How to do Rome in a day (on a budget!)

We all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But believe it or not, it is possible to see the best that this incredibly beautiful city has to offer in the space of only 24 hours. All you need is a decent pair of shoes and a healthy dose of espresso to get you started. (Followed by cocktails. And then prosecco. And then more cocktails.  But we’ll get to that later.)

The key to seeing Rome’s best bits in such a short space of time is to keep moving, or more precisely, to avoid queues like the plague. No standing around in the heat, wedged between hot, disgruntled tourists in a queue that hasn’t moved an inch in the last 15 minutes. You may wonder what the point is in visiting Rome if you’re not going to see the interior of its most famous attractions: St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum. I hear you. I would have loved to have seen inside all of these places and if I were to come back with 2 weeks to spare and all my pre-booked, fast-track tickets ready I would absolutely visit all of them. But I had 24 hours, and tight purse strings, and I did not want to waste the entire day in a queue. Especially when the famous Italian organisational skills (ahem) are hard at work here. There are no signs at the Vatican to indicate which queue you should even be in as there are apparently different lines for people with tickets and those without. At the Colosseum noone seems to know which line they should be in or what they are doing or if they are actually in the queue for the Roman Forum next door, or if they’ll get all the way to the front of the queue only to be turned away for wearing Hawaiian-print shorts. The only people you can ask are the touts and hawkers who will invariably try to sell you overpriced ‘queue-jump’ tickets for various overpriced tours. It’s madness, and the tourists who have actually decided to brave the queues look stressed and miserable.

So, we skipped the queues and did Rome our way. Who needs to actually see inside the Colosseum when you can climb the stairs opposite and take pictures like these?

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Tick that one off the bucket list

When you only have one full day to see the city, the most important thing is to stay somewhere in a good location. We wanted to book a hostel that was both as central and as good value as possible and we found an absolute gem in B&B’s City House which seemed too good to be true. A stone’s throw from the Pantheon and less than a 10 minute walk from the Trevi fountain and Piazza Navona the entrance to this hostel sits unassumingly on the buzzing Via della Maddalena. B&B’s couldn’t be more central if it tried. The dorm rooms are reasonably priced, as are the doubles with shared bathroom. Forget standard hostel bathrooms with grey cubicles and strip lighting, this shared bathroom is as clean and homey as your own and the hostel feels more like a tucked-away boutique hotel, without the price tag.

As for seeing the sights, if you hit Rome’s cobbled streets early enough, you can cover the city completely on foot and avoid taking any public transport. (Always a plus in my opinion, public transport networks in major cities can be majorly confusing!) We are out of the hostel by 8am and in the ancient Pantheon by 8.05, gazing up at the impressive oculus in the domed ceiling. This early in the day there are no queues and we had this incredible place almost to ourselves. Rather than join a tour, we had previously downloaded a free podcast by Rick Steves onto our phones. This gave a bit of context to ‘all the old stuff’, and I’d definitely recommend this to anyone that wants to learn about the history of a place without paying a hefty fee for a guided tour!

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Rome’s oldest building, the Pantheon

Seeing as it’s still early in the day we decide to head over the bridge to Vatican City to see whether the queues are as bad as people say. They are. An enormous, chaotic snake of a queue has already formed at St Peter’s Square.  Rather than even attempt to find the end of it, we wander leisurely around the square, taking in the impressive view of the basilica while dodging large groups of Chinese tourists and disgruntled families who assume everyone is trying to jump the queue. Along the wide street that leads up to St Peter’s you can look inside several churches which are uncrowded and peaceful, such as the lovely Santa Maria in Traspontina, just a few metres from St Peters Square.  If, like me, you’re not at all religious you can still appreciate the incredible frescoes painted on the ceilings, not to mention it’s a welcome break from the tourists and the heat outside.

From Vatican City we walk back across the river in the rough direction of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. (Don’t be deterred by what Google maps may tell you, it’s really not that far on foot!) As we wander down the shady streets we begin to hear the enticing sound of gushing water. A few twists and turns later we suddenly find ourselves at the famous Trevi Fountain, which seems to pop up out of nowhere in a small square filled with kissing couples and coin-tossing tourists.

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The famous Trevi Fountain, try to visit both during the day and after dark!

From here, it’s a short stroll to pretty Piazza Navona where you’ll find not one but three impressive fountains. This popular spot is the perfect place to take an espresso break or grab a slice of pizza and people watch. Or just take a seat and admire the impressively carved architecture… (ahem).

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He works out…
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Nailed it (sort of)

Over at the Colosseum, it’s another hectic swarm of confused queueing and jostling to get inside. We take the steps opposite, away from the heaving crowds and unhelpful hawkers down below, and find a quiet spot to take in the iconic view. The sprawling Roman forum is just next door and Palatine Hill can be seen behind in the distance. This is the ancient heart of the city and it’s an unmissable part of any trip to Rome. Even without visiting inside, it’s impossible not to feel in awe of this giant ancient wonder.

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Take the steps opposite the Colosseum for less crowded views

We continue up the steps opposite the Colosseum, ambling down cobbled streets that lead to small, fountain-filled piazzas, stopping for a cold drink or yet another cup of gelato. We peek inside the countless charming churches that seem to stand on every street, turn a corner to find ourselves in a courtyard filled with orange and lemon trees. This is the best way to see the city, just keep walking and take it all in. (Although Google maps does help if, like me, you have zero sense of direction and want to avoid getting completely lost or going round in circles!)

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A cute spot to grab a quick shot of espresso, down one of the countless cobbled streets
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Oranges & Lemons

Eventually we find ourselves at the very top of the gorgeous Spanish Steps, the traditional meeting place of artists, poets and bohemians. The steps spill out onto the busy Piazza di Spagna below, crowded with tourists, locals and covered in bright pink flowers. A super photogenic photo spot!

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Looking up to the top of the Spanish Steps, these gorgeous pink flowers are everywhere!
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1. Locate pretty flowers. 2.Perch awkwardly on ledge with very steep drop. 3. Take photo and try not to fall off

By this point it is late afternoon and, we have to admit, our feet are feeling pretty tired so we head back to the hostel for a power nap. (Yep, this one day itinerary even includes a nap!) But as soon as the sun starts to go down, it’s time to get up and get back out there because as every Italian knows, 6pm is aperitivo time. The best part of the day and an absolute must if you are visiting the city, aperitivo is the British equivalent of a long happy hour. But here in Rome, it is so much more than that. There is nothing quite like sipping cocktails as the sun goes down, at a busy street-side bar, listening to the buzz of excited, post-work chatter as everyone winds down after a long day in the city. Romans know their stuff when it comes to shaking a good cocktail, and in most bars your drink will be served with a light plate of something delicious to snack on while you sip.

Our evening unfolds slowly, hopping from bar to bar, starting at Gusto which is widely reputed to be the best aperitivo bar in the city due to its fantastic free buffet. The cocktails are delicious and you can take as many trips to the heavily laden buffet table as you like. If you’re on a tight budget but still want to dine in style, this is a great way to enjoy a light meal without forking out at a pricey restaurant.

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Gusto’s free buffet, order a drink, then grab a plate and fuel up!

After drinks at Gusto we head down Via del Pace, one of the small streets that lead off Piazza Navona, and apparently an aperitivo hotspot. The busy bars along this charming street are filled with locals and tourists alike. Make sure you do as the Romans do and order a classic Aperol Spritz, served with yet another plate of something delicious.

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No trip to Italy would be complete without an Aperol Spritz or 2! Or 3, or 4…

Although by this point we have eaten enough to feed a small army we can’t resist tucking into a pizza washed down with a bottle of prosecco at Pummerola, just opposite B&B’s City House back on Via della Maddalena. This place does the BEST pizza, the staff are friendly and it’s fantastic value for money despite it’s great location. (If you still have room after dinner, the gelateria next door serves 150 different flavours of gelato, at just 2.50 euros for two scoops! I can highly recommend the salted caramel and profiterole…)

No visit to Rome would feel complete without a trip across the river to the youthful, vibrant neighbourhood of Trastevere and the hip, late night hotspot that is Freni e Frizioni. This popular bar is always rammed, but you can take your drinks outside and join Rome’s cool kids on the steps that lead down to the river. Try the Green Day cocktail, a refreshing mix between a mojito and a slush puppy. Heaven.

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Thanks for the photo, Google. I’d had far too many cocktails by this point to be capable of working my camera…

At 2 am, after bar-hopping our way around the city and dragging our tired feet back across the bridge, we hear the familiar sound of running water and find ourselves back at the Trevi fountain. Lit up and illuminating the whole piazza, the fountain is almost deserted at this hour. Legend goes that anyone who throws a coin into the fountain will return to Rome some day so I rummage around my purse looking for a stray euro. But I  realise that I don’t need to throw in a coin to be sure of coming back.  I may have seen a lot in just one day, but I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the sights and secrets this beautiful, ancient city has to offer.

Roma, mi manchi già!

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Ciao Roma, ci vediamo presto
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Top 10 budget-friendly things to do in Hanoi

I hadn’t planned on spending 10 days in Hanoi. The original idea had been to make our way leisurely up the coast of Vietnam and spend a couple of days here before flying home. But a pesky monsoon hit us hard in Ho Chi Minh and, being shameless sun-seekers, we decided to jump on a flight to the sunnier end of the country. This turned out to be a great decision (and not only because of the weather). From the unmissable views of serene Halong Bay to the chaotic, labyrinth-like lanes of the old quarter, there is so much to see and do in happening Hanoi. Here’s a list of the top things not to miss in this culturally rich capital, and they’re all budget friendly!.

1. Cruise your way through towering limestone islands in a junk boat.

93Halong Bay had to be top of the list didn’t it really? It is a UNESCO world heritage site after all. Almost 2000 rainforest-topped islands make up this breathtaking place. These little limestone islands were formed by dragons according to legend and Ha Long literally translates from ancient vietnamese as descending dragon.

There are a lot of different boat trips to choose from so take a bit of time to shop around and try to pick one that’s relevant to your age range and interests. (You don’t want to find yourself on a banana-boat booze cruise with a rowdy group of pimply 18 year olds, unless that’s your thing of course.) We opted for a 3 day, 2 night tour that included one night on the boat and one on pretty Cat Ba island. The itineraries tend to be very similar, mostly involving kayaking, floating villages and stop-offs at various picturesque islands to find the best photo ops.  Our tour included on-board cooking lessons, cycling around Cat Ba island, cave exploring and kayaking trips into deep, hidden lagoons. No matter which tour you choose, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

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Time to top up the tan between islands
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On the way to some bat caves in the middle of dense rainforest we bumped into these ladies, who shared their tasty sugar cane with us

 

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Almost walked face first into this guy…
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Exploring caves in the jungle on Cat Ba island
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Interesting hotel name…

2. Pet a furry friend at Hanoi’s very own cat cafe.

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I had heard through the backpacker grapevine that Hanoi had its very own cat cafe, but when I asked around I was met with blank looks. But after finding a vague address online and wandering around the city for hours we eventually found the Ailu cat house. To call it a cafe is generous, they don’t actually have a coffee machine or serve any food. But what they lack in beverage options, they make up for in cats. A lot of cats. The general idea: come in, sit down, wait for a cat to sit on you, relax! It’s meant to be pretty therapeutic apparently. If you’re a cat person anyway.

We spent an unnecessary amount of time here that afternoon, but it’s hard to leave when you’ve got a cute, little furry thing snoring peacefully on your lap…

 

3. Tickle your tastebuds with a walking food tour of the Old Quarter

(That’s you walking by the way, not the food. Though in Vietnam you can never be sure…)

There’s more to vietnamese food than just phở! The variety of dishes on offer here is huge, but for a truly authentic taste of Hanoi you’ll need avoid the lure of touristy restaurants. Your guide will take you to all the secret places that you’d have a hard time discovering on your own; down a side alley, through a non-descript store front, up several flights of rickety stairs into a hidden restaurant. Be prepared to try such delicacies as deep-fried duck tongue and Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. (So much nicer than it sounds.) Awesome travel offer a great food tour that takes you to 8 different places around the old quarter for around £10. The trip involves a lot of walking and takes around 3 hours. Make sure you go on an empty stomach, you’ll be absolutely stuffed by the end of the evening!

 

4. After tasting it, try making it in an authentic cooking class.

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If you’re into the culinary side of things a cooking class is a great way to spend an evening. Blue Butterfly Cooking Class is one of the most popular choices, with the class beginning in the markets with your guide, who introduces you to the different spices and herbs before purchasing the fresh produce to bring back to the kitchen.

At the restaurant you’ll be shown how to make traditional dishes such as pork spring rolls and banana flower salad. Afterwards you’ll sit down and eat everything you’ve just cooked! At around £44 this is a bit on the pricey side, but it was my favourite experience in Hanoi and worth every penny!

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There is a slight chance you’ll set yourself on fire

5. Take a stroll through the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university

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If history and architecture is your thing, you’ll love this temple/university. With the tranquil atmosphere and heady scent of incense in the air, it’s an escape from the hectic city surrounding it. Established as Vietnam’s very first university in 1076, this small temple complex is full of beautiful old architecture and shrines honouring Vietnam’s finest scholars. Entrance used to be reserved for those of noble birth only, but don’t worry, they let anyone in nowadays 😉

Look out for the bushes shaped like animals of the zodiac and the cute miniatures of Confucius and his students scattered around the well-pruned foliage. The temple is not just popular among tourists; often you’ll see recently gradated students in traditional dress having their photographs taken in front of the central pool, known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’. Admission costs only 30 000VD.

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6. Discover the ancient legend of Hoàn Kiếm, ‘Lake of the restored sword’

Hoàn Kiếm lake, the physical and symbolical centre of the city. You can’t miss this huge body of water at the heart of the city, its banks are popular with locals who enjoy a bit of tai chi at 6am and if you’re lucky you might spot a turtle popping up for a breath of air. Legend goes that in the 15th century  Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God which helped him defeat the Chinese. After the victory, a large turtle swam up to the emperors boat and reclaimed the sword, disappearing into the depths of the lake to return it to it’s divine owner.

You can learn more about the legend at Ngoc Son Temple,( Temple of the Jade Mountain) which sits on a tiny island accessed by an ornate red bridge. It’s only 30,000VND to go inside, where you’ll find many locals come to worship and burn bank notes in a furnace as offerings. (Don’t risk burning yourself, the notes are fake…)

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Group of friends playing a checkers style game in the temple grounds

7. Gawp at the traffic mayhem from a safe distance at the City View Cafe

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Crossing the street anywhere in Hanoi is pretty daunting, but this intersection by the old quarter is something else. It’s chaos. There are no lines on the road, no roundabout, no rules of who goes first. It’s every man for himself, you snooze you lose. Our food tour guide tried to teach us how to cross the road without getting squashed with his 3 golden rules:

  • Don’t stop! One you’ve started to cross just keep going, don’t hesitate, slow down or worst of all stop. The traffic will (hopefully) move around you.
  • Don’t make eye contact with drivers
  • Buses rule the road! A bus will not stop if you are in the way, if you see one coming, run…

If you can’t face crossing the road, watch the madness from above instead. You can’t miss the City View Cafe building overlooking the intersection next to the lake. Head all the way up to the top floor and grab a spot overlooking the chaos below with a cold drink.

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8. Take in the french colonial architecture and shop til you drop in the labyrinthine old quarter .

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Grab a bag of delicious, deep fried pastry ball things from a street vendor, search for the best phở in Hanoi or haggle over the price of a pointy hat that you’ll have to wear on the plane on the way home and which will probably end up in the attic…

 

9. Discover Hanoi’s secret nightlife

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Hanoi has notoriously strict laws regarding bars and clubs and most places will be closed by midnight. A ‘night out’ in the city will usually consist of sipping bia hoi perched on a plastic stool down a bustling lane in the old quarter. But after one evening doing just that, we met a group of Israeli guys who were heading to one of Hanoi’s ‘underground’ clubs.

A 10 minute taxi ride from downtown brings us to the Hero Club, an industrial style nightclub with pulsing music, cage dancers and of course, a selection of fresh fruit on the tables. However we had only been inside for 5 minutes when the music turned off abruptly and the staff starting ushering everyone to  the rear exit away from the police out front… we’d have to try our luck another night!

 

10. Cool off in the rooftop pool at the Apricot Hotel

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It’s hard to find a swimming pool in the city. There are only a handful scattered about, mainly on the rooftops of the fancier hotels that are definitely not backpacker-budget friendly. But many hotels will let you use their pools for a fee, such as the ridiculously fancy Apricot Hotel. Just look at those chandeliers in the lobby…

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The hotel charges around £10 to use the pool. However, if you’re really low on funds and feeling sneaky, it’s easy to come back free of charge another day. Just act natural and jump in the elevator!