It pays to approach the eternal city knowing that you won't see everything. If you shut yourself up in Rome's extraordinary collections and sites, you'll miss something just as important: the urban landscape and its inimitable inhabitants. To appreciate it, you'll need to walk and lounge.
The ancient world’s most powerful city started in humble fashion in the eighth century BC, when a group of huts was built on a hill overlooking the Tiber. Not many centuries later, this hill – the Palatine – bristled with magnificent palaces, including the recently opened House of Augustus, where gem-like frescoes give an idea of the beauty with which the first Roman emperor surrounded himself.
Rome today is looking good: many of its historic buildings have been restored and are gorgeously illuminated at night; the Ara Pacis has a controversial new enclosure; streets and squares have been repaved with traditional basalt cobbles. Parts of the centro storico have been pedestrianised; there are clean green electric buses and the metro is (very gradually) being extended.
Tridente, Trevi & Borghese
Leading out centrally from the square is the Tridente’s principal thoroughfare, via del Corso, which passes high-street clothing retailers en route to the towering column of Marcus Aurelius (piazza Colonna) – which was built between AD 180 and 196 to commemorate the victories on the battlefield of that most intellectual of Roman emperors – and piazza Venezia.
Esquilino, Celio & San Lorenzo
If you’ve come to Rome on a budget package, chances are you’ll end up in a hotel on the Esquilino, around Termini railway station. It may come as a shock. For despite heroic efforts by the municipal authorities to convince us that a ‘renaissance’ is under way here, the Esquilino’s grimy palazzi and questionable after-dark denizens Esquilino, Celio & San Lorenzo may not be what you expected of the Eternal City. But there are charms and attractions.
The Aventine & Testaccio
The Aventine hill is a leafy, quietly monied place first colonised by King Ancius Marcius in the seventh century BC. The foreigners and other undesirables who had fled here from the river port below were driven out when the hill was set aside for plebeians in 456 BC.
And here the plebeians remained, building temples and villas.
The Aventine is a lovely place for a walk. The delightful Parco Savello – still surrounded by the crenellated walls of a 12th-century fortress of the Savello family – has dozens of orange trees and a spectacular view over the city, especially at sunset. In nearby piazza Cavalieri di Malta, peek through the keyhole of the priory of the Knights of Malta to enjoy the surreal surprise designed by Gian Battista Piranesi: a telescopic view of the dome of St Peter's. Across busy viale Aventino is the similarly well-heeled San Saba district and, beyond the white cuboids of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, the giant Baths of Caracalla.
Trastevere & the Gianicolo
Located on the Tiber’s right bank, picturesque ivy-and-washing draped Trastevere is the Rome of your romantic dreams. It’s quaint but buzzing, historical but without the imposing ruins and galleries that you feel you have to ‘do’ on the other side of the river.
Here, across the Tiber, your main tasks will include rambling through narrow cobbled streets and selecting the likeliest-looking bar for aperitivi. If your fellow ramblers are mainly tourists (rather than the few genuine trasteverini who haven’t been priced out of this exclusive enclave), well, that’s not so bad. After all, you can eat well, soak up the rustic charm and generally bask in the laid-back feel of the place.
Trasteverini claim descent from slave stock. Through the Imperial period, much of the trans Tiberim area was agricultural, with farms, vineyards, country villas and gardens laid out for the pleasure of the Caesars. Trastevere was a working-class district in papal Rome and remained so until well after Unification. Viale Trastevere slices the district in two. At the hub of the much-visited western part is piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere with its eponymous church. Fewer tourists make it to the warren of cobbled alleys in the eastern half, where craftsmen still ply their trades around the lovely church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
Further upriver, Ponte Sisto provides handy pedestrian access back to the centro storico.
The Vatican & Prati
The area now occupied by the Vatican state has a connection with Christianity stretching back well before the establishment of the first basilica here.
The Vatican City occupies an area of less than half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile), making it the world's smallest state. Despite having fewer than 800 residents, it has its own diplomatic service, postal service, army (the Swiss Guard), heliport, station, supermarket, and radio and TV stations. It has observer status at the UN, and issues its own stamps and currency. Outside in Borgo, locals mingle with off-duty Swiss Guards and priests from the Vatican Curia (administration).
The Prati district was a provocation. Built over meadows (prati) soon after Rome became the capital of the newly unified Italian state in 1871, its grand palazzi housed the staff of the ministries and parliament. But its broad avenues were named after historic figures who had fought against the power of the Papal States, and the largest of its piazze – nestling beneath the Vatican walls – was named after the Risorgimento, the movement that had destroyed the papacy’s hold on Italy.
A solidly bourgeois district, Prati has a main drag – via Cola di Rienzo – which provides ample opportunities for retail therapy. Imposing military barracks line viale delle Milizie, and the bombastic Palazzo di Giustizia (popularly known as il palazzaccio, ‘the big ugly building’) sits between piazza Cavour and the Tiber. On the riverbank is one of Catholic Rome’s truly weird experiences: the Museo delle Anime dei Defunti.