The Italian capital has all the history and art you could possibly desire, but it’s not a dusty museum. This is a vibrant, sometimes chaotic but always fascinating city, with a healthy sense of priorities. Work matters to Romans, sure – but enjoying life is always going to take first place.
The good life comes first
Whether it’s an al fresco meal in a neighbourhood trattoria, an animated discussion about football or politics in a piazza laid out as a stadium under the emperor Domitian, or an aperitivo with friends on the way home, there’s always a sense here that nothing is quite urgent enough to put the good life on hold. Not for more than a couple of hours, at any rate.
The streets are a stage
The other thing I’ve always loved about the place is its sense of theatre. This is innate – not self-conscious, or posed. Romans simply walk, talk and interact as if the street is their stage. For a visitor – especially a visitor from the less effusive north – this can be exhilarating. It encourages us to see the city as a dramatic backdrop, to flirt on the Spanish Steps, pledge undying love in Piazza Navona, become part of a crowd scene in Termini station.
Twenty seven centuries of history
Visitors have been coming to Rome for well over two thousand years. Already by the time of the Emperor Vespasian, the city had its tourist circuit: there was the cave on the side of the Palatine hill where Rome’s founding fathers, Romulus and Remus, were supposedly born; the Pantheon, where tour guides would impress out-of-towners (as they still do today) by pointing out the hole in the middle of the dome, without which the roof would collapse; and of course the Colosseum, then almost completed, which would have struck those fresh in from the provinces as a work of astonishing ambition and audacity.
In fact visiting Rome then must have been a little like visiting Dubai or Shanghai today. You came, you saw, you goggled. Then you did a little shopping. Since then, the Eternal City has had its ups and downs. What it offers today is not the dazzle of the new but the fascination of a place shaped by 27 centuries of history – which it wears as casually and stylishly as a Valentino overcoat. Romans ride Vespas around the Colosseum, play football using aqueduct arches as goalposts, hang washing out between Medieval towers.
Let Rome get under your skin
In a way, then, it’s not so much the old stones of the Forum that make Rome worth visiting – however fascinating they are – but the city’s verve and colour, together with that sense of easy, unruffled style that, thanks to Federico Fellini, we think of as la dolce vita. It’s not history in the city but the way the city lives, breathes and (in its traditional trattorias, with their time-honoured menus) eats history that makes Rome such a necessary destination.
You’ll appreciate this unique city more, therefore, if you come not with a list of sights to tick off but with a determination to let Rome get under your skin. Let yourself get lost in the lanes of the centro storico, wander past sleepy porters into private courtyards, explore offbeat neighbourhoods like Testaccio or San Lorenzo, take a cool bottle of bubbly up to the Giardino degli Aranci, on the Aventine, and watch the sun set behind the dome of St Peter’s. And when mealtimes come around, ignore the tourist trap trattorias or fast food joints and head for one of Rome's authentic local restaurants. For some suggestions, see Anne Hanley's well-informed article When in Rome... eat with the Romans.
Rome is a frustrating city at times. It can be loud, uncouth and insensitive. It will never win prizes for promptness and efficiency. It can swelter in summer, and, just occasionally, freeze in winter. But for all that, it is utterly addictive.