Visiting one of Europe’s rock star cities is all about what you know and who you know. If you want to avoid the crowds, it’s also about knowing the best-kept secrets. Rome would have to be the biggest rock star of them all (though if you’re French, you might disagree).
Few cities can rival its amazing cultural heritage – it is a city filled with priceless treasures, jaw-dropping Renaissance frescoes, stunning sculptures by Michelangelo, works of art by Raphael, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and fountains by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Every park is filled with sculptures. Gods, generals, horses… It’s as if every Roman spends the weekend in a shed sculpting a favourite hero.
Rome has reigned as the darling of European magnificent cities for decades, attracting more than four million tourists a year. Most throng to the Roman capital in the summer months when temperatures are high and museums, churches and the Vatican City are teeming. With so many people, it is almost impossible to appreciate the ancient monuments without elbowing your way in.
So the best time to visit is in winter when the streets are emptier and temperatures hover around 12°C to 16°C – far more conducive to sightseeing.
But there are other ways to see this great place. For instance, a vintage Vespa scooter on a Sunday morning.
Imagine 25 buzzing engines and parping horns driving through the centre of Rome’s great roads. You ride pillion, holding tight to a complete stranger-cum-driver, your life in his hands as he meanders round the Eternal City’s cobbled streets, beep-beeping away. Your only safety nets: a helmet, a red bandana and a pair of Saint Laurent sunglasses.
It helps that we are in a convoy of mostly first-timer pillion riders, all nervously giggling as outstretched hands take endless selfies.
We make a whistlestop at Piazzale Garibaldi on top of Janiculum Hill for a bird’s-eye view of Rome. It’s mind-blowing, as you spot the Vatican, St Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon. Janiculum Hill in Western Rome is the second-tallest hill and every day at noon, a canon is fired in keeping with a tradition which dates back to 1904.
We then stop by Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and peek through the famous keyhole to admire the secret gardens of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta and get a picture-perfect view of St Peter’s Basilica through the keyhole. The Renaissance church is located in the heart of Vatican City. This must surely be the highpoint of our Vespa tour.
We are told the Knights of Malta operate as a separate and independent kingdom with their own passports and rule of the land, uncontrolled by Italy.
Our final stop is at the church of the Santissima Trinita dei Monti, a Roman Catholic, late Renaissance church, best known for its commanding position overlooking the Spanish Steps which lead down to the Piazza di Spagna in the heart of the city. It is also the gateway to the best shopping streets in Rome.
Travellers who love to indulge in a bit of retail therapy, often gravitate to the city’s breathlessly expensive luxury Italian fashion houses, vintage clothing stores, impeccable leatherwear boutiques, handmade handbags in eye-catching colours and stunning shoe shops in all shapes, styles and sizes.
Roman hotels are as varied as the city. There are the intensely and passionately Italian. Then there are the modern takes, as well as small guesthouses slap in the centre of the city and grand palaces fit for an emperor.
We stay at the Rome Cavalieri hotel, a Waldorf Astoria five-star resort perched on the highest hill on Via Alberto Cadlolo with magnificent views over the city and St Peter’s Basilica. You will love the hotel’s old-fashioned grandeur with its wide marbled corridors, palatial spa including an amethyst Turkish bath, enormous grounds including two tennis courts and manicured gardens. The Cavalieri’s austere 1960s architecture is tempered by its opulent interiors displaying a collection of 1000 antique tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Rooms come with an exhaustive pillow menu and a balcony overlooking the gardens or Rome. Marble bathrooms are stocked with Ferragamo toiletries.
The downside? It takes at least 30 minutes to get the city and costs about $30 one way unless you can fit in with the hotel’s shuttle bus timetable.
The last time we were in Rome, the Trevi Fountain was shrouded in hoarding as it was undergoing a major refurbishment. So this time, we head straight to the Fountain, scene of movie goddess Anita Ekberg’s late-night dip in Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The Trevi Fountain does not disappoint. Its flamboyant baroque collection of mythical figures and wild horses gleams brighter than ever. The fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi in 1732 and also featured in the 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain, best remembered for its theme song sung by crooner Frank Sinatra. So we toss a coin into the water to ensure that we return to Rome again and again.
It starts to rain so we take refuge in a nearby trattoria and have a lunch of roasted vegetables and seafood linguini. It was authentically delicious.
We walk towards Via del Corso, home to big fast fashion stores like Gap and H&M. But at every street corner, there’s an ancient statue or monument to admire. That’s the joy of roaming in Rome – it’s full of historical surprises.
We stop to buy a paper cup of warmly roasted chestnuts at a princely price of $8. We were a little puzzled when the Indian vendor stapled an empty paper cup to the cup of chestnuts – it was for our peeled shells. Very clever.
We visit the Pantheon, the 2000-year-old temple, now a church and one of the city’s best-preserved ancient monuments. Its exterior is particularly imposing with 16 Corinthian columns, each made from a single block of granite. However, the real attraction of the Pantheon is its awe-inspiring dome, considered one of the ancient Romans’ biggest architectural achievements and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence.
At another historical site, we admire the city’s giant gladiatorial arena, the Colosseum, built in AD80, which can accommodate 50,000 seats. Inside, tiered seating encircles the arena which was built over an underground complex where animals were kept in cages and fearsome games were staged involving gladiators fighting wild animals or each other. There are 80 entrance arches which allow spectators to enter and be seated in minutes. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Colosseum was abandoned. Today, the Colosseum is still Italy’s top tourist attraction. Best to book and pay in advance for a Colosseum ticket and if you want entry to the top three floors, they are only accessible by guided tours at an extra cost.
We decided to visit the opulent St Peter’s Basilica in the heart of the Vatican City at the crack of dawn and it was a brilliant idea. There was hardly anyone around except for the nuns and priests getting ready for morning mass at the largest church in the world.
The construction of the new basilica began in 1506, when the old basilica was torn down, and was finished 120 years later. The basilica’s dome is an incredible sight with the Renaissance design started by Michelangelo, continued by Donato Bramante and Bernini and finished by Carlo Maderno in 1614. Even more impressive are The Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo and the large bronze baldachin by Bernini. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free.
No matter how many times you visit the Eternal City, you will always be able to gorge on more cultural, historical and arty experiences.
[Take me there]
Fly: Singapore Airlines flies from Australia to Rome via Singapore from $1566.
Stay: Stay at five-star resort Rome Cavalieri hotel, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel and bathe like a Roman Emperor. Rooms start from $403 a night. Visit romecavalieri.com
Tour: Go on a Vespa tour like a local for a most exhilarating introduction to the Eternal City. Priced at around $260 for three hours. Visit gastaldiglobaldmc.com
Explore more: turismoroma.it/en/