Second to None

by Danilo Brunetti

A return trip to the Eternal City means exploring its quieter but no less-worthy gems, says Alexandra Bruzzese.

If this is your second stay in Italy’s hot-blooded capital, you’ve already tackled its top destinations, from the Colosseum to St. Peter’s Basilica to the penny-lush Trevi Fountain. Luckily Rome groans with countless museums, parks, and buzzworthy restaurants too often eclipsed by their big-name neighbors, and they are just begging to be explored.

DAY ONE

Swap the centro storico, a signature on every dewy first-timer’s checklist, for the rustic Testaccio neighborhood (Metro B Piramide). This historically working-class district is punctuated by feats of antiquity, like its Egyptian-style pyramid dating back to 12 BC and the incredible Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill composed of fragments of broken Roman pottery, nearly all discarded amphorae dating from the time of the Roman Empire. The Non-Catholic Cemetery rims in Testaccio, and serves as the final resting place of Romantic poets John Keats and Percey Bysshe Shelley along with the eternally anguished Angel of Grief headstone. Pay your respects to the cemetery’s greats then donate a few coins to its eponymous cat sanctuary (hence the lazily sunbathing felines). Push into the heart of the neighborhood and you’ll find Mercato Testaccio, a farmer’s market that has busily doled out fruit, veg, meat, cheese, and more to local shoppers for over a century. Today the mercato also hosts recent additions, like Casa Manco for thick slabs of pizza by the slice and Le Mani in Pasta for homemade pasta to go. Grab lunch here before heading into the nearby Ostiense district, home to Centrale Montemartini. First constructed in 1912 as an electricity plant, the museum’s striking contrast of classical art and industrial machinery is delightfully unexpected: delicate marble statues and mosaics juxtapose boldly with hulking turbines and defunct diesel engines. When the sun dips down, toast to your relaxing, elbow-room-full day with dinner at Spirito di Vino, (Via dei Genovesi, 31) across the river in Trastevere. The certified slow-food restaurant artfully prepares seasonal and even historical dishes, like their trademark maiale alla mazio, pork stew said to have been a favorite recipe of Caesar. Between courses, descend into the wine cellar, whose foundation dates back to 80 BC.

DAY TWO

You’ve seen the Vatican Museums; now it’s time to delve into the spectacular Capitoline Museums. They receive far less visitors than their flashier peers, meaning no lines and blessed quiet to study the hallowed masterpieces the museums safeguard, like the bronze Capitoline She-Wolf, iconic symbol of Rome, the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter, and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Next, duck into Rome’s other St. Peter’s, San Pietro in Vincoli. This heaving basilica was built in the 5th-century to house the relics of St. Peter’s chains (located under the main altar) during his imprisonment in Jerusalem; it notably also exhibits Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. Prefer handbags to history? Check out the Monti neighborhood, awash in vintage stores, artisanal workshops, and an eponymous market hawking all sorts of goodies. Rub shoulders with locals at wine bar Ai Tre Scalini (Via Panisperna, 251); then, when the clock strikes dinner time, stop into one of the neighborhood’s most beloved eateries, Roman trattoria La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali (Via della Madonna dei Monti, 9).

DAY THREE

Every good newbie to Rome has surely looked down into the dusty basin of modern-day Circus Maximus, i.e, what remains of the once-largest and most grandiose race track in history. Returnees, however, can join in on the brand-new Circus Maximus Experience. With the aid of a smartphone and earphones, visitors simply pop on a pair of Zeiss VR One Plus visors and voilà: a vivid recreation of what the site looked like in its heyday appears. Embark on an immersive tour of the site, marveling at the ancient palaces that once spread out along the Murcia Valley, browse the bottegas that bordered the Circus, and be a spectator in a chariot race, all rebuilt in augmented reality. (Find out more at circomaximoexperience.it ). Upon returning to the 21st-century, consider lapping up the Sunday sunshine in Appia Antica’s regional park. A lovely cocktail of nature trails, historic monuments, and archaeological ruins, this 3,400-hectare park includes the beginning of the ancient Appian Way, two aqueducts, ancient tombs, and the surprisingly well-preserved Circus of Maxentius. Take off by bike, settle down for a lazy picnic, or head underground to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. For dinner, Hostaria Antica Roma (Via Appia Antica, 176) plates elegant fare all within eyeshot of the ancient Tomb of Cecilia Metella.