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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.