Off Rome’s beaten path

Colin Wealleans
Latest posts by Colin Wealleans (see all)

A short break in Rome is accompanied by a generic guidebook with adequate information about the top sights… For the typical cheap-flight-tourist that’s more than enough – but Rome has secrets. I’m going to lead you round my preferred haunts from when I lived in the Eternal City.

East of the Tiber

Most of Rome’s sights are on the east of the Tiber, in the historic centre. Here you’ll stumble across the ancient, renaissance and baroque sights that make Rome famous. Spend time wandering one of the world’s most pedestrian friendly city centres and you’ll uncover sights such as the Trevi fountain, the Colosseum, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navona, and countless churches. The Capitoline museums on Piazza Venezia are jam packed with ancient art and sculpture, but their little known brother is my first hidden gem.

Museo Capitolino Montimartini, (106 Via Ostiense) was first an imposing 19th century coal power station but after it closed it became the city’s museum storeroom. Now open to the public, the sheer quantity of ancient art in Rome creates this surplus of marble and bronze statues, carved stone, glass and ceramic artefacts and one of the largest mosaics uncovered in the city. All housed in the generator rooms of the power station, it creates a visually stunning juxtaposition of ancient and industrial history, side by side.

EUR district

Further down Via Ostiense is the district of EUR. Created by dictator Mussolini, it’s a tribute to fascist ideology and architecture. The buildings and street plan are huge, hard-edged and smothered with symbolism but they create an open air, living museum to a dark and often unspoken part of the Italian people’s history. From mid-June to mid-September the wide spaces of Parco del Ninfeo host the award winning GayVillage, a summer long festival of acts and DJ’s on open air stages in the park.

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Back into the city centre, the Museo di Roma on Piazza di San Pantaleo is housed in the renaissance jewel, Villa Braschi. Surrounded by grander buildings and Bernini’s fountains of the Piazza Navona, it enjoys an air of unassuming grandeur. The museum contains an assortment of renaissance and enlightenment art and a good collection of architectural drawings of some of Rome’s most loved baroque buildings.

But the museum comes alive at dusk. Throughout the year events take place within the complex that take your breath away. Performed in the pillared courtyard, dance, music and opera are framed by the magnificent setting to create unforgettable nights of culture. Check their website for upcoming events.

Nearby, Bar Del Fico (Piazza del Fico, 26) serves a good selection of drinks and apertivi in under the shade of the eponymous fig tree in its piazza.

Lively nights

For a more lively night head across the river to Trastevere. One of rome’s liveliest quarters it combines medieval charm with gentrified wining and dining. La Casetta di Trastevere (Piazza Dè Renzi, 31) sits in a quiet tree lined piazza serving choice traditional food and wine, at ridiculously low prices, with a great atmosphere. Further into the maze of streets is Big Hilda’s bar (Vicola de cinque 33), make use of happy hour until 11pm for strong cocktails for €4.50 amongst the cities’ more friendly, bohemian youth. Bar San Calisto (Piazza di San Calisto) has resisted becoming a tourist trap unlike most of the surrounding bars and keeps its traditional roman atmosphere, not changing in 70 years. Don’t expect English to be spoken but do expect the regulars to spill out onto the lively square where you can lose yourself in Roman evening ritual.

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The Gianicolo neighbourhood

Up the hill from Trastevere you’ll find my neighbourhood, Gianicolo. Quiet but proud houses fill the wide winding streets and give way to the flats further up the hills. I urge you to climb the Gianicolo hill to the summit of Piazza Garibaldi and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the whole city framed against a backdrop of the Apennine mountains. Walk through the ‘Arch of the Four Winds’ to Villa Doria Pamphilli, Rome’s largest, and in my opinion, best park. Past the grottoes and fountains of the Baroque gardens head up into the less landscaped woods to Vivi Bistro (Via della Nocetta). Perched on a hill surrounded by pine trees the unassumingly sophisticated cafe/bar comes alive at dusk. Lit by soft lights and lanterns in the trees, the romans enjoy the selection of light bites, campari drinks and cocktails, known as aperitivi, until the early hours.

The queer scene

Emperor Nero commanded all the broken terracotta tiles and amphorae after the great fire in 55AD to be piled in a mound that climbed to 60m high. Today this teracotta pile is Rome’s liveliest clubbing area. LGBT entertainment is not Rome’s forte but places are opening and pride is becoming bigger year on year. Testaccio district hosts L’alibi (Via di Monte Testaccio, 40-44) Rome’s most well know gay club, attracting a mixed crowd with its 3 floors guarantees a good night. Take a taxi out to Qube club (Via di Portonaccio, 212) for its gay night, Muccassassina, spread over 3 floors with a range of pop and house that has entertained Rome’s LGBT population every Friday for 20 years.

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If you’ve had enough of the city, do as the Romans do and head to the beach. The gloriously named Il Buco (in English ‘The Hole’) is the region’s only gay beach. Bordered by a nature reserve on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the other, the wide pale beach is a relaxing tanning paradise during the week and at the weekend a social agglomeration of city professionals, stereotypically attractive Italians and the occasional fighter pilot from the neighbouring base. Get a taxi straight there or the Ostia/Lido train to Cristoforo Columbo then the 07 bus about 5km to the rainbow flags (Settimo Cielo, Via Litoranea). Or as I used to get there, on the back of an Italian’s Vespa.

The Romans keep themselves to themselves, avoiding the tourists and guarding their secrets. Rome certainly has a lot to offer, but I advise you to explore off the beaten path to see what the true Rome can give you.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.