for a large bottle at your table. Of course, you don’t have to have it and don’t feel pressured if you don’t want it. The saving grace of Rome during summer and perhaps one of its greatest assets is the hundreds of water fountains across the city providing a steady stream of clean drinking water. Take a empty water bottle out with you and keep hydrated for free, there are plenty near the biggest tourist stops. Bottled water is usually around €2 at the touristy trucks but the fresh stuff is usually ice cold and lovely to drink. We saw chaps sticking their hats underneath to cool their heads, dogs lapping from the pools gathered underneath and plenty Romans themselves, in suits and fancy dresses, casually wander up and drink straight from the fountain (block the spout with your finger and the stream will direct upwards for you to drink from). Neither of us got sick from the water and we drank at least eight to ten bottles in around five hours to keep cool in the sweltering heat. So forgive us for bypassing the expensive acqua and going straight for the wine.
I hope these tips are helpful if you are planning to visit the eternal city this summer. What are you excited to see the most?