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Return to Rome: Venture Beyond the Traditional Tourist Sights

By Karen Eull

Twenty-five years ago, I arrived in Rome with an oversized knapsack, a fanny pack of traveller’s cheques and a brand-new art history degree—primed for the wonders of this city. Now, I’m back and I notice that familiar look of determination on the faces of (so many more) tourists crowding the squares. I too had an itinerary that stretched from the Vatican to the viaducts. I came, I saw but was conquered by that checklist. Rome, with its millennia of history and culture, is not a place you can cover in one trip. This time, instead of queuing to tour ancient sites, my plan is to wander through some of the city’s many districts. There are 22 historical regions, or rioni, in Rome, plus the quartieri in the outskirts, each with its own rich history, traditions and cuisine. Five days are not enough to see them all, but one can comfortably walk through one or two neighbourhoods per day, with plenty of stops for aperitivi and gelato.  


One of Rome’s oldest districts, Monti was once home to criminals, commoners and poor nobles (Julius Caesar was born here, when it was still known as Subura). These days, Monti draws a young, creative crowd that frequents its many lively bars, trattorias and vintage boutiques. There are plenty of hotels here, too, well suited to tourists who prefer a less busy spot within walking distance of the sights. From Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s four major basilicas, saunter along Via Panisperna, a busy street that takes you past Monti’s narrow, winding roads and charming storefronts festooned with trailing ivy. Browse the shops on Via Urbana, making sure to stop by Trieste, considered among the best pizzerias in the neighbourhood. Veer slightly outside of Monti to visit Santa Maria della Vittoria. This 17th-century church houses one of the most famous sculptures of Bernini, renowned for his intensely emotive art. The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa—Bernini’s depiction of Teresa of Ávila’s mystical episode—is perceived by some as too sensual. The cool, hushed interior of Cornaro Chapel offers the opportunity to enjoy his work without the typical crowds. 􀀑ars and trattorias abound in Monti, but the good ones fill up fast, so make a reservation. Dine at La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, which serves up superior home-style Roman classics and warm, attentive service (not a given in Rome), as well as excellent views of the street this restaurant was named for. Go for an after-dinner stroll for glimpses of iconic ancient sites, such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Trajan’s Market.  


Romans and tourists alike visit Testaccio for dinner, where the food scene is both classic and cutting-edge. But it’s worth spending a full day in this neighbourhood. Once an industrial district for slaughterhouses and butchers, Testaccio has many restaurants that maintain a traditional nose-to-tail approach to food, but you’ll find classic pasta and pastries here, too. Shop for local produce and traditional Roman snacks at the lively 100-stall Testaccio Market. And make time to browse the wonderful assortment of cured meats at nearby Taverna Volpetti Salumieri and to sample a scoop at Giolitti, one of the city’s oldest gelaterias. Head toward Via Ostiense for a look at Piramide Cestia. Rome’s sole remaining pyramid may seem out of place, but it’s a well-preserved example of the Roman fascination with all things Egyptian during and after the reign of Cleopatra VII. Tour Via Ostiense and its side streets to view colourful murals by internationally acclaimed artists, including Italy’s own Blu. The street art extends all the way to Centrale Montemartini, an abandoned power plant that’s now a museum for artifacts from the Capitoline Museums. Here, ancient statues (some unearthed during the rapid industrialization of the early 20th century) are posed against a backdrop of diesel engines and steam turbines, which are also relics of a past era. Many contemporary restaurants have been popping up in Ostiense—including Altrove, with its multicultural menu and an internship program for young Italians and new immigrants to train with executive chef Barbara Agosti. Or stick with the classics, say, the renowned cacio e pepe at Flavio al Velavevodetto, located on the slope of Monte Testaccio, which was formed by an ancient trash site where Romans piled millions of discarded clay amphorae. View the excavated cross-section of the terracotta fragments from the restaurant’s windows. 

Photos/Stacy Brandford


An outskirt (quartiere) north of the city centre, Flaminio has become a hub for contemporary architecture and art, especially at Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI), which is housed in a sculptural concrete building designed by the legendary architect Zaha Hadid that’s as much of a draw as the art itself. Southeast of the Flaminio metro stop is an entrance to Villa Borghese, a heart-shaped public park spanning almost 200 acres. Enjoy a picnic in the gardens amid a plethora of sculptures and fountains. Book ahead to visit the park’s museums, including Villa Medici (now the Académie de France à Rome) and the site’s crowning glory, Galleria Borghese. Situated in a lavish Baroque building, the latter showcases the Borghese family’s exquisite art collection, comprised of masterpieces by Bernini, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Caravaggio, alongside numerous classical antiquities. Consider indulging in a candlelit dinner at Mirabelle, at Hotel Splendide Royal. Or just splurge on an aperitivo at the Adèle rooftop bar. Both venues proffer panoramic city vistas that include Villa Borghese, Trinità dei Monti and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.  


Cross the Tiber River by way of Ponte Sisto to spend a day meandering through the romantic streets of Trastevere. It’s a popular place, so bars and restaurants get lively at night, but it’s still peaceful in most spots. Sample Rome’s famous street food—at Suppli, fried rice balls stuffed with cheese, or, at Trapizzino, doughy pockets filled with eggplant parmigiana or chicken cacciatore. Visit the palatial Galleria Corsini for its priceless artworks from Italy’s national art collection, including pieces by Caravaggio, Rubens, Fra Angelico and Van Dyck. Across the street is Villa Farnesina, a riverside pavilion with an openair loggia and elegant citrus garden. The interior is adorned with Renaissance frescoes, which include Raphael’s famous Triumph of Galatea. Just before sunset, follow the locals and tourists making the long, winding trek up Via Garibaldi to Janiculum Hill, where vendors sell wine, beer and snacks to enjoy while savouring expansive views of the city. 

Photo/Stacy Brandford


Three major streets in Campo Marzio—Via di Ripetta, Via del Corso and Via del Babuino—radiate from Piazza del Popolo to define the Tridente shopping area. Flanked by the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, Tridente is always bustling, and yet, it’s easy to escape the crowds. Duck down a lovely side street to marvel at the shaded courtyards, arched doorways and closed shutters that make you wonder about the people who live—or once lived—here. Via Margutta, tucked behind Via del Babuino’s luxury shops, is so quiet you can hear the water burbling in the Fontana Degli Artisti, which commemorates the artists who have resided and worked here. Now populated with high-end boutiques and art galleries, this picturesque street became quite exclusive after scenes were filmed here for the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. There’s a marble plaque marking the spot where filmmaker Federico Fellini once lived. It’s said that Truman Capote, Debussy, Puccini and Wagner had all been local residents, too. Nearby is Museo Atelier Canova Tadolini. Formerly the studio of 19th-century neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, this eclectic caffé is packed to the rafters with his casts and sculptures. Enjoy coffee with a cornetto (the Italian rendition of a croissant) at a table wedged between the busts of several dignitaries and an oversized archangel. 

Walk along the Tiber’s banks and into Parione and get lost in this neighbourhood’s maze of narrow lanes lined with trattorias, antiques stores and leather shops. Then, retreat into Chiostro del Bramante for a glass of prosecco while admiring the contemporary- art installations cleverly integrated into the site’s Renaissance architecture. Parione has many outstanding restaurants and bars. Luciano Cucina Italiana draws crowds for the creamy carbonara of chef Luciano Monosilio, who was awarded a Michelin star when he was just 27 years old. La Pace del Palato—a welcoming family-run boîte highly recommended by the locals—features creative twists on Roman cuisine and innovative amuse-bouches, such as a ruby-chocolate sphere with a negroni filling. Skip dessert and grab a late-night gelato from Frigidarium for your walk back to your hotel.  


Italians practise lo struscio—the art of slow living—which is not so easy to do when you’re a tourist with only five days to explore. When I catch myself rushing, I turn off Google Maps and wander. Surprises beckon around every corner in Rome. You don’t always need to seek them out. 

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