Travel: Give me a break: Rome on pounds 250

Steep air fares and far-from-cheap accommodation have put Rome out of reach of most weekenders for almost a decade. Now increased competition has cut fares, and the strong pound has pushed up the exchange rate. Make the most of it, writes Lee Marshall
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The Independent Culture
Down payment

You can fly to Fiumicino (Rome's main airport) from Heathrow on Alitalia (0171-602 7111), British Airways (345 222111), British Midland (0345 554554; this flight operates via Cologne), Ethiopian Airlines (0171-499 9119) or Kenya Airways (0171-409 0277). Alitalia and BA fly from Gatwick. Debonair (0500 146146) flies from Luton to Rome's Ciampino airport. Charters are available through agents such as Italy Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333). Fares from London this spring start at about pounds 150 including tax.

Instant briefing

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1 (0171-408 1254, brochure request line 0891 600 280) can kit you out with good maps and leaflets. Rome's central tourist office is at Via Parigi 11, five minutes' walk north of Stazione Termini (00 39 6 4889 9253, open 8.15am- 7.15pm Mon-Fri, 8.15am-1.45pm Sat); there are also branches in the station itself and at the airport.

Rest assured

The Casa Kolbe, at Via San Teodoro 44 (00 39 6 679 4974) - single with bath L100,000 (pounds 34), double with bath L130,000 (pounds 44) - is new on the scene, with a pretty garden in a small enclave of cobbled streets at the back of the Forum. Just around the corner from the Campo de' Fiori with its colourful market and artsy bars, the Albergo Pomezia, at Via dei Chiavari 12 (00 39 6 6861371), is a friendly, family-run place with small, clean rooms. Budget-conscious travellers could go for those without en-suite bathrooms (single about pounds 30, double about pounds 44 including breakfast).

Finally, the Pensione Manara, at Via Luciano Manara 25 (00 39 6 581 4713), is one of the few accommodation options of any kind in Trastevere, the bohemian warren of narrow lanes on the left bank of the Tiber. It's basic, but so are the prices - single L66,000 (pounds 22), double L90,000 (pounds 30).

Must see

Don't even think of "doing" Rome in a weekend. If this is your first visit, the Sistine Chapel and the Forum are pretty much unavoidable - but those in the know visit the city for its hidden squares, courtyards, palazzi and churches, for its street markets and its talent for elegantly doing nothing.

As you approach St Peter's Square, Bernini's curving colonnades reach out to embrace you and draw you into the basilica, whose outsized, glittering interior is enough to give you a Catholic gilt complex. The best way to get a grip on St Peter's is to scale the dome, like Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (there is a lift, but it takes you only half-way).

The Vatican museums (open 8.45am-3.45pm Mon-Fri, 8.45am-12.45 Sat; entrance L15,000; free entry last Sun of month 8.45am-12.45) are a 10-minute hike from St Peter's Square - a useful warm-up session for the 7km of corridor inside. Most people come here for the Sistine Chapel, but there is a lot else, including the classical sculptures of the Museo Pio Clementino and the glorious frescos that Raphael painted for Pope Julius II's private suites. Restoration has brought back the bloom to Michelangelo's biblical visions. With a bit of Zen detachment, earplugs and a patent neck-rest you should be able to appreciate the miraculously supple, sensuous musculature of those prophets and patriarchs and the vivid, lapis-lazuli blue of the sky in the Last Judgement on the back wall.

If those lire are beginning to run short, bear in mind that entrance to the Forum is now free - though this does not include the Palatine hill, with its newly restored museums, or the Colosseum.

A few minutes' walk east of the latter is San Clemente, a deeply satisfying medieval church. It's a triple-decker: from the delightful main church, with a fresco of Saint Catherine by Masolino, steps lead down to the original fourth-century basilica and down again to a second-century Roman alley with a temple of Mithras. Pure vertical history.

Must buy

Vatican memorabilia, including Virgin Mary lamps and papal bottle-openers, can be found in shops along Borgo Pio, just east of St Peter's; Comandini at no 57 is the best stocked. For wax, - huge, spiral paschal candles; low fiaccole to light up the approach to your country villa - go to the Cereria Di Giorgio in Via San Francesco di Sales 85a, between the Vatican and Trastevere.

Must eat

Knowing where to snack well is important in a high-density tourist city like Rome. Fratelli Paladini, at Via del Governo Vecchio 29 (near Piazza Navona), is justly famous for its wood-fired pizza bianca. For standard topped pizza, Pizzeria Leonina, at Via Leonina 84 (just off Via Cavour), is one of the best options; their spicy bean flavour is a must. Another good takeaway outlet is Zi Fenizia, at Via Santa Maria del Pianto 64 (near Largo Argentina) - Rome's only kosher pizzeria (closed Sat, but open all day Sun).

Meanwhile, Gino at Vicolo Rossini 4 (closed Sun) - a tiny lane behind the Parliament - is always full of politicians and journalists, enjoying serious Roman cooking at reasonable prices. For a relief from the dominant grape culture, head for the Birreria Fratelli Tempera, in Via di San Marcello 19 (between Piazza Venezia and the Trevi Fountain, open Mon-Fri lunch and dinner and Sat dinner), a temple to Peroni beer with a cold buffet and a couple of hot pasta dishes always on offer.

Night moves

What Rome lacks in cutting-edge yoof culture it makes up for in charm. Berlin may be more hip, but it doesn't have a night-club area centred on a heap of 53 million broken amphorae. Monte Testaccio is a classical rubbish-tip, a grassy hill made up entirely of fragments of Roman pots, with dozens of cool cellars buried in its flanks. Originally used for storing wine, these are now taken up by a horde of locali (clubs and disco- bars), including the straight-haircut-and-jacket Caffe Latino, the more grungy Akab, and Rome's historic gay club, Alibi. Admission costs about L20,000 (pounds 6.70).

One of the best places to see and be seen is Rosati, in Piazza del Popolo. Calvino and Pasolini don't come here any more, but its position on the square and the original Twenties interior - plus some fine cocktails and in-house baking - make you realise why they did.