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Why go now?
Right now Italy's capital is looking at its romantic best, bathed in the haunting light of late winter. Share a cone of hot roasted chestnuts from street stalls by the Trevi Fountain (1) and enjoy Rome without the crowds. For a more earnest reason for a visit, next weekend a major Caravaggio exhibition starts at the Scuderie del Quirinale (2) at Via XXIV Maggio 16 (00 39 06 3996 7500; scuderiequirinale.it ). It runs until 13 June and marks the 400th anniversary of the artist's death, with the generous opening hours of 10am-8pm daily with later opening to 10.30pm on Friday and Saturday, admission €1.
Rome's main airport, Fiumicino, 30km southeast of the centre, is served by easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com ) from Gatwick; British Airways 0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (0844 815 3649; alitalia.com) from Heathrow; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) from Manchester (and from the end of March, from Leeds/ Bradford). An express train leaves every half hour for Termini station (3), taking 30 minutes for €11 – but for half that fare, the metropolitan stopping train runs every 15 minutes to Valle Aurelia (4) on Rome's red metro line, and every 15 minutes to Ostiense (5) and Tiburtina (6) on the blue metro line. Rome's budget airport, Ciampino, 15km south of the centre, is served by easyJet from Bristol and Newcastle and by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) from East Midlands, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Stansted. Terravision buses to Termini (3) leave twice an hour, linking with flight arrivals (hourly in late evening and early morning), for €4 each way.
Get your bearings
Both airports have a tourist office (00 39 06 06 08; turismoroma.it ), open 9am-6.30pm daily; there is another opposite platform 24 at Termini (3) (8am-8.30pm daily) and at kiosks across town (9.30am-6pm), most notably at Via Minghetti (7) near the Trevi Fountain (1) and at Piazza delle Cinque Lune (8) near Piazza Navona (9). The heart of modern Rome lies on the left bank of the Tiber and is bisected, north to south, by the main thoroughfare of Via del Corso. While some monuments of Ancient Rome lie within this area, the chief sites are immediately south. Across the river is the city state of the Vatican. The best way to get around is on foot. Bus and tram services have Byzantine routes but the metro service is straightforward and has a flat fare of €1.
Hotel d'Inghilterra (10) at Via Bocca di Leone 14 (00 39 06 699 811; royaldemeure.com) was the accommodation of choice for those on the Grand Tour, close to the Spanish Steps (11). It offers 89 rooms, many refurbished with bold colours. Doubles cost from €250 without breakfast. For a good mid-price option head to Hotel Due Torri (12) at Vicolo del Leonetto 23 (00 39 06 687 6983; hotelduetorriroma . com), a few minutes' walk north of Piazza Navona (9). Once the residence of cardinals, it now offers 26 comfortable, elegant rooms. Doubles cost from €170 with breakfast. A lower-budget, family run alternative is Hotel Pomezia (13) at Via dei Chiavari 13 (00 39 06 686 1371; hotelpomezia.it ) on a beautiful, quiet street south of Piazza Navona (9). Doubles cost from €80 with breakfast.
Take a hike
Start your walk amid the rose sellers below the sweep of the Spanish Steps (11) – actually built by the French in 1725 but so called because they are on Piazza di Spagna close to the Spanish Embassy. Immediately south is the Keats-Shelley House where Keats died in 1821. It contains a charming museum (00 39 06 678 4235; keats-shelley-house.org ) about the English Romantic poets in Italy (9am-1pm and 3-6pm weekdays; 11am-2pm and 3-6pm Saturdays; admission €4). Walk south down the piazza. On the southern corner is the intriguingly named College of the Propaganda of the Faith, founded in the 17th century to train missionaries. The front is in part an early work by the architect and sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. Take the right fork along Via Propaganda to see an amazing addition to the college: its flamboyantly curving façade created by Bernini's great rival, Francesco Borromini. Keep straight on over Via Mercede and follow the street right and then left into Via Poli. Cross Via del Tritone and continue straight on to the Trevi Fountain (1). Shoehorned into an extraordinarily small space, this monumental Baroque play of gushing water and sculpted marble is said to be the world's most popular place for marriage proposals.
Continue west along Via delle Muratte and cross Via del Corso. Turn right and then left into Piazza Colonna (14): its centrepiece is the 25m-high Column of Marcus Aurelius, dating from 180AD. Keep left into Piazza Montecitorio (15), designed by Bernini; its northern side houses the Italian legislature. Turn left down Via della Guglia and into Piazza di Pietra (16). Presiding over the southern side are the Corinthian columns of a temple, built around 145AD. Retrace your steps to Via dei Pastini and continue on to Piazza della Rotunda (17) and Rome's most amazing building – the Pantheon. It was constructed as a temple in the 120s and is an extraordinary achievement of grace and symmetry. A church since 609, it is free to enter (9am-7pm Mon-Sat; 9am-5.30pm Sunday). On the north-west side of the piazza turn left down Via Giustiniani. At the first crossroads you'll find the French church of San Luigi dei Francesi (18) (10am-12.30 and 4-7pm daily, free). Its glittering interior contains three masterpieces by Caravaggio. His first public commissions, they depict scenes from the life of St Matthew and caused much controversy in the early years of the 1600s. Continue down Via Giustiniani and over Piazza Madama to reach Rome's most picturesque square, Piazza Navona (9).
Lunch on the run
On the west side of Piazza Navona, follow Via di Tor Millina and buy a slice of hot pizza (€3.50) from the Salvatore Salerno pizzeria (19) on the corner with Via della Pace.
Cross the Tiber to visit the Vatican Museums (20) (00 39 06 6988 3333; vatican.va ). Crowds descend in the mornings; the crush diminishes after lunch. Tickets for this vast complex are on sale 9am-4pm Mon-Sat, with the museums open until 6pm; admission €14; it also opens 9am-12.30pm on the last Sunday of the month, when it is free (and the crush is intense). The highlights are the Sistine Chapel – built in the 1470s and decorated by Michelangelo and others – and the Raphael Rooms. Another rich display is the Pinacoteca, with an amazing range of paintings from the Gothic period onwards. Round off the visit by attending Mass at 5pm (5.30pm on Sundays) at St Peter's.
From the sublime to the stylish: head back to the Piazza Navona (9) area. With its wonderful wooded interior, Caffe della Pace (21) at Via della Pace 3 (00 39 06 686 1216; caffedellapace.it ) is both atmospheric and very ritzy. Stop here for a glass of vino rosso – and to mingle with Rome's glamorous crowd.
Dining with the locals
Sample the delights of the charming Clemente alla Maddalena (22) on Piazza della Maddalena (00 39 06 683 3633; clementeallamaddalena.it ; closed Tuesday).
Sunday morning: window shopping
The Porta Portese flea market (23), stretches out from Porta Portese gate in the Trastevere district, and opens at about 7.30am, finishing at around 1pm.
Go to church
Back on the left bank of the Tiber, stand at the northern extreme of Piazza del Popolo (24) to get a superb view southward over the heart of Rome. Then make for Santa Maria del Popolo where Sunday mass is held at 8am, 9am and 10am. Non-worshippers may not wander the church during services, so you may choose to come later to see the riches here (Sundays 11am-1.30pm and 4.30-9.30pm; otherwise 7am-noon and 4-7pm). This imposing 15th-century building is under renovation at the moment, and the inside is somewhat dusty, but that does not detract from its chapels adorned by Pinturicchio and Caravaggio. The two Caravaggios in the Cesari chapel are spellbinding. (The Chigi chapel, designed by Raphael, is under wraps at present.)
Out to brunch
Choose between two excellent brunch options. Set among the art shops of Via Margutta, Il Margutta RistorArte (25) at number 118 (00 39 06 3265 0577; ilmargutta.it ) is a stylish gallery-cum-vegetarian trattoria. It presents an extensive Sunday brunch buffet of frittatas, grilled vegetables and more from 12.30-2.30pm. The Sunday feast costs €25; "green" brunches, from Monday to Saturday, cost €15. Alternatively, Gusto (26) (00 39 06 322 6273; gusto.it ) on Piazza Augusto Imperatore is an all-encompassing food emporium with restaurant, wine bar, deli and more. Lavish weekend brunch buffets of salads and meats are served from noon until 4pm and cost from €14.
Take a view
Make your way to the top of the Capitoline Hill (27) (about a 15-minute walk from Piazza del Popolo; the nearest metro station is Colosseo). From the south-eastern edge of the summit you can take in stunning panoramas of the Forum of Ancient Rome.
A walk in the park
Spend the afternoon in Ancient Rome. The three main sites lie just south of the Capitoline Hill: the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine Hill (00 39 06 3996 7700; turismoroma.it ) are open 8.30am-5pm daily. The €9 ticket on sale at each attraction covers all three and is valid for two days. The five acres of the Forum (28) were once the heart of the Western world. Looted over time, the area is now a park of splendid ruins. To the south is Palatine Hill (29) where Rome was said to have been founded by Romulus and Remus. This greener space is peppered with more ruins and presents great views over the Colosseum (30) from the remains of the Baths of Septimius Severus. If you have time to visit only one site, make it the Colosseum – but buy your ticket at the Forum where the queues are shorter. Built to hold 50,000 spectators, the enormous amphitheatre is remarkably intact and is a magnificent, yet grim, monument to Imperial Rome's power and cruelty.
The icing on the cake
Set in the grounds of Villa Borghese, Galleria Borghese (31) (00 39 06 841 3979; galleriaborghese.it ) is a treasure trove of sculptures by Bernini, works by Raphael, and more. The gallery is open from 8.30am until 7.30pm daily, except Monday, but viewings are limited to two-hour slots that start at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm. Tickets cost €8.50 and must be booked in advance on 00 39 06 32810; ticketeria.it .