Nearly everything most tourists will want to see in Rome's neighborhoods is within walking distance. That said, the historical center is exhaustively huge. From San Giovanni in Laterano and its magnificent barn of a church to the Vatican, there’s a lot of ground to cover. So wear comfortable shoes and consider planning ahead to make sure you cover the Rome neighborhoods that interest you most—especially since the Metro doesn’t go through the historical center. Finally, if you grow tired of Renaissance palaces and history-steeped churches, check out EUR, the fascist architecture theme park conjured up in the mind of Mussolini.
Located between the Roman Forum and the Tiber River, this Rome neighborhood is quiet and somehow generally off the main tourist circuit, which means its streets are quieter than most. Jews were first brought to Rome as slaves by Pompey the Great a couple millennia ago and, over time, they were actually more appreciated here than other parts of Europe. All that changed, however, in the 16th century when Jews were forced to live in a walled neighborhood. Today that neighborhood--still called “the Ghetto”—is filled with Roman ruins and dotted with plus-sized palaces. There’s still a sizeable Jewish community here and a few good Roman Jewish restaurants.
Campo de’ Fiori
Campo de’ Fiori, the intimate square, and the warren of streets that surround it, is a great place to wander. Wine bars and restaurants lurk down every lane. Be sure to check out the daily farmers’ market that takes place in the square for a glance at day-to-day Roman life. Of course, the square wasn’t always so peaceful: it was the place where the Church enjoyed burning heretics. The Darth Vader-looking statue in the center of the square is that of Giordano Bruno who got on the pope’s bad side for criticizing the Church. He was burned in this square in the year 1600. The statue was erected during the battle between church and state during the unification of Italy in the late-19th century. Supporters of Italian statehood erected it and, just to give another flip of the nose to the Church, they made sure to point Bruno’s glare in a certain direction: right at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Considered by many to be the true center of the city, this ellipse-shaped public space, and the narrow streets that surround it, is always bustling. Boutiques, restaurants, cafes, wine bars, butcher shops and a few souvenir shops are all waiting to be discovered in this beautiful Rome neighborhood. The three fountains in the square have been the main attraction since the 17th century. In the center, Bernini’s ode to the world’s four great rivers is one of the most awe-inspiring fountains in the city. The cafes that line the square might be pricier than most, but one of the great Roman pastimes is sitting there, nursing a glass of wine or a cappuccino and watching the people walk by.
This Rome neighborhood, named for the main street that snakes its way up a gentle hill from Piazza Barberini, is where La Dolce Vita was born. The great Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini captured the budding hip scene that was going on here in the 1960s in his classic, “La Dolce Vita,” and soon after this became the place to go for the see and be seen crowd. Today, only the expensive hotels, restaurants and the ghosts of Marcello Mastroiani and Fellini live on. But it’s worth wandering up the winding street just to get a feel for what was the hippest place on the planet in the mid-1960s. Avoid the restaurants though, as they’re mostly aimed at tourists.
A ways from the city center, but worth the subway ride, EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) is one of the few neighborhoods in the world that is an homage to fascist architecture. Mussolini, the Interwar period dictator, wanted to restore the greatness of Rome. He looked around and saw the temples of the Roman Empire, the churches of medieval and Renaissance Rome, and decided to put his own stamp on the city outside the historical center. EUR, with its monumental white buildings, laden with arches and arcades that are modern re-interpretations of classical buildings, was born. Aside from the fascist-inspired buildings, the neighborhood doesn’t offer much more, but for history buffs of the early-20th century, there’s nothing like EUR.
Ask a Roman to name a favorite neighborhood in the center of town and you’re likely to hear Trastevere. This Rome neighborhood, beloved for its charm and timelessness, literally means “across the Tiber.” The winding, narrow lanes are flanked by discreet wine bars and outdoor cafes, and a plethora of restaurants. This area had been one of the main dwellings of the Jewish community before they moved across the river in the Middle Ages. But the area isn’t just about strolling the streets. Pop into the church Santa Maria in Trastevere, said to be the place of the first official Mass in Rome. And also don’t miss the church San Francesco a Ripa, which houses the Bernini sculpture, “The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni,” one of the artist’s most breathtaking works.
For a true salt-of-the-earth and not-so-touristy Roman experience, this working-class neighborhood south of the historical center is the place to go. Testaccio is also home to many of the city’s best clubs. It’s connected to Monte Testaccio, a 120-foot hill made up of broken pottery, which was deposited there from Rome’s port. In the Middle Ages, the hill was home to the city’s carnival celebrations, part of which included dangerous undertaking of rolling pigs, cows and Jews down the slope in a cart or barrel. In the 17th century, restaurants began opening up at the base of the hill thanks to the huge slaughterhouse (that has since moved out of the city). Testaccio is also home to the non-Catholic (sometimes called the Protestant) cemetery, which includes the graves of English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.