They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to explore the best of the ‘eternal city’ in the same amount of time.
You see, I haven’t been back to Rome since I was 15. Well, that’s not entirely true. There were those 24 hours in Vatican City before jumping the Euro Rail to Spain in 2003, but that’s a story for another day. So why has it been so long?
Even more significant, I’ve held an Italian passport for 8 years and it was still lacking that big bold ‘Italia’ stamp. And I was nervous too. I mean, what if they started talking to me in Italian at passport control and if they asked where I’ve been all this time…London, Melbourne, New York. Everywhere, but Italy!
Partially, I think my memories are jaded. I looked back and pictured a big antiquated city, dirty streets, being approached by pushy men and gipsies handing out roses every second minute to make a quick buck. Oh, but I was so wrong. Rome, in the offseason, was overwhelmingly beautiful, delicious and all around awesomely welcoming!
You could spend a week in this city and still not uncover all of its gems. But, if you’ve only got a short amount of time, here’s a taster of the best of Rome.
Stay on the other side of the Tiber River:
The narrow cobblestone streets, colourful graffiti, local trattorias and apertivo bars are what makes the once working-class neighbourhood of Trastevere one of the hottest areas in Rome today. It’s perfectly picturesque, a healthy mix of students and tourists taking advantage of the too many ivy-covered bars and trattorias by night, while the quiet streets are equally as Instagram-worthy to explore during the day. Even better, the Vatican is a 20-minute walk North, the Coliseum a 25-minute walk East, and the Trevi Foundation a 20-minute walk Northeast. Win-Win.
Hotel Santa-Maria: The Trip Advisor ratings are so through the roof, considering they have been awarded one of the top 10 places to stay in Rome, so there is no way I couldn’t book us in. Set in a quiet cloister with blooming orange trees, the service is beyond friendly, location super convenient, and the great breakfast and apertivos are a bonus.
La Tavernetta 29: This is where the locals eat and the obvious choice when in Rome is the carbonara of course, but I also chose to try the truffle ravioli which was out of this world. Service was spot on, with complimentary lemon sorbet and limoncello to close, at a shockingly affordable 25 Euro with wine for two.
Babylon Café: A local street artist I purchased an awesome photograph from recommended this hip gem, a casual place to enjoy an apertivo with the locals, plus there’s live music on the weekends. We would have never walked in if it wasn’t for the recommendation. In fact, we went for 1 but stayed for hours and the waiter was very patient with my poor stab speaking Italian after too many Campari Spritz.
Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa: Craft beer is taking Italy over by storm and this low key beer bar has a suite of regular changing taps. We were even lucky enough to meet a few brewers while socializing at the bar.
Eggs: While traditional trattorias are rumoured to have the best carbonara in the city, tiny and modern Eggs takes the Roman classic and gives it a contemporary twist. Organic eggs are at the heart of this varied menu.
Prosciutteria Cantina dei Papi: Modestly priced, this cute prosciutteria is an amazing stop for a grazing platter, with aged meats hanging from the ceiling to add to the ambience and the house wine a perfect accompaniment.
Time to get touring:
Rome is smaller than one may imagine. In fact, if you’re reasonably fit, getting yourself in front of all of the major ‘must see’ sites isn’t as difficult as you may think.
No stop in Rome is complete without going by to the see the big man in Vatican City. Plus, you’ll also get bragging rights of hopping between two countries. There’s even a post office you can send mail from!
You can easily spend a whole day in the Vatican Museums sandwiched between hordes of tourists. If you’re short on time, my friend Jen recommends doing the Livitaly Early Entrance Vatican Small Group Tour. As it offers early access, you’ll start the day at 7:30 am, avoiding the crowds and getting exclusive views of the Sistine Chapel and ancient Roman sculptures. The tour only takes max 6 people but lucky for her she had the guide to herself!
From Vatican City, it’s a short walk over Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta heading straight toward Piazza Navona. Take a few snaps in front of the famous Baroque Roman architecture and the beautiful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers.
Continue on to the magnificent former Roman temple, the Pantheon. Entrance is free, they just insist that you remain quiet as you stare into the oculus (hole) in the ceiling of the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Next onto the famous Trevi Foundation, always stunning, especially in the sunlight. Legend says if you throw a coin into the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder you’ll return to Rome one day. I guess the coin I threw in when I was 15 worked, as I couldn’t believe how much I had overlooked the magnificence of this city previously.
Depending on how much time you have left in the day, head South where you’ll catch the sunset against the Coliseum. It’s breathtaking. You likely won’t have enough time to do a full tour of it now, but you’ll at least get some awesome shots while deciding when to come back later.
It’s likely you’ll be hungry at this point!
Eat in the heart of Rome
Figuratively, not literally.
I can’t recommend Eating Italy Food Tours enough, having also done a Craft Beer and Food Tasting Tour in Prague with them last November. Italian born, American bred Sebastiana led us through her local neighbourhood of Testaccio, the heart of Rome. This is not because it’s centrally located, but it is because it contains the old port where the bulk of Roman food entered the city back in the day, making it the epicentre for butchers and as a result, dishes made of offal.
Go out of your way to visit:
MASTO: This is a neighbourhood eatery at its best, serving only locally sourced meats and cheeses, so much that if the owner Rita and her husband don’t know where it’s from personally, they’re not supplying it. Having won two free glasses of wine on our tour, we knew that coming back to Masto on Sunday afternoon to eat our way out of the country before flying back to London was the only option as the prosciutto was the best Jen ever had! The polpetto (meatballs) were amazing as well.
Ristorante Angelina: The old slaughterhouse on the Tiber River, now converted into a cool community arts space, is the heart of this neighbourhood. Steps away is Ristorante Angelina, specializing in in Rome’s famous quinto quarto (offal). I tried the coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) and the trippa alla romana (tripe), an acquired taste to say the least. It’s an eccentric place none the less and the menu is balanced for those less adventurous.
Trapizzino: When it comes to street food Trapizzino is taking over by storm, they’ve even gone international to NYC’s Lower East Side. Picture a pizza crust triangle sandwich stuffed with the likes of your most savoury favourites. Couple your bite with their local craft beer and it’s a late-night muncher’s dream.
Giolitti: Hands down the best Gelato I ever tasted, and I’m not the first to say it. Serving since 1914, know how to handle the grumpy owner, always pick two flavours that complement each other, and if he asks if you want la panna (whipped cream), always respond with a “si”. We came back here twice!
So, those are my quick wins. Initially hesitant to go to Rome in January as it would be cold, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the offseason, escaping the hordes of tourists and experiencing Rome in its most authentic state. Just make sure you do yourself the courtesy and always get real gelato, not the powered fake stuff you’ll find on most corners.
Hint, you can tell by the colour, if it’s not natural (i.e. a banana is white, not yellow on the inside), it ain’t real!