The Secret Hotels of Rome

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20 exceptional hotels in the Eternal City for under $80 a night.

True budgeteers will appreciate the irony: The only Rome hotel to rival the five-star Hassler (atop the Spanish Steps) for "Best Room with a View" is Albergo Abruzzi, a backpacker's haven overlooking the incredible 1,800-year-old Pantheon. Few cheap sleeps are so well situated, but among the best of the best, each has its own charms. I recently toured more than 70 Roman inns where doubles cost under $80 before choosing 20 that offer some combination of a good location, solid comfort, a modicum of amenities, and helpful management that strives to make each guest's stay a memorable one.

These Little Wonder Hotels run the gamut from spare hospices managed by nuns to a pensione serving kosher breakfasts, from international backpacker pads to classy joints where you'll have to snatch a room away from traveling Italian businessmen. Whether your dream address is a block from the Spanish Steps or from the ancient Forum, whether you want to crash around the corner from the train station or from the Armani showroom, you'll find the perfect room at one of these budget inns.

The hotels are found in four well-known neighborhoods: Centro Storico, Termini, Prati, and Trastevere.

The centro storico (historic center) is where most people want to be: Along the boutique-lined streets radiating from the Spanish Steps, or tucked into the knot of cobblestone alleys and antiques shops surrounding Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and Campo de' Fiori with its morning market and nighttime bar scene.

Rome's best bargains are clustered amid the Termini train station's nineteenth- century grid of bus boulevards, budget shops, and recent immigrants trying to scrape a living. Though central enough, this is Rome's least interesting neighborhood-dreary, dirty, and slightly disreputable (especially just south of the station), and a half-hour hike from the centro storico. I've pinpointed the shining gems of hospitality and stylish frugality amid Termini's sea of seedy flophouses and tour-bus chain hotels.

Across the Tiber River are Prati, a great, non-touristy neighborhood that surrounds the Vatican; and, to the south, the restaurant- and pub-filled alley-ways of a gorgeous medieval artisans' quarter called Trastevere.

Unless otherwise specified, all rooms come with private bathroom and telephone, credit cards are accepted, and the range of rates is seasonal; you pay top dollar roughly from Easter to October (but excluding August and sometimes July; rates used here based on E1=94¢). To call Rome from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below.

Centro Storico

Pensione Panda Via della Croce 35, tel. 06-678-0179, fax 06-6994-2151, www. hotelpandaparadise.com. 20 rooms, 12 with bath. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87) with bath. 10 percent discount for paying cash. No breakfast. For the best balance of comfort, style, and price in the very heart of Rome, the Panda wins hands-down. The washboard-vaulted ceilings are frescoed (second floor) or trimmed in stuccoes (first floor) over terrazzo flooring, wrought-iron wall sconces, and firm new bedsprings. Even rooms without private bath have sinks surrounded by antiqued stone tiles. That cash discount keeps it under $80. All that and it's just two fashionista-teeming blocks from the Spanish Steps amid Rome's toniest shops.

Hotel Smeraldo Vicolo dei Chiodaroli 9, tel. 06-687-5929, fax 06-6880-5495, www.hotelsmeraldoroma.com. 50 rooms, 44 with bath. Double room E68ÐE78 ($64Ð$73) without bath, E104ÐE114 ($98Ð$107) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE8 ($4.70Ð$7.50). This is the first place in Rome I call for a room. You just won't find a better place at these prices in the very heart of Rome. You get burnished chestnut veneers, stone-tile floors, marble sinks, and all the electronic comforts of home (satellite TV, hairdryers, even A/C). The price for rooms with full bath rises above our $80 ceiling but all rooms have sinks and bidets. The industrious owners have also just renovated the old Hotel Piccolo (it's now called Hotel in Parione; tel. 06-6880-2560, fax 06-689-2330) across the street.

Casa Kolbe Via San Teodoro 44, tel. 06-679-4974, fax 06-6994-1550. 63 rooms. Double room E80 ($75). Breakfast E6 ($5.60). Those rooms that don't open onto the peaceful courtyard's palms and orange trees look instead across a little-trafficked street onto a romantically overgrown, semi-excavated portion of the ancient Palatine Hill. The Roman Forum entrance is just a few hundred feet away. The Kolbe exudes that somber quiet that only a former mon-astery can muster, but it's comfy enough. The built-in units are austere, with heavenly orthopedic beds sporting blankets in the most hideous shades of brown and yellow the 1960s had to offer.

Hotel Mimosa Via di Santa Chiara 61, tel. 06-6880-1753, fax 06-683-3557, www.hotelmimosa.net. 11 rooms, 7 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E67ÐE83 ($63Ð$78) without bath, E83ÐE98 ($78Ð$92) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE6 ($4.70Ð$5.60). Tucked into a golden location between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, the family-run Mimosa has somehow been overlooked by Rome's tourism machine, happily continuing to offer simple but sizable, clean, and comfy rooms at laughably low rates. Largish rooms one, two, and three were recently redone with quirky touches: wrought iron or brass bedsteads, sinuous mirrors, Oriental rugs, giant ceiling beams, or brilliant blue curtains. Only one room has A/C (an extra E10/$9.40).

Fraterna Domus Via Monte Brianzo 62, tel. 06-6880-2727, fax 06-683-2691, domusrm@tin.it. 18 rooms. Double room E78 ($73); students E30 ($28) per person. Breakfast included. If you don't mind monastic simplicity, tiny bathrooms with curtainless showers, and a decor that begins and ends with a small Crucifix nailed above the bed, this hospice just north of Piazza Navona run by a lay sisterhood may be the ticket. The beds are firm, the tile floors kept next-to-godliness clean. The bad news: An 11 p.m. curfew (but you might get a front door key if you stay a week). They also offer excellent full meals for a paltry E12 ($11), as I recommended in "The Little Wonder Restaurants of Rome" (Budget Travel, July/August 2000).

Albergo Abruzzi Piazza della Rotonda 69, tel. 06-679-2021. 28 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E95 ($89). No breakfast. The Abruzzi is $9 over our limit, but what's a few bucks more when you can open your bedroom window and practically poke the Pantheon with a stick? Of course, there are no private bathrooms (each five-room floor shares just one and a half baths), no amenities whatsoever, no backbone to the mattresses, and no double-glazed windows to keep out the considerable pedestrian noise from this popular piazza. It takes a die-hard architecture buff and/or Rome aficionado to appreciate the Abruzzi's charms. For me, it's worth the annoying, late-night din for at least one morning of waking up to that view, which is best from the large corner doubles with windows on two walls.

Pensione Jonella Via della Croce 41, tel. 06-679-7966, fax 06-446-2368. 4 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64). No breakfast. Think of this as your budget penthouse: Way up on the fifth floor with no elevator and no reception desk (call when you get to the station and they meet you with the keys), but a killer location between the Spanish Steps and the Corso. The rooms are spacious and fitted with framed Roman prints and wonderful old Deco armoires and mirrors. Room 1 has an elegant bedframe and a balcony; enormous Room 4 fits four beds and a dining room-type table with plenty of room to spare. If you hear a message in Italian when you phone, stay on the line; it's just call-forwarding.

Residenza Brotsky Via del Corso 509, tel. 06-361-2339, fax 06-323-6641. 24 rooms, 19 with bath. Double room E50ÐE70 ($47Ð$66) without bath, E60ÐE90 ($56Ð$85) with bath. Breakfast E5 ($4.70). A boarding house straight out of a Fellini film-dusty and worn at the edges, but full of character and astoundingly cheap for its prime location on Rome's main passeggiata (strolling) street. A melange of worn old furnishings and oil landscapes crowds the spacious rooms, and bathrooms were overhauled in 2000. Brotsky's saving graces are the creaky parquet-floored breakfast room, narrow Room 10 with its Corso balcony, and the roof terrace's personable panorama of Roman rooftops, the Villa Borghese's umbrella pines, and St. Peter's dome beyond a thicket of TV aerials.

Termini

Hotel Des Artistes Via Villafranca 20, tel. 06-445-4365, fax 06-446-2368, http://www.hoteldesartistes.com/. 45 rooms, 32 with bath. Double room E45ÐE100 ($42Ð$94) without bath, E98ÐE179 ($92Ð$168) with bath. Breakfast E7.75 ($7.25). Discounts of E5ÐE15 ($4.70Ð$14) if you pay cash (usually). Paintings and prints brighten this frugal haven where some of the large rooms can sleep up to six (perfect for families). The beds are orthopedically sound and the arte povera furnishings are among the nicest I've seen. Rooms with stylish private baths come with A/C (bathless ones get a fan). The entire hotel-including the TV/chess/Internet terminal lounge-is nonsmoking, save the sunny roof terrace, where you can breakfast in summer. The price range reflects complicated seasonal variations; except during the busiest spring and fall periods, you will likely get a room with bath for under $80, especially if you pay cash. Check the Web site for deals.

Hotel Papa Germano Via Calatafimi 14A, tel. 06-486-919, fax 06-4782-5202, www.hotel papagermano.com. 17 rooms, 7 with bath. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64) without bath, E68ÐE83 ($64Ð$78) with bath. Bed in shared room without bath E18ÐE21 ($17Ð$20). No breakfast. Gino believes that being a host involves more than just providing beds. Most small hotels suffer from a drafty, dreary feel, but Papa Germano is perhaps the most comfortable, cozy hotel in its category. First take a powerful mix of double-glazed windows, bright lighting, and richly patterned fabrics and futon chairs. Add modern climate control, amenities such as TV and hairdryer, and a relaxing lounge with Internet stations. Finish it off with those low rates and the warm welcome of the impressively friendly, hyperhelpful Gino, and you can understand why Papa Germano books up early.

Fawlty Towers Via Magenta 39, tel. 06-445-0374, fax 06-4938-2878, www.fawltytowers.org. 16 rooms, 5 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E67 ($63) with sink/shower, E77 ($72) with bath. Bed in dorm E18 ($17) without bath, E23 ($22) with bath. No breakfast. Early flight? Try crashing around the corner from the Termini station at this easygoing hotel that emanates that youthful, friendly, backpackers-of-the-world-unite hostel ambience-but without the dismal dorm atmosphere or party-hard agenda. Rooms are basic, but the mattresses are new. About half the accommodations are private; half are shared, hostel-style (but with only four cots each). The (generally) young guests hang out in the TV room, solarium (microwave, fridge, Internet station), and flower-filled terrace, trading travel tips and often heading out as a group for pizza or a pub crawl.

Hotel Tizi Via Collina 48, tel. 06-482-0128, fax 06-474-3266. 24 rooms, 10 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52 ($49) without bath, E62 ($58) with bath. Breakfast E7 ($6.60). The Tizi family actually lives here, so you'll find them and their purring Persian perennially hanging around their kitchen/ dining room across the hall from guest-room doors. Rooms enjoy fresh wallpaper and Murano-style chandeliers, and old blankets stretched across firm beds. Second-floor rooms sport swooping metal bed frames, high stuccoed ceilings, and older baths, while ground-floor accommodations are larger but more dismally furnished. They are renovating another ten rooms in the building.

Hotel Fenicia Via Milazzo 20, tel./fax 06-490-342, www.hotelfenicia.it. 14 rooms, 1 with toilet in hall (shower/sink in room). Double room E75ÐE85 ($70Ð$80); discounted in winter. Breakfast available during some months upon request E7 ($6.60). A gem amid a slew of budget dives, offering one-star prices for three-star comfort-including TV and A/C (which costs an extra E10/$9.40 to turn on). Spanking new modular units and firm beds rest on modern parquet floors surrounded by matching fabrics. The bathrooms are (for Rome) remarkably spacious. The hotel is spread across three elevatorless floors: The first (standard rooms), second (classiest digs), and fourth (older, and generally smaller, rooms-except rooms 18 and 20, which are big and newly refurbished and have tiny balconies). Most cheap hotels yell at you for doing laundry in the sink; the Fenicia provides retractable clotheslines in the baths.

Suore di Santa Elisabetta Via dell'Olmata 9, tel. 06-488-8271, fax 06-488-4066. 35 rooms, 25 with bath. Double room E51 ($48) without bath, E66 ($62) with bath. Breakfast included. Kindly Polish nuns have welcomed guests to their convent just south of Santa Maria Maggiore for more than 100 years. The rooms are spare and simple, but comfortable, with a painting or two in addition to the requisite crucifix. Like a prudish 1950s sitcom, the narrow twin beds are kept strictly separated in all rooms. Baths are old, but well cared for, and a few rooms have terraces. Guests can wander the panoramic roof terrace and the peaceful palm-shaded garden of orange trees, roses, and kiwi-vine arbors. Kids under 12 stay at a discount. The big drawback: An 11 p.m. curfew. Book well in advance.

Hotel Katty Via Palestro 35, tel. 06-490-079, fax 06-444-1216. 23 rooms, 15 with bath. Double room E26ÐE51 ($24Ð$48) without bath, E39ÐE77 ($37Ð$72) with bath. If you pay by credit card, add 3 to 5 percent to these prices. No breakfast. It's a bit of a walk from the station, but the kindly owner, bargain-basement prices, and quirky decor of the large, spare rooms earn the Katty a place amid Rome's budget bests. Rooms without bath are kitted out with battered modular furnishings but fantastic floors of chipped-stone mosaics. Private-bath rooms are brand new for 2002, with shiny tile floors, nice built-in units, A/C and minibar (in some), and double-glazed windows. A few have balconies on the courtyard. Rooms 203 (a triple) and 206 (a quad) sport frescoed ceilings. TV available upon request.

Across the river (Prati & Trastevere)

Hotel Colors Via Boezio 31, tel. 06-687-4030, fax 06-686-7947, www.colorshotel.com. 7 rooms, 1 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E68 ($64) without bath, E78 ($73) with shower/sink, E83 ($78) with bath. Bed in co-ed dorm without bath E20 ($19). No breakfast. The folks who founded Fawlty Towers (above) now run this fifth-floor walk-up near Vatican City. It's a few blocks from the best food shopping in Rome-indoor and outdoor markets, plus Franchi and Castroni, two renowned grocers-so you can put the communal kitchen and small shared terrace to good use. The simple, spacious rooms are vibrant in a supersaturated, whimsical, accident-at-the-Crayola-factory way. Only one room is shared dorm-style, and the largely young backpacking clientele tend to be of a more reserved, mature stripe. The washer/dryer costs less than a laundromat.

Locanda Carmel Via Goffredo Mameli 11, tel. 06-580-9921, fax 06-581-8853, reservation@hotelcarmel.it. 11 rooms. Double room E80 ($75) without bath, E85 ($80) with bath. Breakfast included. What very well may be Italy's only officially kosher hotel lies in a quiet corner just two blocks from Trastevere's daily market on Piazza di San Cosimato. In 2001 they spread wonderfully colorful quilts over firm new mattresses, and finally soundproofed the doors and windows. A battered wooden chair and bedside table constitute "furnishings," but all rooms have A/C, an (unstocked) mini fridge, and a TV. The solarium of squishy couches opens onto a lovely, plant-filled terrace shaded by vine arbors.

Pensione Lady Via Germanico 198, tel. 06-324-2112, fax 06-324-3446. 8 rooms, 4 with bath. Double room E85 ($80) without bath, E100 ($94) with bath. No breakfast. Staying here, in the heart of Prati, feels a bit like moving into an arty friend's apartment: There's the homey living room with its deeply cushioned couches and exposed wood ceilings (a feature that graces about half the rooms), a mix of Liberty and unfinished country-style furnishings, and framed prints on the walls. Only the bathless rooms fall into our price category, but all have sinks (one even has a shower).

Pensione Joli Via Cola di Rienzo 243, tel. 06-324-1854, fax 06-3600-6637, jolihit@yahoo.it. 18 rooms. Double room E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87). Breakfast included. The drab entrance on a bustling middle-class shopping boulevard gives no hint of the lovely hotel high above, where spanking new furnishings and firm beds (personally tested by the staff) rest on polished plank floors. The Spartan baths, however, are overdue for an overhaul. In front rooms, you can hang out the window to glimpse St. Peter's dome; from those on the courtyard you can spy Rear WindowÐstyle on the Italian neighbors. TV is free for the asking. The moderately classier Hotel Florida (tel. 06-324-1872, fax 06-324-1857), taking up the three floors below, charges E70ÐE75 ($66Ð$70) for a double without bath and E93ÐE110 ($87Ð$103) with bath.

Pensione Paradise Viale Giulio Cesare 47, tel. 06-3600-4331, fax 06-3609-2563, www.hotelpandaparadise.com. 10 rooms, 8 with bath. Double room E50ÐE60 ($47Ð$56) without bath, E75ÐE83 ($70Ð$78) with bath. No breakfast. The Paradise doesn't enjoy the location or style of its sister Panda, but it's right at a Metro stop and only a few blocks from St. Peter's. Mirrors help open up the smallish, minimally furnished rooms. Still, the beds are new-and, in singles, wider than usual-and the sparkling baths sport heated towel racks (great for drying laundry). They're installing TVs this winter.

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