Our local insights series aims to reveal the kind of things that the locals do… not always to be found in tourist handbooks .
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a great travelling mantra to follow when trying to get under the skin of any new city. It’s even more satisfying when you’re actually in Rome!
The thing is, if you adopt this approach properly, then places like the Coliseum and Vatican are going to have to be scratched from your list of to-dos. Locals don’t go to local tourist favourites, after all.
So on a recent visit to Rome I struck a compromise: Get the all the landmarks done in a day and then go and “do what the Romans do”, whatever that might be. It was my prerogative to find out.
Naturally this meant speaking to Romans, watching locals and generally keeping my head out of a Lonely Planet guide. A few of these I found just from walking around without a militant itinerary.
The San Lorenzo district
Compressive proof that Rome has a present as well as a past – San Lorenzo is a honey pot for artists and academics of the future.
There is a definite bohemian vibe to this place and a sense that the locals (the majority are students) are more comfortable in a vintage shop than a designer store and more appreciative of a graffiti tag than a Michelangelo.
The pop-up street parties are, by their nature, spontaneous, fun and capricious. The coffee shops are open late (all night late) and the nightclubs are grungy and open late (all-morning late).
It might sound strange but it’s refreshing to see a different side to Rome. A Rome with imperfections, not just wall to wall opulence.
Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome, is the Pompeii you have never heard of. A large archaeological site at the mouth of the River Tiber, it remains uninhabited and perfectly preserved.
It requires a short train journey from central Rome to get there but is definitely worth it. Ambling through the town (which isn’t overrun with tourists) is evocative, eerie and offers a unique insight into Rome through the ages.
Sit in a small amphitheatre, visit a Roman bar or enjoy a trip to the town baths (complete with steam rooms and [empty] plunge pools) all in haunting solitude. There are even empty apartment blocks that date back to the 1st century A.D.
The Church of the Sacred Heart
A Gothic cathedral is hard to find in a city dominated by Baroque architecture but this wonderful miniature of the Duomo di Milano is magnificent.
As well as the aesthetics, there is also a fascinating story behind the church…
In 1857, Father Victor Jounet claimed to see the effigy of a suffering face within a fire in the steeple. Jounet declared this was the sign of a soul trying to get through Purgatory. With the Pope’s approval, he then began to collect relics related to the afterlife as proof of another existence.
Today, the church houses a collection of books, fabrics, images and more (all related to the life hereafter).
Anyone who has watched the Rocky films can testify, Italians love their staircases. Okay, that’s a ridiculous generalisation but this is the widest staircase in all of Europe and a favourite meeting spot for tourists, locals and Italian Stallions alike.
The Spanish Steps are right in the middle of town; there is high-end shopping on a street just below, the wonderful Trinita dei Monti church at the top, and the Spanish Embassy close by – hence the name.
Sunset is the optimum time to visit and whatever you do, don’t forget your slinky.