Rome off the beaten path

Debra Thimmesch | 04/02/2020
Trastevere, Rome. Arial view of Trastevere, Rome.
Trastevere, Rome.

As soon as you arrive at Rome's Termini train station you know you are in a truly special city.  There’s a proverb that goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.  It means that any major feat worth accomplishing requires time, effort and perseverance... but the end results can be extraordinary. Of course, that’s literally true of Rome

Thousands of years of toil, innovation, blood, sweat, tears (and undoubtedly a fair amount of amore, passione, e vino) have built this eternal, bella città

You may apply the same wisdom to your own process of discovering this sublimely beautiful metropolis and some of its more intriguing neighborhoods that lie beyond the usual tourist zones.

Today’s city, population 3.8 million in the entire metropolitan area, extends well beyond the central historic district or Storico Centro. Rome has hosted humans for at least 14,000 years, making it a complex city made up of layers of habitation and stories — including some outrageously inventive legends that tell of its origins, lives, deaths and rebirths. 

One of the first things you’ll notice about Old Rome is the abundance of ancient ruins, most often in marble. From stray, sky-scraping columns to surprisingly intact structures such as the architectural feat of its age, the Market of Trajan, Rome is literally built around the sometimes crumbling monuments of its past. 

The further you travel outward from Centro Storico, the more modern the buildings and infrastructure become, though you’ll see remnants of ancient structures here and there. 

Rome is a patchwork of districts called rioni. Each rione has its own personality. There are a few that you won’t want to miss if you want to truly experience life in contemporary Rome.

Rome off the beaten path - Testaccio

Just to the south of the quiet and affluent Aventine neighborhood (so named as it climbs the famous hill), is our first stop: the edgy urban-chic rione, Testaccio. Some of the most inventive cuisine in Rome can be found in this neighborhood, which boasts one of the city’s liveliest central food markets, the Mercato Testaccio. 

In the days of the Roman empire, Testaccio housed the famous Emporium port through which most of the city’s food for the city was delivered. Once the largest slaughterhouses in Europe, the Mattatoio in Testaccio is now a quirky museum, the Città dell’Altra Economia. Also quirky is the Pyramid of Cestius, Rome’s only Egyptian pyramid, built as a tomb around 12 BCE for an important cleric. It stands at one of the far corners of the non-Catholic cemetery, where visitors may pay their quiet respects to writers John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. 

Less sobering is the fantastic, colorful street art of Testaccio, including a five-story cartoon wolf that may allude to the best known of the city’s founding legends, the story of Remus, Romulus and the She-Wolf.

Rome off the beaten path - Pigneto

Next stop: Pigneto, another lively, trendy rione and a favorite of locals and international visitors alike. The nightlife is second-to-none, and it’s just 25-minute ride from the center of Rome. 

This particular rione, which was formerly a working-class district that you definitely wouldn’t venture into late at night, is now populated by a mix of upwardly mobile young families, an assortment of lifelong neighborhood denizens, students, artists, musicians, and so on. 

Pigneto is a must-see for public art and gallery gazing, taking in street performances, people watching al fresco, and generally just feeling the livelier pulse beyond the city center. The district’s main artery, Via del Pigneto, is lined with mostly modern buildings housing hip cafes and boutiques. Flower vendors are juxtaposed with tattoo shops, bikes (which you see less often in the center) are a fixture of this youthful rione.

Rome off the beaten path - Monti

Monti, which is much closer to the heart of the city, is a mix of upscale and arty… and it’s bursting at the seams with ancient ruins. Plural for “monte” (“hill”), this district gets its name from its three hills, Esquilino, Viminale and Quirinale. 

On one side of Monti is the Colosseum and the other is the cathedral San Giovanni in Laterano. If you’re visiting Monti, then you’re just south of Rome’s major train station, Termini, named after the ancient baths (“termi”) located in front of it. 

Back in the days when the Roman Forum was alive and thriving, the Monti district was walled off from the central, affluent commercial district, as it was home to swindlers and other ne'er-do-wells. 

During the medieval period’s tower-building craze (wealthy families flexing their purses), Monti got the lion’s share of Roman skyscrapers. Today, about 30 of the towers remain. One of the most impressive towers is in Monti, the Torre dei Conti, which sits at the end of the Imperial Forums. 

Besides taking in the glory of the city’s ages of architecture in the Piazza del Grillo, where the colors and cuts of the buildings emphasize the aforementioned layers, just wander the winding streets of this district. You’ll discover delightful cafes, charming restaurants with top-notch Roman homestyle fare, wine bars, fashionable boutiques and art supply shops in every available nook and cranny. In particular, Via del Boschetto is the new paradise for those shoppers looking for hip resale and vintage clothing shops.

Rome off the beaten path - Trastevere

Last but not least on our quick rioni tour is the best known of the alt-tourism scenes in Rome: the rione Trastevere. It once had the edge of Pigneto and Testaccio and has now gone somewhat upscale. Getting to Trastevere, which literally means “across the Tevere,” the Italian name for the Tiber River, entails crossing a bridge to the west or left bank of Rome. 

Like Monti, the rents in Trastevere are not cheap for the most part, but the district, which also like Monti is more serpentine maze than grid, has an old-neighborhood vibe that embraces rather than encloses. 

The area is quite youthful, with a thriving nighttime scene favored by the younger set. Rome has discovered craft beer and some of the finest offerings can be sampled in this rione. If you’re lucky, you may be able to enjoy live music, as the music scene is thriving in Trastevere. But you will also see your share of charming piazzas filled with packs of old fellows perched around tables at local bars, merchants hovering in doorways of old-school shops, next to smart boutiques and beautifully adorned church facades.

Just around the corner is Santa Cecilia, the church of the revered third-century martyr who was originally buried in the Catacombs of San Callisto southeast of the city but whose remains were transferred here and placed in the elaborate crypt. A jewel in the crown of Baroque style architecture, painting, and sculpture, Santa Cecilia is definitely worth a visit. 

A sampling of local flavor

Of course, there are many more rioni worth visiting while in Rome, but these four, Testaccio, Pigneto, Monti, and Trastevere, are diverse enough to provide a tasty sampling of the vast menu of offerings featuring distinctive, local flavors.

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