Rome: Places to Explore

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Villa Borghese and Piazza del Popolo

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If beautiful masterpieces are as common as bricks in Rome, parks are far rarer. Happily, although you'll find few ilex and poplars dotting piazzas and streets, a verdant hoard can be found to the north of central Rome's cobblestoned chaos. Here breathes the city's giant green lung: the Villa Borghese park, where residents love to escape for some serious R&R. But don't think you can completely prevent gallery gout: Three of Rome's most important museums are inside the park, and Piazza del Popolo (which has some art-crammed churches) is close by.

The city's second-largest park started life as a "pleasure garden" for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 17th century, but it now serves the democratic pleasure of Rome and its hot and weary visitors. Stretch out under umbrella pines and watch horses trot their riders past, or take in the view from the Pincio, a quiet and shady overlook that's been enchanting visitors since Lucullus hosted his fabulous banquets here back in the days of the Caesars. The heart-shaped park encompasses 19 acres of landscaped plains and formal gardens, adorned with the noseless busts of famous Italians lining paths at the park's southern end. But encircling the park are Renaissance and Baroque palaces, many of which are now museums. The Galleria Borghese, built as an art gallery by Cardinal Borghese, has long been home to the family’s great art treasures, with a seemingly endless array of Bernini statuary and paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio to rival the Vatican Museums. (Although one work that belongs squarely in the secular world is Canova's seductive sculptural portrait of Napoléon's sister, the undraped Principessa Pauline Borghese.) A pleasant and green 20-minute walk away on the opposite side of the park, the Museo Etrusco at Villa Giulia offers the world's most comprehensive collection of Etruscan art and artifacts, and next door, the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna provides a welcome link to the "modern" Italian art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The formal garden terraces of the Pincio, on the southwestern side of Villa Borghese, give way to a stone staircase down to Piazza del Popolo, a mercifully traffic-free piazza that is one of Rome's best people-watching spots. If you must rest your feet, there are caffè and restaurant tables aplenty—but be warned that some would consider the cost of a coffee highway robbery. More improving (and free!) amusement is to be found in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, on the north side of the square, whose chapels decorated by Raphael and Caravaggio are justly celebrated.

To the southeast of the park is the famed Via Veneto, which, after its 1950s and early ’60s heyday as the focus of dolce vita excitement, fell out of fashion as the in-crowd headed elsewhere. Basically unchanging, the Via Veneto neighborhood has preserved its solid, bourgeois palaces—many of them now elegant hotels—and enormous ministries. The Romans mostly gone, its caffè still try to woo back tourists, at least, from their counterparts at the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, but with varied success.

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