It’s a quiet Sunday evening in Rome — or so I think, until I get to Monti. Where other streets have shuttered shops, here everything is open; where other bars have toned it down a notch, these are raucous. There’s no sign saying Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, but there’s no need — the twentysomethings squatting round the central fountain tell me I’m in the right place.
Between Termini station and the Colosseum, Monti’s often touted as ‘the new Trastevere’ — and it certainly has the same feel that pulsed across the river in the early 2000s. That, though, is where the similarities end. Trastevere was an area with a long-standing illustrious history; whereas 2,000 years ago, Monti was the Suburra (slums), and the last time I was here, somewhere in the early 2000s, it was the red light district, and a group of kids tried to pickpocket me en route to the Colosseum.
But in the past 15 years, small businesses and artisans have moved in, and have transformed the neighbourhood into Rome’s nightlife capital. Even the churches stay open until 10pm, although, not that many people come here for church.
I’m here for the shopping. Low rents and a slightly louche vibe are what attracted the first comers to Monti — and it’s resulted in a brilliant, very un-Roman mix of boutiques. Right by the piazza is Kaja, Deborah Jabif’s beautifully curated mix of tango shoes and dresses — which also work as retro-looking streetwear — made in her native Buenos Aires.
A few doors up, Paola Ravanelli’s shop, Not Your Dolls, is filled with her chic-but-cool, deconstructed women’s clothing. “I’m self-taught,” she says shyly when I ask where she trained — she started making clothes for dolls, then got the confidence to do what she’d always wanted to do.
And on Saturdays and Sundays (from September to June), the next generation of designers descends on Monti’s ‘urban market’, the Mercato Monti. Hipsters, dog-walking locals and tourists converge on the ground-floor conference room of the Grand Palatino Hotel for stalls of vintage, handmade kimonos, jewellery, retro sunglasses and organic baby clothes. ‘Plexiglass is the new gold’, reads a bold sign at Plexi Shock, which makes look-at-me, art deco-inspired jewellery out of plexiglass. On the other side of the room, Wonderalia makes one-off lamps from hardback books and designer bulbs.
After a hard shop, it’s definitely time for a drink. On Via Urbana, the bars are overflowing and there’s a queue for Urbana 47, a local-sourcing restaurant so trendy that it has a ‘street food corner’.
Instead, I find Libro Di Vino, a ‘literary bar’ where I’m served fresh gazpacho and a fishbowl-sized artisanal G&T, with a side of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Monti, from hell to paradise? I’m not sure about that, but its 2,000-year purgatory stint is certainly over.
Rome’s neighbourhood with a tragic past, the former Jewish Ghetto, is now a prime foodie destination. Traditional ‘Roman’ cuisine was heavily influenced by the Jewish community, and today, restaurants such as Piperno (family-owned since 1860) serve dishes like carciofi alla giudia (Jewish artichokes). Leave room for the secret-recipe ebraica (Jewish pizza) from bakery Boccione — a kind of almondy roll, crispy on the outside but oozing inside with candied fruit, raisins and something like marzipan.
A historically working-class neighbourhood by the former port, Ostiense has Italy’s flagship Eataly branch, complete with 10 restaurants; the quirky Romeow Cat Bistro; and a smattering of Sicilian bars hosting all-you-can-eat happy hour buffets. Across the modern bridge nearby is Garbatella, a 1930s-built residential area of fairy-tale houses and a growing street art scene.
Separated from Ostiense by a 2,000-year old pyramid, Testaccio is a super-cool blend of ancient and modern. Known for its nightlife, it has bars and restaurants built into the sides of the Monte Testaccio, squaring off a modern development of still more nocturnal options; plus Rome’s former abattoir resurrected as one of modern art gallery MACRO’s two locations, in between. Most come here at night to the likes of Flavio al Velavevodetto before dancing the night away at a nearby bar, but go earlier for an aperitivo at Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice.
A city-in-miniature on the outskirts, Mussolini planned EUR as a modern recreation of ancient Rome, with imposing Fascist architecture paying homage to buildings like the Colosseum and Pantheon. Long dismissed as a business district, EUR is coming out of its shell with Fendi opening the ground floor of the iconic ‘Square Colosseum’ as a modern art gallery in 2017, La Nuvola – a gargantuan steel ‘cloud’ by Massimiliano Fuksas – dominating the glass walls of the new convention centre, and the Museo della Civiltà Romana, whose grand colonnade was used as a location in Skyfall, due to reopen after renovations this year. Go in the daytime to catch the ‘business lunch’ buzz.
Published in the Rome 2018 guide, distributed with the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)