Once it ruled the Western World, and even the partial, scattered ruins of that awesome empire, of which Rome was the capital, are today among the most overpowering sights on earth. To walk the Roman Forum, to view the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Appian Way, these are among the most memorable, instructive, and illuminating experiences in all of travel. To see evidence of a once-great civilization that no longer exists is a humbling experience that everyone should have. Thrilling, too, are the sights of Christian Rome, which speak to the long and complex domination by this city of one of the world’s major religions. As a visitor to Rome, you will be constantly reminded of this extraordinary history.
But it’s important to remember that Rome is not just a place of the past, but one that lives and breathes and buzzes with Vespas in the here and now. So take the time to get away from the tourist hordes to explore the intimate piazzas and lesser basilicas in the backstreets of Trastevere and the centro storico. Indulge in eno-gastronomic pursuits and stuff your days with cappuccinos, pizza, trattorias, wine bars, and gelato. Have a picnic in Villa Borghese, take a vigorous walk along the Gianicolo, or nap in the grass against a fallen granite column at the Baths of Caracalla. Rome is so compact, that without even planning too much, you’ll end up enjoying both its monuments and its simpler pleasures.
Rome’s ancient monuments, whether time-blackened or gleaming in the wake of a recent restoration, are a constant reminder that Rome was one of the greatest centers of Western civilization. In the heyday of the Empire, all roads led to Rome, with good reason. It was one of the first cosmopolitan cities, importing slaves, gladiators, great art, and even citizens from the far corners of the world. Despite its carnage, brutality, and corruption, Rome left a legacy of law, a heritage of art, architecture, and engineering; and a canny lesson in how to conquer enemies by absorbing their cultures.
But ancient Rome is only part of the spectacle. The Vatican has had a tremendous influence on making the city a tourism center. Although Vatican architects stripped down much of the city’s ancient glory during the Renaissance, looting ancient ruins for their precious marble, they created more treasures and even occasionally incorporated the old into the new, as Michelangelo did when turning Diocletian’s Baths complex into a church. And in the years that followed, Bernini adorned the city with the wonders of the baroque, especially his glorious fountains.
Rome offers temptations of every kind. In our limited space below we’ve summarized streets and areas known for their shops. The monthly rent on the famous streets is very high, and those costs are passed on to you. Nonetheless, a stroll down some of these streets presents a cross section of the most desirable wares in Rome. Most of Rome’s haute couture and seriously upscale shopping fans out from the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Via Condotti is probably Rome’s poshest shopping street, where you’ll find Prada, Gucci, Bulgari, and the like. A few more down-to-earth stores have opened, but it’s still largely a playground for the superrich. Via Borgognona is another street where both the rents and the merchandise are chic and ultraexpensive. Like its neighbor, Via Condotti, Via Borgognona is a mecca for wealthy, well-dressed women and men from around the world. It offers a nicer window-browsing experience, however, because it has pedestrian-only access, and storefronts have retained their baroque or neoclassical facades. Via Frattina is the third member of this trio of upscale streets. Here the concentration of shops is denser; chic boutiques for adults and kids rub shoulders with ready-to-wear fashions, high-class chains, and occasional tourist tat vendors. It’s usually thronged with shoppers who appreciate the lack of motor traffic.
The commercial heart of the Prati neighborhood bordering the Vatican, Via Cola di Rienzo is a long, straight street runs from the Tiber to Piazza Risorgimento. It is known for stores selling a wide variety of merchandise at reasonable prices, from jewelry to fashionable clothes, bags and shoes. Not attempting the stratospheric image or prices of Via Condotti or Via Borgognona, Via del Corso boasts affordable styles aimed at younger consumers. Occasional gems are scattered amid the international shops selling jeans and sporting equipment.
Unless you’re dead set on making the Roman nightclub circuit, try what might be a far livelier and less expensive scene, sitting late at night on Via Veneto, Piazza della Rotonda, Piazza del Popolo, or one of Rome’s other piazzas, all for the cost of an espresso, a cappuccino or a Campari and soda. For clubbers, it is almost impossible to predict where the next hot venue will appear, but if you like it loud and late and have an adventurous streak, jump in a cab to Monte Testaccio or Via del Pigneto and bar-hop wherever takes your fancy. In Trastevere, there’s always a bit of life along Via Politeana around the spot where it meets Piazza Trilussa.
However, walk the streets of Rome, and the city will be yours.