36 Hours in Rome: How I’d spend a short weekend here

St. Peter’s shines at night but Rome has so much else to offer. e.wikivoyage.org photo

One of my favorite features in The New York Times travel section is its 36 Hours in … (Pick a city. They’ve been everywhere.) It chooses a different city around the world and the writer takes the reader on a journey that starts Friday afternoon and ends about noon Sunday. It’s never exactly 36 hours but you get the point.

What I love is every 36 Hours could be different. Find 100 people in one town and you’ll have 100 different itineraries. In that spirit, and with savvy travelers coming here at the best time of year in September, I decided to do my own 36 Hours in Rome. I’ve lived here 8 ½ years, 10 if you count my first stint 20 years ago. It’s my favorite city in the world and I’ll live here the rest of my life. (Honest. I will.) I still won’t have the time to see and do all the things I want.

Visitors often ask me what are Rome’s can’t-miss places. They’re obvious. You already know about the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Roman Forum. I left those out here. Besides, they alone take up about 36  hours. Instead, I went with how I would spend my perfect 36 hours. It’s highly personal so use it as a suggestion list, not a check list. 

Rome is personal for me. Its glamour isn’t overhyped. It is Italy’s sexiest showgirl. It struts its stuff for everyone to admire and never disappoints. Italy has the world’s best food. It has the world’s best wine, its most art. And Rome is not only its capital but its heartbeat. 

Yes, it’s also dirty, chaotic and dysfunctional but like a beautiful woman,  you put up with Rome’s faults. Thirty-six hours in Rome is merely a cruel tease. But it’s worth more than 36 days in so many other places. Enjoy your weekend. (Phone numbers do not include 39 country code.)

Table of Contents

FRIDAY

Part of Sabastiao Salgado’s photo exhibit of the Amazon at MAXXI this year.

3 p.m. Art to start

MAXXI’s real name is Museo Nazionale delle Arti dei XXI Secolo. Headline writers demanded an acronym. It is Rome’s wonderful contemporary art museum where the building is as much art as the treasures inside. Built in 2010 and designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, its curved, hanging and snaking hallways with suspended staircases makes you feel like you’re in the 22nd century. There’s a permanent 21st century display but I go for the rotating exhibitions of temporary artists and photographers. I’ve seen photo exhibits of the Amazon and Camorra crime scenes among others. Current exhibits include Rome from 1974-85 (through Sept. 25), Women in Architecture (Oct. 23) and Tokyo (Oct. 16). Via Guido Reni 4a, 06-320-1954, www.fondazionemaxxi.it, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. €12.

Neve di Latte is a short walk from the MAXXI. Photo by Marina Pascucci

5 p.m. Gelato break

Walk a block to Neve di Latte, far from the touristy gelaterias with the brightly colored ice creams that are actually filled with air. Neve di Latte is a no-frills gelateria where their ingredients are so natural, they get their milk and cream from a biodynamic producer in Germany. Try the variegato (cocoa, hazelnut and cream). Via Luigi Poletti 6, 06-320-8485, noon-11 p.m.

Giuseppe at Il Goccetto.

7 p.m. Wine with Romans

Il Goccetto is my favorite wine bar in Rome. Located on a quiet street off teeming Campo de’ Fiori, it’s where local professionals go after work. Wine bottles line the walls from floor to ceiling. The wine-by-the-glass list is on a blackboard on the wall behind display cases of yummy antipasti. (The smoked salmon is a must.) Prices for glasses of wine range from €5-10. Order a glass and sit at a cozy table inside, take it to one of the outdoor tables or just stand in the narrow street with others and make friends. Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14, 06-9944-8583, noon-midnight.

Renato e Luisa is where Romans eat.

9 p.m. Roman cuisine with a gourmet twist

Unlike The New York Times, I don’t have a hotel recommendation. I never stay in them. But the one restaurant I recommend to visitors is Renato e Luisa. It has many standard Roman dishes such as cacio e pepe and amatriciana. However, it has many gourmet dishes such as fettuccine with bufala ricotta cheese and cherry tomatoes or pasta with Pecorino romano and courgette flowers. Be sure to start off with the goat cheese covered in walnuts and honey. It’s located in an alley near Torre Argentina where Julius Caesar was knifed 23 times. So you have the romantic angle, too. Via dei Barbieri 25, 06-686-9660,, www.renatoeluisa.it, info@renatoeluisa.it, 8-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

Colosseum at night.

11 p.m. Nightcap with a view

The Colosseum gets 6 million visitors a year and during the day it is a United Nations of tourism. But at night when the tourists leave, it is one of  the prettiest monuments in Italy. Take a walk along majestic Via dei Fori Imperiali to Caffe Oppio. It’s a bar above the Colosseo Metro (subway) station across the street from the Colosseum. Take an outdoor table, order a cocktail or glass of wine and stare at the Colosseum in all its backlit glory. Via delle Terme di Tito 72, 06-474-5262, Oppio Caffè Bar Ristorante Colosseo – Aperitivo Pranzo Cena Dopo Cena (oppiocaffe.it), 7 a.m.-2 a.m.

SATURDAY

The gourmet pasta collection at Campo de’ Fiori’s public market.

10 a.m. Shopping outside

Campo de’ Fiori is Rome’s party piazza. At night it is overflowing with revelers, mostly study abroad students, in the many bars that ring the square. But during the day it is where locals shop for fresh produce and gourmet pasta. When I lived two blocks from Campo de’ Fiori my first two months in Rome in 2014, I shopped every day at its public market. It’s the oldest Rome, started in 1869. I got to know Franca, the elderly woman who sold me the juiciest clementines in Europe, always accompanied by a “Buongiorno, John-nee!” Every kind of dry pasta can be found and fresh meats are in a corner butcher shop. Go to Forno Campo de’ Fiori in the corner to buy some bread, pick up some cheese, fruit and a bottle of wine. Now you’re set for the next Roman experience. 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

The lake in Villa Borghese.

Noon – Picnic in the park

Take the No. 63 bus from Via Arenula/Cairoli up Via Veneto and continue walking into Villa Borghese. Rome’s most beautiful park is perfect for a picnic on a sunny day. Romans are having more picnics, not surprising with Rome having more public park space than Paris. Find a shady spot near the lake and dig into your freshly bought goods. You will never have a better salami and cheese sandwich.

The Borghese Museum is my favorite museum in Rome. Wikipedia Commons photo

2 p.m. – Caravaggio and Bernini and Raphael, oh, my!

Toss your garbage and take a short stroll to the Borghese Museum in the park. My favorite museum in Rome is built in the former home of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579-1633), the grandest art collector of his time. Here you’ll see such masterpieces as Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Proserpina), Caravaggio’s San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) and Raphael’s Le Deposizione di Cristo (Christ’s Deposition). Every great Italian artist can be found here in a museum that’s not too big and not too small. Making it even more comfortable, the museum only allows limited numbers every two hours. Reservations are a must. Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5, 06-841-3979, www.galleriaborghese.it, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday and Friday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday. Tickets start at €25.

Marina and I atop Terrazzo Borrimini.

8 p.m. Tables with views

For a special night out in Rome I always go to Terrazza Borromini. It’s a rooftop bar atop Palazzo Pamphili with fantastic views of Centro Storico. Elegant waiters and waitresses bring you drinks on overstuffed couches. Then walk across the roof and take an outdoor table at the restaurant with jaw-dropping views of Piazza Navona below. You’re right above Bernini’s Fountain of Three Rivers. Don’t let the views fool you. The food is still good. I love the grilled octopus and the fettuccine al ragu di lepre (flat, long noodles with wild hare sauce). Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, you’ll see other tourists. But you’ll also see locals and the views will remind you why you came to Rome. Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima 30, 391-311-4523, www.terrazzaborromini.com/ristorante, prenotazioniterrazze@gmail.com, noon-11 p.m., reservations valid only by phone after 11 a.m. and required for bar as well.)

The Tartufo at Tre Scalini.

10 p.m. Sweet paradise

If you want a classic Roman dessert (and save some money after Borromini), descend the stairs and walk a few feet to Tre Scalini. It’s on the piazza and famous for its tartufo, a frozen ball of rich, dark chocolate with a cherry inside and topped with a big pile of whipped cream. Take a seat outside in a restaurant that has occupied this same ideal spot on the piazza since 1815. Piazza Navona 30/35, 06-687-9148, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

SUNDAY

Piazza Navona in the early morning light.

8 a.m. Beat the crowds

You’ve seen Piazza Navona at its busiest. Now see it at its most romantic. Go when you wake up. Go before the tourists have started breakfast. If it’s winter, go when the fog rolls in and it feels like you’re walking through a documentary. When it’s empty, you can imagine how it looked when the Ancient Romans filled it up for mock naval battles. Do a slow circle and hear the fountains gurgle. Hear the birds sing.

Tazza d’Oro in the shadow of the Pantheon.

10 a.m. World’s best cappuccino

Walk five minutes to the Pantheon. Sure. Take a long look at Rome’s most famous temple, one so popular they’re now charging admission on weekends. But keep walking to the side street of Via degli Orfani. Caffe Tazza d’Oro has the best cappuccino on the planet. I scoffed at The New York Times’ christening it before I moved here. I tried it and they’re right. The coffee is richer. The foam is creamier. And it’s only €1.50. You can also buy Tazza d’Oro coffee products off the shelves. Via degli Orfani 84, 06-678-9792, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.

Eredi Pisano on Cola di Rienzo is one of my favorite stores in Rome.

11 a.m. Shop where Romans shop

Some of the best souvenirs from Rome are the ones you can show off. Namely clothes. You can go to the glamour streets of Via Candotta and Via del Corso but locals go to Via Cola di Rienzo. It runs from the Tiber River to Piazza del Risorgimento adjacent to the Vatican. I go to Cola di Rienzo to buy inexpensive suits at David Saddler and colorful sweaters at Eredi Pisano. Women go for places such as Gente and Coin. Remember: Men’s clothes on Cola di Rienzo are priced for Roman men, not tourists. You’ll find good deals here.