Basilica di San Paolo Fuori, a less-crowded alternative to St Peter’s Basilica, is the third-largest church in Christendom. (Paolo Cordelli/LPI)
One of the great pleasures of a visit to Rome is seeking out its hidden treasures -- places that only the savviest of Romans know. Here is a selection of the city’s best-kept secrets.
St Peter’s Basilica receives up to 20,000 visitors each day. However, there are other great basilicas in Rome that are magnificent, huge and exquisite, yet have astoundingly little tourist traffic. For instance, take the Metro out a few stops to San Paolo Fuori le Mura (get off at San Paolo), the third-largest church in Christendom, and you may well be the only visitor. It is humbling in its vast scale, with mostly 19th Century architecture. But there is a 5th-century triumphal arch that dates from its original incarnation and medieval Cosmati mosaics in the cloister.
Another gloriously beautiful patriarchal basilica is that of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura in the university district of San Lorenzo. Arguably one of Rome’s loveliest churches, with a stark, haunting beauty, it receives just the occasional visitor, which only adds to its atmosphere.
However, if you are looking for a secret-feeling place closer to St Peter’s, take a tour of the Vatican Gardens, open to the select few who have the foresight to book a week in advance. It is a chance to peek into the Vatican’s rarefied world: these finely manicured gardens have an Alice-in-Wonderland ambience, styled with groomed symmetrical box hedges and grottoes.
Crossing over to the other side of the Tiber River, as hordes mill around the Spanish Steps, walk a few paces from the madding crowd and you can visit the little-known Museum Missionario di Propaganda Fide. It houses centuries-worth of fascinating bounty that priests have brought back from overseas in a building designed by baroque masters Bernini and Borromini, and also allows a chance to peep into Bernini’s wood-lined library and Borromini’s Chapel of the Magi.
In the Tridente district, which glitters with designer shops, there are several stuck-in-time leather artisanal workshops. For example, at Armando Rioda (Via Belsiana 90; 06-83-603-008), tucked away on the first floor, you can have a custom-made bespoke bag, wallet or belt made to your exact specifications, at a fraction of the price of the designer glitz on sale in the surrounding stores.
Also in Tridente are several other fabulous, little-known spots. For a cheap and delicious lunch, try tiny pasta shop Pasticcio (Via della Croce), where two fresh pasta dishes are served from Monday to Saturday between 1 and 3 pm; those in the know wait around for the food to be freshly delivered. You can eat here for four euro – an incredible bargain in this upscale area.
Afterwards, if you are in need of the perfect pudding, head to Re di Roma, just one stop away from San Giovanni on the Metro. Near here is a place legendary in Rome, but which few tourists ever discover. Bar Pompi is famous for Rome’s finest tiramisu in flavours from classic to pina colada. Spot it by the crowds of young locals outside, lolling around their scooters, all tucking into the light-as-air dessert.
However, you might prefer ice cream, in which case you are advised to go to the master, Claudio Torcè (Viale Aventino 59; 39-06-512-8948), who has a little-known franchise near the Circus Maximus. This place rarely appears in guidebooks, yet local connoisseurs swear that this is Rome’s best ice cream. It is certainly its most inventive, specialising in flavours such as celery, carrot and gorgonzola.
Trastevere, the vibrantly pretty district south of the Vatican, is everyone’s favourite setting for an evening drink, with its gorgeous tangle of ochre and orange ivy-draped buildings. It is the perfect place to pass the time, but can get extraordinarily busy, especially in summer. To escape the crowds and embrace Roman cool, walk a short way up the Gianicolo (Janiculum hill) to Il Baretto, a beautifully-designed cocktail bar with a vintage feel, leafy terrace and plate-glass views over the neighbourhood. If you are hankering after a taste of Rome’s contemporary dolce vita (sweet life), then this is where to head.