By Lara Sierra
Tutte le strade portano a Roma, but you have endless choices once you get there. Regardless of your budget, there is something for everyone in this enigmatic city of secrets. Read on to discover how to make your budget work its hardest for an unforgettable trip.
If you were to choose one European city to visit on a budget, you’d be foolish not to make it Rome. Simply put on your walking boots and go, to discover thousands of years of history without paying a single cent. You’ll spot ancient clay pots just laid out on the street and priceless works of art in the most unsuspecting of churches.
On the other hand, Rome excels in luxury, with extravagantly designed hotels on every street corner and restaurants dripping with Michelin stars. If you’re after a more luxurious city break, then fret not; the Romans are more than willing to provide you with a whirlwind of extravagance, just so long as you’re willing to pay.
Rome on a Budget
Free walking tours
Within less than a mile of wandering, you are engulfed by the magnificence of Rome’s violent and opulent history. Unsure of where to begin? Join one of the free walking tours from the base of the Spanish steps, which reopened last year after a €1.5 million renovation. Your tour guides, often local history students, will be well-educated, multi-lingual enthusiasts with an impressive wealth of knowledge.
Art, history & architecture
Even the most avid enthusiasts don’t get through all the 900 plus churches in Rome, so with just a little preparation you can mark out your own bespoke church route, according to your tastes.
Yes, Saint Peter’s is a given, but if it’s art you’re into, the San Luigi Dei Francesi is famous for its three Caravaggios. Fortunately, outside of high season it tends not to get too busy, so you may get a quiet viewing. Similarly, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo is often overlooked, but its interior hosts an impressive array of the Renaissance geniuses.
If history is more your thing, you don’t get much more than at the Basilica Di San Clemente, with each of its three levels corresponding to a different historical era. Essentially, you go back a few hundred years with every set of steps you descend, finishing in a first century pagan temple. Proof, indeed, that Rome was built layer by layer.
Finally, if you’re an architectural don, put Santa Maria Sopra Minerva at the top of your list. Built over, not one, not two, but three ancient Roman temples, it is also one of Italy’s most impressive Gothic feats.
After all this walking and genuflecting you’ll be in desperate need of some food and fresh air, but while the mouth-watering smells of the Campo Dei Fiori may be tempting, (and you won’t be let down if you give in) a more off-the-beaten-track food market exists, and who would have thought?
It’s right in the busiest train station in Rome. Walk through the functional and less than sanitary station to the adjacent Mercato Centrale Roma, a project embracing the best of local cuisine by two Michelin-starred chef, Oliver Glowig. Enter into an array of magnificent colours and mouth-watering aromas with hawkers calling out from around a vast marble chimney, part of the original structure of that was the former rail worker’s canteen.
Tables are scattered about with waiters taking drinks orders, some customers grabbing a quick aperitivo on the way home, others settling into the softly lit dining area for a sumptuous feast. The best vendors in the city have been selected by Glowig’s own talent scouts, based on the quality of their produce and their insistence on using ingredients which are as local as possible.
Bonci, for example, is the renowned pizza king of Rome. Roberto Liberati is famous for being the best butcher in the city. There’s the guy who sells trapizzini (essentially, what arancini did for risotto, trapizzini does for pizza) and you can even get bowls of ramen cooked with fresh Italian ingredients. Essentially, you need to visit nowhere else to get the best of Roman cuisine.
You’d be right to skip some of the tourist traps, but there are some Roman attractions that you simply cannot go through life without visiting. The good news is that the Colosseum, the Forum and the Sistine Chapel are free to visit every second Sunday of the month, and the Pantheon has no entrance fee at all. If you’re looking for the best deal which includes the paid-for sites, the Roma Pass gives you three days of unlimited travel plus access to two sites for free.
It’s time to rest your feet and squeeze in one last meal. We all know that when abroad you should eat is where the locals go, so head to Trastevere for home-grown trattorias with quiet, unassuming staff and food with big flavours. Aristocampo serves local wine and even has a board outside boasting that it doesn’t do tourist menus.
Off to bed
Albergo Abruzzi has some of the best views in Rome and its rooms have a modern yet homely finish. Alternatively, Hotel San Anselmo is a beautifully decorated four star hotel at two star prices, with luxuriously styled rooms. You’ll be needing a good night’s sleep!
Rome in Luxury
However. And this is the big but. Rome is nothing if not a city of dichotomies; and for every free marvel that you stumble across, less than a metre away will be the call of an opulent indulgence, be it the flagship Valentino store in the Piazza di Spagna or a treatment at the spa of Hollywood’s favourite Facialist, Sonya Dakar.
Sleeping in Paradise
2017 saw the opening of Italy’s most exquisite hotel. After being hidden away from public view during a comprehensive two-year overhaul, the Hotel Eden in Rome finally unlocked its doors. Like much of Rome, it sits quietly and unassuming, just waiting to be stumbled upon. And once found, you will be awestruck.
Nestled deep below the celestial golden ceilings you’ll find the secret bar within the library walls. Peek around the intricate swirls of the stone altars, and you will discover the jewel within the crown, The Eden Spa, by the aforementioned Sonya Dakar. With panoramic views of the city and just a stone’s throw away from the Borghese Gardens, the Hotel Eden is Roman luxury at it’s finest. And I haven’t even got started on the rooms.
VIP at the Vatican
Tempting as it will be to spend your entire trip within the confines of your hotel, the beckoning city outside has more than enough offerings to lure you out. Begin with the VIP breakfast and early access Vatican museum experience, available from viator.com, Monday to Saturday when weather’s permitting.
Lasting between three to four hours, a lavish buffet breakfast will be served in the Pinecone Courtyard, after which your small group will be guided through the Vatican museums before the crowds descend.
Next, make your way over to the Fendi Studios Exhibition at the bizarre fascist architecture of the Palazzo della Civilta. The exhibition examines the unusual relationship between the designer fashion house and Hollywood, utilised in films ranging from A Room with a View to Easy Rider. This is a short exhibition, running only from October 2017 until March 25th 2018, but worth booking to ensure that you’ve indulged in some old-school Italian Riviera glamour.
Dining among Michelin stars
Ticking off a Roman Michelin star is a must before you leave, and make it Ristorante Per Mi Giulio Terrinoni.
With green foliage draping the façade and a stylish yet unpretentious interior, like so much of Rome you could almost miss it, but make sure you don’t, as the food is beautifully sourced, presented and delivered. Tasting menus aim for an experience beyond just a meal, with titles such as “Sea Rhythms” and “Between Earth and Sea.”
Rome is somewhere that you can never quite complete, so many hidden treasures there are to be found. So regardless of how pampered, well-fed or invigorated you feel at the end of your trip, it won’t quite be enough. You’ll already be planning to come back for more.
For another take on experiencing Rome without breaking your buck, how about following in Robert Langdon’s footsteps through Rome in our self-guided walking tour Among Angels and Demons in Rome.
Lara Sierra has lived in Kenya, France and the UK before moving to Malta primarily writing for The Times of Malta. Follow her on Instagram to discover her Travel Secrets