The view from Sperlonga, a lovely Lazio seaside town
When the weather gets hot, the Romans go beaching. And those Romans with a little bit more time to spare… go to Sperlonga.
Lazio's answer to Santorini, Sperlonga is lovely. It's also a little bit blink- (or walk too fast) and-you'll-miss-it: The town itself, at least the picturesque part that most tourists frequent, is pretty small. What's there, though, is scattered with lovely squares and winding alleyways.
Typical Sperlonga street (and souvenir shops)
Ready to beach it? A 10-minute walk down a long set of stairs takes you to the beach, where, in typical Italian fashion, it's almost impossible to find the sliver that's public. Instead, make like the locals and pay for a cabana. At about €13 for a day's worth of a beach chair, roof to use once your flesh starts sizzling, and ability to have food and drinks brought to you, it's worth it.
Cabanas at the Sperlonga beach
But modern-day Italians haven't been the only ones to frequent Sperlonga. The area's most famous vacationer? Tiberius, the second emperor of Rome. He liked it so much, he built a villa here.
You can still visit the villa's "Grotto," a natural cave where the dining room was, at Sperlonga's archaeological museum (located about 3 miles away from the beach).
Tiberius' grotto, just outside Sperlonga
And in the museum itself, don't miss the stunning, ancient sculptures done by Athanadoros, Hagesandrosand Polydoros of Rhodes—the same guys behind the Vatican's famous Laocoön.
If you're renting a car, Sperlonga is a 2.5-hour ride from Rome. (Traffic, though, can be a real problem, especially on summer weekends). Alternatively, you can take the train to the Fondi-Sperlonga station, where local buses are coordinated with the train arrivals to take you to Sperlonga itself (there's a stop for the archaeological museum, too). The train takes a little over an hour, while the bus is about 15 minutes.
Want more local secrets on what to do in Rome? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, now available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!
For most of history, the home of Rome’s very first emperor and Julius Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian Augustus, lay undiscovered. That changed in 1961 when Palatine excavations revealed a fragment of painted plaster. Further digging unearthed a house. But not just any house: the palace that Octavian lived in for 40 years, both before and after he became emperor.
Only in 2008, after decades of restoration, did the House of Augustus finally open to visitors. Even so, most tourists, even those who visit Palatine Hill, still don’t know about it. And that’s a shame.
The real draw of the House of Augustus isn’t its size or architecture; as Suetonius tells us, Augustus lived “in
a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance.” Instead, it’s breathtaking for its vibrant, well-preserved frescoes. Better yet, they date from a particularly poignant time in Rome’s history; they were done just a year after the Battle of Actium, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra–bringing about their demise, the seizure of Egypt, and Rome’s eventual shift from republic to empire, in one fell swoop.
If you decide to visit, know that you might have to wait. Given the frescoes’ fragility, only a handful of visitors are allowed in at a time. But it’s worth the line to get to walk through Octavian’s dining room, bedroom, and reception hall.
And the upside is that, if you linger long enough, you can get Octavian’s house to yourself. Maybe, if you squint your eyes, you can even imagine him standing in the same spot where you are. Maybe he’d be weighing the merits of getting himself named emperor, which would happen three years after the frescoes are finished. Maybe he’d be trying to figure out how to handle Egypt. Or maybe he’d just be contemplating his brand-new frescoes, thinking that, given his wealth and power, he could reward himself with that much elegance. Little would he know that 2,000 years later, we’d be able to appreciate it, too.
The House of Augustus is open Mondays during the summer from 10:30am to 1:30pm, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30am to 1:30pm. It’s also open throughout the year. Entrance is included in your €12 forum, Colosseum and Palatine ticket price. Just make sure to double-check opening times at the ticket office, as in Italy, they’re often subject to change.
You could do worse than “Al Pompiere.” In the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, the restaurant has been around since 1962 — no mean feat for an eatery anywhere in the world, but especially in a city with culinary competition as stiff as Rome.
In particular, it’s a place to come when you’re looking for classic cucina romana. What Rome-based food writer Katie Parla calls “the holy trinity of Roman pasta dishes” all make their appearances on the menu. My carbonara tasted a little undersalted and didn’t play quite enough on the pecorino’s (or the pepper’s) zing, but the consistency was perfect and the pasta fresh.
The biggest draw to Al Pompiere, though, is its fried offerings. The carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichoke)had just the right crunch; the filetta di baccalà (fried salt cod) was soft and flaky on the inside, crisp on the outside. Then there were the fiori di zucca ripieni (stuffed zucchini flowers), which were, quite simply, grossly delicious: There’s nothing like squishing a piece of food with your fork and seeing grease spurt out. (All three are pictured above. Just looking at the photo makes you feel like you’re hurting your arteries, doesn’t it?).
What the restaurant lacked, though, was atmosphere. Set on the second floor of a palazzo and nearly empty for Saturday lunch, it felt awkwardly roomy — and with tablecloths covering the tables, a tad too elegant for the down-to-earth fare. With not an Italian dining in sight, I had to doubt Fodor’s claim that it’s a “neighborhood favorite.” Maybe I caught it on an off day. Or maybe it’s simply been around too long.
Al Pompiere. Via Santa Maria de’ Calderari 38, on Piazza Cenci. Closed Sundays. For more information, click here. For a map, click here.
I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”
Not in Herculaneum.
Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.
Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site: It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.
To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”
I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.
But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.
My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.
To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.
The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.
Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).
Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.
Ristorante Montevecchio. Piazza Montevecchio 22a. Closed Mondays. See more details here. Click here for a map.
If you asked the average traveler how many hills there are around Rome, you'd get one answer: "Seven."
But there are more. And the second-tallest of all of them, the Janiculum — not included in the seven because it's across the River Tiber from the ancient quarter — boasts Bramante's lovely Tempietto and Pope Paul V's 17th-century Fontana dell'Acqua Paola. But more crucially, it also serves up some of the city's best views. (Just see above).
To get up there without your own car, you can hike (for a long time) or take the 970 or 115 buses. Rome's transportation website can map your route for you; just remember that in Italian it's "Gianicolo," not "Janiculum." ("Passeggiata del Gianicolo" is the best to put in).
A caveat: Some people go up to the Janiculum at noon, when a cannon is fired to mark the time. That I don't recommend, unless you have lots of time to kill in Rome. There's just too much else to do during the day, and even if you're an avid photographer, the midday light will be flat. But if you can get there and back in the evening, just as the sun is setting, you might find it's a good way to see the city the only way it's peaceful: from far away. Just ignore the teenagers making out in their cars.
Last week, a friend of mine visited me in Rome. He'd never been to Italy before, and he asked if we could day-trip to Venice. I hedged. Venice is expensive, and touristy, and crowded, I told him. But I knew I had to come up with an equally-seductive alternative. Racking my brain — and asking everyone I knew — I finally came up with an answer: Sardinia.
A week later, we were on the plane. (If a Ryanair counts as a plane: Ryanair's rickety machines always strike me as much as planes as, when I was 4, a big cardboard box was an actual choo-choo train. It takes imagination. And faith.) We landed in Cagliari just an hour later. And from there, hopped on a train to Iglesias. Even for the directionally-challenged and even without renting a car — something we'd expressly been told NOT TO DO by most Italians — getting from City A to City B was a breeze.
Sardinia gets packed in July and August, but in early June, we were the only tourists — including Europeans — that we saw. And since most Italians beeline for the northern Costa Smeralda, I'm not sure if the west coast's Iglesias, where we stayed, ever gets crowded. Take our bed & breakfast, "La Babbajola": Since we were the only guests there, for just €60/night, we had the whole palazzo — complete with clawed bathtubs, frescoed dining room, and antique armoires — to ourselves. Let's just say it felt more "baronial" than "B&B."
To be fair, there isn't a ton to do in Iglesias. (Perhaps part of the reason why the town didn't even make it into the Sardinian section of the Rough Guide we had with us). It's just a taste of Sardinia: Known for its mining and not much else, Iglesias doesn't boast any big museums or famous churches, and we didn't see the island's famed nuraghi. But I was exhausted of showing guest after guest around Rome, my friend was mending from a breakup, and for us, the town was perfect. Lovely. Quiet. Traditional. (Waiting outside our B&B, we were greeted by an elderly woman in a black veil who called from her balcony in Italian, "Who are you looking for? Are they not in?")
Iglesias was also close (without a rental car, close-ish) to some of Sardinia's most beautiful beaches. The photo above is of the famous cove at Masua, a 20-minute/€30 cab ride or €2.50 bus ride away. (The "pullman" bus that goes back and forth to the beach starts running regularly on June 29. Before that, you're stuck with just one bus a day. Or, shh, there's always hitchhiking…) The closest beach is called Fontanamare. While more crowded and (slightly) less picturesque, it's also pretty darn lovely, and I think these babies (right) agree. (This took some embarrassment to realize. Read our shameful tale here.)
But the best thing about Iglesias was the people. I have never. Met such nice people. In my life. Sure, I hail from the cold (in all sense of the word) clime of New England, but my friend's from friendly Alabama — and he agreed. From the woman who came up to us in the street and greeted us so warmly, with kisses on both cheek, that we thought it was our B&B owner (it wasn't), to the cosmetics-store clerk who took pity on our unwashed selves and gave us loads of free samples of moisturizers and perfumes (were we that smelly?), everyone was so darn nice. And they didn't expect a thing for it. Living in Rome, I'd forgotten what that was like.
If you go to the less-frequented side of Sardinia, including its western coast, be aware that very few people speak English. The town centers can be incredibly confusing, and public transport is slim to none. But I, for one, am going back.
The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…
But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period, something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.
But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?
The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics.
Looking to eat at some good restaurants in Italy? Excellent. I truly believe few other countries in the world have food quite as good as Italian food. And experiencing that Italy’s culinary culture — at its best — should absolutely be one of your aims on your trip.
But… it’s not quite as easy to find good restaurants in Italy as you might expect.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “Italy! You can eat anywhere in Italy and eat well”. Erm… not quite. It’s true that if you have some savvy, you can find an excellent place, the kind where you walk out blissfully happy and with your wallet still surprisingly full, almost anywhere. But it’s not true that you’ll have this experience everywhere without even trying.
That’s especially the case in cities that welcome as many tourists as a place like Rome. (Reminder: Three million people live in Rome, while 10 million people a year visit the city). Unfortunately, many eateries have taken advantage of the fact that they’re unlikely to see these visitors again by serving up mediocre-to-terrible, even microwaved food.
Want to avoid that experience? Here are some tips for finding good restaurants in Italy.
How to find good restaurants in Italy if you’re… willing to put in some work
These tips are best for foodies who really want to make sure no meal goes to waste (and are willing to put in some effort and research to get there).
Tip #1: Don’t use Tripadvisor (with one caveat)
It is so, so easy to research restaurants in advance now. You have thousands of websites at your fingertips, all promising to guide you to “the best restaurants in Rome” (or “the best restaurants in Venice”, or “the best restaurants in Italy”…). But that’s part of the problem. Where do you go? Whose advice do you trust?!
The first place many people tend to go for restaurant recommendations? Tripadvisor. Do not do this. Why? Tripadvisor’s absolutely fine for reviews of hotels and tours — things that tourists are in a great position to review. But restaurants? With all due respect, most of us, when we’re tourists, are not the best judges of the quality of local cuisine. That’s especially true because so many travelers to Italy are confused about what even is Italian food to begin with. (More about this in my post about what’s Italian, versus Italian American, food). You want a local’s review, not a one-time visitor’s — and locals don’t tend to review their neighborhood restaurants on Tripadvisor.
In fact, I know from personal experience that some restauranteurs have made a career out of “gaming” the system. I knew one owner who regularly served customers less-than-Rome’s-best food. But he knew that, at the end of the meal, by being really friendly, offering a “free” limoncello and asking the clients to review him on Tripadvisor, he’d get a good review anyway. He did. For several months, his restaurant — which, again, was pretty mediocre — was the top-rated restaurant in Rome. According to Tripadvisor.
That being said? I will use Tripadvisor sometimes. But the Italian version. (Just go to Tripadvisor.it). Even if you don’t understand the language, that’s OK: if there’s a restaurant you’ve heard of that you’re cross-checking, you can put it in and see how the Italian speakers rate it.
It’s still not foolproof. (An Italian from Milan is as much a tourist in Naples or Sicily as anyone else). But it’s a bit better than exclusively looking at reviews and ratings by us Anglophones.
Tip #2: What (and who) to trust online instead
With Tripadvisor out, where else can you turn? I’m equally wary of Google reviews, but because they at least aren’t sorted by language (and because I think locals are a little more likely to review their own favorite spots there), I trust them a little more.
Really, though, I trust individuals.
If my restaurant recommendations aren’t quite enough for you (or you’re looking for good restaurants in Italy in a different city), here are some other foodies in Italy to trust:
Elizabeth Minchilli. Another long-time, Rome-based food blogger, Elizabeth’s website is a lovely conglomeration of recipes and restaurant recommendations. As well as on her website, she shares recommendations (and recipes) for her favorite restaurants in Rome in her book Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City. She also has a handy app, Eat Italy, which covers Rome, Florence, Venice, Torino, Milan, Umbria, and Puglia.
Food tours can be a fun (and delicious) way to break up the history- and art-focused sight-seeing. They can also be an excellent way to learn about the local cuisine… and pick your guide’s brain about where they eat. Here are some favorites:
Food tours in Venice: Walks of Italy’s Venice food tour includes a visit to the Rialto market and a gondola ride.
But… let’s say all of this research isn’t for you. What if you just want to eat well, avoid Rome’s worst dining options, and not spend tons of time researching and booking restaurants? That’s fine. But you’ll definitely want to follow the following five suggestions.
How to find good restaurants in Italy if you’re… already in Italy (and don’t want to screw around with too much online research)
So you’re already on the ground, sans restaurant reservations, hunting for that perfect spot — and just can’t be bothered to read a bunch of online reviews. It’s okay! Here’s help.
Tip #4: Get out of the tourist centers…
…Or at least be aware that the closest you are to, say, the Colosseum, the harder it’ll be for you to find top-notch nosh. There are some notable exceptions to this: the pizzeria Alle Carrette in Monti, for example, is remarkably close to the Roman forum for having such good food. But while the owners of Alle Carrette have the pride and business acumen to keep their food delicious and their prices moderate, not every restaurant so well-positioned will do the same. Especially watch out for the areas right around St. Peter’s Basilica and the Trevi Fountain, which are veritable food deserts.
Tip #5: Run, don’t walk, away from friendly hosts.
He seems nice? He speaks English? He’s telling you you’re beautiful and your husband is a lucky man?
That all means one thing: His food’s not good enough for people — most notably Italians — to come in on their own. Avoid at all costs.
Tip #6: English menus are fine. Tourist menus are not.
If you see a sign like “MENU TURISTICA: 10 Euros for appetizer, pasta, and wine!”, you’re probably in trouble. Same if there are any photos on the menu.
But if you go inside and are handed an English menu, don’t worry. Most restaurants do this these days.
Tip #7: Never look for a place to have dinner at 6pm… or 7pm (depending on where you are).
Or, really, anytime before 8pm — at least if you’re in Rome or further south. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s open that early, it’ll be catering to tourists: southern Italians never eat before 8:30pm. Some savvy restaurants that remain solid, like the institution La Campana, do open earlier — they’ve realized it’s a good way to get extra business. Still, it’s a risk. And isn’t part of the fun of traveling somewhere the fun of getting into local rhythms? (This changes the further north you go. In northern cities, like Milan, people tend to eat at 7:45pm or 8pm; in a sleepier rural area, say the Dolomites, it may be as early as 7pm. Earlier than that, though, is hard to find anywhere in Italy).
Eat when locals do, and you’ll be far more likely to be surrounded by locals, not to mention have a better sense of which places are busy at an actual (local) dinner time — always a good sign.
Tip #8: Look for the crowd, and then be patient.
Remember, restaurants tend to be smaller in Italy and locals tend to linger longer over their meals. That means places fill up fast. So if a place is good, and if it’s dinner time (see above), there’s no reason it should be empty. Be wary if it is.
On the flip side? If it’s 9pm and a place is popular, it may be tough to get in without a reservation. Often, though, you can put your name down and either hang out, or come back in a half hour or so. If you want to eat at good restaurants in Italy — and you didn’t want to make reservations — then patience will be your friend.
Tip #9: Don’t get hung up on the names.
Trattoria, hosteria, taverna… meh. Any difference there once was between these has pretty much slipped away. Just remember that a birreria is more a place for fried food and beer, that a “bar” isn’t really a bar (it’s what we’d call a cafe), and that most good pizzerias aren’t open at lunch.
Finally, remember what you’re looking out for: That hole-in-the-wall place that doesn’t even look like a restaurant on the outside, but when you walk in (remember, at 9pm), it’s bustling with Italians. Eat only at gems like these, and you’re guaranteed to find good restaurants in Italy.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here!
Rome's Galleria Borghese is one of Italy's best art museums, filled with pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini… to name a few. But it tends not to be on most first-time tourist itineraries. Even though skipping the Borghese is like visiting Paris and dismissing the Musee d'Orsay. If that's you, stop here: maybe art just ain't your thing. And that's okay.
For those who love this kind of stuff, though, you can't miss it. First, there's the building itself. The Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is a rare gem: Never used as a home, it was built with the express purpose of showing off Scipione's art collection. With art and architecture intertwined, taking in the collection itself is a pleasant, unified experience. Look above you, and frescoes echo the themes of the pieces beneath. Look before you, and ancient and 17th-century sculptures of the same subjects intermingle.
But if there's any broad generalization you can make about the collection, it's that it was certainly borne out of passion: Borghese was such an avid collector that he had Domenechino jailed so he could get his hands on "Diana Hunting," sent henchmen to steal Raphael's "Entombment" from Perugia in the dead of night, and bargained so hard with Caravaggio in a game of 17th-century papal justice known as "Paintings for a Pardon" that he may have helped cause the artist's death. And it has the masterpieces to prove it.
Love Bernini's supple sculptures? Then you'll be blown away by the pieces here, some of the earliest and most famous from his long career: the "Apollo and Daphne," then thought impossible to render in stone (and so beautifully done that, I'll admit, it brought tears to my eyes); the "David," a self-portrait of the artist as he takes on critics and, perhaps, even Michelangelo's own world-famous "David;" "Aeneas and Anchises," done when Bernini was just 21 years old; the "Rape of Proserpina," so realistic you can see how Pluto's fingers indent Proserpina's plush skin — and feel her fear as he carries her to the underworld. Except that it happens to be marble. Right.
But Bernini's not the only hotshot at the Borghese. Caravaggio, that 17th-century scofflaw who split his time between brawling, barfights and Baroque art, has gotten renewed attention this year with the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the Borghese, he's always been a big deal. One of his earliest patrons was Scipione Borghese, and the villa has his "Sick Bacchus," "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces.
That's not to mention the collection's pieces by Rubens. Raphael. Correggio. Lucas Cranach the Elder. The list keeps going.
The Borghese: There's a reason why it's my first post. It's fantastic.
Just remember that if you go, you must (must!) book in advance, as entrances are only on every odd hour (9am, 11am, 1pm, and so on). Do it a couple of days ahead of time as slots fill up quickly, especially in the high season. You can do it online here for an extra booking fee, or call 0039 06 8413979. A slight hassle? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.
The Borghese is located at Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5.