Giles Smith is an American who spent years living in Rome, and is just back from a six-month stopover with his wife Sarah and their young son Findlay. Giles was kind enough to put together a guide to his (and one of our) favorite cities for our Touring Guide Series.
Rome is by all accounts, a city of layers. Layers of history and society that has existed un-interrupted for over 3 millennia. For most travelers to the eternal city, there exist a bucket list of sites and pieces of art, varying from one individual traveler to the next, but all maintain a similar (must-see, take this picture here, check all the boxes) attitude and approach to their visit in the city. And for most, this practice is okay. The traveler accomplishes his or her list and most likely, will never return to the city again. In essence, they haven't even scratched the surface of one of the worlds most interesting places, but merely scuffed if like a dark soled shoe on a gym floor.
This vast wealth of history and relics of the past, uniquely integrated within the capital city of one Europe’s historic players, is able to provide an endless glimpse into the culture both modern and historic, all while one is casually strolling along. And what is great about Rome is that for those who are willing to seek out the best and discover the new, the city is a never-ending playground of food, drink and luxury. Rome puts the ball in your hands and really does say to you, “What would you like to experience today?”
Location and proximity to ones interests can be key to a successful stay in Rome. There are do’s and don’ts in every neighborhood and for that reason, if you choose to stay in a hotel rather than an apartment, make sure to strategize to be sure you're staying in the right part of town.
In a city where the metro rarely is a convenient option, we vastly prefer walking instead of waiting around for public transport that may or may not arrive. Walking in Rome is key, allowing you to really absorb the surrounding area, architecture and culture. Furthermore, we would recommend taking a different route home every evening, and make sure to spend your time walking looking up, really giving yourself an opportunity to take in the visual spectacle of the city itself.
For the seasoned traveller, mingling with the locals is preferred and those types of environments always lend themselves to a more authentic experience. And so, as the tourism industry booms in hot spots worldwide, it has become more and more difficult to find this kind of experience, not just in Rome but around the globe. With over a decade of personal experience living and working in Rome, and seeking out these kinds of experiences, here is my list of Rome go-to’s.
Hotel Raphael, located a legitimate stones throw from Piazza Navona, has been a pillar of the hotel community in downtown Rome for decades. Located perfectly within the Centro Storico, Hotel Raphael is perfect for those who want to navigate the city quickly and efficiently by foot. For winding down at the end of the day amongst the beautiful sunsets Rome is famous for, the hotel has an unbelievable rooftop bar and restaurant with some of the most intimate views of the city center. With amazing staff and a full service facility, one would be hard pressed to find a better luxury spot in a better location.
Hotel De Russie is also another fantastic spot for the upscale traveler. Located just off Piazza del Popolo and the southern entrance to Villa Borghese, HdR is famous for not only its high-brow clientele, but the internal garden that is home to the Stravinski Bar and Restaurant. A picturesque collection of all of the amenities a modern five-star should have, HdR does so in a very intimate and classically roman style, laid back yet formidable. Expect nothing but the best from the staff, they are famous for this as well.
Hotel Minerva is another gem of an establishment, located directly behind the pantheon and across from the Chiesa Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. and the famous Bernini Elephant with an Egyptian Obelisk on it’s back. With similar amenities to the two previous properties, Minerva also sports a rooftop bar and restaurant with an excellent central location as well. Each of these hotels is a perfectly suitable option, and will provide the perfect home base for exploring the city.
Trattoria Pennestri. Only a year old and already a staple on the Roman food scene, Pennestri has captured the essence of classic Italian trattoria dining, and combined it with a new and exciting take on both the classics and the ingredients. Every part of this restaurant has been well-curated and examined, a touch that shines through in every dish, every drink, and every interaction with the staff. What some might call Nouveau Roman Cuisine, Trattoria Pennestri has set the bar for what seems to be an ever blossoming food scene in Rome with new takes on classic ingredients and dishes.
Pizzeria Da Remo. Not much more needs to be said other than that Remo is the best Roman pizza spot in the world. That being said, there are 2-3 other pizzeria’s nearby that do amazing pizza, Nuovo Mondo and Pizzeria Ostiense to name a couple. Rumor has it that they are merely spin-offs from former Remo employees and therefore, while you can patronize any of them, you may as well stick with the original.
Da Augusto is still, and for many will always be, the Roman spot in Trastevere. The food is Roman, the employees are Roman, and most certainly the attitude and service is Roman. It is the best of all things food in Rome and should not be missed under any circumstance. This is one of those places where the line is worth the wait, but my suggestion is just to get there right when they open and not have to risk running out of items on the menu.
Pizzeria Da Simone is located on the Gianicolo, just up the hill from the Trastevere neighborhood. Simone’s is one of the most delicious to-go, or pizza calda, spots in the city. Home to world famous Suppli, Simones offers dozens of kinds of pizza in almost any format imaginable. Salsiccia and Mozzarella on pizza Bianca, or Strachetti, arugula and cherry tomatoes are some of the highlights. The walk up and down the hill makes it worth every bite and also provides an opportunity to explore a part of the city very few tourists ever see.
Coffee. It is everywhere. It is good almost everywhere. Embrace it. Find Sant’Eustachio and get a cappuccino with the zucchero di cafe, it will change your life.
The Capitoline Museum, Castel Sant’Angelo, and Ara Pacis are three museums and sites in the city that get overlooked simply because they aren't as famous as Rome’s major attractions. Home to one of the most astounding collections of art and artifacts detailing the ancient roman civilization, The Capitoline also houses one of the two original lupas of the city and is a great place to get lost in on a rainy afternoon.
The Ara Pacis Museum, is one of very few examples of modern architecture in Rome, let alone in the city center. Always homes to exhibitions, it also houses the mausoleum of Augustus, a beautiful and enormous example of Roman bas relief and artistry.
Castel Sant’Angelo is full of all sorts of relics from past papal regimes as well as some of the best views of the city from the west. A maze of passageways and tunnels, it also provides a nice break from the heat of the Roman sun as you move through a centuries old castle made of stone and marble.
Testaccio Market is also a must-see spot located within the Vatican walls in the Southern section of the city. Once home to the stables and warehouses that supported an ancient super power, Testaccio has slowly transformed into one of the most attractive neighborhoods still free from the tourism invasion in the city center. The market, located blocks away from the original Testaccio market, is home to 100 stalls and vendors with an absolutely thriving food scene and some great artisan shops and boutiques. Foodbox, Mordi e Via and Banco 21 are just a few of the plethora of great places to get roman street food and classic examples of simple and unbelievably delicious roman cuisine. Stop by Vini Sfusi di Qualita for some wine to go at a fraction of the price of an Enoteca or grocery store but with the same high quality that Italian wine is know for.
The best way to discover Rome, or hopefully, rediscover Rome, is to not attempt to tackle everything but to pick and choose what kind of experience you want to have by not trying to do too much. Attempting to embrace the Roman sense of pace and priority, slowing down a little, and taking a little more time to do each and every thing might be your best bet for enjoying what is still one of the greatest cities in the world, full of enough treasures and beautiful things to get lost in for a lifetime.