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Why go now?
After the sultry days of summer and the August exodus, the mighty Italian capital is open for business again.
The annual Roma Europa Festival (romaeuropa.net; 26 September to 30 November), a city-wide celebration of music, theatre and dance, makes autumn an ideal time to visit. And the Eternal City has just come into sharper focus, with yesterday's release of Woody Allen's latest movie, To Rome with Love.
Rome's main airport is Fiumicino, 26km south-east of the centre. I flew with Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), which flies from Luton, Birmingham and Leeds/Bradford. The airport is also served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Alitalia (0871 424 1424; alitalia.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester.
The Leonardo Express train (trenitalia.com) departs every half hour from 6.38am to 11.38pm and takes 31 minutes to reach the central station, Roma Termini (1). A one-way fare is €14. For €8, you can catch the FR1 train connecting with the city's Metro system at Ostiense (2) and Tiburtina (3) stations. A taxi to the city centre will cost about €50.
Ciampino airport, 15km south of the centre, is easier and cheaper to reach. It is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted, Edinburgh, East Midlands, Manchester and Prestwick. Trains make the 15-minute journey from Ciampino Citta station – a few minutes away and connected by shuttle buses (€1) – to Termini (1) four times an hour. A one-way ticket costs €1.30; a taxi will set you back €30.
Get your bearings
Founded in 753BC and famously built upon seven hills, Rome was the beating heart of the Roman Empire. The city became Italy's capital in 1871. It is bisected north-south by the Tiber; you'll find the remains of ancient Rome and most famous sights to the east.
To the north-west is the walled sovereign state of Vatican City. A third of the size of London's Hyde Park, it was granted independence by Mussolini in 1929.
The handiest tourist office (4) is at Via Giovanni Giolitti 34 near Termini station (1). There are several others across the city (turismoroma.it; open 9.30am-7pm daily). A three-day Roma Pass (romapass.it; €30) offers reduced entry to some attractions, plus free public transport.
Sitting atop Monte Mario, the tallest of the city's hills, the Rome Cavalieri (5) (00 39 06 35091; romecavalieri.com) at Via Alberto Cadlolo 101 is a sumptuous hotel with rare Flemish tapestries, antique Louis XV furniture and art by Giambattista Tiepolo and Andy Warhol. Doubles start at €280, including breakfast.
Albergo del Sole (6) opened in 1467 on Piazza della Rotonda (00 39 06 678 0441; hotelsolealpantheon.com). Past guests include princes, poets and politicians. Doubles from €200, B&B.
The four-star Koru Hotel (7) (00 39 06 968 60 096; koruhotel.it) at Via Cavour 185 opened last year. The immaculate white rooms, are given a splash of colour with bold feature walls; doubles from €99, B&B.
Rise early to beat the crowds at the Vatican Museums (8) (00 39 06 698 84676; mv.vatican.va; €15). The highlight is the Sistine Chapel with its intricate frescos painted by a reluctant Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor. It opens 9am-6pm Mon to Sat and on the last Sunday of every month when entrance is free. Don't leave without marvelling at the opulence of St Peter's Basilica (9).
Alternatively, head to the Roman Forum (10) (00 39 06 399 67 700; pierreci.it; €12). The ruins were once official buildings and temples, some built by Julius Caesar. Admission also includes fast-track entry to the Colosseum (11). The crumbling amphitheatre was first used for gladiatorial battles in AD80, staged in front of 50,000 jeering spectators. Open 8.30am-7pm daily (although closes earlier as autumn progresses).
Take a hike
Start at Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in the middle of Piazza Navona (12). Head east and cross Palazzo Madama, until you reach the Corinthian columns of the Pantheon (13). This 2nd-century temple, built by Emperor Hadrian, features an oculus in the roof, casting a column of sunlight (and sometimes rain) on to the marble floor (9am-7.30pm Mon to Sat, to 5.30pm Sun; free).
Walk along Via del Seminario; turn left on Via del Corso and take the second right on to Via delle Muratte to reach the Trevi Fountain (14) . Throw a coin in (legend has it that those who do will one day return) before walking along Via Poli.Cross Via del Tritone and pause for an espresso at Angelina (15) (00 39 06 679 7274; ristoranteangelina.com) at Via Poli 27, a café with concrete floors and ceilings hung with empty birdcages.
Turn right on Via del Bufalo and take the first left. Stay on Via di Propaganda until you emerge at Piazza Mignanelli and the Spanish Steps (16): Francesco de Sanctis's 138-step staircase leading to the Trinita dei Monti church.
Lunch on the run
Hostaria da Pietro (17) (00 39 06 320 8816; hostariadapietro.com) is a small restaurant tucked away down the narrow Via Gesu e Maria 18. The pasta is heavenly, the desserts homemade (try the crème caramel) and the waiters chatty. Mains from €13.
Via del Babuino (18) is lined with eclectic stores: contemporary fashion at Pinko (No 92) and Iceberg (No 87); fine art from Carlucci (No 192); and, if your budget stretches to it, antiques from the 1700s at W Apolloni (No 133).
Caffe della Pace (19) (00 39 06 686 1216; caffedellapace.it) is a pleasant spot for a pre-dinner tipple. The Art Deco-inspired interior is cosy; however, the outdoor tables, overlooking a small square, are highly sought after.
Dining with the locals
Il Corallo (20), Via del Corallo 10 (00 39 06 683 07703; bit.ly/IlCorallo) is a small pizzeria popular with locals and Hollywood stars. There are 23 tempting options from €5.
Taverna Trilussa (21), Via del Politeama 23/25 (00 39 06 581 8918; tavernatrilussa.it), is a charming restaurant specialising in hearty pasta dishes. Bucatini all'amatriciana (€17) is a local favourite.
Sunday morning: go to church
You're spoilt for choice, with nearly 1,000 churches to select from. Santa Maria Maggiore (22) at Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore 42 (00 39 06 483195) may not be one of the best known, but it's undoubtedly special. Under its vast Baroque dome is a staircase designed by Bernini and mosaics from the 5th century. Visitors are welcome to attend Sunday mass, which is held on the hour between 7am-noon (except 11am). Open 7am-7pm daily.
Out to brunch
Beyond the wholemeal cakes, trays of rustici (savoury pastries stuffed with everything from ricotta to salmon) and bread shaped like the Colosseum, the bakery and deli Panella (23) at Via Merulana 54 (00 39 06 487 2435; panella-artedelpane.it) puts on an all-you-can-eat brunch (€12) every Sunday, 10am-2pm.
Take a view
Giuseppe Sacconi's white marble masterpiece Il Vittoriano (24) (00 39 06 699 1718), on Piazza Venezia, was built as a monument to Italy's first king. Take the lift (€7) to the viewing platform from where a sea of terracotta rooftops punctuated by bulbous domes and long boulevards spread out below you (9.30am-7.30pm Fri-Sun, to 6.30pm other days).
A walk in the park
The landscaped grounds of Villa Borghese (25) started out as vineyards and sprawling family estates until 1605 when the nephew of Pope Paul V had better ideas. Today, it's Rome's largest and loveliest park with quiet duck ponds, Ionic temples and several museums – most notably the Borghese Gallery (26) (00 39 06 841 3979; galleriaborghese.it; 8.30am-7.30pm daily except Mon; €9) with works by Raphael and Caravaggio. Tickets must be pre-booked.
Take a ride
How better to see the sights than on a vintage Vespa? Those not brave enough to take on Rome's fast and frenzied roads themselves can leave the hard work to a professional. A four-hour tour costs €150 with Bici Baci (00 39 06 945 39240; bicibaci.com).
Icing on the cake
Gelato king Stefano Marcotulli has become something of a modern day Willy Wonka, thanks to the experimental flavours in his aptly named ice-cream parlour Gelateria del Teatro (27) (00 39 06 454 74880) at Via di San Simone 70.
He uses only the finest ingredients – lemons from Amalfi and pistachios from Sicily – and the more unique offerings include white chocolate and basil, or raspberry with garden sage. Scoops start from €2.50.