* Update: New blog post on my most recent visit to Rome can be found here It follows on from my top tips below and covers the lesser-visited neighbourhoods of the city *
I’ve been to Rome three times, the first time while backpacking with a friend on a very limited budget in my early twenties. The last two trips have been with my husband, with a slightly higher budget and with much higher standards. With or without money, Rome is still 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. And my god what a beautiful, magical city this is. There are few places more romantic in the world. I have fond memories of zipping through the streets in a taxi on our first visit together, past the iconic Vittoriano monument and stopping at Campo de’ Fiori where the morning markets were in full swing, close to where we were lucky enough to have an apartment for five days.
It's difficult to put into words how wonderful this city is and if you haven't been, 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 the essence of it for me.
Rome has everything you imagined but it's even better in reality. The beauty of the place is truly breathtaking: it's no exaggeration to say that there is something to see or experience around every corner. It's big, noisy and charismatic and if you're not in love with it after a day, I'll eat my hat.
Tips and things to do:
So what to do when you’re there? I'm going to offer the same advice I give everyone when they land in a city - walk. Walk everywhere. Rome is very compact and accessible on foot and it’s the way I like best to explore a city. And what a city to explore on foot, especially at night. The lighting on the ancient, sometimes crumbling buildings is magical. Explore a different area each night, wander off the beaten track, get lost, and you’ll be surprised what you’ll find - 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. And if you have time, see them all but don’t try to cram everything into one day. It’s exhausting. Book online for the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel, even if just the day before. We were there in August and the queue for the Vatican snaked around the corner and on for about half a kilometre. We had booked online the night before, walked to the front of the queue to the second entrance for those who had pre-booked, and were through in less than five minutes. It’s most definitely worth it. Life is too short for unnecessary queuing.
Eat off the beaten track
I’m constantly thinking about my next meal so I’m going to start there, particularly as Italian cuisine is my all-time favourite. 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. It was so good we went back twice, and it’s warranted a mention in my blog Meals to make you weep with gratitude. It was recommended by an Italian friend as somewhere frequented by locals and we were eternally grateful for the tip. 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…
Dine in Trastevere
This is my favourite part 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. It’s just magical. 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.
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.
Piazza Navona and the Pantheon
One of my favourite places in Rome is 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. I’ve always been a huge fan of Bernini, and though I’ve seen multiple images of it, nothing prepared me for seeing this in reality. Photographs do not do it justice. You need to stand in front of it; to walk around it and experience it from all sides. 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 I’m sure you’ll agree also looks pretty spectacular lit up at night.
Join the locals and have an aperitivo
My friend’s Italian boyfriend rates this as one of his top things to do in Rome (actually anywhere in Italy) and advised us to get on board with it during our trip. He was spot-on and it's definitely one way to feel like an Italian. 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. I confess to developing an obsession with Campari when I was in Rome, one which still persists to this day. It’s definitely an acquired taste but every time I have a Campari-soda, I’m transported back to La Bella Roma. The classic Roman 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. It’s delicious and so refreshing and is the perfect way to kick off your evening.
Have your mind blown by astonishing works of art. For free.
Illusionistic ceiling frescoes at Church of Sant’ Ignazio, Via del Caravita
I imagine the images above speak for themselves. 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.
Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps
Yes these are obvious Roman landmarks but for a very good reason: they’re unmissable. Again they’re at their best at night-time, not just for the dramatic lighting, but for the atmosphere. We had written both off as complete tourist-traps, so had a plan to take a quick look and move swiftly along. Instead we spent one of the nicest evenings in Rome sitting beside the Trevi Fountain watching the world go by with a takeaway beer and a gelato (when in Rome and all that. We were just following the example of the locals). The atmosphere was convivial: young and old were out in their droves taking their evening passeggiata, some lingering to chat beside the monument. Though it was August and tourist season was truly upon us, the surprising thing was we weren’t elbowing our way through crowds to enjoy it. There was space to sit and take it all in and to immerse yourself fully in the ‘Saturday night in Rome’ experience. Perhaps night time is a better option to visit as the large tour groups have probably been and gone. And of course the fountain is spectacular: you turn a corner and there it is in all its Baroque glory. It’s truly an impressive and almost overwhelming sight. Strangely hypnotic too, listening to the sound of the water cascading across the marble.
We enjoyed a similar evening sitting on the Spanish Steps which connect Piazza di Spagna at the base with Piazza Trinità dei Monti, and which is overlooked by the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. This iconic landmark attracts tourists in their droves, but is also a draw for students strumming guitars and drinking beer. The standard of entertainment was pretty poor that particular evening – there’s only so many times you can hear Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ being publicly murdered – so we didn’t linger for too long. 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.
Have a tourist-free gallery experience
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 contemporary exhibits but with no queues at all. We bought our tickets on the day. We both loved everything about this gallery: the friendly staff, the gorgeous bright space, the melding of old and new, and, obviously, the fantastic works of art within, not to mention the fact that we practically had it to ourselves in August. Seems like everyone else was queuing for its more famous sister above. It was one of my favourite afternoons ever spent in a gallery.
When we walked 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. A must-see is the astounding sculpture of the male figure pictured above, which rises from its block in one of the rooms housing the permanent collection. I’m not exaggerating to say it was one of the most incredible works of art I’ve ever encountered – the sheer presence and scale of the man stopped me dead in my tracks, illuminated by the dramatic lighting, and in itself is worth a visit. Unfortunately I cannot recall the artist’s name but I've never forgotten the sculpture.
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/ Considering the world-famous collection of sculpture to be viewed in this museum, I was surprised to find no queue. 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 sculptures I’ve ever seen. I was completely mesmerised by him. It’s such a poignant piece. 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.