After-Hours Tours of Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
It may seem like a rite of passage to fight the crowds through the corridors of the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel, but to truly appreciate the glorious wealth of art history, consider bending the budget for a private after-hours tour. Several private operators offer tours that can cost as much as $300, but it is worth it to be virtually alone in the world’s greatest museums.
Rain in the Pantheon
Rome’s perennial sunny climes aren’t always conducive to rain-based activities, but at the first sprinkle, head to the Pantheon to watch the rain fall through the open oculus in the ancient temple ceiling. When light hits the drops just right, they sparkle like falling diamonds. Even if it’s not raining, the best-preserved temple from Roman times is not to be missed. Spend a few moments under the giant doors, pondering all who have walked through this threshold in the last 2,000 years.
Piazza della Rotonda; sbap-roma.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/116/pantheon
Modern Rome sits on layers of history that date back to the first century B.C., and there is no better example of this city’s complex past than the Basilica of San Clemente. One can traverse the centuries by descending the ancient stone steps that lead through three levels of the city’s past. The relatively modern church is a mosaic-laden 12th-century structure built on top of the ruins of a 4th-century church where frescoes have survived. The lowest level is what’s left of the pagan Temple to Mithras, where a statue depicting the sacrifice of a bull can still be seen.
Via Labicana 95; basilicasanclemente.com
Colosseum at Night
There is no singular monument that says “Rome” like the half-façade of the ancient Roman Colosseum. By day it is teeming with tourists jostling for space on the steamy travertine, but at night it can feel almost intimate. Now visitors can join one of the Culture Ministry’s special nighttime tours to get a glimpse of the majestic ruin by moonlight.
Piazza del Colosseo; archeoroma. beniculturali.it/en/archaeological-site/colosseum
Appia Antica on a Sunday
Don’t try this during the week, when you risk being a victim of vehicular homicide, but if you find yourself in Rome on a Sunday or holiday, take advantage of the ancient Appian Way when it is closed to traffic. Rent a bike or stroll down one of the most important ancient thoroughfares ever built. Start at the gate of Saint Sebastian and head down the cobbled lane to take in the ancient tombs and ruins along the way. Duck into either of the two catacombs for a guided subterranean tour.
Via Appia Antica; parcoappiaantica.it/en/default.asp
Tombstone reading at the Non-Catholic Cemetery at the foot of the Aventine Hill is one of the great pleasures of any Roman sojourn. There are few sacred spaces in the world packed with such important bones. Poets Keats and Shelley are buried along with scores of diplomats and non-Catholic Italians who spent their last days in Rome. Long epitaphs carved into the ornate gravestones tell the tales of travelers who died in the Eternal City. Not long before he was interred along the upper wall, Shelley summed up this tranquil oasis: “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
Santa Maria Degli Angeli e dei Martiri
The Church of Saint Mary of Angels and Martyrs was designed by Michelangelo just a year before his death and built inside the ruins of an ancient Roman thermal baths of Diocletian, making it one of the most unique basilicas in the city. In the 18th century, a giant vertical sundial meridian was laid into the marble flooring to help predict Easter and verify the timing of the Gregorian calendar. Visit the church between noon and 1 p.m. to see the sun filter through the tiny opening set high in the wall to mark the meridian line.
Piazza della Repubblica 9; www.santamariadegliangeliroma.it
It may seem impossible that a neighborhood set smack in the middle of Rome’s ancient ruins could remain incognito and virtually untouched by tourism, but somehow Monti has managed it. Rome’s first rione (as the city’s districts are called), just up the hill from the Colosseum, is a lively spot writhing with Romans from dusk till dawn. Quaint artisan boutiques and cool cafés line the cobbled streets and mark the territory that manages to retain an authentic vibe. Stop here for funky food, handmade jewelry, and unique designer garb.
Via dei Serpenti
Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffé
There is simply no better coffee to be had anywhere in the city than at Sant’Eustachio Il Caffé, just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. The café décor hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and despite the addition of some fancy coffee drinks, the best on the menu is a cappuccino or espresso, preferably taken at one of the little outdoor tables, watching the world go by.
Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 82; santeustachioilcaff e.it
Felice a Testaccio
It is surprisingly easy to eat badly in Rome, especially in the city center, where tourist fare rules. So head to Testaccio, across the Tiber River from Trastevere, where Romans go for good food. Among the many fabulous trattorias in this gritty part of town, the legendary Felice a Testaccio stands out. Everything on the menu is outstanding, but the cacio e pepe (pecorino cheese and fresh pepper on pasta) is what keeps the Romans coming back—if they can get a table. Reservations should be made several days in advance.
Via Mastro Giorgio 29; feliceatestaccio.it