Rome has been slowly awakening from its coronavirus lockdown slumber since June 3, when Italy reopened its borders to international tourism.
From July 10, with the FCO having removed Italy from the list of “essential travel only” countries and returning travellers no longer required to quarantine upon arrival in England, Italy’s capital is preparing for a wave of holiday-goers looking to experience the city’s famed la dolce vita.
There may be no better time to visit Rome than now, as Italian borders remain closed to arrivals from countries like the US and Brazil, which normally make up a considerable percentage of tourists to the Eternal City.
According to Assoturismo Confesercenti, Itay’s tourism federation, the industry predicts a 43.4 per cent drop in international visitors countrywide with respect to 2019 – the worst year for tourism in Italy since 1998.
For British travellers, this decrease offers a chance to enjoy Rome without the usual summer melee and to take advantage of uncrowded A-list sights, quieter restaurants and unusually low hotel rates.
“This summer is the chance to visit Rome and live like a Roman with the city almost all to yourself,” said Francesco Roccato, general manager of the Rocco Forte Hotel de la Ville, which will reopen on September 3. “Barely any lines at museums, no crowds in front of monuments and famous landmarks, and most of all no traffic. Rome is a dream this summer!”
That said, Rome maintains a number of protocols and measures set out by the Higher Institue of Health (ISS) and regional government to keep the city’s Covid-19 cases in check, affecting everything from getting around to dining out.
With thinned-out crowds and caps on daily visitors, travellers can explore beloved sights such as the Colosseum and Vatican without having to wait in interminable queues and elbow their way through the throngs.
“Going to the Vatican Museums now is just blissful,” said Agnes Crawford, a professional tour guide with Understanding Rome. “You have all the space you want, can visit at the pace you want, and even the guards look relaxed.”
Rome’s museums, archaeological sites and monuments have all opened back up to the public, though the most popular require booking a time slot in advance and maintain strict limits on the number of visitors. The Colosseum, for example, is down from its normal capacity of 3,000 tourists at a time to a total of 600 people per day, entering in groups of up to 20 every 15 minutes.
Visitors must wear a mask inside museums and other cultural sites and have their temperature checked before entering; some sights also limit the amount of time tourists can linger inside.
A few of Rome’s major art exhibitions, canceled as Italy entered its lockdown, have extended their dates. The blockbuster Raphael retrospective at the Scuderia del Quirinale has reopened and extended its run until August 30 with opening hours until as late as 1am; the Torlonia Marbles exhibition at the Capitoline Museums was canceled for April 4 but has now been rescheduled to open on September 25.
Restaurants in Rome are also abiding by anti-Covid-19 measures, with extra space between tables, masks required by staff – and by patrons when dining or using bathrooms indoors – and menus are often available via smartphone with a QR code or are sanitised after each use.
Most of the city’s restaurants that cater to locals are open, while the ‘tourist trap’ eateries clustered around the most famous sights have largely remained shuttered, making it easier to avoid a disappointing meal and instead dine with discerning Romans.
“The reopening process is slow and cautious,” said Eleonora Baldwin, culinary television show host and co-founder of Casa Mia Tours. “The centro storico, for example – once buzzing with life [see, overtourism] – is now empty. Outside ‘the walls’ is where the streets come to life. Walking around the city you notice families of Romans having lunch in the quartieri popolari such as Monteverde, Centocelle or Garbatella unlike anything in years. Rome looks and feels like a postcard from the 1950s.”
Many restaurants have added pavement-side tables or, like the popular trattoria SantoPalato, transferred much of the indoor dining room outdoors.
“At the beginning, it was hard to get used to the new rules,” said chef Sarah Cicolini. “Now things are running more or less as they were before. The only change for this summer is that we won’t be closing in August as we have in the past.
As of this week, only a fraction of Rome’s hotels have opened back up for business; the latest figures from Federalberghi Roma, the city’s hospitality federation, indicate that up to 90 per cent of accommodations remain closed for the time being.
The hotels that are operating are offering unusually competitive room rates, special packages and extra perks to entice travellers through their doors.
“There won’t be major changes, as we still want guests to enjoy the Rocco Forte experience,” assured Mr Roccato. “Nonetheless, given that the safety of our staff and guests is our top priority, we will sanitise all luggage upon arrival; guests will find masks, disposable gloves, and hand sanitiser in their rooms; and staff will wear masks when interacting with guests. Social distancing will be applied in all public areas as well as in restaurants and bars, the gym and spa.”
Despite the current downturn, the hospitality industry in Rome expects a bullish post-coronavirus future. Just last week, the Bvlgari group announced plans to open a luxury hotel near the Spanish Steps in 2022.
“I strongly believe that the hospitality sector will soon start to grow more and more again, probably reaching its highest levels,” said Jean-Christophe Babin, Bvlgari’s chief executive. “I have no doubt about the recovery of tourism especially in a city such as Rome, which really offers the best in terms of culture, architecture and history but also entertainment, culinary experiences and leisure activities. Travelling is the best way people can live memorable experiences.”