I don’t think I’ve ever described myself as a certified NUMTOT, but when I studied abroad in Rome for an academic year in 2018-2019, I fell into a love-hate relationship with the city’s public transportation system. As Peer Advisor Rachel noted in her blog about Spain’s public bus system, public transportation outside of Philly and outside of the U.S. in general is usually quicker, cleaner, and more comprehensive than what we have in our country. Don’t get me wrong, I love SEPTA’s gritty charm, and Rome’s public transportation system definitely has its own challenges. But to someone who had never been outside of the U.S. before studying abroad, public transportation was another new and exciting way to explore Italian culture.
Also, studying abroad can be expensive, and it’s important to budget for the few months you’ll be away from home *insert link to Jenna’s blog*. Luckily, public transportation is usually the most cost-effective way to get around, and taking your host city’s bus or metro can save you a lot of money in the long run. This was especially true in Rome, as Ubers are nonexistent and a taxi ride can cost you nearly double or triple the price of a typical rideshare in the U.S. On the other hand, a single ticket for Rome’s public transit system, ATAC, is only 1.50€, or roughly $1.70. So, why not get comfortable with taking public transportation, see the city from a new angle, and save your money for a fancy dinner out or a trip to the Sistine Chapel! To help you navigate your way through the ancient city and it’s not-so-ancient public transportation system, below are my key takeaways from Rome’s three methods of travel: metro, bus, and tram.
Waiting on the platform for the last metro of the night.
Compared to the SEPTA subway system, ATAC’s metro is pristine and high-tech. Each subway car is always spotlessly cleaned and you’ll never find unknown goop on the seats, as there often is in Philly. Also, there’s an electronic map in each car showing you which stop is coming up next and the direction the train is traveling. But, similar to our subway in Philly, there are only a few lines which makes public transit in Rome easy to navigate. In Rome, you have access to Linea A, the orange line, Linea B, the blue line, and Linea C, which is the newest line and is color coated green. Most stops along lines A and B correlate with major monuments, helping to make the city’s history accessible to any visitor. But even though the metro can take you to the Colosseum or the base of the Spanish Steps, consider taking the train to the end of the line at least once. The outskirts of the city are home to fascinating pockets of culture and rich history, like EUR Fermi and Mussolini’s fascist architecture, Piramide and the non-catholic cemetery of Rome, and Cinecitta’ and the largest film studio in Europe. And even though Linea C is relatively new and still under construction in some areas, there are a plethora of neighborhoods along the line that are worth a visit. One neighborhood, or quartiere, that was memorable for me was Pigneto, which I loved for its aperitivo restaurants, street art, and live music venues. Also, if you’re feeling especially adventurous and looking to escape the city for a short period of time, you can even take the metro to the beach for a few hours! Take Linea B to Piramide and transfer to the Roma-Lido train for free.
It’s no secret that the metro is affordable, accessible, and can take you virtually anywhere you want in the city. Nearly everyone in Rome, tourists, students, and locals alike, takes public transit as a part of their daily lives, making the train BUSY during rush hours. If you plan to take the train during the morning and afternoon rushes, prepare to be squished against other people and relinquish any notions of personal space. To most Italians, this is a normal and expected part of their daily commute, but for non-Italians it can be jarring and uncomfortable at first. During the year I was abroad, I eventually became comfortable with getting to know Italians on such a personal level and recognized it as just a part of their culture. But if this is something that you may not be okay with, that’s fine too. Consider taking a different mode of travel or planning your metro rides at times when there’s fewer traffic to avoid crowds. Or if you need to take the train during rush hour, you can try to find a secluded spot on the metro, such as the coveted space against the train doors opposite the side that’s opening. These spots are prime real estate in Rome though, so be prepared to stand your ground, cozy up against those metal doors, and enjoy the crowded ride.
My friends staking their claim. Another piece of prime real estate during rush hour.
Despite the crowds, Rome’s metro is surprisingly reliable compared to the other forms of public transit in the city. Trains come as often as every 2-3 minutes, and electronic signs on the platforms tell you when the next train will be arriving. During rush hours, this definitely comes in handy when you’re deciding whether or not to jam yourself into an already overflowing metro car or wait for the next train.
You can purchase public transportation tickets at any tabaccheria in the city. You can also buy them right in the metro station and validate your ticket as you pass through the turnstiles that lead down to the metro platform. All of Rome’s public transit operates on an honors system, and ATAC workers will board trains and buses throughout the week to verify that all riders paid for their trip, so make sure to keep your ticket on hand during your ride. If you lose your ticket or throw it out after validating it, you’ll risk a 100€ fine which is definitely not budget-friendly. If you don’t want to worry about carrying around a bunch of tickets, you can always opt for a monthly transit pass which costs roughly 30€ a month and is most definitely budget-friendly. Taking the metro or bus only 20 times a month makes the monthly pass worthwhile, and you only have to worry about carrying around the same pass all month. But, if you don’t imagine yourself taking public transit that often, you can always buy single ride tickets in bulk and validate them when needed.
My friends (who look way cooler than me) waiting for the bus. Each bus stop is marked with a clear sign that lists the bus that will be arriving and the next stops coming up.
Much like a majority of Temple’s students, I had stuck to riding the subway my first two years of college, since it was familiar and easy to navigate. I typically have my car in Philly too, so I had assumed there was no reason for me to ride the bus. But, roughly 4,000 miles from home and without my car, I had to get comfortable riding the bus in Rome.
Luckily in Rome, the buses are as easy to navigate as the metro and there are tons of routes that reach nearly every part of the city and the surrounding outskirts. At the start of the program, figuring which one of the hundreds of bus routes to take seemed daunting, but during orientation we were encouraged to download an app called Moovit. With Moovit, you enter your start location and end destination, and the app will provide you with every bus, tram, or metro route that can get you there. Google Maps and Apple Maps also have similar features, making an unfamiliar public transportation system much more manageable. Also these apps tell riders when the next bus or tram will be arriving. Although the times are usually accurate, Rome’s buses are notoriously unreliable, so don’t be surprised if you end up waiting a very long time for your ride, regardless of what the app tells you. That being said, if you’re in a hurry, buses generally aren’t your best option.
Just like the metro, Rome’s buses pass by famous monuments, like the Roman Forums, and the wide, open windows allow you to site-see as you commute. Also similar to the metro, Rome’s buses can be extremely crowded (and sweaty) during rush hour. Unlike the metro, though, bus rides can be extremely bumpy, as many drivers throw caution to the wind driving down the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome. If you get motion sick easily or have just eaten a big meal, I’d recommend steering clear of the buses.
Buses in Rome run from about 5:30 am to 12:00 am, and after midnight, night buses run until the normal schedule begins again in the morning. The times and routes for night buses are limited, but night buses are perfect for catching a ride home after a late dinner or getting to the train station to catch an early flight.
To validate your public transportation ticket on the bus, walk to the validation machines after you board the bus. These machines are usually located in the center and back of the bus and are difficult to miss with the usual crowd of people hovered around them. Insert your ticket to validate it, and then find a comfy spot to enjoy your ride. Just make sure to validate your ticket as soon as you board the bus, because settling in first is not a valid excuse for ATAC workers who check tickets.
This is just the routes for the night buses. If you were to try to map out the 350 bus lines across the city, you’d come up with something similar to this…
Last but certainly not least, are Rome’s trams – the city’s most unique form of public transportation! Cutting across the perimeter of the city center, there are six tram lines in Rome. Although a typically tram ride wouldn’t include a view of the Colosseum, taking the tram can get you out to see cool spots that many tourists often miss, like Vittorio Emanuele, San Lorenzo, Quartiere Coppede’, Villa Ada, San Saba, Monteverde, and Villa Sciarra. One tram line does stop at St. Peter’s Square, though, if you’re looking to get your touristy fix after a long day of visiting new neighborhoods. Tram rides can be a little bumpy, but since they are a bit more removed from the center of the city, they are typically less populated and have more available seating. The windows on trams also open, so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy a ride filled with unfamiliar sites. To validate tickets on the tram, follow the same instructions for validating tickets on the bus.
The trams also attract different riders than the metro or buses, as the lines avoid tourist attractions and instead pass through the city’s immigrant neighborhoods and a student quartiere adjacent to Rome’s well-known university, Sapienza. Also, since trams provide a smoother, less crowded ride than the metro or buses, elderly Italians tend to frequent the trams. A melting pot of communities and a true glimpse into Italian culture, the tram was my favorite place to people-watch and see the city go by.
A map of Rome’s 6 tram lines. If you want to visit the Vatican via tram, take line 19, or the orange line, to Piazza del Risorgimento and enjoy a breathtaking view of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bernini’s architectural work upon arrival!
No matter which method of transportation you decide to use, you’ll likely encounter the same etiquette on all public transit in Rome. Whether you’re on the metro, bus, or tram, Italians tend to be courteous, polite, and quiet during their ride. The elderly and mothers with children are usually given priority for seats, so don’t be surprised if a nonna asks to take yours or you see others giving up their seats. Since public transit can be crowded, many riders will ask their neighbors “Scendi?,” or “Are you getting off the train?,” as the next stop approaches. This allows everyone to shuffle so that riders can easily get off, and you can reply with a simple head nod. If there isn’t a clear path to get off the train or bus, don’t be afraid to shout out “Permesso!,” or “Please let me through!,” when your stop is coming up.
Although traveling through Rome on foot allows you to see every nook and cranny of the city, taking public transportation widens your possibilities and exposes you to different parts of Italian culture that you may not have seen before. Hopefully this guide will help you navigate Rome’s public transportation system a little easier and expose you to all of the historical and artistic gems the city has to offer.