Discover the secrets of Rome
Travel writer Yolanda Zappaterra explores Rome, off the beaten track
The best of Rome undoubtedly lies in its ancient heritage and religious arts. But beyond the evocative Colosseum, the architecture of St Peter’s Basilica and the artworks in the Borghese Gallery and Museum, lie other gems that are a delight to discover. You can uncover these treats and many more on the Rome On Your Own shore experience, a full day of independent exploration in Italy’s capital city.
You won’t believe your eyes
Rome boasts a number of historic interiors that are not all they seem, the most famous being Francesco Borromini’s Perspective Gallery in Centro Storico’s Palazzo Spada. This 9m-long space, opened in 1653, is a delightful play on perspective, offering the illusion of a 25m-long corridor lined with columns and culminating in a garden. North of here, an equally alluring piece of spatial trickery lies in Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola, a Baroque church famous for Andrea Pozzo’s outstanding trompe l'oeil work on the nave ceiling.
Two Vatican alternatives
If you don’t fancy the crowds at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi (Church of St Louis of the French) in the Centro Storico makes a fine alternative, with three Caravaggio works painted between 1600 and 1602 demonstrating the beginnings of his chiaroscuro technique. Close by, Santa Maria della Pace church houses not just Raphael’s 16th-century Four Sibyls receiving divine instructions (in the Chigi Chapel) but a beautiful two-storey cloister by Donato Bramante that reputedly inspired many Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo.
Far from the madding crowds
Exploring the Vatican Garden, featuring planting, fountains and statues from the 9th century, is the perfect way to escape Rome’s hustle and bustle for a couple of hours. Or if you’re simply after a peaceful spot in which to eat your pizza al taglio or baccala, Cimitero Acattolico, the public cemetery in Testaccio, is an oasis of cypress-shaded serenity for residents, including Shelley, Keats and Antonio Gramsci, the father of Italian communism.
Food, glorious food
It’s easy to eat well and cheaply in Rome – just do as the locals do and indulge in a takeaway for lunch. At Trapizzino, you can choose from popular trays of Roman pizza with toppings from the traditional to the bizarre. But the shop is most famous for its trapizzini, triangular pockets of pizza packed with a wonderful range of fillings, including octopus in tomato sauce. Near the Spanish Steps, Pizzeria Leoncino is that rare thing – a pizzeria that’s open at lunchtime, and despite being in the heart of the tourist trail, serves very good pizza at reasonable prices.
To visit Rome and not see the Colosseum or Pantheon would be a crime, but if time is limited and the crowds daunting you can wander to the impressive Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla) in Testaccio, which feature engineering, art and architecture dating back to the early third century. As the second-largest public baths in ancient Rome, these were a lavish affair featuring marble floors, mosaics, and 10-tonne columns four metres high. Today, some of the marble floors and mosaics can still be seen amid the impressive ruins, while 22 of the well-preserved columns reside in Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the city’s oldest churches.
Yolanda is a travel, art and design enthusiast who writes for Time Out and Saga magazine, as well as national newspapers.