I’m sitting on a tram, the number 2, when my suburban journey is interrupted by an accordion player. He’s blind, or maybe partially sighted, but plays a flawless, melancholic megamix of My Way, Killing Me Softly and that tune from The Godfather. He passes me and smiles — practised, warm — and I drop a euro into his proffered cap.
It sounds like a rejected storyboard for a hokey rom-com, I know. Pure cheese. But it really happened on my latest trip to Rome. This city consistently delivers moments like this: ready-made memories that don’t need the soft-focus filter of Instagram. As one of the most touristed places on earth, Rome is almost embarrassingly well supplied with A-list sights. You’re unlikely to uncover any Big Secrets.
But this city’s pleasure isn’t in Big Secrets; it’s in the little ones. The perfectly framed view of St Peter’s through the keyhole of the Priory of the Order of Malta; the ancient Temple of Mithras in the bowels of San Clemente church; the right way to use a ‘nasone’ drinking fountain (block the spout with a finger, slurp the water that shoots from the small hole); the panorama — and this might be my favourite — over the Forum after dark, from around the back of the right-hand-side of Capitoline Hill, with the Arch of Septimus Severus, Temple of Castor and Pollux and Colosseum illuminated against the inky night.
This other Rome sometimes stays out of sight, just off any ‘greatest hits’ itinerary, but is never out of reach. Rome does romance. It does Dolce Vita. It really does world-class art and sculpture scattered nonchalantly around its churches — Caravaggio at Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi; Bernini at Santa Maria della Vittoria and San Francesco d’Assisi, among much, much more.
Rome does not do disappointment.
What to see & do
Keats-Shelley Museum: Poet John Keats was among the disembarking English. The nearby house where he died of tuberculosis in 1821 is now the Keats–Shelley Museum. Below the window where he breathed his last, iPhoneographers wait (and wait, and wait) for a snap of the Spanish Steps without everyone else on them.
Non-Catholic Cemetery: His grave is altogether different. Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery is beside the 3rd-century Aurelian Walls and a pyramid built a few years BC by politician Gaius Cestius. There’s birdsong, snoozy feral cats, and occasional visiting Romantics. Keats lies by a pair of parasol pines, beneath the most poetic of epitaphs: ‘Here lies one / Whose Name was writ in Water’.
EUR: A short Metro ride from romantic Rome is EUR, a suburb planned and partially built in the 1930s under dictator Benito Mussolini. EUR’s architecture is a unique take on Rationalism, abrupt lines splashed with echoes of Rome’s imperial past. It was supposed to host the 1942 Esposizione Universale, but World War II scuppered that plan, and EUR stood unfinished until the 1950s. Now used for government and corporate headquarters, the suburb is almost deserted at weekends — an open-air museum of 20th-century architecture.
Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro: EUR’s iconic buliding, the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro, is a bright-white, symmetrical stack of tiered arches. It earns its nickname, ‘the Square Colosseum’. It looks right down EUR’s east–west axis at the Palazzo dei Congressi, often considered a pastiche of the Pantheon. To me, it looks more like an oversized concrete mock-up for Spielberg’s UFO film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Centrale Montemartini Museum: Juxtapositions are sometimes even more immediate. The Centrale Montemartini Museum displays creamy marbles of Athena and Hera, and imperial notables such as the psychotic Emperor Caracalla and Empress Agrippina, alongside motors, boilers and turbines from the industrial era. The building was Rome’s first municipal power plant, opened in 1912; in the 1990s it was rescued from ruin and turned into a museum of ancient and industrial archaeology. It still smells of soot-blackened machines.
Where to eat
Mordi e Vai: At Mordi e Vai, in the former meatpacking district of Testaccio, Sergio Esposito carefully assembles hot sandwiches which look simple, but are infused with decades of street-food tradition. His bestseller, the allesso di scottona, is a bread roll dripping with boiled meat that comes only from a cow that has never calved. Sergio’s kiosk is inside Testaccio’s new market building, a great place to watch Romans interact with their food.
Mesob: In a carnivorous city, Ethiopian restaurant Mesob is a haven for veggies. Imperial meddling in East Africa forged Italian links with Ethiopia and Eritrea, and this small dining room in Pigneto is decked out with wicker tables in the shape of the hourglass-shaped Ethiopian ‘mesob’. After days of pasta and pork, I tear hands-first into spongy flatbread injera along with misir wot (berbere-spiced lentils) and ater kik (split-pea stew with ginger and saffron).
Sciuè Sciuè: Closer to the tourist centre is Sciuè Sciuè. It’s in Monti, so there’s a hipster vibe: stripped brick, distressed duck-egg paint on the furniture, contemporary art on the walls. They do a modern take on the food, too: dishes such as tuna tartare with orange and pine nuts.
Fatamorgana: Sciuè Sciuè is only a short walk from one of Rome’s best gelato joints, Fatamorgana. I often skip restaurant desserts and end up here, for a frozen mouthful of pineapple and ginger or chocolate infused with Lapsang Souchong tea.
Mercatomonti: Every Sunday, a parking garage on Via Leonina hosts Monti’s boho market, Mercatomonti. There’s a bit of vintage — cameras and clothes — plus one-off designs for adults and kids, plexiglass jewellery, and plenty more that will fit in your hand luggage. Over in Trastevere, Rome’s other great Sunday market, Porta Portese, has less of a fashion focus, and requires more patience.
Piazza Borghese: For advice on finding the best affordable souvenirs, I ask city guide Agnes Crawford, a Londoner who has lived in Rome for 15 years. She suggests a cluster of antique print kiosks in Piazza Borghese. I’ve already found a good home for a €20 (£16) print made from an 1814 etching of Rome’s Capuchin church.
Ibiz: A short walk from Campo de’ Fiori, past the stock houses and sale shops of Via dei’ Giubbonari, is another gaggle of indie shops. Ibiz has been selling leather on Via dei Chiavari for over 40 years. Bags and wallets in a patchwork of muted and brightly coloured designs are all handmade on-site. The street is also close to one of Rome’s best cafes: there’s always a scrum at the chrome counter in Sant’Eustachio il Caffè. It’s a pit-stop — all about the bitter hit of the house coffee roasted over wood to a secret recipe — not a place to linger alfresco over a frothy cappuccino.
Co.So. Cocktails & Social: Nearby Co.So. Cocktails & Social is another tiny bar with a serious pedigree, this time for expertly mixed drinks. Its signature carbonara sour is based on the Roman pasta dish, and combines guanciale-washed vodka and black pepper.
Co.So. is the bleeding edge of a trend: cocktails are on the rise. Local food educator Katie Parla runs a walking seminar on Rome’s burgeoning scene: “Rome’s place in cocktail history is not as pivotal as the cities of the Italian north,” she explains. “But drinking culture has improved greatly over the past few years”. Her tour ‘provides context for the growing craft cocktail movement, which is being driven by locals — not tourists’.
Barnum Cafe: On Katie’s advice, I also visit Barnum Cafe, a low-key bar decked out with up-cycled classroom seats and eighties sofas. Cocktails are old-school all the way, with the Sidecar, Martinez, Sazerac and Stinger all making the retro list. And across the River Tiber, there’s a year-round buzz in the cobbled lanes of Trastevere. These days it’s mostly visitors doing the buzzing, but I still like the corner of Via Benedetta and Piazza San Giovanni della Malva.
Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà: In a city of pilgrims, Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà — ‘Macchè’ for short — is one of Italian craft beer’s holy places: bar stools, Artex walls, and 15-keg pumps with everything from Belgian lambic beer to Italian brown ales. It’s friendly, grungy and just great.
Cavour 313: Cavour 313 is a perfect low-key wine bar close to the sights. In business since the 1970s, it’s an old-time cantina, whose wood-panelled walls have been seasoned by decades of chatter and laughter. You’d hardly believe you’re within sight of the Colosseum.
Where to stay
Modigliani: The moderately-priced Modigliani has an ideal location for city first-timers, a 10-minute amble from the Spanish Steps and two minutes from Metro line A. The rooms don’t especially ooze Rome, but they’re bright and clean and superb value. Go for one with a small balcony where a pair of wrought-iron chairs overlook a courtyard with climbing shrubs, sun-bleached shutters and a chunk of blue Roman sky. I don’t need much more to set me up for the city.
Apartment rental: A short-term apartment rental is another option. It puts you inside Rome’s distinct neighbourhoods — my central favourites are Monti and Celio. The former was Rome’s first suburb, now a jumble of cobbled lanes behind the Imperial Forums, between Via Cavour and Via Nazionale. Celio clings to another of Rome’s hills, just east of the Colosseum. On my last visit, I had a one-bedroom flat on the edge of Monti, with cool tiled floors, antique furniture and its own mezzanine library. My previous pad in Celio had a spangly new refit and a street market on the doorstep. Both had more space than your average hotel suite, and for a fraction of the price.
Rome is well-linked to other Italian cities by private high-speed rail operator Italo. The cheapest fares are available four-six months in advance.
Rome is spread out and extends over a wide area, so get to know its buses, trams and two Metro lines. Single tickets are valid for up to 100 minutes (€1.50/£1.17). The Roma Pass (€36/£28) includes three days’ unlimited public transport, plus entrance to two major museums or archaeological sites.
When to go
There’s no real ‘low season’, but August is extremely hot and some places close for part or all of the month. May, June and September are ideal climate-wise, with temperatures around 25C. Over Easter, the city can be mobbed by Catholics from all over the world.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1=€1.26.
International dial code: 00 39.
Time difference: GMT+1.
Blue Guide: Rome. RRP: £16.95.
Frommer’s Easy Guide to Rome, Florence & Venice 2015. RRP: £7.99.
How to do it
Scott Dunn offers four nights B&B at Villa Spalletti-Trivelli, including BA flights from Heathrow and private transfers, from £1,050.
Citalia offers four nights B&B at Hotel San Remo and return EasyJet flights, from £249.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)