Rome is everybody’s memory,” Eleanor Clark wrote in Rome and a Villa. “The thing now is to find away into it.” Indeed, the “way in” to Rome is not easy. Historically dense and full of secrets, Rome tends to unfold itself–its real self–only very slowly. The city does not swing like those youthful upstarts Paris and London, and it generates little in the way of forward fashion or cutting-edge design. But the 2,700-year-old metropolis bridging the Tiber remains the quintessential model of urbanism, and for good reason: it works. (Note: all phone numbers show be prefixed with Italy’s country code, 39, and Rome’s city code, 6.)
Any guide will direct you to the Pantheon (the most awe-inspiring interiorin the city), the Forum, the Vatican, the Baths of Caracalla, the Imperial Palaces on the Palantine, Hadrian’s Villa, the Colosseum, the Borghese Gallery-all places any informed student of Western civilization must know. Here, instead, are a few destinationsjust offthe well-worn path.
If you arrive in Rome by train, you cannot miss Eugenio Montuori’s massive Termini Station, completed in 1950. Modified during construction to leave a fragment of the Servian Wall (390 B.C.) intact, the glass, concrete, and travertine building was recently renovated as part of the city-wide jubilee-year renewal project. Freed from soot and grime, the curved cast-reinforced concrete ceiling is again a marvel. A similarly triumphant rehabilitation is a branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano that has been installed in the nearby Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The palazzo now showcases the most dramatic collection of mosaics and frescoes in the city. Piazza dei Cinquecento 68; 48903501; Thurs.-Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Piazza del Colosseo
The Gladiator fanatics posing for portraits outside the Colosseum tend to overlook the Domus Aurea, under the nearby Baths of Trajan. Nero’s Golden Palace, which originally encompassed more than 200 rooms and covered an area 25 times larger than the Colosseum, was such a reviled example of the emperor’s despotism that the entire building was buried after his suicide in 68 A.D. The ruins were discovered by Renaissance artists, who mistook them for elaborately painted caves and meticulously copied their decorative detail–hence the term grotesque, from grotto. Even stripped of much of their intricate ornament and bejeweled encrustation, the 18 or so newly restored spaces are among the most starkly beautiful in the city. Piazza del Colosseo, 39749907, daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
For further subterranean adventure, visit San Clemente, just down Via San Giovanni in Laterano, another spoke that radiates from the Piazza del Colosseo. Enter the 12th-century church at street level, head to the rear, and descend into the remains of the 4th-century church on which it was constructed. Continue farther down to the level of ancient Rome, where you’ll find a mysterious 1st-century B.C. Temple of Mithras (an ancient cult that rivaled early Christianity), a catacomb, and a still burbling spring that dampens these ancient, aromatic spaces. Via San Giovanni, 70451018, open daily 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (Apr.-Sept. until 6:30 p.m.)
ALSO WORTH A LOOK EUR
Try to visit the EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma), Marcello Piacentini’s planned community, begun in 1938 and designed for the international exposition of 1942. Here are numerous curious and overscaled monuments to fascism, including the Palazzo dello Sport and a very oddly proportioned cathedral, but the highlight is certainly the Palazzo della Civilta del Lavoro, which features a smooth travertine facade punctured by an unrelenting procession of arches reminiscent of a de Chirico painting. The now dilapidated lobby opens onto a raised terrace overlooking the Tiber valley. Via Cristoforo Colombo; 54252000; Mon.-Thurs. 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri. 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Also in honor of the jubilee year, 400 works of ancient sculpture from the Musei Capitolini collection have been put on display in a cleaned up (and somewhat tarted-up) power plant south of the city center. The juxtaposition of classical sculpture and colossal industrial machinery makes fora lively dialogue, while the soaring, late-19th-century interior–a sort of reduced Gare d’Orsay–warrants a visit in its own right. Musei Capitolini: Piazza del Campidiglioni, 39746221, Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Centrale Montermartini: Via Ostiense, 106; 5748042; Tues-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat-Sun. 10 a.m,-7 p.m.
By midday, when the city is dry and dusty, climb up the Via Garibaldi and visit Bramante’s Tempietto (or “little temple”), the miniature jewel of Renaissance architecture. The round domed chapel, which is composed of 16 Doric columns and a classical frieze and balustrade, marks the place where St. Peter is believed to have been crucified. Close by is the Acqua Paola, one of the greatest Roman fountains, which is still fed by cool, clear water carried down from Lake Bracciano by the aqueduct of Trajan. On summer evenings a cafe sets up tables in front of the fountain; across the way, a terrace offers striking views of the Roman panorama. Via Garibaldi and Via Giacomo Medici
WHERE TO STAY
The recently renovated Hotel de Russie (Via del Babuino, 9;328881; doubles from $400), just off the Piazza del Popolo, offers rooms and suites done up with a mid-century panache that would be common-place in New York or L.A. but seems almost radical on this old, refined shopping street. The hotel has long been favored by exiled Russians, both pre- and post-revolution, English Grand Tourists, and early-20th-century artists, among them Picasso and Cocteau.
At the Albergo del Senato (Piazza della Rotonda, 73;6784343; doubles from $140), rooms with marble baths, wood floors, and walls upholstered in conveniently sound-muffling fabric look out (if you’re unlucky) onto scaffolding, or(if you’re lucky) on the Pantheon. Ignore the somewhat fussy lobby.
The family-owned Albergo del Sole (Via del Biscione, 76; 6885258; doubles from $200) is an old staple of the Campo de’ Fiori. Rooms are minimally appointed and the staff is sometimes less than embracing, but its location–just steps from the piazza’s colorful fruit, flower, and vegetable market–and its terraces make it a prize.
WHERE TO EAT
Although Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood is a mecca for tourists, it does have genuinely authentic comers, especially south of the Viale Trastevere, where the elegant, convivial father-and-son-run Spirito di Vino (Via dei Genovesi, 41; 5896689; closed Sun.) occupies a building that was a synagogue in the 14th century and, long before that, part of a street of Roman shops. Be sure to order the mixed appetizers and ask Romeo, the father, for an after-dinner tour to the ancient wine cellar.
In the last ten years, the blocks around San Lorenzo have been colonized by Rome’s artists and young people. They eat well and modestly at Da Franco (Via dei Falici, near Piazzale Tiburtino; 4957675; closed Mondays), where an eight-course all-fish meal is served family-style six nights a week, beginning at 8 p.m. The experience lasts for several hours, and the cozy restaurant fills up as soon as its doors are unlocked.
For an authentic neighborhood restaurant slightly farther afield in Monteverde, try II Cortile (Via Alb. Mario; 5803433; closed Sun. evenings and Mon.). The antipasto table is one of Rome’s more varied and can make a meal unto itself.
WHERE TO SHOP
Skip the Italian equivalent of mall stores on the Corso, and instead check out these subtler sources. At Arte Antica Kown (Via dei Chiavari, 11; 8801118), an antique shop just steps off the Campo de’ Fiori, Korean painter Young Kown assembles 18th-century carved and gilded objects and old pottery with an artist’s discerning eye.
Paget Caroleria d’Epoca (Via del Gesu, 90; 7811370) proves that even in an ancient city you can be nostalgic for 20th-century ephemera. This well-hidden stationery store specializes in vintage note cards, pens, and art supplies.
Like most Italian cities, Rome is full of open markets; here they open at 9 a.m. and close at 1 p.m. At the especially charming mercato at the Piazza S. Cosimato, in Trastevere, you’ll find a superb cheese-monger and an abundance of delectable fruits and vegetables. The market is an ideal place to conclude a visit to Rome–or, for that matter, to begin one. As EleanorClark said of the etemal city, “You could start anywhere, it really doesn’t matter, you will see so little of it anyway.”