Discover the Eternal City's charm in spring and summerby Alessia Vignali
People who speak English often use an Italian term to describe a cocktail or dinner held outdoors: al fresco. The Italians don't, for a good reason... but more about that later. In Rome, al fresco is virtually a way of life in spring and summer, partly because of the fine weather, partly because there are so many spectacular monuments that have to be admired from outside. And of course, partly because the people of Rome love being at the centre of attention, and putting on a show. All this means that visitors to Rome are well advised to dedicate a good part of their stay to strolling outdoors. Whether you are attending a market, outdoor events, watching the people emerge from Mass, or just engaged in the evening promenade ritual, you will see that the streets and piazzas have returned to what they were in ancient times, open-air lounges, in which the evocative urban backdrops provide the perfect setting for a coffee, a gelato, or good conversation with friends.
An outdoor itinerary
In this article, I would like to give you some suggestions on discovering the beauty and variety of Rome's outdoor locations. A good place to start is Piazza del Campidoglio, location of the city's government and seat of the gods from Ancient Rome. The arrangement of the buildings around the square was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti, who used sophisticated perspective techniques to increase the sense of space. The equestrian monument of Marcus Aurelius is at the centre. It is perhaps the finest example of the Renaissance concept for the piazza. (Below, the piazza, courtesy of Stefano Minio/sxc.hu)
While you're here, I recommend a visit to the Musei Capitolini (Piazza del Campidoglio 1, open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m., tel. +39 06 0608, www.museicapitolini.org) and a drink on the sunny terrace of Caffè Capitolino (Piazza Caffarelli 4, tel. +39 06 691 90 564, open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.), just behind Palazzo dei Conservatori.
From here, it's about a 15-minute walk through the Campitelli and Regola districts to Piazza Farnese. It is decorated with two twin fountains building using Ancient Roman vats. The Piazza is dominated by the imposing Renaissance building, presently used by the French Embassy.
The square named Campo de’ Fiori is close by. Every day, there is a fruit and vegetable market here, and lots of friendly restaurants that offer a great place to stop for luch or dinner. I would like to recommend the shop Antica Norcineria Viola (Piazza Campo de' Fiori 43, tel. +39 06 6880 6114), a family business where you can find over a hundred types of salami and other cured meats, some made with red wine, walnuts and truffles. If you'd like to get a taste of something more intellectual, you can take a look at some pure Italian design at Nuyorica (Piazza Pollarola 36, tel. +39 066 8891243), a sophisticated boutique a short distance away.
Take Via dei Baullari, cross Piazza della Cancelleria and take Via San Pantaleo. It's just a five-minute walk to Piazza Navona, whose elliptic shape is due to the ancient Domitian Stadium. This is one of the liveliest locations in the city, all day and until late at night, with a variety of venues and restaurants.
From here, a 20-minute stroll brings you to Piazza di Spagna. Famous all over the world, in part for having appeared in films from the unforgettable Roman Holiday to Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, the Spanish Steps that ascend towards the church of Trinità dei Monti and the Barcaccia fountain by Bernini are a popular meeting place both for tourists and the people of Rome who have finished their shopping in the nearby Via Condotti and Via Frattina. These streets include luxury boutiques for brands such as Bulgari – which opened here in 1905 – Hermès, Cartier, Ferragamo, Battistoni – historic men's tailors – Ferré, Fendi, Tiffany and Versace.
Casina Valadier is a top-quality restaurant on the hill once known as Collis Hortulorum, the highest point of the Pincio. Close to Trinità dei Monti, this spot boasts superb 180-degree views over the city. The building is a fine, Neoclassical structure, expressly designed to become a meeting place for high society. The guestbook includes the signatures of personalities including Gandhi, king Farouk and Strauss. The venue includes terraces for coffee and snacks, a wine bar, and al fresco dining tables. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Casina Valadier, Villa Borghese, Piazza Bucarest, 00187 Rome, tel. +39 06 6992 2090.
Villa Borghese is one of rome’s largest parks, and always a lovely place for a stroll. For a little culture, plan a visit to the Museo & Galleria Borghese. The lovely collections of sculpture, bas-reliefs, paintings and mosaics include highlights such as Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (1625), Portait of a man (1475) by Antonello da Messina, the Deposition (1507) by Raphael, and Pauline Bonaparte (1805-1808) by Canova. The gallery is open every day from 8.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., closed on Mondays. Ticket booking: tel. +39 06 32 810.
The park and gardens of Villa Borghese are open every day from dawn to dusk, and include many facilities for recreation and entertainment, from bike hire to puppet shows.
The Botanic Gardens in Rome date back to the 13th century, though they were developed primarily in the 19th century. Open 9.30 a.m. – 6.30 p.m., closed on Sundays and holidays. Orto Botanico, Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, 00165 Rome.
Al fresco in Rome's top hotels
Rome's luxury hotels offer some lovely outdoor locations. For example, the Stravinskij Bar at Hotel de Russie (Via del Babuino 9, tel. +39 3288 8874, www.hotelderussie.it, open every day 9.00 a.m.-1.00 a.m.) is a great place for a buffet lunch or dinner, or a cocktail prepared by the award-winning barman Massimo D’Addezio.
Not many hotels can boast the sort of gardens possessed by the Rome Cavalieri, with six hectares on the Monte Mario hillside. At L’Uliveto – the name translates as 'olive grove' – the tables look onto the terraces with umbrella pines, and the lovely swimming pools, and beyond to the eternal city. Don’t be surprised if you’re brushing shoulders with the likes of Tom Hanks, Leonardo Dicaprio, Mel Gibson, Tracy Chapman and others, because they’ve all been here! In the evening, live music and candlelight makes this a real dream. (Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Via Alberto Cadlolo 101, 00136 Rome Tel. +39 06 3509 2010).
At Hotel D'Inghilterra, the hotel’s connections with England go beyond the name, as it was a favourite with Byron, Keats and Shelley. Café Romano has outdoor tables on Via Borgognona, Rome’s quintessentially fashionable street, and is open for breakfast, a snack break during a shopping mission, lunch or candlelit dinner. This is a fine dining experience, guided by chef Antonio Vitale who gives local ingredients and classic recipes a supremely creative touch, conquering the sense of sight even before they delight the palate. Hotel D’Inghilterra, Via Bocca di Leone 14, 00187 Rome, tel. +39 06 699 811.
Le Cupole at the Grand Hotel De La Minerve is a bar designed by architect Paolo Portoghesi, located in the hall but exceptional above all for its roof garden, from where you can enjoy a superb view over rome with its eternal monuments. House pianists perform live music every evening at Le Cupole, in a style that accommodates everything from standards to swing. The menu presents a range of light dishes and nibbles, with a comprehensive selection of international cocktails. Open every day from 8.30 a.m. to 1.00 a.m. Grand Hotel De La Minerve, Piazza della Minerva 69, 00186 Rome, tel. +39 06 695 201.
Lastly, for a nightlife recommendation, you shouldn't miss the Gilda discotheque (Via Mario de' Fiori 97, tel. +39 06 6784838, www.gildabar.it). Always a focus of Rome society and nightlife, it attracts VIPs, actors, footballers, models and a chic young clientele.
And why don't the Italians use the term 'al fresco'? Because it has another meaning. 'Essere al fresco' means 'to be in the clink.' In other words, in jail. Not much fresh air there!