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The ancient and the modern mingle freely in the Italian capital—perhaps more so than in any other European city. Here, First-Century theater and temple remains swarm with Flip-camera-toting bloggers; break-dancers bust a move in centuries-old piazzas; fashionistas mob antiquated cobblestone lanes in search of $2500 handbags; and art-lovers dart between troves of Renaissance painting and about slick modern sculpture galleries. It’s all a bit cacophonous—and the constant barrage of careening car and moped drivers doesn’t help. So be sure to take frequent breaks as you explore, and remember: they do call this The Eternal City.
Start your day with strong coffee and luscious pastry in a singularly atmospheric setting near the famous Spanish Steps: Caffe Greco (www.anticocaffegreco.eu), reportedly the city’s oldest café -- it’s been around since 1760. The uniformed waiters scurrying through the ornate warren of rooms are hard to flag down, and your espresso and torta de mele (apple tart) may cost as much as a full meal elsewhere, but just think: Stendhal, Goethe, Keats, and Liszt have all sipped here
For delicious casual, on-the-go lunch fare, head across the historic center of Rome to Antico Forno Roscioli (www.salumeriaroscioli.com), a vaunted pizzeria and bakery just off the lively market square of Campo dei Fiori. Roscioli’s pizzas are a world away from American-style pies: baked in six-foot-long slabs and sliced to order (indicate if you want a big or small piece), they’re thin-crusted, more crispy than chewy, and—if you go the traditional route—completely devoid of toppings. The standout pizza bianca doesn’t even have cheese; instead, the crust is simply, delectably coated in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. (Too plain? Try a slice, or ciabatta roll, layered with fresh mozzarella and San Daniele prosciutto from the in-house salumeria).
At dinnertime (9 p.m. in these parts), follow local foodies to Gusto, set a block from the First-Century Mausoleum of Emperor Augustus (www.gusto.it/ristorante-roma.htm). With its streamlined modern interiors, superb wine list, and menu of updated traditional dishes (try the bucatini all’Amatriciana, whose spicy, tomato-based sauce is flavored with guanciale), it’s the perfect fusion of old and new Rome.
4…Escape the Colosseum.
Visiting the Colosseum, the iconic, First-Century amphitheater where gladiators once sparred for the entertainment of the Roman populace, should be on your must-do list—as long as you’re prepared for long ticket lines, crowds, and limited areas of access. When you’re done, though, take some time to explore the acres of ancient Roman ruins that that surround the Colosseum and nearby Forum. Walking paths wind up the Hill of Palatine, littered with toppled, centuries-old arches and columns; flowering trees shade the Baths of Septimius Severus (who ruled the empire from A.D. 193 to 211), and ivy clambers up the palace of Domitian (Rome’s eleventh emperor, who reigned between A.D. 81 and 96). If you were a fan of the HBO series Rome, you’ll have an especially fun time here strolling among the remains of places portrayed in the show (the Temple of Cybele, the house of Livia).
3…Make the pilgrimage to the Vatican City.
Even non-Catholics can’t help but feel a certain reverence when entering this walled city-within-a-city. Though it encompasses less than a quarter of a square mile, it feels vast—after all, it is one of the world’s great seats of religion, and home to some of history’s most celebrated artistic masterpieces. Note that you’ll need to dress respectfully here—no shorts or sleeveless tops are allowed.
The most famous of these artworks are, of course, Michaelangelo’s frescoes that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But even if you can’t muster the stamina to reach these marvels (getting to the chapel can require queueing up for more than an hour, then wandering through the Vatican Museums’ dizzying maze of exhibition halls—www.museivaticani.va), there’s plenty of other jaw-dropping sights here. Like the grand, colonnaded expanse of St. Peter’s Square—ringed with 140 statues of Catholic saints—and the Basilica of St. Peter, the largest and most sumptuously elaborate Catholic church in the world. You’ll be distracted for a while by the basilica’s soaring painted domes, bronze reliefs, and gilded, barrel-vaulted nave—but when you come across Michaelangelo’s marble-sculpted La Pieta, so delicately luminous that it seems to glow from within, don’t be surprised if all the ornamental glitz suddenly pales in comparison.
2…Burn some shoe leather.
Apart from the whizzing traffic, Rome is an ideal walking city. Many, if not all of its most famous attractions lie within a few miles of one another—including the Capitoline Musems and the Piazza del Campidoglio (the onetime capitol buildings of the Roman Empire, centered around a Michaelangelo-designed plaza); the Pantheon (a dazzling ancient temple capped by a soaring, open-topped dome); the bustling Piazza Navona; the hulkingly baroque Trevi Fountain; and the manicured green oasis of the Borghese Gardens.
Armed with the right footwear (you’ll encounter lots of cobblestones, stairs, and—at some ruin sites—dirt paths), and a good map (www.walkingrome.com has an excellent one), you’ll find it very easy to plot your own walking routes among these and other spots. If you’d rather do a guided or more specialized tour, though, Walk Inside Rome offers dozens of possibilities—from treks among the city’s best antiques and farmers’ markets to historical tours of the 16th-century Jewish Ghetto (www.walksinsiderome.com).
Set squarely among the famous wine regions of Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, and Abruzzo, Rome is a mecca for oenophiles. Even the quartinos poured at scruffy sports bars and tourist-trap cafes here are better than average—but it’s still worth seeking out the city’s truly special wine establishments.
To sample from a carefully curated list of more than 400 local vintages—along with some of the city’s best views—make for the rooftop wine bar at Il Palazzetto, a boutique hotel atop the Spanish Steps that also just happens to house the National Wine Academy of Rome (www.ilpalazzettoroma.com). If you’re lucky enough to nab a seat here at sunset, you can raise a glass as golden light washes over the Piazza di Spagna below.
For a less exclusive, equally delightful experience, Antica Enoteca, on the cobblestone lane of Via delle Croce, is a cut above the city’s zillion other wine bars (www.anticaenoteca.com). What sets it apart are its dimly lit, romantically shabby interiors (circa 1842); its reasonably priced, well-edited wine list (heavy on full-bodied Tuscan reds); and its menu of tasty, small-plate dishes (like bruschetta heaped with chopped tomato and fresh arugula).