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How to visit Rome in the austerity era

The Catholic Herald’s Rome correspondent knows the Eternal City inside out. Here he offers tips for pilgrims for whom every penny counts

By on Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Tourists crowd the bridge leading to Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (CNS)

Tourists crowd the bridge leading to Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (CNS)

Thanks to low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, it is sometimes cheaper to fly to Rome than it is to travel from your home to the airport. But what about once you’re there? Although living in Rome is expensive, it is possible to make a weekend trip on a shoestring. The key, as always, is knowing where to stay, the best value tickets to buy and the most economical way to travel.

In terms of accommodation, if the traveller is looking to stay in hotels, the best method is to look on the internet and search sites such as Kayak.com or Hotels.com. But most of these can be relatively expensive and, if you’re looking for rooms under €30 or €40 (£25 or £33) a night, you’re not likely to find them there.

The alternative, especially if you’re a pilgrim, is to visit the website Istituti Religiosi. This is the only website promoting accommodation in religious institutes, shelters, holiday homes, monasteries and convents throughout Italy. The site has 800 facilities on its books, more than 100 of which are in Rome. Many are reasonably priced. Like other travel sites, this one asks visitors to key in their dates and number of guests, and the availability of the cheapest accommodation appears along with photographs.

The company says its inventory of places to stay is “constantly changing” as new places come online. It says its aim is to provide visitors access to Italy’s vast heritage, “linked to ancient traditions of hospitality and spirituality that have developed on the great religious itineraries of Christianity”. It also believes that religious institutes and shelters “contribute to the renewal of religious tourism, arts and culture, thanks to a very high standard of quality and an exceptional quality-to-price ratio”. A last-minute service is also offered and visitors can sign up for a periodic newsletter. A spokesman for Istituti Religiosi told me the rates are very low at the moment, possibly partly because of the recession, but they vary according to the standard of the accommodation.

Aside from religious institutions, the Beehive near Termini Station is regarded as cheap and cheerful accommodation with very good reviews. Prices are €25 a person for dormitory beds. Other hotels near Termini are also on the budget end of the scale, though bear in mind that parts of the area are quite sleazy.

The rental firm Airbnb offers some self-catering apartments, though these can be overpriced compared to those in other European cities. But it also has some reasonably priced bed and breakfast rooms. These can also be found at the Bed and Breakfast Association of Rome, which offers more than 100 bed and breakfasts, and apartments located in the historic centre of Rome, as well as in other areas of the city.

Rome is full of restaurants, nearly all of them good quality, so it’s not difficult to find some good value places. Fodor’s has a selection of some of the cheapest, but there are many others. One tip is to steer clear of the tourist areas – those nearest the Vatican or other major sites. You’ll probably want to skip a drink in the piazza in front of the Pantheon which is notoriously expensive.

For a cheaper option, Rome also has many pizza taglio outlets where you can buy just a slice of pizza and a drink for around €5 (£4). A few supermarkets have now sprung up in town, especially around the Pantheon. And if you’re really trying to save the pennies and need a drink, Rome has many drinking fountains around town where good quality water is always on tap.

For budget pilgrims, a major advantage is that most Church-related sites are free, except to visit some of their cloisters, museums or archaeological areas which charge a small fee. This applies to the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome, the city’s ancient and major churches, which comprise the basilicas of St John Lateran, St Peter’s, St Paul’s Outside the Walls, St Mary Major, St Lawrence Outside the Walls, St Sebastian and the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. All the other 350 or so churches in Rome are also free to enter, though of course they appreciate donations.

Museums tend to be relatively costly, as do the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, though the costs can be reduced by taking a tour, which can sometimes combine a group of sites and be cheaper than individual entrance tickets.

The price of a ticket to the Vatican Museums is €16 (£13), €8 (£7) for reductions and €4 (£3) for students. On the last Sunday of every month, from 9am to 12.30pm, the Museums are free. The Museums recommend that you prepare to be “extremely patient” as queues outside the entrance “can get rather long”.

Money can also be saved through transport tickets. Public transport in Rome is considerably cheaper than in most capital cities and coach companies offer cheap transfers from the airport. One of the most well known is Terravision. Once in the city, a single ticket costs €1.50 (£1), lasts 100 minutes and is valid on all the city’s buses, trams and metro. Daily tickets cost €6 (£5), while a three-day tourist tickets €16.50 (£14), and a weekly €24 (£20). The Roma Pass card for €34 (£28) offers transport with various discounts to museums and other attractions.

The 110 Open ticket is a hop-on hop-off tourist bus that takes passengers through all the major historical and artistic sights of the city, including archaeological ones. Prices range from €12 (£10) to €20 (£17). There is also the Archaeobus, which stops at all the most famous Roman archaeological sites and costs €13 (£11). For a more Christian-oriented excursion, Roma Cristiana, operated by the Vicariate of Rome’s pilgrimage office, offers tours throughout the centre of Rome. Prices range from €15 (£13) to €33 (£28).

If you’re in a group, good pro-Catholic tour companies exist that are reasonably priced – though surprisingly few. A couple of good ones are Eternal City Tours and Your Roman Holiday.

But if money is tight and you’re happy not to have a guide, you can simply rely on your own two feet and a guidebook. One particularly welcome aspect to Rome is that all the major sights are within walking distance. You could, for example, see the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Venezia in one afternoon as they are all within a mile of each of other. Walking to the Vatican from that area only takes about half an hour.

The other obvious tip in visiting Rome on a budget is to avoid peak holiday times, as well as from April to May and in September and October, when the weather is at its best. Hotels also often raise prices during public holidays, so it’s better to avoid January 1, January 6, March 17, Good Friday to Easter Monday, April 25, May 1, June 2, August 15, November 1, December 8, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Hotels will also already be raising their prices around April 27 for the canonisations of popes John XXIII and John Paul II. If you’re a budget traveller, you’ll probably wish to
steer clear of Rome then.

But whatever time you choose, Rome has so many invaluable and beautiful treasures that even off-peak seasons are a good time to visit. And as an added bonus, you won’t need a large bank account to do so.

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald, dated 18/10/13