Nobody in Rome spends as much time at the city’s top attractions or talking with travellers as the city’s tour guides, so they’re the best people to provide top tips on visiting the city. Culture Trip spoke with a variety of guides from the city’s leading walking, food, drink and bike tour operators, to ask them to share their secrets. The result is a whirlwind guide on how to enjoy the Eternal City like a professional local.
When you eat out, choose to indulge in cucina Romana, the city’s traditional dishes. Almost every guide we spoke with recommended trying Roman pasta dishes like cacio e pepe, amatriciana, gricia and carbonara.
Tomasso Santostasi, tour guide and manager for Rome’s Secret Food Tours, explained that these dishes originate in the hills surrounding Rome. “Shepherds bred their sheep and produced the famous pecorino romano,” he says; the hard cheese is one of the few simple ingredients that make up cacio e pepe. He also cites the “unique way” that the guanciale (pork cheek) is cured, as the secret that makes the carbonara, amatriciana and gricia of Rome uniquely flavoursome.
The Tour Guy’s Brandon Shaw tells us that you can find these Roman specialities in nearly every restaurant, and he’s not wrong. However, for special occasions, his top tip is a reservation at L’Osteria di Monteverde, to enjoy creative interpretations of Roman classics from their tasting menu.
Roman pizza is distinctly different from its soft and light Neapolitan cousin. Rome’s pizza is crispier, denser and more substantially suited for life in a fast-paced capital – you can easily eat it on the Metro without making a mess. While Neapolitan pizza is round, Roman pizza is baked in a square tray and made to be sliced at a counter for people on the go.
Eric Senn, food tour guide with Local Aromas, advises against pre-sliced pizza as a way of guaranteeing quality. In the best places, he says, “You have to point at what you want, showing how much you want, and you are going to pay by weight.”
For the best example of typically Roman pizza, Eric recommends pizza bianca con mortadella, crisp, white Roman pizza crust made into a sandwich using only a delicate ham, flavoured with pistachios. For the best example, he suggests you head to Antico Forno Roscioli in Via dei Chiavari. “They make the sandwich right in front of you, slicing the bread and the cured meat,” says Eric. “The freshness makes the difference.”
As the home of Catholicism, Rome isn’t lacking in churches – there are over 900 just waiting for travellers to explore them. St Peter’s Basilica is unmissable, but Magdalena Frick of Bici and Baci Bike Tours recommends wandering into smaller churches. “Some of them from the outside almost looks like nothing, but from inside are wonderful.” Her favourite church is Monti’s small Santa Prassede, just beside the famous Santa Maria Maggiore and therefore often overlooked. However, look above the altar and you’ll find remarkable, golden ninth-century Byzantine mosaics.
However, Rome’s religious sites should be visited with respect for their intended usage. Eric Senn would love to see fewer tourists try to enter Rome’s churches underdressed in shorts and flip-flops. “In many churches, you will be asked to cover your shoulders and sometimes your legs. A polo shirt is comfortable enough, and flip-flops, by the way, are really bad for your feet!”
Rome has two of Italy’s most visited attractions – the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum Archaeological Area – but there are plenty more cultural treasures to be found away from the crowds.
Frick suggests paying a visit to the Capitoline Museums. “It’s one of Rome’s most famous museums, but strangely, it is almost always quite empty.” Inside, you’ll discover original Roman bronzes and marbles alongside 16th-century frescoes. Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme promises the chance to explore Ancient Roman wonders in a serenity you won’t find in the Colosseum; it’s also one of Shaw’s favourites. “It’s an amazing museum of ancient Roman artwork, over three full floors.”
For architecture lovers, food guide Senn rates starchitect Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI gallery as unmissable, as well as Quartiere Coppedè; this picturesque neighbourhood is filled with fairy-tale buildings in a jumble of architectural styles. With fewer tourists than the city centre, this makes a relaxing and scenic walk for those looking to escape the city.
Rome has a reputation for the intensity of its traffic, but Mies Nuytens, from TopBike Rentals and Tours, wants visitors to know cycling in the historic city is safer than ever. “Rome has drastically reduced traffic in the historic centre in the last few years.”
Bike tour guides agree that cycling helps visitors discover hidden gems on the way to famous monuments. “You get a taste of the real Roman life,” says Nuytens. Frick of Bici and Baci Bike Tours agrees. On a bike, visitors discover the “small side streets with little fountains, beautiful courtyards and houses full of details, which make a big part of Rome’s real flair,” she says.
Rome’s travertine marble monuments are particularly vulnerable to the degrading effects of smog and air pollution. “Whoever is interested in art and history should also care for their maintenance and conservation,” points out Frick. Cycling promises a way to reduce your environmental impact and preserve Rome’s iconic landmarks, while discovering the city at your own pace.
The home of Rome’s ‘other amphitheatre’ the Theatre of Marcellus, the Jewish Quarter promises Ancient Roman ruins without the heavy footfall of the city’s most famous attractions.
Tour guides recommend visiting this area not only for its beautiful ambience and historical importance, but also to taste typical Roman-Jewish dishes. “The presence of Jews since 300 BC is one of Rome’s main gastronomical influences,” says Santostasi.
Magdalena agrees. “If you’re visiting Rome in winter or spring,” she says, “try the artichokes – the carciofo alla Giudia.” This dish of deep-fried artichoke (meaning ‘artichoke in the Jewish style’) is one of the Roman-Jewish community’s culinary specialities.
To discover some of Rome’s most remarkable ruins, Nuytens suggests heading to the city’s Appia Antica Regional Park. “Only 20 minutes from the historic centre by bike, you arrive in an incredibly enchanting, authentic and archaeological park with extraordinary scenic beauty.” Within the park, you’ll find wonders such as the remains of the ancient Roman road, the Appia Antica, built a staggering 2,300 years ago.
Below ground, you can discover the winding tunnels of Rome’s catacombs, where the Christians of the city were buried from the second century onwards. Above, you’ll find the ruins of six ancient aqueducts. Mies describes these remarkable ruins as, “visible reminders of the success and craftsmanship of the Ancient Romans – an unforgettable scenic view crossing the Roman countryside”.
“Rome has been, since imperial times, the place for the best wines from all over the world!” It’s impossible to argue with Santostasi on this point. Ancient Rome was responsible for the cultivation of wine across the Mediterranean, so when in the city, do what the Romans have done for over 2,000 years and indulge in a glass.
For serious wine lovers, Santostasi recommends a Secret Food Tours wine tour or a visit to Roscioli Rimessa near Campo de’ Fiori. The venue hosts frequent evening wine tastings when visitors learn how to pair eight wines with 12 traditional Roman specialities. For the more casual drinker, Tomasso suggests heading to Fafiuchè in Monti for a vino of your choice, only “a few steps from the Colosseum, but still a place for locals”.
To experience the best of Roman nightlife, the consensus among guides is to head beyond the boundary of the Aurelian Walls and outside the historic centre. Senn advises visitors to make a beeline for Centocelle; the neighbourhood is beloved by international foodies, and according to Eric, it’s where Rome’s “new, interesting restaurants and bars are opening”.
Santostasi suggests Pigneto for relaxed drinking in bars, but urges those searching for a serious party to make their way to Ostiense. After dark, join the young and hip in this neighbourhood drinking and dancing in clubs playing cutting-edge fusions of Latin, techno, rock and hip-hop.