Author Tom Mueller Photography Andrea Pistolesi
DAY TWO / The next day dawns with cappuccino at Caffè Sant’Eustachio. Half of Rome swears this café’s miraculously dense and frothy brew is the best in town.
With a caffeine-enhanced spring in your step, walk north along the winding and scenic Via di Campo Marzio, and turn right onto Via Condotti, Rome’s main drag for high fashion. As the boutiques of the world’s leading designers pass in luminous, sybaritic review, clotheshorses will think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Your stroll will end at the foot of the Spanish Steps, a rococo stairway draped with flowers.
A short walk north is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which contains two masterworks by the early Baroque genius Caravaggio (in the chapel to the left of the high altar). Note the virtuoso chiaroscuro technique of his Conversion of St. Paul and deft blurring of good and evil in the Crucifixion of St. Peter, which mirror Caravaggio’s own tumultuous life of radiant inspiration and dark violence.
Take the side exit and enter the Villa Borghese gardens, a haven of tropical greenery and trickling fountains, not to mention numerous points of free wireless access. Stroll eastward to the Galleria Borghese, whose walls are alive with works by Raphael, Perugino, Caravaggio, and Titian. For many visitors the most memorable works are by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, probably the greatest sculptor of the 17th century. In statues such as The Rape of Proserpina, Bernini’s marble-working verges on sorcery: Note how solid stone magically appears to have the softness of flesh.
When you can no longer tell a Canaletto from a Caravaggio, take a bracing plunge into the avant-garde at the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MACRO), just east of the Villa Borghese gardens. This collection, housed in a cavernous former beer factory restored with breathtaking minimalism, features art from the 1960s to pieces still warm from the atelier.
You could grab a bite at the museum’s swish coffee bar, but hold out for a late lunch at the Bar del Fico, a café, informal chess club, and neighborhood hangout set in the shade of a spreading fig tree. Choose from the hearty lunch buffet, or ask for a plate of the chef’s daily fare (the penne all’arrabbiata is a local favorite).
While away the rest of the afternoon here, or even return to your nearby hotel for that quintessential Mediterranean activity—the siesta—in preparation for an eventful evening. Then take a cab to Monte Testaccio, an ancient Roman dumping ground (testaccio means “potsherd”) so enormous it grew into an artificial mountain. At its foot is Checchino dal 1887, which since that year has prepared the finest in traditional Roman cuisine. Order two hallmarks, the rigatoni con pajata, a creamy sauce with the intestine of suckling veal, followed by the coda alla vaccinara, a flavorful oxtail stew, accompanied by your choice from one of Rome’s most distinguished wine lists.
Crown the meal with a high-octane espresso, because the evening is still young and Rome’s hottest nightlife is just up the street. If you’re visiting in summer, check out Testaccio Village, the multi-venue open-air nightspot. Otherwise, continue along the road packed with bars and dance joints in every flavor. Among the trendiest spots on the circuit is Radio Londra, for sterling acid jazz. Sunrise over that gargantuan pile of broken pots is quite a sight—and it comes surprisingly soon.