Worldwide: 48 hours in ... Rome

The Italian capital has bewitched visitors for more than two thousand years. Anne Hanley offers advice on how to capture the city's magical spirit
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Because the Romans have left en masse, and will not be back until September. You will not notice any thinning of the crowds in, say, the Vatican museums, but wander off the tourist track and you will have the sultry, sun-kissed city more or less to yourself.

Beam down

Competition among airlines is intense, since Debonair (0541 500300) began flying from Luton, and Go (0845 60 54321) began flying from Stansted to Ciampino for around pounds 100 return. Go's full-service parent British Airways (0345 222111), as well as Alitalia (0171-602 7111), have cut fares from Gatwick and Heathrow to Leonardo da Vinci to compete.

Get your bearings

A taxi from Leonardo da Vinci airport into town will make a large hole in your holiday budget: expect to pay upwards of L75,000 (the amount shown on the metre plus a L14,000 surcharge) in a registered yellow or white cab. Give the seedy characters whispering "taxi signore?" a wide berth: oblivious to the fact that they might stand to gain by undercutting the official rates, they will inevitably try to do you out of much, much more.

Alternatively, stride along the space-age overpass to the train station and take a high-speed train to the main Termini station (L13,000) or a low-speed one (L7,000) to every other station in Rome. You will get there more quickly.

From Ciampino, the journey by taxi is cheaper, and bus services into the city are also easily available.

Green tourist-board kiosks dotted around the city centre will provide you with maps and general information. For tours and more detailed help in English, try Enjoy Rome at Via Varese 39 (06 4451843) a stone's throw from Termini.

Check in

Give the many cheap hotels near Termini station a miss: even if you are lucky enough to hit on an acceptable one, most of the sights and all the evening action are elsewhere, and you certainly will not like what you see when you head back there after dark. Stick to the Centro Storico, especially the area around Campo dei Fiori where there are hotels for most budgets. But unless you are going for top-class joints, be prepared to feel slightly miffed about not getting value for money: even with the favourable exchange rate, Rome is not a cheap place to stay.

The Pensione Navona (06 6864203) is a pleasant place run by an Australian near the Campo with doubles for L140,000; the Hotel Locarno (06 3610841) is an Art Deco delight a short distance from the magnificent Piazza del Popolo where a double costs L230,000; but if you feel safer in the hands of an international chain, try the Holiday Inn Minerva (06 69941888) tucked behind the Pantheon for L650,000 a night.

Take a ride

A consortium of tour operators runs the Ciao Roma hop-on, hop-off service around the major tourist sights. An all-day ticket will cost you L30,000. Pick the bus up at Via Cavour 113, or phone ahead (06 4743795) and arrange to be collected from a point near your hotel. For the same amount, Enjoy Rome (see above) will take you bike-touring. Otherwise, plan your own itinerary, and invest in a daily (L6,000) or weekly (L24,000) pass which allows you unlimited use of buses, underground, trams, and trains within the city limits. Tickets can be purchased in most tabacchi shops, from ticket dispensers, or at major bus interchanges such as Termini station or Piazza San Silvestro.

Take a hike

Central Rome is compact and easily covered on foot, though in the mid- summer heat, high ozone levels may leave you gasping. For a stroll which takes in many of the best-known sights (and some shopping too), start out at the Colosseum, then wander down the sweeping Via dei Fori Imperiali with the Roman Forum on your left, and the Imperial Fora and Trajan's Market looming up on your right. At the far end of the Roman Forum, leave the road and take the steps up to Michelangelo's glorious Campidoglio - the square on the Capitoline Hill - where a faithful copy of the massive sculpture of Marcus Aurelius has recently been returned to its plinth. Down the steps on the other side, between Castor and Pollux and their ludicrously small horses, dodge the traffic frenzy in Piazza Venezia then head along the Via del Corso straight in front of you.

The swisher shops do not start till well up this road, but you will find souvenir T-shirts a-plenty at this end. When the column of Marcus Aurelius (and the Prime Minister's office and parliament building) appear on your left, take a right, and then you are faced with a dilemma: the second street on your right takes you to the Trevi Fountain, the second on your left to Piazza di Spagna.

Lunch on the run

There is no shortage of pizzerie rustiche selling slabs of takeaway pizza (try the kosher take on this Italian staple at Zi Fenizia in Via Santa Maria del Pianto, 64), and most bars will have sandwiches and rolls of various descriptions. For delicious made-to-order filled pizza, join the crowds at Fratelli Paladini in Via del Governo Vecchio 26.

Cultural afternoon

You are spoilt for choice in Rome as far as culture goes, but the three museums separated by leafy strolls through the Villa Borghese gardens provide a pleasant high-brow afternoon. Check out the glories of the Renaissance in the Galleria Borghese (booking essential: 06 84241607), the secrets of the Etruscans at the Villa Giulia, and something a little less ancient at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

If you would rather dedicate those hours to one air-conditioned colossus of a museum, go for the Museo Nazionale Romano in the immaculately restored Palazzo Massimo by Termini station: here you will find enough Roman statues, frescoes, mosaics and coins to keep you going for a long, long time.

Window shopping

Follow the caravan of well-heeled Romans and gold-card-toting tourists deep into the warren of streets at the foot of the Spanish Steps and drool at Prada, Gucci, Valentino et al.

A coffee

The frothing gran caffe at the bar Sant'Eustachio in the piazza of the same name is legendary, as are the more restrained cups of classic espresso served in the Antico Cafe Greco in Via Condotti, once a favourite haunt of Casanova and mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

An aperitif

Catch the sunset from Ciampini al Cafe du Jardin to the left at the top of the Spanish Steps. More adventurous souls might like to pick up a chilled bottle and sprint up the Gianicolo Hill to sit on the balcony wall there and watch the changing colours of evening Rome spread before them.

Demure dinner

If you decide to take aperitif option Number 2, it is only a short walk to the Antico Arco (06 5815274) where a superlative meal will cost around L60,000 a head. For something more central try Madonna's favourite, Fiaschetteria Beltramme, at Via della Croce 39 (L40,000) or the excellent Sangallo at Vicolo della Vaccarella 11 (L70,000).

Sunday morning: go to church

When the Pope is in residence, his Sunday general audiences in St Peter's Square offer you the perfect opportunity to experience mass Catholicism at its most overwhelming. Apply to the Prefettura della Casa Pontifica (06 69883017) for a pass. If you have had enough Roman Catholicism, however, try the Greek Rite variety at the Bocca della Verita church, where you can follow Audrey Hepburn's example (in Roman Holiday) and stick your hand in the lion's mouth.

Bracing brunch

Splash out on the best brunch-with-a-view on offer in Rome. On weekends from 12.30pm to 2.30pm, the Hotel Eden in Via Ludovisi 49 will seat you on its roof-top balcony, feed you from its buffet, and allow you to gawp at the breath-taking panorama (from L50,000).

A walk in the park

Tucked in behind the Palazzo Corsini in Trastevere, the Orto Botanico (botanical gardens) contains a charmingly exuberant collection of more than 7,000 species, a fountain gurgling down a long flight of mossy steps, and an unruly collection of local toddlers.

The icing on the cake

Try what Rome's gelato esperti agree is simply the best ice-cream in the world. In Via dei Panettari, tucked behind the Trevi Fountain, is Il Gelato di San Crispino, the mere mention of which will have aficionados watering at the mouth. The classics, such as meringue and zabaglione (made with 15-year-old Marsala) never change; fruity flavours move with the seasons, as the perfectionist brothers Giuseppe and Pasquale Alongi use only the freshest produce in their culinary works of art.

Do not, whatever you do, ask for a cone: it is considered an affront to the pure taste of the ice-cream and they are banned from this emporium.

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