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Rome Renewed

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By: Ondine Cohane

Bill PhelpsClassic sights like the iconic Trevi Fountain are Rome mainstays amidst a booming reinvention

It is dusk in Rome. At the bottom of the steps leading up to Piazza del Campidoglio, the modern side of the capital is on full display: Angry taxi drivers maneuver themselves around pedestrians jaywalking amid a barrage of horns. But just above, the evocative Renaissance piazza designed by Michelangelo feels unexpectedly peaceful, a throwback to that era’s ideals of perfect symmetry and order. At the edge of the square, a medieval alleyway winds down to the classical ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum beyond. If a visit is perfectly timed, the twilight’s golden light makes these famous sites look straight out of an epic Hollywood movie. And in 15 minutes, one can walk backward in time 2,000 years.

This passage from contemporary chaotic metropolis to ancient imperial Rome epitomizes the amazingly layered history here – a dazzling variety of architectural styles and philosophies that make the city so intriguingly diverse. And while Rome is renowned as a showcase for ancient as well as imperial Roman, medieval, and Renaissance art, one of its main draws is that it continues to change over time, albeit at very specific moments of history. Like now. Over the past few years, the emergence of new architecture, an evolving contemporary art scene, up-and-coming neighborhoods, and a spate of fashionable hotels and restaurants have made Rome a surprisingly vibrant destination rather than simply a living museum.

In many ways Rome’s latest incarnation is thanks to its last mayor, Walter Veltroni, who made good on his promise to guide the city into the 21st century by introducing new world-class architecture while simultaneously safeguarding the historic center. Veltroni’s enthusiasm led to the commissioning of buildings like the dynamic Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium Parco della Musica, a large performing arts complex that’s become a popular destination, and Richard Meier’s much more controversial Ara Pacis Museum by the Tiber. These buildings might not seem that unusual in this age of star architects, but the fact that they were actually completed is notable considering the notorious avalanche of Italian bureaucracy that makes even renovating a private home a tremendous undertaking. To put Meier’s project in context, it resulted in the first new building constructed in Rome’s historic center since World War II. Veltroni resigned in 2009 to attempt an ill-fated run against Berlusconi for prime minister, but Rome’s push toward modernity continues. In 2010, the much anticipated (and much delayed) Zaha Hadid-designed Maxxi Museum, Italy’s most important contemporary museum, has put Rome firmly on the international map for a new generation of museumgoers and artists.

But it’s not just impressive architecture that’s giving the capital new life: Art galleries are popping up all over town, once sleepy neighborhoods are supplying fresh energy, and town house hotels are remaking the hospitality landscape. These arrivals are adding considerably to the city’s already powerful appeal, granting even those who know Rome well with a new perspective on the metropolis. Now one can craft an itinerary that mixes the classics with the cutting edge.

The Old City

Right now, travelers have an opportunity to witness a unique moment in Rome’s evolution, an openness to change perhaps not this widespread since the forties, when the city began rebuilding after World War II. Seeing the city’s older sites first will help a visitor grasp the current changes and provide a window into the city’s long legacy of creative reinvention. Begin with the Colosseum and the Forum, and then move on to the Vatican for a lesson in Rome’s transformation from the heart of the Roman Empire to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Continue on to the Pantheon, which began as a looming Roman temple devoted to classical gods, only to be transformed in the seventh century into one of early Christianity’s most important churches. That daring transition makes contemporary ideas like housing a modern art gallery in a 14th-century monastery seem much less far-out.

After seeing the linchpins of Rome’s history, check out a couple of the more intimate museums, among Italy’s best. The Borghese Gallery (Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5; 39-06-8548577, www.galleriaborghese.it) in the Villa Borghese is an absolute must-see, with one of the world’s most beautiful statuary collections, including the Bernini masterpieces Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpina. It’s hard to find better examples of a true genius creating a sense of movement in unwieldy marble. But buy a ticket ahead of time as visitors plan tours months in advance. Less well-known and an insider favorite is the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (Via del Corso 305; 39-06-6797323, www.doriapamphilj.it), a museum housed in a 16th-century palazzo still owned by the same noble family who built it and filled the ornate rooms with their treasures. The painting collection includes seminal works by Velázquez and Titian, and the incredibly preserved palace calls to mind other private museums, like New York City’s Frick Collection and Pennsylvania’s Barnes Foundation, with their manageable surveys of art that still very much have the feel of the families that created them.

One could build a whole itinerary just around Rome’s churches. Instead, visit the handful that not only illustrate the city’s architectural diversity but also house some of its best art. Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo 12; 39-06-3610836, www.santamariadelpopolo.it), right in Piazza del Popolo, is home to two amazing Caravaggios: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. Near the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente (Via Labicana 95; 39/06-7740021, www.basilicasanclemente.com) offers a breathtaking display of history – with its imperial Roman, early Christian, and medieval sections all still visible. The Basilica of St. Peter’s in Chains, also near the Colosseum, is worth seeing if only for Michelangelo’s imposing Moses statue. And Santa Maria in Trastevere (Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere; 39/06-5814802; www.santamariatrastevere.it), one of the city’s oldest places of worship, has spectacular medieval mosaics and looks onto one of Rome’s most beautiful piazzas.

The New Face Of Rome

After a couple of days of ruins and churches, change gears and take in some more contemporary architecture. About 15 minutes by cab from the city’s center, Renzo Piano’s project, the Auditorium Parco della Musica (Pietro de Coubertin 30; 39-06-802411, www.auditorium.com), has shaken up the cultural scene with a diverse program of classical, rock, and experimental music, as well as exhibits and screenings. Built on the site of the 1960 Olympics and completed in 2002, it generates the biggest buzz in October with its new yearly film festival. Several good restaurants on-site accommodate the million-plus annual visitors; try ReD for a pre-show aperitivo.

Richard Meier’s project, the Ara Pacis Museum (Lungotevere in Augusta; 39-06-82059127, www.arapacis.it), on the other hand, has met with controversy since its 2006 opening. Meier designed the museum to house one of Rome’s most unmissable works of art, a recently restored first-century Augustan altar with masterfully intricate carvings. While critics have compared the building to everything from a gas station to a giant coffin, its defenders insist that the white concrete-and-glass structure is, in its simplicity, the perfect showcase for such a complex piece. Whatever one’s take, the heated debate illustrates the tension that comes with infusing the new into the old.

But this winter it is Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Museum (Via Guido Reni 4A; 39-06-3211829; www.maxxi.darc.beniculturali.it )that is generating the most buzz. Located on the northern outskirts of the historic city center behind an old factory complex, Maxxi has given Rome a showstopping national venue for contemporary art. The building will officially open in the spring, but architectural critics have already made the pilgrimage to see Hadid’s much anticipated work, a decade in the making. With its sweeping modern lines; a cantilevered, glass-fronted box at the entrance; and a series of glass-topped tunnels letting natural light into the exhibition spaces, the building is already a major critical success.  

A new generation of contemporary art galleries is also changing the city’s landscape. One of the best places to get a sense of the energy is at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill Roma (Via Orti D’Alibert 1E; 39-06-6889980, www.lorcanoneill.com), started by a gallerist formerly based in London who represents Francesco Clemente, Rachel Whiteread, and Tracey Emin. The young staff, including the associate director Serena Basso, will not only walk guests through the latest exhibit, they will also advise visitors on what’s going on around town, from the most intriguing shows to the best spots for aperitivi. The gallery recently launched a small secondary space just down the street as a platform for talented artists who choose to debut here instead of in cities like New York or London.

In late 2007, the arrival of Gagosian Gallery (Via Francesco Crispi 16; 39-06-42086498, www.gagosian.com) amounted to a major coup for the city as host to Larry Gagosian’s first outpost in continental Europe. Right by the Spanish Steps, the superstar art dealer’s airy space showcases the work of artists like Cy Twombly (a Rome resident since the late ’50s) as well as visiting stars like Anselm Kiefer, and hosts some of the most impressive openings in town. And insiders always stop at the galleries of the Bonomo sisters, a duo of powerhouse Roman curators who run two respected exhibition spaces in the city: Valentina Bonomo Roma (Via del Portico d’Ottavia 13; 39-06-6832766, www.galleriabonomo.com) and Galleria Alessandra Bonomo (Via del Gesù 62; 39-06-69925858, www.bonomogallery.com/alessandra). (Their mother also has a famous gallery in southern Italy.) Valentina Bonomo has remade a 14th-century monastery in the former Jewish Ghetto into a salon for megastars like Sol LeWitt and Matteo Montani, while Alessandra Bonomo represents cult artists such as Marc Quinn and Richard Tuttle in a gallery on Via del Gesù. “The contemporary art scene in Rome has changed immensely in the last couple of decades,” says Valentina. “There are many more international collectors and buyers coming here as well as emerging talent, not to mention people who are interested in seeing modern artists at work. It’s made having a gallery here so much more exciting.”

A New Generation Of Hotels And Restaurants

As the city morphs into a more modern destination, hotel and restaurant proprietors are beginning to heed the call for au courant design and service. One of the main hospitality trends is small, town house-style properties that offer visitors an experience akin to staying in the home of a chic, well-informed friend. While these new luxury guesthouses don’t have formal lobbies, 24-hour service, or restaurants, they tend to be centrally located in historic residential buildings and offer more reasonable rates than the usual suspects. Crossing Condotti (39-06-69920633, www.crossingcondotti.com), only a couple of minutes by foot from the Spanish Steps, opened in 2008 and is one of the best examples of this new concept. Its five cozy suites are overseen by Marco Fuduli, a warm concierge who can arrange everything from airport transfers to hard-to-get restaurant reservations. In the same vein, Margutta 54 (39/06-69921907, www.romeluxurysuites.com/margutta) also opened in 2008 in a historic palazzo on Via Margutta (the gorgeous street where Gregory Peck lived in Roman Holiday). While its design verges on the generic, the four guest rooms are comfortable and large. The Daphne Inn (39-06-87450086, www.daphne-rome.com), offering one of the best deals in lodging, has two locations right in the center of town, and its owners provide thoughtful services like the use of a cell phone.

Much more luxurious but still intimate is Portrait Suites (39-06-69380742, www.lungarnohotels.com), the Roman outpost of Ferragamo’s expanding hotel empire located in a palazzo on Via Condotti. Although the hotel lacks a spa or restaurant and therefore might seem quite pricey, the standout service, amazing location, and the roof terrace for savoring breakfast and cocktails make a stay worth the splurge. Part of Rocco Forte’s portfolio, the larger Hotel de Russie (39-06-328881 or 888-667-9477, www.hotelderussie.it) was among the first properties to break the fusty design mold a few years back; it’s still the first pick for media and fashion types who love the refreshingly contemporary decor and garden bar. Some of the rooms are ridiculously small for the price, however, so be sure to check the size when booking.

Even some grand dames have been updated in an effort to keep up with the new competition: In 2006, the famed Hassler (39-06-699340, www.hotelhassler.com) reopened its restaurant after a total redesign, and the Villa Spalletti Trivelli (39/06-48907934, www.villaspalletti.it) has reemerged as one of the most sumptuous, if expensive, properties in town after a complete face-lift three years ago.

Rome’s restaurant scene has also added more contemporary venues to augment the classics. Antico Arco (39-06-5815274, www.anticoarco.it), run by a trio of friends, is an essential stop on the city’s Janiculum Hill for its inventive dishes like onion-and-taleggio-cheese flan and risotto with red Sicilian shrimp. Co-owner Patrizia Mattei can also turn you on to her favorite hidden restaurants. Tuna (39-06-42016531, www.tunaroma.it), off the Via Veneto, is an exciting new arrival run by Francesco de Maria, who made his fish restaurant in Naples an institution. Here, a seafood-centric menu including great crudo di pesce (raw fish), is set off by a stylish white space. For a blowout meal, make a reservation at La Pergola (39-06-35092152, www.romecavalieri.com/lapergola.php), a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Hilton helmed by chef Heinz Beck with nouveau Italian dishes, great views, and an encyclopedic wine list. But it will cost you. 

Of course, no one should leave the city without trying the gelato. Sampling the famed Giolitti (near the Pantheon), the more upscale San Crispino (near the Trevi Fountain) and newcomer V.I.C.E. (a little beyond the city’s center) will provoke endless debate over which serves the best scoop in Rome.

Rome’s Burgeoning Neighborhoods

As the city’s cultural landscape shifts and expands, Rome’s peripheral neighborhoods are getting caught up in the action. Much like in New York or London, the transformation has come about as younger residents look for a fresh scene and cheaper rents, with restaurants, bars, and multi-use art centers following close behind to complement the well-loved institutions already there.

Testaccio, the former meatpacking district on the southern end of the city, is one of the edgiest of these reinvented areas, home to new arrivals like the MACRO (Via Reggio Emilia 54, 39-06-671070400, en.macro.roma.museum), opened in 2003. Its new wing, MACRO Future, and the Città dell’Altra Economia (Largo Dino Frisullo; 39-348-8059332, www.cittadellaltra economia.org) are in an adjacent former slaughterhouse.The latter, meaning “the city of the other economy,” opened in late 2007 and has become a gourmet mecca with a market, shops, and café devoted to organic and fair-trade goods. The Testaccio is also the center of much of the city’s nightlife, with bars and clubs like Goa, a favorite of Leonardo DiCaprio’s, alongside more timeless restaurants. There’s Felice a Testaccio (39-06-5746800, www.feliceatestaccio.com), a neighborhood fixture with classic Roman dishes (try the cacio e pepe, freshly made pasta with shaved Pecorino Romano cheese and cracked black pepper). At the meat-centric Checchino dal 1887 (39-06-5743816, www.checchino-dal-1887.com), don’t miss the classic winter dish of wild boar with prunes. Pigneto, a gritty former working-class neighborhood near Termini, Rome’s main train station, has become a vibrant residential area and culinary destination much like New York’s Lower East Side. Among the new highlights: Primo al Pigneto (39-06-70138276, www.primoalpigneto.it), a stylish restaurant that serves dishes like tonnarelli pasta with bottarga and artichokes (book ahead), and Pigneto Quarantuno (39-06-70399843, www.pignetoquarantuno.it), a cozy space that serves an excellent fresh cod dish with pressed olives. More old-school places – like the café Necci dal 1924 (39-06-97601552, www.necci1924.com/site), where film director Pier Paolo Pasolini came for inspiration, and wine bar Il Tiaso (39/06-45474625, www.iltiaso.com) keep up the bohemian atmosphere.

Monti, with its mom-and-pop shops and small restaurants, feels a world away from tour-packaged Rome even though the neighborhood is right behind the Colosseum. Trattoria Monti (39-06-4466573), owned by two brothers from Le Marche who serve sophisticated dishes like a delicate parmesan soufflé, and La Taverna da Tonino e Lucia (39-06-4745325), run by a grumpy couple who do a wicked spaghetti alla carbonara, exemplify how the neighborhood has retained classic institutions while also making room for newcomers.

Side Trips From The Eternal City

An hour north of Rome by train, the medieval town of Orvieto, perched on a rocky plateau, provides a quick glimpse into Umbria’s underrated treasures. Don’t miss Signorelli’s masterful Renaissance frescoes in the stunning 14th-century cathedral. Then move on to I Sette Consoli (www.isetteconsoli.it) for hearty dishes like taglierini with white truffles. Deeper in Umbria, the recently refurbished Palazzo Terranova (www.palazzoterranova.com), with its truffle-centric menus and new spa treatments, is a haven for honeymooners and foodies alike.

Maremma, partly in southwestern Tuscany and partly in northern Lazio, is about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Rome. Its 100-mile-long stretch of coastline has become one of Italy’s most popular seaside destinations. In the winter, one can discover its pleasures without the crowds. Among the region’s other highlights: Capalbio, the beautiful walled town favored by tony Roman insiders; Porto Ercole, a charming and ritzy port town; and dramatic Pitigliano, an Etruscan city built directly into tufo, a soft volcanic stone. Nearby, the Maremma National Park, a 24,000-acre nature reserve, has excellent trails for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Book a room at Relais Vedetta (www.relaisvedetta.eu), a manor house recently transformed into a stylish, eco-conscious B&B.

The Art Of The Aperitivo

For Italians, gathering with friends for an evening drink and a few snacks is an almost sacred daily ritual. Often, an aperitivo substitutes for dinner altogether because of the copious tapas-like delicacies served free with a purchased drink, or for just a couple of euros extra. Below are some of our favorite spots for enjoying one of the more fun – and inexpensive – pastimes in town.

Enoteca Ferrara
This sleek wine bar and restaurant has a full menu, but insiders just sidle up to the marble bar for a glass of one of the 28 varieties of wine and the savory dishes including stuffed anchovies. Piazza Trilussa 41; 39/06-580-3769

Freni e Frizioni The city’s young and beautiful flock here as much for the tasty, free buffet (pasta, salad, and just-made focaccia) as for the happening scene. Via del Politeama 4-6; 39/06-583-3420

Bar della Pace
A 100 years old, this spot behind the Piazza Navona is still the place to see and be seen. Join locals for a glass of prosecco and nibbles of crostini and local cheese. Via della Pace 5; 39/06-686-1216

Salotto 42
Set on a lovely piazza facing a Roman temple, this café, owned by a Scandinavian model, is where the city’s most stylish crowd mingles over Cosmos and Swedish snacks. Piazza di Pietra 42; 39/06-678-5804

Settembrini
In addition to a excellent wine list, this hip wine bar also proffers delicious small plates of oysters, mortadella, and fritto misto. Via Luigi Settembrini 25; 39/06-323-2617

Getting There and Around

Most major carriers fly directly from big U.S. cities to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci (FCO) airport (locals refer to it by its old name, Fiumicino). A new airline, Eurofly (www.euroflyusa.com), has started seasonal (June through September only), discounted flights to Rome from JFK. From the airport, a train called the Leonardo Express runs twice an hour directly to Termini, Rome’s central train station.

A taxi from the airport to the city’s center has a fixed price of $57. The historic center of Rome is compact and the major sites are easily reached on foot (bring a good map to navigate the ancient winding streets), or by a taxi ride of less than $15. Staff at a visitor’s hotel or restaurant will always be happy to order one when needed, and they usually arrive in a few minutes.

When to Go

Rome is hot and crowded during the summer and many restaurants close in August. The best time to visit is in the spring, autumn, and the winter when temperatures are still mild and it’s possible to see sites without hordes of other tourists. Winter and early spring are a particular "sweet spot": Hotels offer more availability and value, many of the city’s art shows and performances are opening, and locals are actually in town.

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