Settling in for the autumn ahead, it’s a good time to plan a city getaway – it is, after all, the perfect time of year to visit popular destinations minus the summer rush.
Rome has always been on my travel wish list, but I remained wary of it being merely a tourist-saturated city. Would I enjoy it as much as the off-the-beaten-path places I crave? Well, eventually, I talked myself into an out-of-season trip and, of course, Rome won me over wholeheartedly.
From the magnificent churches and ancient ruins to the exquisite coffee and pasta: Rome is a classic, best enjoyed when it feels like you’ve got the run of this historic playground all to yourself.
Until next time…
Located in a tranquil neighbourhood in Trastevere, within walking distance of all the city’s attractions and numerous restaurants, Horti 14 is about as perfect a hotel one could find for a fuss-free city stay.
My room was a surprisingly spacious minimalist haven with pleasant lighting and a ginormous bed, which proved conducive to near perfect zzz’s every night – it’s incredibly quiet here if that’s your prerequisite for a solid slumber.
During my stay I found all the staff welcoming and friendly, helpfully providing directions and information about tours. And, as is often the case, the most memorable stays tend to come off the back of a satisfying attention to smaller details; at Horti 14, it was the pleasing array of foods on the breakfast buffet lying in wait of morning appetites and guest umbrellas outside every room (particularly welcome during my rather rainy visit).
Vatican City and Museums
I don’t usually sign up for organised tours, but I decided it was a good idea if I was to learn about the history and the art of the Vatican museums. The sheer scale of the exhibitions here is mind-boggling – there are thousands of artworks on display so I’d recommend researching what you’d definitely like to see before you go and, if you decide to visit in the late afternoon as I did, allow enough time to get around before closing time.
My highlights included the Gallery of Maps – a breath-taking 120-metre-long hallway of huge topographical maps of Italy, which, in the age of Google maps, is an astounding sight given that they were created between 1580 and 1583 – and St. Peter’s Basilica, whose grand interior is a remarkable sight to behold when you first enter through its giant doors.
It’s worth booking ahead and trying to plan your visit around hours of the day when it’s slightly less crowded.
I was easily able to rock up and buy my ticket given that I was there in low season mid-week November – but you might want to book ahead at busier times of the year.
Looking out over the huge amphitheatre, it’s easy to allow your imagination to time travel and envisage thousands of spectators entering through the 80 arched entrances and taking their seats, which were allocated according to societal rank. To think that this building has been standing since 80 AD is quite astonishing and taking in its grandiose interior for half an hour felt like a huge privilege.
Roman Forum and Palentine Hill
This, the heart of ancient Rome, is an incredible sight considering its age and history. Walking in the steps of Julias Caesar is a history buff’s ultimate moment and, as with many places in Rome, letting your imagination run with ideas about what life was like here at the height of the Roman Empire is immensely fun.
Overlooking everything, Palentine Hill provides some the finest views of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, right down to the colossal white-marbled Vittoriano.
Gazing up at the circular opening in the ceiling at the centre of the Pantheon is a hugely grounding experience, a moment that lends itself to reflection and marvel at the architectural feat of this ancient temple.
I loved the notable symmetry to the interior of the building: the height and the diameter of the dome are equal in length. And I was fascinated to learn about the design of the slightly convex floor, which allows rain water to drain should it ever fall through the opening in the dome ceiling – a rarity, surely, but still an essential consideration of the masterminds behind this wondrous building.
Chiesa di San Luigi Dei Francesi
Close to Piazza Navona, Chiesa di San Luigi Dei Francesi is a beautiful baroque church, whose walls boast a very special collection of art that includes three Caravaggio paintings.
One of the smaller churches I visited in Rome, it proved to be one of my favourites thanks to the trio of works – the Calling of St. Matthew, St. Matthew and the Angel and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew – from the renowned Italian painter.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
I happened across Santa Maria in Trastevere thanks to its proximity to my hotel and I was glad I decided to repress the onset of a church-visiting weariness and take a peak inside.
It’s one of the oldest churches in Rome and there’s a blissful hushed reverence to be found once you step inside. The bounty of delicate mosaics decorating the apse and exterior walls are a gorgeous sight.
For one of the best views of the city – and the not-so-secret secret keyhole view of St.Peter’s dome – Aventine Hill is worth an explorative climb.
Nearby is Terme di Caracalla, where you’ll be able to stroll through the ruins of the area’s vast bathhouse complex; in its prime it comprised of shops, libraries, baths, gyms and lush gardens.
A short walk from my hotel, Caffè Lungora is the epitome of a much-loved local coffee shop.
The setup is simple – a nice selection of salads, sandwiches and sweet treats, smooth coffee and, with a 10pm closing time, it’s also a lovely place for an evening drink and casual bite to eat.
I’m curious as to whether locals would scoff at the recommendation of Sant Eustachio: it is, after all, in every guidebook and firmly a tourist coffee mecca. But, overlooking that, the coffee here is really wonderful – the strong, lift-you-up-and-shout-hello-at-you kind.
I stood at the counter for a few minutes sipping my brew, taking in the comings and goings of this lively little place; then I was on my way, happy I stopped by.
Renato e Luisa
I could merely implore you to eat at Renato e Luisa and say no more – but here are two definitive reasons why you must.
First, arriving here feels like you’ve ambled into someone’s home. A home that happens to be a restaurant and a restaurant that instantly befriends you with its charm and simplicity, as though you were entering the best-kept secret in Rome.
Second, the food. Chef Renato is a master of flavour and presentation: there are no frills here, dishes are classic and utterly delicious. My only quibble? Dining solo meant that I couldn’t try more of the enticing menu. But I suppose that’s the best reason to return some day.
A pleasant lunch option if you’re visiting the Colosseum (it’s a short five-minute walk away), Caffè Propaganda has a smart-casual atmosphere and a menu of relatively standard, but well-executed, Italian fare.
There’s also an extensive cocktail and wine menu that will make you want to linger a little longer no doubt, whether it’s over a leisurely lunch or dinner.
Sidestepping the more traditional restaurants in the city, casual Buff is the place for a different kind of dining experience in Rome. Putting a uniquely Roman spin on the farm-to-table concept, everything on the menu centres on fresh ingredients from the owner’s farm, Azienda Agricola Favella, and the staple cheese throughout the menu is bufala – hence the name Buff.
I ordered a creamy and comforting risotto with smoked aubergine, toasted almonds and burnt cherry tomatoes, finished with a mozzarella cream – a delicious accompaniment to the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere.
On my final day in Rome, after traversing most of the city to see the sights, I knew that a long leisurely lunch was my final wish before flying home. That led me to Roscioli where I nabbed a coveted seat at the bar (easy thanks to seat-for-one me). There was one dish I had yet to try in Rome and it was now or never – OK, maybe not never, but certainly now – and that was cacio e pepe.
I feel a deep sense of longing for the sheer heaven of that simple cheese and pepper pasta as I write about it now. So, so good. The lady sitting next to me was also by herself, tucking into the same dish and I wondered if she too felt, in that moment, that there was nowhere else on Earth she’d rather be.
For the grand culinary finale, I ordered a dish I had never tried before – tiramisu. I’ve always been sceptical, wary even, of this creamy coffee-laden concoction; when I’d practically licked the bowl clean, I thought regretfully about the many times I’d overlooked it on menus. But I do think it’s something that’s best at a place like Roscioli – rich and made with love. Something cooks in Rome do with such aplomb.