City Slicker: Rome - Italy's unique capital city

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The sun-bathed days of early summer reveal Italy’s first city in all its glory. Rachel Spence suggests what to see and do for new and returning visitors


Why visit?


The balmy, sun-bathed days of early summer are ideal for exploring the mosaic of styles and epochs that make Italy's capital unique, whether you fancy a
Quattrocento fresco crawl around the churches, or a root through the ancient ruins.

Rome currently has a radiant contemporary complexion after some much-needed TLC from various municipal councils. Favourite haunts such as the modern art exhibition hall Palazzo delle Esposizioni (palazzoesposizioni.it), have had a facelift while new pretenders include: Renzo Piano's concert hall; the Auditorium Parco della Musica (auditorium.com) which is home to a summer Mozart-to-Madonna music festival; Richard Meier's postmodern riverside museum, Ara Pacis (arapacis.it); and Maxxi (maxxi.parc .beniculturali.it), a new contemporary art museum, which will open as soon as space-age supremo Zaha Hadid has added her final, futuristic touches.

Future events include the Festival of Literature (festivaldelleletterature .it), from 26 May to 25 June, at which top Anglo-Saxon authors such as John Grisham will appear. The breathtaking fresco cycle of Christ's Passion in the Gonfalone Oratory is the perfect setting for a gathering of world-class chamber musicians (romechamberfestival.org), from 16 to 25 June. To discover subterranean, archaeological treasures, book a Hidden Rome tour between 25 and 31 May (comune.roma.it; zetema.it).

Don't miss ...

The Colosseum (00 39 06 39967700; archeoroma.beniculturali.it/it/node/353).

Having been built to hold 70,000 spectators for gladiatorial contests, the Colosseum will never be crowded but arrive early on a May morning and you could have its mammoth stone benches all to yourself. Bring your favourite Russell Crowe fantasy along for company.

St Peter's Basilica (vatican.va).

From Bernini's spectacular elliptical colonnade to Michelangelo's Pietà, the Baroque dazzle of St Peter's Basilica has even hardened atheists wondering if they might be missing something.

The Vatican Museums (mv.vatican.va).

Get there before they open and go straight to the Sistine Chapel when they do. Soak up the comic-strip drama of Michelangelo's masterpiece in tranquil surroundings before retracing your steps to enjoy the luminous frescoes of Raphael and Beato Angelico.

A gelato in Rome's most famous square, Piazza Navona.

Enjoy watching the pageant of tourists, locals, pavement artists and street hawkers against the backdrop of Bernini's fountains.

Shopping in the designer-clad streets around Via Condotti. Italian brands – Prada, Cavalli, D&G – are much cheaper on home turf.

Throwing a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain. Legend has it that chucking a euro into the crystal-clear water of this dramatic Baroque creation ensures you shall make a return trip to the Eternal City.

What's new?

The Ghetto

Just north of a curve in the Tiber, this quarter became the enforced residence of the Jews in the 16th century and, even after restrictions were lifted in the 19th century, a nucleus of Jewish residents remained. It's graced by the mighty classical arch of the Portico di Ottavia and home to the synagogue and a Jewish museum, and in recent years discerning Romans have been snapping up the airy apartments faster than you can say "shalom". Hard on their heels came a succession of top-notch contemporary art galleries such as Galleria Bonomo (galleriabonomo.it) where, from next Sunday, you can catch the new show by Transavanguardia star Sandro Chia. Catering to these chic arrivals are glossy bars, shops and restaurants including a kosher bistro at via Maria del Pianto 68 and a luxurious hammam and spa (acqua madre.it) that specialises in Dead Sea salt treatments. At the vivacious cultural centre Rialto Sant Ambrogio (rialto.roma.it), concerts, exhibitions, theatrical shows and contemporary dance keep the area's youthful crowd entertained, and tourists are warmly welcomed, too.

Mia

Proof that razor-sharp design doesn't stop at Milan, this stunning new showroom mixes and matches contemporary pieces – Piet Hein Eek's scrapwood furniture and Squint's patchwork divans – with vintage furniture. Imagine your home if you could start again from scratch after taking a design degree and winning the lottery. If the prices make your credit feel really crunched, treat yourself to one of the hyper-trendy books and mags. At least you'll know then what you ought to want.

Details: miaviadiripetta.com

Kami Spa

With a sumptuously luxurious ambience, Thai therapists, and marble swimming pool filled with mineral-rich water, this spanking new day spa has set Roman goddesses all a-twitter. Treatments have a decidedly oriental flavour; you can be scrubbed down with Balinese coffee and wrapped up in Javan herbs, or plump for an Asian delight package that includes a bamboo body polish and a ginseng honey soak.

Details: kamispa.com

Macro

After a major refurbishment, Rome's contemporary art museum in the Porta Pia has reopened. Now, as well as temporary exhibitions, the permanent collection of Italian artists is on view. With the swirling symmetries of Carla Accardi, tongue-in-cheek pop art pieces by Renato Schifano, and lyrical abstractions from the New Roman School, the galleries offer a long-awaited chance to plunge into Italian contemporary art.

Details: macro.roma.museum

Elegance Caffè

The word about town is that the Elegance Caffè, which opened last autumn, is bringing a touch of dolce vita back to Via Veneto. At its best during Happy Hour, when you can relax with a Campari and soda and a plateful of Mediterranean munchies – bite-sized pizza, aubergine bakes, couscous – its high ceilings, iron sculptures and mahogany balcony all help you to chill. Details: Via Veneto 85, 00 39 06 42 01 6745.

Insider's secret: Elyssa Bernard

Elyssa Bernard, is the owner of the Daphne Inn in the centre of Rome.

"The Villa Torlonia, which I recently discovered, is a revelation. Once Mussolini's residence, this 19th-century complex of villas was the home of the noble Torlonia family. Now the main villa has been transformed into a museum because the rooms are so extraordinary; each one is decked out in various styles including Gothic, Renaissance, neo-Classical and Egyptian. There are other, smaller houses in the grounds, all equally quirky. But what I love most is the garden. It is planted with lemon trees and pines and is almost unknown to tourists, so many Romans come here when they want a quiet place to read and picnic."

Details: museivillatorlonia.it and daphne-rome.com.

Compact facts

How to get there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Rome from £116 return.

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