Overtourism: why I found it difficult to fall in love with Rome
It’s really rare for me not to fall completely in love with a city that I visit. I’m definitely a bit of a silver linings traveller, finding the best in pretty much every place I go. But I really found it hard to give my heart away to Rome on my first trip there. In fact, it left me feeling pretty uninspired, which I almost find hard to believe as it was the city I was most excited about visiting this year. From the insane level of overtourism to the small and not very visible queer scene, I left Rome feeling like it was the most overrated cities in Europe that I had experienced. What an incredibly sad thing to say!
I should say there were three things that definitely could have affected my opinion of Rome. Firstly, I was pretty exhausted when I arrived, having worked non-stop in the weeks leading up to this trip. I probably needed to go lie on a beach somewhere chilled rather than dealing with one of Europe’s busiest tourist hubs. Secondly, I stayed at the amazing Yellow Hostel in Rome, which is a really fun party hostel and had one too many Margaritas on the first night (stumbling into bed sometime around 4am). Suffice to say, I was hanging on the second day of my trip, but thankfully, I still had another day that. Thirdly, I’m not that much of a touristy tourist but I was happy to forgo that on this trip and embrace all the iconic attractions in Rome. So, this meant I had a slightly different experience of a city than I usually would on these trips and I hold my hands up and admit that opinion of this destination was probably affected by these elements. That said, here are 7 reasons why I found it difficult to fall in love with Rome.
Everyone I spoke to before this trip wanted to tell me how much they LOVED Rome, that it was the most amazing city they’d ever visited and that I was guaranteed to have an incredible time there. I should have realised that this had built my expectations sky high, to a level that no city could ever live up to. Rome is beautiful, it is filled with an astounding amount of ancient ruins and it has serious charm. But is it, as Lonely Planet insists, “one of the world’s most romantic and inspiring cities”? Not really. I can think of many cities I would put above Rome on such a list.
This is what killed my passion for Rome very quickly. Everything I’d read said to visit Rome in May, that it was warm and sunny without being having the intense heat of summer. Unfortunately, about 30,000 other people took that advice and descended on Rome the same weekend as I did. I have never, ever experienced overtourism the way I did in Rome. It was absolutely insane. I honestly felt like I was at a rock concert at the Trevi Fountain, there were THAT MANY people trying to push their way to the front. For a fountain. Admittedly, one of the most iconic fountains in the world, but still there were ridiculously-sized crowds thronging around it at any hour of the day – and throughout the rest of the city too.
I was constantly surrounded by group tours in the city centre and felt so overwhelmed by Rome’s tourism that it made me spend most of my visit questioning if I really wanted to work in the travel industry. I honestly was debating how much I am contributing to this problem! I should note that May is clearly worst time to visit Rome; everyone I have spoken to since this visit who raved about the city went during the cooler months. October-November or February-March are apparently less crowded times to visit. I hope for the sake of the Rome’s locals that this is true.
In addition to the overwhelming amount of tourists, I found the scale of Rome’s ancient icons overwhelming too. Ok, this probably sounds pretty lame but it was all a bit much. The amount of land in the city’s centre that is covered by the ruins can only be described as vast and add to this the fact the Colosseum in HUGE, the Pantheon is way bigger than you would expect and the Roman Forum seems to go on and on and on. Ok, so yes perhaps my hangover made me struggle to deal with all of this. But also I found some of the modern buildings a little overwhelming too. Like the Altare della Patria/Il Vittoriano (aka the Wedding Cake as the locals not so affectionately call it) in Piazza Venezia – it was completed in 1925 and is seriously so OTT in its pomposity (and I usually like things that are OTT!).
4) Where are Rome’s locals?
Due to the number of tourists filling every possible space in the city, I really felt that I didn’t meet that many actual residents of Rome on my trip. Again, pretty lame as I mainly spent my time in the city centre but I struggled to feel like I met that many of Rome’s locals, aside from those who work as guides or in shops. It was only on the Saturday when I wandered around the Trastevere district that I felt like I was surrounded by people who actually lived in this city. Suffice to say, you should definitely balance out small doses of the centre with large doses of Rome’s suburbs.
5) What else is there to do?
Considering my advice above, I really struggled to find things to do in Rome aside from the obvious stuff. I did quite a bit of research, read many blogs but found little to point me in any direction other than the city centre. As someone who has lived in London for nearly 15 years, I understand how much tourists usually miss by simply walking around ticking off the iconic sites. But is there much else to do in Rome that isn’t just wandering around a gorgeous suburb or two? I willingly signed up for seeing all the classic places in Rome (aside from the Vatican, thankfully) but did I enjoy myself? Not as much as I expected to.
6) Not much of a queer scene
My research had also turned up very little sense of a visible queer scene in Rome. I read about Gay Street near the Colosseum, but wandering around the area revealed one very dated-looking bar, Coming Out. There is also a couple of regular parties worth checking out (like Glamda) and a drag scene (including Drag Factor and Dragqueenmania) but considering this is the capital city, I definitely expected a lot more. That said, if you’re visiting Rome in the summer, be sure to check out the Gay Village which pops up during the warmer months. It lifted my spirits to see adverts for this on the train when I was there.
7) Not the gluten-free heaven I’d heard about
This was another incident where I fell victim to overhype. Everything I had read about gluten-free restaurants in Rome had made it sound like heaven to me, where mouth-watering pizza bases ‘senza glutine’ are served up next to the best gluten-free pasta you’ll find in the world. Obviously, Rome is a foodie hotspot and I was assured it was one of the best places in the world for those avoiding gluten. Oh, how harshly disappointed I was. I feel bad saying this, but I’ve had way better gluten-free Italian food in London. I had a couple of good meals but most of the places I ate at (that had received rave reviews from other diners) were at best uninspiring. Read my honest reviews for gluten-free Rome here.
So yes, I didn’t fall in love with Rome sadly. It took me weeks to feel ok about writing this blog as I hate being so negative but I think it’s important to be honest. My advice, go in the cooler months, be prepared for the overtourism and lower your expectations generally. Every city has its good and bad elements, so come prepared for Rome to have these as well. Thankfully, I am 100% up for visiting Rome again in the next couple of years to see if it can charm me a little more. Who knows, maybe I’ll fall in love with it next time.