Rome on a budget

STEVE MCKENNA
Last updated 05:00 29/11/2013
pantheon
CHEAP CLASSIC: A marvel of Roman engineering, the Pantheon is a 2000-year old temple-church capped by the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome ... and free to visit.

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Once you've found a bed, you can enjoy the Eternal City on a tight budget.

Magnificent. Mesmerising. Unforgettable. Rome is many things. But it's not cheap. You'll do well to find a cosy crash-pad for under €100 ($167) a night.

Many of the top cultural attractions have €10-15 ($17 - 25) entrance fees. The cost of a slap-up meal will make your eyes water. And ice-cream lovers beware: a group of British holiday-makers was recently hit with a €64 ($106) bill for four gelato.

Don't be put off, though. You can have a wonderful time in Rome without breaking the bank. The following tips will stretch your holiday dollar and help you get under the skin of this epic city.

Kick-starting the day

Romans don't really do breakfast. At least not in the "eggs, sausages, bacon and baked beans" kind of way. Long, lazy weekend brunches are growing in popularity but most Romans say their weekday "buon giornos" or "Good mornings" propping up the bar of a family-run cafe, perking themselves up with espresso or cappuccino and cornettos (Italian croissants).

Embracing this "when in Rome" philosophy costs around €3 ($5) each morning and allowed me to rub shoulders with various characters: dog-collared priests in animated conversation, shaggy-haired barmen with names like Luigi and Giuseppe, ancient mahogany-faced men muttering "mamma mia" at the TV news, Armani-clad youngsters bantering in Romanaccio (the Roman dialect), and a pair of glamorous, sun-glassed middle-aged mesdames with lips like Donatella Versace's.

In the multi-cultural neighbourhood around Termini station, I delved beyond the Roman cliches and had a morning pick-me-up in an Asian-owned joint, scented with the smell of roasted coffee and joss sticks and punctuated by a blend of Mandarin, Italian and Chinglish chatter.

Some cafes double as grocery stores, so consider buying fruit and snacks. Don't explore Rome on an empty stomach. With so many gems to take in (both famous and under the radar), high energy levels are rewarded.

Getting around

Boasting 2700 years of civilisation, Rome has a monumental aura. However, size-wise, it's not that intimidating. A walkable loop from, say, Termini, across to the Vatican City, down to the quaint yet happening rione (district) of Trastevere, and up to the epicentre of ancient Rome (then back to Termini) is about eight kilometres.

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But you'd miss everything in between - not least the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and the vivacious piazzas and alleys of Centro Storico.

Though Rome is best enjoyed on foot, your feet will thank you for making use of the city's integrated public transport system. It may dent your fantasies about every Roman whizzing around on a Vespa, but a €6 day ticket offers unlimited travel (and a plethora of people-watching opportunities) on buses, trams, suburban trains and the metro.

Three days' free transport are included in the €34 Roma Pass, which includes admission to two attractions (museums, archaeological sites and cultural events) from a list of 45, plus discounts on the rest. Flash the pass to skip the queues at the Colosseum and the Capitoline Museum.

Art buffs should nab a €10 ($17) three-day ticket for the National Roman Museum

Credit crunch lunches

La dolce vita is alive and well in Rome, especially when it comes to al fresco wining and dining, but Italy's lingering recession has prompted cash-strapped Romans to seek greater bang for their euros.

More restaurants - from old-school trattorias to sleek new bistros - now offer bargain lunch-time deals: three-course meals, with a glass of wine, for €12-15 ($20-25). Just after one course? You can usually get your favourite pasta dish (say rigatoni alla carbonara) or a thin-crust pizza for under €10 ($17).

All-you-can-eat is buffets are another option. At Margutta Ristorarte, near Piazza del Popolo, you can graze on more than 50 vegetarian dishes for €12 ($20).

After work, Romans revel in the aperitivo culture that has drifted south from Milan. It's like an extended happy hour with Italian-style tapas and flourishes in Trastevere, the old slaughterhouse district of Testaccio, and Monti, formerly a red-light zone, now an increasingly hip neighbourhood sloping north from the Colosseum.

For about €8 ($8), you'll get a sun-downer - a chilled Peroni, a glass of wine or a cocktail - and permission to feast on a finger-food spread usually comprised of cold cuts, croquettes, bruschetta, anchovies, focaccia and the like. Some aperitivo hotspots, like Monti's Charity Cafe, have live jazz and blues.

DIY dining

If you'd prefer to eat on the go, hole-in-the-wall pizzerias are everywhere, offering slices for €1.50-€3 ($2.50 - $4). Almost as ubiquitous, takeaway delis sell pizza (pizza al taglio), salads, paninis and freshly-cooked pasta treats by the weight. I enjoyed a €3.43 ($6) tub of deliciously creamy lasagne while watching the world go by on beautiful Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Dotted with green spots, Rome is perfect for picnicking. Get your ingredients in delis, Carrefour mini-marts or, most romantically, from the city's traditional produce markets, which generally run from 7am to 1.30pm.

Dessert treats

With Roman staples like coffee and ice cream, there's one basic rule to remember: sit down and get table service, and you'll fork out double, and sometimes triple, the takeaway (or stand-up) price.

Gelaterias are on every corner, and you needn't spend more than €4 ($6.70) a person for a cone or tub. You'll quickly discover that one of the great pleasures of Rome - day or night - is gallivanting with a gelato and indulging your serendipitous spirit.

FIVE FREE THINGS IN ROME

ST PETER'S BASILICA It costs €16 ($27) to peruse the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums, but the centrepiece of the world's smallest state is free to enter, like most of Rome's sublime churches.

THE PANTHEON A marvel of Roman engineering, this 2000-year old temple-church is capped by the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome, which channels beams of light on to dazzled visitors.

WATER Rome abounds with gorgeous fountains (Bernini's, in Piazza Navona, and the Trevi are major crowd-pullers), but they also serve a practical purpose, gushing free, cool water, so carry a plastic bottle.

IL VITTORIANO Dubbed ''The Wedding Cake'', this unmissable mountain of white marble has a rooftop terrace granting superlative views, and its free military museum traces the intriguing story of Italy's unification.

WINDOW SHOPPING If you can resist the temptation to splash out, Rome is a browser's paradise, from the glitzy designer stores in Via Condotti to the quirky boutiques of Monti and the souvenir stalls around the Spanish Steps.

Staying there In a quiet street in the Via Veneto neighbourhood, near the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, the three-star Hotel Modigliana has rooms priced from €90 ($150). See hotelmodigliani.com.

Housed in a converted 15th century convent near the Palatine Hill, the four-star Kolbe Hotel has rooms from €166 ($278). See kolbehotelrome.com. Radisson Blu es Hotel, in the Esquilino district, has rooms from €145 ($242). See radissonblu.com.

More information turismoroma.it.

- FFX Aus

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