ROME is a place of such overwhelming treasures – richer than the chocolate gelato sold by luxury Italian gelateria Venchi – that you need to cherry-pick just a few experiences to savour if you’re going for a short break.
Leave yourself some time simply to soak up the Italian capital’s atmosphere.
Rome is an exhilarating place, where well-dressed Romans talk business over espresso next to a Renaissance palazzo.
Turn any corner and an ancient temple or fountain will hove into view and take your breath away – the Pantheon is one such marvel, looming large over the small, crowded Piazza della Rotonda.
And whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the hundredth, Rome never fails to deliver the wow factor.
We decided on the less-is-more approach during a long weekend there last month. We wanted to marvel like most tourists at the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel, but also leave ourselves time to join the customary passeggiata (evening stroll) along the Via del Corso with the Romans, to people-watch over a cappuccino at a piazza café, and to hunt for treasures at out-of-the-way flea markets.
Kirker Holidays, with whom we booked, couldn’t have chosen us better accommodation than Hotel d’Inghilterra in the centro storico (historical centre), just metres from the Spanish Steps.
The hotel, eschewing the fad for beige minimalism, channels old-school style with rich jewel-coloured walls, dark wood and busy marble floors.
Every morning I’d throw open a window to look down on the neighbourhood’s narrow, cobbled streets that look like a film set; you almost expect to see Marcello Mastroianni hurrying to his next romantic tryst, or Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn speeding by on a scooter.
For us, a 48-hour hop-on, hop-off bus ticket seemed the best way to get around on a rainy weekend, and our first sightseeing stop was the Colosseum, with a pit-stop first for a quick cappuccino at Angelino ai Fori’s stylish restaurant and café opposite.
The Italian custom of drinking coffee while standing at a bar is a charming novelty – coffee in Italy is a brief pit-stop, not really an event to linger over. Emerging from the bar, we were awed by the sheer size of the Colosseum, even in the era of skyscrapers.
Its uniform rows of arches and Greek-style columns are a marvellous testament to the glory that was Rome. After spending half an hour negotiating the security queue (a requirement even with our skip-the-line tickets) we were rewarded by a glimpse inside the world’s largest amphitheatre, opened in 80AD, where 60,000 spectators once crowded into its precariously steep bleachers to watch free gladiatorial fights to the death.
Using a self-guided tour by Rick Steves on a free phone app (thoroughly recommended), we discovered lots of facts – we imagine the elaborate sets that were once built for fights, transforming the arena into a jungle or even flooding it with water for mock sea battles to thrill the crowds.
Following our Colosseum excursion, we took a stroll around the Forum nearby, conjuring up images of this mass of ruins as the centre of town during the Roman Empire, a maze of city streets and buildings, temples and public piazzas dating from the 8th Century BC. Adjacent, the Palatine Hill has more ruins and offers sweeping views of Rome’s domed churches, spires and hills.
Rome’s museums and churches are stuffed with artworks. An early excursion to the Sistine Chapel meant we beat the crowds on a ticket pre-booked for us by Kirker.
Marvelling at Michelangelo’s dynamic ceiling frescoes depicting the Book of Genesis was well worth the neck strain. At the Galleria Borghese, a stunning building accessed by a stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens, delicate sculptures by Bernini and paintings by Titian were presented against the beautiful backdrop of the villa’s interior.
We also sought out famous paintings in less expected places – inside the darkened, plain-looking church Santa Maria del Popolo in the Piazza del Popolo, we admired Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St Peter.
Alongside cultural pursuits we carved out time to browse a couple of flea markets. Between the trendy neighbourhoods of Testaccio and Trastevere is the mammoth Porta Portese market.
We also stopped for fine food and wine. For a cheeky aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) you can’t do better than the Antica Enoteca, just steps from our hotel. It’s difficult to eat badly in Italy, and although Rome has its share of disappointing tourist joints, a bit of internet research to find a quality eatery will pay off handsomely.
We were particularly taken with Babette in the Centro Storico, a warehouse-style establishment with an arty feel and packed with diners enjoying traditional Italian food.
We also struck gold at Dillà, an intimate eatery with pop art and industrial-style lighting. We savoured the flavours of Rome, and not just the gastronomic ones.
What makes Rome so wonderful is that its buzzing cosmopolitan energy exists against such a stunning backdrop of historical riches. And if you carefully choose a few attractions to see on your trip, you have a perfect excuse to return.
When in Rome….Top 10 things to do in Italy’s capital
1 Window shop on the Via dei Condotti, home to the best designer shops. Affordable high street brands are found on Via del Corso.
2 Throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, a Baroque masterpiece, to ensure a return visit to Rome.
3 Savour local dishes such as cacio e pepe, fried artichokes and thin Roman-style pizza.
4 Cross the Tiber to visit the trendy shops and cafés of Rome’s Trastevere district; stay on to enjoy the nightlife.
5 Stroll around Campo de’ Fiori, home to one of Rome’s best-known markets and surrounded by lively cafés and bars.
6 Marvel at the majesty of St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
7 People-watch at the stunning Baroque-style Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna.
8 Admire the three amazing fountains in the lively Piazza Navona, which is also full of street artists and vendors.
9 Be awed by the Pantheon, a former Roman temple with the largest unsupported dome in the world.
10 Visit the Colosseum, the world’s largest amphitheatre and a marvel of Roman engineering.