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Rome: The insider’s guide to the Eternal City

When in Rome, do as the Romans do and discover the attractions and hot spots that aren’t on the tourist trail.

By Karen Pasquali Jones

From the Baroque beauty of the Trevi Fountain to the gasp-inducing artistry of Michelangelo’s High Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel, Rome is a city heaving with sophistication and swagger.

Step onto its cobbled streets and you can literally feel the confidence pulsating out of every surprising twist and turn of the Eternal City.

Where else can you wander around the largest amphitheatre ever built, the Colosseum, and imagine gladiators fighting bears and tigers before a 50,000-strong baying crowd, before grabbing an espresso and strutting down Via Condotti one of the world’s most fashionable streets?

Quite simply, Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, if not the world. With a history spanning 28 centuries, and housing Vatican City, an independent country within its boundaries, ancient and modern Rome collide in a captivating but chaotic mix of culture, art and gioa di vivere.

The Romans have plenty to smile about. Their cuisine is the best – 84 per cent of the world recently named it their favourite in a recent YouGov study of 25,000 people in 24 countries. Everyone, not just the Devil, wants to wear Prada, Gucci and the myriad labels its fashion industry has to offer, and there’s breathtaking art everywhere you look – including 60 fifteen-foot-tall Carrara marble statues at Foro Italico, the magnificent sports complex which houses Stadio Olimpico, home to Lazio and Rome football clubs.

sistine chapel

Must seesAll roads lead to…

Small enough to see all the major sights in a day, Rome is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, though be careful crossing the road as the Roman drivers and scooter riders don’t necessarily stop at pedestrian crossings.

Start early with a cornetto – an Italian croissant – and a frothy cappuccino. Italians will raise an eyebrow if you order a milky coffee after noon, when only an espresso or caffe macchiato are deemed acceptable. They’re swiftly drank at the bar in a coffee shop, where only tourists ever take a seat.

Must-sees include St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Expect queues but it’s worth every minute spent waiting for a glimpse at that ceiling. You’ll have to join the throng at the Colosseum, too, but it’s the highlight for all ages, and worth paying to join a tour. A good guide will bring the past back to life, explaining how the Romans invented lifts all those millennia ago so that lions, wolves, bears and leopards could spring from trap doors in the arena floor.

Be careful of the gladiators outside offering to pose for photographs. They can expect a hefty fee and can become aggressive if you don’t want to pay.

Some tours include a visit to the Roman Forum to see ancient ruins including the Temple of Julius Caesar. Walk up Palatine Hill to enjoy view of Nero’s Circus Maximus, where 150,000 would watch chariot races in the largest capacity stadia in history.

The Pantheon, a former Roman temple completed by Hadrian, is near to the cinematic Spanish Steps, where even the Italians stop to visit the nearby 18th century Caffe Greco where Keats and Bryon drank coffee. Climb to the top of the steps for a spectacular view of St Peter’s Square where, on a Sunday, the Pope makes a personal appearance at noon. If you want to go inside, remember to cover your shoulders and legs. You’ll be rewarded with Michelangelo’s Pietà – a sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus – and the baldachin by Bernini over the main altar.

Head towards Piazza del Popolo to Via Babuino, which is twinned with New York’s Madison Avenue, for some retail therapy – or window shopping –  in the designer stores.

castel gandolfo

DiscoverThe real Rome

But it’s away from the tourists that the real Rome can be discovered. Head to Giardino degli aranci, or Parco Savello, overlooking the city. Look for the door at the top. If you gaze through the key hole you’ll find Saint Peter’s Basilica perfectly framed.

Venture 16 miles outside the city to Castelli Romani, the former stomping ground of Roman elites built on top of a volcano crater. Near to the city, but scenic with a fresh climate, thanks to its altitude, this cluster of villages makes the perfect summer escape from Rome’s heat. The Pope’s former summer residence, the Papal Palace of Castel Gondolfo is now open as a museum.

On a road between Ariccia and Frascati lies a secret spot few tourists know about which boasts a unique property – it’s antigravity hill. It looks completely normal but if you place a ball, a bottle – or even a car packed with people – on it, it rolls uphill. Theories for the phenomenon include the volcanic activity in ancient times, but it’s a sight worth making the trip for.

For some much-needed fun in the sun, head 30 minutes out of the city centre to the ancient seaport of Rome where the locals flock to fill the beach clubs of Ostia and Torvaianica. Marvel at their deep tans – they’ll have been hitting the beach since March – and catwalk-worthy swimming costumes, bikinis and trunks. The women wear full make-up, high heeled flip flops and never have a hair out of place, even keeping it miraculously dry while going for a dip in the sea.

Back in the city, dine in a back street restaurant in hip Trastevere, or Testaccio, the achingly-hip heart of Roman cuisine. Ask for fried artichokes, Coda alla Vaccinara, oxtail in tomato sauce, tripe or sweetbread. For something a little sweeter, choose a gelato that looks like pasta Bolognese or buy a pezzo di pizza con Nutella. Revel in its gooey chocolatey goodness that’s so delicious it is  sold by the metre.

Before leaving visit the Bocca Della Verita in the ancient Forum Boarium just like Audrey Hepburn did in Roman Holiday. Legend has it the marble lion will bit off the hand of any liar who dares place their hand inside its mouth. Last, but not least, toss three coins into the Trevi Fountain, and wish to return.

So many people long to come back to Rome, the 18th century fountain attracts tides of visitors who throw 3,000 euros a day into the water. La Dolce Vita indeed.

italy artefacts

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Published 03.02.22