Rome on a budget

The cheap life

Andrew Borthwick does as the Romans do on a budget.

The Romans have a saying: ‘you’d need a lifetime to see all that Rome has to offer’. This seemed a laughable notion as my partner and I only had a few days in Italy’s capital. After not having taken a holiday in over three years, I was determined to leave feeling rested and recuperated. And we were on a budget, so we wanted to see as much of Rome as possible, for as little as possible, in a short space of time, and come home relaxed. A tall order? No way.

Arriving in the early evening was a blessing because we could dump our luggage at our hotel then go for dinner. We stumbled across a sushi place called Hamasei, which was too expensive for us, but evidently not for BBC period drama actors as the cast of Rome were dining there. Fortunately, next door at Pizza Ciro (Via della Mercede 43) a beer and a pizza cost less than £10. The restaurant was fast, friendly and frequented by locals - always a good sign.

Next day, our first stop was the bus stop. As unstylish as you feel, the 12 all-day passes for the open-top buses are a useful way of getting your bearings and spotting potential sites for visiting.

The obvious place for film fans to start is the Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, you won’t find it occupied by one lone starlet, à la La Dolce Vita; it’s usually packed with hordes of holidaymakers throwing pennies in it for good luck. Go back late at night when there’s relative peace and the sculpture is illuminated.

The Pantheon is nearby and certainly worth a look. Run in during a downpour and catch the unique spectacle of rain falling into the middle of the church. While in the area, be sure to visit the infamous La Casa del Caffè (Via Degli Orfani 85A). This is where locals get their caffeine fix, as they stand elbow to elbow sipping 90 cent lattes before hopping back on their Vespas.

It’s worth noting, though, that even in reasonably priced cafés a cappuccino and pastry can set you back as much as €7. Budget travellers may want to consider breakfast at McDonalds where the same items cost €1.5. As reluctant as I am to recommend the golden arches, the coffee is freshly ground and brewed in front of you, and tastes surprisingly good. And with not a Starbucks in sight, you’ve got to do your bit to help the global empires somehow . . .

Talking of which, when you go to the Vatican, go early. We went to St Peter’s Basilica first and had to endure long waits. After three hours of shuffling cattle-like through claustrophobic corridors, I regressed 20 years to the mentality of a small child: tired, grumpy and hungry. It wasn’t until our final emergence at the Sistine Chapel that any sense of wonder occurred.

For real jaw-to-the-floor amazement, head to the Altare della Patria building. Compared with the Vatican’s gaudy display of power, the Altare della Patria is an architectural wonder of grandeur and sheer magnitude. You can imagine Jupiter himself dictating the fate of mortals from here (OK, so it was Mussolini who gave the speeches, but the god complex is still the same).

The Colosseum is the other genuine must-see, and if you book online in advance you’ll avoid the queues. It’s very cheap - around £6 - and the tour guides are a lot more accurate than Russell Crowe’s Maximus.

After a few days of tourist trekking we were ready for some proper R&R. The Botanical Gardens in the Trastevere quarter (off Via della Lungara) aren’t fantastic, but they do provide an excellent opportunity to feel like you’ve escaped the chaos of the city. One afternoon of horizontal chilling wasn’t enough for our weary bones, so we took a short taxi ride to the other side of town, through the gardens of Monte Pincio. There you’ll find the Hotel Aldrovandi Palace (Via Ulisse Aldrovandi), which allows you to use the outdoor pool as a guest. At €40 (£25), it’s not cheap but after days of walking around town we were ready to pay anything for the chance to rest our feet.

You can’t go to Italy and not talk about the food, and in Rome there’s an abundance of cheap, exquisite options. Ignore the expensive, touristy Via Veneto and give a wide berth to the restaurants around the Trevi Fountain and Pantheon - tellingly, the worst food and service of our trip was at L’Arcano near the Pantheon (Via della Pavte 102). Instead, tour the back streets near Piazza de Spagna and mingle with the real Romans. The Gioia Mia restaurant (Via Degli Avignonesi 34, near the Piazza Barberini), recommended to us by Italians, serves delicious, affordable, authentic food. Be warned though: the younger waiters will do all they can to steal your lady from right under your nose, and there’s not much you can do about it when service is included.

After a few days surrounded by sartorial elegance, you may want to splash out on your own new threads. Don’t let the magnitude of designer shops fool you - there are plenty of affordable places around the Spanish Steps, and Benetton, Lacoste and Zara all offer reduced rates to the UK. Which is helpful when you have to compete with lothario waiters.

Factfile: Rome

Getting there and around :Thomson Cities and Short Breaks Price offer three night packages from Edinburgh with British Airways (via London Gatwick) to Rome from £353 per person. Price includes bed and breakfast accommodation, return flights and taxes (0870 606 1476, The direct train between Fiumicino Airport and Termini Station costs €9.50 and takes 30 minutes. From there you will need to use buses or taxis to get to your hotel. Most cabs will travel from Fiumicino Airport directly to your hotel for €50. Rome has a good bus and metro network (trains from 5.30am until 11.30pm every day and until 12.30am on Saturday), although if you’re in the city centre prepare to do a lot of walking.

Accommodation: Thomson’s deal includes accommodation at the family run, three-star City Hotel, located five minutes’ walk from the Spanish Steps, (Via Due Macelli 97), in the heart of Rome’s shopping district.

What to do: Central Rome is easily navigated on foot, which is the best way to take in all the cafés, restaurants and shops. For a wide selection of guided tours to monuments and tourist sites go to For full details on cultural activities, nightlife and events, have a look at


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