The British novelist George Eliot once described Rome as ‘the city of visible history’. It’s hard to argue with this. The city of the past is imprinted on the city of today – a past that has made Rome so iconic that even those who have never visited still feel they know its character and what it has to offer. But, while Rome’s major landmarks are some of the most impressive in the world, if you stray a little from the beaten track, you’ll discover another side to the Eternal City.
A different perspective
While there is no escaping the pull of Rome’s best-known sights, there is something to be said for approaching these from a different angle. Did you know, for example, that the Vatican gardens are open to the public? You’ll need to book in advance; well worth it to experience some of the most beautiful green spaces in the country. If the Colosseum is top of your list, book an after-dark tour, which quite literally shows the enormous space in a different light. And if Saint Peter’s Basilica charms you, head to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and take a look through the keyhole in the priory’s main door. A poorly kept secret, you’ll likely have to queue for this one, but you’ll be rewarded by a stunning view of the basilica, perfectly framed by the form of a hedge-lined avenue. It’s really quite something.
More than meets the eye
Don’t think that the obvious choices are the only ones when it comes to ancient Roman attractions. Monte Testaccio may not have the glamour of the Pantheon but it is a unique ancient site: an artificial mound formed from fragments of ancient amphorae (jars), which date from as early as AD 140, possibly even earlier. At its base, a number of bars and restaurants have been built into the mound. We recommend Flavio al Velavevodetto, where glass panels reveal the interior of the hill, and Checchino dal 1887, where you can visit the wine cellar, its walls made up of these ancient pots.
Ostia Antica is another often overlooked site. Half an hour outside Rome, the port of the ancient city once sat at the mouth of the river Tiber, and, though it no longer meets the sea, the old harbour is notable for the impressive preservation of its structures, as well as beautiful frescoes and mosaics. Or why not discover Appia Antica, one of the oldest paved roads in history? While we wouldn’t recommend walking its length, you can see its beginnings at the Baths of Caracalla.
Rome’s museums are understandably one of its biggest attractions, and if crowds aren’t your thing there are plenty of options. The Centrale Montemartini provides an alternative for those enamoured with ancient Roman sculpture. The museum is sited in a former power station and this juxtaposition of ancient and modern gives a new perspective on this most classic of mediums. Not that Rome is home to classical art alone. The Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, popularly known as Maxxi, is Italy’s first national museum dedicated to contemporary art. Its building, designed by celebrated architect Zaha Hadid, is as striking as the works it houses.
The other pull of Rome is, of course, the food. From pizza to pasta, gelato to tiramisù, Italian food is loved the world over, and where better to sample it than the nation’s capital? From morning to night, the city is bursting with places to eat, drink and be merry, and the way to know the ones to choose is to do as the locals do.
Start your day with a frothy coffee from Castroni on Via Cola di Rienzo. Get your cappuccino fix in now, as Romans never drink milky coffee after 11am. For an informal foodie fix, try Necci, a stylish, welcoming bar serving local, mostly organic ingredients. Necci is located in the fashionable Pigneto neighbourhood so you’ll be dining among Rome’s cool crowd. For a post-lunch treat, Linari on Via Nicola Zabaglia is deservedly popular with Romans; the homemade cakes and pastries never disappoint.
Wining and dining
For something more formal, Armando al Pantheon is a modern trattoria embracing ancient foods. Serving ‘cucina povera’, which translates into English as ‘food of the poor’, the restaurant is part of the same movement that has seen bone marrow and offal re-emerge on menus across Europe. Revisiting neglected ingredients that are abundant and readily available, the chefs present some of the most beautiful and delicious dishes in Rome. This is where the local foodies are eating. Though when it comes to desserts, everyone knows that the best tiramisù in Rome is found on Via della Croce at Pompi.
The Romans love wine, and the selection at Il Goccetto on Via dei Banchi Vecchi is demonstrably good enough to queue for. If you’re in the vicinity of the Colosseum, Enoteca Provincia Romana is equally loved by locals. Italians make fine beer too, and Antica Birreria Peroni serves the best local brews. However, with its view over the bustling Travestere district, Il Baretto is our bar of choice in Rome. Serving fine wines, cold beers and cocktails alongside bar snacks and light bites, this bar really comes alive after hours, and is the perfect place to end a day of exploration.