Rome, as we all know, wasn’t built in a day – but it’s amazing how much la dolce vita you can pack into 24 hours, writes Maggie Alderson.
In a lifetime of travel, this is only my second visit to Rome. My first, as a 20-year-old student on a painfully tight budget (in painfully tight shorts), was a bit of a disaster. The big mistake I made all those years ago was not doing any orward planning. I just turned up and, as a result, found myself sleeping in a sweltering cupboard in what seemed to be the noisiest part of town.
I hadn’t mapped out what to see and with so many treasures in such a dense city, it was overwhelming. To get the best out of Rome, you need to prioritise and plan – even more so now with strict COVID-19 rules requiring timed bookings for many of the big sites. (And if you turn up late, you don’t get in.) Here’s how to maximise your time...
Make your base a Roman icon
The Hotel Hassler Roma is one of the world’s great stays in one of the most iconic spots in Rome – at the top of the Spanish Steps. From the spacious Piazza di Spagna, up past Babington’s Tea Rooms and the Keats-Shelley House, it’s an area of refined grandeur even when packed with people.
The Hassler is not like other hotels. It feels more like a luxurious private home and is still owned by the Swiss/ Italian dynasty that acquired it in 1936 (and later entirely rebuilt it). Fifth generation scion Roberto E. Wirth is on the spot as general manager.
My first stop after check-in is to head for a coffee on the hotel’s famous 7th Floor Terrace with its spectacular views across the city, from the imposing Victor Emmanuel II Monument and the 2000 year old Pantheon to St Peter’s Basilica and the rather forbidding walls of the Vatican.
It shuts you up for a bit.
This is also a fine place for an evening aperitivo but I’m very taken with the rich plush of the Salone Eva drawing room on the ground floor. It has the kind of old-school comfort that can make it hard to get up from your armchair after just one Negroni, expertly mixed in the adjoining wood-panelled snug bar.
For dinner, the bistro is set up in the Palm Court garden behind the hotel in summer or the elegant Imàgo restaurant on the sixth floor offers Michelin-starred food, such as ravioli with scampi and turnip greens or spaghetti with sea cucumbers, clams and yellow tomatoes... and those amazing views by night.
With all this within easy walking distance of many of the key monuments of the Centro Storico, it’s no wonder the hotel’s guest book features the signatures of Princess Grace of Monaco, Diana, the Princess of Wales, Karl Lagerfeld and Placido Domingo.
Even Maximus Decimus Meridius himself – Russell Crowe – is a regular here. As he once said on Twitter: “That’s my gaff when I’m in town. The view and the staff at The Hassler make it a favourite.” Lucky Russ.
Spend your morning on a Vespa
My first morning in Rome is the best first morning I’ve ever spent in any city – taking in 5000 years of history from the back seat of a Vespa. In four hours, I see more of the city riding with Scooteroma than I could cover in days on foot and public transport – and feel movie-star cool doing it.
Before climbing on, I’m a bit nervous that I’ll feel unsafe on the two-wheeler but Fabrizio is as expert at handling his vintage Vespa as he is passionately proud of his city. He provides expert insider commentary – a perfect balance of history, politics and fun – as we zip along the banks of the Tiber, down narrow cobbled streets and past the mighty Colosseum, stopping for snacks at spots no tourist would find.
We have coffee mixed with zabaglione at Panella, an elegant bakery in the Esquilino neighbourhood, right next to an ancient auditorium. In the formerly industrial, newly cool area of Testaccio, Fabrizio introduces me to the latest street food, trapizzini (see Stop For a Snack, overleaf), all included in the €180 (A$275) tour price.
Started in 2007 by American-in- Rome Annie Ojile, Scooteroma offers a range of itineraries, including jaunts focusing on street art, food, Fellini and, of course, Roman Holiday locations.
I love it all but it’s the Appian Way that really blows my mind. This ancient road, connecting Rome to the crucial port of Brindisi, 543 kilometres south, was built in 312 BCE – and here we are, 2334 years later, whizzing down it in the early spring sunshine, with practically no-one else around.
By the gate to Rome’s still-standing Aurelian walls, Fabrizio pulls up. Kneeling, he shows me grooves in the timeworn oversized cobblestones. “From the wheels of Roman chariots,” he says.
You don’t get moments like that on a bus tour.
Have lunch at a classic Italian family restaurant
On a tip from a friend, I secure a table at La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, which is just a 10-minute walk from the Arch of Constantine. It’s a fourth-generation family joint, with welcoming Mamma in situ and other family members working the floor. The décor is blissfully unpretentious, with simple wooden tables and bentwood chairs.
Most of the other lunchers are locals and the carbonara fulfills all my fantasies, with the crucial guanciale – the speciality super-fatty pork cut that defines the dish – so crisp it tastes almost deep-fried.
As I eat, all the tables fill up – a reminder that you do really need to book, even for lunch on a Wednesday. Also remember to keep a close-fitting FFP2 mask at hand to be allowed admission to monuments and museums – they won’t let you in with flappy fabric or a comfortably loose surgical number – and be ready to show your vaccination green pass everywhere.
Step back in time at the Colosseum and Forum
Even just viewed in passing, the Colosseum, nearly 2000 years old and still the largest amphitheatre in the world, is quite astonishing. Going inside feels like you’re entering ancient Rome – and the recent addition of underground and dungeons tours makes the experience even more immersive.
Bringing it brilliantly to life is my lovely guide, Brent, found on Airbnb Experiences. An American who came to Rome to study classics and loved the city so much he didn’t leave, he now shares his boundless knowledge of Roman life with a light touch (none of that Death By Information).
Brent limits his groups to just 10 people and I’m exceptionally lucky because it’s just me and him (so it’s like strolling around with a very erudite new pal). In the dungeon area, the wooden lifts raised up – via slave-arm power – the animals, gladiators and prisoners condemned to death and they appeared through trap doors on the arena floor.
It must have been quite something to see a tiger or rhino pop up like that in 98 CE – but not so great to be one of the animals that were killed as entertainment for the audience of 80,000 nobles, citizens and slaves. “Rome was founded on cruelty,” says Brent. “That’s how they controlled people.”
Stop for a snack
Rome’s traditional street food is pizza al taglio – rectangular slices priced by weight and served cold from hole-inthe- wall counters (you can ask for it scaldo, heated up). Now there’s a new contender in the form of trapizzini, triangles of crisp pizza dough, which form pita-style pockets to hold Italian classics such as meatballs in tomato sauce or chicken cacciatore.
Roman pizza chef Stefano Callegari – who uses a mother yeast for the dough that has been in the family for more than 100 years – invented it and opened his first branch of Trapizzino in edgy Testaccio in 2013. Now there are more than a dozen branches across Italy (and one in New York).
I visit the original venue, a tiny shop on an industrial-looking street, where I queue at the counter and then eat it outside in the sunshine.
Soak up the Caravaggios in the Villa Borghese
It’s easy to get statue blindness in Rome, thanks to the sheer volume of amazing carved marble in the city. So to get a big hit of world-famous paintings in one place, head to the Villa Borghese.
The richly frescoed villa, located in the middle of the Borghese Gardens, is a trip in itself but the room with six Caravaggios – Room 8, ground floor, back left – is worth the journey to Rome in itself. l leave feeling like my COVID-shrivelled soul had been nurtured.
Drink like the locals
In one of those chance moments travel throws at you, I find myself waiting for someone in a square in a quieter part of the hectic night-time restaurant maze that is the Trastevere district. There’s an interesting-looking bar in the corner, with a crowd of animated people sitting outside, so I head over to order a Peroni and think I’ve misheard the barman when he asks for €1.50 (A$2.20).
The bar has a relaxed, authentico vibe and I have no idea until I come home that it was the legendary Bar San Calisto, a Roman landmark that has no website and is featured by Stanley Tucci in his TV show, Searching For Italy.
The dive bar vibe I love might be too gritty for some – and it’s on the “wrong” side of the river – so if you want a more classic venue for an aperitivo, take a tip from Scooteroma’s Annie Ojile. “During lockdown,” she says, “locals like me took back Piazza Navona, which used to be considered too touristy. It’s such a beautiful place to sit and have an aperitivo. I love a restaurant called Camillo. You will need to book, even for a drink, but it’s worth it.”
Make dinner romantically Roman
If you love pasta, you’re going to eat well in Rome but for dinner in particular, atmosphere is as important as what you have going on plate-side and Ristorante Santa Lucia is wonderfully romantic.
The dark wood, terrazzo-floored interior is full of groovy Italians and reminds me of an older-style New York restaurant. While it’s delightful inside, I’d love to go back in a warmer month and sit on the glorious tree-shaded and white-umbrellaed terrace that the restaurant is famous for.
So romantic is that spot, it was the location for the alfresco Roman dinner in Eat, Pray, Love, which starred Julia Roberts. Martin Scorsese, Giorgio Armani and Sophia Loren are among the many to have feasted on mini gnocchi with prawns and Pachino tomatoes – a controlled appellation product grown only in Sicily – or lobster Catalan-style. But wherever you sit, don’t even think of getting there before 9pm, when the locals roll in and it all gets going.