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Rome on a Budget: Letters from Italy

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When Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert went searching for pleasure, she headed to Rome, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Pleasure has been the focus of Roman life since ancient times when folks lounged around in the public baths getting olive oil massages.


Like Elizabeth, I find it effortless to blend in with Rome’s abundance of pleasures. Masterpieces take my breath away, tastes inspire culinary ecstasies, and all those gushing fountains set the “go with the beautiful flow” tone. To make it even more relaxing, it’s easy on the wallet, if you know where to go.


These tops picks will ensure you’ll have a pleasurably inexpensive trip to Rome.


Free Sights
You could spend an entire visit seeing masterpieces without spending a euro. Start with my favorite architectural wonder, the Pantheon, built in ancient times as a temple to all the goddesses and gods. At the center of its humongous dome is a circular opening that frames the ever changing Roman sky. It’s glorious any time of day, but if you catch it near sunset or during a rainstorm, you’re in for a dramatic view you’ll never forget.


Including the Pantheon, there are over a hundred churches in Rome that you can wander into for free and find amazing art. For instance, you can see one the world’s greatest sculptures, Michelangelo’s Pieta, at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Or if you’re like me and sat in your high school art history class gasping when Bernini’s Santa Teresa in Ecstasy flashed on the slideshow screen, you’ll find the sculpture at Santa Maria della Vittoria church.


For the best people watching with awesome architecture as a backdrop, head to the piazzas. You’ll find quintessential Baroque at the Piazza Navona, where Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers takes center stage. If you’re in the mood for chic, take the Spanish Steps down to the Via Condotti for Rome’s best window shopping.


For the most memorable view of the Roman Forum, take the stairs of the Campidoglio to its piazza designed by Michelangelo. Here you’ll find the perfect spot to overlook what was once downtown Rome. Even if you pay to walk through the Forum, getting a free view of it from the Campidoglio is the perfect starting point to get a sense of the grand plan of its layout—plus it’s a great place for a photo.


Where to Stay?
I’ve got to stretch the “budget” concept to let you know that if you’ve ever dreamed of treating yourself to five-star luxury in Rome, right now there are incredible discounts. My first choice is The Saint Regis Grand, one of the most elegant places I’ve ever slept in. Rooms are going for $318.00 a night on Expedia.com, more than half off the usual price.


For 150 euros a night and under, Rome has molto options in every neighborhood. Check out my Get Thee to a Nunnery article for info about Rome’s convent lodgings, which are open to even the non-religious, with starting prices of around forty-five euros.


Rome By is a great site to find a selection of low-priced B&Bs, hotels, and apartments. You’ll be searching by neighborhood, so click on Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. That’ll put you in the heart of the historic center, close to the daily outdoor market and surrounded by wonderful restaurants. Two of my favorite finds in those areas are: The Maison Giulia, a seven room B&B on Via Giulia (Rome’s most elegant street) and Hotel Teatro Pace, a three-star hotel in a 17th century building right around the corner from the Piazza Navona.


If you’re staying a few days or more in Rome, you can get bargain deals on apartments. On my last trip, I booked through Roma Rentals SPQR and scored a huge renovated studio with a kitchen, washing machine, and piazza view, near the Campo de’ Fiori for 500 euros a week. What sets this company apart from others I’ve dealt with is that Americans run it very professionally. Whereas with other rental companies I’ve come to expect bumps in the road as far as meeting me on my arrival or checking me out, with Roma Rentals, that business was smooth as can be and the apartment was the best I’ve ever rented in Rome. Just please don’t rent “Paradiso” the next time I want it or I’ll be so sorry I wrote about it in this letter!


Budget Restaurants
Romans love to eat out and they are discerning diners, so if you seek out places where the natives go, you’re guaranteed a great meal for a good price. This means you should avoid being sucked into the pricey tourist restaurants that surround Rome’s piazzas, staffed by overly-friendly waiters trying to lure you to their tables.


A favorite trattoria of the locals and mine is Ai Balestrari (Via dei Balestrari 41), down an alley from the Campo de’ Fiori. It may look too cliché to be true: red and white checked tablecloths and a strolling guitarist. But it’s the real deal and serves up excellent Roman specialties like fried artichokes and spaghetti cacio e pepe (a delicious pecorino cheese and pepper sauce). A short walk away from the Piazza Navona is Da Francesco (Piazza del Fico), another folksy place that also serves fab pastas and has a scrumptious antipasti bar.


Trastevere, right across the Tiber River, is a neighborhood packed with wonderful pizzerias and inexpensive pasta places. You’ll love Da Augusto (15 Piazza de’ Renzi), where the waiter totals up your bill by scribbling numbers on your paper table cloth. This place is so popular with locals and in-the-know-tourists that you should show up at 8:30 for dinner to avoid a long wait.


Shopping
The Campo de’ Fiori market (open every morning but Sunday) is a lively place to shop for under ten euro souvenirs. There are stalls with scarves for the girlfriends back home, kitschy aprons decorated with pasta shapes or maps of Italy, and a kitchen supply stand where you can pick up fun items like espresso pots. On the edge of the market is a Salumeria—perfect to buy cheeses that the flirty counter guys will vacuum pack so you can tuck them in your suitcase and bring a taste of Rome home.


It won’t be easy to say Arrivederci, Roma. So don’t forget to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure that you’ll be back. And take it from me, it doesn’t matter the denomination—I’ve thrown in pennies. Rome has proven to be a generous place: it even grants wishes for a bargain.

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