Once the power center of the world, the Eternal City shines and inspires anew if you take your time with it. (Just don’t order cappuccino afternoon.)
By Joe Keohane • Photographs by Mark Read
IT’S THE TREVI FOUNTAIN that does it. You’ll be strolling aimlessly around Rome’s alleyways at night, ideally with an almond gelato in hand, and all of a sudden, there it is: the Trevi, packed into an undersize square, the light off the water flickering up against the Baroque masterwork, gazed upon by young Roman lovers sharing bench space with tourists. It’s one of the city’s—which is to say one of the world’s—leading tourist attractions, but nothing can prepare you for the sensation of just happening upon it.
Many a Roman holiday has been ruined by outsize ambitions. It’s more important to feel it than to see it. In Rome—a single syllable that once encompassed the world—stylish businessmen wander down narrow mazelike streets originally trod by distant ancestors, and workaday Romans chat idly in the shadows of great monuments to lost power and faded glory. Here, the weight of history subtly imbues even the most pedestrian routines of city life. Three days here is all the evidence you need that though the Eternal City has lost its imperial reach, it has lost none of its power.
DAY ONE | You wake up in your room at the Radisson Blu in Esquilino, by the Termini train station. Once the sort of district associated with, well, proximity to the train station, Esquilino now attracts everyone from newly arrived Chinese immigrants to young Romans drawn to the bar scene atop the wittily minimalist Blu. You hit a switch by your bed and the curtains draw open with a so whir; you step off the bed onto a thick shag rug and pad across the foam rubber floor, past the light fixtures that inflate when you turn them on, preparing for a day spent afoot.
You take a taxi to Trastevere, one of Rome’s classic neighborhoods, located on the other side of the Tiber, and step out at Viale di Trastevere. You take a le onto Via di Sant’Francesco a Ripa, stop at Babylon Café (1), stake out a sidewalk table and relax over a classic Roman breakfast: a delicious croissant filled with chocolate cream and the best, richest cappuccino you’ll have during your time here. Afterward, you allow yourself to get lost in Trastevere’s meandering streets for a couple of hours.
For lunch, cross one bridge to the small, picturesque Tiber Island (2), then another to get to the Ghe o, a bastion of classic Roman food. On Piazza delle Cinque Scole, you encounter Sora Margherita (3), home of some of the best Roman food in the city. Inside the cramped, windowless space, the server, mildly annoyed at your lack of Italian, jabs her finger at the menu and walks off, having decided what you’re having. Two whole artichokes—one roasted, one fried to the consistency of potato chips—a bo le of house red, heaping plates of ravioli with sausage and fettuccini with ricotta and black pepper, a hunk of cheesecake and an espresso later, it’s all you can do to toddle back to Tiber Island, take a seat on the cobblestone incline at the northern edge and watch the river—and a number of fugitive soccer balls—drift past.
Next, you stroll to the Largo di Torre Argentina (4), a ruin that once contained the steps on which Julius Caesar was assassinated. Now it’s a cat sanctuary. Rome is full of cats, and it’s full of aggressive drivers, so the sanctuary was established to give the animals a safe place to live. You stroll down a flight of stairs, past felines napping on the ruins. The volunteers introduce you to some of the residents, including a li le blind cat named Lucky Luciano, who wanders up, a aches himself to your leg and has to be pried off by a volunteer. He may as well have a ached himself to your wallet. You make a donation on the way out.
After a couple more hours spent wandering, being blindsided by the Trevi Fountain (5) and stopping off for a leisurely Campari and soda, you find yourself in Campo dei Fiori (6). During the day, this square holds a bustling open-air market; in the evenings, it’s a nightlife hub. A street performer creates giant bubbles with a bucket of soapy water and a length of rope, blowing the minds of nearby children. You stop by the busy Forno Campo dei Fiori (7) for a slice of pizza bianca with salt, pepper, olive oil and rosemary, which is far be er than it has any right to be. Then you hail a cab to your next hotel, The Grand Hotel Plaza (8), a 19th century beauty that has hosted statesmen and a pope. Your floor has an outdoor terrace lined with benches and lemon trees, and you linger out there a while, looking out over the nearby Spanish Steps, uncharacteristically quiet in the moonlight.
Architecturally, Rome is best known for works from the ancient world (the Colosseum) and Renaissance (St. Peter’s Basilica), punctuated by Baroque masterpieces (Bernini’s fountains) and some forbidding Modernist blocks (the train station). But over the last decade the city has brought in some leading architects to spiff up the place. Renzo Piano designed Music Park with a large amphitheater and three concert halls, which vaguely resemble a trio of insects or a pod of whales, depending on your angle. Zaha Hadid contributed her prize-winning Centre for Contemporary Arts. And American Richard Meier designed both the sleek travertine and glass structure housing the Ara Pacis, a pristine 1st century altar (below), and the striking Jubilee Church, with its bright white concrete shells and glass. The boom hasn’t been without controversy—Meier has come in for a drubbing—but the Eternal City is nonetheless (gradually) embracing some new architectural ideas.