Travel to Rome, Italy's ancient capital

Historic Rome, built around its mythic hills, still gives the impression of being a city of the ancient world, with countless remains, ancient temples and basilicas that have been converted into churches, with Roman-tiled roofs, high walls surrounding private gardens and colonnaded porches.
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Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination Italy

The seven-hill city still attracts as many art and history lovers as ever: like in the 19th century, when a trip to Rome was as important as learning Greek and Latin to be considered a learned person. People nowadays also come to Rome to experience the city of thedolce vita for themselves. Some also come to Rome for a pilgrimage, whether religious or symbolic, as it is the closest city to the independent state of the Vatican (the world's smallest).

With a surface area of 496 sq mi, the Italian capital city is much smaller than London. This doesn't mean that it is a village though, far from it: historic Rome, built around its mythic hills (the most famous being Palatine Hill, Capitoline Hill, Esquiline Hill and Quirinal Hill), still gives the impression of being the city of the ancient world, with countless remains, ancient temples and basilicas that have been converted into churches, with Roman-tiled roofs, high walls surrounding private gardens and colonnaded porches.

Go and take a look at Rome from the Piazza di Porta Capena, where Via Appia ends (the first road built by the Romans which linked Rome to Capua, north of Naples, and then to Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast). Visit the Great Circus (Circo Massimo), with the Palatine Hill on one side (and the remains of ancient Republican Rome that go with it), the Aventine Hill further down, with a garden of Mediterranean scents, where ancient buildings resembling palaces stick out of the green vegetation. A Roman from the time of Julius Caesar would not feel disoriented in front of these landscapes. What has changed, however, is the nightlife districts of the Eternal city - years ago, people enjoyed the dolce vita in the taverns of the Capitol (overlooking the Forum); nowadays, people go across the nearby Tiber and wander through the Trastevere district, sure to find good food and convivial bars around one of the medieval streets.

It's easy to be swept away by the crowds at the Trevi Fountain and pale at the prospect of wading down the Spanish Steps, but just under the surface Rome hides a more tranquil side. With almost 8,000 square metres of space, the beautiful gardens at Parco Savello was built in the early 20th century. Also known as the Giardino degli aranchi (Orange garden), it is one of three viewpoints overlooking the city, together with il Pincio and il Gianicolo.

St Peter's receives up to 20,000 visitors a day but there are other basilicas in Rome that are magnificent, and yet have astoundingly little tourist traffic. For instance, take the Metro out a few stops to San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Via Ostiense 190), the third-largest church in Christendom, and you may well be the only visitor. Known in English as the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, it is one of Rome's many forgotten churches.

The Vatican Gardens are are attrction reserved to those who are organised as you'll need to book at least a week in advance in order to visit. An organised two-hour guided tour is the only way to access the gardens and, needless to say, spaces disappear fast. The gardens themselves cover over half of the entire area of Vatican City, home to sweeping lawns, orchards, grottoes and monuments to popes past.

Located in the heart of the city, not five minutes walk from Campo de' Fiori, the Palazzo Spada houses an intereseting architectural feature. Master architect Borromini was hired to refit the villa and decided to create this perspective from the internal courtyard. Though the colonade seems to stretch on for over 30 metres, in reality it is just 9 metres long and the ceiling at the end is so low that only a small child can stand up straight.

Rome's communal rose garden is free for visitors and holds over 1,000 species of botanic roses. Both old and modern, the plants have been collected from all over the world and each year the garden holds an international competition to celebrate the most beautiful new varieties of rose.

Rome: what to do?

From April to October: have a drink at the bar of a panoramic terrace. The highest one is at the Mediterraneo Hotel. The most 'vaticanesque' one (with an unrestricted view of Saint Peter's) is at the Atlante Star. The most historical one (next to the Pantheon) is at the Grand Hotel De La Minerve. The simplest one is at Des Artistes hotel, near Termini railway station.
The most 'ancient' one is on the piazza Bocca della Verita (square), near the Tiber. The most sophisticated one is on the piazza di Spagna, not far from via Veneto road. The liveliest one is on piazza Navona (it was a stadium in Ancient Rome). The most 'Christian' on is on piazza San Pietro (blessing of the people by the Pope every Sunday noon).

Ancient Rome: the Roman Forum (from the time of the Republic), the Palatine Hill (the city's top site), the Colosseum (the largest ancient amphitheatre still standing).
Christian Rome: the basilica of San Giovanni (the first Roman church and the first headquarters of Christianity), the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (built on the site of an ancient Roman temple), Saint Peter's basilica (erected on the site of the circus of Caligula, where Peter was martyred around 65 BC).
Artistic Rome: the Borghese Gallery, in the park of the Borghese Villa, the Vatican Museums (Borgia apartments and antique galleries), the Sistine Chapel.

  • The city's incomparable beauty
  • The good humour of the Romans and the gastronomy
  • Very difficult to get around by car
  • An inadequate public transit system

Rome: what to visit?


January is one of the best times for visiting Rome because of the low season hotel prices (approximately ?60 for a double room in a 3-star hotel, ?100 in a 4-star hotel, ?250 in a 5-star hotel), the amount of tourists is reasonable, the weather is good enough to walk around without being freezing (17°C in the sun, in the middle of two foggy periods).
You need to know, before buying a 'Roma Pass' (transport and museum) that the free access to museums only concerns the first two museums you visit. For the other ones, the reduction is ?1 or ?2 for each entrance fee. Do not forget also, that the underground train in Rome is cheap (full fare tickets for ?1). If you want to make your 'Roma Pass' worthwhile, you must visit the city by public transport (3 days) and choose your two free museums well. Beware: the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are not included in the 'Roma Pass'.

To avoid

The Domus aurea, Emperor Nero's house is shut for the moment for maintenance.
Ancient relics attracting many visitors (tourists in the high season, school groups in the low season) - try to see the Roman Forum at the opening time of 8:30am. Unless you are a specialist in Ancient civilization, avoid the Baths of Caracalla: the site is huge, but the relics are not very fascinating.
In the restaurants, do not mistake the price of the fish (given for 100g) for the actual price of the dish served (approximately 300g, thus three times as expensive). Beware also of the quantity of drink that you are served: it will be a 50cl 'grande' if you don't make it clear that you would like a 'piccolo' (25cl). Unless you are very thirsty, a regular glass is enough and keeps the price down as it is usually very expensive on a terrace.

Rome: what to eat?

One district: the Trastevere. Here, you will find good food for a good price, in almost all the restaurants of the district.
One speciality is pasta alla matriciana (yum!), and pasta alla carbonara.
The adresses of some good restaurants: the cheapest one is a 5-minute walk away from Termini railway station: Trattoria dell Omo, via Vicenza 18, tel.: (00 39) 06 490411. Pasta for ?6, desserts for ?3. The most 'monumental' one: 330 ft from the Colosseum, La Pace del Cervello, via dei Santi Quattro Coronati 63, tel.: (00 39) 06 7005173. (00 39) 06 7005173. It does good pizzas for ?10. The best (from a Roman) point of view is Da Vincenzo, via Castelfidardo 4-6, tel.: (00 39) 06 484596. (00 39) 06 484596. It offers linguine with cockles, seabass and potatoes, with white wine, all for just ?40.

Rome: what to buy?

Gourmet products, of course, on the Roman food stalls, but not only that; you will also find vintage clothes on the market on via Sannio road, books, old postcards and photos on the stands of piazza Fontanella Borghese square, and antiques at via Francesco Crispi's antique fair.
If you want to be sure that friends and family are happy with your gifts, take a few food specialities home: olive oil from the Latium, assorted cheeses from the region (grana panado, fiore sardo), local wines (frascati, aprilia, castelli romani).
One of the best food markets is campo dei Fiori's, on the square of the same name. It is open every morning, except on Sundays, from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm.

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