Traveling with Ben to celebrate my birthday and tour the Eternal City. The Vatican and its art, especially the Sistine Chapel, Villa Borghese, The Forum, and Dark Rome Walking tours...
Daphne Inn, Italy
Tel: 39 06 4782 3529, Tel: 39 06 4544 9177
The Daphne is part of a new generation of stylish B&Bs in Rome. Like Casa Howard, it is spread over two locations, both near Piazza Barberini. The rooms are simple but tasteful, with ethnic-modern decor; of the two branches, the Daphne Veneto has the edge, with its elevator (note that you'll need to climb stairs to the Daphne Trevi) and en suite bathrooms (55 Via di San Basilico). Guests consistently rave about the enthusiastic staff, who recommend restaurants and walking tours. Free amenities include Wi-Fi and use of a cell phone during your stay—for contacting the owner outside of staff hours, or for receiving calls from friends and family. For this price, the service and accommodations are unparalleled. Note that neither location allows smoking.
The last decade has seen a slew of high-end gelaterie open in Rome. The first, and still one of the best, is Il Gelato de San Crispino, set up by gelato revolutionaries Giuseppe and Pasquale Alongi. These brothers take things back to basics, carefully sourcing the hazelnuts that go into their nocciola flavor or the 20-year cask-aged marsala that makes their zabaione flavor so unmissable. A new Pantheon branch gives you even less of an excuse to miss out on the San Crispino experience. However, a new contender, the Gelateria al Teatro, located in a tiny cobbled cul-de-sac between Piazza Navona and Castel Sant'Angelo, is winning converts with its organic approach and unusual range of flavors, many of them based on Italian pastries like cannoli. Chocoholics will also be knocked sideways by the 85 percent cocoa cioccolato puro option. Over in Prati, north of the Vatican, Mirella Fiumanò, the owner and founder of Al Settimo Gelo, is a volcano of creativity. Devotees swarm here to enjoy inventive, gluten-free flavors such as hot chili–spiced chocolate, honey and sesame, cinnamon and ginger, and Greek ice cream (goat-milk yogurt, honey, and pistachio). But some of the capital's more traditional gelaterie are still well worth checking out, from Giolitti, the multiflavor cathedral of Roman ice cream, to lesser-known stalwarts like Alberto Pica, which does a knockout riso alla cannella (cinnamon rice), in which the risotto is so perfectly al dente it's almost crunchy.
Il Gelato di San Crispino open Wednesdays through Mondays. Gelateria del Teatro open daily. Al Settimo Gelo open Tuesdays through Sundays. Giolitti open daily 7:30 am to 1:30 am. Alberto Pica open Mondays through Saturdays.
Tel: 39 06 6819 2998
Hats off to this new café-restaurant, which is attempting to bring quality catering to touristy Piazza Navona—noted until now both for the beauty of its Baroque architecture and the uninspiring, overpriced food served by the clip joints that line it. As befits this most scenic of piazzas, seating is mostly outside, with overhead heaters making it a viable option year-round. The menu, created by Emiliano Pascucci, sous-chef to Heinz Beck at the stellar La Pergola, mixes lighter, more creative fare (raw shrimp marinated in ginger and lime) with traditional Roman dishes such as spaghetti all'amatriciana—with tomato, pancetta, onion, and pecorino cheese—or veal saltimbocca, prosciutto-filled veal rolls. But this is also a good place for a morning cappuccino or an evening aperitivo. Service is efficient and multilingual.
Open daily 9:30 am to midnight.
Tel: 39 06 581 5274
The "Old Arch" on the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere has established itself as a reference point for Roman gourmets who want to eat well without breaking the bank. "Creative Italian cuisine" is an overused term, but that is exactly what chef Patrizia Mattei offers in dishes like tonnarelli with gray mullet bottarga, wild fennel, and breadcrumbs, or duck breast in vin santo sauce with stewed cannellini beans. The recipes are based on the kind of roots-y local ingredients an Italian grandma might use, but in combinations that Nonna would never attempt. The menu changes according to the season, but even in winter, lightness is a key word, with plenty of vegetables and herbs. Main courses go beyond the usual binary meat-or-fish option to embrace game (rabbit, pheasant, guinea fowl), and a small selection of side dishes (such as grilled vegetables with Piedmontese Toma cheese) can easily take the place of a secondo. There's no outside space, but the air-conditioned interior, fresh from a 2007 makeover in tones of white, cream, and dark chocolate, balances seriousness and friendly intimacy, as does the generally excellent service. Wine is another forte: If you're unsure what to order, ask knowledgeable sommelier Domenico for advice. Be sure to book at least a day in advance.
Open daily 6 pm to 11:30 pm.
See + Do
Ancient Rome, Italy
The Roman Empire was ruled from the Capitoline. Business was done in the Forum. Movers and shakers built grand homes on the Palatine. And the mob was entertained at the Colosseum. An unparalleled wealth of historical and artistic treasures clusters in a small area at the heart of the Eternal City. At the top of the cordonata (sloping road of steps) up from Piazza Venezia lies the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, with a modern copy of a statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius at its center. The first century A.D. original is now spectacularly displayed in a new wing of the Palazzo dei Conservatori—to your right as you enter the piazza—which also houses massive chunks of the ancient Temple of Capitoline Jupiter.
One of the world's oldest galleries, the Capitoline Museums (comprising the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo) host a worthwhile collection that ranges from some fine ancient Roman sculptures (check out the Dying Gaul in Palazzo Nuovo's Room 14) to canvases by the likes of Caravaggio and Velázquez (39-06-6710-2071; www.museicapitolini.org; Tues.–Sun. 9 am–8 pm). There is a breathtaking view over the Forum from the Tabularium, the ancient Roman archive building that joins the museum's two halves.
The Forum can be a bewildering jumble of masonry, but stroll along the Via Sacra—the ancient main drag—and up to the Palatine hill, which rises beyond. Here, the Horti Farnesiani gardens are a verdant haven, and the enormous dimensions of ruined imperial villas become easier to grasp (39-06-700-5469; daily 9 am–one hour before sunset).
Five thousand wild beasts were slaughtered during the Colosseum's inaugural party in A.D. 80. Nowadays, the battle is against fellow visitors, who pack into this monument in colossal numbers. (Note that tickets for the Palatine also cover the Colosseum and allow you to jump to the head of the interminable lines.) Climbing to the top is the only way truly to appreciate this feat of ancient engineering (39-06-3996-7700; daily 9 am–sunset).
See + Do
Rome 00186, Italy
Tel: 39 06 6830 0230
Nearly 2,000 years after it was erected by Emperor Marcus Agrippa, the Pantheon is still one of the most impressive buildings in the world. A 141-foot-diameter dome—whose radius perfectly matches its height—looms over the hushed interior, which originally housed a temple to Rome's 12 most important deities. Reconsecrated as a church in A.D. 609, it became the burial place of kings when united Italy was briefly a monarchy. The tomb of Raphael is tucked away in a quiet niche.
Open Mondays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, Sundays 9 am to 6 pm.
See + Do
In 1606, tortured genius Michelangelo Merisi—a.k.a. Caravaggio—fled Rome after killing a man over a tennis match. Behind him he left some of the Eternal City's most striking artwork. The church of San Luigi dei Francesi contains his St. Matthew cycle (1598–1601), three works that, with their haunting realism and groundbreaking use of light and shade, redefined painting in Rome. In Santa Maria del Popolo are The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul, two huge works made in 1601. The exquisitely touching Madonna of the Pilgrims (1603) in Sant'Agostino shocked contemporaries with its dirty supplicants kneeling before Mary. Other masterpieces by Caravaggio can be found in the Vatican Museums, the Palazzo Barberini, and the Borghese Gallery, which houses David With the Head of Goliath (1609), in which the head of Goliath is believed to be a self-portrait.
San Luigi dei Francesi
Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi
Tel: 39 06 688 271
Open Fridays through Wednesdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and 3:30 to 7 pm, Thursdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Tel: 39 06 6880 1962
Daily 8 am to noon and 4 to 7:30 pm.
Santa Maria del Popolo
12 Piazza del Popolo
Tel: 39 06 361 0836
Mondays through Saturdays 7 am to noon and 4 to 7 pm, Sundays 7:30 am to 1:45 pm and 4:30 to 7:30 pm.
See + Do
Caffè Culture, Italy
Coffee punctuates the Roman day with a regularity that is almost monastic. The first shot—usually in the form of a cappuccino—is generally downed in one's local bar; unless you happen to be doing business over breakfast, it's swallowed rapidly at the counter, a brief blip in the streamlined morning rush. Another dose of caffeine midmorning fuels busy Romans through the energy trough and marks the last opportunity for diluting the beverage with milk. After lunch and dinner (when many Romans resort to decaf so as not to be kept awake), a short, sharp shot of caffè—an espresso—is de rigueur, and a cappuccino is simply unthinkable.
Every Roman has his or her favorite bar, but most agree that the ne plus ultra of coffee is found at Sant'Eustachio, a diminutive place near the Pantheon that has been roasting its own beans since 1938. Its standout is the gran caffè, a double espresso with a creamy foam on top; it comes already sugared, so specify "amaro" (bitter) if you prefer it without (82 Piazza Sant 'Eustachio; 39-06-6880-2048; www.santeustachioilcaffe.it; daily 8:30–1 am). Closely rivaling Sant'Eustachio is the Tazza d'Oro, right by the Pantheon, which also does a superb coffee granita in summer (84 Via degli Orfani; 39-06-678-9792; www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com).
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Twenty-three miles east of Rome, Tivoli was already a popular day trip when Hadrian started work on the splendid Villa Adriana in A.D. 117. For the last 19 centuries, visitors have enjoyed the grandiose gardens and ruins of the imposing villa, whose design references Hadrian’s favorite buildings from his travels abroad. Up the hill, in the town of Tivoli itself, the lavish, romantic 16th-century Villa d'Este is a striking example of Renaissance innovation and refinement. The remarkable gardens feature more than 500 ingenious fountains whose theatrical effects were a technological marvel in their day. If you're traveling by car, take the A24 motorway and exit at Tivoli; COTRAL buses (take the one marked "Autostrada") leave frequently from Ponte Mammolo metro station.
Via di Villa Adriana
Tel: 39 0774 382 733
Open daily 9 am to 5 pm, November through January; 9 am to 6 pm, February; 9 am to 6:30 pm, March and October; 9 am to 7 pm, April and September; 9 am to 7:30 pm, May through August.
1 Piazza Trente
Tel: 39 0774 332 920
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am until sunset, approximately.
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Testaccio & Ostiense, Italy
Built at the end of the 19th century around the Mattatoio—the municipal slaughterhouse—the Testaccio neighborhood has grown ever trendier over the past couple of decades. At its produce market in Piazza Testaccio (Monday through Saturday mornings), locals elbow their way between clued-in shoe-seekers who know that this is where last season's models and this season's samples end up, at ridiculously cheap prices. Dug into the sides of Monte Testaccio—a hill made of broken amphorae deposited here in ancient times from the nearby river port—are some of the city's smartest clubs and discos, such as Akab (69 Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06-57-250-585; www.akabcave.com) and Caruso (36 Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06-574-5019; www.carusocafedeoriente.com). For more venues, see Nightlife. Part of the former Mattatoio hosts exciting exhibits organized by MACRO, Rome's contemporary art museum (54 Via Reggio Emilia; 39-06-6710-70-400; www.macro.roma.museum).
South of Testaccio, the Ostiense district is now what Testaccio was 15 years ago: definitely not gentrified but appreciated by the cognoscenti. It is coming into its own with the completion of the first stage of a makeover of the former wholesale fruit and vegetable market—to a design by Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas. In the meantime, Ostiense is home to the coolest of clubs, such as Classico Village, Goa, and La Saponeria (in Via Libetta and Via degli Argonauti), and to the Centrale Montemartini. Perhaps Rome's most striking museum, the Centrale features ancient statues in a restored power station (106 Via Ostiense; 39-06-574-8030; www.centralemontemartini.org; Tues.–Sun. 9:30 am–7 pm).
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Villa Borghese & Galleria Borghese, Italy
Villa Borghese, the most central of Rome's great parks, was saved from encroaching property developers in the 1870s when it was bought by a farsighted city council. A verdant place shaded by majestic trees, it's perfect for a pasta-burning run or for renting a bike or skates from the many outfits operating on the western side of the park, near the Pincio Terrace, with its spectacular view. Inside the park, the Galleria Borghese contains a superb art collection, including some of Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini's finest works: Note how Pluto's fingers press into the goddess's thigh in his Rape of Persephone (1622) and how the fleeing nymph's fingers metamorphose into laurel branches in Apollo and Daphne (1625). Also here are works by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Giorgione, Rubens, and Pinturicchio (the Borgheses sure liked their masterpieces). When it all gets too much for the kids, an unspectacular but well-intentioned zoo is a short stroll across the park.
Tickets for the Borghese gallery must be booked beforehand (though you can usually just turn up and get in on the same day, if you're prepared to wait), and visits are limited to two hours. The whole of the Villa Borghese park is a free-access Wi-Fi area.
1 Piazzale del Giardino Zoologico
Tel: 39 06 360 8211
Open daily 9:30 am to 5 pm.
5 Piazzale Scipione Borghese
Tel: 39 06 841 3979
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 7 pm.
See + Do
Ineffably picturesque, Trastevere is a district of two halves. West of Viale Trastevere, besotted tourists mingle with the few locals who have survived the influx of foreign residents, through twisting alleys packed with bars and restaurants (which are not always the cheapest or the best, but which usually guarantee atmosphere). Every alley seems to lead eventually to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the facade of the eponymous church glows with 13th-century mosaics, as does the apse, where the scenes from the life of the Virgin are by Pietro Cavallini, a lesser-known Roman contemporary of Giotto. More of Cavallini's extraordinary work can be seen to the east of Viale Trastevere in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where a fragment survives of his Last Judgment—an extravaganza of exquisitely colored angels' wings (2 Piazza Santa Cecilia; 39-06-589-9289; open Tues.–Thurs. 10 am–noon, Sun 11:30 am–noon). This side of Viale Trastevere is altogether a quieter, more laid-back neighborhood.
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St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums, Italy
The tiny sovereign state of the Vatican is an essential stopover on any Roman holiday and offers enough in itself to fill days if not weeks. Consecrated in 1626, the current St. Peter's Basilica remains the symbol and heart of the Catholic church and houses Michelangelo's stirring Pietà and Bernini's spectacular tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini is also responsible for the magnificent elliptical colonnade in St. Peter's Square. If you are up for the climb (and don't suffer from vertigo), take the steps up to the top of the dome for incomparable views—and a much welcome bar-café.
It would take weeks to do full justice to the overwhelming Vatican Museums, a 15-minute walk around the Vatican walls from the square, so choose the highlights that appeal to you. Besides the Sistine Chapel—with Michelangelo's Last Judgment (1512) on its altar wall and Creation (1535) on its ceiling, plus a veritable who's who of Renaissance greats on the side walls—areas not to miss are the Pinacoteca, with works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Raphael; the rooms frescoed for Pope Nicholas V by Raphael; and the Pio-Clementino museum with its peerless collection of ancient sculpture. Kids will enjoy the mummies in the Egyptian museum.
Note that a strict dress code applies in St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums: You will be turned away if you have bare shoulders or bare legs above the knee. The new, shorter visiting times listed below are for individual visitors; only prepaid groups can access the museums outside of these times. Note also that closing times are those of the ticket office, not the museums, which stay open for another 75 minutes to allow visitors to complete the circuit. Check the Vatican Web site for small variations to the times and days given here (for example, over the Christmas and New Year's period).
St. Peter's Basilica
Piazza San Pietro
Tel: 39 06 6988 1662
Open daily 7 am to 6 pm, October through March; 7 am to 7 pm, April through September.
Viale del Vaticano
Tel: 39 06 6988 3333
Open Mondays through Fridays 10 am to 3:30 pm, Saturdays 10 am to 1:30 pm, March through October; Mondays through Saturdays 10 am to 12:30 pm, November through February. Open the last Sunday of each month 9 am to 12:30 pm, free of charge.
See + Do
Rent a Motorino, Italy
A trip on a motorino around Rome's twisting alleys can be heart-stopping for even the bravest of adventurers. That said, the adrenaline rush and the chance to see the city as the locals do may tempt you to give it a whirl. Romarent is the best of the rental agencies and also offers guided bike and scooter tours in English (7A Vicolo dei Bovari; 39-06-689-6555).
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Rome is a series of villages. And as in all Italian villages, life revolves around the piazza. Admittedly, few villages can lay claim to squares as gloriously theatrical as Piazza Navona, with Bernini's melodramatic Four Rivers fountain at its heart. Or to anything as elegantly urbane as Piazza di Spagna, from which the Spanish Steps ascend.
In centuries past, the piazza was where markets were set up, executions took place, business was done, or papal edicts were pronounced. Piazza del Popolo combined many of these functions and was also Rome's main gateway, standing at the end of the Via Flaminia, which carried travelers and pilgrims from the north. A makeover in the early 19th century by Giuseppe Valadier gave it its current neoclassical look, while a car ban in the 1990s restored its elegance. Campo de' Fiori, on the other hand, was and still is resoundingly a market square, packed with food shoppers every morning but Sunday. Once, though, it was also used for executions: A Darth Vader–like monument reminds us that the Inquisition burned unorthodox philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake here in 1600. Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is Rome's largest square; its rather dull modern gardens contrast with the ramshackle vibrancy of the surrounding neighborhood, which today houses much of the city's Asian and African communities. Piazza Venezia, dominated by a bombastic waste of marble known as the Altare della Patria, is one big traffic intersection. A diminutive fountain, adorned by bronze sculptures of mossy boys hoisting turtles into the bowl at the top, makes tiny Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto arguably the city's most charming square.
Teatro Pace, Italy
Tel: 39 06 687 9075
Location, location, and location are what make this boutique hotel such a good value—plus a delicious Baroque spiral staircase, designed by a pupil of Bernini, which more than makes up for the lack of an elevator. Just around the corner from Piazza Navona, this former cardinal's residence offers 23 high-ceilinged rooms with original beams. The decor is on the plain side, but the damask curtains and bedcovers and the antique writing desks are pleasant enough, and all the usual three-star accessories (AC, TV, Wi-Fi) are provided. There are no communal spaces, so a generous continental breakfast is served in your room.