Alexei Cohen, 37, is a New Yorker who has lived in Rome for about four years; Rome is the home town of his wife, Alessia. Cohen is author of “Moon: Italy,” which recently came out in paperback (Moon Guidebooks, $23.95).
Q. Folks in the States are concerned this summer that travel to Europe is getting too expensive. Are you seeing fewer Americans in Rome?
In the first half of the year, there was a small drop in American and Japanese visitors. Tourism from Europe, Russia and China has stabilized – no increase or decrease from 2007 numbers.
They've made a lot of efforts here to attract people back, like events geared at younger people. The numbers are better than after 2001 and 2002, when there was a sharp decrease. What we're feeling here now is a slight bump in the road.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Q. Are prices up?
Inflation is about 2.5 percent, so prices are up – like for fuel, electricity and some foodstuffs, including the price of wheat. A big concern is the price of pasta, which wasn't high before. Every euro counts these days, but it's not a tremendous jump.
But if you looked at the cost of a cup of coffee, you wouldn't notice. Even with the money exchange rate, if you compare the price of a cup here and in New York, you're probably better off drinking it in Rome.
Q. What's the most economical time of year to visit?
I wouldn't go in August. It's when you find the highest prices, and the weather is very hot. August is the most popular month for Italians to take their holiday, so many close their restaurants or business or shops. This doesn't stop people from coming here, though.
Still, the museums are always open, there's less traffic and it's quieter.
I would suggest spring – May and June – or September and October, when you get the best deals on airfares and hotels.
Q. Tourists head to the Vatican and Colosseum. How about great, less-known places that don't cost an arm and a leg?
One of my favorites is the Via Appia Antica, one of the first roads the Romans built – back before Christ – and it's absolutely free. It's in the middle of the beautiful Parco dell'Appia Antica, near the center of Rome, about 10 minutes from the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held. Along the street are remnants of Roman monuments. You can rent a bicycle for 3 euros (about $4.67) per hour or 10 euros ($7.80) for the day. If you want, bring a picnic.
You could follow it all the way to Brindisi, in the “heel” of southern Italy. But if you just spend about 10 minutes walking the Appia from the Circus Maximus, in about 10 minutes you'll be out under an umbrella of pines. You'll be able to get an idea of what Rome was really like back then.
Also, you can take a tourist bus that goes around to archaeological sites, which isn't a bad way to start your visit. Or ride the 110 open city bus – a good option if you don't have much time to spend here. You'll see a lot, and in an air-conditioned environment. It costs 16 euros ($24.90).
I would go out to Ostia Antica, an old Roman city about 15 minutes from Rome on the Roma-Ostia Lido train line from Piramide. A ticket is only 1 euro ($1.60). Get off at the station at Ostia Antica, walk five minutes, and you'll be in a place similar to Pompeii. Unlike Pompeii, it wasn't covered in volcanic ash; it was buried in mud. They started digging at Ostia at the turn of the last century. At one time, 50,000 people lived there. Ostia has temples, a forum, baths, bars and an amphitheater. It's not very crowded, compared to downtown Rome.
Q. Eat out much?
Yes. A fair amount.
Q. Where do you go most often?
There are three levels of places: the osteria, the trattoria and the ristorante. We usually go to an osteria, a very simple place where the owner is out there serving customers. It's familial; not very formal service. And you can get traditional Roman dishes.
Each town in Italy has its own dish; most revolve around pasta. In Rome, the big one is cacio e pepe – cheese and pepper sauce, with different varieties of pasta. You have to have it at least once when you're here, and to have the full meal – the first and second course and desserts.
Q. What's another Roman classic?
Amatriciana: Red pasta with slabs of bacon and fresh tomato.
The most popular dishes are the most simple. You notice the difference in American Italian versus Italian food in Italy. Veal Parmigiana doesn't exist here.
Here, it's basic ingredients – onion, tomato, garlic and basil – in a simple dish. When ingredients are fresh, you don't need to complicate things.
Q. A skyline question: Is it difficult to build a skyscraper in Rome?
Regulations are pretty tough in the historic center; outside that they're doing a little building now. If you want to see skyscrapers, the tallest are in Milan, which is going through a building renaissance. In a few years, Milan won't look like it does now. But in Rome, the tallest building is St. Peter's in the Vatican, and I think they want to keep it that way.
Q. Where's your neighborhood?
It's 15 minutes from the Colosseum, 15 minutes from the sea. Rome is actually close to the sea, which is one reason ancient Rome prospered. It was inland enough to be protected, but close enough to the coast to benefit from trade routes.
Q. Do Romans go to the beach?
There are traffic jams every Saturday around 10 o'clock and again around 5, when they come back from the beach. It has quite an active nightlife: There are many beach establishments out there, and during summer a lot of clubs move there from downtown.
Q. What are the best clubs on the beach?
There's one called Cuba Libre that's pretty good. Also, the Mediterraneo.
Wherever you see a fire on the beach is a good sign. They like to build fires in the sand and set up a DJ booth there. Everything takes place on the sand.