Rome Travel Guide

Rome Travel Guide

In a word, Rome is dramatic. It’s Audrey Hepburn hitching up her dress and climbing onto a Vespa in Piazza Navona. Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain. Charlton Heston wearing a toga. As anyone who has set foot on these seven illustrious hills will confirm, the basic cinematic assumptions are no exaggeration. But the drama isn’t just immortalised in the excessive number of films set in Rome. There’s drama in the grand scale of its ancient ruins, Baroque churches and Renaissance palaces. And there’s drama in the Roman people who enjoy la dolce vita with enthusiasm — often conveyed loudly and in their language of hand gestures. Because Rome is chock-a-block with things that have seemingly lasted or existed forever (it’s not called the Eternal City for nothing) many travellers get lost in the vast ruins of the Roman Forum and the incredible details of the Colosseum. But as this Rome travel guide will reveal, those who go beyond the basics will discover that Italy’s chaotic capital is transforming into a modern metropolis — one that’s wonderfully cosmopolitan yet quintessentially Italian.

The best hotels in Rome

There are more new and noteworthy accommodation choices than can be listed in this gay Rome guide. While design-led brands are becoming more popular in Europe (think The Hoxton in London, Amsterdam and Paris) the best hotels in Rome are the those singularly inspired by their inherent Italinness. Tucked away in the historic Regola neighbourhood, Chapter Roma is the bold reimagination of a neoclassical building dating back to the nineteenth century. Raw steel, exposed brick and statement art by famous Roman street artist Alice Pasqini create an ultra-hip place to sleep near the equally-hip Trastevere and Testaccio neighbourhoods. For high-end service with a Roman twist, Hotel Vilòn is a carefully-restored property that was once the annex of the Palazzo Borghese in the heart of Campo Marzio. It doesn’t get much better than private car service, guided private tours and accommodation under the roof of Rome’s most famous palazzo.

Even in the very centre of tourist activity, the best hotels in Rome deliver on authenticity. Near Piazza Navona, undoubtedly the city’s most famous square, G-Rough features mid-century Italian designers such as Ico Parisi, Giò Ponti and Silvio Cavatorta. From the art to the furniture, everything in the hotel is made in Italy and worthy of a design museum. And staying central is good for more than seeing the sights. At gilded and glittering Palazzo Dama — just a stone’s throw from the Piazza del Popolo, Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese — a marble-lined rooftop pool and basement nightclub mean you never have to leave this historic palace-turned-hotel to live like a king in Rome.

Piazza di Spagna | Photo: Aleyna Rentz

Piazza di Spagna | Photo: Aleyna Rentz

Photo: Aleksandr Rogozin

Photo: Aleksandr Rogozin

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Recommended hotels in Rome
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Do spend at least one afternoon in Piazza Trilussa near the bank of the Tiber in verdant Trastevere or Piazza della Madonna dei Monti in well-heeled Monti

Things to do in Rome

Italians drink nearly ten cups of coffee a day and experiencing their coffee culture is one of the best things to do in Rome. Unlike the American and British tradition of large cups of coffee with milk, un caffè (a coffee) in Rome is a small, strong cup of espresso. Romans don’t take their coffee with milk after breakfast, so when in Rome visit one of its most famous coffee shops, Sant’Eustachio il Caffè, to try the Gran Caffè. A vigorous frothing creates a foam-like layer of espresso on top without cream or milk. Eat the top layer with a spoon and finish the few remaining sips of espresso while standing at the bar like a local.

Then there’s the daily tradition of aperitivo when Romans relish the golden hour in cobbled squares with a beer or spritz. Do spend at least one afternoon in Piazza Trilussa near the bank of the Tiber in verdant Trastevere or Piazza della Madonna dei Monti in well-heeled Monti. Both squares are local favourites where you can while away the afternoon as the Italians do after ordering a drink from one of the many bars that surround. You can also head indoors, where drinks during aperitivo come with complimentary food. In Prati, order a glass of wine at Il Sorpasso to enjoy small passed plates such as pizzette (pizza bites) and chunks of pecorino bathed in olive oil. The best of both worlds is yours in ancient Ponte at the shabby-chic Ristorante Bar del Fico, where you can sip a spritz in the piazza outside and tuck into the buffet inside.

Photo: Josh Hild

Photo: Josh Hild

But what to do in Rome that doesn’t involve food and drink? Take a break from coffee and cocktails to explore the city’s noteworthy art institutions. The late architect Zaha Hadid designed MAXXI (the National Museum of 21st Century Art), which makes the building itself a work of art to match the creativity of the global artists featured within. Meanwhile, MACRO (the Museum of Contemporary Art Rome) spotlights only work by Italian artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

And while the presence of the Vatican is often problematic for gay locals and travellers alike, the relatively-progressive Pope Francis has made strides to promote inclusivity in the tiny city-state. Although the Vatican Museums are filled with more tourists than there is art, this Rome gay travel guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the intriguing number of new gay Vatican tours, which approach the vast art collections from a gay perspective by exploring the sexuality of classical and Renaissance art as well as the artists themselves.

Cronos, Vatican City | Photo: Francisco Ghisletti

Cronos, Vatican City | Photo: Francisco Ghisletti

MAXXI | Photo: Marius George Oprea

MAXXI | Photo: Marius George Oprea

MAXXI | Photo: Nick Papa

MAXXI | Photo: Nick Papa

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Things to see in Rome

Pacing yourself in Rome is paramount, as the cultural overload is almost certainly a guarantee. There’s no denying that there’s simply too much to see, but even some of the most iconic landmarks are only worth a peek. Minimise time spent at the tourist highlights in favour of la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) when you get your Rome sightseeing done at midnight. The absence of tourists and cooler nighttime temperatures make exploring the city a piedi (on foot) a breeze, and you’ll likely have landmarks such as the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and Colosseum all to yourself. By exploring at night, you’ll also save time waiting in long queues during the day for sights such as the keyhole of the Villa del Priorato di Malta. Through the tiny opening, you can peep a view of Saint Peter’s Basilica centred in a frame of perfectly-manicured cypress trees.

Other sights are better seen in the light of day. Created by Florentine architect Gino Coppedè in 1919, the unexpected Quartiere Coppedè is a mashup of ancient Greek, Baroque and Art Nouveau-style buildings that surround the circular Piazza Mincio and its interesting fountain. High on the list of what to see in Rome is one of its panoramic views. The sprawling city has only three modest skyscrapers to speak of, but there are plenty of places to take in the cityscape. The most beautiful is the Orange Garden in Parco Savello, located atop the Aventine Hill. Designed in 1932, the landscaped garden was expressly created to offer sweeping views of Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. On your way down the hill, take in the sheer size of the Circo Massimo — the mostly-grassy remains of the ancient 250,000-seat arena for chariot races.

Photo: John Rodenn Castillo

St. Peter's Basilica | Photo: John Rodenn Castillo

Photo: Cristina Gottardi

Photo: Cristina Gottardi

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NECCI is an all-day hipster oasis where you can kick off with breakfast and end the day at the late-night bar

Where to eat in Rome

One of the best ways to experience the true character of Rome is to eat out, especially in the popular trattorias. Trattoria Da Enzo al 29 opens at 12:30 daily but you’ll need to get to the tucked-away Trastevere restaurant at noon to secure one of its few, coveted sidewalk tables. As quickly as the tables are claimed, they’re covered with Roman classics such as fried artichokes and fresh pasta. If you have an appetite for more fashionable surroundings, look no further than Antica Pesa. The likes of Madonna and Mick Jagger head to this celebrity-haunt with a stunning open-air garden where you can dine al fresco in the warmer months.

New, trendy restaurants driven by creative concepts blend contemporary design and traditional Roman cuisine. Opened in a factory conversion, Pastificio San Lorenzo was transformed into a buzzy restaurant that attracts an artsy crowd in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood with its distinct spaces. Il salottino (the living room) is an excellent place to enjoy a plate of Parma ham and a spritz or two on cosy couches and chairs, while il bancone (the counter) is great for a quick cocktail. Further east, in the gritty Pigneto neighbourhood, Bar Necci is an all-day hipster oasis where you can kick off with breakfast and end the day at the late-night bar. Enclosed in palm trees, the garden is packed with local trendsetters who order from the menu printed on pieces of old wallpaper.

For a quick bite, stop into Forno Campo de’ Fiori and grab a slice of pizza bianca — pizza dough brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Or order trappizzinis, triangular pieces of focaccia filled with your choice of a rotating selection of Italian fillings, at Trapizzino. A trip to the rejuvenated area around Stazione Ostiense is worth it for Eataly, Italy’s gastronomic megastore, which opened in 2012 and features no fewer than six dining outlets in an industrial space that was formerly an old railway station.

NECCI | Photo: Andrea Di Lorenzo

NECCI | Photo: Andrea Di Lorenzo

NECCI

NECCI

Shopping in Rome

Via del Corso is the city’s retail epicentre, lined with luxury brands such as Fendi. Even if you’re not going to shop the full range of Fendi products, it’s worth seeing the 6,000-square-metre flagship store, housed in a neoclassical palace with flashy interiors such as travertine-stone walls, a Murano-glass chandelier and an Anish Kapoor sculpture. Meanwhile, in the smallest shop in Rome, Ottica Spieza has sold unique eyewear and sunglasses in the same spot in Via del Babuino since the 1960s. Leather goods are coveted souvenirs for travellers and Saddlers Union carries a contemporary range of made-in-Italy bags, belts and accessories in Via Margutta, described by some as Rome’s answer to the bohemian Montmartre in Paris.

A luxury retail experience awaits at the Rinascente flagship, a high-end department store in Via del Tritone that carries every brand under the sun — as well as a rooftop food hall where you can eat, drink and take in the views of the city. When you’re done shopping fashion, homeware and design, head to the basement to see the archaeological site of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct. At twenty centuries old, it still fills many of Rome’s famous fountains, including the Trevi Fountain.

Photo: Jon Tyson

Photo: Jon Tyson

Trevi Fountain | Photo: Christopher Czermak

Trevi Fountain | Photo: Christopher Czermak

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Because dinner starts as late as 8 pm or 9 pm, nightlife often means staying out until the early hours of the morning. But a late-night out isn’t a requirement for having fun

Rome nightlife

With two of the four owners also working as popular Roman DJs, the playlist at Il Baretto is as strong as the Campari cocktails. In sharp contrast to the ivy-covered buildings in Trastevere, the bar is suspended in a metal-and-glass cube atop the Gianicolo Hill. Order a drink and take it out on the spacious terrace overlooking the city. The ultra-exclusive Jerry Thomas Speakeasy holds less than thirty people and entry is restricted to those who can uncover a rotating password hidden in the bar’s website. A less-pretentious Rome gay scene can be found at Freni e Frizoni, a cocktail bar in Trastevere where an eclectic crowd spills out into Piazza Trilussa.

As any Rome gay nightlife guide will tell you, gay venues are few and far between. Thanks to the presence of the Roman Catholic Church, the LGBTQ scene has been slower to develop in Rome than other Italian cities, such as Milan. Flanking the Colosseum, a section of Via di San Giovanni in Laterano called Gay Street is a gay-friendly neighbourhood. Although it’s located in the centre of tourist activity, it’s worth having a beer at Coming Out bar and drinking it on the sidewalk with a view of the Colosseum.

Because dinner starts as late as 8 pm or 9 pm, nightlife often means staying out until the early hours of the morning. But a late-night out isn’t a requirement for having fun. Do end at least one night with a gelato and a passeggiata (a leisurely evening walk) around Piazza Navona. After all, life in Rome — and in Italy — is all about the idea of sprezzatura, a way of describing the essence of effortless nonchalance. Now that’s la dolce vita.

Photo: Krys Amon

Photo: Krys Amon

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