Often the best way to enjoy nightlife in Rome is to wander from restaurant to bar, getting happily lost down picturesque cobbled streets. There’s simply no city with better backdrops for a drink: you can savour a Campari overlooking the Roman Forum or sample some artisanal beer while watching the light bounce off baroque fountains.

Rome After Dark

Night-owl Romans tend to eat late, then drink at bars before heading off to a club at around 1am. Like most cities, Rome is a collection of districts, each with its own character, which is often completely different after dark. The centro storico (historic centre) and Trastevere pull in a mix of locals and tourists as night falls. Ostiense and Testaccio are the grittier clubbing districts, with clusters of clubs in a couple of locations – Testaccio has a parade of crowd-pleasing clubs running over the hill of Monte Testaccio. There are also subtle political divisions. San Lorenzo and Pigneto, to the south of Rome, are popular with a left-leaning, alternative crowd, while areas to the north (such as Ponte Milvio and Parioli) attract a more right-wing, bourgeois milieu.

The bella figura (loosely translated as ‘looking good’) is important. The majority of locals spend evenings checking each other out, partaking in gelato, and not drinking too much. However, this is changing and certain areas – those popular with a younger crowd – can get rowdy with drunk teens and tourists (for example, Campo de’ Fiori and parts of Trastevere).

Enoteche (Wine Bars)

The enoteca (wine bar) was where the old boys from the neighbourhood used to drink rough local wine poured straight from the barrel. Times have changed: nowadays they tend to be sophisticated but still atmospheric places, offering Italian and international vintages, delicious cheeses and cold cuts.

Bars & Pubs

Bars range from regular Italian cafe-bars that have seemingly remained the same for centuries, to chic, carefully styled places made for esoteric cocktails – such as Co.So and Salotto 42 – and laid-back, perennially popular haunts – such as Freni e Frizioni – that have a longevity rarely seen in other cities. Pubs are also popular, with several long-running Irish-style pubs such as Finnegans and Druid's Den filled with chattering Romans, and more pub-like bars opening on the back of the artistanal beer trend.

Nightclubs

Rome has a range of nightclubs, mostly in Ostiense and Testaccio, with music policies ranging from lounge and jazz to dancehall and hip-hop. Clubs tend to get busy after midnight, or even after 2am. Often admission is free, but drinks are expensive. Cocktails can cost from €10 to €20, but you can drink much more cheaply in the studenty clubs of San Lorenzo, Pigneto and the centri sociali (social centres).

Centri Sociali

Rome’s flip side is a surprising alternative underbelly, centred on left-wing centri sociali: grungy squatter arts centres that host live music and contemporary-arts events. They offer Rome’s most unusual, cheap and alternative nightlife options. These include Brancaleone and Esc Atelier.

Rome in Summer (& Winter)

From around mid-June to mid-September, many nightclubs and live-music venues close, some moving to EUR or the beaches at Fregene or Ostia. The area around the Isola Tiberina throngs with life nightly during the Lungo Il Tevere, a summer festival along the riverbank which sprouts bars, stalls and an open-air cinema. Pop-up bars stretch the length of the riverside footpaths between Ponte Palatino and Ponte Mazzini, and open nightly from around 5pm to 2am. Attempts are made to limit excessive alcohol consumption – water-edge bars are not allowed to serve double shots for example.

Be aware that in winter, bars often close earlier in the evening, particularly in areas where the norm is to drink outside. This said, an increasing number of bars have heated pavement terraces in winter, ensuring year-round drinking al fresco.

Gay & Lesbian Rome

There is only a smattering of dedicated gay and lesbian clubs and bars in Rome, though many nightclubs host regular gay and lesbian nights. For local information, pick up a copy of the monthly magazine AUT, published by Circolo Mario Mieli (www.mariomieli.org). There's also info at AZ Gay (www.azgay.it). Lesbians can find out more about the local scene at Coordinamento Lesbiche Italiano (www.clrbp.it).

Most gay venues (bars, clubs and saunas) require you to have an Arcigay membership card. These cost €15/8 per year/three months and are available from any venue that requires one.

Social Networking

Friends in Rome (www.friendsinrome.com) is a social organisation that organises regular social events and offers a chance to mingle with an international crowd – a mix of expats, locals and out-of-towners – and find out about the local social scene.

Lazio Wines

Lazio wines may not be household names, but it’s well worth trying some local wines while you’re here. Although whites dominate Lazio’s production – 95% of the region’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC; the second of Italy’s four quality classifications) wines are white – there are a few notable reds as well. To sample Lazio wines, Palatium and Terre e Domus are the best places to go. For biodynamic vintages, head for Litro in Monteverdi.

Whites

Most of the house white in Rome will be from the Castelli Romani area to the southeast of Rome, centred on Frascati and Marino. New production techniques have led to a lighter, drier wine that is beginning to be taken seriously. Frascati Superiore is now an excellent tipple, Castel de Paolis’ Vigna Adriana wins plaudits, while the emphatically named Est! Est!! Est!!!, produced by the renowned wine house Falesco, based in Montefiascone on the volcanic banks of Lago Bolsena, is increasingly drinkable.

Reds

Falesco also produces the excellent Montiano, blended from merlot grapes. Colacicchi’s Torre Ercolana from Anagni is another opulent red, which blends local Cesanese di Affile with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Velvety, complex and fruity, this is a world-class wine.

Craft Beer

In recent years beer drinking has really taken off in Italy, and especially in Rome, with specialised bars and restaurants offering microbrewed beers. Local favourites include Birradamare in Fiumicino, Porto Fluviale in Ostiense, and Birra Del Borgo in Rieti (on the border between Lazio and Abruzzo), which opened local beer haunts Bir & Fud and Open Baladin. Local beers reflect the seasonality that's so important in Rome – for example, look for winter beers made from chestnuts.

Other important addresses on the artisanal beer trail include Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà and Birra Piu. In studenty San Lorenzo, pair craft beer with tacos at the somewhat predictably named Tacos & Beer.

Cocktails & Digestives

The cocktail scene in Rome has caught up fast and is thriving, with mixologists shaking some superb local creations such as the Carbonara sour at Co.So, featuring vodka infused with pork fat in a homage to the classic Roman pasta sauce. It was fashionable speakeasy Jerry Thomas Project, well-placed in the centro storico, who kickstarted the cocktail revolution in Rome, and some of the finest and funkiest cocktails remain underground in speakeasy bars like Keyhole in Trastevere and Spirito, brilliantly at home in the back of a sandwich shop in Pigneto. Gin cocktails are the speciality of the Gin Corner, at home in the Hotel Adranio, while other cocktail hot spots, like Barnum Cafe or Gatsby Café, double as laid-back cafes by day.

Popular aperitifs are based on bitter alcoholic liqueurs, such as Campari Soda or Aperol spritz, which mixes Aperol with prosecco. Crodino is a herbal, medicinal-tasting nonalcoholic aperitif. Italians love to finish off a meal with a digestif. The best of these aren't shop bought, so if it's fatta in casa (made at home), give it a try.

Coffee

For an espresso (a shot of strong black coffee), ask for un caffè; if you want it with a drop of hot or cold milk, order un caffè macchiato (‘stained’ coffee) caldo/freddo. Long black coffee (as in a watered-down version) is known as caffè lungo (an espresso with more water) or caffè all’american (a filter coffee). If you fancy a coffee but one more shot will catapult you through the ceiling, you can drink orzo, made from roasted barley but served like coffee.

Then, of course, there’s the cappuccino (coffee with frothy milk, served warm rather than hot). If you want it without froth, ask for a cappuccino senza schiuma; if you want it hot, ask for it ben caldo. Italians drink cappuccino only during the morning and never after meals.

In summer, cappuccino freddo (iced coffee with milk, usually already sugared), caffè freddo (iced espresso) and granita di caffè (frozen coffee, usually with cream) top the charts.

A caffè latte is a milkier version of the cappuccino with less froth; a latte macchiato is even milkier (warmed milk ‘stained’ with a spot of coffee). A caffè corretto is an espresso ‘corrected’ with a dash of grappa or something similar.

There are two ways to drink coffee in a Roman bar-cafe: either standing at the bar, in which case you pay first at the till and then, with your receipt, order at the counter; or you can sit down at a table and enjoy waiter service. In the latter case you’ll pay up to double what you’d pay at the bar. In both scenarios, a complimentary glass of tap water is invariably served with your coffee – if it isn't, don't be shy to ask for one.

Need to Know

Opening Hours

  • Most cafes: 7.30am to 8pm
  • Traditional bars: 7.30am to 1am or 2am
  • Most bars, pubs and enoteche (wine bars): lunchtime or 6pm to 2am
  • Nightclubs: 10pm to 4am

Dress Codes

Romans tend to dress up to go out, and most people will be looking pretty sharp in the smarter clubs and bars in the centro storico (historic centre) and Testaccio. However, over in Pigneto and San Lorenzo or at the centri sociali (social centres), the style is much more alternative.

Online Resources

  • Romeing (www.romeing.it) Webazine covering Rome nightlife and cultural happenings
  • 2night. (http://2night.it) Nightlife listings, in Italian only