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Why You’re Doing Rome All Wrong (WATCH VIDEO: 'Slow Rome')

To race from one famous site to another violates the spirit of la dolce vita.

WATCH, THEN READ: "Slow Rome" is the first episode of GOING GLOBAL, BJT's new travel video series.

The pleasures of Rome are so many and so rich that one is tempted to turn a trip into a scavenger hunt of beauty. The capital of Italy is called an outdoor museum for a reason: The first thing I tell people about Rome is that when you travel to most A-list destinations around the world, you must make plans to experience the attractions, but once you’re in Rome, you’re already there. The entire historic center—centro storico, which sounds a lot more sonorous—along with Vatican City, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One has the feeling that the World Heritage Site committee started counting up the unmissable historic structures, gave up, and just put the whole revered center in its net.

But as much as Rome is a landscape of preserved ancient ruins and spectacularly ornate churches, the city is also a feeling best captured by la dolce vita (the sweet life), dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), and my personal favorite, sprezzatura—an almost ineffable quality of easy glamour and perfect nonchalance. 

Once I was sitting at an outdoor table at Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona and the waiter slipped my Caprese salad on the table with such good-willed, unpretentious grace that I suddenly understood the spirit of daily Roman sprezzatura. This is a simple dish of five earthy ingredients (tomatoes, mozzarella, sweet basil, salt, olive oil), the waiter’s action saying not important, yet a thing of beauty. That moment was just as Roman and indelible as visiting the breathtakingly evocative Colosseum. You can hate on the film version of Eat Pray Love all you want, but at its best, the movie captures this offhand, sensory splendor extremely well. 

In the spirit of unhurried observation and a leisurely pace, here's five ways to enjoy a “slow travel”-inspired Roman holiday, rather a frenetic sprint over cobblestones.


1. With 930 churches, most of them Catholic, Rome offers an unmatched and opulent array. I suggest wandering the city, and every time you stumble upon one, go take a look inside. Even some churches with unprepossessing facades contain elaborate interiors. Important: be conscious of the natural illumination—the sun may be about to stream in from one of windows below the crown of the dome. Take your time to experience being bathed in ethereal golden light. 

Going Local

2. Book a historic hotel like the Hassler for the beginning of your stay, but carefully choose an apartment for the remainder. Allow yourself the joys of shopping for fruit, flowers, cheeses and olive oils (at small shops or at the outdoor Campo de' Fiori) and bringing them back to your villa. Live like a Roman, at least for a few days. 

Convenient Cuisine

3. There is no need to flee most touristic areas in order to score a great meal. Piazza Navona (Rome’s living room) and the impossibly charming and diminutive Piazza della Rotonda (at the Pantheon) feature restaurants with great Roman cooking, as do the narrow streets around them. The exception would be Vatican City. You maybe temped, after an exhausting day at St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum (where the Sistine Chapel is located) to plunk down for some fortifying pasta, but the laminated posters of carbonara will tell you that the quality is more geared for desperate sightseers than for connoisseurs of Italian cuisine. 

Let's Get Lost

4. Plan a trip long enough—at least a week—to have off-days where you simply explore a maze of an authentic neighborhood, like Monti, Trastevere—or the area just west of Piazza Navona. The improbably leafy, elevated restaurant where Julia Roberts flawlessly orders an Italian meal is Santa Lucia Ristorante, set right behind Piazza Navona, and local Romans line up for gelato at nearby Frigidarium. The ivy-covered Hotel Raphael is tucked right behind Santa Lucia and boasts a rooftop bar with exceptional views of the city.

Early Riser

5. Night owls will lose out. Even if you’re the type that sleeps in, train yourself to rise early at least a few mornings in order to savor certain iconic sites—the Pantheon, and especially Trevi Fountain—in a serene, civilized way. Nicola Salvi’s spectacular 18th-century fountain draws hordes most of the day and night.