“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is possibly the best advice ever. Chaotic at first sight, polluted, loud and overwhelming – this is the usual Rome that tourists experience. Yet people from all over the world still travel to the eternal city, and still love it. Trust me, it gets even better with a native beside you. Romans are known to criticize their city: traffic, smog, terrible public transport, crowds of tourists any day of the year. But though Romans are sarcastic and tough on the outside, deep down every Roman thinks theirs is the most beautiful city in the world. And they are right.
Every Roman’s Rome is different. Mine consists mostly of parks, unconventional attractions, and baroque churches. It requires comfortable shoes and reasonable endurance. I trust any good travel guide will have pages devoted to the traditional tour: Colosseum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Vatican. You do not require a Roman to go about those.
While my favourite unconventional spots do not always go unfeatured in the guide books, they will be, nonetheless, often relegated to the bottom of the page, described by one short paragraph, implicitly falling under the category of “to-see-if-you-have-time”. But the heart of Rome hides precisely beyond the tacky tourist restaurants and the overheated, overcrowded streets that link the main attractions. Rome reveals itself in those quiet, scruffily romantic corners that can be found only through years spent getting lost in its alleys.
So, here is a brief overview of my Rome, in no particular order.
1. La Grande Bellezza – The Great Beauty
This Oscar winning film about contemporary Rome perfectly captures the contrary character of the city. Nostalgic, beautifully shot and unsettling, it must be watched before visiting the city to understand its slightly claustrophobic yet mesmerising atmosphere. (You can watch the trailer here.)
2. Villa Ada:
Bigger, wilder and further away from the centre than the famous Villa Borghese, Villa Ada – also known as Villa Savoia – used to surround the former king’s family castle. Crossing the park’s high walls, beyond the busy Salaria road, feels like stepping into the countryside: suddenly everything is quiet and fresh. Busy during lazy summer afternoons, the park is where the local youths meet to play football and chill in the huge field beside the old castle. I prefer it in the early mornings, when the grass is wet and fresh. Perfect for a morning jog or a quiet exploratory wander. It must be noted that Villa Ada is only five minutes away from the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla, where the most ancient portrait of the Mary with Child can be found. Also perfect to visit when in need for a break from the heat.
3. Galleria Borghese
I admit to being partial to Villa Ada. After all, I basically grew up there. But Villa Borghese, the other big park in the city centre, is also worth a visit. Home to one of the most powerful Roman families (one of them became Pope, another married Napoleon), the park features marble fountains, statues and shady boulevards. The ancient family seat has been transformed into the most beautiful museum in Rome. I repeat: the most beautiful museum in Rome. I will not spoil it for you, just go there. You can thank me later. A jewel of neoclassical and baroque art, featuring breathtaking statues by Bernini and Canova, and painting by Caravaggio and Titian, it simply cannot be missed.
4. San Luigi dei Francesi or Sant’Ignazio
I admit it, I am an art geek. I have devised an entire itinerary of the best baroque and neoclassical churches of Rome, also featuring paintings by Caravaggio. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion – although it can become overwhelming for those who are not used to seeing a church on every street’s corner – it’s the variety of styles, the paintings, the statues, the quiet and fresh chapels that get under my skin. I will not list all of my favourite churches, but a visit to either San Luigi dei Francesi or Sant’Ignazio is mandatory. St. Matthew and the Angel, one of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, can be found in San Luigi, as if the church’s golds, red and white marbles, and the spectacular ceiling fresco were not enough to be worth a visit. The highlight of Sant’Ignazio, on the other hand, is an incredible optical illusion (which I won’t spoil). Towering, elaborate and opulent, this church perfectly conveys the atmosphere of 17th century papal Rome.
5. Giardino degli Aranci (Oranges’ Garden)
There is a time for everything, and the time for this Giardino is 7pm on a summer weekday. There is no light like in this secluded hilltop garden on a July evening, when the sun touches the orange trees softly and the pebbles on the garden’s paths turn golden. The terrace overlooking the river is simply breathtaking. For a photography fan like me, it doesn’t get any better. A few meters from the garden is the Romanic basilica of Santa Sabina, a dim and unadorned 12th century church lit by its own marbles. Around 7.30pm, the monks sing the vespers.
6. Rione Monti
Like an older and better looking Shoreditch, Monti is the centre of hipster life in Rome. One of the oldest rioni (boroughs), it is said that Monti, a slum in Roman times, was where the infamous fire was started by Nero. Today, life of this hilly neighborhood revolves around the gracious central square, Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. Ideal for aperitivo (a drink with pre-dinner nibbles), my personal favourite served at Ai Tre Scalini in Via Panisperna. Almost impossibly picturesque.
Best gelato in Rome, no questions asked. You won’t find cookie dough or peanut butter on the menu, and please, don’t be boring. Fatamorgana is the place to experiment with flavours and textures, but you’re safe, it will be amazing whatever you try. Personal favourites are: pineapple & ginger, basil, honey & nuts, baklava, and ricotta with citrus zests, but if you feel adventurous, I encourage you to try flavours such as Lapsang Souchong chocolate, black rice, or blue cheese & pear. There are several locations around the city, but the best is definitely in Monti.
This list is nowhere near complete. In fact, I have had to leave out several sights which are, in a way or another, part of my Rome – the English Cemetary with Keats’ and Shelley’s graves, the extravagant art-nuveau of the Coppedè area, the old Jewish Ghetto, the Bramante’s Cloister. But really, what counts when you visit Rome is to experience a Romans’ life. To eat white and oily pizza on a church’s steps, to go around in a t-shirt at night, to witness the chaotic life unfolding on Roman streets, to close one’s eyes to the drivers (yes, they are nuts), to drink from one of the thousands fountains scattered around the street – this is the Romans’ Rome, and the Rome that anyone who wishes to go below the city’s surface and find the authentic spirit of the city ought to know.