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LIVING IN ITALY

Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome

The eternal city attracts millions of tourists from around world every year. But what's it like to live there as a resident? Here are some of the things you can expect if you move to Rome from abroad.

Young women clink bottles of beer as they share an aperitif drink by the Colosseum monument in Rome on May 21, 2020,
Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

No one cares what you wear

Slobs rejoice: no one in this city cares how you dress. 

Many Romans wear a tracksuit or loungewear when moving through the city, and having lived here for several years, most of them time I do as them.

There’s a sizeable contingent of middle-aged Roman men for whom a navy windbreaker, almost always accompanied by sunglasses and a bald pate, is practically their uniform (making them look like bus ticket inspectors, whose uniform it actually is).

That doesn’t mean you can’t dress stylishly if you want, or that you won’t see plenty of well dressed people walking around, especially in the more fashionable neighbourhoods near the centre. But you’re not under pressure to dress up if you don’t feel like it.

Unlike some of Europe’s other metropolitan centres, Rome is refreshingly laid back when it comes to things like this – perhaps because the city’s so beautiful no one feels the need to compensate with their clothing.

Or what job you have

This lack of pretension extends to other aspects of life in Rome, too: dogs are allowed in most restaurants, as are small children; and while it’s not exactly taboo to ask people what they do for a living, it’s just not considered that important.

At one dinner with friends, the topic of what everyone did came up. “Io lavoro” (I work) was one person’s response – their assumption being that we were asking simply whether they had a job or were studying, as those are the two options available.

If you’ve lived in cities where the first question you get asked at a party is what you do, it can feel strangely liberating to live in a place that doesn’t care.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

The dark side of this coin is that the reason people don’t often want to talk about work because there are very few good jobs available in Rome. Many Romans who would like to stay in their home town are compelled to go abroad, or at least further north, in search of better career opportunities.

If you’re a foreigner who’s managing to make a decent living in Rome, then, you’re in the lucky minority.

Rome and Milan ranked among 'worst cities in the world' by foreign residents
People run along the River Tiber in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Cash is often preferred

You can use your card at supermarket checkouts or to pay the bill at most restaurants in Rome, and you can sometimes pay by card at cafés and market stalls.

But for most smaller transactions, like paying for a €1.20 cappuccino, cash is expected; and you can anticipate a dirty look, a sigh, or even a flat out refusal if you attempt to pay such a small sum by card.

Just any old cash, though, won’t do – exact change or as close as you can get is what’s wanted, even in supermarkets.

The fact that cash machines in Italy are set up to primarily distribute €50 notes doesn’t help to harmonise the often tense relationship between customer and vendor (most of whom are not shy about making clear that they would rather be doing almost anything other than interacting with you).

All this to say that it will probably get there one day, but as things stand Rome is currently long way from becoming a cashless society.

Bad public transport and worse driving…

I’ll go out on a limb and say Rome’s metro system actually isn’t too bad. But if you need to take a bus or a tram you could be in for a very long wait, and there’s a statistically not insignificant chance it might catch fire with you on board.

As a pedestrian, you must also accept you occupy the bottom rung of the rusted ladder that is Rome’s urban transport network.

Corner junctions that require traffic lights to be safe instead have faded, poorly lit pedestrian crossings – if they have one at all.

READ ALSO: Rome ranked ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

When you arrive at a crossing, it’s by no means a given that cars will stop for you, so you have two options: stand by the side of the road trying to make eye contact with drivers until one is kind enough to let you cross; or shuffle slowly into the street in a high stakes, very one-sided game of chicken.

Make sure to warn your foreign friends who come to visit so they don’t give you a heart attack by launching themselves into the road without looking, narrowly avoiding being mown down.

Everything that changes in Italy from May 18th
People take their dog for an evening stroll in Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

… But good long-distance train services

I can’t really give Rome credit for this, but as creaky and decrepit as the city’s local public transport services are, Italy’s long-distance train services are fast and reliable.

Although tickets aren’t cheap, a Frecciarossa fast train will get you from Rome to Florence in 90 minutes, or from Rome to Naples in an hour and a quarter. Milan, all the way up north, is just a three hour train ride away – doable as a long weekend trip.

READ ALSO:

Even the slower regional train services are reasonably fast, and good value for money: currently you can get a hourly train to Bracciano lake, an hour outside the city, for €3.60 each way.

And if you drive, your options expand even further: you can be in Abruzzo’s rugged mountains to the East within a couple of hours of setting off, or on the Amalfi coast in three and a half. As travel bases go, Rome is a good one.

A distinctive food culture

Food in the Italian capital is cheap and good – so good that Rome was just crowned the best food city in the world in Tripadvisor’s 2022 Traveler’s Choice Awards.

Newcomers might be surprised when they find out what constitutes traditional Roman food, i.e. offal. Tripe, oxtail, liver and tongue are all items you can expect to find on the menu of an old-school Roman restaurant.

These days, however, most diners prefer tamer dishes, which are available in the form of spaghetti carbonara, pasta gricia (similar to carbonara but without egg), or the tomato-based amatriciana – all crowd-pleasing Roman specialties. There’s even an option for vegetarians: cacio e pepe, a kind of gourmet mac and cheese.

While Rome does have a world class food scene, it has nowhere near the variety of international cuisine on offer in a more cosmopolitan city like Milan. In spite of this, there are some good alternatives to the local staples if you know where to go.

Look for establishments (usually found in neighbourhoods outside of the city centre) that mainly serve local diaspora communities who want a taste of home. If there are parts of the menu written in a language you can’t understand, that’s always a good sign. Be respectful: these places will happily serve you, but they probably weren’t made with you in mind.

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CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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