In this age of city breaks, the struggle for hidden gems is real- it can’t just be me spending lunch scouring Skyscanner for off the beaten track spots with enough to fill a few days sightseeing and, most importantly of course, Instagramable local food to snap.
I’m all up for finding that place no one else has been, or failing that somewhere within a couple of hours flight where you can get change from a tenner for a round of drinks, but let’s not forget the old guard. There’s plenty of reasons people come to visit places like Rome and, despite its status and popularity with tourists, it may surprise many to learn Italy’s capital didn’t actually make the top ten most visited cities in the world last year. In a list dominated by Asian metropoles, the home of Caesar et al ranked behind London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona in the pecking order.
As such, I feel like I’m sticking up for the underdog here.
The obvious thing Rome has over many of its rivals is, of course, history, and this is evident in architecture on every corner. It’s genuinely overwhelming. Jaw-dropping buildings are visible in every direction, from more modern and imposing structures such as the Altare della Patria, through sacred sites like the Pantheon, which confuse and amaze with the beauty and skill they portray in equal measure. There’s certainly far too much to fit in over an extended weekend, so if you’re not staying long be prepared to miss a few things, and probably wear out the step counter on your phone.
You need to decide what the must-sees are for yourself, and what you can bear to miss. For me the essentials have to include the Pantheon and the Colosseum, at the expense of the Vatican’s ever-enormous queues, although if you have chance taking a stroll through St Peter’s Square is a quick way to experience this atmospheric area without having to enter the museum’s many chapels. Needless to say, though, there’s more to Rome than old buildings alone – hence this attempt to eat and drink most of them.
If grazing around the city is on your agenda, you can start your foodie tour right away should you find yourself at Termini Station, which is pretty likely considering connections from both airports wind up here. Opened just last year, the Mercato Centrale Roma houses all kinds of delicacies from some of the city´s best producers, conveniently located at Rome´s main transport hub. Great for hungry arrivals then.
Keen to sample everything local, when in Rome and all that, it doesn’t get much more ubiquitous than pizza does it? I can’t believe I got this far into the article without mentioning the good stuff, but in fairness it’s not necessarily something Rome is that famous for- Naples will always take that crown. That said, you’ll find countless pizza by the weight shops throughout the city, where you can grab a couple of slices for the equivalent in euro. Pick a few flavours, perch on a stool, and you’re just as likely to end up sharing a table with some immaculately suited businessmen on their lunch break as you are a few local kids whiling away their afternoon.
Tempting as it is to fill up on pizza, do save some space because this a city that needs to be tried and tasted. You could arguably do all that from just one small neighbourhood, too. Pop over the river Tiber to Trastevere and you can certainly find enough fantastic food and drink to fill a weekend. Spending an evening here is essential, and starting at Roma Sparita advisable, where I’m told they do the best cacio e pepe in town. The Roman speciality is a formaggio lover’s dream, a demonstration of the simplistic grace of Italian cooking, or, to most people, ‘cheesy pasta’.
Served in a parmesan bowl and seasoned to perfection, it’s definitely a dish worth hunting down. Following that, a stumble between bars is sensible, and there are plenty to choose from. If you’re staying back over the river perhaps call in to Caffè Perù on your way back, not least if you like a rowdy welcome and Negronis that’ll put hairs on your chest.
No good city guide is complete without a tip or two to ease you through the (almost) inevitable hangover. The Italian herbal liqueur Fernet Branca is a certified lifesaver, both after a meal and the next morning, soothing sore heads and stomachs, although personally I’m a great believer in the power of Bloody Mary. If you fancy a good one, get yourself to Baccano, a cracking little bistrot a few steps from the Trevi Fountain. The cocktails are on point, befitting the beautiful vintage interior, making this an incredible spot to linger awhile.
In search of a fittingly sophisticated end to this odyssey, the Grand Hotel Palace is a beautiful building in its own right, situated on one of Rome’s most prestigious streets, Via Veneto, just a short walk from the Spanish Steps, which are at their most beguiling after dark, and not too shabby for an after dinner stroll.
Inside the address matches location and then some, meaning you’ll be sat in the ornate dining room of Ristorante Cadorin surrounded by frescoes by master artist Guido Cadorin, first painted back in 1926, and restored in this century to bring the place back up to its original grandeur, complete with fine crystal chandeliers and the like. A menu conceived and created by Head Chef Riccardo Zanni offers local specialities amongst more refined dishes, but it was the roasted octopus that really impressed, served on mashed broccoli with flaked pecorino cheese, the slightly charred, succulent flesh smacked with umami. The pasta course shone too, in particular freshly rolled pappardelle loosely coiled around the freshest of cheeses, a local ricotta, and then crowned with plump pink prawns and artichoke.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a few bits of Italy, and for me it ticks a lot of holiday boxes; amazing food, ideal climate, stunning scenery, friendly locals. Rome adds that little bit extra though, to say the least. The city itself is exciting, whether losing your breath staring up at an ancient feat of engineering, or feeling your heart skip several beats whilst rattling over cobbled stones at breakneck speed in a taxi. Put simply, prepare to be thrilled.
Manchester Airport serves Rome direct, with regular flights on Ryanair and Jet2
When in Rome
The Roma Pass can be pre-ordered online before arriving, and comes in 48 and 72-hour varieties, offering free entry to museums, including queue jumps at the Colosseum, Castel Sant’Angelo and Musei Capitolini Roma. Prices start from €28 per person. Go to romapass.it for details.
Rooms at Grand Hotel Palace Rome, part of Millennium Hotels and Resorts, start from £160 per room per night. Ristorante Cadorin is open 7 days a week, and serves locally-inspired dishes. For more information visit www.grandhotelpalacerome.com, or to book a room or table call +39 06 47871161.
Italy With Us offers before and after-hours guided tours of the Vatican museums and Rome, avoiding queues and crowds, accompanied by licensed guides, starting from €49 per person including entrance and three hour tour. VIP private tours of The Colosseum and Ancient Rome are also available, including scouring the depths of the Dungeons before working your way to the Upper Levels previously off-limits, now open subject to reservation; from €59 per person. Go to italywithus.com for details.