[updated 29 Feb 2020]
I will tell anyone who asks: Rome is to me what the sun is to Superman. It is my home, my love, and my return.
If you must, take a map but “flying blind” really is part of the fun of Rome: getting lost, finding little cafés, little shops, or just watching people go about their business. There is so much that I can tell you and suggest for you, but below are my highlights and where I go every time I return to Rome. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.
The number of hotels opening in Roma are truly fascinating. There are some old standbys that I still love, and some new players that have joined the scene.
The Hotel Ponte Sisto (http://www.hotelpontesisto.it/) has fond memories for me and is often a place I find myself drifting back to. The staff have not changed in YEARS and given that the hotel is a short walk from either Trastevere on the other side of the river or the Campo dei Fiori, the Piazza Navona, and everything else you will want to see makes this a fantastic place to start and stop from!
If, however, you are a fan of Roman history and architecture, you must stay at the Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli hotel (http://www.hoteldonnacamillasavelli.com/) at least once. A former convent (or monastery depending on what you read) designed by the renowned Borromini, the architectural influences are stunning and some of the remaining religious touches are breathtaking (there’s a small set of steps with an alter by Borromini that is breathtaking). Located in my favourite neighborhood of Trastevere, the hotel is relatively quiet but still close enough to everything that you could want to do.
Hotel De’Ricci (https://www.hoteldericci.com/) is a lovely new find located not far from the Piazza Farnessi (with the lovely tub fountains!) and within close walking distance of everything you could wish for. Designed with a classy art deco feel, the staff are amazing and the rooms spacious. Because the hotel is in a residential building there is no restaurant so breakfast is served in your room, with multiple add-ons if required (but rather expensive to be honest). Reader beware: the outside lights that illuminate the façade of the building are rather bright and brighten the jr suites which are located on the first floor: if you can afford it, opt for something higher. (Disclaimer: I can’t sleep in total darkness so closing the curtains is equally as disruptive as the light flooding in until the lights go off at 6am.)
Relatively new to the hotel scene is Chapter Rome (https://www.chapter-roma.com/). Like many of the other new hotels that are taking former residential space and renovating it, the Chapter Rome is not really much different. But what I loved about the hotel is that it is close to Campo dei Fiori, Piazza Argentina, and thus everything you could ever want. The one recommendation I would make – at least until Chapter Rome double-glazes their windows and adds sound-proofed windows – is to request a room on the 3rd floor, the highest floor; you’ll still hear traffic and pedestrian noise at night but having stayed on the 3rd floor, I can only image how loud rooms on 1 and 2 might be.
And although I can’t vouch for the hotel, I can tell you that a new place has opened in the neighborhood where I lived: in fact, it is right down the street! Horti 14 (https://www.horti14.com/) is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of Trastevere. You won’t roll out the door and have a restaurant at your feet, but none are so far away that the solitude may just be a welcomed respite.
If seeking a bit of calm and respite from what can seem like the constant cacophony of motorini (scooters), you should seek out the Castello Orsini Hotel in Nerola (http://www.castelloorsini.it/en/). The castello is a converted 10th century castle about 30 miles north of Rome and although a challenge to reach, I promise that, once you are there, you won’t want to leave! (A spa has opened, but I haven’t tried it.)
Now, as it regards the food – the fun part of the trip – I can make a couple of suggestions. If you want to treat yourself just once, which I highly recommend, ask the hotel to make a reservation for you at “Ristorante Tullio” (http://www.tullioristorante.it/) This is the restaurant that is known for their pasta with white truffles. It’s not cheap, but worth every savory bite. And if you like meat, you must get the Bistecca alla Fiorintina
My favourite restaurant and it’s been in Rome for ages, what some would call an institution! Da Enzo (http://www.daenzoal29.com/ reservations imperative) is sheer perfection and unpretentious. Indoors, there are less than 40 seats, all situated quite closely but don’t let that put you off; the food is outstanding, the service efficient but not rushed nor achingly slow, and wine selection not too shabby. One of my favourite pasta dishses is cacio e pepe and this was, by far, the best cacio e pepe I have ever had. I want to go back right now!A close second to my new favourite restaurant is Flavio al Velavevodetto (http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/ reservations suggested) a 30 minute walk to Testaccio if you are staying in the center of Rome. And I promise, it is worth the trek: the restaurant appears to be underground and the dining rooms look as though they are located in former wine vaults that have been painted white. The service was immaculate and the food simply outstanding. On the night I dined, I had a duo of carciofi – artichokes – one fried (carciofo alla giudia) and the other cooked in lemon and oil (carciofo alla romana) and they were outstanding. The pasta was an amazing ricotta filled ravioli with salt and oregano and although I’m not normally a fan of oregano, this was delicious!
Da Cesare (https://www.trattoriadacesare.it), in the Casaletto neighborhood is a charming and affordable restaurant specializing in traditional Roman cuisine. Easily reached via the 8 tram in Trastevere – it’s the last stop so you don’t even need to worry about missing your stop – the restaurant is understated with wonderful service. And on the night that I was there, I heard locals, as well as English and German tourists so at least 3 languages are covered.
Another discover, albeit having existed for nearly 100 years, is Felice a Testaccio (http://feliceatestaccio.it). Not too far in fact from one of my favourite restaurants, Flavio Velavevodetto, this is a larger restaurant that can accommodate many more guests than many of the restaurants listed above. The presentation of their cacao e pepe is a bit of show – mixed at the table much like truffles are shaved table-side in Piemonte – and I could have done without it, but it was divine so overlook the flash. But the real stand-out here was the Carciofi alla Romana – the steamed artichoke with garlic and lemon. It was insanely good! There was the taste of a bit of char, which I have never experienced before, yet the texture was firm and only lightly salted. I would literally return there for the Carciofi (in season, of course) in a heartbeat.
Another small place that always puts a smile on my face is Trattoria de Gli Amici, also in Trastevere in Piazza Sant’Egidio. I have never been here for dinner but as a place to stop for lunch, especially on a sunny day looking at the piazza and everyone walking around, it is close to sheer perfection. And why this restaurant as opposed to others in Trastevere? Because they employ people with special needs and the money goes toward the ongoing support of the Roman special needs community.
One of my other personal favourites is a restaurant called Piccola Roma (no website). This is close to the Pantheon and a wonderful little restaurant up a flight of stairs. Mimo, my favourite waiter of all time has sadly for me, but wonderfully for him, retired so I no longer have singing while I eat, or the trust of a man who knows what to eat, but I still love this restaurant. Go, for old-world true Italian cooking. (And note: I celebrated my 40th birthday here years ago!)
And right next to Piccola Roma is Giolitti (http://www.giolitti.it/), what I consider to be the best gelato place in Rome.
Another restaurant that I must mention, and am embarrassed that I have forgotten all these years, is Dar Poeta (http://www.darpoeta.com/), one of the best pizzerias in Rome, located just across the river in Trastevere. If memory serves, and as the lines out the door will attest, Dar Poeta doesn’t take reservations but I assure you, it is worth the wait.
And if you seek an affordable, yet traditional Roman meal, you must seek out Trattoria da Lucia (http://www.trattoriadalucia.com/ reservations suggested). Even smaller than Da Enzo, the atmosphere is typically Roman as is the food. On the night was I was there, a table asked what was good and the waiter listed the classics like pasta arrabiata and tripa alla romana. The staff aren’t known for the congenial demeanor, but the food and wine are worth the trek and when the restaurant is filled with non-tourists, you know you are at a good standard place.
And arguably my favourite, despite what I said above, is Sora Margherita (https://www.soramargherita.com/). (Yes, my faves change every time!) Located near the Jewish Quarter and although very small, and somewhat rustic, is an absolute must! I am embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long to find this outstanding restaurant with probably the best fettuccini, with cacio e pepe, that I have ever had! If I only had two nights in Rome, this would be one of the restaurants that I would have to return to.
You will see the Coliseum, the Piazza Navona, the Palatine hills, and do many other picturesque things that I won’t repeat what your guide book tells you. Instead, I will tell you my 3 favourite things that you must see on any trip to Rome.
First, you must go to San Luigi dei Francesci; here are 3 original Caravaggios painted on the walls of the church so they can never be removed. This is how art was meant to be viewed and the solitude of the church, even though teeming with tourists, is sheer tranquility for me.
Secondly, if it is open or you can convince someone to let you know, go to the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (on the via Giulia near the Hotel Ponte Sisto) which is the oddest and most bizarre church in Rome: it is full of bones and skull that have been made in to crosses, light fixtures, etc. And this is no stunt or shock-value church. It is the real thing.
Thirdly, you must cross the river and go to Trastevere and wander and get lost and have a coffee and stop for lunch at an outdoor café.
And if you find yourself near the Colosseum (really?!), San Pietro in Vincoli is one of my favourite churches, due in many parts because it is hard to find, and thus the church is not overrun with tourists, but most importantly, because of the sculpture of Moses by Michaelangelo that is one of his greatest works. And a bit of Trivia: the story goes that Michaelangelo was so consumed by this massive sculpture that when it was finished, he was certain that it was real and would come to life and thus threw his hammer at the knee of Moses to make it rise. (It didn’t.) And the horns on this head: they were meant to be rays of light but due to a translation issue (sic!) of “keren” for horns was used instead of the intended “karan” for rays.
And although not exactly a site, but I recently did a cooking class with Grano & Farina (https://www.grano-farina.com/), also in Trastevere and although also around the corner from where I used to live, my choosing this school was totally by chance. Julia and Pino offer around 20 courses so look on their website and plan in advance: they only allow 6 guests per class so you don’t want to miss out.
And last but not least, allow me to encourage you to just stroll. After all these years, and the various directions I have traveled, I still find new things, and new ways of reaching things, and new glorious wonders. This truly is the eternal city and should be explored as often and as varied as possible.