Rome’s Hidden Gems

Rome has an astounding roll call of greatest hits: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Sistine Chapel, to name a few. But don’t travel memories often lie in the hidden details? The places that you chance upon and have to yourself on a magical afternoon? There’s a special thrill about well-kept secrets, available only to those in the know. Here’s a rundown of some of the places that Romans plead to be kept out of guidebooks. Keep them quiet.

Secret stays

Start off by booking in at some of Rome’s most discreet hotels. A great choice in the bohemian left-bank district of Trastevere is Buonanotte Garibaldi (Via Garibaldi 83, 06 5833 0733), with three silk-draped rooms in owner-artist Luisa Longa’s pale-terracotta villa. There’s a graceful sitting room filled with coffee-table art books and a polished grand piano, and it’s centred on a leafy courtyard. Close to the nightlife of Trastevere, but far enough away to offer peace and quiet.

Another off-the-radar, insider choice, is the exquisite Villa Laetitia (Lungotevere delle Armi 22-23, 06 322 6776). Each room is beautifully composed, with an elegance that comes from another era. It’s owned and designed by Anna Fendi Venturini. However, despite the designer connection, prices are surprisingly modest. It’s slightly out of the way, but still a short walk to the centre (along the river).

For a luxe stay in Rome’s most luxurious shopping district, book in at hidden-away Margutta 54 (Via Margutta 54, 06 6992 1907), which offers four large suites in former artists’ studios (once used by Picasso, Puccini and Stravinsky) off a gated courtyard.

Hidden neighbourhoods

Close to the Colosseum, Monti was ancient Rome’s red-light district. Today the area centred on Via dei Serpenti and Via del Boschetto harbours wine bars, one-off boutiques and charming individual restaurants. Although tourists come here, the vibe isn’t touristy, but villagey. Places to check out include the wonderful Umbrian-Roman restaurant L’Asino d’Oro (Via del Boschetto 73, 06 4891 3832), vintage bookshop Libreria La Gru (Via del Boschetto 20, 334 901 3091), Forno da Milvio (Via dei Serpenti 7, 06 4893 0145) for pizza al taglio (by the slice), and Tina Sondergaard (Via del Boschetto 1d, 334 385 0799) for designer-retro, tailor-made clothes.

Walk up the Aventino Hill, which rises between Circo Massimo and Testaccio and you’ll find the kind of area you’ll earmark to move to when you live here, where large villas line broad leafy streets. At the top, you’re rewarded by one of Rome’s most beautiful, yet slightly off-the-radar churches, Santa Sabina (Piazza Pietro D'Illiria 1, 06 574 3573). Alongside it is the impossibly romantic little Giardino degli Aranci (orange garden), from where there is a sweeping view over Rome’s domes and the snaking Tevere River.

Around 100 metres from Santa Sabina is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, full of mysterious signs and symbols. Most exciting of all, one of the piazza’s doors contains a peephole. Peer through it for a perfectly framed view of St Peter’s. In Paolo Sorrentino’s recent film La Grande Bellezza (‘The Great Beauty’), the protagonists not only look through this, but open the doors and enter the garden, with its manicured lines of hedges. Unfortunately, the door stays firmly shut to most – it’s the entrance to the headquarters of the Knights of Malta.

For nightlife with a hint of edge, head to Rome’s answer to Hoxton: Pigneto, a haunt for artists, would-be artists and students. This once working-class district is full of dilapidated low-rise buildings and edges the railway tracks. It first found fame in the 1960s, when film director Pier Paolo Pasolini used to hang out here. Over the past few years, it’s metamorphosed into the place to be for Rome’s arty crowd. You can walk in Pasolini’s footsteps at Necci dal 1924 (Via Fanfulla da Lodi 68, 06 9760 1552), these days a creative restaurant with a vintage vibe. Another key address is the wonderful Circolo degli Artisti (Via Casilina Vecchia 42, 06 7030 5684), Rome’s best venue for live music. Look out also for its street food markets and vintage fairs.

Shopping finds

Shopping in Rome is fun, with lots of independent shops, ranging from family-run hatters to funky high-fashion boutiques. One of Rome’s greatest shopping pleasures is to find local artisans who’ll make goods to your exact specifications. For handbags, wallets and belts, try Armando Rioda (Via Belsiana 90, 06 6992 4406). The workshop is on the first floor, up some well-worn stone steps – if the door is closed, ring the bell. For made-to-measure women’s shoes at affordable prices, there’s Crepida (Via dell’ Arco della Ciambella 9, 06 686 1733). For either of these, you’ll need about a week turnaround. If you want a more instant artisanal fix, have a motto inscribed on a piece of marble at the extraordinary, pocket-sized Il Bottega di Marmoraro (Via Margutta 53b, 06 320 7660).

Insider tips: eating & drinking

These addresses have been divulged by in-the-know Romans, so keep them to yourselves if you can… More and more creative cuisine restaurants may open in the capital, but Romans always return to the local neighbourhood places, where often quality has been honed over generations. Here you can eat home-style favourites (usually served by brusque waiters dressed in penguin black and white). Close to Piazza Navona, La Campana (Vicolo della Campana 18, 06 687 5273) is the place to go, the kind of restaurant where the whole Italian family goes at the weekend for a treat. Osteria del Sostegno (Via delle Colonnelle 5, 06 679 3842) is a locals’ favourite close to the Pantheon, with a tiny courtyard outside and a clientele of gossiping politicians and journalists.

Now, importantly: ice cream. You’re faced with ever greater choice of gourmet gelataria in Rome, but perhaps the finest is at the centrally located, yet hidden-away Il Gelato (Piazza Monte d’Oro 91-92, 06 6889 1576), with flavours ranging from strawberry to wasabi, and eight varieties of chocolate. You may have to ask the way, but you won’t regret it.

And for drinks? To hang with a cool Roman crowd, close to, but slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of Trastevere, seek out Il Baretto (Via Garibaldi 27, 06 589 6055), a beautifully designed bar a short way up Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill). Or try charming, living-room-style Il Tiaso (Via Ascoli Piceno 20, 06 4547 4625) in Pigneto, where bands perform on the tiny gallery.

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