Travel

How to See Ancient Rome Without Crowds or Hassles

We get it, historical tours aren’t always the most gripping part of a trip. But no visit to Rome is complete without touring the city’s ancient archaeological sites, especially for first-timers. The Colosseum, after all, is the very symbol of the city and one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. The Roman Forum, home to mighty triumphal arches and crumbling temples, presents a veritable timeline of Republican and Imperial Rome. And on Palatine Hill sits the earliest remains of the city’s founding, plus the once-lavish palaces of its emperors and despots. If you’ve come all the way to Rome with zero interest in seeing Gladiator and/or any of these sites, well, we’re not really sure why you’ve come all the way to Rome. 
 
Tempted to explore them all? Now we’re talking. Tempted to explore them all in one day? Not unless you want to hate yourself. There is no quicker path to regretting your trip to Rome than trying to cram in all the tourist attractions at once. 
 
The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill are included on a combined ticket that is good for two days. So if your schedule permits (and if it doesn’t, we urge you to adjust your schedule), the hands-down best tactic for seeing and appreciating all three sites is to spread the visit over two days. Here are our top insider tips, tactics, and things to know before you plan a visit to Rome’s most famous ancient attractions.

Access to the Colosseum is by timed entry only

New as of 2019, visitors to the Colosseum need to schedule, in advance, their entry time. Do this at the Colosseum’s online ticket office -- and by advance, we mean well in advance of your trip. This is especially true during the busy summer months. (We checked in mid-July for tickets, and didn’t find any open time slots until well into August.) Print out your ticket and bring it with you, rather than trying to pick it up on-site. This will save you time, which means more space in the day to eat gelato. 

Pick an early morning time slot

The Colosseum opens at 8:30 am. If possible, grab the earliest morning time slot and get there before all those other chumps. If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll also avoid the worst of the midday heat. If no morning time slots are available, settle for an afternoon slot (and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate) but make sure you enter at least two hours before closing. Anything less and you might as well have just toured the Colosseum on Google Maps. Closing times vary depending on the season -- check opening hours here.

Which Colosseum tour is right for you?!?!?

On the Colosseum’s ticketing site, you’ll see a raft full of options that is, frankly, a bit mind-boggling. The “ordinary admission” ticket is priced at €12 (plus a €2 service charge), and is the best option for people with limited time/attention spans who just want a basic tour. It includes access to the first and second levels of the Colosseum (plus entry to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill -- more on that later).

Gladiator fans should opt for the €16 ticket, which offers additional access. Choose between the Colosseum’s upper third level, normally closed to the public, OR the underground, where you'll see the maze of tunnels and cells used to house wild animals and gladiators about to meet their fate. The €23 ticket throws in a guided tour (in English, Spanish or Italian).

And finally, for all you history professors out there, an all-in-one ticket for €29 includes a guided tour of both the upper level AND the underground. Once the guided tour is over, you’re free to stay in the Colosseum for as long as you like.

Pre-purchased Colosseum tickets also grant you access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Your pre-purchased ticket will display a specific date and entry time for the Colosseum -- but it also grants you access to the Forum and Palatine the day before (OR after) your Colosseum visit. If your Colosseum ticket is for April 21, for example, you can present the ticket the day before, on April 20 (or the day after, on April 22) to enter the Roman Forum or Palatine. The timing doesn’t matter -- so even if your timed Colosseum ticket says 4pm, you can access the other sites whenever you want the previous (or following) day.

But really, see the Forum and Palatine first 

As the civic and ceremonial heart of Rome, the Roman Forum was, for roughly 1,000 years, the very center of Roman life. As the Empire declined, so did the Forum, which was eventually used as a marble quarry and a cow pasture. Excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries brought the Forum back to light, and today, the iconic remains of temples, assembly halls, and religious sanctuaries are among the most evocative sights in the Western world. It’s stunning. Plan to spend the better part of your morning here.

Make sense of it all with a decent guidebook or app

Even for trained archaeologists, distinguishing one set of ruins from the next can be a challenge. And signage? Pffftt. It’s practically nonexistent. If your guidebook to Rome contains a walking tour of the Forum, make good use of it. If you are an armchair Indiana Jones, you may want to invest in a guidebook dedicated solely to the archeological zones. If ink on paper isn’t your style, a few apps offer decent walking tours, among them the free ForumApp, produced by Rome’s official archaeological office. The app includes locations of bathrooms (crucial information!), water fountains, and entrances/exits. Rick Steves Audio Europe, from the beloved travel guru, offers free podcast walking tours, which, if downloaded, will work without a WiFi or cell phone connection.  

Make the trek up to the Palatine

Many visitors to Rome skip the Palatine Hill, thinking there’s nothing to see up there and the climb seems a little daunting. They’re missing out. Don’t be like them! The Palatine Hill, one of the famous seven hills of Rome, is credibly considered the birthplace of Rome, where fratricidal twin Romulus established his first fiefdom in 753 BCE. As Rome grew, the high ground overlooking the overcrowded city streets became prime real estate, and today the Palatine is dotted with the remains of vast imperial palaces, high-end apartment buildings, and monumental covered walkways plus a small, decent museum. Far fewer tourists make the trek up here, so you may feel like you’ve got the sprawling ruins, verdant gardens, and sweeping views all to yourself.

Consider buying a S.U.P.E.R. ticket

If the Palatine Hill piques your interest, then invest in a S.U.P.E.R. ticket (it stands for Seven Unique Places to Experience in Rome -- clever!), which grants access to several otherwise off-limits sites that are actually pretty unique. Among them are the frescoed remains of the palaces of Emperor Augustus and his wife, Livia. Maybe separate houses were the secret to their long marriage? The S.U.P.E.R. ticket costs an extra €6 on top of the regular €12 ticket, and can be purchased in advance or as an add-on when you arrive at the Forum or Palatine.

Procrastinate much? Consider a skip-the-line Colosseum tour

If you fail to purchase your timed-entry Colosseum tickets well in advance, there is a fall-back: about a gazillion companies offer "skip-the-line" tours -- just Google “Colosseum tickets” if you don’t believe us -- that, for anywhere from €18 and up, allow you to pick your preferred date and time to enter. Most tours include an audio guide. But keep in mind that even private tour companies are subject to the new, timed entry system, so you may not get your first choice of times. 

Your experience will live or die based on the quality of your tour guide, and whether they are passionate about imparting knowledge or just reading from a tired script. It’s worth spending a little extra moolah for a smaller group tour and a guide with specific expertise.

Bring snacks and drinks -- you’re gonna need ‘em

Aside from a few well-camouflaged water fountains -- including one on the Palatine that spurts from an ancient spring -- there is not a crumb of pizza crust to eat, nor a drop of wine to drink in the Forum, Palatine, or Colosseum. There isn’t even a vending machine. Since you’re likely to spend the better part of a day exploring, bring along a refillable water bottle and something to snack on that is easy to eat and doesn’t require silverwave. Picnicking among the ruins is discouraged, so don’t plan on spreading out a blanket and getting comfy.

For the love of all that is holy, skip the food trucks

There are food trucks, and there are roach coaches. The awning-clad tin cans that idle near the Colosseum and Forum, heaving with product and signage (Gelato! Bibite! Pizza! Panini!) fall into the latter category. No matter how hot and hangry you are after slogging your way through ancient history, resist the urge to eat anything from one of these overpriced vendors of bad food. 

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Elizabeth Heath is a travel and culinary writer and editor living in Italy, with ambitions to write about every place she goes and (almost) everything she eats and drinks. She's on Instagram @myvillageinumbria and Twitter @villageinumbria