Rome is the largest city in Italy and the easiest to blend into. Start by looking the part and avoid wardrobe clichés like white socks with sandals. When you’re ready head to a neighborhood bar. These can be a little intimidating and being foreign will get you escorted to an outdoor table next to the other tourists. Kindly decline and make a b-line for the counter where the coffee is cheaper and tastes just as good. You’ll be surrounded by locals downing espresso and saying goodbye in seconds flat. Follow their lead and experience Rome like a local.
Locals walk or use public transportation. In the morning they buy groceries from outdoor markets and you can do the same at the Testaccio Market or Campo de’ Fiori. The former has a higher concentration of residents and you can listen in on their banter with the butchers, bakers and greengrocers that fill this covered market. Fruit makes a great edible souvenir and buying oranges, grapes or peaches is good practice for your Italian.
Romans may not visit the Colosseum or Forum very often but they love a good view and their favorite is of their city. Trade Testaccio for Aventino and stroll through the gardens to the terrace overlooking the Tiber. There are other fine lookout points around the city but the local favorite is undoubtedly Gianicolo Hill. A canon is fired at 12pm and that when locals start thinking about lunch.
Food is a major obsession with Romans and Italians in general. After a few days you may also become obsessed and there’s nothing more pleasant than searching for somewhere good to eat. Trastevere is full of trattorie but many haven’t seen a local in years. The western side of the neighborhood across Viale di Trastevere is quieter and you have a better chance of dining next to Italians at Hosteria Luce.
Sitting down for lunch is a time to relax. Adapt to pace and don’t get annoyed by slowness unless it’s extreme slowness in which you can get as angry as the locals do. Don’t use their language however and avoid adding unnecessary condiments to dishes. Food is served the way it’s meant to be eaten and you won’t find salt, pepper, olive oil or Parmesan on tables. Top everything off with an espresso and never leave more than €5 for a tip unless you want to be accused of being a tourist.
Romans love their parks and spend mornings, afternoons and evenings strolling, running and cycling through Villa Borghese. Grab a four-wheeled bike and discover why they love it especially in summer when shade from the umbrella pines provides relief from the heat. Drinking fountains are also helpful and provide convenient thirst relief. The nasoni or little noses have curved spouts and a particular way of being used. Watch and learn.
Nothing important happens between 2pm and 4pm and you shouldn’t plan a shopping spree during these hours. This is the time shops close and most Romans are indoors. It’s also the time to take a nap. You’ll awake refreshed and ready to start the day all over again. Romans enjoy their coffee at all times but the mid-afternoon cup is special and Tazza d’Oro or Caffè Sant’Eustachio serve it religiously. Romans will also snack on tramezzini and you can find these triangular sandwiches at nearly all bars.
When locals want to get away without going far they head to Via Appia Antica. This ancient road is ideal for cycling and you can rent a bike from the park office. Another favorite pastime is the beach and from April to October Romans sun themselves along the sandy shores of Ostia 30 minutes from the center. Ride the train from Piramide Station to the last stop and choose one of the beach establishments equipped with lounge chairs and umbrellas or lie down on the public beaches nearby.
Roman days are carefully regulated and 6pm is aperitivo time. Office workers are free once again and motor their way through the city at top speed to ensure they get a good seat. Not working gives you a considerable advantage. You can opt for lively bars near Campo de’Fiori like Open Baladin or intimate emporiums such as Gusto.
Happy hour fades into dinner and every Roman knows where to order the best cacio e pepe or Amatriciana pasta. Developing your gastronomic IQ takes practice and you can start your education with traditional fare from Roscioli or Da Gino. Romans are critical eaters and never shy about letting waiters know their opinion. If it’s good let them know and if it’s not let them know. In either case they might pour you a glass of limonecello or grappa liquor on the house.
Romans prefer to live outdoors and most of the year they can. Summer evenings are no exception and the food and beverage kiosks lined up along the Tiber attract residents of all ages. Everything changes in summer including bedtimes, which are considerably later that usual. Last call can be 2 or 3am and the clubs around Monte Testaccio and discos like Goa nearby have no trouble attracting dancers.
Roman males have one love and that is calcio (soccer). There are two teams in the city and needless to say rival fans do not get along or want their sisters dating supporters of the other side. Streets are deserted during games and bars showing matches in Monti and Testaccio become animated whenever a goal is scored or the referee blows his whistle the wrong way. To really understand this obsession you’ll need to sit inside Stadio Olimpico and watch AS Roma or SS Lazio in action.
Driving is a sport in Rome and until you’ve gotten behind the wheel of a rented vespa or Fiat 500 you’ll never feel the rush of real adrenaline. Road etiquette is minimal and what counts is getting wherever you need to go in the shortest amount of time. That’s usually counter productive and driving slowly has the same results but the testosterone filled drivers don’t seem to care. Enjoy and Car2Go car sharing makes it easy to grab a car whenever you like and test your skills on the Roman road.
You might also like: Florence Like a Local
Alexei Cohen lives in Rome, Italy and writes travel guides about
his adopted land. Moon: Rome, Florence & Venice is available now.