Say “Cheese,” Spartacus
Taking a photo with one of those ersatz gladiators in front of Rome’s ancient sights will win some smiles—but maybe some frowns, too. Many of them (who are actually costumed as centurions, not gladiators, at all) pounce on tourists who simply aim a camera at them and then proceed to shake them down for a “photo fee.” Others have a craftier approach: before you know it, one may envelop your eight-year-old in his red cape and say “Formaggio.” Indeed, this may turn out to be the greatest souvenir back home in fourth-grade class, so if interested, step right up, shake hands, and exchange some euros. But pick your Spartacus very carefully: some sloppy guys wear a helmet and cloak but have sweatsuits or sneakers on. Rome has cracked down on these “gladiators,” but with limited success—expect to see them near the Forum, Colosseum, and along Via dei Fori Imperiali.
A Whole World Underground
From opulent villas to Mithraic temples, an entire ancient world lies beneath ground-level Rome. No, it’s not because ancient Romans had a penchant for the subterranean. It’s because, two millennia ago, the ground level stood 30 to 40 feet lower than it does today.
As a result, every time someone goes to dig a hole in Rome, they get a surprise. That’s been a source of both pride and frustration, as most recently seen with the ongoing project for Linea C. Rome’s third metro line is supposed to go through the heart of the centro storico—but several subway stops have had to be scrapped when workers hit (surprise!) ancient ruins. Most famously, a desired stop at Piazza Venezia had to come to a halt when workers discovered ruins of an ancient auditorium built by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD.
For a great glimpse of how modern Rome sits atop the ancient, book a tour at Palazzo Valentini, just around the corner from that doomed Piazza Venezia stop. In 2007, excavations beneath the 16th-century Palazzo Valentini—today the seat of the Province of Rome—turned up ruins of two 2nd- and 3rd-century villas. On an automated tour experience beneath the Renaissance palazzo, visitors are brought through the opulent rooms and, with light shows, shown how they once would have looked … all without ever emerging aboveground (provincia.roma.it).
Through a Keyhole
Head to the Aventine hill, just across the Circus Maximus from the Palatine, for a quirky surprise. The Order of the Knights of Malta, the only private entity to also be a sovereign state, has their headquarters here. Although their building is closed to the public unless you’re on a prebooked tour, its most charming facet is open to anyone: the keyhole. Peek through for a perfectly framed view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica—and the chance to see three countries (Vatican City, Italy, and the Order of the Knights of Malta) in one glance.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The Festival Internazionale del Film di Roma (Rome International Film Festival; | www.romacinemafest.it), entering its sixth year, has hosted the likes of Martin Scorcese, Robert De Niro, and Meryl Streep. Though Rome is far from reclaiming its film prominence, lost decades ago, the festival draws important players in the world of film and sees its share of world premieres. The festival is held at the Auditorium Parco della Musica during a full week in the fall.
Three Coins in the Fountain
Rome has always been in love with amore. But romance is certainly nowhere more contagious than around its famous fountains. If a besotted couple can spare the time, a trip up to Tivoli’s Villa D’Este (an hour outside Rome via bus) is nirvana. Its seductive garden and endless array of fountains (about 500 of them) is the perfect setting to put anyone in the mood for love.
That’s your cue to return to Rome and make a beeline for the luminous Trevi Fountain, even more enchanting at night than in the daytime. Make sure you and that special someone throw your coins into the fountain for good luck. Legend has it that those who do so are guaranteed a return trip back to Rome.
Borrowed from i Milanesi, the trend of l’aperitivo has become moda in Rome. Not to be confused with happy hour, l’aperitivo is not about discounts or heavy drinking, but rather a time to meet up with friends and colleagues after work or on weekends—definitely an event in which to see and be seen. Aperitivo hours are usually from 7 to 9 pm.
Depending on where you go, the price of a drink often includes an all-you-can-eat appetizer buffet of finger foods, sandwiches, and pasta salads. Some aperitivo hot spots on the trendissimo list are Enoteca Palatium (Via Frattina) near the Piazza di Spagna; L’Angolo Divino (Via del Balestrari) near the Campo de’ Fiori; Freni e Frizioni (Via del Politeama) in Trastevere; and the 5th Floor Terrace at Il Palazzetto, set on a magical balcony right over the Spanish Steps.
Rome’s Coolest Artisans
Despite the encroachment of chain stores and big brands, many of Rome’s finest artisans are still hanging on— barely. But locals hope they’ll be able to withstand globalization’s assault, because they still produce some of the finest (and best-value!) handmade clothes, shoes, leather goods, and more in the city. Top-notch artisans can be found in neighborhoods like Trastevere and Campo dei Fiori, as well as scattered in areas like the Spanish Steps. For a glimpse of how tradition and trend can combine, wander through Monti, a neighborhood chock-a-block with young jewelers, fashion designers, and artists, many of whom use traditional artisanal techniques (and often handcraft their products right in the store)—but with an eye toward contemporary style.
Walk like a Roman
Rome was made for wandering, with relentlessly picturesque streets and alleyways, leading you past monuments, down narrow vicoli, through ancient Roman arches, and into hidden piazzas. A stroll is the best way to become attuned to the city’s rhythm and, no matter how aimlessly you wander, chances are you’ll end up somewhere magical.
The best walking tours in Rome are given by Context (www.contexttravel.com). Also getting raves from the public and media are the truly wonderful walking tours offered by Through Eternity (www.througheternity.com).