Rome: 48 hours of La Dolce Vita

Whether you're a glutton for culture or merely pasta and ice cream, this is a city dedicated to pleasure.

Why go now

For a taste of what it feels like to roast in the fires of hell. Rome in August is empty. The shops are shut and Romans pack up and move to the coast. You might want to plan, instead, for September, when the suffocating heat subsides; you won't have to crawl into the cool, dark interiors of Rome's 400 or so churches for relief, and can dedicate yourself to a little hedonism instead.

Beam down

Fiumicino is the larger of Rome's two airports, and handles most scheduled flights, including Alitalia, BA, BMI and Ethiopian Airlines from Heathrow; Alitalia and BA also fly from Gatwick, and BA flies from Manchester and Birmingham. Trailfinders (020-7937 1234) has flights from London with BA from £118, and BMI from £119. The hottest inflight service is likely to be on Ethiopian, for £229 through Benz (020-7462 0000). From Fiumicino you can catch the airport express train to the Termini station in half an hour for L17,000 (£5.50). Ciampino is where the charter and low-cost airlines land. I flew with Go (0845 60 54321, www. go-fly.com), which has return flights from Stansted starting at £85. From the airport either take the Go bus which drops you off at the Termini for £9 return (buy your ticket, in sterling, on the plane). Alternatively, catch the airport bus to Anagnina metro station and from there the train into the centre for L3,500 all in (just over £1 each way).

Check in

Where better for sinners to hang out than the Hotel Eden, via Ludovisi 49 (00 39 06 47 81 21, www. hotel-eden.it)? Overlooking the pleasure gardens of the Villa Borghese, the Eden is a 19th-century palace with sumptuous interiors. Rooms start at a deliciously decadent £380, or if you're feeling truly wicked, the Penthouse will set you back almost £1,750 a night. The Hotel Locarno, via della Penna 22 (00 39 06 361 0841), has been likened to the set of an Agatha Christie film, with its original wrought-iron lift and 1920s decor. Doubles from L360,000 (about £116). Or if you're feeling skint (as well as penitent), stay with the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement, close to St Peter's at via Monte del Gallo 105 (00 39 06 63 07 82). Rooms cost L55,000 (£18) and there's an 11pm curfew.

Get your bearings

Rome can be confusing, even with a map. The Tiber river slices almost north-south through a jumble of ancient and modern. In a bend on the right bank is the Centro Storico, or historic district. It is hemmed in by the main thoroughfare, the via del Corso, which runs from the Piazza del Popolo to the Piazza Venezia. To the north is the quiet expanse of the Borghese Gardens, to the south the Colosseum. On the left bank is the Vatican and St Peter's. The main tourist office is at via Parigi 5 (00 39 06 48 89 92 53), Mon-Fri 8.15am-7.15pm, Sat 8.15am-1.45pm.

Take a hike

Throughout history, the home town of the Pope and capital of Roman Catholicism has been as much a hotbed of licentiousness as a place of piety and pilgrimage. Legend says it was here that Mars, the god of war, ravished a princess and thus sired Romulus and Remus. The rise of Christianity did little to help the city clean up its act, as the earliest popes were not averse to a little scurrilous behaviour. You can get a good grasp of Rome's history just by walking. Start at the Piazza del Popolo, where street entertainment once included the torture of criminals, then head to the Spanish Steps before cooling off beside the Trevi Fountain, the setting for hedonistic scenes in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Cut across to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona, where Saint Agatha was martyred. Across the river and up through the Botanic Gardens is the Piazza Garibaldi and the best view of Rome.

Take a ride

Cut through the hellish traffic on a scooter. There are numerous scooter hire outlets around town, with rates from around L35,000 (£12) per day. Or take a guided scooter tour with Romarent, via Vicolo dei Bovari 7 (00 39 06 689 6555), for L150,000 (£49) including scooter hire.

Lunch on the run

Once famous for gorging on heavy, meat-based lunches, Romans are now tending towards lighter snacks. For a quick dish of pasta, head to the Trattoria da Augusto, Piazza de' Renzi 15 (00 39 06 580 3798) – a small square in fashionable Trastevere. All the dishes look as though they've been drizzled with the same tomato sauce, but it's cheap and service is fast. Rome is also home to the wood-fired pizza bianca (that's without the tomato sauce). Try the Fratelli Paladina, via del Governo Vecchio 29 (00 39 06 686 1237), a popular bread shop.

Cultural afternoon

The Romans liked nothing more than a spot of blood and guts. Think Gladiator, and head for the Colosseum. After Nero had set fire to Rome and plucked his lyre while it burned, the subsequent emperor built a blood sports arena to cheer everyone up. Fights were fought to the death; corpses were skewered with red hot pokers. If you haven't got the stomach for the Colosseum, take a book to the remains of the ancient baths, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla 52 (00 39 06 575 8626); open May-Sept 9am-1pm Mon, Sun, 9am-6pm Tues-Sat; Oct-Apr 9am-1pm Mon, Sat, 9am-4.30pm Tues-Sat, L8,000, around £2.60). The site once housed not only baths but steam rooms, and even a library. Laze on the lawns beneath the towering ruins and lose yourself in the scandals of ancient Rome, with Gaius Suetonius' Twelve Caesars or Juvenal's Satires, which revel in the city's seedy history – or pick up a local paper for some modern-day political scandal.

Window shopping

Be decadent with your earnings. Along the via Condotti and via del Babuino at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, you'll find designer labels at prices that will make you beg your bank's forgiveness. The queues outside Gucci on a Saturday afternoon stretch along the pavement. While in the streets around the Vatican, such as Borgo Pio, the tat is unforgivably prolific – teaspoons with pictures of the Pope on top, miniature golden bottles of holy water decorated with pictures of the Virgin or holograms of Christ on the cross, with eyes that open and shut for L19,000 (£6.20). A sin against good taste.

An Aperitif

Sipping champagne in the sixth-floor terrace bar of the Hotel Eden as the sun sets over Rome is as wickedly self-indulgent as it gets – especially when you see the bill. A glass of champagne will set you back around L30,000 (£10). For a cheaper option, join the crowds sipping Prosecco (Italian bubbly) outside La Vineria (00 39 06 68 80 32 68), closed Sunday, on Campo de' Fiori, the piazza where Caravaggio, talented artist, not-so-talented tennis player, and bad loser, murdered his opponent. Lucrezia Borgia, of the notorious Italian clan, was born nearby, and the statue in the centre of the piazza is of one Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for daring to question the church's teachings. La Vineria is an old cellar whose walls are lined with dusty bottles, and a glass of Prosecco here costs just L2,000 (65p).

Dinner with the locals

Gluttony is easily indulged in Rome. Dinner is traditionally a five-course affair starting with a plate of antipasti, followed by soup or pasta, then meat or fish, vegetables follow separately and finally, a sumptuous dessert. If the setting is as important as the meal itself, behind Piazza Navona is the newly opened Santa Lucia, Febo Largo 12 (00 39 06 68 80 24 27). In a tiny square surrounded by shuttered, ivy-clad buildings of crumbling terracotta, you can eat outside beneath the trees on a raised patio. La Canonica, via della Paglia 6a (00 39 06 580 3845) near Santa Maria in Trastevere serves traditional Roman food in a cosy converted church.

Sunday morning, go to church

Repent of your sins. To avoid the crowds at St Peter's, head for the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Piazza Santa Cecilia (00 39 06 589 9289), approached through a wild garden of unruly rose bushes. Saint Cecilia maintained her vow of chastity in marriage and was martyred for her beliefs. The path of virtue is not always an easy one. For L1,500 (50p) listen to the taped history of the church before descending into the crypt (just pay L4,000, around £1.30, to the knitting nun) to see the frescoes. Sunday mass is at 10am. The frescoes are open 11.15am-noon.

Bracing brunch

In Rome, a city fed on offal, vegetarianism is regarded by many as a sin. As atonement for the excesses of the previous night, head for a macrobiotic brunch at Margutta Vegetariano, via Margutta 118 (00 39 06 32 65 05 77). With its curved marble bar, sleek fixtures, black leather banquettes, stained glass and contemporary art on the walls, this is not your average veggie restaurant. Tables full of fashionable young Italians pick delicately at gourmet salads and smoked mozzarella. The brunch buffet costs L45,000 (£15).

A walk in the park

At the end of the 16th century, the wealthy and pleasure-loving Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, ordered work to begin on a garden of earthly delights. The Borghese Gardens and the Villa Borghese, where his collection of art was housed, was turned into a Baroque pleasure park, with trick fountains and erotic paintings. You can wander around the gardens, picnic in the shade (try to find a bench not occupied by lovers draped around each other) or visit the three galleries in the grounds – the Galleria Borghese, Villa Giulia and the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna.

Write a postcard

Buy a hologram postcard of Jesus on the cross for L1,400 (45p) from one of the shops around the Vatican. Take it to Antico Caffe Greco, via Condotti 86 (00 39 06 678 5474), where bad boys Shelley, Byron and Casanova used to hang out. It'll brand you a tourist, but so what? Its décor is extravagant: alcoves lined with red velvet banquettes; dark, silk-covered walls hung with enormous oils and gilt mirrors; bronze busts crowding every nook. The café stretches back toward a private room boasting a grand piano and an enormous statue of a wickedly grinning Puck – you can imagine the wild, disreputable parties.

The icing on the cake

For the best coffee in Rome, visit the renowned Sant'Eustachio, Piazza Sant'Eustachio 82 (00 39 06 686 1309, open 8.30am-1am) for an espresso. Romans consider it a crime to drink cappuccino at any time of the day except first thing in the morning, and at any temperature other than lukewarm. For the best gelato, head to Il Gelato di San Crispino, via della Panetteria 42 (00 39 06 679 3924), where the ice cream is served in tubs (cones detract from the purity of the experience). The sweet wine ice cream (L3,000, or £1) is truly orgasmic. For the ultimate sinner's delight, combine them in the traditional Roman dessert and food of the gods, Affogato (ice cream drizzled with espresso).

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