The capital city in the land of Leonardo, Michelangelo and the popes is today a living museum with gorgeous artwork, amazing architecture and inspiring ancient sites — yet at the same time it is alive and vibrant in a 21st-century way. It’s an unforgettable city to visit, and we’ll warn you right now: once you’ve experienced it, you’ll want to come back for more.
One of our favorite things to do here is walk and ogle. On a recent visit, we took one day to do the route from Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica, with its jaw-dropping art and statuary (not to mention religious significance), to Via del Corso, where our pursuit of the latest Italian fashions was more than fulfilled amidst the well-dressed crowd of Roman shoppers. And then the next day we went on an ancient history quest past ruins and columns, traversing the same streets Julius Caesar strode (and rode) to the Colosseum, where gladiators once battled. Then, walking on, we were awed by the Pantheon, the well-preserved ancient symbol of Rome and now a great hangout spot.
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Many first-time visitors, envisioning Rome as big and congested, will be surprised by the scenic layout, with its famous seven hills and the Tiber River running through the city. But your senses may be shocked by the general energy and hustle and bustle. With cars, taxis and scooters roaring here and there, crossing the street can be a challenge (don’t worry, there are quiet piazzas aplenty with lovely cafes where you can get away from it all and unwind).
The food is, of course, wonderful — we can’t eat enough pasta — and the spirit of la dolce vita (the good life) abounds. Whenever we do such a quest in Rome, we do regular gelato stops (try the yummy pine nut flavor) or coffee breaks because “when in Rome…” And the shopping scene serves up Prada, Gucci, Armani and more (high style can be found in more affordable brands like Furla as well). What could be better than that?
The Colosseum is a shell of an ancient stadium — first inaugurated in 80 A.D. — where gladiators engaged in bloodbaths. The Pantheon dates back to 27 B.C. and is considered the ancient world’s most complete monument. Even better, the Pantheon is more than a museum; it still holds concerts and other special events.
In the Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, the earthly locus of the Roman Catholic Church, and the extensive Vatican Museums (where you’ll find the Sistine Chapel) are grouped together just across the Tiber River from central Rome. Visitors to St. Peter’s have to clear a security line, which can be found to the right of the main entrance. Be aware that tank tops and shorts are not acceptable attire within the basilica. At the Vatican Museums, the lines can get very long if you’re not with a group; to save time, purchase tickets online ahead of time at the museums’ Web site, mv.Vatican.va.
Not far from the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, the oldest part of the city. Here you’ll find ruined temples, arches and other dramatic structures from the ancient world. To get the most from your visit, buy a detailed map of the site at the gate when you enter.
Near the Colosseum, we always drop our jaws at the sight of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, an extravagant white marble monument (its nickname is “the wedding cake”) with giant horse sculptures, constructed in the 1800s to honor Italy’s first king. You can’t go inside, but it’s a great photo opp.
The Trevi Fountain was made famous by the classic flick “Three Coins in a Fountain”; legend has it if you want to come back to Rome, you must throw in a coin. Within walking distance are the Spanish Steps, which draw quite a crowd when the late afternoon sun begins to create a warm, golden hue over the 154 steps leading to the Trinita dei Monti. (If you can make the climb, a rooftop cafe awaits, offering wonderful views of the Roman skyline.)
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One of Rome’s most exuberant piazzas (public squares) is Piazza Navona, which is virtually a carnival — you can have your portrait drawn, sit by the fountain and enjoy a gelato cone, drink wine at a sidewalk cafe, or dance to live music. Also fun is Campo dei Fiori (the only reason it’s not called a piazza is that it isn’t anchored by a church), particularly if you like flea markets in the morning and fun, informal sidewalk cafes from lunchtime onward.
For art lovers, Galleria Borghese has Rome’s premier collection of masterpieces, including works by Titian, Caravaggio and Raphael.
Explore the hip urban neighborhood of Trastevere (just across the Tiber). Among its attractions, beyond tons of charming sidewalk cafes, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, is the serene and soothing Orto Botanico, comprising 19 different gardens. Also in the neighborhood is the piazza of Santa Maria, one of the city’s prettiest piazzas and the site where, according to legend, oil was said to have sprung from the ground on the occasion of Christ’s birth. Santa Maria Cathedral, which anchors the square, is a soothing, restful stop.
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Want to get hands on? Take a cooking class. Learn to make pizza, pasta, gelato or other Italian favorites with companies such as Fabiolous Cooking Day, Cooking Classes in Rome and Daniela’s Cooking School. See Viator for more options.
Ostia Antica, Rome’s version of Pompeii, is about 45 minutes outside the city, but worth the trek. It was founded in the fourth century B.C. and was a bustling port city until a couple of factors — outbreaks of malaria and the river’s changing course — led to its abandonment. Ultimately it was covered in silt, and the site has gradually been excavated over the past century.
Rome is justifiably famous for its cuisine, from homey pasta dishes served in traditional trattorias to melt-in-your-mouth gelato from that teeny little shop around the corner. And did we mention the pizza?
A meal at an outdoor cafe is a must-do Roman experience. We like to avoid the crowds on Piazza Navona and follow the locals instead to Piazza del Popolo, where you’ll find fine people-watching and cafes serving excellent pasta, not far from the Via del Corso shopping area.
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Widely considered one of the best restaurants in all of Rome, La Pergola (in the Rome Cavalieri Hotel) is the place to go for a big splurge (and we mean big — appetizers start at nearly 40 euros). The only restaurant in the city to have earned three Michelin stars, this ultra-luxe dining room offers divine Italian dishes accompanied by your choice of wine from a cellar of more than 60,000 bottles. Reservations are essential.
Tucked away in the Trastevere neighborhood is Hosteria dei Numeri Primi, offering unpretentious but delicious food and reasonably priced wines. Reserve in advance if you want an outdoor table.
Need a quick and tasty lunch? Try the gourmet sandwiches at Panino Divino. Options include classics like prosciutto, cheese and tomato, as well as vegetarian sandwiches such as grilled zucchini and eggplant with pesto and Emmental cheese.
For something you can’t get anywhere else, head to the Jewish Ghetto and try the famous fried artichokes, especially at Piperno. Also on the menu is a selection of to-die-for fresh pastas.
It’s nearly impossible to choose the best pizzeria in Rome, but Pinsere Roma would certainly be in the running for its artisanal pies. Locals and tourists alike line up to order personal-size pizzas topped with everything from zucchini and mozzarella to bacon, cheese and wild mushrooms.
Giolitti is Rome’s oldest gelateria, where you can indulge your sweet tooth with anything from a simple scoop of chocolate ice cream to a decadent sundae such as the Coppa Olimpica, shaped like an Olympic torch and filled with zabaione, turrone, chocolate and pan di Spagna. (It’s been on the menu since 1960, when it was created to celebrate the Games in Rome.)
Shopping in Rome
You’ll find a wealth of shopping opportunities in Rome, from chic Italian fashions to delicious food and wine. Looking for souvenirs? Go browsing for leather handbags or shoes, or treat yourself to haute couture from one of Rome’s upscale boutiques.
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Rome’s most magnificent shops are clustered on streets branching off from the elegant Piazza d’Spagna (the Spanish Steps). The chic-est of chic stores are found on Via Veneto and Via Condotti; more mainstream (and affordable) stores are on the long Via del Corso. Take a coffee break at Antico Caffe Greco (Via Condotti 86), a place to see and be seen since it opened in 1760.
For reasonably priced clothing, shoes and jewelry, walk along Via Cola di Rienzo, which runs from Piazza Risorgimento to the Tiber River.
For leather goods at relatively affordable prices, try busy Via Nazionale between Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Venezia.
Antique stores are clustered on Via del Babuino.
–written by Fran Golden