Shopping in Rome: the fashion triangle

by Lee.Marshall

Within a two-hundred metre radius of the Spanish Steps, you can hoover up the latest trends just as easily as you can in Milan – and at the same prices

Prada, Fendi, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferragamo, Versace – the flagship boutiques of these and other major Italian (and international) designer brands line Via Condotti and surrounding streets. Though most of the main ‘label’ boutiques resemble branches anywhere in anywhere in the world, a couple do stand out.

The new Fendi store (Largo Goldoni 419-421, 00187 Roma; +39 06 334 501; www.fendi.com) at the Via del Corso end of Via Condotti occupies an entire nineteenth-century palazzo. The striking interior by New York architect Peter Marino, with its lavastone floors and waves of travertine suspended from the ceiling, is worth a look even if you’re not here to buy.

And the historic Bulgari boutique (Via Condotti 10, 00187 Roma; +39 06 696 261; www.bulgari.com) is like a museum with its windows framed in green African marble, its Pompeian-style stucco decoration, its old-fashioned display cases in which dazzling (and dazzlingly expensive) necklaces, bracelets, brooches and rings are laid out like Tutankhamun’s treasure. With its doorbell and one-to-one service, this is not a shop for casual browsers. I was lucky enough to be given a complete tour some year back when I was researching an article on the family firm. Otherwise the best strategy is to come on as a very confident potential purchaser (you never know, you might even be tempted to buy a trinket or two for that special person).

A host of one-off shops still exist here alongside the global brands. Places like Battistoni, tucked away in a courtyard off Via Condotti (Via Condotti 60-61A, 00187 Roma; +39 06 697 6111; www.battistoni.com), which has been purveying tweeds and made-to-measure suits in the ‘English style’ to the city’s well-heeled classes since the 1940s; or charming little Settimio Mieli (Via San Claudio 70, 00187 Roma; +39 06 678 5979), which crams hundreds of beautifully wrapped (and competitively-priced) women’s and men’s leather gloves of every possible hue into a shop the size of a broom cupboard.

Things get quirkier as you head north from the Spanish Steps. Ever since the Renaissance this has been the artists’ quarter, and although few penniless painters can afford to live here these days you’ll still get a flavour of the area’s more bohemian, villagey side if you wander along Via Margutta, with its antique shops, art galleries and lovely hidden courtyards (like that of number 51 – where Gregory Peck’s character lived in Roman Holiday).

Nearby, venerable stonemason Enrico Fiorentini presides over the Bottega del Marmoraro (Via Margutta 53B, 00187 Roma; +39 06 320 7660), an Aladdin’s cave of a shop full of marble friezes, classical busts and jokey carved inscriptions in Italian, Latin and English. I once went in here when signor Enrico was having his lunch on the huge slab of antique red marble that he uses as a dining table; after we’d chatted for a while, he invited me to join him for a plate of spaghetti. Like a true romano, he was more interested in convivial company and good food with maybe a glass or two of vino rosso than he was in actually selling anything.

Just around a couple of corners in Via del Babuino is chi-chi ‘concept store’ TAD (Via del Babuino 155A, 00187 Roma; +39 06 9684 2086; www.taditaly.com). Inside you’ll find cutting-edge fashion, homeware, books and magazines, a hairdresser and beauty salon, a flower shop and even a café-restaurant with a very stylish menu of fusion snacks and salads. It ain’t cheap, but it’s well worth a browse, and a good bet if you’re stuck for presents for difficult-to-please hip friends.

There are a couple of worthwhile stops at the top of the Spanish Steps too. In elegant Via Gregoriana, Indoroman (Via Gregoriana 36, 00187 Roma; +39 06 6919 0908; www.indoroman.com) is a real find. Owner Gaia Franchetti brings handwoven textiles back from regular trips to India and personalises them with her own printed motifs. You can buy fabric by the metre or made up into one of Franchetti’s very desirable quilts, scarves, dresses or other creations. She only opens from Monday to Friday; if the door’s closed, try ringing the bell.

Finally, right next to the Hotel De La Ville in swanky Via Sistina, Lisette Lenzi has been in charge of Rome’s most famous hair and beauty salon, Femme Sistina (Via Sistina 75A, 00187 Roma; +39 06 678 0260; www.femmesistina.com) since 1959. She’s done everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Nicole Kidman to my wife - by far the most glamorous and beautiful of the three. (There's nothing like taking dictation from one's better half to ensure a healthy and happy marriage...)

More expert advice on Rome

For more shopping advice, read my Shopping in Rome page.

For suggestions on where to stay in Rome, see my Rome Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Rome page.

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?