Three millennia of history worn as lightly as summer linen
Rome has been around for almost three thousand years and yet carries all that weight of history with a dolce vita lightness of heart. Indeed, there are few cities so inextricably tied to a work of cinema as Rome is to Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic “La Dolce Vita”, which celebrates 60 years since its release on February 5th. Fellini both captured and defined the insouciant yet brooding atmosphere of the Eternal City in its post-war heydey, depicting its weary romance on screen and giving it a name that has become part of Rome’s identity.
What's more, Italy’s capital combines the intimacy and human scale of a village with the cultural draws of a historic, art-laden European metropolis. Classical ruins and early Christian places of worship stand next to – or sometimes lie beneath – Renaissance palazzos and Baroque fountains. But there are also great neighbourhood trattorias, quirky shops and a buzzing aperitivo scene. The golden rule for visitors? Don’t try to cram too much in. Rome moves at a slower pace than many northern cities, and to enjoy it you should take time out in pavement cafés as well as ticking off all the big cultural draws.
Hot right now . . .
Rebecca Winke, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat, drink and stay this season.
The spectacularly restyled Settimo (Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese, Via Lombardia 47; 00 39 06 478 021) is a formidable contender for a top spot in Rome’s rapidly evolving rooftop bar scene. With sweeping views over the Villa Borghese park, a lush garden-themed décor, and a cocktail menu with classic and signature concoctions, this is a sundowner paradise.
With the opening of Marigold(Via Giovanni da Empoli 37; 00 39 06 87725679), the world has officially reached peak avocado toast – and no better eatery to sit at the apex than this new bistrot and micro-bakery in Rome’s Ostiense neighborhood. Tuck into fragrant bread and pastries, eclectic salads and pastas, and the weekend brunch headliner of poached egg and avocado on rye.
For five-star style on a four-star budget, drop your bags at Chapter Roma hotel (Via di Santa Maria de Calderari 47; 00 39 06 8993 5351), a spunky newcomer that cuts its sophisticated vibe with a streetwise edge in the Regola neighbourhood. Plus this trendy bolthole has a street-art-decorated cocktail bar to lure you from the industrial-chic comfort of your room.
Rome’s street art scene is taking off, with locals such as Alice Pasquini and Maupal garnering international attention and the opening of MURo, an outdoor museum dedicated to mural art. You’ll need a local Cicerone to hunt down urban art in the Eternal City, and Scooteroma (00 39 340 075 1432) has the insider knowledge and zippy wheels to show you the most impressive works.
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48 hours in . . . Rome
Head up the steps of the Capitoline to admire two and a half millennia of history in harmonious Piazza del Campidoglio, laid out by Michelangelo in the 1530s on a site that once bristled with Roman temples. In the centre, emperor Marcus Aurelius still greets you proudly from his saddle, though today’s equestrian statue is a replica of the second-century-AD bronze original conserved just across the square in the Musei Capitolini (00 39 060 608).
Dodge around the back of Palazzo dei Senatori for a panoramic view of the Forum. Then head across Piazza Venezia to the Antica Birreria Peroni (Via San Marcello 19; 00 39 06 67 95 310), a vintage Roman-style bierkeller, where crowds of appreciative locals and tourists pack in to dine on filling carb and meat fare, washed down with draught Peroni. If you're in a hurry, you can join the local office workers who eat standing up at the bar in the entrance.
£ 335 pp 3 nights £112 per night Check availability Provided by Inspired Luxury Escapes
Brave the crowds again and head for the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine complex. Half circus, half sports arena, Rome’s most famous classical ruin is unmissable – especially now that they have extended the visitor route to the underfloor passageways through which gladiators and wild beasts made their entrances. Walk from the Colosseum though the Forum to the pretty Palatine Hill, where Romulus legendarily founded Rome, and where emperors such as Augustus built their palaces.
If the throng proves too daunting, head to nearby San Clemente (Via Labicana 95), one of Rome’s most worthwhile but least publicised sightseeing treats. This historical layer-cake descends from a street-level medieval and early-Renaissance church, with frescoes by Masolino, via a fourth-century early Christian church to the basement remains of a second-century insula (apartment block), complete with shrine to Mithras.
Head into Monti, the chic boho district of cobbled lanes and alternative fashion and vintage shops between Via Nazionale and Via Cavour. Best hunting ground for funky togs, shoes and jewellery is Via del Boschetto, where you’ll find good-value restaurant L'Asino d’Oro (Via del Boschetto 73; 00 39 06 4891 3832) serving up gourmet dishes (lamb innards in vin santo with melon and goat’s cheese, anyone?) at affordable prices.
For an aperitivo or after-dinner drink under an ivy-draped door, old-school wine bar Ai Tre Scalini offers a glimpse of pre-hipster Monti (Via Panisperna 251, 00 39 06 4890 7495).
If you're determined to include the Vatican in your brief Roman holiday, brace for queues at St Peter's, and pre-book your slot at the Vatican Museums (00 39 06 6988 4676) online to avoid an even longer wait there.
Otherwise, start your day with a Roman breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto (croissant) at elegant Bar Rosati (Piazza del Popolo 5a; 00 39 06 322 5859), which at this morning hour still has a relaxed vibe. Then cross the square to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo 12), an artistic treasure trove in which two strikingly dramatic canvases by Caravaggio stand out.
Head for the Ara Pacis (Lungotevere in Augusta; 00 39 060 608), where Richard Meier’s boxy museum-container houses a graceful marble altar that honoured Emperor Augustus’s pacification of the Roman provinces. It’s a short stroll to the churches of Sant’Agostino and San Luigi dei Francesi in the piazzas of the same names, with more splendid Caravaggios.
Armando al Pantheon (Salita dei Crescenzi 31; 00 39 06 6880 3034) is a charming throwback to the days when the centro storico was full of family-run trattorias serving hearty old-fashioned home cooking. And its location right opposite the Pantheon(Piazza della Rotonda), Rome's most satisfyingly intact ancient temple, means you can fit in culture and pasta in a single lunch break.
It’s a short stroll from here to the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (Via del Corso 305; 0039 06 679 7323), which houses more Caravaggios plus works by Breughels, Titian, Raphael and Velasquez, in an austerely aristocratic setting. You're well placed, afterwards, for a shopping spree, either in the chic (and costly) boutiques of Via dei Condotti and around, or along cheap-and-cheerful Via dei Giubbonari.
Dine at one of Rome’s new breed of creative trattorias. In boho Trastevere, La Gensola (Piazza della Gensola 15; 00 39 06 581 6312) offers a mix of tasty Roman specialities and Sicilian-style seafood dishes in an informal setting. Alternatively, head for Testaccio and grab a pizza at Da Remo(Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice 44; 00 39 06 574 6270) or an aperitivo at the Enoteca Palombi (Piazza Testaccio 41; 00 39 06 574 6122), where, between 7pm and 9pm, €10 (£9) buys you a drink and a heaving plate of food from the buffet.
Where to stay . . .
Rocco Forte Hotels has recently unveiled its lavish, Grand Tour-inspired Hotel de la Ville, which immediately set a new standard for stylish luxury in the Eternal City. It’s theatrical yet sophisticated vibe, next-level cocktails, and a panoramic rooftop done in chic riviera stripes reveal an invitingly playful side.
Double rooms from €430 (£392); 00 39 06 977 931
Set on Rome’s stylish Via del Corso, the patisserie-themed First Roma Dolce is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Its tony location just off Piazza del Popolo combined with an indulgent pastry shop and tea room and impeccable five-star services make this luxury confection a sweet retreat.
Double rooms from €510 (£445); 00 39 06 45427861
With its stylish townhouse air, stellar staff, and excellent breakfast, the Nerva Boutique Hotel offers luxe urban living at surprisingly affordable prices. The Roman Forum and trendy restaurants of Monti are just steps away, so you are perfectly placed to experience the best of the Eternal City both by day and by night.
Double rooms from €120 (£105); 00 39 06 6781835
What to bring home . . .
If you're looking for an original gift, the Bottega del Marmoraro (Via Margutta 53; 00 39 06 320 7660; closed Sundays) does a nice line of small marble plaques with humorous mottoes in Latin, Italian and Roman dialect.
Foodie tourists can head to C.U.C.I.N.A. (Via Mario de' Fiori 65, 00 39 06 679 1275; closed Sundays) for niche Italian items such as parmesan knives and panna cotta moulds.
When to go . . .
There’s no real off-season in the Eternal City. Spring and autumn are the busiest tourist seasons, with a peak at Easter as Vatican pilgrims swell visitor numbers. Winter – especially from mid-January into the first week of March – can be a great time to come if you’re lucky with the weather. Hotel rates are lower and restaurants are blissfully uncrowded. If you can take the heat, August (when most Romans head for the beach) is another good month to find offers on hotel rooms. The most perfect months, weatherwise, are probably April, May and October – and it’s also at this time of year that you’ll generally find the most pleasant temperature differential between balmy Rome and the cold north.
Know before you go . . .
British embassy: Via 20 Settembre, 80a, 00187 Roma; 0039 06 4220 0001; gov.uk
Tourist office & information: There are Tourist Information Points all over the city. As well as the two airports, you'll find useful ones at Termini Station (platform 24, open daily 8am-7.30pm), Castel Sant'Angelo, near the Vatican (daily 9.30am-7pm) and Piazza delle Cinque Lune, near Piazza Navona (daily 9.30am-7pm). For English tourist info ring 0039 06 0608 (daily 9am-9pm, charged at local call rate) or go to 060608.it.
Local laws & etiquette
Drinking alcohol in the street (unless it's the spillover area of a bar or pub) and going bare-chested are no-nos.
Dress code in churches is: shoulders and midriffs covered and 'modest' dress or skirt length for women, while for men vests and really short shorts are frowned on - though these rules are only rigorously enforced in major basilicas like St Peter's. Italians always say hello and goodbye in social situations – including when entering or leaving shops, bars etc.
A simple ‘buon giorno’ in the morning or ‘buona sera’ in the afternoon or evening goes a long way. ‘Ciao’ is for friends, family or young people. If somebody thanks you by saying ‘grazie’, it’s polite to say ‘prego’ (you’re welcome) in return.
Currency: Euro. Most cashpoint machines work with international cards, via the Cirrus circuit
International dialing codes:
003906 for Rome numbers from abroad
06 from inside Italy
00 to get an international line
Local time: UTC + 1 hour
Tipping: Italians tip very little; 5% is ample, and it’s often enough just to round the bill up to the nearest 5 or 10 euros
Emergency services: 112 (Carabinieri and general emergency switchboard); 113 (State Police); 118 (Ambulance Service)
Lee Marshall's perfect day in Rome: Tiber walk, culture fix, watch AS Roma beat Juve, aperitivo with friends in Monti, pizza in Testaccio. Lee may now live in the Italian countryside but he still needs a regular dose of the eternal city, where he lived for 24 years.
Rebecca Winke’s first visit to Rome was a coup de foudre, and her affection for the Eternal City has only grown over 25 years of living in Italy. She has mastered the art of navigating the city’s sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse.
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