Rome: an eternal allure

My kind of place There is history to be found in every corner of this city so take time exploring it, Tom Hall advises.

The Vittorio Emmanuele II monument at sunset. Rome is a product of nearly 3,000 years of history.
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From Naples to Venice, Italy has many wonderful cities to explore, but there is only one Rome. Since my first visit as a dumbstruck teenager, I've returned many times, each time seeing a different side of the place. The constant of coming here has been the wonderful feeling of being in a city that has long considered itself the centre of the world. Rome has millennia of history, and for a good part of that it has been the centre of mighty empires. It wears its age well and remains a delight to explore, being both walkable and well-connected by metro and buses. Rome's ancient wonders need little introduction and dodging the scooter-riding locals to get to the Colosseum is a Roman rite of passage. The Eternal City is the only one in the world to contain another country in its entirety: the Vatican City. Less well known is Rome's medieval heart, where marketplaces by day become raucous nightspots and cobbled streets hide statuary and Renaissance churches. A week's stay is good for starters, followed by regular returns to fill in the blanks.

Rome has accommodation to suit everyone. There are baroque palaces, modest pensioni (Italian B&Bs) and even religious institutions set up to host pilgrims but equally happy to have you stay provided you observe their customs and curfews and don't mind rooms without frills. If this is you, start at www.santasusanna.org/comingToRome/convents.html

Best of all, Rome has plenty of interesting options which get you closer to the heart and soul of the city than the big international chains. Daphne Inn (www.daphne-rome.com) has en-suite doubles starting from US$148 (Dh585), offering comfy, modern rooms in an 18th-century building a long coin's throw from the Trevi Fountain. If you'd like to stay in one of the city's ultimate style spots, try Portrait Suites (www.portraitsuites.com), where rooms start from $370 (Dh1,465). Owned by the family of fashion legend Salvatore Ferragamo, this elegant boutique hotel boasts a roof terrace with wonderful city views. It also overlooks Via Condotti, Rome's finest shopping street.

Knowing where to start in Rome can be the biggest challenge. The temptation is to dive straight in to explore the Colosseum and the ancient Forum, or join the crowds admiring Michelangelo's masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel. You must see these things, but a gentler introduction to Rome will help avoid cultural burnout. Instead, begin by wandering the tightly packed lanes of the Centro Storico (historic centre), pausing at the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the baroque churches found here. Via Giulia, a street lined with fine houses and orange trees, is a hidden treat. You'll happen across great cafes, pizzerias and gelataria (ice cream shops), where you can plan further explorations. Don't panic at how much there is to see, or rush. Rome isn't going anywhere.

The other reason Rome is an essential destination is the Romans. They exhibit every Italian cliché and yet manage to surprise and delight with every meeting. Meet them standing at the bar of a cafe downing an espresso - you pay more to sit down - or gesticulating wildly while arguing about the fortunes of Roma and Lazio, the city's football teams. Aim for the earthy, working class district of Testaccio, south of up-and-coming Trastevere in the south-east of the city, for a taste of Rome at its most Roman. The poets Keats and Shelley are buried nearby in the restful cemetery. The food market is the best place to jostle and banter as only the Romans can. Nearby trattoria are some of the best places for an authentic Roman feast.

You can find the shopping centre of Rome easily - just aim for the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna and walk in any direction with the steps behind you. Via Condotti is the place for fashion with a capital F. Via del Corso, at the end of Via Condotti, has more mid-range and chain stores. However, in a city like Rome, which still prides itself on independent shops and boutiques, you should continue to dig until you find something unique. Via del Governo Vecchio, which starts at the south-west corner of Piazza Navona, is a great place to start.

Rome's Ghetto area is the place to sample the local cuisine, which is heavy on the quinto quarto (the fifth quarter, or insides of the animal), so expect to find innovative use of offal, heads and feet. You'll also find plenty of variations on carciofi - artichokes. Cucina creativa - creative cooking restaurants - are a hot trend in the city, reinventing the neighbourhood trattoria for a new audience. You'll sniff out good places while nosing around the city's neighbourhoods, especially at night. A good choice that's modern, inventive, accessible and not too expensive is Ditrambo at Piazza della Cacelleria, close to the Campo de'Fiori in the Centro Storico.

The Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel, are a full-on assault on the senses. Centuries of high art and architecture whizz by in a blur. This place is no secret and you'll find the crowds close to overwhelming, particularly if you come on a stifling August day and arrive just as a dozen tour groups get here. Not coming is not an option, but for a slightly more intimate experience, visit twice. Arrive early and queue to get in, then race straight to the Sistine Chapel for a few moments of peace before everyone else gets there. Then come back late in the day and stroll the emptying galleries at a more leisurely pace.

Take a day trip out of the city for a break from the crowds. To the west, Ostia Antica is the well-preserved port of ancient Rome. Tranquil, hilltop Tivoli is home to Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian's summer residence and two wonderful gardens that are perfect for a picnic. Lastly, Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope retreats when it gets too hot, is a favourite haunt of romancing Romans and offers incredible views over the hills of Lazio.

Tom Hall is Lonely Planet's travel editor. He is also the author of Lonely Planet's Best Ever Travel Tips, second edition.

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