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Rome: Centro Storico

updated February 21, 2017

The historic center has the city's densest concentration of tourist sights, but it's also surprisingly lived-in, with monumental and intimate squares, grand and humble palaces, and restaurants galore.

SEE Piazza della Minerva
In the often-ignored blind spot behind the Pantheon, an uppity elephant, believed to have been sculpted by Bernini, carries an Egyptian obelisk on its back. On the facade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva church, marble plaques record the water levels of Tiber floods from the 15th to 19th centuries.

SEE Via dei Cestari and Via di Santa Chiara
The liturgical outfitters on these narrow streets just south of the Pantheon are what keep Vatican VIPs looking red-carpet ready. Ogle the elaborate window displays as long as you like; store owners say that even non-priests are welcome to browse or shop inside. John Paul II had his custom threads crafted at Gammarelli, while it's rumored that Benedict XVI entrusts the making of his vestments to Euroclero, on the other side of town, where he became a loyal customer as a cardinal. His flashy red shoes, however, are limited-edition Prada.

EAT Obikà
Piazza di Firenze 28 (at Via dei Prefetti), 011-39/06-683-2630, obika.it
The name means "here it is!" in the Neapolitan dialect--"it" being buffalo mozzarella. In this slick café, mozzarella (don't call it cheese) in many forms--braids, blobs, balls--is paired with salami, prosciutto, and bottarga (dried fish roe).

EAT Pizzeria La Montecarlo
Vicolo Savelli 13, 011-39/06-686-1877, sevoinapizzadillo.net
The liveliest, cheapest, and friendliest of the triumvirate of favorite local pizzerias west of Piazza Navona. The crowds out front look daunting, but stride confidently to the front of the line, and you'll be greeted and seated right away. (Cutting with confidence is an art form in Italy.) Angle for a table in one of the back rooms or outside. Closed Mon. Cash only.

EAT Renato e Luisa Via dei Barbieri
25, 011-39/06-686-9660, renatoeluisa.it
You could live around the corner for years and never think to eat here, but this is a real standout amid the casual trattorias just north of Largo Argentina. Consistently delicious Roman dishes, such as bucatini all'amatriciana (zesty tomato and pancetta pasta) and fiori di zucca (stuffed zucchini blossoms) are served in a rustic and homey atmosphere. Closed Mon.

DRINK Bar del Fico
Piazza del Fico 26--28, 011-39/06-686-5205
Down-to-earth and busy all day long, from the morning espresso shooters to the 2 a.m. vodka-and--Red Bull crowd. The indoor/outdoor "bar of the fig" (also translatable as "bar of cool") is a Roman social institution and highly recommended, especially if you happen to be at one of the tables under the gnarled fig tree when Lenny Kravitz stops by and buys a round. Cash only.

DRINK Le Coppelle
52 Piazza delle Coppelle 52, 011-39/349-740-4620
In one of Rome's most refined and secluded little piazzas, this chic and comfy bar is perfect for an aperitivo (light cocktail or glass of wine, especially prosecco) before--or a digestivo (nightcap) after--a meal at one of the stylish restaurants on the square. Weather permitting, lounge furniture is set up on the car-free cobblestones outside. Closed Mon. from Nov. to March.

DRINK Salotto
42 Piazza di Pietra 42, 011-39/06-678-5804, salotto42.it
Co-owned by Swedish model and longtime resident of Rome Malin Persson this new "book bar" offering Swedish fare has been an aperitivo-hour hit with Nordic expats and cultured Romans since its 2004 opening. A few tables spill out onto the quiet, pedestrian piazza to face the ruins of the Temple of Hadrian. Closed Mon.

SPLURGE Posto Italiano
Via dei Giubbonari 37a, 011-39/06-686-9373
Shopping bags from flashier shoe boutiques in the Campo de' Fiori area carry more cachet, but if you want a well-priced and well-made pair of this-minute Italian shoes or boots (meaning they'll be in style in the U.S. in a year), make this your first stop. Expect to spend about $125 a pair.

PLAY Supperclub
Via de' Nari 14, 011-39/06-6880-7207, supperclub.com
At this Euro-fabulous dining experience, which includes four courses of fusion fare, you recline on a white divan and are served by half-naked waiters. The cocktail lounge and dance club are less expensive ways to partake in the excess. Reserve well in advance for dinner. Location changes in summer. $69 prix fixe.


  • TIP If you're ever in Rome when it's pouring rain--or better yet, during one of the city's rare hailstorms--head straight to the Pantheon. The 30-foot-wide oculus (the round window at the top of the dome) is open to the sky, which means that the ancient temple becomes a gigantic indoor shower in rainy weather. This feature of the building gets especially dramatic on Pentecost Sunday in May or June, when firemen dump barrel after barrel of red rose petals through the oculus to flutter down over the Mass, celebrated 142 feet below.
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