Rome has been one of the world’s great destinations for centuries, from its ancient origins to its role in modern-day escapist fantasies from “Roman Holiday” to “Eat Pray Love.” Today, the Eternal City inspires all who visit its museums, fountains, and iconic buildings — both ancient and contemporary mixing with architecture from the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and rococo periods — plus such of-the-moment icons as Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Museum and Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis. And then there’s the food: a never-ending parade of pasta and pane, gelato and fritti.
But when you find yourself in Rome — and keep in mind that the port is actually in Civitavecchia, more than an hour by car or train from the city center — that age-old adage to “do as the Romans do” is often easier said than done. Read on for the inside track to living la dolce vita, “the sweet life.”
Splurge: Hotel de Russie – This stylish 122-room Rocco Forte hotel is located at the very top of chic shop-lined Via del Babuino, just south of Piazza del Popolo. The bar and its beautiful adjacent courtyard come alive for lunch and the early evening cocktail hour called aperitivo; the gourmet restaurant offers a magical garden setting; and the spa is tops. The light-filled rooms combine old-world bones with contemporary accents. Sure, it’s pricey, but just one night there will forever define your vision of Rome. Doubles from $618.
Steal: Hotel Barocco – Located just east of the Spanish Steps and a quick walk from the Trevi Fountain, this homelike spot surpasses expectations for what such a well-priced four-star right in the historic center might be. The included breakfast is vast and various, the staff copious (22 people for just 41 rooms and suites), and the style understated yet elegant. Doubles from $220.
Tip: Rome wasn’t built in a day and the city is fairly spread out. The result: A hotel in a central location is critical. Both of these hotels sit on the A metro line, which takes you east to the main train station, called Termini, and west to Vatican City in minutes. An easy transfer to the B line at Termini takes you to the Forum, Colosseum, and Circus Maximus.
Breakfast: Dagnino – A typical Roman breakfast is a cappuccino and cornetto —the Italian croissant equivalent — consumed at a café’s counter or at a table for two, and this Sicilian bakery near Piazza della Repubblica does both perfectly. Our advice: Get the cornetto filled with ricotta-laced cannoli cream.
Lunch: Ginger – Ladies who lunch, captains of industry, and political types all come out for the bustling midday meal at this lovely, light and bright, all-white bistro-café, a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and high-end shopping strip that is Via Condotti. Order an antipasti platter of local cheese and cured meat to share, and then move on to traditional pasta.
Dinner: Pierluigi – To whet your appetite for some time on the water, head to this haute seafood mecca on posh Via Monserrato, near picturesque Piazza Farnese and Campo de’ Fiori. We suggest ordering mixed fried fish and raw scampi to share, followed by a whole fish, cooked to order. In the warmer months, the best seats are outside, in a private piazza, while winter sees folks moving inside to the cozy, wood-paneled, art deco dining room.
Dessert: Fatamorgana – Right now, Rome’s gelato junkies are over the moon for the all-natural, always changing flavors at Fatamorgana, whose six locations conveniently cover the city. Go for a classic pistachio or stracciatella — the Italian version of chocolate chip — or consider banana cream with black-sesame brittle, or fennel with honey and licorice.
Tip: For up-to-the-minute, in-the-know, GPS-assisted restaurant recommendations, download Eat Rome and Katie Parla's Rome smartphone apps before your trip. Both written by Americans-turned-longtime Rome residents, they offer tremendous expertise to the eating and drinking scene in town, and both can also be commissioned for custom food and wine tours.
For Everyone: Forum and Colosseum – If you only have time for one sightseeing stop while you’re in Rome, make it this pair of can’t-miss, side-by-side icons. Comprising the earliest center of the city, the Forum — and adjacent Palatine Hill — today features the ruined marble and brick remains of some of the most important buildings of the Roman empire: temples, monumental arches, palaces, and government buildings. Just next door, the Colosseum stands as testament to the remarkable engineering capacity of the ancient metropolis.
For Couples: Vino Roma – Sign up for an evening tasting or an afternoon lunch at this charming wine studio in the heart of Rome, where you can tour Italy’s best grape-growing regions, learning the finer points of assessing and appreciating wine and discovering producers you may have never heard of.
For Families: Villa Borghese – The Eternal City’s Central Park equivalent, this urban retreat unfolds over nearly 150 acres, offering entertainment aplenty for young and old: Budding art aficionados will find the Baroque treasures of the Galleria Borghese and the modern marvels of the National Gallery of Modern Art; little ones have the carousels, zoo, and rental pedal carts; nature lovers can explore the park’s flora and fauna; and only the most unfeeling would fail to be moved by the sunset views from the west-facing Belvedere Lookout point.
For the Adventurous: Via Appia Antica (Appian Way) – Built by the Romans in the fourth century B.C. as a route to ancient Naples, this picturesque, largely pedestrianized road — lined with ancient tombs, catacombs, and monuments, and paved with black basalt stones — is a biking and walking dream today. Rent bikes near the road’s intersection with Via di Cecilia Mettella, or, for those adventurous enough to ride out from the center of town, at one of Bici & Baci’s two locations: near the Colosseum and near Piazza della Repubblica.
Skip the lines by booking timed-entry tickets for Rome’s most popular sites: the Forum and Colosseum, the Vatican Museums, and Galleria Borghese. (The earlier in the morning you go, the emptier you’ll find the museums and monuments, with weekdays generally quieter than weekends.) If you’re looking for someone to help you interpret all you’re seeing, two top go-to guiding companies are Context Travel and Through Eternity.