The Eternal City still shines with life, and Susana Cristalli reveals the secrets of scutums, squats and square-shaped pizza, along with ancient shopping centres and Christian catacombs.
Imagine you’ve been around for over two thousand years and people still come from all over the world to see you and take your picture. That’s what happens with the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and Rome. Unlike its counterparts from the ancient world however, Italy‘s capital city is still crammed full of inhabitants who are busy getting on with their contemporary lives, taking the (packed and slow) bus to work every day, whilst crumbling ruins and millennia-old monuments rise up at the side of the road at every corner. Like all modern metropolises Rome has plenty to offer in terms of restaurants, nightlife and entertainment, but there are very few cities in the world where the sense of history, of world-changing events, bloody spectacles and political intrigue are so palpable that the visitor’s imagination can’t help but stir.
The Romans sometimes act like they still rule the world, no matter how long ago Caesar and his cohorts hung up their scutums; but thankfully they are also very happy to help and make sure you love your stay in their city. The savvy traveller should therefore make the most of the locals’ pride and let them show you around. Then, you can choose which level of Rome you want to discover and how far you want to dig into time and history, from the Pantheon temple and early-Christian catacombs, to contemporary street art exhibitions, a night out at one of the biggest squats in Europe and more deep-fried food than you care to imagine.
Best of the Beaten Track
There are a few Roman attractions that require an entire day’s perusal, such as the Vatican Museums, which host centuries of artistic and historical treasures. Admission is free on the last Sunday of every month, when of course the queue is massive and the museum closes at noon – so set the alarm clock and be prepared.
As for the other obvious touristic spots, you won’t be able to avoid them. It’s hard not to notice the vast Colosseum or the Altare della Patria, the Homeland’s Altar, the only spotless white marble building in an otherwise red-brown city centre (a white elephant that the locals actually hate). You may want to enter for the complete experience, but admiring these giants from the outside whilst slurping on an Italian ice cream can prove equally satisfying. Since you’re in the vicinity, walk up Via XX Settembre and get to Trajan’s Forum (not to be confused with the principal Forum Romanum), a large commercial district built by the Emperor Trajan and possibly the world’s first shopping centre. Interestingly the word ‘fornication’ is thought to have originated from the naughty deeds perpetrated by Romans under the arches (‘fornices’) of this forum!
If you refuse to go home until you’ve seen everything that the Eternal City has to offer then you might be wise to invest in a Rome City Pass, which for a set fee gets you free fast track entry into the Vatican, free access to the Colosseum and Forum and many other sights and museums, as well as free bus tour and unlimited use of public transport.
E.U.R. is an acronym for Esposizione Universale Roma, Universal Roman Exhibition, and it’s a large district on the East End of the city, commissioned in 1935 by Mussolini. Its hard, straight-lined architecture is clearly inspired by the Roman Empire, and it was supposed to host the fascist regime’s 20-year celebrations which, oops, never happened.
On the opposite edge of town, as well as the opposite end of the political spectrum, stands Forte Prenestino, a 32 acres wide squatted ex-military fortress, that did celebrate its 20th year of full activity in 2007. If you’re in Rome on May 1st don’t miss their Non-Labour Day 24-hour long party.
By the end of the day, head for a drink and some nibbles at Necci’s bar in the Pigneto area, the favourite place of late film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him or the Italian Neorealist movement, you’ll immediately connect with the potato puffs and the thick slices of frittata that come with your glass of wine.
Check out our Secret Seven post for more fun and unusual things to do in Rome.
Experience & Events
Fancy watching a movie but see no point in staying indoors on a warm Roman night? Go to one of the many arena cinemas which pop up around the city during the summer, in squares and parks, where the locals love to watch the season’s blockbusters and occasional arthouse stuff.
On the first of May, youngsters from all over the country come to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano to (get drunk and) attend the traditional concertone, the Big Gig, organised by the Municipality. It lasts all day long and after a sequence of 20 or so Italian pop-rock musicians, culminates with an international mainstream attraction. For the Romans it’s like going to church. Even if it’s not your thing, you end up going at least once in your life.
The town of Marino, on the outskirts of Rome, throws a weekend long Wine Fest to promote the local produce every September. The main attraction is a fountain that spills wine instead of water, especially for the occasion, and anyone can help themselves.
Even further afield and the small town of Cocullo hosts this amazing festival of snakes.
All that luxury and decadence from the past may have you demanding the Imperial treatment. If that’s the case, and you boast the wallet of Crassus or Pompey, choose a 5-star option like Radisson Blu with its award-winning interior decor and pool parties, or else opt for the amazing view of Piazza della Repubblica from Boscolo Exedra. Still trendy, but a bit more affordable is Ripa Hotel; it’s not right in the City Centre but perfect for exploring the hip zone of Trastevere. For a much more relaxed (as in cheaper) stay try the likes of Zolilla B&B and other conveniently located places near Central Station Termini, like Alessandro Palace.
In Rome, there’s no need to formally sit down to have a meal to die for. Roman street food can keep you full and happy for a whole holiday if you wish. This is the home of pizza al taglio, not round but rectangular, cut into pieces to eat on the go. You can find plenty of top quality pizzerias all around town like Pizza Luigi, Doppio Zero, Forno di Campo de’ Fiori, and the list goes on.
But no matter how good, no one can live on pizza, and that’s what the fried stuff is for. Try Supplì, fried rice balls with a mozzarella filling; or battered cod (yes, a bit like fish and chips), which is found at its best at Filettaro. And of course it would be madness to leave Rome without having had an ice cream, and you can’t go wrong with Giolitti, while coffee lovers will get a real kick from the espresso granita (frozen and grated coffee) at Tazza d’Oro, which comes with an almost illegal amount of thick whipped cream and could wake up a hibernating bear. Finally, if you’re aiming to impress your date, take them to a restaurant where Italian food doesn’t mean checked tablecloths and loud waiter. La Rosetta’s menu offers a modern take on traditional fish dishes like “spaghetti alle vongole” (pasta with clams, parsley and a touch of white wine).
Rome’s nightlife is odd and, without any good tips, you may think that the Eternal City’s party was over centuries ago. In the summer most people prefer to just hang out outside instead of spending the evening in pubs and clubs. When it’s cold, the best of said clubs are sometimes hard to find. But here we come to the rescue. At Brancaleone, which is more a cultural centre than a club, you’ll find some serious electronic music from international DJs, a generally packed, and very dark, dancefloor and an upstairs chill-out area with a café and exhibitions.
More electronic music, though in a more polished environment, is what you get at Goa Club, while on Saturdays all the indie kids head to Circolo degli Artisti to see gigs by the likes of Kaiser Chiefs and CSS and dance to the rock DJs until late. The top night out on the gay scene is Muccassassina, at Qube. Be warned, concepts such as “personal space” and “privacy” mean nothing there. For vintage fans, it’s worth checking out Micca Club, a refurbished dugout turned into a totally stylish club devoted to 60’s music, burlesque shows and Sunday flea markets.
Getting There & Around
Many, albeit not all, roads lead to Rome. From London (Stansted), Manchester, Edinburgh, Dublin and many more European destinations (such as Madrid, Budapest and Krakow), you can choose the cheap Ryanair way to Ciampino airport and then take a coach to Termini station. Or you fly directly to the main airport of Fiumicino with any of the major airlines, including EasyJet. Once you’ve touched down on terra firma, the Leonardo Express train will take you to one of the main city stations, or you can get a cab from the rank or, starting in 2015, you can book in advance via Book Taxi Rome.
The official Municipality’s website for tourism has weather and plenty of cultural and practical info. For more tips by local experts – especially bars, restaurants and culture – you’ll find Spotted by Locals an invaluable source.
Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is an entertaining way to relive the follies and vices of ancient Rome in decline. For something more contemporary you could try the cult detective novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. For practical info there is a variety of guides like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. At the newsagent, ask for the local edition of Time Out and while in hip shops and bars look for 06 free press, an overall good listings magazine (it’s tiny, so look hard!).
Soundtrack to the City
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