Rome is a sprawling beast of a city, and its marquee attractions lie dotted all over the map – so even if you’re intent on walking to get to most of the sights, you’d be smart to get acquainted with Rome’s public transportation system as well. Taking the bus or the Metro now and then will not only save you time, it’ll save your feet as well.
In Rome you’ve got a few options to choose from, and which transportation method is best will depend on your starting point and your destination. And because the Metro network isn’t extensive in any sense of the word, it’s a good idea to learn the basics of multiple ways of getting around Rome so you don’t feel stuck.
To get you started, particularly with orienting your hotel and major attractions in the city, you can use this fabulous map on the official site of ATAC, Rome’s transportation company. It’s a daunting map to look at online, but you can zoom in as needed to see neighborhoods in more detail. This map is hard to bring with you, however, so one of your first tasks upon arriving in Rome is to pick up a city map with transportation routes listed (usually available at newsstands).
Tickets for buses, trams, and the Metro are interchangeable, which is handy. There are monthly and annual transportation passes, but those are mainly for residents. You can buy tickets from newsstands, tobacco shops (called tabacchi – you’ll see a big T on a sign), and automated machines at Metro stops.
You must validate your ticket when you first use it. Validation machines are on board buses and trams, and at the turnstiles when you enter the Metro. And yes, I’ve heard about people who have played the part of the “dumb tourist” and not validated their ticket, claiming ignorance so they could keep using the same cheap ticket over and over again. I’ve also heard about people who get caught – and fined €50 or more – for doing that. So, it’s up to you. Me? I validate my tickets.
Your ticket options are:
There are some routes that serve tourist attractions which are known (informally, of course) as “pickpocket express lines.” They can be really crowded, which just makes it easier for a thief to grab wallets or other valuables from tourists who are distracted by bus maps or what’s outside the window. No matter what you’re taking – bus, tram, or Metro – keep a close watch on your surroundings and your valuables. If it’s crowded, be even more alert. And if you’re uncomfortable, get off and wait for the next bus or train.
And now? Here’s an overview of your transportation options in Rome.
When you don’t know the landmarks of a city, nor the language, buses can be sort of intimidating. Unlike the Metro, they don’t automatically pull over at every single stop – you have to request a stop. Still, the bus system in Rome is the most intricate network of any of its public transit methods, so it’s a very good idea to learn the basics. And when you do figure it out, you’ll feel like you’ve just been given the keys to the city.
As mentioned above, you will need to get a Rome map that includes bus lines on it when you arrive in the city. Newsstands carry them, but be sure the map you’re buying has bus routes on it before you walk away – the word “autobus” (pronouned OW|toh|boos) is Italian for bus, so you can ask for “Una mappa con le linee autobus?” (OO|na MAHP|pah con leh lee|NEH OW|toh|boos) if the vendor doesn’t speak English.
I’d advise you to pick up this map before you actually need it – well before, in fact. Buy the map before lunch, so you can spread it out on the table and make sense of it in a leisurely fashion. Because there are so many bus lines, the stops themselves are only indicated by tiny numbers – there are not lines between them, however. You have to play connect-the-dots yourself, tracing a route from one of its numbers to the next to see where it goes. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s not hard to figure out where you need to go. But you’ll be glad you did that over lunch as opposed to fretting about it at a bus stop.
On the streets of Rome, bus stops are indicated by a placard at the top of a signpost with the bus lines listed in columns, along with each stop that bus makes listed below it. Usually, the name of the stop at that sign is highlighted somehow – a red box around the stop name, for instance – so you know where you are. It’s also likely to be listed at the very top of the placard. The bus stops are always listed in an order that shows where they’re going, so names that are below the stop you’re looking at are coming up on that route – names above your stop are the ones that bus has already been to. If you’re at the Colosseo stop, for instance, and you see the Termini stop above the Colosseo one, you’ve got to cross the street and find a bus going the opposite direction in order to get to Termini. If Termini is listed below Colosseo, then you’re headed in the right direction.
Don’t rely on your bus driver or signage inside the bus to know when to get off the bus. Drivers don’t always take kindly to being asked to help you figure out where you’re going, and the buses don’t usually have signs that indicate which stop is up next. You’ll need to either know a landmark you’re looking for, follow the bus route on your map (understanding that the bus won’t stop at every point unless someone requests a stop or someone is waiting), or ask another passenger who seems friendly. The worst case scenario is that you see your stop just a wee bit too late, you request the next stop, and walk a little further than you thought you’d have to. Not a big deal.
Most buses are in operation starting at 5:00am and running until midnight, with a few routes operating Night Buses (marked with an N before the bus number) from midnight until 5:00am. The Night Bus routes aren’t identical to the regular bus routes, although they serve the busiest parts of the city.
Reader Laurel left a comment about another way to navigate the bus system in Rome, which I wanted to include here for anyone who plans to actually use his/her smartphone in Italy. Please do check with your mobile provider before you leave home, however, to make sure your phone is set up to work in Italy and to find out what it will cost you!
“If you have a smartphone, use the browser and bookmark http://www.muovi.roma.it. There is a route planner, and you can also click on “bus waiting times and routes” to see when the next bus is supposed to arrive at your stop. Can also be used on desktop or laptop. You can actually follow your bus real time as you ride, noting which stop is coming up next. I use it all the time when I take an unfamiliar route.”
She also notes that some of the newer buses in Rome now have on-board signs that list the next stop, which is extremely helpful when you don’t have a smartphone!
Rome’s Metro network consists of only two lines – Metropolitana Linea A and Metropolitana Linea B. Why no more, for a city this size? Because every time anyone digs underground to build anything in Rome, they inevitably run into ancient ruins. Construction on a Line C started so many years ago, only to be quickly halted and essentially turned into an archaeological dig, that it’s a running joke in Rome now. So even though subways are usually my favorite way of getting around any city blessed with an underground rail network, the Metro is not my first choice in Rome.
Having said that, if your hotel is near a Metro stop, it can be really useful for getting to some of the major attractions. And since you can use the same tickets on the Metro, buses, and trams, you won’t have to worry about buying a bunch of Metro tickets that you don’t end up using.
Metropolitana Linea A is the red line, and Metropolitana Linea B is blue. They intersect at only one place – Termini Station. On transportation maps and in the city itself, Metro stops are marked with red squares with a white M in the middle. Line A includes stops near the Vatican, the Piazza del Popolo, and the Spanish Steps. Line B includes stops near the Pyramid of Cestius, the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, and the EUR. The Metro starts running at 5:30am and runs until 11:30pm Sunday-Thursday, and until 1:30am Friday-Saturday.
Rome also has an above-ground light rail system, called trams. There are only seven tram lines in Rome, but they can be useful if you’re headed to a few key places – particularly the Trastevere neighborhood. And they’re on the same ticketing system as the bus and Metro, so that makes it easy to use them when they’re convenient.
Tram lines are marked on those same Rome maps with the bus lines, and they’re basically indistinguishable from the bus lines. How do you know it’s a tram you’re looking for and not a bus? It’s a small number – the tram lines only go up to line number 19.
Trams, like the Metro, stop at every station, so you don’t need to worry about missing yours. In addition to the Trastevere, trams also serve the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the Pantheon.
Taxis are plentiful in Rome, as are stories about people being swindled by taxi drivers. To me, they’re a last resort when getting around in Rome. They can be a safer option than the Night Buses if you need to get around in the middle of the night, but they’re not cheap, no matter when you use them.
If you’re planning to go anywhere by taxi, note that you don’t typically wave down a taxi the way you might in New York. There are taxi stands around the city, and if you need a cab you line up at a nearby stand. You’ll find taxi stands at major attractions like the Colosseum, the Vatican, and Termini Station, as well as major intersections and piazzas.
Also keep in mind that Roman taxi drivers have a somewhat deserved reputation for ripping unsuspecting tourists off, so if you think you’ll be taking a taxi at any time during your trip to Rome, I recommend you read my friend Shelley’s great article on How to Take a Taxi in Rome and Not Get Ripped Off.