The old saying goes ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. Well, here you are! In Rome! Okay. So, what do the Romans do? You glance around, and everywhere you look there are gladiators and senators, imperial-looking men whizzing about on chariots… Don’t worry, I’m joking. Truth is, Rome might not look quite like you imagined. This emblematic capital tends towards what any other major, tourist-reliant metropolis does: sometimes she tricks you, and you find yourself eating gummy pasta next to the Pantheon because you just don’t know where to go for a good meal, a great cocktail, or just a peaceful park to picnic.
You may have come here with dreams of a grand city, and she is here, but you have to know where to look.
We all want that personal touch when we experience a new place, but sometimes we just don’t know any locals, and so can’t waltz about seeing the highlights and falling in love with a new city. So, since falling in love should be accessible to everybody, and we all know that gummy pasta can ruin a trip, I’ve started a bit of a to-experience list for you. These are some of my favorite spots, shared in the hopes that they can guide you and help make Rome the experience of a lifetime that, truly, she is — by no means is this an exhaustive list, so please keep that in mind, and keep exploring!
Art like a Roman
Considering the subject, I have to start with art, right? One of the incredible things about Rome is that art is everywhere, and although you will pay to get into museums, pieces of great beauty and historical relevance are so abundant in this city that many times you can sidle into a church in a nondescript piazza and find yourself face to face with a Caravaggio. Two of my favorite of these experiences are the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popoli, where you can find two of Caravaggio’s most important works, and the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where you’ll find three stunning paintings, each featuring St. Matthew.
If sculptures are more your thing, then boy did you come to the right place. Absolute favorite is Michelangelo’s La Pietà, his first and undoubtedly one of his most famous sculptures (and also the only one that he signed). Michelangelo was barely older than twenty when he created his sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Christ in her arms just after his death, and it’s conveniently situated inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. You can also check out Michelangelo’s Mosè in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli on Via Cavour, and if you’re a fan of Bernini, swing by the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria on Via XX Settembre to see his Transverberazione di Santa Teresa d’Avila.
Also not to be missed is the National Gallery of Ancient Art of Barberini Palace. Other than housing one of the most important painting collections in Italy, the palazzo itself is a masterpiece created at the hands of Maderno, Borromini, and Bernini. Pietro da Cortona’s world-famous fresco can be found here, dominating the entire ceiling of one of the most beautiful rooms in the palace. You can find location and opening hours here.
Gelato like a Roman
Possibly the second most important thing about Italy is gelato, and Rome has roughly ten million places where you can enjoy this treat. My favorite these days is undeniably Fata Morgana, the home of the artisanal gelato that will knock your socks off. You can also absolutely enjoy their gelato if you’re lactose intolerant, because they have plenty of (clearly marked) milk-free flavors. Luckily for all of us, there are also several locations throughout the city, which you can find on their website — my go-to is the one in the Monti neighborhood, in Piazza degli Zingari, walking distance from the Colosseum. Must-try flavors include the mela/mandorla/cannella (apple, almonds, and cinnamon) and the ananas/zenzero (pineapple ginger).
Day Trip like a Roman
This is going to be my favorite section, I can already tell. In my humble opinion, one of the most overlooked attractions of this city I call home is that is is surrounded by noteworthy towns and secrets, many less than a few hours away and easily looped in a day. I have a separate article on this, which you can check out here if you like (the first and second places on that list are some of my favorite spots on the whole planet), but there are two places I’ve recently discovered that I have to tell you guys about. The first is the garden of the nymphs (you think I’m kidding! I’m not!), and the second is a medieval stone town.
The Garden of Ninfa, a verdant, jewel-like garden bursting with ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa, is about forty minutes south of Rome by car, not far from the city of Latina. It was created in the early 1920s by the Caetani noble family and is today maintained by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, the Italian environmental fund (FAI). In order to protect the delicate ecosystem of the Giardino, it is only open a few weekend days out of the year, so be sure to check the website for opening dates — I highly recommend you try to go during the late spring, when the garden is in full glory! Words fail me when trying to describe the sheer beauty of this garden; Ninfa feels like a technicolor refuge for nature, or a fairy tale where the next turn could lead you to discovering great secrets, or a benevolent spot to sit and think.
Ten minutes from Ninfa is the stone city of Sermoneta, guarded by the castle of the Caetani. Because this is such a delightfully walkable city, I would highly recommend visiting on a clear day, when you can get the most out of the atmosphere. Sermoneta is the epitome of the beauty of Italy outside of the main attractions, where magic is found as much in simple wandering as in the one-of-a-kind surprises at every turn — and oh, possibly the most important discovery I made while in Sermoneta: the Ristorante Locanda Bonifacio VIII. Without a doubt, plan to eat here. We stumbled onto this gem at lunch one day and enjoyed it so much that we went all the way back to the town the next day just to eat there again. The owners and staff are all lovely, the food is exquisite, and the prices are more than acceptable. Buon appetito!
Shop like a Roman
Rome is not a cheap city to shop in, especially when it comes to boutiques and Italian clothing. For some good shopping that will include varied price points with both Italian goods and international chains, check out Via Cola di Rienzo, which starts at Piazza Risorgimento and ends near Piazza del Popolo. For high-end shopping, there’s always the famous Via Condotti, which starts at Piazza di Spagna — very expensive but worth it even just for the window shopping, as some of the best designers in the world have their headquarters there!
Some of the best clothing is found when one is awanderin’, so take a stroll around the Piazza di Spagna area for local boutiques. Via Margutta, known to the world as the street of the artists, is a wonderful place to stroll, pop into the shops, and enjoy the surroundings.
Study, or work, like a Roman
You’re running about exploring and wandering and doing all that fun stuff that gets your mind racing and your heart thumping in excitement, but… You also need a quiet spot to get some work done. My favorite place for this is Pagine e Caffè in the San Giovanna area, on Via Gallia 37. The name directly translates to ‘pages and coffee’, appropriate for this combination bookstore/café/restaurant, where you can enjoy a pastry, leaf through books, and get to typin’.
Another good spot is Circus, near Piazza Navona on Via della Vetrina 15. You can venture your way over in the morning and enjoy a cappuccino and cornetto while you work, and the staff are super friendly about you setting up shop and using a table as your office-away-from-the-office. Keep in mind that Circus turns into a cocktail/aperitivo bar at night, so if you stay too late you may have to pack up your laptop and join in on the fun!
Cocktail like a Roman
When you’re done studying, working, or generally WiFi-ing, head to one of these delicious cocktail spots recommended by the gin expert herself, Ms. Amelia Stewart. You can find her whole article on my blog, Young In Rome, here, but my personal favorites out of her amazing recommendations are The Gin Corner at the Hotel Adriano (tucked away near the Pantheon), and Café Settembrini in Prati (try the Illegal Margarita!). Another favorite is Caffé Propaganda, a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. This lovely little place has a world-famous barman and great cocktails, but is also a great stop for an afternoon snack or pick-me-up.
I’m going to stop here for brevity’s sake, but if you enjoyed this article, let me know! Ideas are abounding for a Part II, so I’d be thrilled if you weighed in with what it is that you’re curious about in Rome — anything from nightlife, to more spots for typing-and-drinking-coffee, to the best concerts to go see during the summer and parks to run about in. You can always shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can also keep updated through my blog or check out my Like A Local review page for more of my favorite Rome recommendations.