8 Things That Will Surprise You About Study Abroad in Rome

by Amy Knauff

The world has become a very small place, thanks to the Internet. By the time you decided to study abroad in Rome, you probably sifted through hundreds of photos on Instagram, read blog posts written by previous study abroad students (or online reviews), and skimmed through top-10 lists about the best towns to visit in Italy, among a thousand other things.

You’ve likely already heard that cars barrel fearlessly down narrow cobblestone streets about the width of the car itself or that Romans like to eat late, as in 8 p.m. is an early dinner, and the squares of the historic center are alive with a cacophony of tourists, Romans, street artists, and vendors on any and all warm nights. If you haven’t heard any of that yet, you should probably ask your program provider what to expect immediately.

Students walking down a cobblestone street in Rome, Italy

Students stroll down the cobblestone streets of the historic center of Rome - Photo Courtesy of John Cabot University

BUT, there will be more to studying abroad in Rome than charming chaos, friendly locals, and heaping plates of carbonara. Here are eight things that will surprise you about studying abroad in Rome:

1. Graffiti & Trash

Graffiti is all over the place in Rome: on the metro, on buildings, even (sadly) on some statues and ruins. It’s an unfortunate scourge on the city, but (contrary to what Americans often think) a graffiti-covered building is not necessarily an indication that you’re in an unsavory neighborhood. Alternatively, it’s par for the course in Rome, even in the most upscale areas.

You may also notice more trash on the streets than you’d expect. Due to a variety of factors, ranging from issues with the city’s garbage collection company to the seagulls (yes, seagulls) that tear open restaurants’ food-filled garbage bags at night, Rome is unfortunately not as clean as it could be. The silver lining is that many citizen activist groups are coming together to clean up their city, and some street artists are turning graffiti into beautiful urban artwork.

2. For the Love of Dogs

Romans dote on their pooches, and pretty much everyone else is tolerant of this dog-mania. Don’t be surprised if you see dogs under tables in coffee bars and even on people’s laps inside restaurants (health code be damned!). Many Romans also walk their dogs leashless; that dog that seems to be wandering alone is actually sticking close to its human walking up ahead or behind it. The downside to all this doggy acceptance is that some less-than-conscientious owners don’t clean up after their dogs.

Word to the wise: glance down occasionally while walking anywhere in Rome to avoid being surprised by some less than pleasant blobs of poo.

3. Italian Breakfast

Italian Cappuccino

Cappuccino: part of a balanced Italian breakfast - Photo Courtesy of John Cabot University

Although brunch is becoming more of a thing in Italy (though still strictly reserved for weekends), the typical Italian breakfast is still very light. In a coffee bar, for example, your only options will be cappuccinos, juice, and pastries (usually a cornetto). And that’s it. If you’re staying at somebody’s house or in a B&B, you will probably be offered fette biscottate (hard, packaged toast) with jam or Nutella, and maybe some plain cornflakes. It is best you get used to it sooner rather than later.

At the start of every semester, there are brand-new study abroad students at almost any local supermarket in Rome searching in vain for the cereal aisle. Hint: there is no cereal aisle. Those four or five boring types of cereal next to the jam and Nutella, that’s it. 

4. Apartment Woes

For students who choose to rent an apartment in a residential building while studying abroad in Rome, expect things to work differently than they do back home. How different can it be?

Most places don’t have air-conditioning. Heating is not central, and in some apartment buildings the heat is only turned on between certain dates and/or during certain hours (based on both Italian law and a vote from the building’s resident association). Then there’s electricity; apartments have less kilowatts of power in Italy, so you cannot use more than one heating appliance (iron, hair dryer, toaster) at a time without blowing a fuse.

As for plumbing, toilets flush via a button on the tank you push up or pull down, a chain hanging off the toilet tank, or (for more modern toilets) a flat button on the wall you push in. The Italian plumbing system is also more delicate; as in, ladies, don’t flush your feminine hygiene products unless you want to back up the pipes all the way to the Colosseum!

Speaking of plumbing, unless you have gas heating, don’t expect to have unlimited hot water (think two consecutive, non-leisurely showers max per day). Finally, you will have a washer, but you won’t have a dryer. Not a problem on warm, sunny days when clothes can air-dry in an hour. But, what about during rainy periods? Better plan your laundry day before you run out of things to wear!

An outdoor café in Trastevere, Rome, Italy

An outdoor café in Trastevere - Photo Courtesy of John Cabot University

5. Lack of English

It’s true that in the historic center, Romans are used to dealing with tourists, and therefore, you can get around pretty easily without Italian language skills (having said this, there is a surprisingly significant lack of English explanations even in places like the Vatican Museums, which are a mecca for tourists from all over the world, yet only have minimal or incomprehensible English labels on the artwork). However, as a study abroad student in Rome, you might be living in Rome for four months and doing much more than just visiting the sights.

Don’t let yourself be caught off guard with the difficulty of communicating in everyday, non-tourist situations (especially in frustrating places that require a great deal of patience, like the post office or the bank). Take an Italian language class while you’re studying abroad in Rome and actually try to learn Italian. If you are going to travel halfway across the world and put yourself out on a limb, you might as well make the most of it! If your Italian isn’t up to snuff yet, be ready to go with a translation app on your phone upon arrival.

6. Rome is NOT Sunny & Warm All Year

It may be a Mediterranean climate, but it still gets cold in the winter. It’s a “humid” cold, as the Romans say, not a dry cold, so you may still feel chilly even if you’re bundled up. It’s no upstate New York, of course, but do bring a warm winter coat, gloves, scarf, and hat if you will be studying in Rome during the winter months.

Students overlooking the Roman Forum

Two study abroad students take in the Roman Forum - Photo Courtesy of John Cabot University

It can be rainy and dreary, too, especially in November and April. However, Rome wasn’t built well for rain, so expect flooded streets and sidewalks, even with a moderate amount of rain, and slippery cobblestones. If you are studying abroad in Rome in the spring, Invest in a pair of rain boots if you don’t want to sit through class with wet feet. Choose a summer study abroad program in Rome if you want to enjoy the warm and sunny days you’ve dreamed of gallivanting around Roman ruins, but keep in mind these lovely days will come with flocks of tourists.

7. Policemen With Machine Guns

This is the first thing many people notice when they land at Fiumicino airport (other than the fact that there are palm trees in Rome!). But you’ll also notice them around the city, especially in the historic center near major tourist attractions, like the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and Piazza Venezia. These armed policemen are actually carabinieri, or members of the elite national military police force. Seeing them around Rome does not mean the city is on lock down, it’s just part of the normal security system utilized by year round.

8. Studying Abroad in Rome Will Change the Rest of Your Life

If you’re like most study abroad students, you may be looking forward to four months of meeting new people, partying, traveling, seeing the sights, and eating yummy food. You will in fact do all that stuff, and so much more while studying abroad in Rome

Take the time to absorb the beauty, make Roman friends, get adopted by an Italian family, learn a bit of the language, and open yourself up to all the different ways of thinking and doing things, even the ones you’re not crazy about, and it’s guaranteed you will go back home a different, changed, more open-minded person.

This article was contributed by John Cabot University, an accredited American university located in the picturesque neighborhood Trastevere, in the heart of historic Rome. John Cabot has a student body of 1250 students, about half of which are study abroad students, representing the United States and about 70 other countries.