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Eternal City penny saver

Rome's high prices are nearly as famous as its sights. Here are tips for saving cash.

June 01, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

ROME — At a tourist information center near the Roman Forum, I asked an attendant whether anything was free in the Eternal City. He looked at me strangely, then came up with a response. "Si, signora," he said, pointing to the brochures on the countertop, "all these are free."

It's like that in Rome, where prices for everything are high, even before you get sticker shock from exchanging dollars to euros. Here's how a budget traveler can try to make do.

STANDING ROOM ONLY

At a bar, cafe or pasticceria, stand at the counter instead of sitting at a table. The prices are higher if you sit down and let a waiter or waitress serve you, plus you might be inclined to tip. Elbow to elbow with locals at the counter, you'll find the food is just as good, and it's easier to watch Romans do as they do.

BREAKFAST TREAT

It is becoming less and less common for breakfast to come with the price of a room at budget hotels and pensions in Rome. If it's not included where you're staying, go out to a cafe and have some marvelous caffeinated beverage -- macchiato, cappuccino, espresso -- with a cornetto, which is something like a croissant, best consumed standing at the counter (as above).

Budget lunches work the same way. Cafes usually display sandwiches and other quick eats. Make your choice, pay at the cash register, show your receipt to the man behind the counter and eat at the bar. Bakeries often have the best sandwiches and pizza by the slice. The difference between lunching this way and settling down at a table could be as much as $15.

MORE B&Bs

Aside from such well-known money-saving accommodations as budget hotels and religious houses, bed-and-breakfasts have finally arrived in Rome. There are hundreds of them in every district, priced from about $80 to $240, such as Il Covo, 011-39-06-4815871 (doubles $158), near Via Panisperna in the old Roman slum area, or Subura.

The proliferation of B&Bs started during the Catholic Church's Jubilee in 2000, when there weren't enough beds for the millions of pilgrims expected, and Romans were encouraged to open their homes to visitors. Now the tourism bureau in Rome keeps a long B&B list that can be viewed at www.romaturismo.com. Two bed-and-breakfast agencies worth checking out: Bed and Breakfast Italia, www.bbitalian.it, and Bed and Breakfast Assn. of Rome, www.b-b.rm.it.

FREE IN VATICAN CITY

Is anything free at St. Peter's?

The great Bernini's Colonnade and the Basilica, to begin with. Inside, the subterranean Papal Tombs are free, but there's a charge to ascend to Michelangelo's Dome (about $10 by elevator or $7.50 on foot). Admission to the Papal Treasury Museum costs about $9, and a visit to the fabled Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) costs a whopping $21, though it's worth remembering that the Vatican Museums are free from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the last Sunday of every month. For general information: www.vatican.va.

My favorite good deal at St. Peter's are basilica tours offered for free by various religious groups, meeting at the tourist information office just outside the church. These tours have a decidedly religious slant. Even though I'm not Roman Catholic, I took one a few years ago and count it as one of the best hours I've spent in my life.

At 9:45 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, St. Peter's Missionaries gives a free tour; at 2:15 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, a guide from the Pontifical North American College is on hand; and at 3 p.m. Thursdays, one of the Sisters of Mercy shows people around.

SEASONAL BARGAINS

Unlike many Northern European capitals, Rome has a sliding price scale for hotel rooms, depending on the season. Top rates are charged from April to October. But from November to March (not including the holidays), it's low season, which means that you might be able to get a room in an upscale hotel for less than $200 a night.

Off-season, try the Hotel Villa San Pio, 18 Via San Melania, 011-39-06-570057, www.aventinohotels.com; the Hotel Scalinata di Spagna, 17 Piazza Trinita dei Monti, 011-39-06-6793006, www.hotelscalinata.com; or the Hotel Bramante, 24 Vicolo delle Bramante, 011-39-06-68806426, www.hotelbramante.com.

CHEAP SHOPS

Forgot your toothbrush? Need some flip-flops or an envelope? Look for a casalinghi shop in your neighborhood, selling a range of knick-knacks at rock-bottom prices. Most are operated by immigrants, like the one at the bottom of Via Urbana near the Cavour Metropolitana run by a nice young family from China.

Rome also has its own 99-cents-only stores. One is Euro City at 221 Via Cavour, where it's more like everything for $1.50.

NEW FORUM FEES

The whole Forum area, from the Vittoriano to the Colosseum, used to be free, a place for wandering, like a public park. But in early March, a $16.50 entrance fee was instituted, partly to control pick-pocketing. The Ministry of Culture says the revenue also will help underwrite further excavation work in a place where you can't dig a hole without unearthing archaeological treasures.

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