Insider's Rome

People-watching at the Pantheon on Piazza della Rotonda.
People-watching at the Pantheon on Piazza della Rotonda.
Enjoying Italy’s capital during high season can be a monumental undertaking – or with the right local insight, a pure pleasure.

All roads lead to Rome, and I know because I’ve seen the tour buses. Along Via della Conciliazione outside the Vatican, and anywhere within selfie distance of the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, or Spanish Steps, the constant unloading of eager visitors has you questioning at times why you left home in the first place. Simply waiting for the toilette inside the Colosseum on a busy, sweltering afternoon renews the meaning of the “Eternal City.”
But hope is not lost, as I discovered last summer. With creative advance work, and, in my case, the aid of a savvy travel advisor, Rome’s wonders and romance open like the colonnades around Saint Peter’s Square. When you’re visiting in ultra-high season – such as the late-June trip I took with my wife and teenage son – some clever adjustments can make the difference between a veritable logjam and la dolce vita.

“Everybody loves Rome, but that means everybody wants to be there,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Adamarie King, who splits her time between Mexico and Italy. She restored a house in an Umbrian hamlet three decades ago and visits Rome three to four times a year. “You need to know how to beat the lines so you can feel like a local and not lose your mind.”

Here’s how to do as the Romans do, even at the tourist peak.

Perpetually packed Trevi Fountain.
Perpetually packed Trevi Fountain.

Location, Location, Vacation         

Our four days in Rome began with a tactical plan as exacting as Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. June through August is notorious for heat and tourist throngs, so we knew to book early and find a hotel that felt like a haven. The Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria property, is set far from the commotion amid gardens and pools on the city’s highest hilltop. It’s a 15-minute drive into town, but the uninterrupted views are instantly calming – especially at night from the penthouse windows of La Pergola, Rome’s first and only three-Michelin-star restaurant.
The ride into the city also gives you time to review the day’s agenda, which in our case included some tough choices. The Borghese Gallery may be the classical way to escape the frenzy; no more than 360 visitors at once are allowed on the ground floor during set two-hour time slots to see Bernini’s seminal baroque sculptures. But having been there before, my wife and I decided our 13-year-old would appreciate the MAXXI even more. Down the hill from our hotel, Rome’s newest national art museum was designed by architect Zaha Hadid and features works with a decidedly twenty-first-century bent, such as the 90-foot-long recumbent human skeleton, by Italian artist Gino De Dominicis, that tours around Italy.

MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art.
MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art.

Afterward, we stopped by the National Gallery of Modern Art on Viale delle Belle Arti, not for its impressive Boccionis and Modiglianis, but rather to pick up the no. 3 city tram – an insider’s way to survey Rome’s ancient highlights in 40 minutes without hopping on and off one of those red tourist double-deckers.   

The Must-Dos, Done Right

Certain iconic attractions need to be seen, and 99 percent of visitors have the same three places in mind: Vatican City, the Colosseum, and Trevi Fountain. Each has secret options for the crowd-averse. “The key is knowing when to go, how to get there, and who should lead the way,” King says, and I recommend following her tips to the letter.

To find breathing space at the Vatican, early-morning tickets are essential. First entry to the Vatican Museums begins at 7:30 sharp, when a good guide will have you racing – this one’s a sprint, not a marathon – directly to the Sistine Chapel so you can have the space virtually to yourself. The dash is worth every drop of sweat: Our hushed half hour in Michelangelo’s sanctuary felt nothing short of transformative. Afterward, you can backtrack through the Raphael Rooms, or do what we did and push ahead for a few more blessed moments of calm inside Saint Peter’s Basilica. Even at 8 AM, it was just our little crew staring wide-eyed at the Pietà. Travelers desiring next-level solitude can seek permission from the Vatican to visit after closing hours (again, your advisor can assist), a privilege available for around $3,500.
You’ll need to share the Colosseum, but there are work-arounds there too. Recently, the top floor, or quinto ordine, opened to the public for the first time in 40 years. It’s part of a three-year refresh that left the 1,900-year-old gladiator ring looking thumbs-up gorgeous. Group size is limited to 25, which is nice, but in-the-know visitors can also take private tours of the third and terrace levels, along with my favorite, the subterranean sotterranei, where those ancient combatants got their game faces on. All three areas are restricted to 22 visits a day, so, once more, early booking is a must.

The Vatican Library.
The Vatican Library.

Then there’s the biggest bottleneck of them all, Trevi Fountain – remember to bring a few pennies to toss. Most popular at night, Trevi is “all about the approach,” King says. “Getting into the area can be a nightmare unless you do it in a hired golf cart and your driver takes you to the right spot.” King knows a discreet little curve behind the fountain that’s an excellent drop-off point. From there, my family and I found a perfect perch above the fray: an open window on the second floor of the Benetton store with a direct, over-the-crowd view to Salvi’s splashy gods and virgins. Not to brag, but can anybody say 147 Facebook likes?

Near Trevi Fountain, Al Moro is a local favorite for its take on carbonara.
Near Trevi Fountain, Al Moro is a local favorite for its take on carbonara.

Mangia without Madness

Travelers visit Milan for fashion and Venice to fall in love, but in Rome they come to eat. By “they,” I mean the dinner party of 18 Americans in front of you at the “authentic” trattoria your guidebook mentioned. Here’s how to avoid that gridlock.
Eat late, first of all. Romans lunch between 1:30 and 3 PM and eat dinner no earlier than 8. La Campana is an untouristy favorite not far from Piazza Navona. The menu doesn’t come in four languages or have laminated color photos, and the waiters can be gruff (at first), but the tonnarelli cacio e pepe – the classic Roman pasta specialty with a sauce of cheese and black pepper – is outstanding, and the antipasti table is a meal unto itself. “Go for lunch on the weekend and you’ll see families who’ve had the same table for generations,” King says. Dinner reservations are a must.

Getting (nearly) lost helps as well. L’Osteria de Memmo, also in the old city center, is hidden on an obscure side street that helps keep the place a secret. Specialties include roasted suckling pig and cacio e pepe, but take heed: The portions are enormous. Closer to Trevi Fountain, family-run Al Moro is an old standby packed with charismatic neighborhood types – if you don’t go too early for dinner. Waitstaff prepare the spaghetti Al Moro (carbonara, essentially) tableside, delicately mixing the egg in upon presentation. You won’t get that at the nearby ristorante turistico.
Even places you’d think would be overrun can feel like escapes if you time things right. My wife and I sipped Aperol spritzes for an hour at dusk at a café table opposite the Pantheon, our son happily mesmerized by the human parade passing through Piazza della Rotonda. On Palazzo Manfredi’s rooftop overlooking the Colosseum, Aroma is popular with out-of-towners, but even locals can’t resist the backdrop. King was there for a late lunch a few years ago and noticed the mayor of Rome entertaining the mayor of London. “Guess which mayor knew the seat to take for the best view in the entire city?” King asks. One guess, and it wasn’t the mayor of London. I have the table memorized for our next visit, though I must say, we did pretty well ourselves, in a veni, vidi, vici sort of way. 

A quiet time at the Colosseum.
A quiet time at the Colosseum.

At Home in Rome: Find your place in the Eternal City.

GO Skip the fusty historical tours for Family Twist’s three-day introduction to Rome. Kids arrive to gifts in their connecting hotel room, and, while on a chauffeured city tour, trivia, tales, and games help bring sites to life for everyone. Families follow up a guided tour of the Colosseum with a private gladiator training session outside the city, take in the Vatican highlights, and have plenty of free time to explore on their own.

STAY Waldorf Astoria’s lavish Rome Cavalieri, set on 15 acres with indoor/outdoor pools, features a museum-worthy art collection and 370 rooms, including 25 suites. The Penthouse Suite is decked out with Karl Lagerfeld furniture and pop art by Andy Warhol.
Reopened last year after a dramatic and buzzed-about restoration, the 98-room Hotel Eden, set between Villa Borghese and the Spanish Steps, has the feel of an elegant Italian manor home and features a rooftop bar with stunning city views.

Within easy walking distance of key attractions, including the Vatican, Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Russie has 121 rooms, including 33 suites, in a terraced garden setting. Dining alfresco at Le Jardin de Russie is as popular with stylish locals as it is with guests.

Top Tables

An old-school find near Trevi Fountain, wood-paneled Al Moro specializes in osso buco and other classics and has an excellent wine list. Vicolo delle Bollette 13.

Palazzo Manfredi’s dreamy rooftop restaurant Aroma pairs quintessential Roman dishes with colossal views. Via Labicana 125.

Steps from the Tiber River, La Campana is open-plan trattoria with a 500-year history serving delicious antipasti, pasta, and meats. Vicolo della Campana 18.

Don’t tell the tourists about L’Osteria de Memmo. Locals full of personality love this hidden spot in the old part of town for cacio e pepe, veal, and atmosphere. Via dei Soldati 22/23.

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