Rome is the most fascinating city in Italy, which makes it arguably the most fascinating city in the world: you could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface. It's an ancient place packed with the relics of over two thousand years of inhabitation, yet it’s so much more than an open-air museum: its culture, its food, its people make up a modern, vibrant city that would be worthy of a visit irrespective of its past. As a historic centre, it is special enough; as a contemporary European capital, it is utterly unique.
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The former heart of the mighty Roman Empire, and still the home of the papacy, the city is made up of layers of history. There are Rome’s classical features, most visibly the Colosseum, and the Forum and Palatine Hill; but beyond these there’s an almost uninterrupted sequence of monuments – from early Christian basilicas and Romanesque churches to Renaissance palaces and the fountains and churches of the Baroque period, which perhaps more than any other era has determined the look of the city today. The modern epoch has left its mark too, from the ponderous Neoclassical architecture of the post-Unification period to prestige projects like Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI exhibition space. These various eras crowd in on one another to an almost overwhelming degree: medieval churches sit atop ancient basilicas above Roman palaces; houses and apartment blocks that incorporate fragments of eroded Roman columns, carvings and inscriptions; roads and piazzas which follow the lines of ancient amphitheatres and stadiums.
Things to see in Rome
You won’t enjoy Rome if you spend your time trying to tick off things to do. However, there are some places that it would be a pity to leave the city without seeing. The Vatican is perhaps the most obvious one, most notably St Peter’s and the amazing stock of loot in the Vatican Museums; and the star attractions of the ancient city are worth a day or two in their own right. There are also the churches, fountains and works of art from the period that can be said to most define Rome, the Baroque, and in particular the works of Borromini and Bernini, whose efforts compete for space and attention throughout the city. Bernini was responsible for the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the city’s most famous square, Piazza Navona, among other things; but arguably his best sculptural work is in the Galleria Borghese, or in various churches, like his statue of St Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Borromini, his great rival at the time, built the churches of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’Ivo, both buildings intricately squeezed into small sites – Borromini’s trademark. Other great palaces are themselves treasure-troves of great art, like the Doria Pamphilj and Palazzo Barberini; and there are some unmissable museums, like the galleries of the Capitoline, and the main collections of the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo, all of which hold staggering collections of the cream of the city’s ancient art and sculpture. And finally there’s the city itself: stroll through the centro storico in the early morning, through Trastevere at sunset, or gaze down at the roofs and domes from the Janiculum Hill on a clear day, and you’ll quickly realize that there’s no place in Italy like it.
Rome City Centre
The city centre is divided neatly into distinct blocks. The warren of streets that makes up the centro storico occupies the hook of land on the left bank of the River Tiber, bordered to the east by Via del Corso and to the north and south by water. From here Rome’s central core spreads south and east: down towards Campo de’ Fiori; across Via del Corso to the major shopping streets and alleys around the Spanish Steps; to the major sites of the ancient city to the south; and to the expanse of the Villa Borghese park to the north. The left bank of the river is a little more distanced from the main hum of the city centre, home to the Vatican and St Peter’s, and, to the south of these, Trastevere – even in ancient times a distinct entity from the city proper, although nowadays as much of a focus for tourists as anywhere, especially at night.
Beyond Rome, the region of Lazio inevitably pales in comparison, but there is plenty of things to do there, not least the landscape, which varies from the green hills and lakes of the northern reaches to the drier, more mountainous south. It’s a relatively poor region, its lack of identity the butt of a number of Italian jokes, but it’s the closest you’ll get to the feel of the Italian South without catching the train to Naples. Much of the area can be easily seen on a day-trip from the capital, primarily the ancient sites of Ostia Antica and the various attractions of Tivoli. Further afield, in northern Lazio, the Etruscan sites of Tarquinia and Cerveteri provide the most obvious tourist focus, as does the pleasant provincial town of Viterbo and the gentle beauty of lakes Bracciano, Vico and Bolsena. The south arguably holds Lazio’s most appealing enclaves, not least unpretentious resorts like Terracina and Sperlonga, and the island of Ponza – one of the most alluring spots on the entire western seaboard.
Places to visit
When most people think of Rome they imagine sights and monuments: the Colosseum, Forum, the Vatican and St Peter’s – giant, see-before-you-die sights that are reason enough for a visit. And it’s true that there is perhaps no more monumental city in the world, packed with the relics of well over two thousand years of inhabitation, yet the city is so much more than the sum of these parts.
There’s an unpretentiousness to the city and its inhabitants that belies the historical significance, and marks it out from its rivals further north. It’s almost as if Rome doesn’t have to try too hard, aware that it is simply the most fascinating city in Italy – and arguably the world. You could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface of the best places to visit in Rome.
Central Rome is full of reminders of the glories of the ancient city: most obviously the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine, and of course the Pantheon – the most intact structure of the period – but also the Capitoline Museums and the museums of the Museo Nazionale Romano. Baroque Rome is everywhere you look, in piazzas, church facades, street furniture and fountains, and most notably in St Peter's Basilica, one of the grandest Baroque creations in Christendom.
Rome is also a city of great art collections, many of them the property of illustrious Roman families and still housed and displayed in their palaces, such as the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj; others are now property of the state and housed in appropriately grand buildings and palaces like the Palazzo Barberini and Galleria Borghese.
But where should you start your tour of Rome? If you’re here for only a day or two it would be a pity not to spend time just exploring the Centro Storico, the warren of streets occupying the hook of land on the east bank of the River Tiber. The churches, palaces and back alleys here are a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history. Directly across the river, on the west bank of the Tiber, is the Vatican, established as an independent sovereign state in 1929.
Between Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the Tiber lie Campo de’ Fiori and the Ghetto, more of a working quarter where cramped streets open out onto small squares flanked by churches. To the east, it merges into the atmospheric streets and scrabbly Roman ruins of the old Jewish Ghetto, a small but thriving neighbourhood.
For many people, the modern centre of Rome is Piazza Venezia – not so much a square as a road junction, flanked on all sides by imposing buildings. The great white bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele monument – The Vittoriano, as it’s known – is one of the key sights in the city, both for its views and for the alternative route it gives to the Piazza del Campidoglio and the unmissable museums on the Capitoline Hill.
Ancient Rome, the area stretching southeast from the Capitoline Hill, has the most concentrated and central grouping of Rome’s ancient glories. An obvious place to start is the Forum, before heading up to the greener heights of the Palatine Hill or continuing on to the Colosseum.
The northern part of Rome’s city centre is sometimes known as the Tridente, due to the trident shape of the roads leading down from the apex of Piazza del Popolo. It comprises some of the busiest streets in the city, with a host of shopping and sights along Via del Corso and up towards Piazza di Spagna, while to the south, the area around the Trevi Fountain is similarly – and unsurprisingly – thronged.
Up above the historic centre, the Quirinale is perhaps the most appealing of the hills that rise up on the eastern side of the centre of Rome and holds some of the city’s most compelling sights, namely the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Palazzo Barberini and a couple of Rome’s most ingenious Baroque churches.
The Esquiline is the highest and largest of the city’s seven hills, once an area of vineyards and olive groves that was one of the most fashionable residential quarters of ancient Rome. These days, as the location of Termini station and the bulk of Rome’s budget hotels, it’s a part of town that most travellers to Rome encounter at some point.
The area south of the Forum and Palatine holds a range of interesting sights, from the Baths of Caracalla – one of the city’s grandest ruins – to the catacombs on ancient Via Appia. Nearby Testaccio, a semi-gentrified working-class enclave known for its daily market and hard-core Roman restaurants, is also one of Rome’s nightlife hubs, now spilling over into nearby Ostiense.
Across the river and outside the city walls, Trastevere remains one of the city’s nicest neighbourhoods for a stroll. Its narrow streets and closeted squares are peaceful in the morning, but lively come the evening, as dozens of trattorias set out tables along the cobblestone streets – and they’re still buzzing late at night, when the bars take over.
Some of the area immediately north of Rome’s city centre is taken up by its most central park, Villa Borghese, which serves as valuable outdoor space for both Romans and tourists, as well as hosting some of the city’s best museums. The neighbourhoods beyond were until recently not of much interest, but the Auditorium complex and brand-new MAXXI museum have inspired fresh interest in the area.
You may find there’s quite enough in Rome to keep you occupied during your stay. But it can be a hot, oppressive city, and if you’re around long enough you really shouldn’t feel any guilt about seeing something of the countryside.
Two of the most popular places to visit on a day-trip are the ancient Roman sites of Ostia Antica and Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. North of the city, the Etruscan sites of Cerveteri and Tarquinia are atmospheric alternatives, and Bracciano has an airy lakeside location. To the south, the Castelli Romani provide the most appealing stretch of countryside close to Rome, and the coastal town of Anzio one of its most accessible beaches.
Best time to visit Rome
The Italian capital is a year-round city. There’s no best time to visit Rome, and you can really plan a trip at any time of year.
If you can though, avoid visiting in July and August, when the weather is hot and sticky, and those Romans who don’t make their living exclusively from the tourist industry have left town; many businesses close in August.
The weather is more pleasant in May, June and September, when days will be warm but not unbearably so; April, outside Easter, and October, are quieter and the weather can still be clement.
The winter months can also be nice, with many of the city’s more popular sights relatively uncrowded: there may be rain but temperatures are usually mild.
Brief History of Rome
Rome’s early history is interwoven with legend. Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of a local king, Numitor, had twin sons – the product, she alleged, of a rape by Mars. The two boys were abandoned and found by a wolf, who nursed them until their adoption by a shepherd. He named them Romulus and Remus, and they became leaders of the community and later laid out the boundaries of the city on the Palatine Hill. Before long it became apparent that there was only room for one ruler, and they quarrelled, Romulus killing Remus and becoming in 753 BC the city’s first monarch, to be followed by six further kings.
The Roman Republic and Empire
Rome as a kingdom lasted until about 507 BC, when the people rose up against the tyrannical King Tarquinius and established a Republic. The city prospered, growing greatly in size and subduing the various tribes of the surrounding areas. By the time it had fought and won the third Punic War against its principal rival, Carthage, in 146 BC, it had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean.
The history of the Republic was, however, also one of internal strife, marked by factional fighting among the patrician ruling classes, and the ordinary people, or plebeians. This all came to a head in 44 BC, when Julius Caesar, having proclaimed himself dictator, was murdered by conspirators concerned at the growing concentration of power into one man’s hands. A brief period of turmoil ensued, giving way, in 27 BC, to the founding of the Empire under Augustus, who transformed Rome, building arches, theatres and monuments of a magnificence suited to the capital of an expanding empire. Under Augustus, and his successors, the city swelled to a population of a million, its people housed in cramped apartment blocks or insulae; crime in the city was rife, and the traffic apparently on a par with today’s. But it was a time of peace and prosperity too, with the empire’s borders being ever more extended, reaching their maximum limits under the Emperor Trajan, who died in 117 AD.
The decline of Rome is hard to date precisely, but it could be said to have started with the Emperor Diocletian, who assumed power in 284 and divided the empire into two parts, East and West. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, shifted the seat of power to Byzantium in 330, and Rome’s period as capital of the world was over; the wealthier members of the population moved east and a series of invasions by Goths in 410 and Vandals about forty years later served only to quicken the city’s ruin.
The papal city
After the fall of the empire, the pope – based in Rome owing to the fact that St Peter (the Apostle and first pope) was martyred here in 64 AD – became the temporal ruler over much of Italy. It was the papacy, under Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) in 590, that rescued Rome from its demise. By sending missions all over Europe to spread the word of the Church and publicize its holy relics, he drew pilgrims, and their money, back to the city, in time making the papacy the natural authority in Rome. The pope took the name “Pontifex Maximus” after the title of the high priest of classical times (literally “the keeper of the bridges”, which were vital to the city’s well-being).
As time went on, power gradually became concentrated in a handful of families, who swapped the top jobs, including the papacy itself, between them. Under the burgeoning power of the pope, churches were built, the city’s pagan monuments rediscovered and preserved, and artists began to arrive in Rome to work on commissions for the latest pope, who would invariably try to outdo his predecessor’s efforts with ever more glorious buildings and works of art. This process reached a head during the Renaissance: Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo all worked in the city throughout their careers, and the reigns of Pope Julius II and his successor, Leo X, were something of a golden age. However, in 1527 all this was brought abruptly to an end, when the armies of the Habsburg monarch Charles V swept into the city, occupying it for a year, while Pope Clement VII cowered in the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The ensuing years were ones of yet more restoration, and perhaps because of this it’s the seventeenth century that has left the most tangible impression on Rome, the vigour of the Counter-Reformation throwing up huge sensational monuments like the Gesù church that were designed to confound the scepticism of the new Protestant thinking. This period also saw the completion of St Peter’s under Paul V, and the ascendancy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini as the city’s principal architect and sculptor. The eighteenth century witnessed the decline of the papacy as a political force, a phenomenon marked by the seventeen-year occupation of the city starting in 1798 by Napoleon, after which papal rule was restored.
The post-Unification city
Thirty-four years later a pro-Unification caucus under Mazzini declared the city a republic but was soon chased out, and Rome had to wait until troops stormed the walls in 1870 to join the unified country – symbolically the most important part of the Italian peninsula to do so. Garibaldi wasted no time in declaring the city the capital of the new kingdom – under Vittorio Emanuele II – and confining the by now quite powerless pontiff, Pius IX, to the Vatican. The Piemontese rulers of the new kingdom set about building a city fit to govern from, cutting new streets through Rome’s central core (Via Nazionale, Via del Tritone) and constructing grandiose buildings such as the Altar of the Nation. In 1929 Mussolini signed the Lateran Pact with Pope Pius XI, a compromise which forced the Vatican to accept the new Italian state and in return recognized the Vatican City as sovereign territory, independent of Italy, together with the key basilicas and papal palaces in Rome which remain technically independent of Italy to this day.
The contemporary city
During World War II, Mussolini famously made Rome his centre of operations until his resignation as leader in July 1943. The city was liberated by Allied forces in June 1944. The Italian republic since then has been a mixed affair, regularly changing its government (if not its leaders) every few months until a series of scandals forced the old guard from office. Things have continued in much the same vein, with the city symbolizing, to the rest of the country at least, the inertia of their nation’s government.
Offally good: traditional Roman cuisine
Roman cooking is traditionally dominated by the earthy cuisine of the working classes, with a little influence from the city’s centuries-old Jewish population thrown in. Although you’ll find all sorts of pasta served in Roman restaurants, spaghetti is common, as is the local speciality of bucatini or thick-cut hollow spaghetti (sometimes called tonarelli), served cacio e pepe (with pecorino and ground black pepper), alla carbonara (with beaten eggs, cubes of pan-fried guanciale – cured pork cheek, similar to bacon – and pecorino or parmesan), alla gricia (with pecorino and guanciale), all’amatriciana (with guanciale, tomato and bacon).
Fish features most frequently in Rome as salt cod – baccalà – best eaten Jewish-style, deep-fried. Offal is also key, and although it has been ousted from many of the more refined city-centre restaurants, you’ll still find it on the menus of more traditional places, especially those in Testaccio. Most favoured is pajata, the intestines of an unweaned calf. Look out, too, for coda alla vaccinara, oxtail stewed in a rich sauce of tomato and celery; abbacchio, milk-fed lamb roasted to melting tenderness with rosemary, sage and garlic; abbacchio alla scottadito, grilled lamb chops eaten with the fingers; and saltimbocca alla romana, thin slices of veal cooked with a slice of prosciutto and sage on top. Artichokes (carciofi) are the quintessential Roman vegetable, served alla romana (stuffed with garlic and mint and stewed) and in all their unadulterated glory as alla giudea – flattened and deep-fried in olive oil. Another not-to-be-missed side dish is fiori di zucca – batter-fried courgette blossom, stuffed with mozzarella and a sliver of marinated anchovy. Roman pizza has a thin crust and is best when baked in a wood-fired oven (forno a legna), but you can also find lots of great pizza by the slice (pizza al taglio). Lazio’s wine is enjoying a bit of a resurgence and is often better than most people think. Nonetheless you’ll still mostly find wines from the Castelli Romani (most famously Frascati) to the south, and from around Montefiascone (Est! Est! Est!) in the north – both excellent, straightforward whites, great for sunny lunchtimes or as an evening aperitivo – but in the city’s better and more contemporary restaurants you’ll find wines from other regions and newer producers.
The Centro Storico
Immediately north of Piazza Venezia is the real heart of Rome – the centro storico or historic centre, which makes up most of the triangular knob of land that bulges into a bend in the Tiber. This area, known in ancient Roman times as the Campus Martius, was outside the city centre, a low-lying area that was mostly given over to barracks and sporting arenas, together with several temples, including the Pantheon. Later it became the heart of the Renaissance city, and nowadays it’s the part of the town that is densest in interest, an unruly knot of narrow streets and alleys that holds some of the best of Rome’s classical and Baroque heritage and its most vivacious street- and nightlife. It’s here that most people find the Rome they’ve been looking for – a city of crumbling piazzas, Renaissance churches and fountains, blind alleys and streets humming with scooters and foot-traffic. Whichever direction you wander in there’s something to see; indeed it’s part of the appeal of the centre of Rome that even the most aimless ambling leads you past some breathlessly beautiful and historic spots.
Galleria Doria Pamphilj
North of Piazza Venezia, the first building on the left of Via del Corso is the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, one of the city’s finest Rococo palaces, and inside, the Galleria Doria Pamphilj is perhaps the best of Rome’s private art collections. The Doria Pamphilj family still lives in part of the building, and you’re guided through the gallery and the state apartments beyond by way of a free audio-tour narrated by the urbane Jonathan Pamphilj.
The picture gallery extends around the main courtyard, the paintings displayed in old-fashioned style, crammed in frame-to-frame, floor-to-ceiling. It has perhaps Rome’s best concentration of Dutch and Flemish paintings, with a rare Italian work by Brueghel the Elder showing a naval battle being fought outside Naples, a highly realistic portrait of two old men by Quinten Metsys and a Hans Memling Deposition, in the furthest rooms off the main gallery, as well as a further Metsys painting – the fabulously ugly Moneylenders and their Clients – in the main gallery, close by Annibale Carracci’s bucolic Flight into Egypt. Also in the rooms off the courtyard are three paintings by Caravaggio – Repentant Magdalene and John the Baptist, and his wonderful Rest on the Flight into Egypt – hanging near Salome with the head of St John, by Titian. The gallery’s most prized treasures, however, are in a small room on their own – a Bernini bust of the Pamphilj pope Innocent X and Velázquez’s famous, penetrating painting of the same man. All in all it’s a marvellous collection of work, displayed in a wonderfully appropriate setting.
Hourly guided tours take in the sumptuous private apartments, some of which were lived in until recently, hence the family photos dotted around the place.
The main focus of picturesque Piazza della Rotonda is the Pantheon, easily the most complete ancient Roman structure in the city and, along with the Colosseum, visually the most impressive. Though originally a temple that formed part of Marcus Agrippa’s redesign of the Campus Martius in around 27 BC – hence the inscription on the porch facade, which translates as "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three-time consul, made this" – it’s since been proved that the building was entirely rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian and finished around the year 125 AD. It’s a formidable architectural achievement even now: the diameter is precisely equal to its height (43.3m), and the oculus (the hole in the centre of the dome) – from which shafts of sunlight descend to illuminate the musty interior – a full 8.7m across. Most impressively, there are no visible arches or vaults to hold the whole thing up; instead they’re sunk into the concrete of the walls of the building. In its heyday it would have been richly decorated, the coffered ceiling heavily stuccoed and the niches filled with the statues of gods, but now, apart from its sheer size, the main things of interest are the tombs of two Italian kings, and the tomb of Raphael, between the second and third chapel on the left, with an inscription by the humanist bishop Pietro Bembo: “Living, great Nature feared he might outvie Her works, and dying, fears herself may die.” The same kind of sentiments might well have been reserved for the Pantheon itself.
The pedestrianized Piazza Navona, lined with cafés and restaurants, and often thronged with tourists, street artists and pigeons, is Rome's most famous square, and as picturesque as any in Italy. It takes its oval shape from the first-century-AD Stadium of Domitian, the principal venue of the athletic events and later chariot races that took place in the Campus Martius. Until the mid-fifteenth century the ruins of the arena were still here, overgrown and disused, but the square was given a facelift in the mid-seventeenth century by Pope Innocent X, who built most of the grandiose palaces that surround it.
Sant'Agnese in Agone
Pope Innocent X commissioned Borromini to design the facade of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone on the piazza’s western side. The story goes that the 13-year-old St Agnes was stripped naked before the crowds in the stadium as punishment for refusing to marry, whereupon she miraculously grew hair to cover herself. The church, typically squeezed into the tightest of spaces by Borromini, is supposedly built on the spot where it all happened.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Opposite Sant'Agnese in Agone, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), one of three fountains that punctuate the square, is a masterpiece by Bernini, Borromini’s archrival. It’s said that all the figures are shielding their eyes in horror from Borromini’s church facade (Bernini was disdainful of the less successful Borromini, and their rivalry is well documented), but the fountain had actually been completed before the facade was begun. The grand complexity of rock, which represents the four great rivers of the world, is topped with an Egyptian obelisk, brought here by Pope Innocent X from the Circus of Maxentius.
Campo de’Fiori and the Ghetto
Just south of the centro storico proper, Campo de’ Fiori and the Ghetto are Rome’s old centre part two, a similar neighbourhood of cramped, wanderable streets opening out into small squares flanked by churches. However, it’s less monumental and more of a working quarter, as evidenced by its main focus, Campo de’ Fiori, whose fruit and veg stalls are a marked contrast to the pavement artists of Piazza Navona. Close by are the dark alleys of the old Jewish Ghetto, and the busy traffic junction of Largo di Torre Argentina.
The Capitoline Hill
The real pity about the Vittoriano is that it obscures views of the Capitoline Hill behind – once the spiritual and political centre of the Roman Empire. Apart from anything else, this hill has contributed key words to the English language, including, of course, “capitol”, and “money”, which comes from the temple to Juno Moneta that once stood up here and housed the Roman mint. The Capitoline also played a significant role in medieval and Renaissance times: the flamboyant fourteenth-century dictator Cola di Rienzo stood here in triumph in 1347, and was murdered here by an angry mob seven years later – a humble statue marks the spot.
The Capitoline Museums
Next to the steps up to Santa Maria is the cordonata, an elegant, gently rising ramp, topped with two Roman statues of Castor and Pollux, leading to one of Rome's most elegant squares, Piazza del Campidoglio. The square was designed by Michelangelo in the last years of his life for Pope Paul III (though it wasn't in fact completed until the late seventeenth century); Michelangelo balanced the piazza, redesigning the facade of what is now the Palazzo dei Conservatori and projecting an identical building across the way, known as the Palazzo Nuovo. Both are angled slightly to focus on Palazzo Senatorio, Rome's town hall. In the centre of the square Michelangelo placed an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which had previously stood for years outside San Giovanni in Laterano. After careful restoration, the original is now behind a glass wall in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and a copy has taken its place at the centre of the piazza.
The Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo together make up the Capitoline Museums, containing some of the city’s most important ancient sculpture and art.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
The Palazzo dei Conservatori holds the larger, more varied collection. Among its many treasures are the so-called Spinario, a Roman statue of a boy picking a thorn out of his foot; the Etruscan bronze she-wolf nursing the mythic founders of the city; and the Hannibal Room, covered in wonderfully vivid fifteenth-century paintings recording Rome’s wars with Carthage, and so named for a rendering of Hannibal seated impressively on an elephant.
The wonderfully airy new wing holds the original statue of Marcus Aurelius, formerly in the square outside, alongside a giant bronze statue of Constantine, or at least his head, hand and orb. Nearby stands the rippling bronze of Hercules, behind which are part of the foundations and a retaining wall from the original temple of Jupiter here, discovered when the work for the new wing was undertaken. When museum fatigue sets in you can climb up to the floor above to the second-floor café, whose terrace commands one of the best views in Rome.
The second-floor pinacoteca holds Renaissance painting from the fourteenth to the late seventeenth century. Highlights include a couple of portraits by Van Dyck, a penetrating Portrait of a Crossbowman by Lorenzo Lotto, a pair of paintings from 1590 by Tintoretto and a very fine early work by Lodovico Carracci, Head of a Boy. In one of the two large main galleries, there’s a vast picture by Guercino, depicting the Burial of Santa Petronilla (an early Roman martyr who was the supposed daughter of St Peter), and two paintings by Caravaggio, one a replica of the young John the Baptist which hangs in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, the other an early work known as The Fortune-Teller.
The Palazzo Nuovo across the square – also accessible by way of an underground walkway that holds the Galleria Lapidaria, a collection of Roman marble inscriptions – is the more manageable of the two museums, with some of the best of the city's Roman sculpture crammed into half a dozen or so rooms. Among them is the remarkable statue Dying Gaul, as well as a Satyr Resting that was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Marble Faun; and the red marble Laughing Silenus. There are also busts and statues of Roman emperors and other famous names: a young Augustus, a cruel Caracalla and, the centrepiece, a life-size portrait of Helena, the mother of Constantine, reclining gracefully. Don’t miss the coy, delicate Capitoline Venus, housed in a room on its own.
There are remnants of the ancient Roman era all over the city, but the most concentrated and central grouping – which for simplicity’s sake we’ve called Ancient Rome – is the area that stretches southeast from the Capitoline Hill. It’s a reasonably traffic-free and self-contained part of the city, but it wasn’t always like this. Mussolini ploughed Via dei Fori Imperiali through here in the 1930s, with the intention of turning it into one giant archeological park, and this to some extent is what it is. You could spend a good day or so picking your way through the rubble of what was once the heart of the ancient world.
The Palatine Hill
Rising above the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill is supposedly where the city of Rome was founded, and is home to some of its most ancient remains. In a way it’s a greener, more pleasant site to tour than the Forum. In the days of the Republic, the Palatine was the most desirable address in Rome (the word “palace” is derived from Palatine), and big names continued to colonize it during the imperial era, trying to outdo each other with ever larger and more magnificent dwellings.
Along the main path up from the Forum, the Domus Flavia was once one of the most splendid residences, and, to the left, the top level of the gargantuan Domus Augustana spreads to the far brink of the hill. You can look down from here on its vast central courtyard with fountain and wander to the brink of the deep trench of the Stadium. On the far side of the Stadium, the ruins of the Domus and Baths of Septimius Severus cling to the side of the hill, while the large grey building nearby houses the Museo Palatino, which contains an assortment of statuary, pottery and architectural fragments that have been excavated on the Palatine during the last 150 years. Beyond the Domus Flavia is the Cryptoporticus, a long passage built by Nero to link the vestibule of his Domus Aurea with the Palatine palaces, and decorated with well-preserved Roman stuccowork at the far end, towards the House of Livia. The latter has been recently restored and can be visited on daily tours, its courtyard and inner rooms decorated with mosaic floors and frescoes depicting mythological scenes. The structure was originally believed to have been the residence of Livia, the wife of Augustus, but it's now identified as simply part of the House of Augustus, which is also accessible on guided tours. Visits take in the vividly frescoed rooms, some of which are very well-preserved, with designs on rich Pompeian-red backgrounds.
Climb up the steps near the House of Livia and you’re in the bottom corner of the Farnese Gardens, among the first botanical gardens in Europe, laid out by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the mid-sixteenth century and now a tidily planted retreat from the exposed heat of the ruins. The gardens surround the foundations of the Domus Tiberiana, a once lavish palace begun by Nero, established by Tiberius and extended by Hadrian a century or so later.
The northern part of Rome’s centre is sometimes known as the Tridente on account of the trident shape of the roads leading down from the apex of Piazza del Popolo – Via di Ripetta, Via del Corso and Via del Babuino. The area east of Via del Corso, focusing on Piazza di Spagna, was historically the artistic quarter of the city, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grand Tourists would come here in search of the colourful and exotic; institutions like Caffè Greco and Babington’s Tea Rooms were the meeting places of the local expat community for close on a couple of centuries. Today these institutions have given ground to more latter-day traps for the tourist dollar, and the area around Via dei Condotti is these days strictly international designer territory. But the air of a Rome being discovered – even colonized – by foreigners persists, even if most of those hanging out on the Spanish Steps are flying-visit teenagers.
The Quirinale and around
Of the hills that rise up on the eastern side of the centre of Rome, the Quirinale is perhaps the most appealing, home to some of the city’s finest palaces, but also to some of Rome’s greatest art collections, not least in the Palazzo Barberini.
Palazzo Barberini: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
On the southern side of Piazza Barberini, the Palazzo Barberini houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, a rich patchwork of art, mainly Italian and focused on the early Renaissance to late Baroque period. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the gallery is the building itself, worked on at different times by the most favoured architects of the day – Bernini, Borromini, Maderno – and the epitome of Baroque grandeur. In an impressive show of balanced commissioning, there are two main staircases, one by Bernini and a second by his rival Borromini, and the two couldn’t be more different – the former an ordered rectangle of ascending grandeur, the latter a more playful and more organic spiral staircase. But the palace’s first-floor Salone di Cortona is its artistic high spot, with a ceiling frescoed by Pietro da Cortona that is one of the best examples of exuberant Baroque trompe l’oeil you’ll ever see, a manic rendering of The Triumph of Divine Providence that almost crawls down the walls to meet you. Note the bees – the Barberini family symbol – flying towards the figure of Providence.
The collection is divided into three sections, the first of which, on the ground floor, has the oldest works, from the medieval to the early Renaissance. Among the numerous Madonnas, highlights include the Madonna Advocata in Room 1, the gallery's oldest work, a panel dating to c.1075, and Fra’ Filippo Lippi’s warmly maternal Tarquinia Madonna in Room 3, painted in 1437 and introducing background details, notably architecture, into Italian religious painting for the first time.
The second section, on the first floor, is the core of the collection, with works taking you through the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and including Raphael’s beguiling Fornarina, a painting of a Trasteveran baker’s daughter thought to have been the artist’s mistress (Raphael’s name appears clearly on the woman’s bracelet), although some experts claim the painting to be the work of a pupil. Later rooms have works by Tintoretto and Titian, and an impressive array of portraiture: Bronzino’s rendering of the marvellously erect Stefano Colonna, a portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein and another of Erasmus of Rotterdam by Quentin Metsys. Next door are two unusually small paintings by El Greco, The Baptism of Christ and Adoration of the Shepherds, and then, further on, a couple of rooms of work by Caravaggio – notably Judith and Holofernes – and his followers, for example the seventeenth-century Neapolitan Ribera, and the Dutch Terbrugghen and Jan van Bronckhorst.
The new galleries on the top floor (closed for renovation at the time of writing) finish off the collection by taking you from the late Baroque era, starting with works by more Neapolitan Baroque painters and their acolytes, most significantly Luca Giordano and the Calabrian Matia Preti, whose dark, dramatic canvases again owe a huge debt to Caravaggio. Next door, Bernini’s portrait of Urban VIII has been rightfully reinstated in the pope’s own palace, while the final rooms cover the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a number of cityscapes of Rome by Gaspar van Wittel and classic Venetian scenes by Guardi and Canaletto.
The Esquiline, Monti and Termini
Immediately north of the Colosseum, the Esquiline Hill is the highest and largest of the city’s seven hills. Formerly one of the most fashionable residential quarters of ancient Rome, it’s nowadays a mixed area that together with the adjacent Viminale Hill make up the district known as Monti, an appealing and up-and-coming quarter of cobbled streets and neighbourhood bars and restaurants. It’s also an area that most travellers to Rome encounter at some point – not just because of key sights like the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, but also because of its proximity to Termini station, whose environs shelter many of Rome’s budget hotels.
Trastevere and the Janiculum Hill
Across the river from the centre of town, on the right bank of the Tiber, the district of Trastevere was the artisan area of the city in classical times, neatly placed for the trade that came upriver from Ostia to be unloaded nearby. Outside the city walls, Trastevere (the name means “across the Tiber”) was for centuries heavily populated by immigrants, and this separation lent the neighbourhood a strong identity that lasted well into the twentieth century. Nowadays it’s a long way from the working-class quarter it used to be, often thronged with tourists, lured by the charm of its narrow streets and closeted squares. However, it is among the most pleasant places to stroll in Rome, particularly peaceful in the morning, lively come the evening, as dozens of trattorias set tables out along the cobbled streets, and still buzzing late at night when its bars and clubs provide a focus for one of Rome’s most dynamic night-time scenes.
Porta Portese flea market
Trastevere at its most disreputable but also most characteristic can be witnessed on Sunday, when the Porta Portese flea market stretches down from the Porta Portese gate down Via Portuense to Trastevere train station in a congested medley of antiques, old motor spares, cheap clothing, household goods, bric-a-brac, antiques and assorted junk. It starts around 7am, and you should come early if you want to buy, or even move – most of the bargains, not to mention the stolen goods, have gone by 10am, by which time the crush of people can be intense. It’s pretty much all over by lunchtime.
Villa Borghese and north
Some of the area immediately north of Rome's city centre is taken up by its most central park, Villa Borghese, which serves as valuable outdoor space for both Romans and tourists as well as housing some of the city's best museums. The neighbourhoods beyond, Flaminio and the other residential districts of north central Rome, were until recently not of much interest in themselves, but the Auditorium complex and the cutting-edge MAXXI have inspired fresh interest in the area.
On the far eastern edge of the Villa Borghese park, the wonderful Galleria Borghese was built in the early seventeenth century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and turned over to the state in 1902. Today it’s one of Rome’s great treasure-houses of art and should not be missed; be sure to book in advance.
The ground floor
The ground floor contains mainly sculpture: a mixture of ancient Roman items and seventeenth-century works, roughly linked together with late eighteenth-century ceiling paintings showing scenes from the Trojan War. Highlights include, in the first room off the entrance hall, Canova’s famously erotic statue Paolina Borghese – sister of Napoleon and married (reluctantly) to the reigning Prince Borghese – posed as Venus. Next door, there’s a marvellous statue of David by Bernini, the face of which is a self-portrait of the sculptor, and, further on, a dramatic, poised statue of Apollo and Daphne that captures the split second when Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree, with her fingers becoming leaves and her legs tree trunks. Next door, the Room of the Emperors has another Bernini sculpture, The Rape of Persephone, dating from 1622, a coolly virtuosic work that shows in melodramatic form the story of the abduction to the underworld of the beautiful nymph Persephone. The last room contains a variety of paintings by Cardinal Scipione’s protégé Caravaggio, notably the Madonna of the Grooms from 1605, a painting that at the time was considered to have depicted Christ far too realistically to hang in a central Rome church. Look also at St Jerome, captured writing at a table lit only by a source of light that streams in from the upper left of the picture, and his David holding the head of Goliath, sent by Caravaggio to Cardinal Scipione from exile in Malta, where he had fled to escape capital punishment for various crimes, and perhaps the last painting he ever did.
The first floor
The upstairs gallery is one of the richest small collections of paintings in the world. In the first room are several important paintings by Raphael, including his Deposition, painted in 1507 for a noble of Perugia in memory of her son. Look out also for Lady with a Unicorn and Portrait of a Man by Perugino, and a copy of the artist’s tired-out Julius II, painted in the last year of the pope’s life, 1513. In further rooms there are more early sixteenth-century paintings; prominent works include Cranach’s Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb, Lorenzo Lotto’s touching Portrait of a Man, and in the opposite direction a series of self-portraits by Bernini at various stages of his long life. Next to these are a lifelike bust of Cardinal Scipione executed by Bernini in 1632, and a smaller bust of Pope Paul V, also by Bernini. Beyond here, in a further room, is a painting of Diana by Domechino, depicting the goddess and her attendants doing a bit of target practice, and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, painted in 1514 when he was about 25 years old, to celebrate the marriage of the Venetian noble Niccolò Aurelio.
A ten-minute tram journey north of Piazza del Popolo, MAXXI is a museum of twenty-first-century art and architecture. Opened to much fanfare in 2010 in a landmark building by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid it’s primarily a venue for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture (though it does have small collections of its own), but the building, a simultaneously jagged and curvy affair, is worth a visit in its own right, with its long, unravelling galleries and a towering lobby encompassing the inevitable café and bookstore.
Out from the city: Ostia Antica and Tivoli
You may find there’s quite enough in Rome to keep you occupied during your stay, but it can be a hot, oppressive city and if you’re around long enough you shouldn’t feel any guilt about seeing something of the countryside; and in fact two of the main attractions visitable on a day-trip from Rome are the equal of anything you can see in the city. Tivoli, less than an hour by bus east of Rome, is a small town famous for the travertine quarries nearby, the landscaped gardens and parks of its Renaissance villas, and a fine ancient Roman villa just outside. Ostia, in the opposite direction near the sea, and similarly easy to reach on public transport, was home to the port of Rome in classical times, and the well-preserved site is well worth seeing.
There are two Ostias: one a rather over-visited seaside resort, Lido di Ostia; the other, one of the finest ancient Roman sites – the excavations of Ostia Antica – which are on a par with anything you’ll see in Rome itself (or indeed elsewhere in Italy) and easily merit the half-day journey out from the city.
The site of Ostia Antica marked the coastline in classical times, and the town that grew up here was the port of ancient Rome, a thriving place whose commercial activities were vital to the city further upstream. The excavations are relatively free of tourists, and it’s much easier to reconstruct a Roman town from these than from any amount of pottering around the Roman Forum. The site is also very spread out, so be prepared for a fair amount of walking.
The main street, the Decumanus Maximus, leads west from the entrance, past the Baths of Neptune on the right (where there’s an interesting mosaic) to the town’s commercial centre, otherwise known as the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, for the remains of shops and trading offices that still fringe the central square. These represented commercial enterprises from all over the ancient world, and each was once fronted by a mosaic of boats, fish and suchlike to denote their trade as well as their origin. Flanking the southern side of the square, the theatre has been much restored but is nonetheless impressive, enlarged by Septimius Severus in the second century AD to hold up to four thousand people: it hosts theatre performances in the summer. Further, the Decumanus Maximus runs past the substantial remains of one of Ostia's largest horrea (warehouses), buildings that once stood all over the city. Turn right up Via dei Molini, then left, to reach the House of Diana, probably the best-preserved private house in Ostia, with a dark, mysterious set of rooms around a central courtyard, with a mithraeum (a shrine devoted to the cult of Mithras) at the back. Just along the street is the delightful Thermopolium – an ancient Roman café, complete with seats outside, a high counter, display shelves and even wall paintings of parts of the menu. Just beyond the Thermopolium are the high brick walls of the Capitolium, Ostia's most important temple, dating from the second century AD, overlooking the shattered columns of the Forum and the Temples of Rome and Augustus. Further on down the main street, more horrea, superbly preserved and complete with pediment and names inscribed on the marble, merit a detour off to the right; although you can’t enter, you can peer into the courtyard. Beyond, the House of Cupid and Psyche has a courtyard you can walk into, its rooms clearly discernible on one side, a colourful marbled floor at the top and a columned nymphaeum, with marble niches, on the right.
Next door to the site's café-restaurant, the Museu Ostiense holds a variety of articles from the site, including a statue of Mithras killing a bull and some fine sarcophagi and statuary from the imperial period.
Perched high on a hill just 40km from Rome, Tivoli has always been something of a retreat from the city. In classical days it was a retirement town for wealthy Romans; later, during Renaissance times, it became the playground of the moneyed classes, attracting some of the city’s most well-to-do families, who built their country villas out here. Nowadays the moneyed classes have mostly gone, but Tivoli does very nicely on the fruits of its still-thriving travertine business, exporting the precious stone worldwide (the quarries line the main road into town from Rome). To do justice to its gardens and villas – especially if Villa Adriana is on your list, as indeed it should be – you’ll need time, so it’s worth setting out early.
Northern Lazio, or “Alto Lazio”, is quite a different entity from the region south of the capital and is well worth a visit. Green and wooded in the centre, its steadily more undulating hills hint at the landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria further north. Few large towns exist, however, and, with determination (and, ideally, a car), you can see much of it on day-trips from Rome.
Foremost among the area’s attractions is the legacy of the Etruscans, a sophisticated pre-Roman people swathed in mystery. To the west, some of their most important sites are readily accessible by road or rail – principally the necropolises at Cerveteri and Tarquinia. Alternatively there’s the town and lake at Bracciano, and places to swim from Tarquinia up to Civitavecchia – playgrounds for hot and bothered Romans on summer weekends. Viterbo, the medieval “city of popes”, can serve as a base if you’re thinking of a two- or three-day visit, particularly if you’re touring without a car. It’s close to some fine examples of the region’s Mannerist villas and gardens at Caprarola and Bagnaia – and the amazing monster park at Bomarzo.
Etruria and the coast
D.H. Lawrence had pretty much the last word on the plain, low hills stretching north from Rome towards the Tuscan border, describing the landscape as “lifeless looking … as if it had given up its last gasp and was now forever inert.” His Etruscan Places, published in 1932, is one of the best introductions to this pre-Roman civilization and its cities, which, one or two beaches excepted, are the main reasons for venturing out here.
Cerveteri provides the most accessible Etruscan taster from Rome. The settlement here dates back to the tenth century BC. Once known as Caere, it ranked among the top three cities in the twelve-strong Etruscan federation, its wealth derived largely from the mineral-rich Tolfa hills to the northeast – a gentle range that gives the plain a much-needed touch of scenic colour. In its heyday, the town spread over 150 hectares (something like thirty times its present size), controlling territory 50km up the coast. By the third century BC, Caere was under Roman control, leading to the decline of Etruscan culture in the region. The present town is a thirteenth-century creation, dismissed by D.H. Lawrence – and you really can't blame him – as "forlorn beyond words".
The necropolis at Tarquina is second only to Cerveteri among northern Lazio’s Etruscan sites. Founded in the tenth century BC, the city’s population peaked at around one hundred thousand but the Roman juggernaut triggered its decline six hundred years later and only a warren of graves remains. The town itself is pleasant, its partial walls and crop of medieval towers making it a good place to pass an afternoon after seeing the ruins. Its museum is also the region’s finest outside Rome.
Lago di Bracciano
The Lago di Bracciano fills an enormous volcanic crater, a smooth, roughly circular expanse of water that’s popular – but not too popular – with Romans keen to escape the city’s summer heat; its shores are fairly peaceful even on summer Sundays. The best place to swim is from the beach at Lungolago Argenti, a ten-minute walk along Via del Lago from Bracciano Town. You can rent a boat and picnic on the beach – or eat in one of the nearby restaurants.
Lago di Vico
The smallest of northern Lazio’s lakes is the only one deemed worthy of nature-reserve status. Lago di Vico is a former volcanic crater ringed by mountains, the highest of which, Monte Fogliano, rises to 963m on the western shore. The Via Cimina traverses the summit ridges and is a popular scenic drive, dotted with restaurants, but there’s a quieter road (closed to cars) near the shoreline, and lovely spots to swim from, with small beaches.
The capital of its province, and indeed of northern Lazio as a whole, Viterbo is easily the region’s most historic centre, a medieval town which, during the thirteenth century, was once something of a rival to Rome. It was, for a time, the residence of popes, a succession of whom relocated here after friction in the capital, and today there are some vestiges of its vanquished prestige – a handful of grand palaces and medieval churches, enclosed by an intact set of walls. The town is a well-kept place and refreshingly untouched by much tourist traffic; buses and trains run frequently to Rome and you can comfortably see the town in a day, but it makes the best base for seeing the rest of northern Lazio.
Lago di Bolsena
North along the Via Cassia from Viterbo, Lago Di Bolsena is a popular destination, though rarely overcrowded; its western shore is more picturesque, and better for camping rough. On the northern shore of the lake, Bolsena is the main focus, a relaxed and likeable place that’s worth a brief stop. The town itself is set back from the water, around the main square, Piazza Matteotti, off which run medieval nooks and alleyways to the deconsecrated thirteenth-century church of San Francesco, which occasionally hosts concerts and exhibitions. The adjacent sixteenth-century portal is the entrance to the medieval borgo, with the well-preserved thirteenth-century Rocca Monaldeschi perched over its western end. Inside the castle is the local museum, with modest displays on underwater archeology and Villanovan and Etruscan finds, plus stunning views from the ramparts.
East of Piazza Matteotti, the twelfth-century basilica of Santa Cristina conceals a good Romanesque interior behind a wide Renaissance facade added in 1494. Cristina, daughter of the town’s third-century Roman prefect, was tortured by her father for her Christian beliefs, eventually being thrown into the lake with a stone round her neck; miraculously the rock floated, though Cristina was martyred soon after. Adjoining the chapel is the Grotta di Santa Cristina, once part of early Christian catacombs.
There’s a nice stretch of free beach by the Naiadi Park hotel, about 750m north of the main town.
The saying goes that the Italian South begins with the first petrol station below Rome, and certainly there’s a radically different feel here. Green wooded hills give way to flat marshy land and harsh unyielding mountains that possess a poor, almost desperate, look in places – most travellers skate straight through en route to Naples. But the coast merits a more unhurried route south – its resorts, especially Terracina and Sperlonga, are fine places to take it easy after the rigours of the capital. And Ponza, a couple of hours offshore, is – out of high season, at least – one of Italy’s undiscovered treasures. Inland, too, there are rewarding points to head for: the day-trip towns of the Castelli Romani; the peaceful retreat of Subiaco, set amid glorious scenery; and Cassino and its nearby abbey of Montecassino, where some of the fiercest fighting of World War II took place.
Around 35km northeast of Palestrina, Subacio is beautifully set around a hill topped by the Rocca Abbazia castle, and close to Monte Liviato – one of Lazio’s premier ski resorts. Purpose-built for workmen on Nero’s grand villa (very meagre traces of which survive), Subiaco became the contemplative base of St Benedict in the fifth century. The hermit dwelled in a mountain cave here for three years, before leaving to found the monastery at Montecassino, but his legacy continues today in the shape of two monastic complexes just outside town. There’s nothing much to the town centre – the nicest bit is arguably the riverside, where there’s a crumbling medieval bridge over the fast-flowing Aniene, footpaths, and even the chance to go canoeing; international competitions take place here in the first half of May.
A further 15km down the coast from San Felice, Terracina is an immediately likeable little town, divided between a tumbledown old quarter high on the hill and a lively newer area by the sea. During classical times, it was an important staging post on the Appian Way, which meets the ocean here; nowadays it’s primarily a seaside resort with good beaches and frequent connections with the other points of interest, including daily ferries and hydrofoils to Ponza. Apart from the scrubby oval of sand fringing the centre, Terracina’s beaches stretch west pretty much indefinitely from the main harbour and are large enough to be uncrowded.
The southern Lazio coast
The Lazio coast to the south of Rome is a more attractive proposition than the northern stretches. Its towns have a bit more charm, the water is cleaner, and in the further reaches, beyond the flats of the Pontine Marshes and Monte Circeo, the shoreline begins to pucker into cliffs and coves that hint gently at the glories of Campania – all good either for day-trips and overnight outings from the city, or for a pleasingly wayward route to Naples.
The Pontine islands
Scattered across the sea between Rome and Naples, the Pontine islands are relatively unknown to foreign travellers. Volcanic in origin, only two are inhabited – the small island of Ventotene and its larger neighbour Ponza. The latter bustles with Italian tourists, especially Romans, between mid-June and the end of August, but at any other time, it’s yours for the asking.
The group’s main island, Ponza, is only 8km long and 2km across at its widest point. Ponza Town is a sight to behold: a jumble of pastel-coloured, flat-roofed houses heaped above a pink semicircle of promenade that curls around the harbour. It makes a marvellous place to rest up for a few days, having so far escaped the clutches of designer boutiques and souvenir shops. Although the island lacks specific sights, Ponza is great for aimless wanderings; in the early evening, locals parade along the yellow-painted Municipio arcade of shops and cafés. For lazing and swimming, there’s a small, clean cove in the town.
Sperlonga and around
The coast south of Terracina is probably Lazio’s prettiest stretch, the cliff punctured by tiny beaches signposted enticingly from the road. Sperlonga, built high on a rocky promontory, is a fashionable spot for Roman and Neapolitan families, its whitewashed houses, arched alleys and stepped narrow streets almost Moorish in feel. Both the old upper town and modern lower district are almost given over entirely to tourists during summer, but it’s still a pleasant spot, with cars not allowed into the old centre. There are beaches either side of Sperlonga’s headland, and although a lot of space is private, it’s never too difficult to find a decent spot.