Rome is a glorious three-millennium mash-up of the very best (and worst) of Western culture. Here, past and present fuse to intoxicating effect – one minute you’re walking with the Caesars and the next you’re rocking out in a converted 14th-century chapel. Paula Hardy navigates a path through iconic ruins and modern sensibilities.
Rise early and join the locals at the bar of Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè (Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82, 06 6880 2048). Although standing room only, this retro 1930s café enjoys cult status thanks to its famous gran caffè, a cup of hand-roasted fair trade coffee so smooth it guarantees to put a spring in your step. Then take a quiet morning stroll around the tightly packed lanes of the centro storico (historic centre), where there’s plenty to see without even trying. Two blocks west of Sant’Eustachio is Rome’s most iconic piazza, Piazza Navona, arranged around Bernini’s ostentatious Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). To the south, Roman nonne (grandmothers) haggle over artichokes at Campo de’ Fiori food stalls; and if you duck beneath the Arco degli Acetari at Via Pellegrino 19, you’ll discover a magical medieval courtyard, flanked by pastel-hued facades.
For art and architecture aficionados, Rome is a proverbial candy shop, but what many people don’t realize is that some of the city’s most outstanding masterpieces are easily accessible and absolutely free to view. Pick out a church or two and head there early and you can usually enjoy Old Masters all to yourself – a far cry from the crowd-packed halls of the Vatican. Caravaggio connoisseurs are spoilt for choice at the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi (Piazza di San Luigi dei Francesi, 06 688 271), while his Madonna dei Pellegrini (1604) in the Chiesa di Sant’Agostino (Piazza di Sant’Agostino, 06 6880 1962) still strikes a powerful chord with its brutal realism. Even some of city’s iconic ruins offer free entry – the Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda, 06 6830 0230) is the city’s best preserved ancient Roman building and was the planet’s largest cast-concrete construction right up until the 20th century.
As most travellers don backpacks, hats and sunscreen and head for the vast ruins of the Roman Forum and Colosseum, those in the know head north, in the opposite direction, to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which houses the classical treasure trove of the Museo Nazionale Romano (Largo di Villa Peretti 11, 06 3996 7700). Given its unpromising location near the Termini Station, this light-filled gallery remains off most people’s radar despite its exquisite sculptures and sensational mosaics and frescoes. The show-stopper is the fresco cycle from the Villa of Livia, which covers an entire room depicting an illusionary garden full of wild roses and pomegranates beneath a blue summer sky.
Another pleasant surprise near the Termini Station is Alessandro Pipero’s fine dining restaurant Pipero al Rex (Hotel Rex, Via Torino 149, 06 481 5702). You can easily while away several hours here savouring the stunningly executed nine-course tasting menu (€80) on the first floor of Hotel Rex. As there are only six tables in the spare and elegant dining room, booking in advance is absolutely essential. For those on a more modest budget and time frame, the nearby gourmet sandwich shop Gaudeo (Via del Boschetto 112, 06 9818 3689), offers sumptuous panini stuffed with artisanal cheeses, meats and marinated vegetables.
As the pace of the city slows down in the afternoon, you’d do well to follow suit and consider taking a Vespa tour with resident tour guide Silvia Prosperi (340 501 9201). Although she does cover the big hitters like the Vatican, the real soul of the city is to be found ducking beneath ivy-covered arches down back lanes in neighbourhood tours of Celio, Trastevere and the Aventine Hill. Although right in the centre of the city, the Aventine Hill with its beautiful bourgeois blend of Liberty-style villas and lush gardens is largely overlooked, despite the swoon-worthy view of St Peter’s Cathedral framed by rose bushes and glimpsed through the secret keyhole of the Priori dei Cavalieri di Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta).
Welcome to happy hour! Although originating in the northern cities of Milan and Turin, l’ora d’aperitivo (aperitif hour) with its Campari cocktails and mini food feasts is now a nightly ritual for Roman residents. If you fancy getting to grips seriously with the Italian wine scene, sign up for Hande Leimer’s tutored wine tastings with Vino Roma (Via in Selci 84G, 328 487 4497). Alternatively, head across the river as the sun sets to the working-class neighbourhood of Trastevere. Here you can admire the winking mosaics in the Basilica di Santa Cecilia (Piazza Santa Cecilia 22, 06 589 9289) and the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, 06 581 4802), browse chic little shops and then settle in at Il Bacocco (Via Goffredo Mameli 45, 06 589 8587) where the aperitivo bar opens at 6pm.
Locals know all too well that some of the best meals in Rome are often the cheapest, where vintage cooks have perfected their skills over decades. Just such a place is Flavio al Velavevodetto (Via di Monte Testaccio 97, 06 574 4194), where local gastronomes flock to outdoor tables for dishes of Roman classics such as cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta), carbonara (egg, cheese and bacon pasta), offal and lamb. Also in Testaccio is the classic Roman pizzeria Da Remo (Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice 44, 06 574 6270), where you’ll need to arrive before 8pm if you want to skip the queue for thin-crust, Roman-style pizza. Those seeking a more romantic meal should stay in Trastevere and book a table at Michelin-starred Hostaria Glass (Vicolo del Cinque 58, 06 5833 5903), where Cristina Bowerman conjures up modern Italian dishes such as pistachio-encrusted scallops with pancetta and lemongrass.
Dinner in Rome is likely to take you well past 9pm, which is just as well as the city’s nightlife doesn’t get going until at least midnight. In Testaccio you can take your pick of after-hours fun from chic supperclub Goa (Via Libetta 13, 06 574 8277) to warehouse party venue Villaggio Globale (Lungo Tevere Testaccio 1), and open-to-the-stars Conte Staccio (Via di Monte Testaccio 65, 06 5728 9712). Beware though, from mid-June to mid-September most of the city’s clubs and music venues close or relocate to Fregene or Ostia for summer dancing on the sand.
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