Rome may not be the capital of the world these days, but it is still one of the most historically-packed cities. It’s cityscape as theatre, filled with monumental spectacle. Here the past thrusts through the walls of the present, but it’s not a heritage city pandering to the past: it’s chaotic, relaxed and frantic, filled to the brim with its stylish, traditional, anarchic, conformist, self-centred, charming and ebullient inhabitants. There’s a lot to see, but make time for idling in sunbathed cafes, getting lost in narrow cobbled streets, and whiling away hours at local trattorie. Rome is so packed with wonders, be they ancient Roman, Renaissance or baroque (and often all three rolled into one), that they appear around every corner, even if you don’t seek them out.
1. The Vatican
Historically beautiful, rich and powerful, it was in the Ager Vaticanus stadium just south of the Vatican that 1st-century emperor Nero martyred the Christian faithful. Among them was apostle Peter, whose tomb lies beneath the monumental St Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro). Downstairs in the Vatican grottoes are the papal tombs, among them the simple marble slab that Pope John Paul II now calls home. Far less modest are the adjacent Vatican Museums, an exhausting feast of art, and home to the world’s most famous frescoes in the legendary Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s astounding ceiling and wall frescoes that take the cake – picture terrified sinners and ravishing prophets bursting out in 3-D brilliance.
Rome’s picture-perfect ‘left bank’ can still sock an edgy cultural punch. Hip, contemporary galleries stud its cobbled streets and it’s here you’ll find the ever-diminishing trasteverini, the real-deal locals who consider themselves Rome’s true classical descendants. It’s no wonder sensitive souls still feel at home. Trastevere is a visual charmer, crammed with ivy-tickled ochre façadesk, labyrinthine laneways, vintage trattorias and buzzing, chilled-out squares. Indeed, the area is a hit with foreigners, who flock here to live out their Roman fantasy. There’s even an American university on Via della Lungara for those needing a heftier reason to linger.
3. Palatine Hill
With its tranquil vibe and unforgettable views, the Palatine’s appeal is clear. A snoop around Museo Palatino is a good place to start your hillside exploration. From here, ramble through the ruins, which boast highlights such as Emperor Domitian’s epic Domus Flavia (Imperial Palace); the stucco-laced Casa dei Grifi ; the 16th-century Orti Faranesi gardens; and the Casa di Livia, whose sumptuous frescoes now wow in Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
4. San Lorenzo & Il Pigneto
Political street art, grungy centri sociali (social centres) and hardcore leftist leanings – San Lorenzo is Rome’s radical heartland. Born as a 19th-century slum and famed for its anti-Fascist history, it’s now a hip hang-out for real-deal bohemians, avant-garde artists and the swarms of students from the nearby La Sapienza university campus. To the east, beyond the Bladerunner-style overpasses of Circonvallazione Tiburtina, raffish Il Pigneto is quickly becoming Rome’s hippest quartiere (neighbourhood). It’s a beguiling mix of African migrant hang-outs, counterculture cool, and slinky new bars and shops. Drop by in the evening to feel the local vibe, when local bohemians pour into the bars. Leave some room for new-school dining, before grungy late-night culture and clubbing.
5. Appian Way
The cypress-fringed Appian Way is a classical Sunset Blvd; it’s shrouded in legends and tales of famous faces. Only here the protagonists aren’t faded divas, they’re saviours and saints. Heading the cast is Christ himself, who is said to have appeared to St Peter where Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis now stands. It’s hard to dispute the otherworldly lure of Rome’s ancient highway, where secret frescoes and long-forgotten epigraphs lurk below rolling hills, crumbled mausoleums and ancient chariot racetracks. If possible, hit the strip on Sundays, when traffic is banned and Rome’s ‘Queen of the Roads’ turns into pedal-friendly bliss.
6. Roman panoramas
Originally perched on seven hills, and now sprawling over several more, Rome seems specially made for jaw-dropping vistas. Other cities might boast taller peaks – both natural and artificial – but few can match the Eternal City’s near-flawless historical sweeps.
7. City summer festivals
Puccini among the ruins, Herbie Hancock under the stars: summertime in Rome is a seriously swinging affair. While temperatures continue to soar and many clubs and restaurants still shut for a little R&R, the Eternal City has shrugged off its reputation as a summertime wasteland with a bumper season of thumping festivals. From June to September, mammoth culture-fest Estate Romana transforms the city into a giant stage: conductors rouse their orchestras at the Roman Forum, celluloid classics light up the Colosseum, and parks turn into theatres.
8. Capitolene Museums at Piazzo Del Campidoglio
The planet’s oldest public museum is a powder keg of legend, lust and melodrama, encapsulated in Rome’s collection of classical treasures. The collection was established by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471, who donated a few bronze statues to the city. One of the gifts was the iconic 5th-century BC Etruscan bronze She-Wolf (complete with suckling Renaissance twins), now feeding happily on Palazzo dei Conservatori’s 1st floor.
9. Museo e Galleria Borghese
There are good art museums. There are great art museums. And then there’s the Museo e Galleria Borghese. Upstaging most of the national competition (no mean feat in Italy), and one that’s well worth the slight hassle of the phone call or mouse click required to book a ticket. You have bon vivant Cardinal Scipione Borghese to thank for the collection. He was the most ruthless art collector of his day, stopping at nothing to get what he wanted. He had Cavaliere d’Arpino flung into jail in order to confiscate his canvases, and had Domenichino arrested to force him to surrender The Hunt of Diana. Less questionable was his decision to have 17th-century wedding cake Villa Borghese built to house his ever-expanding cultural booty.
10. Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Lavish Galleria Doria Pamphilj boasts one of the capital’s richest private art collections, with works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Brueghel, Bernini and Velázquez in the mix.
It’s housed in the blingtastic Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, whose decadent Gallery of Mirrors resembles a snack-sized Versailles. Ready to help you tackle the booty is palace resident Jonathon Pamphilj (on the free audioguide), whose anecdotes about the art, sumptuous rooms and the odd ancestral scandal transform the space into a living, breathing entity. The most striking piece is Velázquez’s psychologically-present portrait of Pope Innocent X. Upon its unveiling, the pontiff grumbled that the depiction was ‘too real’. He wasn’t wrong – you can actually feel his critical gaze sizing you up. Thankfully, Bernini’s sculpted version of the 17th-century pontiff won’t leave you feeling quite as guilty.