For many years, I dreamed of visiting Italy. I fantasized about the rolling hills of Tuscany, the canals of Venice and the history of Rome. I recently discovered an old bucket list on a scrap of paper from years ago and “spend at least one month in Italy” was listed as number two. Thankfully, I have since scratched that item off of my list.
In 2010 I took my first trip to Italy with my then boyfriend who happened to be Italian and another Italian friend of ours. The trip included day-long walks through Rome hitting all of the tourist spots that the guidebooks recommend, including pizza at a restaurant with a view of the Colosseum.
Fast-forward to a year later and I found myself living in the eternal city working for a United Nations organization. I spent nearly three years living in Rome and while there I lived in several different neighborhoods. I lived in San Giovanni, Testaccio and Colosseo and I also discovered Rome through the eyes of my Roman friends.
Everything the guidebooks tell you about Rome is correct: you must go to the Colosseum, visit the Vatican, throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain and people watch while sitting on the Spanish steps. But what sorts of things do Romans do that you may not find in a guidebook? Below are five off-the-beaten path things that you must do when visiting Rome.
1. Chiesa del Gesù
Rome has over 900 churches, which is obviously too many to visit in one trip. Many people can go their whole lives without even seeing the city’s four major basilicas. I’ve only seen three myself, after living in Rome for over three years. There are countless lists of top churches to visit in the city, yet Chiesa del Gesù is never on those lists. On a Saturday afternoon one summer, I was strolling around the city and I saw that this church was open and walked in.
In a word, the church was stunning. I’ve not seen the world famous paintings of the Sistine Chapel, but I’m willing to bet the ceiling of Chiesa del Gesù can give the famous work a run for its money. When you look up it almost feels like the painting is in 3D and if you want a closer look, a magnifying mirror on the ground gives a better view. In terms of proximity, if you visit Piazza Venezia and Vitorianno, Chiesa del Gesù is just a short three-minute walk.
2. An Alternate View of the Vatican
When I first visited Rome, I had a Roman friend as a tour guide. When he took us to the Garden of Oranges for beautiful views of the city, I thought that was where the tour ended. Then we walked over to a door and he told us to look through the keyhole. I was floored by what I saw, a perfect view of the Vatican through a keyhole. Since this initial visit I have been back two more times. I’ve had the opportunity to see the view during the day and at night and while the daytime view is spectacular, I definitely prefer the night view.
3. Pizza at Da Remo
There are constant debates in Rome about the best pizzeria. After tasting all of the pizzerias that are at the top of most “Visiting Rome” lists, I crowned Pizzeria Da Remo as my favorite pizzeria in Rome. The basic margarita pizza is sublime and I love the staff.
When you walk in you get an authentic and classic Roman experience. On your first visit it may feel that they are abrasive and abrupt, but somehow you come to love the authentic feel of it all. Italian customer service is less that desirable, but this place is top notch. The waiters tend to be a bit flirtatious and they crack a lot of jokes. The constant movement of the staff and yelling across the room can come as a shock to the senses but in a good way.
The restaurant is always packed and on summer evenings you will see throngs of people waiting in line to get in. After living across the street from this gem and grabbing a pizza at least one night a week I really got to know the staff and enjoyed joking with them.
4. Punch of the Day at Jerry Thomas
In every city that I visit I seek out a speakeasy. I just love feeling like I have been transported back in time with craft cocktails, low lights and beautiful decor. Jerry Thomas certainly does not disappoint when it comes to all three.
As far as speakeasies go, this is definitely on my short list of favorite speakeasies in the world. What I love most about Jerry Thomas is that it sits on a narrow street in the historic center of Rome and if you aren’t looking for it you would never find it. When you knock on the door a small panel will open and you are to give the password. The password is the answer to a question that they have posted on their website.
Once you answer correctly you are welcomed into the bar after crossing through the velvet curtain. When you are inside you are instantly transported to the 1930s. Not only is the decor reminiscent of the decade, but the staff, including the bartenders, are dressed in period clothing making you forget that you just walked in from the streets of modern day Rome.
I usually order the punch of the day, which is served in a beautiful little tea cup, complete with the saucer. Be sure to make a reservation to enjoy this experience because the seats get booked days in advance and there is no standing at the bar.
5. Cacio e pepe at Da Felice
Rome is known for many things and its world famous pasta dishes is one of them. When you visit Rome you are guaranteed to see carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe on every single menu.
Cacio e pepe is a simple dish with three ingredients: pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper and pasta. When you eat it the various flavors burst in your mouth making your palette believe that a complex blend of ingredients has you begging for more. While you can find this dish everywhere in Rome it does not mean that all cacio e pepe is created equal. Many restaurants in Rome cater to tourists and the food is not that great. If people are asking you to come in the restaurant, do not!
If you are looking for authentically delicious cacio e pepe you must head to Da Felice in Testaccio. Da Felice is a restaurant that is very popular among Romans. The food is great and authentic (read: Romans actually eat here) and it just happens to be in one of the best neighborhoods in Rome. If you order cacio e pepe here they toss it at the table for an incomparable fresh taste, which is why it remains on many lists as Rome’s best cacio e pepe.
For those of you that have been to Rome, have you been to any of these places? What else do you recommend in the Eternal City?