Contrary to perceived wisdom regarding Rome’s intense traffic and fearless scooter riders, exploring central Rome on foot is a pleasure. In any case Rome’s underground metro is fairly limited in reach for visitors, with only a few stations in the centre. Unsurprisingly I suppose, since digging under the former heart of one of the world’s largest ancient empires, surely must throw up so many archaeological surprises and obstacles as to make construction a real headache. Yet for the visitor that’s a benefit in disguise as it obliges you to walk the historic streets of central Rome, immersing yourself in the action of day-to-day life of the Eternal City. Here are my tips for Italy’s capital…
Grand Hotel de la Minerve
Swing open the guest room shutters and windows of this once 17th century palatial mansion and your view is of the Pantheon, a colossal piece of living Roman history in the centre of the Eternal City. With an undoubtedly exceptional location, from where you can walk to most of the sights, this is an old school Grand Hotel. Expect a pianist to play in the classic atrium lobby whilst you sip a negroni aperitif in the Le Cupole bar. Yet don’t expect a spa or gym; instead the hotel’s standout feature is the Minerva Roof Garden.
An all-season, all-weather restaurant and terrace that offers romantic, spell-binding views across the city. So allow lots of time for breakfast; you won’t want to rush. Or linger over a sunset dinner.
Found in the chic luxury shopping district of Via Borgognona, close to the Spanish Steps, this once was the aristocratic home of the Princes of Torlonia and it retrains a real sense of opulence and decadence. Now a boutique-style, historic hotel, (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property), it is said to owe its name due to its popular with the English, attracted to Rome by Poet John Keats whose lived nearby. It has hosted Royalty and stars, and many literary figures such as Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway. For modern day people watching take lunch on the terrace at the hotel’s Café Romano; and order a few traditional Roman dishes like fried courgette flowers with ricotta (fiori di zucca).
Armando del Pantheon
Chances are, if you are within a coin’s throw of a historic marble fountain or a picturesque piazza, then to take a break from sight-seeing and enjoy a drink or bite to eat is going to cost you dearly in central Rome – especially if you feel like sitting on a terrace where prices are inflated even more. However, if you walk just a few streets back from the main squares and sights then the chances are you will find interesting restaurants, like this family business, started in the 1960s by Armando Gargioli. Here you can enjoy a classic Roman menu – antipasti of bruschetta, primi piatti of pasta, and a second plate of tripe (well, that’s if you want to eat like a Roman!) Either way, you have to try the artichokes…delicious.
Sant’Eustachio Il Caffé
The Italians and their coffee – it’s like the Brits and fish & chips. However, finding a locals-only bar in central Rome is pretty much impossible these days, but some classic coffee places remain, like this one. Order at the bar unless you want to pay considerably more for your espresso macchiato. Try also the ‘Latteria’ coffee bar near the Vatican, at Borgo Pio 48 for an authentic experience.
So, you want pizza? Well, in Rome it’s very different to Naples; here it’s thin and crispy and the white pizzas are popular too. This gourmet bakery near the Vatican was on my food tour with ‘Roma Eat’ and they served truly wonderful slices of Roman ‘pizza al taglio’ to go.
It’s a travel cliché, but it’s impossible to visit the Italian capital without enjoying an ice cream. Yet for an authentic experience, avoid the brightly coloured, whipped up products on sale on most street corners. Instead look out for a shop like this Hedera that sells traditional artisan gelato made from just milk, sugar and eggs. Hedera is said to be the Pope’s favourite; after all it’s only a few minutes’ walk from the Vatican City.
SEE & DO:
Roma Eat Food Tour
My experience of Rome was truly enhanced with this private food tour. Created and offered by young archaeologists that work in the city, the half-day route takes visitors through an authentic Roman neighbourhood, visiting a market, tasting produce, and then onto different venues in the area, so you truly get to eat like a Roman – as well as learn a few fascinating secrets about the city, its extraordinary history, and architecture.
The cultural riches of Rome are remarkable and can be overwhelming for a first time visitor. The main sights, such as the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the breath-taking Vatican Museums are essential, yet if time allows try to get a ticket for the Borghese Museum and Gallery. Booking is required and possible online, and well worth it. The Borghese villa garden park setting is beautiful, with its tall, Roman umbrella pine trees; and the collection of ancient and renaissance art, including works by Canova and Bernini is memorable.
As a city of seven hills, it shouldn’t be too hard to enjoy a great view of the city at the end of a day exploring; yet for one of the best views try ‘Gianicolo’, or Janiculum Hill. It is not one of the seven, and it is out of the ancient city centre, but affords a wonderful perspective of the romantic domes and spires of Rome. If you want to stay in the centre, then try Pincian Hill, just above the Piazza del Popolo. Expect it to be crowded with fellow visitors and also with street vendors selling selfie-sticks, but even so it’s a great view out towards the Vatican.
Rome has undergone some significant restorations; well it’s an on-going process and the central districts are looking better than ever. The huge baroque Trevi Fountain is now finally free of scaffolding and it’s looking pristine.
This weekend vintage-style market is a relatively new addition to the city scene, but provides a hip insight into modern Rome, with unique independent vendors and designers.
After breakfast try to find a moment to visit a neighbourhood food market; a great way to see some of the local produce and have the opportunity to buy aged Parmesan cheese at about a quarter of the price internationally.