Rome Sweet Rome

When his wife was invited to study in Rome rent-free, Stephen Heuser took a six-month sabbatical and tagged along. 'La vita' doesn't get much more 'dolce' than that.

As the heat mounted, the city began to feel a little enervating, so we escaped for a five-day trip to the north of Italy. By the time we returned, the city had transformed itself again: Stages were being built in public squares for summer concerts. Streets were clogged with tourists, seemingly all moving in groups, seemingly all behind the same bottle-blonde lady holding aloft a folded umbrella. You could no longer just drop in for a quick scoop of gelato--you had to wait, but I didn't even know how to line up anymore. Instead of shoving right into the side of the line, a Roman tactic I had finally embraced, people seemed to form the orderly queues of their native countries.

It was the Rome I remembered from my visit all those years ago, a crush of three-day visitors ticking Rome off their lists. But it wasn't the place where I'd been living. So, for my last weekend in Italy, we did as the Romans do. We went to the beach.

Every local has his favorites

During his six months in Rome, Heuser found himself returning to a few spots, not all of which appear in the guidebooks. Here's his partial, and highly subjective, list of museums, churches, and restaurants worth adding to any itinerary.

Ancient art gallery

Palazzo Massimo While busloads of tourists wait hours to get into the Vatican Museums across town, you can stroll right into this magnificent collection of ancient Roman sculptures, paintings, and mosaics. The top floor alone is worth the $9 admission, with several vividly frescoed rooms re-created from Roman villas. Your ticket also admits you to three other museums of historical Rome: the Palazzo Altemps, with more sculptures; the Crypta Balbi, an anatomy of the medieval city; and the Terme di Diocle-ziano. Largo di Villa Peretti 1, 011-39/06-3996-7700.

Great collection

Galleria Borghese Located in Villa Borghese park, the Galleria Borghese is a manageable jewel commissioned by the nephew of Pope Paul V expressly to hold his lush art collection--classical marbles, Renaissance paintings, and some of Bernini's greatest sculptures. The walls and ceilings, decorated to reflect the theme of the works displayed, constitute a museum in and of themselves. Piazzale Museo Borghese 5, 011-39/06-328-101, $10.50 (reservations required).

Major church

Santa Maria Maggiore This cavernous basilica is a thousand years older than St. Peter's and was built after the Empire collapsed, when Rome was crumbling into a backwater. Its grand accumulation of art and artifacts embodies the wealth and eclecticism of the Church--sparkling medieval mosaics, Rome's tallest bell tower, a purported fragment of Jesus's crib, and two garish Renaissance side chapels larger than some churches. Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Medieval basilica

Santi Cosma e Damiano Of the thousands of people who go to the Forum every day, few pop out the side gate and visit this charming medieval church. One end was grafted onto the Temple of Romulus; the other is covered with sixth-century mosaics in a strikingly modern blue-green palette. A quirk in the building's history means the floor is much higher now than when it was built, putting visitors right up near the saints, the evangelists, and the flock of lambs. Via dei Fori Imperiali 1.

Architecture showpiece

San Carlino Architecture aficionados tend to skip the big-name churches, preferring buildings by Francesco Borromini. The baroque craftsman imbued his tiny structures with imaginative geometries that give mind-bending life to their plain stucco interiors. The most popular is probably Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, but I especially loved San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, where the elliptical dome rises in a mystifying tangle of octagons and warped crosses. Via Nazionale at Via delle Quattro Fontane.

Trompe l'oeil

Convento di Trinità dei Monti Inside this French convent--you enter just to the left of the Trinità dei Monti church, near the Spanish Steps--is a long anamorphic painting in the cloister. It's a landscape that, as you move around, morphs into a portrait of a cloaked saint. Tours are given only twice a week. Ask if an English-speaking guide is available; otherwise the tour will be in French or Italian. Piazza della Trinità dei Monti, 011-39/06-679-4179, $6.25 (reservations required).

Cheap tour

The number 116 bus The 116 isn't the quickest way across town--walking is probably faster--but riding the tiny bus is like a ¬1 tour of the city. It starts in the parking garage next to the Vatican and wriggles its way through an hour's worth of Rome's great public spaces and boulevards--the Via Giulia, Piazza Farnese, Campo dei Fiori, the Via Veneto--before finally turning around in a bucolic cul-de-sac in front of the Galleria Borghese. Hop off and walk through the surrounding park, or just stay onboard and do the whole thing in reverse.

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