by Kelly Wetherille
During the Roman Empire, Italy’s capital city had the honor of being the center of Western civilization, but Rome’s modern side offers just as much to the curious traveler as its many ruins. That’s not to diminish the impressiveness of such sights — first-time visitors would be committing a grave error to skip the Colosseum or the Roman Forum. But many travelers also make the mistake of not looking beyond these magnificent landmarks.
In order to make the most of a short visit to Rome, stay at one of the many hotels or bed and breakfasts around the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Not only is the area in walking distance of many of the city’s best sights and neighborhoods, but it is also easily accessible by public transportation from areas further afoot.
One fantastic hotel that is popular with Italians but somehow seems to escape the majority of the onslaught of international tourists is the Regina Baglioni, located on Via Veneto just a few blocks from the beautifully landscaped gardens surrounding the Villa Borghese. Completed in 1894, the Art Nouveau-style building was once home to Queen Margherita of Savoy, who stayed there while awaiting the completion of her permanent residence across the street, which now houses the American embassy. The family-run Baglioni hotel group took over the property in 1974, and has outfitted the rooms and common areas with a lavish yet chic combination of Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences. The concierge is a wealth of information and goes out of his way to arrange bookings at museums and other sites, and it is not uncommon to be surprised with complimentary fruit or canapés if the staff is aware of a special occasion.
Italians are known for their love of food and wine, and there is no better place to experience this than in Trastevere on the west bank of the Tiber River. The quaint cobblestone streets of this medieval neighborhood come alive after dark with bars, restaurants and pizzerias. With the bustle comes noise, making the area an undesirable place to stay, so head down, instead, for an aperitivo after spending the day at the Vatican or the Castel Sant’ Angelo. (The castle, which will appeal to military history buffs, has a fantastic bar and café that is quite possibly the best place in Rome to sip an espresso or cappuccino while enjoying breathtaking views. Ombre Rosse Caffé is a very popular spot with young Italians, and the lively yet rustic bar has outdoor seating and live music during the warmer months.
Throughout Italy, it is easy to get delicious, authentic food at reasonable prices, so it’s best to avoid tourist traps, of which there are many in Trastevere. Locals recommend Da Ivo, which serves up piping hot, traditional pizzas to its daily crowds of regulars and visitors, including celebrities who pass through Rome.
Florence is the favorite city of many travelers to Italy, and for good reason. Its laid-back way of life, abundance of green spaces,and seemingly endless supply of art and artisans are enough to keep even the locals busy and happy. Certain sights — particularly the magnificent Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and Michelangelo’s “David” at the Accademia Gallery — are must-sees. But once these and other major landmarks have been exhausted, try heading south of the Arno River for a different, less touristy experience. The area is largely residential and peppered with local bars and restaurants, and the Boboli Gardens offer magnificent views of Florence coupled with beautiful greenery and classical sculptures. To experience the area like the locals, try renting a bicycle and riding along the banks of the river and through the narrow cobblestone streets.
B&B Michelangelo, located within walking distance of the Florence’s historic center, is a good option at a very reasonable price, and two of its three rooms have balconies overlooking a peaceful private garden. There is no round-the-clock reception, but owner Niccolo Ricci gives fantastic recommendations on what to enjoy in the city, and he or his staff can always be reached if you need them. Michelangelo is a fourth-floor walk-up, so some may prefer the nearby Abracadabra Rooms; both are close to free parking spots, which come in handy if you’re looking to take a drive into the Tuscan countryside.
There are plenty of atmospheric wine bars (including a great one called Fuori Porta) and local restaurants around the area. Be sure to try Affé di Bacco for dinner — its extensive menu of pizzas and pastas won’t disappoint, and neither will the quality of food and service. And don’t miss a chance to sample Florence’s best gelato at Vivoli Il Gelato near Santa Croce on the north side of the Arno — it’s an indulgence you won’t regret.
A side trip to Tuscany
Once tourists have worn themselves out with the historic sights of Florence, the smart ones head to the Tuscany to relax and unwind. The region of Chianti is stunning in its natural beauty, and will particularly appeal to wine-lovers. Skip the large “tasting bars” in the villages, and instead head to a family-owned wineries such as Fattoria Casaloste. Emilia d’Orsi, the friendly proprietress, dispenses invaluable knowledge of both the local wines and the area itself while visitors sample the fruits of her family’s labor.
Just down the road to the small town of Panzano in Chianti is the butcher shop-cum-restaurant Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Run by Dario Cecchini, who has been called the most famous butcher in Italy — possibly the world — by chef Anthony Bourdain, the restaurant’s staff serve a fixed menu that offers the choice of a hamburger patty with potatoes and fresh veggies or a selection of fresh, quality meats prepared in Cecchini’s own unique style. Order a carafe of the house wine and sit outside on the sunny terrace to enjoy your meal, and you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven — Italian style.
Regina Hotel Baglioni: +39-06-45403300 / www.baglionihotels.com
Ombre Rosse Caffé: +39-06-5884155 / www.ombrerossecaffe.it
Da Ivo: +39-06-581-7082
Florence and Tuscany
B&B Michelangelo: +39-333-6339556 / www.bbfirenzecentro.it
Abracadabra Rooms: +39-388-7933241 / www.abracadabrarooms.it
Fuori Porta: +39-55-23424483 / www.fuoraporta.it
Affé di Bacco: +39-55-6810109 / www.affedibacco.com
Vivoli Il Gelato: +39-55-292334 / www.vivoli.it
Fattoria Casaloste: +39-055-8560807 / www.casaloste.com
Antica Macelleria Cecchini: +39-055-852020 / www.dariocecchini.com