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Rome Do’s and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Roman Knows

When in Rome, do as the Romans do—with the help of these insider tips for decoding Italy’s capital city.
Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

Rome is a city of controlled chaos, where three millennia of human habitation have culminated in a set of unspoken rules that come naturally to most Romans, but may surprise visitors. The Eternal City pairs its la dolce vita nonchalance with a rigid sense of etiquette—especially around dressing and dining—that lends order to an otherwise famously ungovernable metropolis. Keep these essential rules in mind to navigate the city with the confidence and flair of a true citizen of Rome.

Do time your sightseeing right

Visitors look out over the Roman landscape.
Plan accordingly when visiting the city’s ancient sites.Photo Credit: Matej Kastelic / Shutterstock

Beat the heat and the crowds with savvy timing.

Romans are often tourists in their own city, which is so thick with spectacular cultural sights that it would take a lifetime to cover them all. Locals know that timing is everything, however, and plan accordingly to visit the city’s art collections, ancient sites, and baroque palaces when they’re cool and quiet. Purchase tickets in advance and hit the A-list attractions in the early morning or late afternoon; many top spots also have special evening hours during the summer.

Insider tip: Keep in mind that state-owned museums and archaeological ruins are free on the first Sunday of each month, so avoid visiting on that crowded and chaotic day.

Don’t be overexposed

A visitor enjoys the Trevi Fountain.
Opt for modest clothing when visiting Rome.Photo Credit: RossHelen / Shutterstock

Opt for clothing that covers knees and shoulders (or pack a wrap).

Rome is scorching in the summer, so it’s tempting to toss on shorts and a tank top to tour the city. Many sights require modest dress to enter, however, including the Pantheon (which, surprisingly, is officially a Catholic church) and the Vatican Museums (which include the Sistine Chapel). Romans know the dress code, so most instinctively wear long summer pants or skirts and tops with short sleeves no matter what their plans are—or keep a light wrap in their bag, just in case.

Do drink from the fountains

A woman drinks from a water fountain in Rome.
Fresh water is available at drinking fountains around the city.Photo Credit: Volodymyr Nik / Shutterstock

Rome’s “nasoni” water fountains are the city’s best-kept secret.

Romans often snicker at the tourists shelling out unthinkable amounts of money for bottles of water at the street stands clustered around the major sights, knowing that fresh water is there for the taking at the nasoni just steps away. There are more than 2,000 of these historic water fountains—dubbed “big noses” for their distinctive design—scattered across the city, and the water is cool, safe to drink, and free. Use the faucet to fill a water bottle or block the spout with your thumb to force the water through the small hole on its top, creating a convenient drinking fountain.

Don’t take a dip

The Trevi Fountain at dusk.
The Trevi Fountain is not meant for swimming.Photo Credit: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Rome’s famous fountains are historic landmarks, not public pools.

Each year when the mercury starts to climb, Roman headlines fill with accounts of tourists swimming in the Trevi Fountain and other water features around the city. This is simply not done in Rome, where locals recognize their historic fountains for the cultural treasures they are. Not only will an illicit dip earn you a fine (or even arrest), it will attract the withering disdain of nearby Romani. If you’re yearning for a swim, head to one of the city’s rooftop hotel pools (most sell day passes) or join the Romans basking at Santa Marinella beach, a short train ride from the city center.

Do eat on a Roman schedule

Diners enjoy Rome's aperitivo scene.
Consider experiencing Rome's aperitivo scene.Photo Credit: znatalias / Shutterstock

All-day dining is a sure tourist trap.

You may be used to having lunch at noon and dinner at 6pm, but dining in Rome runs later, with lunch around 1:30pm and dinner around 8pm. There are a few restaurants in the city offering all-day dining, but these eateries cater primarily to tourists, since most authentic Roman restaurants close between the lunch and dinner hours. To push through to your dinner reservations, dive into Rome’s lively aperitivo scene, a sort of pre-dinner happy hour that features light cocktails and snacks.

Related:The Do's and Don'ts of Aperitivo in Italy and Primi, Secondi, Contorni: How to Order Food in Rome Like a Local

Don’t dine overlooking major monuments

Diners eat al fresco in Rome.
Stay away from restaurants surrounding tourist hot spots.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

The view may be divine, but the food won’t be.

Stroll past the restaurants in Piazza Navona or surrounding the Pantheon and you’ll notice one thing: tables overflowing with tourists and not one Roman in sight. Locals know that these eateries bank on their location and the food is almost always lackluster. Luckily, the city is bursting with traditional trattorias, so just a short stroll down a sidestreet is likely to lead you to a landmark eatery. Avoid any restaurant that has “hosts” outside urging you to enter, menus in a variety of languages, or photos of the dishes posted outside—all sure signs of a tourist trap.

Do be vigilant about your valuables

A tour group explores the ancient Roman streets.
Be sure to stay vigilant about your belongings. Photo Credit: Kirk Fisher / Shutterstock

Never hang bags over your chair back when dining outdoors.

Rome, like any major city, has its fair share of petty crime, with pickpocketing topping the list. Protecting valuables like purses, wallets, and smartphones has become second nature to Romans, so follow their same basic safeguards to deter sticky fingers. In addition to tucking away your wallet and phone inside zippered pockets while strolling around the city, never leave valuables hanging off of your chair back or sitting on the table at outdoor restaurants. Store your belongings safely on your lap or on the ground between your feet while you’re distracted with your plate of carbonara.

Don’t flag down taxis

A taxi rank in Rome.
Taxis in Rome need to be hired from designated taxi stands.Photo Credit: TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock

Cabs in Rome can only be hired at designated taxi stands.

Most tourists assume that you simply raise your arm to hail a passing cab on any city street, but locals know that you can only hire a taxi from one of the designated taxi stands (or by phone) by law in Rome. Luckily, there are taxi stands near every major monument and square, train station, and airport, so you usually don’t have to walk very far to find a stand. Only hire licensed taxis (white with their taxi company name and vehicle number on the door) and be prepared for surcharges for luggage, extra passengers, and night service.

Do use the metro

Down in the metro of Rome.
The metro in Rome is great for getting around.Photo Credit: Karl Allen Lugmayer / Shutterstock

Travel across the city quickly and cheaply by subway.

Rome’s subway system is no-frills, but practical. There are metro stops near major sights like the Colosseum and Spanish Steps and, unlike the city’s famously unreliable bus system, the subway trains generally run on time. There are two main lines in the city center, Line A (red) and Line B (blue), and they intersect beneath the Termini train station for easy transfers. Though many Romans avoid the city’s buses, the metro system is used by locals and tourists alike.

Don’t be afraid to say no

A street vendor in Rome.
Street vendors are common in Rome.Photo Credit: Claudio Bottoni / Shutterstock

Engaging with street vendors is a waste of time and money.

Though the city is starting to crack down, throngs of street vendors can still be seen hawking everything from long-stemmed roses to the chance to take a snapshot with a fully-costumed gladiator. Romans have adopted the most efficient way of dealing with their aggressive sales pitches: simply ignore them. Avoid eye contact and continue on with your conversation or stroll without breaking stride. It may seem brusque or even rude, but engaging in any way will result in a long, protracted negotiation for an item you have no interest in purchasing. Take your cue from the locals and just keep walking and talking.

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