Rome: The Great Beauty
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
* Update: New blog post on my most recent visit to Rome can be found here covering the lesser-visited neighbourhoods of the city *
There's no denying that Rome is one of the most fantastic cities in the world. The fact that the whole city is an outdoor museum means that you can spend your days quite cheaply: if art, architecture and history is your thing (and let’s face it, if you’re in Rome, I imagine it must be) then all you need is a good pair of walking shoes, and the world is at your fingertips.
It's difficult to capture the essence of this city in words so I'm going to refer you to Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. This movie is a veritable visual feast with its swooping shots of the city’s architectural glories, interspersed with dips into Roman high society, all bound together with an incredible soundtrack. The opening scene of a rooftop birthday party facing onto the Piazza del Colosseo is astounding. Of all the films I’ve seen about this great city, this is the one that best captures it for me. It's big, noisy and charismatic and if you're not in love with it after a day, I'll eat my hat.
What to do: out and about in Rome
Rome is a surprisingly compact city, perfect for exploring on foot. At night, the lighting on the ancient, sometimes crumbling buildings is something special. Pick a different area every day and wander off the beaten track: there are treasures around every corner. Of course there are the obvious one: the Colosseum, St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel & Vatican Museums, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill… The list is endless. If you have time, see them all but don’t try to cram everything into one day. It’s exhausting.
One piece of practical advice: book online for the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel, even if just the day before. Otherwise expect to join a very lengthy queue.
No matter where you go in Italy, those hallowed hours between 6 and 8pm are dedicated to one of the great pleasures in life, the aperitivo, where people gather after work and before dinner to catch up over a drink and some snacks. The term aperitivo literally means “to open” the stomach before dining and is truly one of the great Italian cultural rituals. So, when in Rome, head for Campo de’ Fiori in the early evening, grab yourself an outdoor table at one of the many great bars on the square and watch the beautiful people go by. The most common Italian Aperitivo is the Spritz, a cocktail of Prosecco, soda water and either Campari or Aperol, depending on whether you like your cocktails sour or a little sweeter, and topped with a slice of orange.
Piazza Navona and the Pantheon
An unmissable sight for any new visitors to Rome is the extraordinary Piazza Navona, a short walk from both Campo de’ Fiori and Ponte Sant’ Angelo. This beautiful square is overlooked by spectacular Baroque palazzi but its centrepiece is the main reason to visit: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers featuring personifications of the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate. The monumental figures emerge dramatically from the pale marble on all sides as water cascades from the stone below. It’s truly breathtaking, especially when lit up at night-time. From here if you head east by taking some of the smaller side streets, in mere minutes you will be faced with the magnificence of the Pantheon, which also looks pretty spectacular at night time.
Have your mind blown by astonishing works of art. For free. Illusionistic ceiling frescoes at Church of Sant’ Ignazio, Via del Caravita
This has to be one of the greatest works of art in the world, yet as the queues snake around the Vatican building for the Sistine Chapel, you can walk straight off the street into this church and pretty much have this lesser-known treasure all to yourself. For free. The ceiling was painted by Andrea Pozzo in the late 1600s, and is a masterclass in trompe-l’oeil or visual trickery. That ceiling is completely flat by the way. He plays with architectural perspective and foreshortening to create the illusion of a vaulted and domed ceiling, with cherubs, saints and putti falling towards us into our space. Important to note that there is a key viewing spot in the floor marked by a black disc which is the optimal spot from which to experience the illusion.
A second disc towards the altar throws up another bit of trickery. Look up into what looks like a receding dome and yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s also completely flat but painted to suggest a domed structure. Apparently the Jesuits ran out of money and hadn’t the funds to complete the church so engaged Pozzo to work his magic and create a painted illusion of a dome. I think it would fool anyone not in the know. It’s an absolute masterpiece and not to be missed. It’s a short walk from the Pantheon.
Eat off the beaten track
In this city you will have the opportunity to eat some of the best food of your life, but choose badly and it might just ruin your trip and leave you with a poor impression of the Roman culinary experience. Not to state the obvious but avoid the really touristy spots like the Vatican and the Colosseum and look for places a little off the beaten track. In saying that, I'm now going to contradict myself and say that one of our best meal in Rome was in Spaghetteria l’Archetto on Via dell’Archetto, a stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain. The greatest thing about this restaurant is being able to sample three different spaghettis on one plate: order the Assaggini and then choose the ones you want. They have an enormous spaghetti menu with over 100 options so this way you get to try more than one. Of note were the crema di scampi which had a brandy, parsley and tomato sauce, and the caccio e pepe, a Roman classic with Pecorino cheese and black pepper. The restaurant is located down a cobbled side street, a stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain: try to bag an outside table.
Another great spot he also recommended was Da Baffeto 2, just off Campo de’ Fiori. Like all the best places, it doesn’t look much from the outside, but the pizza was amazing. We sat on plastic chairs outside, drank excellent glasses of wine for under €5 and enjoyed watching the Roman evening unfold. And in keeping with the food theme…
Head for Trastevere This is one of the coolest parts of Rome and is a must-visit for its vibrant atmosphere, its maze of narrow cobbled streets, and its lively bars and restaurants topped with strings of fairy lights. If you’re based on the east side of the city, you can cross the river from Ponte Sisto or Ponte Garibaldi and you’re right there. Trastevere is frequented by students so it's a good place to grab yourself a cheap and cheerful pizza and a cocktail.
While you’re there you should make a point of visiting the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, located on the edges of Piazza Santa Maria, with its stunning 12th century mosaics, both on the exterior and inside. The basilica was originally founded in the 4th century AD, but its current version is 12th century in date after a complete remodelling. Further additions were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. The exterior is particularly striking at night-time – the gold-leaf on the mosaics is dazzling when illuminated.
Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps Yes these are obvious Roman landmarks but everyone should visit them at least once. The fountain is spectacular: you turn a corner and there it is in all its Baroque glory. It’s a truly impressive sight, particularly when dramatically illuminated at night, and strangely hypnotic as the water cascades across the marble. It's a popular hangout in the evenings and we found the atmosphere to be convivial: young and old were out in their droves taking their evening passeggiata, others lingering to chat beside the monument. Grab a gelato or a takeaway beer and listen to the sounds of the city.
This iconic Spanish Steps connect Piazza di Spagna at the base with Piazza Trinità dei Monti, overlooked by the church of Trinità dei Monti church at the top. It attracts tourists in their droves, but is also a draw for students strumming guitars and drinking beer. It’s a fun spot to sit and watch the world go by but bear in mind it’s prime location for hawkers selling all forms of tat, including plastic flowers and light-up miniatures of the Colosseum. Who wouldn’t want one of those, right? We politely declined, but after being approached about five times in as many minutes, we decided to take our leave. Borghese Gardens and the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art
Dedicate an entire day to this wonderful part of the city. The gardens are expansive and there is lots to see and do so don’t scrimp on time. The trees are also a nice shady cover from the heat of the day. The ground is pretty flat and easily walkable from side to side in about 45 minutes. The gardens are home to two museums: the Borghese Gallery, which houses a collection of paintings and sculptures from 15th to 18th century (booking essential to avoid queues); and my favourite the National Gallery of Modern Art, which has an outstanding permanent collection, in addition to some world-class contemporary exhibits. For the latter we bought our tickets on the day and there were no queues.
It's a fabulous bright gallery space with friendly staff. Upon walking into the main foyer, we were greeted with the first large-scale exhibit: a semi-permanent installation by Alfredo Pirri of a floor made up of shattered mirrors, on which a series of neo-classical sculptures stand, as if floating on water. It’s a unnerving experience to look down while walking across it. I have a fear of heights and the reflection of the ceiling in the floor gives the illusion of stepping into the abyss. But what an entrance to a museum, one that sets the tone for the rest of your visit.
Piazza del Campidoglio, or Capitoline Square, and the Capitoline Museums
Of course this hilltop square is beautiful - it was designed in the 16th century by none other than Michelangelo himself. It is bordered on three sides by elegant palazzos, two of which, the Palazzo Nuovo and Palazzo dei Conservatori, house the wonderful and unmissable Capitoline Museums http://en.museicapitolini.org/ Inside you will find the original Spinario, also known as The boy with the thorn in his foot. It’s the original bronze cast dating from 1st Century BC and is one of the most beautiful and poignant sculptures I’ve ever seen.
Also on view is a copy of the Capitoline Gaul, better known as Dying Gaul; the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD – a bronze copy stands in the centre of the Piazza); and the Capitoline She-Wolf, original dating from 5th Century BC. All for the price of a €15 ticket.
There are far too many things to recommend to do and see in this city. I could write a novel, but I’ve limited myself to the few suggestions above. It’s a special place, and should be on everyone’s bucket-list of places to visit. It completely captured my heart and when I look at my photos from that trip, I can still remember exactly how I felt at that particular moment and how happy I was at every experience.