In Rome, the city itself is the party. For most of the year, weather permitting, Roman nightlife happens out in the open, in the buzzing bars and piazzas of the centro storico. The city is so attached to its al fresco ways that even on freezing winter days you’ll see locals sitting outside at café tables (overhead heaters in many establishments help to take the edge off the chill).
The first thing that will strike northern European visitors used to pub culture is the fact that there’s a lot more overlap in Italy between daytime and evening hangouts, and between places that serve mainly alcohol and those that serve mainly coffee, cakes and panini. With the exception of a few imported Irish, English, Scottish and Australian pubs and a handful of wine bars, there’s often no real distinction in Rome between the bar and the café, and you will see both words used interchangeably to describe places that are open from early morning to late at night, morphing from cappuccino parlour to lunch stop to tea room to hip aperitvo hangout as the day progresses.
Romans up for a night on the town are unlikely to head for a single bar; instead, they’ll home in on one of the capital’s main nightlife hubs, and then decide on the venue when they get there. Although there are a few suburban hotspots like Parioli to the north or Pigneto to the east, most of the action happens inside or just on the edge of the centro storico, the ‘historic centre’, the majority of which lies within a two-kilometre radius of Piazza Venezia. The main centro storico nightlife districts are listed below.
This picturesque piazza is lined with bars and pubs, ranging from the trad to the tacky. Roman nightlife is not generally about drinking large quantities of alcohol, but the Campo is an exception: it’s been adopted by the capital’s large visiting US student population, who tend to get carried away by Italy’s relaxed drinking laws, which allow anyone aged 16 or over to be served alcohol in a public place. Don’t be put off though by the occasional legless sophomore: the Campo is a magical place, especially on summer evenings, and there are still some serious drinking dens in among the Happy Hour newcomers. My favourite is La Vineria (Campo de’ Fiori 15; 39 06 6880 3268; closed Mon) – a lovely bottle-lined wine bar full of bohemian regulars who have been here since the Dolce Vita years (one or two of them even had bit parts in the film). If you want to join those learner drinkers, The Drunken Ship (Campo de’ Fiori 20; 00 39 06 6830 0535; www.drunkenship.com; open daily from 4pm) and Sloppy Sam’s (Campo de’ Fiori 10; 00 39 06 6880 2637; open daily from 4pm) are Campo classics, both more English- than Italian-speaking, and both famous for their shots, pitchers of beer and bargain specials – like Sloppy Sam’s challenging Monday Madness offer: 10 euros for all the Peroni beer you can drink between 10pm and 11pm.
A couple of blocks west of Piazza Navona, the pretty lanes around the church of Santa Maria della Pace host a series of bars and locales that are more chi-chi than those of Campo de’ Fiori, and tend to attract a more upmarket local crowd. One of the first, and still the most elegant, is the Caffè della Pace (Via della Pace 3/7; +39 06 686 1216; www.caffedellapace.it; open daily) with its Parisian literary café feel and much sought-after outside tables. The drinks are on the pricey side – but you’re paying for the location. Nearby, Etabli (Vicolo delle Vacche 9; +39 06 687 1499; www.etabli.it; closed Sun evening and all day Mon) has a more shabby-chic vibe; I like it in winter, when old leather armchairs are ranged around the open fire. If you’re in cocktail or aperitivo mood, try Fluid (Via del Governo Vecchio 46/47; +39 06 683 2361; www.fluideventi.com; open daily) a striking hi-tech design bar that seems poised to host Blade Runner – The Remake; the €8 drink charge may seem high, but between 7 and 9pm it includes free access to the generous apertivo buffet. Finally, an insider tip: laid-back, artsy drinking den Société Lutèce (Piazza di Montevecchio 17; +39 06 6830 1472; www.societe-lutece.it; closed Mon) is a real in-the-know place, partly because the delightful piazza it stands on is so difficult to find (from Caffè della Pace, head north and take Via Arco della Pace to the left of the church; Piazza Montevecchio is just up here to the left). The free apertivo spread (laid out around 7.30pm) is one of the best in Rome.
The neighbourhood of cobbled lanes and Medieval churches on the left bank of the Tiber has long been the place Romans go to eat, drink and unwind. Once full of family trattorias, the area has become a little touristy over the last 20 years, but it’s still a lovely place to stroll and absorb the evening atmosphere, and some recent new bar and restaurant openings have injected new life into the district. One of these is Bir & Fud (Via Benedetta 23; +39 06 589 4016; open daily, evenings only), a Roman rarity, in that its main focus is not wine but beer (specifically, it champions the output of Italy’s growing band of microbreweries). It’s a bit gloomy inside the barrel-vaulted interior, but there’s no arguing with the quality of the beer or the gourmet pizza that accompanies it.
If your idea of heaven is a drink outside in a romantic Roman piazza, head for Ombre Rosse (Piazza Sant’Egidio 12/13; +39 06 588 4155; www.ombrerossecaffe.it; open daily): a relaxed and friendly all-day bar with al fresco tables on the pretty piazza. It’s the sort of unpretentious place you could happily bring teenagers or grandparents. They do food too (bruschettas, panini, salads), and there’s live music, usually of a jazzy variety, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The scene at spit-and-sawdust Bar San Calisto (Piazza San Calisto 3; +39 06 585 5869; closed Sun) is more alternative and edgy, with old-school trasteverini hippies mixing with pierced and tattooed no-globalistas. Peroni beer is the drink of choice, and great homemade gelato the food of choice (I have a theory that San Calisto regulars get by on nothing else). Finally, Freni e Frizioni (Via del Politeama 4/6; +39 06 5833 3920; www.freniefrizioni.com; open daily) has to be the coolest of Trastevere’s nighttime haunts. Like its sister bar Société Lutèce, this former auto repair shop (the name means ‘brakes and clutch’) plays hand-me-down antique furnishings off against contemporary artworks from the owners’ collection. And like Société Lutèce, they do one of Rome’s best free aperitivo buffets from 7.30pm onwards: plates and bowls heaped high with mini-pizzas, tabouleh, Greek salad and other treats, which anyone who buys a drink (from €5) is welcome to tuck into. I’ve more than once used it as an alternative to dinner on my way to an 8.30 film.
When Roman ships came up the Tiber and offloaded their cargos of olive oil and wine at the main river port in what is now the Testaccio district, the amphoras or urns the liquids came in were not recycled: they were broken up and dumped on a nearby tip, which eventually grew to become a hill of over a hundred feet. Now grassed over and part of the Roman landscape, Monte Testaccio is today the centre of a lively nightlife scene, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. The base of the hill is riddled with grottos that were once wine cellars, but were later extended and turned into bars or restaurants. A few trattorias still exist, but most Romans come here for clubs like Goth-tinged Akab (Via di Monte Testaccio 68; +39 06 5725 0585; www.akabcave.com; open Tue-Fri); twenty-something disco bar Coyote (Via di Monte Testaccio 48B; +39 340 241 2074; www.coyotebar.it; open daily) and historic gay club L’Alibi (Via di Monte Testaccio 40; +39 06 574 3448; open Wed-Sat). Most of these places open around 10.30pm and go on until 4 or 5 in the morning.