Oh, Rome. The city of ancient wonders, numerous neighborhoods, and trattorias on every corner. It has romance by the scoopful (if you reverse the word ‘Roma’ you get ‘Amor’), offering lovers and friends plenty of opportunities to share *a moment* while the theatrical scene of the city rushes past. For this reason (among many others), it made it an ideal place for R and me to celebrate our first anniversary. We had both visited before (separately), so we felt comfortable that we had experienced the main sights and sounds of the city.
This meant that we could spend our four days doing what R refers to as the “B-list attractions.” Sure, they may not be the first things you think to do (we didn’t see the Trevi Fountain and only saw the Colosseum from a bus), but they made for a fantastic, slightly offbeat trip (vlog here). My advice would be to visit during shoulder season (we went at the beginning of October) so that you can take advantage of the slightly less dense crowd and the ability to wander around the cobblestone streets for hours without needing a shower. Here is what I suggest you get up to…
Getting to Rome is relatively easy from all parts of the world, with most (all?) of the major airlines flying into the main Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and some budget airlines flying into Ciampino Airport). FCO is located a fair distance from the city center, but you have a few options to get you where you need to go. Depending on where you are staying, you may want to take the Leonardo Express train, which will drop you off at Rome Termini Station (the main one) in 32 minutes (€14) or a taxi directly to your accommodation in about the same time (€48). We took a taxi, but if I were on my own, I would definitely have taken the train into the city and then figured it out from there.
In terms of where to stay, we choose Window On Rome, mainly for its location in Trastevere. Our suite was huge, and the location was fantastic – everywhere we wanted to visit was within 20 minutes on foot. Walking is the best way to get around the city because there is something fantastic to look at everywhere you turn. We took public transit once (to get to the Appian Way), and the buses were great and cost €1.50 per journey.
Eating & Drinking
When in Rome, it is required that you stop for a shot of espresso and a few scoops of gelato every couple of hours. It is probably a crime not to. There is no shortage of places to get your caffeine and sugar fix, but you want to make sure that you experience Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffè, located steps away from Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. Here the home-roasted beans are blended with water from an ancient aqueduct, something that you can’t say about most places. Gelato-wise, Fatamorgana Monti and Gelateria Artigianale Corona Roma are two of the most popular options for locals and visitors alike.
I’m a little low on lunch recommendations because two days we didn’t have an “official” lunch (more like small snacks throughout the day). Our only real lunch was at Roscioli, which is probably a good thing because I don’t think anywhere else could compare.
The other day we did a Testaccio food tour that kept us stuffed for 24 hours. The food tour was a fantastic decision because it took us to a neighborhood that we otherwise would not have gone. Spending almost five hours with an exceptionally knowledgable guide greatly deepened our appreciation for Italian cuisine. We started at a family-owned bakery for potato pizza, before moving on to sampling cheese, meats, and wine at the trendy bar Masto. Next, we headed to the Testaccio Market (my favorite stop!) to make our own bruschetta, try supplì (fried risotto ball), and learn how to tell which restaurants are serving fresh seasonal vegetables. Somehow, we still hadn’t actually had lunch, that was saved for Flavio al Velavevodetto. An award-winning restaurant built into the side of Monte Testaccio, here we dined on the hat-trick of Roman classics – carbonara, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana. Last but not least, Giolitti, a bustling neighborhood bar that has been serving gelato since 1914.
Dinner-wise, we didn’t hold back. Our first evening was spent at Enoteca Ferrara, a wine bar, trattoria, and ristorante in one. I couldn’t get over how delicious my gnocchi was, R couldn’t believe the size of the wine-menu. A couple of evenings later, we dined at Spirito Di Vino, a certified Slow Food restaurant with an entirely organic menu that celebrates Italian produce. Make sure to order the ancient Roman recipe of braised pork with red wine, honey, and apple, which is thought to have been a favorite of Julius Caesar. In between courses, take a walk down to the wine cellar – it dates back to 80 BC. Our final evening, we dressed in our finest cloths and headed to Glass Hostaria, the only female-headed Michelin starred restaurant in the city. We each did a seven-course tasting menu (vegetarian for me, meaty for him), which perfectly demonstrated the creativity that is at the heart of Cristina Bowerman’s dishes. All three restaurants were in Trastevere, all three I would HIGHLY recommend.
On our first afternoon, we decided to start walking and see where we ended up. Our feet directed us to the Roman Forum, ancient Rome’s showpiece center. Entry is covered by your Colosseum ticket and is well worth a wander if it is your first time in the city. From there, we sauntered up to Campidoglio, a hilltop square designed by Michelangelo. Then, past the Altar of the Fatherland and through the charming cobbled streets to the Pantheon. Not wanting to waste a minute, we headed further North to Piazza Navona, an elegant square lined with bars, restaurants, and gelato shops galore. As the sunset, we meandered, hand-in-hand, along the banks of the River Tiber, intently watching as each building turned a shade of gold.
The next day we were up bright and early for an Italian language class that I booked through With Locals. Our lovely teacher, Federica, led us to Colbert, the café at Villa Medici. She made us promise not to tell anyone about this hidden gem (oops), but it is such an excellent local tip that I can’t keep it to myself! While it costs you to go inside the villa, you don’t need a ticket to enter the café, where you can sit among the lemon trees and have the best view of the city. We spent two hours learning basic Italian phrases (all of which we have forgotten now), but it was a fun way to interact with a local and to use parts of our brains that we have neglected since university.
Next door is another lavish house and gardens, Villa Borghese, and Terraza del Pincio, a 19th-century terrace with prime views of the Colosseum and Vatican. Plazas are abundant in Rome, but I have a soft spot for Piazza del Popolo, mainly because it is a lot quieter than other ones in the city. Located here is the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo, a beautiful basilica featuring masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael.
Post-lunch took us straight to Largo Di Torre Argentina, the site of Caesar’s assassination. At the moment, visitors are unable to walk around the ruins (that is set to change in a couple of years), but the stray cats of Rome can’t be stopped. You can, however, hang out with the cats thanks to the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. The shelter is home to around 150 cats, many of whom are disabled, and are looked after by volunteers. This stop was mainly for R, who is a big
kitty pussy lover, I was too nervous to stroke them! Once he had played with them all and bought his obligatory magnet, we headed towards the Jewish Ghetto.
Formerly home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is a climatic area brimming with artisan’s studios, small shops, kosher bakeries (Pasticceria Boccione), and popular trattorias. For Roman Jewish cuisine, Nonna Betta is supposed to be the top spot. If you go, order carciofo alla guidia (crisp fried artichoke) and fried mozzarella. The Great Synagogue of Rome is the only one in the city and can be recognized by its squared aluminum dome. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go inside because it was closed to visitors for Yom Kippur, but I have heard that the inside is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
At this point, you will be right by Portico of Octavia, an ancient structure built by Augustus in the name of his sister, Octavia Minor, sometime after 27 BC. Initially, it enclosed two temples and a library and then became a fish market from the medieval period up until the end of the 19th century. Nearby is Marcello Theater, an ancient open-air theater started by Julius Caesar, which pre-dates the Colosseum. If you are lucky, you may be able to catch a summer concert here! How cool would that be…
From there, it is just a short walk across the Ponte Fabricio to Tiber Island. This tiny boat-shaped isle was once the location of an ancient temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. In 1584, a hospital was built to treat plague patients, and it still exists to this day (!). In addition to the hospital, there is a church, a fortified tower, and a place for espresso and gelato. Told you it was small. On the other side, you can cross the Tiber on the Ponte Cestio, which connects the island to Trastevere.
This was our food-tour day, which kept us busy – and very, very full – for the majority of our waking hours. Testaccio is an area that has remained off the tourist map, mainly because it has always been a working-class neighborhood. Apart from the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, there aren’t too many “sights,” but it is well worth a visit for the food, the street art, and the very local vibes.
Although we needed to go and lie down, with our jeans unbuttoned, after consuming all that food, we instead opted to stretch our legs and walk up the Aventine Hill. At the top is the semi-secret Aventine Keyhole, which gives you the perfect lens through which to see St Peter’s Basilica. (You will probably have to wait in line, but it is worth it!) Further along is Giardino Degli Aranci, an Orange Trees Garden, which offers a beautiful panorama of the city and is ideal for a little mid-afternoon lounging. You can guess whether or not I unbuttoned my jeans…If we hadn’t been so stuffed, my original plan was to get supplies from the nearby Salumeria Volpetti and have a romantic picnic in the park.
Did we save the best for last? Honestly, we might have. The Appian Way Regional Park is only 20 minutes by bus outside of the city center, yet it feels worlds away. This nature and archaeological park includes the Via Appia Antica, one of the earliest and strategically most important ancient Roman roads. It was here that Spartacus and 6000 of his slave rebels were crucified in 71 BC. We hired bikes from the visitors center (the 118 bus from Rome will drop you right there) and started making our way along the cobblestoned road. On recommendation from the bike rental lady, we stopped at The Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, but I wouldn’t say it was a must-do. Instead, whizz past the coach crowds on your two wheels, and you will be on your own in no time.
Seriously, during our 16km round-trip bike ride, we only saw a handful of other people, most of whom were walking their dogs or going on their afternoon run. For obvious reasons, the bike ride was a bumpy one, but it certainly wasn’t impossible, and it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again. On either side of the thoroughfare are grassy fields, Roman structures, and towering pine trees. It is dreamy and hands-down my favorite thing that we did. If you still have some strength in you (aka if you rent an e-bike like R), you can stop by the Baths of Caracalla on your journey back into Rome.
As always, there was no way we could see and do everything that we wanted. Because the weather was so lovely, we didn’t spend any time in museums or galleries. But, those on my list included Galleria Sciarra, Doria Pamphili Gallery, Capitoline Museums, and Centrale Montemartini. My first port of call next time will be Orto Botanico, the oldest botanical garden in the world. And, a couple of in-the-know friends told me after we returned that the minor basilica, San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio and Palazzo Barberini, are must-sees.
Have you been to Rome? Any favorite places that you would add to the list?
Let me know in the comments below!