Prepping for your first trip to Rome

A reader of my blog emailed me a few weeks ago, asking how she might prepare for her first trip to Rome, and I thought that her question would make a great post for the blog.  Preparing for your first trip to the Eternal City can be a daunting one, and many travelers feel overwhelmed by all the information that they find online and in guidebooks.

Today’s “digital age” can make travel planning a bit easier, but it still does require a bit of preparation, and you really shouldn’t wait until the last minute.  Do your homework before you go: if you live in the United States, you will have a plane trip of several hours…perfect time to break out the guidebook and read up on Rome and all that is has to offer (although I recommend studying up at least a few weeks before you go).

Here are some ideas that I gave her:

Get a guidebook, stat:

You can’t go to Rome without first reading at least some parts of your guidebook.  Do read the practical sections:  learn where the embassy is, read up on the basic customs (most guidebooks have these kinds of sections), familiarize yourself with the general hours of businesses (some Americans might be surprised that things do close in Rome!) and most other useful information that we take for granted when we are at home.

Try to buy a guidebook that is specific to Rome, as this will give you the most bang for your buck.  General guidebooks on Italy certainly have a chapter or two on Rome, but you will also get a lot of information that might not be useful on your trip.  If you plan to see other parts of Italy, then this might work better for you.  Guidebooks do not have to be those hulking 600 page tomes that you find in your bookstore.  Electronic versions exists, such as Lonely Planet guides which can be purchased chapter by chapter online.  I recommend: Rick Steve’s Rome 2012 or Frommer’s Rome Day by Day.  National Geographic Traveler’s Rome (3rd edition) gives a great overview of the city, its history, things to see and do but doesn’t have a huge list of lodging and eating recommendations.

Guidebooks can also be useful for finding places to stay and eat.  I try not to give lodging recommendations because what I like might not be the same thing that others like.  Choose a place to stay that is within your price range and comfort.  Check out Tripadvisor.com or Hotels.com for reviews of hotels that you might read about in your guidebook.  Short stay apartments might require more work up front, but they can often offer a more comfortable experience.  A good guidebook will lay out all the recommendations for you.

Also, make sure that you learn a little basic Italian before you go: how to say please, thank you, where’s the bathroom, and that sort of thing.  Even if you don’t have the courage or want to speak it, knowing a little of the language can make it easier to understand the locals as you get around.  Most guidebooks have basic phrasebooks, but there are tons of online resources.  My favorite:  Learnitalianpod.com!  It’s free to use, and there are dozens of useful podcasts for beginners!

You need a map:

You need a good map, and you should do your best to study it.  Familiarizing yourself with your environment will make you more at ease and help you to appreciate more your surroundings.  Nothing worse than spending your trip with your face buried in a map and missing all the great sites and wonders around you.

I would recommend an electronic map that you can pull up on your smartphone (if you have one) — such as Google Maps, Mapquest, etc. — or a small, folding map that you can use one those days of inclement weather or when your phone is about to die.  Most guidebooks have maps in the pages or a map stashed in the back of the book that you can pull out.  Try to avoid those big, hulking maps that require a large dining room table to use.  You simply won’t have the space or time to use it while you’re on the streets, and using such a map makes you look like a tourist.  Do your best to draw the least amount of attention to yourself.

The reason I recommend an electronic map is that it will be more up to date than a map printed 2 or 3 years ago.  Check out the Rome app published by mTrip for iPhone and Android phones.

Useful apps to bring along:

Even if you don’t use your smartphone to make calls, it can be a useful resource for its apps.  Simply put your phone in airplane mode if you don’t intend to make calls, turn off anything else that might drain the battery, and you’re good to go.  During my last trip to Rome, I took along my iPhone, put it into airplane mode, dimmed the brightness and disabled things I wouldn’t be using, and I got more than a full day’s use out of the phone.  This will allow you to make use of apps, like mTrip’s Rome app or any other useful apps you might wish to take with you, such as currency converters, restaurant guides, and the like.

If you’ve never been to Rome, do look at Katie Parla’s Room for Foodies app (works on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, and there’s an Android version, too), which features a useful selection of restaurants, bars, wine bars, pizzerias and more.  Finding restaurants that offer the best experience can be difficult if you don’t speak the language.  This app takes the guess work out of it, and the app developer has vetted all of the places, too!

As I mentioned before, mTrip’s Rome app is an indispensable app for getting around Rome and is helpful in creating itineraries and finding things to do.  It can also be used offline, too.  It is one of my favorite apps.

There are several audio guide apps, too.  I like CitySpeaker’s Audio Guide for Rome. Italyguides Rome is useful, too, but a little pricey. Rome 2 Go is a helpful app in getting around the city with information on local sites and general tourist information. Taxi Italia might be a useful app, too, while you’re in Rome – you can read a review of the app (in Italian) from iPhoneItalia.

Remember to disable your data connection if need be while in Rome so that you don’t return back to your home country with a shocking mobile phone bill!

In conclusion…

Don’t rely too much on technology, and remember to bring a paper map with you as a backup in case batteries die or break or perhaps might be stolen (petty theft can be an annoying problem in Rome, but if you keep your wits about you, this shouldn’t be a problem).  Learn as much as you can about your surroundings before you get there, and you will have a better trip for it!