Piazza Navona. Here, everything that makes Rome unique is compressed into one beautiful Baroque piazza. Always camera-ready, Piazza Navona has Bernini sculptures, three gorgeous fountains, a magnificently Baroque church (Sant'Agnese in Agone), and, best of all, the excitement of so many people strolling, admiring the fountains, and enjoying the view.
The piazza has been an entertainment venue for Romans ever since being built over Domitian's circus (pieces
of the arena are still visible near adjacent Piazza Sant'Apollinare). Although undoubtedly more touristy today, the square still has the carefree air of the days when it was the scene of medieval jousts and 17th-century carnivals. Today, it's the site of a lively Christmas "Befana" fair.
The piazza still looks much as it did during the 17th century, after the Pamphili pope Innocent X decided to make it over into a monument to his family to rival the Barberini's palace at the Quattro Fontane.
At center stage is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, created for Innocent X by Bernini in 1651. Bernini's powerful figures of the four rivers represent the four corners of the world: the Nile; the Ganges; the Danube; and the Plata, with its hand raised. One story has it that the figure of the Nile—the figure closest to Sant' Agnese in Agone—hides its head because it can't bear to look upon the church's "inferior" facade designed by Francesco Borromini, Bernini's rival. In fact, the facade was built after the fountain, and the statue hides its head because it represents a river whose source was then unknown
On the eve of Epiphany (the night of January 5), Piazza Navona's toy fair explodes in joyful conclusion, with much noise and rowdiness to encourage la Befana, an old woman who brings toys to good children and pieces of coal (represented by similar-looking candy) to the naughty. Dealers also set up before Christmas to sell (these days, mostly factory-made) trinkets and presepio (crèche) figures, while the toy stores of Al Sogno (at No. 53) and Berté (at No. 3) enchant year-round.
If you want a caffè with one of the most beautiful, if pricey, views in Rome, grab a seat at Piazza Navona. The sidewalk tables of the Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 30; 06/6879148) caffè, along with its restaurant annex, offer a grandstand view of all the action. This is the place that invented the tartufo, a luscious chocolate ice-cream specialty. Piazza Navona is lined with cafés, though, so you can pick and choose. Just be aware that the restaurants here are geared toward tourists, so while it's a beautiful place for a coffee, you can find cheaper, more authentic, and much better meals elsewhere. Rome, 00186.
Rome, 00186, Italy