To Rome with Love: Another Side to the Eternal City
Updated: Aug 15, 2019
There is more to Rome than the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum but of course these are excellent places to start. In fact there are so many absolutely cannot-be-missed main attractions that there can be little time left to explore its hidden depths and its wider neighbourhoods. However that's what we decided to do this time and it made for a very different trip to our last which you can read about here. Both were equally fantastic but last time around we focused mainly on the main tourist spots and only ventured off the beaten track a little. This time we explored the outer reaches of the city and neighbourhoods such as Testaccio, Garbatella and the Quartiere Coppedè, but also managed to find time to pop back for a wander around the historic centre in the evenings. All in all it made for a pretty perfect trip though we could easily have filled another five days with entirely new things to see and do. That's the only problem with Rome - it's overflowing with places to visit and new treasures to explore. Finding time to fit them all in while mindfully appreciating every experience can be tricky. We prioritised a few places that we absolutely had to visit but also enjoyed plenty of downtime over leisurely lunches and dinners and the prerequisite aperitivo before every meal. It's all part of the Roman experience and I can safely say we loved every minute of this trip. Here are some of the reasons why.
A groovy place to stay
Part of the reason we had such a great time on this trip was our accommodation. After much research I opted for the Vittoriano Luxury Suites on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, bang in the historic centre of Rome, close to Piazza Venezia and the Vittoriano monument. The picture-perfect church above was just outside the front door and the entrance was through the monumental doorway on the right. The Pantheon and Piazza Navona were all within 10 minutes' walking distance so for starters the location was brilliant. Easily accessible by bus from Termini train station and on many main bus routes, it made life very easy to get from place to place during our stay.
We had a huge room with a spa bath was definitely a selling point for me. Separated from the bed by a dividing partition, it was absolutely enormous with a Jacuzzi function. The hotel provided scented candles for us to use during our stay which was a nice touch. It was very cold in Rome in December so it was complete and utter bliss to come back to the room before dinner for a glass of bubbly in a warm bath. It was my first time ever in a round bed but I liked the novelty factor, not to mention the fact it was one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in. Netflix is set up on the television if you feel like chilling out but as we were out and about most of the time it didn't get much use. There was a separate bathroom with a huge rain-shower if spa baths aren't your thing and breakfast was included in the price, which, despite the name and the location was surprisingly good value for money. I would highly recommend. Oh and this is the view out of the windows. I was awoken every morning by the soothing sounds of the church bells. So far so Italian.
Get out of town and see what the surrounding neighbourhoods have to offer
One of the places that was top of my list to visit this time around was the wonderful Quartiere Coppedè, a neighbourhood designed by the experimental architect Gino Coppedè in 1919 and completed in 1926. This is a neighbourhood like no other in Rome with fifteen of his fantastical buildings spread across five streets, his eclectic style given full rein here to do as he wished. And he did. This is no-holds-barred architecture at its finest: a wild and whimsical mix of styles from Art Nouveau to Byzantine to Medieval. This is the main entrance to the area: through the arch (at the junction of Via Dora and Via Tagliamento) onto Piazza Mincio, the heart of the neighbourhood. Look up as you walk beneath the arch: the iron chandelier which hangs above is exquisitely beautiful, decorated with organic Art Nouveau-style tendrils and seahorse motifs.
The upper portion of the arch which connects two apartment blocks on either side is not purely decorative and is also home to a series of domestic residences. The decoration on these buildings is incredibly detailed, extremely ornate and absolutely beautiful. I particularly loved the octagonal building as his sense of humour really comes into play here. If you look closely at what is holding up one of the central pediments, you'll see the supporting structures are two bees. Just above, two rams heads smile down at you from the upper supports and chubby little putti stand out in high-relief from the walls. The top tier has lions heads jutting out at each corner and a figure watches over us all from the first balcony. I would love to see what the apartments look like on the inside. Can you imagine living here?
Through the arch lies a fairy-tale world for you to explore. At the centre of the Piazza is the truly brilliant Fountain of the Frogs with a series of frogs and figures spurting water in the basin below. It will definitely put a big smile on your face.
On one side you'll see the Fairy Houses which were my favourites of all. What’s so wonderful is that these are apartments, not public buildings, homes to the inhabitants of Rome though apparently the waiting lists for potential buyers or renters are quite long, as you can imagine. Completely different in style to the apartments at the arch, these have Moorish and Classical detailing, terracotta-coloured buildings with painted scenes on the walls, one of which is inscribed Firenza Bella, or beautiful Florence, the city of his birth. You'll also see snakes, strange birds and animals, geometric designs and Byzantine-style mosaics. An absolute mish-mash of styles and I loved it.
On the other side is the Palazzo del Ragno (Palace of the Spider), marked as so by the giant Art Deco spider motif above the main door.
There are far too many other buildings to mention here as that would take a separate blog but I urge you to check it out for yourself on your next visit. The remaining buildings can be found on Via Aterno, Via Brenta, Via Olona and Via Serchio. It'll be pretty obvious which ones are his. It's a simply captivating place and feels like a world away from the historic centre, though of course it's not. A short bus or tram ride from town, this colourful and uplifting place which will make you walk away with a big grin on your face. Not only that, I can guarantee you’ll pretty much have it all to yourself. We didn't meet a single other tourist that morning.
Getting there: Quartiere Coppedè is located to the north of the city and east of the Borghese Gardens.
Take tram numbers 2, 3 or 19 to Piazza Buenos Aires. Depending on where you're staying, there are a number of buses serving this area too.
Our second day was spent in Ostia Antica, an ancient and remarkably preserved ancient Roman town, now an archaeological site, on the outskirts of the city. Ostia was a port city dating from the 4th century BC. It's an incredibly beautiful place, none more so than when the fading evening light of winter hit the buildings. We didn't go as part of a tour but made our own way there easily on public transport (info below), accompanied only by Mario Erasmo's brilliant book 'Strolling through Rome', described as the "definitive walking guide to the eternal city". It's an easy read but full of useful information and interesting facts with each chapter dedicated to a particular area of the city. Ostia Antica was included as one of those walking tours and we followed his footsteps throughout the site, walking amid the ruins of the market place, the forum, the theatre and a number of Roman baths. I'd highly recommend picking up a copy for your next trip.
One of the highlights of this site is the enormous Roman theatre. Two of the original three tiers of seating which at the time could accommodate up to 3000 people are still in existence. The views across the site from the top are very impressive and it's a good vantage point to sit and take it all in. Straight ahead you'll see the Temple of Heres, perched on a high podium and reached by a number of steps, no longer accessible to the public unfortunately. There are some very fine examples of Classical sculpture located across the site. I particularly loved the ones pictured above and below. The swirling folds of the drapery is remarkable: almost hard to believe they were achieved in stone almost 2000 years ago.
There are a number of mosaic floors still visible throughout the site but one of the best preserved was at the Forum of the Porta Marina where the black and white scenes clearly depict athletes in action. Located at the furthest point from the entrance, I'd highly recommend making the effort to go this far. It was one of my favourite parts of the site. The entrance structure is so impressive and it looked spectacular in the evening light against that glorious blue sky.
You'll probably notice those very unusual trees that appear in almost every photograph. Some are Mediterranean pine but the ones we loved were the flat topped Cypress trees which you'll see everywhere including in the city. They are so evocative of Rome.
I loved wandering down the streets between the buildings and envisaging what it would've been like to live and work here all those years ago. You could almost imagine the sounds of the bustling markets and people carrying out their trades. It was quite affecting to walk on those stone paths and to picture the early Romans tracing those same steps every day. It's a fascinating walk through history.
We spent about four hours on the site and still didn't see everything but it was starting to get dark and we had to leave. It's not a huge site and nowhere near as large as Pompeii but you'll still need to allow yourself a few hours here to get a proper sense of the place. Just a word to the wise: bring food with you as there is only one café on site and it's pretty awful. It looks very promising on entry as the decor is classy but our sandwiches were dire. Coffee wasn't bad though.
Getting there: Take the Metro to the Pyramide stop. Adjacent to the Metro station is the Stazione Porta San Paolo which operates the regional trains. Take the Roma-Lido train line, direction of Cristoforo Colombo, and get off at Ostia Antica. Trains leave about every 15 minutes and the journey takes about half an hour. The good news is your combined ATAC ticket (info on this below under Useful Tips) can be used for all parts of this trip too. Entrance to the site is €8 but an additional €2 is charged for a site map which you will definitely need.
This is the fantastic Centrale Montemartini - a gallery of Classical Greek and Roman sculpture housed and displayed in the most unlikely setting: an industrial power plant. It shouldn't work but it really does and is an absolute must-visit when in Rome. This is one of the Capitoline Museums: in 1997 when part of the main collection had to be moved from the museums on Capitoline Hill due to restructuring works, a new home was sought to display them temporarily. This took the form of a carefully curated exhibition entitled The Machines and the Gods where the high-art of Classical times was displayed among the functional and industrial objects from the first public electricity plant in Rome.
This was a highly innovative and, as it turns out, very successful venture. When the sculptures were returned to their home on Capitoline Hill in 2005, the decision was made to keep this on as a permanent space to house many of their recent acquisitions. I'm so glad they did as it's a wonderful setting and the juxtaposition of the old and the new allows you to experience the sculpture in a completely new way. Even the way in which the individual sculptures are placed and mounted is modern - in some instances, instead of using traditional plinths, the work is supported by steel rods. It allows for a more dynamic experience of the work and in my opinion is a far more engaging way of presenting sculpture.
As you can see, their collection is outstanding with each piece lit so beautifully and shown off to its best possible advantage.
But it's not just the classical objects that are beautiful - the industrial machinery was magnificent and a work of art in itself. Well I think so anyway.
In contrast, some of the highly coloured mosaics on the floors are from the 1st Century AD. It's astonishing how well preserved they are and how much of the minute detailing is still visible to this day.
It's not a huge museum but we spent about two hours here. I found the busts particularly captivating, as if I was looking into the faces of history. Look how beautiful they are.
Getting there: Take the Metro to the Pyramide stop and it's about a ten-fifteen minute walk from here up Via Ostiense and into the neighbourhood of Garbatella. Entrance fee is a steel at €7.50. You can also, of course, buy a combined ticket and visit the other two utterly brilliant museums on the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill. We visited both last time and if you have time, they are well worth a visit too. I wrote about them in my previous Rome blog here. Centrale Montemartini is far less busy though. We practically had it all to ourselves.
Go in search of the perfect keyhole view of St Peter's
This is the illusive Aventine Keyhole in Rome: peer through the tiny keyhole in the door of the Priory of the Knights of Malta on Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta on Aventine Hill for the most stunning and perfectly framed view of the dome of St Peter's across the river. Almost impossible to photograph by night but I think I managed it despite hands shaking with the cold. Not quite a secret but also not quite the easiest spot to find as it's not signposted. Though it's not the only place to glimpse a view of St Peter's from across the river, it's a special one. We had it all to ourselves that night. One of my fondest memories of our trip.
Getting there: Aventine Hill is close to the river, opposite Trastevere. It's probably equidistant between the Circo Massimo Metro stop and Piramide - about a ten minute walk from each. The Piazza is located to the left of the Basilica di Santa Sabina at the bottom of the street.
Discover the best vantage point of Piazza del Popolo
The best place to take in the full splendour of the supremely lovely Piazza del Popolo is from the Pincio gardens which overlook the square from the north-eastern side. They can be accessed by either a ramp or steps to the left of the Fontana della Dea di Roma and the viewing point offers a really stunning view of the city. It's a short and easy ascent and is well worth it. The gardens were laid out in the 19th century and are an oasis of calm within the city. They were quite green and lush, even in December, so I can only imagine how gorgeous they must look in the height of summer.
Up here you can really appreciate the design and layout of this very elegant and important square which was originally the northern gateway to the city. You'll see from the images above the two almost identical Baroque churches designed by Carlo Rainaldi which were placed on either side of one of the main entry points where the Via del Corso, the Via di Ripetta and the Via Babuino come together. The centre of the square is marked by an ancient Egyptian obelisk which was moved from the Circo Massimo in the 16th century. While you're in the vicinity you have to make a stop-off at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to the right of the city gate to see the two Caravaggios in the Cerasi Chapel. It was closed this time but we were lucky enough to view them on our last trip. They are monumental paintings, The Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter, and I think two of the greatest examples of the power of his work. As you can expect, the paintings capture moments of high drama, intensified by his use of dramatic lighting and the figures appear to be falling beyond the picture plane into our space. They are astonishing. You will find them in one of the side chapels to the left of the altar but they are in darkness with the chapel illuminated only when you insert the required €2. I can assure you: it's worth it.
Getting there: Metro: Flaminio
If you have the time, Piazza del Popolo and the Pincio Gardens are a good place to access the Borghese Gardens, home to the fantastic Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea which I wrote about in my previous guide to Rome. The gardens themselves are expansive but worth the time if you can spare it.
Enjoy one of the greatest private art collections in Rome
These jaw-dropping rooms can be explored in the Palazzo Galleria Doria Pamphilj, not that you would ever guess from its innocuous entrance off Via del Corso above. Expect sumptuously decorated galleries, including the stunning Hall of Mirrors below, with a world-class art collection including Caravaggios, Titians, Rembrandts and Raphaels spread liberally throughout. Arguably its most famous work is the Velázquez masterpiece from 1650, his commissioned portrait of Pope Innocent X which can be found to the left of the Bernini bust of the same pope in the small room above. It's a truly astonishing painting but its extreme naturalism did not appeal to its sitter who exclaimed "too true, too true" upon seeing it for the first time. No photographs of the paintings are allowed but I urge you to take a look at this work online.
One of the highlights for me was the audioguide which is narrated by one of the current Pamphilj family members, Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj who is of British / Italian descent and who, with his family, still lives in the palace, taking up a mere ten rooms of the thousand on site. It made the entire tour so personal as he talked you through the various rooms and galleries, offering little anecdotes and stories about past family members, in addition to some really fascinating histories of some of the artworks on display. I loved the story of the Caravaggio painting of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Included in the painting is a music script, held by St Joseph, which is a real piece of music and can, in fact, be played. Quite recently a recital was held in that room of the gallery and the piece was played with the painting displayed in the background. What a wonderful story. The man truly was a mad genius. Aside from that, the painting is hung side-by-side with another of his works, The Penitent Mary Magdalene and you'll notice he used the same model for both Marys, highly controversial at the time. Not only that, he paints the baby Jesus as an ordinary child without the traditional halo. I loved how he was constantly pushing the boundaries with his art.
There are too many other interesting stories to note here but if you visit, you absolutely need to take an audioguide. It gave me such a great insight into this fascinating family.
Entrance fee is €12 with an additional cost of €2 to view five of the private apartments which date from the mid 17th. The apartments are home to descendants of the family to this day and are not open for viewing at all times so it's worth checking in advance.
Getting there: Entrance at 305 Via del Corso. Take the tram or any bus to Piazza Venezia and it's a mere few minutes' walk.
Experience the perfect geometry of the Pantheon
Though I'd been to Rome twice before, I'd never actually gone inside the Pantheon, just admired the magnificent exterior. This time we decided to take a look. Built under Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century AD, the building now holds the tombs of the artist Raphael and Kings Umberto I and Vittore Emmanuele II. The dome is open to the sky above, something I wasn't aware of, and the glimpse of the night sky through the opening was simply beautiful. To give you a sense of the scale of the dome, the central oculus is 30ft in diameter. The dome still remains the largest unsupported dome in the world, which I admit completely blew my mind when you consider the scale of it. The reason it still stands proudly without any interior reinforcements is due to its perfect geometry: the diameter of the dome is exactly the same dimension as the height from floor to ceiling - 43.3 metres to be exact. This allowed for the use of progressively lighter materials from the base upwards. What a fantastic feat of Roman engineering and architecture. Worth visiting for this alone.
Address: Piazza della Rotonda
Okay at this point I'm guessing you might be hungry, thirsty or both. Perfect timing as just around the corner from the Pantheon is the most perfect cup of coffee you'll ever taste. This is the Tazza d'Oro, a Roman institution with its elaborately gilt interior and staff dressed in black tie. They take their coffee very seriously here and their espresso is the best I've ever had. Silky smooth and flavoursome. On the next visit I tried the Caffè con Panna which is basically an espresso topped with a huge dollop of whipped cream. Every bit as good as it sounds though I did feel like I was about to have a coronary afterwards. I'd highly recommend.
La Tazza d’Oro, Via degli Orfani 84/86
The King of Carbonaras
I'm now going to tell you about the greatest Italian meal I've ever eaten in my life. Actually not only one of the best Italian meals, it was one of the best restaurant experiences I've ever had. Period. This was the zenith of Italian food for us and we're not sure it can be topped. The place: Restaurant Roscioli, also known as Salumeria Roscioli as it doubles as a deli. Options to sit at meat counter, in the restaurant or downstairs in the wine cellar. We opted for the wine cellar which was exactly as we hoped: full of people, tightly packed tables and buzzing with conversation. It's not fancy but it's simply amazing.
Roscioli is a fourth-generation family-run restaurant with a series of other delis across the city. It's an old-school Italian where they take their food, their ingredients and their methods very seriously. I defy you to find a greater Carbonara anywhere. You won't find any cream here: this is the real deal using egg and Parmesan but with their special ingredient: guanciale or pork cheek. This is why they tell you upon ordering that the Carbonara will take twenty minutes. I tell you: it's worth the wait.
Though I tasted the Carbonara, I opted for my favourite Roman pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe. It's the best I've ever had and I don't think I'll ever taste better. Unctuous and rich with the perfect amount of saltiness and tang from the Pecorino and the right amount of pepper, I was truly in food heaven. We also managed to eat some Fiori di Zucca (stuffed courgette flowers) and Martin had the lamb chops but as everything was so delicious, we felt it would be rude not to at least try a dessert. We managed to share a tiramisu, which, yes you've guessed it, was pretty much perfect too. Just the right combination of Marsala, coffee and mascarpone, with not even a tinge of sogginess to the sponge. We enjoyed the most delicious bottle of Valpolicella Superiore, La Musella, which was unbelievable value at €26. Honestly, the same bottle in Dublin would easily set you back €50. Great coffee too. And to top it all off, the staff were friendly and welcoming so I cannot fault the place on any level. It was the most perfect of meals in a Roman institution and we've been talking about it to anyone who will listen since we got home. Make sure to book your table in advance as it gets very busy. A real treasure.
Roscioli, Via dei Giubbonari, 21/22
On our first night in Rome we also had a great food experience in Osteria dell'Ingegno. Recommended by a friend who had eaten there on her last trip, we decided to check it out as we were staying close by. One of the great draws to this place is its location, right on Piazza di Pietra where the columns of a monumental 2nd century temple built by Hadrian are still extant. It has to be one of the most beautiful squares in Rome, especially at night when the columns are illuminated.
We were greeted by the most charming older man who looked after us for the evening and made us feel at home. The place is cosy with a cool wine bar at the front and they have some very good and reasonably priced wines. We opted for a grape we'd never heard of before, Nero Buono, as it from the Lazio region. It was divine: really smooth and very easy to drink and was one of our grapes of choice during our trip. If you can find it anywhere, I'd recommend giving it a go.
Between us we had tempura vegetables, Cacio e Pepe (are you seeing a pattern here...) and Martin went for Ossobucco for his main. Sadly we couldn't fit in a dessert but their coffee was good, not least due to the fabulous espresso cups. This is simple food but well prepared and we loved our evening here. It's definitely worth a visit.
Osteria dell'Ingegno, Piazza di Pietra, 45
Our last meal in Rome was also a great one, though it was a lunch and not a dinner as we flew home that night. The venue: Enoteca e Taverna Capranica on Piazza Capranica. We were drawn to it as it looked so charming from the outside. When we pushed the door open and heard some great jazz tunes playing overhead we knew we'd chosen well. It has a lovely old-fashioned Italian charm with its wine-lined walls and cosy, intimate atmosphere and is definitely a step-up from your average trattoria but without being stuffy or overly formal. Also their Christmas decor was stunning.
It's classy without being pretentious, staff were attentive but not intrusive and it was pretty good value for money too. Also the food was excellent. We shared an antipasto starter of dips and breads which was divine. My tonarelli pasta with tomato and aubergine was delicious, topped with mozarella, and washed down with a glass of wine from Lazio. Martin was also raving about his Matriciana pasta.
However the best was yet to come: the dessert was incredible. La Coppa di Capranica, their house-special which is a selection of ice-creams, splashed with just the right amount of Amaretto and topped with crunchy Amaretti biscuits crumbled on top. I'll leave it at that, shall I?
This is a great restaurant and we'll definitely be back next time we're in Rome, but for dinner, not for lunch. It's the type of place you could easily spend hours, sipping wine, enjoying their amazing food and listening to some jazz. A great find.
Enoteca e Taverna Capranica, Piazza Capranica, 104
Try out the fine cocktails in one of Trastevere's vibey bars. This is the very cool Pimms Good bar in Trastevere, my favourite neighbourhood in Rome. Cosy and festive with a buzzy atmosphere, friendly staff and wicked cocktails. Need I say more?
I'd highly recommend the Champagne cocktail with brandy. I knew it was a good one but I ordered a second one to be absolutely sure. All in the interest of research of course.
Pimms Good, Via di Santa Dorotea, 8, Trastevere
If you're planning on travelling out from the city to visit some of the neighbourhoods and museums I've mentioned above then I'd advise you to pick up an ATAC combined bus, train and tram pass. They're great value and make it very easy to get from A to B. A 24-hour ticket is €7, a 48-hour pass is €12 and a 36-hour pass is €18. You can buy them in the main bus, train and Metro stations and from automated machines at some of the bus stops throughout the city. Find out more here.
I still love nothing more than walking through the historic centre by night when the buildings are illuminated. You can probably see why below. I defy you to stand on Capitoline Hill or looking down on the Roman Forum at dusk and not feel slightly overwhelmed by its beauty and grandeur. I'm going to leave you with some final images from our trip. Farewell Bella Roma. We'll be back again soon.