When in Rome, go south of the river

by Mary.Novakovich

The maze of streets and cobbled alleyways of Trastevere give a truer flavour of Rome than some of the Italian capital's touristy hot spots

Everyone has their favourite area of Rome, whether for the cultural offerings, the restaurants, the history, the architecture or the overall atmosphere. But if you ask young Romans where they spend their evenings, the likely answer is Trastevere – 'across the Tiber', as it translates.
While the touristy magnets of Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Via Veneto and the Trevi Fountain have plenty of hotels and restaurants, you never quite get a sense of belonging to one of the world’s greatest cities if you base yourself there. They’re must-see areas during the day, and many of the restaurants tucked into the side streets can be reasonably authentic for such touristy spots. But for a real Roman experience, rent a flat in one of the 17th-century houses in the quarter many locals regard as the last genuine one of the city.
The narrow medieval streets of Trastevere are arranged in an attractive if somewhat confusing jumble, with tiny squares popping up where you least expect them. Many of the houses date from the 17th century, their tall façades in varying shades of faded ochre with green shutters. What is possibly the world’s smallest bus manages to squeeze itself through the narrow cobbled streets lined with artisans’ workshops, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants. The area has a nonchalantly scruffy air during the day; you can see the peeling paint and graffiti on the walls, but no one cares as they go about their daily business that has little to do with tourists.
At night, it’s a different story. Everyone, it seems, flocks across the Tiber river for the passeggiata, the obligatory Italian evening stroll. Then they hang around for an aperitif at one the many bars that come alive at night, before eating at the restaurants whose tables spill into the alleyways and squares. On warm summer evenings, when the streets are thronged with Italians as well as tourists, the atmosphere resembles a civilised and classy street carnival. Oversized sunglasses are mandatory.
All of this we could see from the window of the flat we rented on the Vicolo de’ Renzi, sadly now taken off the books by its new owners, the flat was the most bizarre conversion I’d ever seen. An open-plan kitchen and sitting room made up the lower floor, with a mezzanine containing a sofa bed and the tiny bathroom. A few more steps led to a platform with a double bed. Not the most private space for three people, but we instantly fell in love with its quirky character, wooden beamed ceilings, well-stocked kitchen (featuring an espresso pot in every size) and huge comfortable leather sofas. Other Rental in Rome flats have just as much character and are a practical, economical and enjoyable alternative to a hotel. It’s much more pleasurable to have a leisurely breakfast with real coffee and bread bought from the local bakery.
It was tempting to cook supper there too, but the lure of Trastevere’s restaurants was too strong. One in particular became a favourite. The Ristorante Paris in the Piazza San Calisto has been feeding locals since 1890, and it still produces fantastic Roman meat and seafood dishes such as veal with porcini and grilled turbot. It’s obviously not as cheap as a pizzeria (reckon about €50 a head), but the food is worth it. And you can save a few quid by having an aperitif at the Bar San Calisto next door. This bar is authentic Trastevere: a bit down at heel, full of arty and slightly dodgy types, and with very cheap drinks.
The locals prefer to stop here rather than around the corner in the Piazza di Santa Maria Trastevere, the biggest and most well-known square in the area. The Piazza di Santa Maria is also full of bars and restaurants, as well as a large 17th-century fountain, and is the main draw for tourists wanting to get a flavour of Trastevere. But after a drink in one of the bars here you’ll be hotfooting it back to Piazza San Calisto.
But if you do find yourself in Piazza Santa Maria during the day, you should visit the church of Santa Maria. Its current structure dates from the 12th century, but it’s thought to be the first official Christian place of worship to be built in Rome, founded in the third century when Christianity was still a minor cult. Inside are beautiful mosaics and columns taken from ancient Roman ruins. Its medieval character is enthralling, in keeping with this unashamedly bohemian quarter. You won’t want to stay anywhere else.


Where to stay
Hotel Trastevere: if you don't fancy self-catering, this is a reasonably priced hotel in Trastevere. It also has small apartments