Rome: off the beaten track in the city's ancient centre

by Richard Shayler

A Roman holiday, whether romancing by the Tiber or standing fast with the gladiators, always excites and fascinates. My guide shows how to see the ancient centre without paying top tourist prices

The Eternal City continues to thrill even after 2,700 years. Don't pretend you can see it all even in a lifetime. Pick one or two areas and explore at your leisure.

Walking round the Artisans' Quarter (i Artigiani) and Piazza Farnese

If you arrive in the Artigiani in the late afternoon it is much easier to just drop your bags and head straight out for a slice of pizza and a Peroni. Small outlets such as Pizza al Taglio (literally a slice of pizza) on the corner of Piazza della Cancelleria and via Pellegrino are excellent. Prices are usually by weight with a 100 gram slice at between 1 and 2 euros depending on which variety you choose. A slice of Margherita should be no more than 1 euro 30 cents per 100 grams.

This is a Roman "take away", so hold onto your hunger for five minutes and head to the stone seats by Villa Farnese some 200 metres away. There is nothing better than a drink and cheap bite to eat in one of the world's greatest renaissance piazzas as a start to your Roman holiday.

If you have more time then take the lanes on the left hand side of the Piazza when facing Villa Farnese and go for a drink at L'Angolo Divino, located in via de Balestari (06 686 4413). Tread slowly as it is easily passed. The bar has an excellent wine list and evenings always pass in a friendly blur of laughter as never to be achieved itineraries are debated.

At the other end of the day, for breakfast grab un cafe and cornetto (Italian for croissant) at any of the gently bustling coffee shops on the edge of Piazza Farnese or via dei Baulari. If you stand at the counter rather than have table service then prices will usually be 30%-50% cheaper.

Morning is also the time for enjoying Campo de' Fiori. The fruit, flower and vegetable market continues to sell traditional Roman and Lazio produce. Also take in the bakery in the corner of Campo de' Fiori for ultra fresh bread. In the evening Campo de' Fiori is for the young and I feel the bars are overpriced and overcrowded, stay for one drink then move on.

Take any of the small lanes towards Castel Sant Angelo and you are in the core of the Artigiani, some units have been opened up fully as retail outlets, others still attempt to keep the barbarians out with hard wood doors and heavy iron studs. Peer in, they are usually a chaos of half renovated antique furniture or statues of Pan jumbled in together with boxes of books, umbrella stands and curious kitchen utensils. Other units are dedicated to fashion, small tavernas or cycle repairs. Keep your ears open to monitor approaching motorinos and dawdle in the lanes.

PS - a little secret for those on a tight food budget is the Spa supermarket tucked into three artigiani units in vicolo del Moretta at the end of via Pellegrino.

Where to eat

Piazza Navona always hums with large knots of military organised tourists. Such are the crowds that I strongly recommend a visit in the evening. The masses have thinned allowing you to stand or sit and be mesmerised by Bernini's work.

Avoid lunch in Piazza Navona, the squeezing shylock waiters offer little but high prices. Go a few hundred metres towards Castel Sant Angelo and head for the tiny Piazza del Fico, (sadly the fig tree was cut back a couple of years ago). I strongly recommend dining on the buffet (il buffetto) at Da Francesco's. The restaurant takes up one corner of Piazza del Fico and if there is space outside then dine a fuori ('al fresco' indicates just released from prison). The Romans certainly love this place so you may wish to call them to book a table on 06 686 4009. On my visit in late 2009 a plate for the buffetto was just 7 Euros - the buffetto has a full mix of Roman and Etruscan foods, all fresh, high quality and reasonably priced; absolutely gorgeous.

If you have already dined but are looking to rest your feet then have a drink at Bar Pace in via del Pace. The tourist groups have thinned out to a few couples, the service is better and prices are down. As you mellow out, look up at the riot of colour erupting out from roof gardens, balconies and among the fallen-leaf coloured terracotta tiles.

Once refreshed head for via dei Coronari and some exquisite window shopping amongst the antique outlets. If something catches your eye, take a note and head back to the Artigiani where you may find it at a much reduced price!

Traversing the Ghetto to arrive at the Capitol

The large tourist groups always march quick-step along the main route between Castel Sant Angelo and the Vittoriano monument  (known as the wedding cake) and from there up to the Capitol or Forum.

To avoid the crowds and to move at your own pace I recommend taking the smaller lanes from the Artigiani areas and head into the Ghetto. If you pass the Communist Party headquarters and cross some tram lines then you are on the right path. Once across the tram lines you are in Rome's small Ghetto area.

Within the Ghetto, if you are after lunch or dinner, then I strongly recommend Al Pompiere in via di Santa Maria Calderai. It has a menu on which the Mediterranean basin has fed on for thousands of years and I particularly love their fried courgette flowers. (; 06 686 8377 if you want to book a table).

As you explore the Ghetto you should stumble across the playful little Fontana delle Tartarughe. It is a peaceful spot away from the traffic along the Tiber. At the far end of the Ghetto you will come to the open grounds at the base of the Teatro di Marcello. Look up as parts of this ancient building are still occupied as rome apartments.

Occasionally the grounds of Teatro di Marcello are closed for archaeological work. Don't panic, simply work your way back a few lanes and you will soon re-emerge on the via D.Teatro di Marcello. From there the steps to Michelangelo's Capitol are up on the left. Enjoy your time on the Capitol and in the Forum.

Where to stay

My last few trips to ComfortItalia. Run by Helen and Prudence, their selection of apartments is almost all in Rome's ancient core and for a wide variety of budgets. An apartment also offers much more space than most hotels in the centre. With six people the estimated cost per person per night comes in at between Euro 50 and Euro 60 - cheaper than an hotel room.

I also stay just off Campo de' Fiori at Albergo Del Sole. It has a variety of rooms, some with shared bathroom facilities, some with roof terraces. It is clean and reasonably cheap with double rooms at around Euro 75 per person. Always confirm by fax and the last time I stayed they did not accept credit cards or do breakfast.

How to get there

The budget airlines tend to use Ciampino airport while the national carriers head for the main Fiumicino airport. Transport to the city centre is usually bus from Ciampino, train from Fiumicino. Both end up at Termini (the main railway station), from where you can get a taxi to your hotel. 

Note that if the taxi driver has to get out and help put your luggage in the boot they will charge you an extra couple of euros - so don't bother to tip them any further.

Alternatively your apartment rental / hotel may arrange for a private cab to collect you from the airport. This is likely to be around Euros 50 and becomes economic if there are four of you.

Once in the cab - hang onto your hats, the driving in Rome is exhilarating chaos!

Richard Shayler

A love of travel and foreign cultures has taken me to many places in our beautiful world. However, I also believe that everyone should pause and consider being a tourist in their own town for an afternoon. It gives the children a taste for exploration whilst allowing the pennies to be saved for a bigger overseas trip.