I just got back from spending seven days in Rome.
But this time felt like the first time, for one simple reason: I got some help getting off the beaten path.
I’ve never been on a guided tour before, mostly because I’ve always had a pubescent obsession with looking like a local whenever I travel. I was strictly stealth with my maps and camera, spoke in hushed tones, and avoided sensible footwear at all times.
But now I’m all growed up and I finally understand that the joy of traveling is truly seeing without worrying about being seen (as a tourist).
Two guides in particular showed me a Rome that I never knew existed. Rome is all about its historical underbelly, about what lies beneath and between its layers of civilization. If you take the time to peel them back, you begin to grasp that Rome is a work of art in progress, an ongoing morphing masterpiece.
Just as the ancient Romans integrated most of the cultures they conquered, modern day Rome is a crazy intertwixt of old and new, ancestors and inhabitants, food and wine, art and architecture. Everywhere you look there’s a reminder that this city has stood for millennia, and it profoundly changes the way you think about time – and your place in it.
If you can swing the extra cost of hiring a guide, I guarantee you’ll get an exponential return on your investment.
These are the guys that transformed my trip from very cool to truly awesome…and some of their favorite Roman nooks and crannies.
Chris from Wine & Food of Rome has a dual degree in European History and Religious Studies, and it serves him well. He’s a virtual search engine for facts and dates, but also for rich cultural context. Despite his pedigree, his style was casual and he welcomed all our questions as we wended our way through the city streets. (Okay, full disclosure here: Chris is my brother. But I’m totally objective about how talented he is – I swear.)
- The food at Hostaria da Pietro is not even the same species of that which passes for “Italian” in the U.S. Chris asked them to just bring us whatever was fresh that day, and it was absurdly delicious. The waiter treated us like his long-lost famiglia and showed us photos of his newborn daughter. It was that kind of place.
- I’ve done a few wine tastings in my day, but sommelier extraordinaire Alessandro at Roscioli Wine and Food Tasting takes it to another level. We tasted upwards of a dozen Old World wines paired with generous morsels of burrata cheese, pecorino romano, specialty prosciuttos and house-made spicy rigatoni.
We spent hours at the Villa Borghese, the 148-acre former estate of 16th century cardinal Scipione Borghese. After strolling the magnificent gardens (now a public park) we toured the gallery filled with Ancient Roman mosaics, exquisite Bernini sculptures, and paintings by Titian and Raphael.
- There are more than 900 churches in Rome. We only saw a fraction of them, but my favorite was Santa Maria degli Angeli. The church’s crumbling ruin of an exterior belies the grandeur inside – so symbolic of Rome’s tradition of not fixing stuff up too much, of celebrating its heritage and imperfect beauty.
Evan from Rome Illuminated has almost a decade of experience as a guide. He had dramatic flair and infectious enthusiasm as he effortlessly ushered us through his highlights of modern-day Rome. He also had an amazing ability to paint a picture of the sights, smells and sounds we may have encountered on a trip to Ancient Rome.
- My second favorite church was San Luigi dei Francesi, mostly because it has three amazing Caravaggio masterpieces in it. Evan brought the paintings to life, pointing out subtle details and giving us the stories behind them.
- We thought we were going into the Teatro Valle for a quick peek, but Evan managed to score us a grand tour of its innards. We climbed the rafters, got a bird’s eye view of the set pulleys and the backstage. Built in 1726, the theater was shut down in 2010 due to budget cuts, but was soon occupied by directors and
performers who still stage regular productions. This Roman passion has spurred other grassroots movements all over Europe to save old art institutions.
- We wrapped our tour with an aperitivo with a view – Evan called ahead to reserve a table on the terrace of Hotel Raphael . Arriving just as the last of the daylight faded and the city panorama was illuminated by hazy pink streetlights, we raised our Negronis and drank a toast – to our speedy return to Rome.
What are your favorite Roman hotspots?