City life: Rome

A frantic 18 months of restoration and renovation has transformed the Eternal City, putting its glorious past firmly back in the spotlight

Published 26 Sept 2017, 16:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:37 BST
Roman Forum at sunrise

Roman Forum at sunrise

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

For the best part of 2,000 years, the Eternal City has been fixed in aspic, but the past 18 months have turned everything on its head. Due largely to a series of renovations financed by local fashion houses, its iconic monuments are no longer darkened with pollution, quietly withering away. Fendi stumped up to have the Trevi Fountain restored to its former glory; Bulgari paid for the Spanish Steps to have their cracks filled in — while calling for it to be fenced off to prevent 'barbarian' tourists from eating and drinking there. These days, the city is gleaming.

Meanwhile, Tod's has transformed the Colosseum from a sooty relic of a bygone age to a living monument that shimmers by day and gleams in the moonlight, as seagulls fly in from the coast to pay homage. The renovations have even unearthed new details, like a carved bas-relief of a gladiator.

It's not just the iconic sights that have been overhauled in this 'new' ancient Rome. Some sites that have never before been accessible to the public — at least, not in the past two millennia — have opened up. These include the Pyramid of Cestius, a tomb that was once half-buried and then suffered the ignominy of having a roundabout built around it. Newly unearthed, the Circus Maximus's ancient version of a shopping mall is seeing its first visitors since the Roman Empire fell. Nero's Domus Aurea — finally open for visits as a live excavation site — is the hot new ticket. And for the first time, the 'main' forum (Imperial Forum) has now been linked to the smaller Roman Forum, on the other side of the modern street. Many of the 'new' sites are open only on weekends via guided tours — so book well ahead.

The usual suspects are worth returning to, of course, but this is also the time to go a little deeper below the surface — often literally. New virtual and augmented reality experiences at the sites help you along, although no 3D headset can replace the feeling of treading Nero's floors at the Domus Aurea, or walking down an ancient staircase at Palazzo Valentini.

Old remains aside, Testaccio is the place to go for food these days, and hipster district Monti has largely replaced Trastevere as the main nightlife hub. But underlying it all is the history. After hundreds of years of falling apart, Rome has got it together. Time to remake its acquaintance.

See & do

Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini: Below the foundations of Palazzo Valentini — the grand Renaissance pad that's the hub of local government — lies a well-preserved 2,000-year-old villa, complete with a swish bath complex. A high-tech sound and light show recreates the house in all its glory. €13.50 (£11.60).

Pyramid of Cestius: Until last year, the only people who'd entered this tomb (18-12 BC) were medieval grave-robbers. Now, tours lead you into the central vault, with its frescoes of Roman funeral rites, which feature angels hovering above. €7.50 (£6.50).

EUR: Mussolini aimed to recreate the grandeur of ancient Rome when he built this standalone district on the outskirts of the capital. Imposing fascist-era buildings include the Museo della Civiltà Romana (where the Bond film Skyfall was filmed), and the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro, known as the Square Colosseum. Fendi has turned the ground floor into an art gallery — allowing public access for the first time in the building's history.

Domus Aurea: Emperor Nero's fabulous 'Golden House' palace is now open as a live archaeological site. Hard-hat tours are led by archeologists and new rooms are opened up as they're excavated. €14 (£12).

Ara Pacis: Constructed in 13 BC by Emperor Augustus, moved by Mussolini in 1938 and encased in a glass showcase by 'starchitect' Richard Meier in 2006, the ever-changing Ara Pacis' latest incarnation is as a 3D movie star. By day, the marble temple is open as usual; by night, visitors don augmented reality headsets that 'fill in' the missing parts of the friezes. The initiative runs until 25 October, although it's likely to be extended — check the website for dates and times. €12 (£10).

Cinecittà: Neorealism HQ, Hollywood-on-Tiber, Fellini's home from home: Cinecittà is synonymous with Italian cinema. Today, while the studios are still going strong, you can see the fascinating museum and take a set tour, taking in everything from houses from Gangs of New York to Fellini's 'lucky' sound stage, where he lay in state after his death. €20 (£17).

Appia Antica: Dotted with catacombs, ancient paving and La Dolce Vita-style country mansions, the ancient Appian Way, which ran from Rome to Brindisi, just got a little more visitor-friendly. Plans to close the road to all traffic except public transport are due to take effect this September.

Centrale Montemartini: Rome's most spectacular museum displays the Capitoline Museums' surplus statuary in a former power station. The contrast between the hulking equipment and graceful marble creations is extraordinary. This year they've been joined by an ornate 19th-century papal train carriage. €7.50 (£6.50).


Pastificio Guerra: Surely the best-value meal in town: a choice of two delicious, primi (pasta dishes) plus water and wine, for just €4 (£3.60) — right off Piazza di Spagna. The catch? There are queues round the block at lunchtime, and there's no seating. 8 Via della Croce, 00187. T: 00 39 06 679 3102. 

Flavio al Velavevodetto: 'Velavevodetto' means 'told you so' and this self-styled 'temple to Roman cuisine' earns its cocksure moniker by serving some of the city's finest dishes, from artichokes to carbonara.

Aroma: Were this a lesser restaurant, the food would risk being overshadowed by its location — overlooking the Colosseum from the rooftop of swanky Palazzo Manfredi hotel (in summer, the roof and glass walls retract for alfresco dining). Fortunately, the dishes at this Michelin-starred establishment are more than a match for the exemplary view.

Like a local

Walk in the park: Forget the Villa Borghese; any Roman will tell you their favourite park is the Giardino degli Aranci, or Parco Savello, on the Aventine Hill. Thread through orange trees, past newlyweds posing for photos, to take in Rome's most spectacular view: overlooking the River Tiber towards the dome of St Peter's Basilica.

Famous felines: Rome is famed for its street cats. Two 'colonies' are open for visits: at the ruins of Largo di Torre Argentina, the alleged assassination site of Julius Caesar; and at the Pyramid of Cestius (enter via the Non-Catholic Cemetery). 

Bargain buffets: Aperitivo hour is big, here — most bars lay on finger-food buffets for their pre-dinner drinkers. Perennial favourites are Doppiozeroo, near Centrale Montemartini. It's worth making a reservation for its €10 (£9) buffet, from 6-9pm daily — and for the vegetarian buffet at Freni e Frizioni, in Trastevere, overlooking the Tiber.


Piazza di Spagna: Bulgari, Fendi, Tod's (just some of the fashion companies that have stumped up for the latest Rome renovations) are all to be found in the streets leading off the Spanish Steps. Via dei Condotti is the city's main luxury artery, with Via Borgognona coming a close second. Both are great for window-shopping and people-watching.

Via dei Coronari: This cobbled street is known for its antique shops, as well as independent boutiques selling everything from eyewear (Patty Pailette) to bonsai trees (Albero Antico). Look out for Talarico — the tie shop of choice for Italian politicans — and Essenzialmente Laura, a perfume shop owned by Laura Bosetti Tonatto, Italy's most famous 'nose'.

Via del Boschetto: Shops in this street are uber trendy — befitting their bohemian Monti location. Along here you'll find local designers, vintage clothes, galleries and jewellers. Try Le Nou for clothes and Eliodoro for jewellery with a strong classical look.

After hours

Salotto 42: Only in Rome could a 'book bar' not be pretentious. With design tomes and fashion magazines scattered about, and everything from herbal tea to cocktails on the menu, Salotto 42 is whatever you make of it.

 42 Piazza di Pietra, 00186. T: 00 39 06 678 5804.

Black Market: With its vintage furnishings and live music, this 1950s-style bar-gallery-salon is one of the best places for an aperitivo in hipster Monti. Cocktails are seasonal and even the nibbles are locally sourced.

Il Goccetto: A Roman institution, this old-school wine bar in the historic centre has about 800 labels to choose from plus platters of cheese and salumi to mop up the booze.


Generator Rome: A 10-minute walk from Roma Termini station, this design-led 'poshtel' contains no fewer than 75 small but chic en suite rooms (it used to be a hotel) and dorms, spread over seven floors. Doubles from £34, room only.

Gigli d'Oro Suite: On a cobbled street behind Piazza Navona, this is a hotel-Airbnb hybrid, with six modern rooms set in a renaissance palazzo. Reception closes at 8pm, but on the flip side there are smartphones to borrow and a free bar. Doubles from £155.

Hotel d'Inghilterra: What used to be a faded grande dame off Via Condotti has this year been transformed by new owner Starhotels into luxury, intimate digs worthy of its killer location and past guestlist (everyone from Keats to Liz Taylor and Gregory Peck). Doubles from £258.


Getting there & around
Airlines flying from London to Fiumicino Airport (40 minute train from the centre) include British Airways , Vueling, Norwegian, and Alitalia, while Jet2, Monarch and EasyJet fly from other UK airports. Ryanair flies direct to Fiumicino from five UK airports, as well as to Ciampino Airport from Stansted and Manchester.
Average flight time: 2.5h.
Rome's centre is very walkable; the efficient Metro is limited to the east of the city, while buses, although a better bet, are mainly confined to main roads.

When to go
Rome is beautiful year-round, but avoid the peak summer period — as well as being unbearably hot and humid, many restaurants and shops close during August, so that the locals can escape the city.

More info 
Rome Marco Polo Pocket Guide. RRP: £6.99 (Marco Polo Travel Guides)
Wallpaper* City Guide Rome. RRP: £6.95 (Phaidon)

How to do it
Classic Collection Holidays offers three nights at the Hotel d'Inghilterra, B&B, including return flights from Gatwick and private transfers, from £859 per person.

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Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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