It’s been way too long since I last saw the Eternal City.
For just one semester more years ago than I care to count, I lived in a campus dorm on a vineyard outside of Rome, where sunflowers grew tall in salutation to the sky and the pears that fell from the orchard trees sent sweet juice dripping down your chin, leaving behind the sticky residue of pure, childlike joy.
I was majoring in English, minoring in philosophy, and charmed by all things ancient: classical mythologies with all their mischievous and meddlesome gods; the art, often reverent and as often really quite cheeky; the millennia-old architecture that had earned the right to let down its guard a little even as it stood, proudly but more at ease than it must have appeared over 2,000 years ago.
We followed the path of Roman legions along the Via Appia, traced the victories and perils of gladiators at the Colosseum, craned our necks to see heaven in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and marveled at the fine rain as it fell through the oculus and right onto the marble floor of Agrippa's exquisite Pantheon.
We bought cheese at Campo de' Fiori, ate (way too much) gelato, tossed our coins into the Trevi Fountain with the wish to one day return, and jostled with our backpacks through the crowds at Termini train station. We learned to fold our pizzas into quarters and devour them with the efficiency of a single slice and to take our espressos while standing at the bar. We shouted basta! at overly solicitous Italian men.
We got drunk in bars in Trastevere, pretended we liked grappa, and learned the hard way that the chestnuts roasting from sidewalk vendors at Christmastime taste nothing like that alluring aroma. We stood on and got kicked off of the stump of a fluted column in the Roman Forum while reciting lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen...”). We squealed in mock terror when we stuck our hands in the Mouth of Truth. We had an audience with the Pope.
It’s been over 20 years since I returned from Rome to my then-home in Texas and vowed never to eat another slice of American pizza (a vow happily broken when I later moved to San Francisco) when I found myself last fall en route back to Rome, as an adult and with my family in tow, and I feel the pull to see it all over again. Before I even land at Fiumicino I already feel the inevitable disappointment that you just can’t pack all of Rome into a four-day trip. I couldn’t pack it into an entire semester. And so with my best Italian shrug I decide to roll with the flow, to discover whatever discovers me, and to try and truly do as the Romans do: to embrace il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.
This is the part of the story where I confess I failed hard at doing nothing. Accompanied by family who had never been to Rome, I dutifully donned my tour guide hat to tromp more than 20,000 steps per day through the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and the Villa Borghese all over again. And to tell another truth, I ate it all up like a big fat bowl of cacio e pepe.
I relished testing my memory for the tidbits I’d learned decades ago, and savored learning things I’d forgotten or missed the first time around. I try to reserve the word "epic" for things that truly are. Rome deserves the adjective, and honestly also the noun.
Just as the city is built upon layers of infrastructure from countless centuries past, it holds layers of wonders to be discovered no matter how many times you visit. The monuments worth seeing here are literally endless, as are the quality resources out there which list them in great detail.
So for those of you who desire to nail il dolce far niente, I will share just a few absolute musts for your next trip to Rome: where to stay, one delightful tour, and where to eat and drink—because really, the doing nothing part is best enjoyed over a plate of pasta and a glass of Italian red. Find yourself in the neighborhoods of Monti, Testaccio, Ostiense, and Trastevere...and then get lost along the way.
Where to Stay in Rome: Anantara Palazzo Naiadi
(Courtesy of Anantara Palazzo Naiadi)
It's the diverse history and culture, handed down and shaken up over so many centuries, that makes Rome so special. To see Gen Zers skateboarding and hanging out late night beneath the glow of the Colosseum, which was completed in 80 CE, gives me goose bumps. I wonder what wisdom Roman youth might soak up just by osmosis in such a context, surrounded as they are not by whispers but by shouts from the past.
Centrally located in the Piazza della Repubblica, the Palazzo Naiadi is itself a microcosm of Rome's deep history, its present, and its future. Situated over ruins of the ancient Baths of Diocletian (completed in 306 CE), swaths of which can be viewed through thick glass sections of floor on the lowest level, the hotel is a 19th Century marble palace with Neoclassical colonnades and a chic, Art Nouveau–inspired revamp courtesy of its latest steward, the Anantara luxury hotel group. With 238 very elegant rooms and suites, Palazzo Naiadi feels more boutique than it actually is. And while certain amenities are still undergoing or awaiting renovations, including the rooftop pool and fine dining restaurant (due for completion this spring), you'll feel at home in its plush lobby-level lounge where contemporary black-and-white art, velvet furnishings, and polished brass accents make a stylish perch for aperitifs.
In the spirit of doing nothing, I began my stay with a treatment, the decadent Diocletian Ritual utilizing ancient and regional ingredients, in the Anantara Spa (highly recommended for anyone who struggles with jet lag), and then wandered across the piazza to Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This odd-looking basilica was carved, based on designs by Michelangelo in the 16th Century, into the ruins of the Diocletian Baths. On its backside is a museum dedicated to the baths with a lovely garden courtyard where you can peruse, without paying museum admission, several ancient sarcophagi and other relics.
This location, we learned from experience, is also a popular gathering spot for urban protests. On our visit this past fall, an assembly converged to speak out against the incoming prime minister, conservative Giorgia Meloni, offering us a crash course in modern Italian politics against a literal backdrop of the ancients. We took it all in with a glass of bubbly from our suite's slender terrace, which overlooked the circular piazza and its Fountain of the Naiads, built in 1888.
// Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome Hotel, Piazza della Repubblica, 48; rooms from €324 at anantara.com.
Just One Tour: Get all 'Roman Holiday' with a Vespa sidecar experience.
(Courtesy of @vespasidecartour)
If you've never been to Rome before or if it's been eons since your last trip, know this: Post-pandemic, the city is absolutely packed. Many monuments now require advance reservations to enter and still have hours-long lines at majors like the Vatican and Colosseum, which makes it all the more challenging to be spontaneous. If these landmarks are on your bucket list, skip the lines by booking a private tour well in advance; you're learn more anyhow. (We thoroughly enjoyed our morning foray through the Vatican with Liv Tours.)
Still after il dolce far niente? Book just one tour through the concierge at Palazzo Naiadi: The “Eat, Pray, Love” Vespa sidecar tour (from €275 for 3-4 hours) lets you literally kick back and do nothing in style while taking in the sights.
Yes, the name is cheesy. And yes, it's taken from that scene in that Julia Roberts movie that brought the concept of il dolce far niente into the American consciousness. And it's 100 percent worth it.
The moment I laid eyes on the custom-built scooter, with its bubbly retro-style sidecar and a pretty coat of periwinkle paint, I became Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, wide-eyed and smitten with the novelty. Locals and tourists alike snapped photos of us as we buzzed across the cobblestones of narrow Roman lanes—from the Piazza della Repubblica to the Trevi Fountain, to a cafe by the Pantheon for cappuccinos to Trastevere for oysters at the open-air market, and for a quick wave to St. Peter's Basilica. The Vespa was just right for taking in the Eternal City. Small and agile, we kept pace with her energy; we were one with her timeless din.
Restaurants in Rome: A Short but Flawless List
Simple perfection at Trattoria Pennestri.
(Courtesy of americaninrome.com)
Leaning into the sweetness of doing nothing means wandering into a sidewalk cafe and lingering over a midday meal for perhaps a bit too long. The concierges at Palazzo Naiadi were both delightfully friendly and willing to give up locals-only spots such as Barzilai Bistrot. In the funky neighborhood of Monti, its average traditional food was made memorable thanks to a boisterous conversation with its octogenarian owners and their lazy dog. But while I'm happy to leave lunch to chance, I never leave home without a dinner reservation. Before my last trip to Rome, I fell down the rabbit hole of recommendations from editors, friends, and locals. Below are three no-fail, can't-miss dinner spots in Rome.
It was by sheer coincidence that I read, in Travel + Leisure's October 2022 issue while on the flight to Rome, of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters' love for eating and working in the Eternal City. I had, several weeks earlier, made reservations for dinner at one of Waters' slow food go-tos: Trattoria Pennestri in Ostiense, an emerging locals-only neighborhood known for its vibrant street art, crowded restaurants and, I'm not kidding, an Eataly. A contemporary take on a typical Roman trattoria, Pennestri is a cozy but lively neighborhood gem that's worth the trek if you happen to be staying across town. It's the kind of place that talks about relationships with local farmers and small wine producers without a hint of pretension, where the crusty loaf comes in a brown paper sack, and no one minds the fluffy white dog begging for scraps at its owners table (except maybe for the German shepherd at the next table over). Expect sophisticated but rustic seasonal dishes alongside traditional Roman pastas (the cacio e pepe was the best I've ever had), and a terrific Italian wine list with plenty of affordable options. Cap your meal with the tiramisu corretto and the regional amaro called Amarartis. // Reservations recommended; Via Giovanni da Empoli, 5, trattoriapennestri.it.
After a day spent wandering bohemian Trastevere (a must), take a taxi up to the Gianicolo (aka Janiculum) to catch the sunset with a sweeping view from one of Rome's highest hills. Then, for a special occasion without too much fuss, find yourself for dinner at Antico Arco, one of the city's most beloved and fashionable restaurants since it opened in 1996. Outside, well dressed guests sip gin and tonics at tables scattered beneath the moonlight; inside, intimate dining rooms are stacked one on top of the other in a homey but modern two-story space. With exceptional service, an extensive wine list and fine organic fare, this is the place to order the tasting menu if you're into that sort of thing (it's relatively affordable at €70 to €80 per person). The a la carte menu has plenty of temptations for omnivores. You will not go wrong with the black truffle–laden carbonara and a bottle of 2018 Gaja Barbaresco. // Reservations are a must; Piazzale Aurelio 7, anticoarco.it.
There are countless places to eat pizza—really, really good pizza—in Rome, from a quick slice at L'Antico Forno Roscioli to Seu Pizza Illuminati, which scored eighth place on the Top 50 Pizza list in 2022. For pizza and then some, Emma has a wildly extensive menu of classic, white, and specialty pies plus an array of extras including fritti, salumi and cheeses, calzone, bruschetta, beautifully composed salads (raw and cooked artichoke with arugula and pine nuts), and second courses such as meatballs done multiple ways and grilled organic chicken. Expect heirloom flours and seasonal, organic ingredients. // Reservations are a must; Via del monte della farina 28/29, emmapizzeria.com.