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Coming off the Autostrada at Roma Nord or Roma Sud, you know by the convergence of heavily trafficked routes that you are entering a grand nexus: All roads lead to Rome. And then the interminable suburbs, the railroad crossings, the intersections—no wonder they call it the Eternal City.
As you enter the city proper, flashbacks of images you saw in fabled films such as Three Coins in the Fountain and Roman Holiday soon become reality: a bridge with heroic statues along its parapets; a towering cake of frothy marble decorated with allegorical figures in extravagant poses; a piazza and an obelisk under an umbrella of pine trees. Then you spot what looks like a multistory parking lot; with a gasp, you realize it's the Colosseum. That’s when you say to yourself, that’s right, Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s no place like Rome.
You have arrived. You're in the heart of the Città Eterna. As you step down from your excursion bus, you’re instantly mesmerized by the sounds of Vespas zipping in and out of traffic. You step onto the broad girdle of tarmac that encircles the great stone arena of the Roman emperors, and scurry out of the way of the passing Fiats—the motorists behind the wheels seem to display the panache of so many Ben-Hurs.
More than Florence, more than Venice, Mamma Roma is Italy's true showstopper. And though the city has one foot forward in the future, its timelessness and pristine preservation of its landmarks continue to captivate millions of visitors each year. Why? Here, the ancient Romans made us heirs-in-law to what we call Western Civilization; where centuries later Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling; where Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Baroque nymphs and naiads still dance in their marble fountains; and where, at Cinecittà Studios, Fellini filmed La Dolce Vita and 8½. Today, the city remains a veritable Grand Canyon of culture: Ancient Rome rubs shoulders with the medieval, the modern runs into the Renaissance, and the result is like nothing less than one big open-air museum for the world to marvel at.
Yesterday's Grand Tourists thronged the city for the same reason today's Expedians do. Majestic, complicated, enthralling, romantic, chaotic, monumental Rome is one of the world's great cities—past, present, and, probably, future. While one wouldn’t really reckon Rome as “futuristic,” the city is taking heartfelt leaps and bounds into the 21st century while flirting with the Facebook generation. In 2013, the Eternal City is outdazzling many of its Italian rivals with a newly unleashed vitality. Move over Milano: Rome is bringing its game up a notch, working its way up to be the next posh metropolitan "It" girl.
Romans are ready to show the world that its old-world ways—slow pace, antique-flair, and everything mini—are ancient history. They’re changing gears and starting to live life in the fast lane. For those who had any doubts, Romans can have their dolce vita-cake lifestyle and eat it, too.
Mega-shopping malls, tech-savvy sumptuousness, fusion food, and even gas-guzzling SUVs have made their way to the ancient home of the popes. Romans are more "connected" than ever before: even Pope Benedict XVI can't do without his Facebook and Twitter. Though resistance is bound to come with change, Romans seem to be embracing these tumultuous changes with open arms.
… is not the Roma your mother knew.
Home to nearly 3 million residents and a gazillion tourists, Rome is virtually busting at the seams. For decades, the heart and soul of the city was concentrated in its centro storico, where a chunk of Rome's legendary museums, monuments, and ancient relics have stood for centuries. Replete with postcard landmarks, Baroque palaces, and hyper-luxury hotels, the "Disneyfication" of the historic center is well underway.
As there was no room to grow upward, Rome has had to stretch outward. To relieve pressure in the city center, officials have focused on building a "new" Rome beyond the historic quarter. In the process, old, economically weaker, satellite districts have been revitalized with the creation of cutting-edge palazzos and museums. Former working-class neighborhoods—San Lorenzo and Pigneto to the north, Ostiense and Testaccio to the south—are also on the fast track of unprecedented change and becoming trendy. This "other" Rome is shabby-chic, alternative, and full of flair.
…is creating new "it" neihbohoods
The leader among Rome's "It" nabes is San Lorenzo, with Pigneto trailing just behind.
San Lorenzo is just a stone's throw away from the Termini train station. Rome's new "Left Bank" district is filled with students and a young bohemian crowd, thanks to its close proximity to La Sapienza University.
In fact, if you don't know what you're looking for, you could easily get lost in this maze of dark narrow streets, many now lined with underground cafés, bars, hip restaurants, and locales with live-music venues.
The leading scene-arenas include Formula 1 (Via degli Equi 13), for top pizzas; Da Franco ar Vicoletto (Via dei Falisci 1/b), just around the corner, for fish lovers; and Arancia Blu (Via dei Latini 55), which draws the green crowds thanks to its vegetarian menus.
The likes of bands such as the Cure, U2, and Pearl Jam have been known to play at I Giardini di Adone (Via dei Reti 38/A). Or throw down your best moves at Qube Disco (Viadi Portonaccio 212), where the vibe ranges from rock to house music and changes its scene and crowd from night to night.
Immortalized as the backdrop for Roberto Rossellini's magnificent Academy Award–nominated Rome Open City (Roma Città Aperta), Pigneto—set in the northwestern part of the city on the other side of the Porta Maggiore walls—has come a long way since the black-and-white days of the 1950s.
Sixty years ago, you couldn't find much more than old folks playing cards down the Via Fanfulla da Lodi and Via del Pigneto. Fast-forward to 2013 and this hot new quartiere has undergone a major transformation into a colorful hub for hipsters who tuck into the many wine bars, caffè, and bookshops scattered in and around main drags like Fanfulla da Lodi and Via del Pigneto.
Definitely on the radar as one of Rome's up-and-coming districts, Pigneto is bohemian in all the good old ways.
Today, the area is now home to many artists, journalists, and designers. And it has even become the backdrop for a slew of popular Italian TV shows.
Back in the day, Italian film legends Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti spent time here capturing the lives of Pigneto's working-class families. To channel those vibes, head on over to Pigneto’s most popular venue, Circolo degli Artisti (Via Casilina Vecchia 42) where one can rock out to one of the various local bands playing, catch a flick, or savor an art show of homegrown artists. Or enjoy an aperitivo at the historic Bar Necci (Via Fanfulla da Lodi 68). It was here at this neighborhood landmark that Pasolini filmed scenes for his award-winning 1961 Accatone (an unflinching look at how a pimp living in the slums of Rome attempts to go straight).
To catch Pigneto's other celluloid moments of fame, check out Ciak si Mangia (Via Giovanni Brancaleone 72), a popular pizzeria with reasonable prices, where walls showcase photos from various movies shot in the neighborhood.
Want a later nightcap? Head to Fanfulla 101 (Via Fanfulla da Lodi 101) for some live music with bands ranging from rock to country. Or, for those looking for something a little more laid-back, VI(ci)NO (Via del Pigneto 25) is an enoteca that serves up a little art and jazz with a glass of wine. Yeah! Music Café (Via Giovanni de Agostani 41) is also another hidden gem in Pigneto, busy churning out great vibes, music, and good ol’ homey neighborhood ambiente.
A bit bohemian like its next-door neighbor San Lorenzo, Pigneto is definitely getting brighter these days on the traveler's radar screen.
… is going multi-culti.
Spend a day in Rome's Esquilino neighborhood and you'll see just how multicultural the Eternal City is becoming. Once famous for its spice market at Piazza Vittorio, the area neighborhood has fast become a multiethnic stomping ground.
In fact, finding a true Roman restaurant or a local shopkeeper is hard to come by in this area, now that Chinese, Indian, African, and Middle Eastern restaurants have moved in (a typical example: The Syrian restaurant, Zenobia, perched on Piazza Dante, even includes a weekend belly-dancing show).
Homegrown and locally produced, the Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio is a perfect picture of the neighborhood's growing ethnic population. Made up of 16 musicians from Brazil, Senegal, Tunisia, Cuba, Argentina, Hungary, Ecuador, and Italy, the troupe was founded in 2002 and got its start in the ramshackle district just steps away from Rome's Termini train station and, by 2006, had a documentary made about them; today, they play at festivals around the world.
… is breaking new ground.
With a big push to modernize parts of Rome particularly lacking in the luster department, visitors will notice some new and novel aspects to the city skyline. First, that former eyesore, the Tiburtina train station, was completely overhauled, to the tune of some €330 million, to become the new avant-garde Tiburtina stazione, the first rail hub in Italy to handle super-high-speed (Alstom AGVs) trains.
Even more buzz has been generated by Rome’s first-ever skyscraper, the EuroSky Tower. Located in the distant EUR suburb, the 28-floor building (to be completed in 2013) will be the first to launch Romans into orbit for high-rise luxury apartment living (it’s eco-sustainable, replete with solar panels, bio-fuel power, and channels to deliver rainwater to plants and flowers). Feathers were ruffled when Vatican officials worried that the skyscraper would clash with St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome’s tallest building.
Located by the Tiber River, the grandiose new “Ponte della Musica” bridge has now “bridged the gap” between the worlds of sports and music and arts: it connects the Foro Italico area (home to Rome’s stunning Stadio Olimpico and Stadio dei Marmi) with the Flaminio district (Parco della Musica and the MAXXI museum). Designed by British star-engineer Buro Happold, the eco-friendly ponte can be used by pedestrians, cyclists, and electric buses.
Last but not least, the new convention center of Rome—EUR Congressi Roma—is expected to dazzle when completed in 2013.
Italian starchitect Massimiliano Fuksas whipped up a vast design centered around the “Cloud,” an airy futuristic structure that floats in a showcase of steel and glass. City officials have high hopes.
… is in political limbo.
After playing a prominent role in politics for nearly two decades, controversial tycoon Silvio Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister at the end of 2011, only after an unprecedented revolt within Parliament, after scandals and continuous market pressures had left Italy in bad shape.
To put a new government into place and turn the country’s severe economic crisis around, Mario Monti—a multitasker whose background runs the gamut from professor to economist to president of the prestigious Bocconi University to European commissioner—was appointed not only as the new prime minister but also, due to his formidable expertise, as minister of economy and finance.
He wasted no time and raised taxes, cracked down on tax evaders, and whipped Italy’s debt crisis back into shape. He will stay on until major new elections can be held.
… is more commuter-connected.
When it comes to train travel in Italy, the competition is growing fierce. Thanks to the introduction of “Italo,” Italy’s first private railway (owned by NTV and operated by the president of Fiat), rail travelers now have a new alternative to the state-run TrenItalia.
NTV is the first operator in the world to use the new Alstom AGV train, which currently holds the highest speed record for trains.
The new trains are said to be equipped with all sorts of modern amenities and will service various big cities around Italy including Rome, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples, and Salerno. In Rome, the high-speed trains will use Rome’s new Tiburtina station rather than Termini.
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