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In Honor of Pope Francis: Four Travel Shortcuts in Rome

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White smoke is coming from the Sistine Chapel today, indicating that the Cardinals have chosen Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina the 266th pope. In addition to making headlines around the world, the announcement has caused a sudden boost in travel to Rome. Approximately 300,000 papal pilgrims were expected to visit the city for the conclave with the spike in tourism predicted to last until 2014.  With the spotlight on Rome today, we’re pointing out four travel shortcut to beat the tourist rush.

The Best Time to Visit the Vatican

St.PetersLines at the Vatican Museums can be mind-boggling and it’s not going to get better with the papal tourist. If you go first thing in the morning, you are likely to encounter waits of between two and three hours, with the line wrapping around for nearly a mile from the museums’ entrance back towards Piazza San Pietro.

Since the masses flock to the museum in the morning, be a contrarian and go in the afternoon. If you go around 1 p.m., the wait should be less than half an hour. If you go at 2 p.m., there should be practically no wait at all. Once there, you can guide yourself as you please using the audio guide. Also note, Monday is the worst day to plan your visit since there is often two days’ worth of crowds.

Keep in mind that on most days, the museums close at 4:30 pm (ticket sales stop at 3:30 pm) so the later you go, the shorter the lines, but also the less time you have. (Definitely consult the museums’ website for the hours the day you intend to visit)

Another option is to pay (about €25 per person) for a guided tour which you can pick up at the last minute in Piazza San Pietro. These last-minute tours involve hawkers soliciting clients in the piazza, guides and a rather formal pecking order, but may remind you of a circus. One thing to keep in mind is that you are, in fact, soliciting illegal services. Chances are that the tour will go off without a hitch or, in the worse case scenario, the guide will be caught and you will lose your €25. If you do choose to take this route (as do several hundred, if not thousands, of tourists per day) you will be able to sit comfortably in a café and enjoy a cappuccino while your guide waits in line for you.

How to Cut the Line at the Colosseum

Rome's ColosseumIt is a little-known fact that tickets purchased for the Colosseum are also valid for the Palatine Hill and vice versa. The Palatine Hill, another fascinating but much less frequented sight, has its own ticket booth where the line is generally negligible or non-existent.

To reach this ticket booth from the Colosseum, pass in front of the Arch of Constantine, walk up the Via Sacra and to the left of the Arch of Titus. Continue past the green booth (which sells audio guides) and down to the end of this short path where, on the left, you will find the Palatine Hill ticket booth. The five minutes it will take you to walk there and back can save you hours worth of waiting inside the Colosseum.

Get into the historic spirit of the Colosseum with The Gladiator School of Rome, which offers taught by members of the Historic Group of Rome/Gruppo Storico Romano.

Off-the-Beaten-Path Papal Attraction & Souvenir Steal

The crowds at the Vatican city will continue through next year, but there are reminders of the papal legacy throughout Rome. For something different, go underground. There are dozens of catacombs. For Catholics, St. Callixtus, the biggest and most popular underground cemetery, which has the crypt of nine popes as well as early Christian frescoes.

St. Callixtus might also be the best place to go for souvenirs. Rumor has it that the catacombs attract vendors have the same souvenirs as the Vatican, but who sell their goods for a bit less.

Escape the Tourist Traps

Mozzarella cheese, a typical Italian appetizer

Photo credit: Bob Cooper

Here’s a general rule that applies to travel to Rome and pretty much everywhere: Never eat in restaurants where the waiters are standing outside trying to coax you in. If you hear, “Prego, prego, buona sera, prego…” run the other way.

Don’t expect to find a good, reasonably priced restaurant anywhere within a mile radius of the Vatican City. After visiting the Vatican, invest in a five minute cab ride to the nearby Trastevere neighborhood. It’s hard to go wrong with the quaint Trastevere eateries, but in the small Piazza de Renzi in particular, there are two great places within a stone’s throw of one another. The first is called Casetta di Trastevere (“Little House of Trastevere”) which boasts charming ambiance and a to-die-for tiramisu. The other is called Da Augusto which exudes a traditional cucina romana-style charm. In either of these places you are guaranteed a great meal at a reasonable price, a million times better than what you’d eat if you stop in the first place you see when exiting the Vatican.

By Rachel B. Harrison and Lily J. Kosner for

Feature image Credit: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0