Author Tom Mueller Photography Andrea Pistolesi
DAY ONE / Behind a cascade of ivy in the heart of Rome’s historical center is the Hotel Raphaël, where the foyer sets the tone with Picasso and Mirò originals, glowing Russian icons, and Italian Renaissance furniture. Start your first day in Rome with breakfast on the rooftop terrace, surrounded by Rome’s bell towers and domes, and you’ll understand why the Raphaël has attracted such notable guests as Jean-Paul Sartre and Robert De Niro.
Around the corner from your hotel is Piazza Navona, the first of many urban riddles you’ll encounter. Why does this square, ringed by buildings of many epochs, have such regular lines, with long, theatrical straightaways and a smooth curve at the north end?
The answer lies underground: The piazza was erected on the walls of a first-century stadium built by the Emperor Domitian. Much of central Rome has evolved in this way, the new growing from the roots of the old.
For antiquities a little closer to the surface, just walk five minutes east to the Pantheon, one of the world’s most perfectly preserved classical temples. The vast dome floats magically above you, and a beam of early sunlight slants through the oculus at its summit and lands in a lozenge of warm light on the floor.
Continue in the antiquarian vein with a stroll down the Via dei Coronari, long the heartland of Rome’s antiquari, where sellers offer such varied selections as period-piece furniture, classical statuary, and art deco bric-a-brac. Before you buy, though, visit Piazza Borghese, just to the north, where Roman antiquaries themselves shop for prints. Some of the stalls in the square offer authentic bargains on famous Roman landscapes by such artists as Piranesi and Vasi, as well as signed (and more expensive) originals from the 17th through 19th centuries.
After shopping as the Romans shop, follow their lead and lunch at the Chiostro del Bramante, a newly opened restaurant and exposition space in an ancient cloister by the Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, who also designed St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Try one of the generous salads made of local produce with unrecognizable names; then take in the latest exhibition or visit the bookshop.
Next, follow Via dei Baullari to the Campo de’ Fiori, another landmark square, as cluttered and eclectic as Piazza Navona is harmonious. Just beyond is the recently restored Palazzo Farnese, a model of Renaissance proportion and power. Imagine the marble basins of the twin fountains in front of the palace brimming with bathing Romans—the basins came from the Baths of Caracalla, ancient Rome’s grandest public baths.
After a brief detour down the silent, aristocratic Via Giulia, another antique-hunter’s paradise, cross the Tiber River on the Ponte Sisto, and enter Trastevere. Your ultimate goal is the venerable basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its paleochristian remains and splendid mosaics.
Dinner tonight is on Tiber Island in the middle of the river, the site of one of Rome’s earliest settlements and, more important, of Sora Lella, one of its best restaurants.
Signora Lella’s descendants have taken her place in the kitchen, and their hands have Lella’s magic touch. Try the tonnarelli alla cuccagna pasta, a wonderful welter of walnuts, cream, egg, and sausage in which each ingredient comes through with remarkable clarity, and close with the zabaione ice cream topped with balsamic vinegar.
Take a cab from the restaurant to today’s grand finale: a classical music concert or a dance or theater production at the new Auditorium Parco della Musica, a cluster of lute-shaped concert halls set by architect Renzo Piano in rolling green meadows on the north end of town. This is one of the world’s most advanced places for music and creativity, with walls and ceilings sheathed in cherrywood for immaculate acoustics.