Rome without the clichés
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Family, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range
If you don't want to swelter in a queue to see the Colosseum or the Pantheon, read on. From the Il Vittoriale war memorial to an optically puzzling church, Rome has plenty of alternative sights
Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world – which is great, but for the droves of tourists who make the pilgrimage to the city all year round and stake out the same few tourist attractions. The Colosseum, the Pantheon (both of which, really, can be summed up in the following way: round and busy), the Forum Romanum, the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican can all be assured of one thing, whether it is a balmy July morning or a cold December evening – queues.
It was a two-hour long queue snaking round the outer walls of the Vatican one spring morning that made me abandon tourist-trap Rome and walk the road less travelled – and I haven't looked back. If you're looking for a relaxing time in Rome without recourse to the back pages of your Italian phrase book to look up suitable swear words, take time to visit these hidden gems, all of them as impressive as the most popular Roman ruins.
The Piazza Navona is a bit of a cheat, really. Popular with tourists (as the number of street artists and overpriced gelaterias shows), it is one of the things anyone should do in Rome – yet it is never so busy that it should be avoided. Once the home of athletics competitions, the piazza contains the beautiful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – a brilliant piece of sculpture by Bernini, depicting the four great rivers of Renaissance times. The received wisdom is that one of the figures is averting his eyes from the Church of Saint Agnes opposite, an architectural spat between Bernini and Rainaldi.
When at the piazza, don't be tempted by the shops and restaurants on the main square itself: head into the maze of streets running off it for cheaper, better food, more tasty gelati and, tucked away at one end of the square, a Roman second-hand shop where you can buy classic items of clothing, from suit jackets and ties to decorative brooches – and borrow, if only for one second, a piece of that inimitable Italian style.
Il Vittoriale is the memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II and has, since the two World Wars of the 20th century, become a war monument as well. Derisively known to locals as the wedding cake, it is not the prettiest building in Rome – but at more than 200ft in height, it is one of the biggest. It's worth climbing the stairs, but be warned you won't be able to sit down, since officious guards with whistles will shame you into standing up and keeping on walking. Halfway up the climb, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a haunting reminder of the loss suffered by the Italians in conflict. The second set of stairs is worth climbing for the brilliant panoramic views of the city. If you are feeling parched after the hike, settle in at the wine bar at the top of the monument (strangely at odds with a staid, sober memorial to battlefield losses) before climbing down.
The best is, of course, saved for last. The Church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola plays with proportions in a way that will leave you staring with wonder at the ceiling for hours. Tucked away in a small square near the Piazza della Rotonda, it was built in 1626 and painted by Andrea Pozzo. The church has a flat roof when seen from the outside, but step inside and you will see that the ceiling is very much curved. It's an optical illusion on the grandest scale, done at a time before computers and without some of the basic tools we would nowadays rely upon to achieve such an effect.
Pozzo's painting will leave you looking for the creases where real-world masonry meets painted-on marble. You can spend a whole day trying to find the secret behind the magic act, yet still never be sure that you have cracked it. Sant'Ignazio should be classed as a wonder of the world, so incredibly persuasive is its trickery.
There you have just three must-sees that will make you forget all about the giant cupola of the Pantheon and the quick-buck rose sellers at the Trevi Fountain. Just make sure you don't spread the word to too many people, otherwise you will quickly find that these three locations too become overrun with tourists and T-shirts. But what about where to stay?
The Boutique Hotel Roma (Via Toscana) is one of the most popular - and plush - of the hotels in Rome. Like many more independent hotels in the city, it occupies only one floor of a nondescript building rather than being ostentatiously branded - and benefits from the personal touch. Bright and breezy modern rooms are surprisingly spacious for Rome, and with the Metro nearby the whole of Rome is your empire.
RomeBed (Via Emanuele Filiberto) is very much at the other end of the scale for staying in Rome. Look at the title and think of other portmanteaued companies: EasyJet, Ryanair and so on. What you get is sparse but good, and the price shows that. For students and backpackers looking for substance over style, Romebed is the perfect choice.
Rome Lodge is way out of the city but offers the serenity of being away from the buzz of the Vespas and the grime of the city centre. If you're looking to not only avoid the crowds at the tourist attractions, but crowds altogether, then this rural retreat may be for you.
If you think you can bear the crowds for a little while, then it may well be worth investing in visiting the Rome Sweet Home Spanish Steps Guest House. As the witty name suggests, what you get is a small apartment right on top of one of the most popular tourist attractions, the favourite of the likes of Keats. The benefit of your own slice of Rome near the Spanish Steps is that you needn't trek across the city to find that you're snowed under with crowds of tourists trying to make their glamorous passeggiata down the stairs; simply look out your window and, if it's empty, enjoy a romantic walk with your other half which you'll never forget.