In this gorgeous local travel guide to Rome, Laura Itzkowitz, editor and regular contributor to Untapped Cities, tells us how to truly enjoy the Eternal City just as the Romans do.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must: The first thing you should do in Rome is get completely and utterly lost in the labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets that make up the historic center. I recommend starting at Piazza del Popolo, where the three major roads fork out in a trident. Via del Corso is the most direct route to traverse the city, but if you stay on it the whole time, you’ll miss all the most important monuments, fountains and piazzas. Take to the side streets, meandering along past the gelaterias and stationary shops, and you’ll eventually find yourself face to face with the Pantheon, where you must sample the in-house roasted espresso at the Tazza d’Oro and a gelato at Giolitti (the smallest size comes with three flavors). Continuing on through the Campo Marzio, which is full of the most charming shops selling vintage jewelry, perfumes, brightly colored leather goods and things, you’ll want to make your way to Piazza Navona. There you’ll see Bernini’s fountain of the Four Rivers. If you can find your way back to Via del Corso, you’ll end up at Piazza Venezia with a clear view of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Wander back towards the Trevi Fountain and Piazza di Spagna, the famous steps where everyone gathers, then take Via del Babuino back to Piazza del Popolo and you’ll end up coming full circle.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture”… There are many different époques immortalized in the architecture of the city: there’s Ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome, Baroque Rome, Fascist-era Rome, contemporary Rome. In order to understand the culture of the city and the people, you need to see them all. You may be surprised to see an ultra modern design store next to a Baroque church, but that’s Rome. Romans have a deep respect for the history of the city, but they’re not stuck in the past. Go to the Musei Capitolini for classical art, and then go to MACRO for modern art. You can see Caravaggio and De Chirico in the same afternoon. (My favorite Caravaggio is in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.) At the Ara Pacis, take in Augustus’s alter of peace, and underneath, a rotating roster of exhibitions dedicated to contemporary art and design.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation: Everyone imagines that Romans all ride around on Vespas, which is not true, but most Romans own a car or a scooter. There are only two subway lines, though they’re currently working on a third, but the construction keeps getting delayed because they’re constantly coming up against archeological ruins! The buses and trams go everywhere the subway doesn’t, but they’re less reliable, especially at night. Fortunately, the historic center is compact enough that you can easily walk through most of it. In fact, you’ll have to go by foot in the smaller streets, as some are too narrow for vehicles to pass. That’s why Vespas are so useful in Rome!
I had my best night’s sleep at: Hotels in the historic center tend to be quite expensive, but you can find good deals near Termini Station. It’s very central and a major transportation hub, which makes it a good place to stay. Couch surfing has become very popular in Rome lately as well. Be wary of the lure of cheap hotels outside the city in Prima Porta. They may advertise their proximity to Rome, but it’s very difficult to get there via public transportation (expect to make a minimum of 2-3 transfers). Buses stop running at midnight (sometimes earlier) and you’ll end up spending the money you saved on a hotel room on a taxi instead!
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days: La Carbonara on Via Panisperna in Monti. They serve up all the typical Roman specialties and the walls are covered in compliments from satisfied diners. Italian food is very regional, so the best dish in Rome isn’t the same as the best dish in Tuscany or Sicily or Bologna. When in Rome, you must try the artichokes. My favorite Roman pasta is tagliatelle cacio e pepe, a very simple dish made with sheep’s milk cheese and pepper, that when made with fresh ingredients, is delectably satisfying. Of course, La Carbonara’s specialty is the classic spaghetti alla carbonara. Pair it with a nice red wine like Aglianico or Nero d’Avola and you’re in business. La Trattoria degli Amici in Trastevere offers a similar menu full of typical Roman dishes, and it’s their mission to help physically or mentally handicapped people by displaying their artwork in the restaurant and giving them jobs.
Best place to find artisan handicrafts: Trastevere is the most artsy neighborhood in the city, and is beloved by Romans and visitors alike. On the streets around Piazza Trilussa, where people gather for a beer on the steps when the weather is warm, you’ll also find small independent artisan boutiques. Stroll through Trastevere towards Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere and you’ll find quirky jewelers, perfumers, shops selling clothes and leather goods, and plenty of cafés and trattorias.
Local celebration not to be missed: June 2nd is the celebration of Republic Day, and in Rome they celebrate it like Independence Day with a parade of epic proportions that starts at Piazza Venezia, the former seat of the Italian government, which makes its way through the city with plenty of fanfare.
Favorite pastimes: Romans love their aperitivo. It’s the time to relax between work and dinner that so many Italians and visitors find appealing. Aperitivo can range from some nuts and chips with a beer to wine or cocktails with a full buffet of finger foods, mini pizzas and even pasta and rice dishes. I’ve had plenty of aperitivi in Rome, but the one I always come back to is Gusto, which is often packed and with good reason! For 10â‚¬ you get any cocktail on the menu and as many go-arounds at the buffet as you like. Try a Campari Spritz, which is the most typical Roman aperitivo and get yourself a plate of pizzette. You won’t regret it.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here: The Villa Borghese gardens look like a heart on the map with the point just above Piazza del Popolo. There’s a little lake where you can rent a rowboat and plenty of grassy spots where you can lounge the day away. But the most beautiful gardens are right next to the Galleria Borghese, the world-famous art museum that houses artwork by Bernini, Canova, Caravaggio, Bronzino, Raphael, Titian and more. In the spring and summer, the gardens are full of orange trees and flowers growing among marble sculptures. A little-known fact about Villa Borghese: there’s a semi-hidden replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater where they perform Shakespeare in the summer!
The art/music scene is alive and well here: The Flaminio area has seen a lot of growth and development recently. The Zaha Hadid designed MAXXI hosts a roster of important contemporary artists and the nearby Renzo Piano designed Auditorium Parco della Musica is home to many concerts and festivals. The Ponte della Musica (Music Bridge) was recently constructed to unite the Flaminio neighborhood to the northern part of Prati, which lies north of Vatican City.
Where the locals get tipsy: Everywhere! There’s not a neighborhood in Rome where locals don’t get tipsy! Trastevere is a hotspot for nightlife, as well as Monti and Testaccio, where there are lots of clubs. In Trastevere, my favorite bar is Freni e Frizioni, where for 7â‚¬ the expert bartenders will shake up a creative cocktail using any ingredients you like. In Monti, I recommend Tre Scalini for good cheap wine and a crowd so large it often spills out the front door and into the street. The Drunken Ship in Campo dei Fiori is the chosen spot for expats and study abroad students, but it’s not the most authentic experience. For the discerning oenophile, there’s the Antica Enoteca in Via della Croce, near the Spanish Steps. For people watching, get a table at CaffÃ¨ della Pace near Piazza Navona, where celebrities like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Francis Ford Coppola hang out when they’re in Rome.
Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here: Romans are either Guidos or devout Catholics living in the shadow of the Vatican. There are many Guidos here, and there are certainly plenty of Catholics, but you simply can’t reduce Italians to these stereotypes. They do say “ciao bella“ but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re flirting with you. Roman men just as easily say “ciao bello“ to their male friends. It’s a term of affection, not a come-on. However, if they call you bellissima, that’s a whole different story!
If I had only 24 hours to explore Rome I would: Start the day with a cappuccino and cornetto (that’s Italian for croissant). Then go see the open-air market at Campo dei Fiori, which is only open in the mornings. From there, it’s an easy walk across the river on Ponte Sisto to Trastevere, where I might take a leisurely walk and check out some of the artisan boutiques. Around 1:00, I’d get a pizza romana for lunch “”that’s a sandwich made with two slices of pizza dough baked into squares and filled with mozzarella and tomatoes or prosciutto or sometimes spinach or eggplant, and finish with an espresso macchiatto. (Italians never drink cappuccino after breakfast.) After lunch is a good time to check out one of the museums or archeological sites (sometimes both in the same place). Then, no matter how much my wallet tries to resist, I’d end up shopping on Via del Corso or Via Nazionale or Cola di Rienzo, where the Italian fashion boutiques are enough to tempt even the most frugal travelers. Around 7:00 I’d go to Gusto for an aperitivo, which might very well turn into dinner, and then finally end the evening with a glass or two of wine among friends at Tre Scalini or Antica Enoteca.
*For more in our “Get Cultured” series, check out last week’s guide to Grand Cayman and be on the lookout for the next installment in the series.
About Laura Itzkowitz
Laura is an editor and regular contributor to Untapped Cities, a web magazine dedicated to helping people rediscover their city. She prides herself on being not only an avid traveler, but also a cultural chameleon, after having lived in Paris and Rome and soaking up the language and customs. She’s currently based in New York City, where she frequently writes about art and cultural events, and translates from both French and Italian. You can follow her at Untapped Cities and on Twitter: @lauraitzkowitz
Feature photo by Moyan_Brenn_BE_BACK_on_10th_OCT
Gusto and Piazza Navona photos by Fabienne Zwagemakers
Other photos by Laura Itzkowitz