Besides the ancient treasures, the countless works of art, the elegant renaissance palaces and the impressive baroque churches lays a city that enchants its visitors at every step they take and calls for them to get lost in its alleys and forever fall in love with its charms…
This is the Rome i know and love and one of the areas that most characteristically embodies all of the above is the one surrounding the grandiose Piazza Navona.
There are really not enough words to describe the impression that the Eternal City’s most spectacular square leaves…Whether you face it for the first or the hundredth time, it never fails to capture you… Three imposing fountains, palaces and an elaborate church among them, elegant cafes and selective shops, crowds of tourists and all kinds of itinerant artists…
The static forms of the four rivers that Bernini captured so gracefully in the central fountain make an intense contrast to the endless passing by of the crowds, while the sound of water splashing mingles with the kids’ enthusiastic yelling…I think that one can spend hours and hours just walking around this gorgeous square. Which in my opinion is at its best either early in the morning, bathed in the sunlight, before crowds take over it, or late at night just like Sorrentino vividly depicted it in “La Grante Bellezza”.
But it’s not just the square itself that it’s so bewitching. Of equal charm are the countless narrow streets spreading around it, the labyrinthine medieval alleys leading to cute yards, impressive palaces, important churches and gastronomic temptations…Every unexpected turn is another perfect picture frame…It’s amazing how much beauty can be found in such a small part of the city’s map…To ascertain that yourself, my only advice is “Don’t hesitate to lose your way!” Found a picturesque path? Follow it…Does a church or museum look interesting? Go in… Longing for a delicious gelato? Buy one and enjoy it along with your walk.
As for my favourites in this area, the ones i joyfully keep coming back to, are all gathered in a detailed walk that could very well keep you busy for a whole day.
Reaching Piazza Navona from the north
Start your walk on the north side of Piazza Navona, where you’ll find a tiny square, Piazza di Tor Sanguigna, with the archaeological area of the remains of Dominitian’s ancient stadium. Piazza Navona was built on the ancient stadium, following its oval shape. Take the alley called Via di Tor Sanguigna which passes by one of the most elegant hotels in Rome, the impressive hotel Raphael. Keep it in mind for its lovely terrace, filled with flowers and with a breathtaking view. Having a coffee or an aperitivo there is certainly worth it. Taking the next small street, Vicolo della Pace, you will pass under an apse and find yourself at the location of Santa Maria della Pace. This small church has an unusual design and great artistic value. Take some time to admire Pierto da Cortona’s curved facade , the octagonal interior of the dome, Raphael’s famous frescoes of the Sibyls and definitely Bramante’s gorgeous cloister with two levels of elegant pilasters at the back of the church. It was the first commission in Rome for the ingenious architect and noways it also hosts a lovely cafe. My advice is to visit this church early in the morning as it usually stays open only for a few hours ( normally 9:00 – 11:45 ).
Via della Pace that passes in front of the church intersects after a few meters to the west with Via di Tor Millina, which is named after the tall, medieval tower that overlooks the rest of the area’s buildings. A few more steps and you’ll be right in the center of Piazza Navona. Walk across it admiring its sublime and head to its south end towards Fontana del Moro, Bernini’s second fountain on this square. Right there, Palazzo Braschi dominates this side of the square and hosts the Museum of the city. But your destination is Vivi Bistrot situated on the museum’s front yard, for a cup of coffee or a full breakfast. It’s quite an experience to sit at one of the outside tables looking at Piazza Navona though the frame of a heavy medieval door. But the interior is also very pretty, make sure you get a seat by the windows for the abundant view.
The charming scenery of Via del Governo Vecchio
When you’ve finished your coffee break turn left on the exit and you’ll find yourself in tiny Piazza di Pasquino, which -like you’d expect- is named after a statue. In this case it’s the timeworn figure of Pasquino, one of Rome’s “talking statues” found on the site. This term is used to describe some statues in particular areas of the city, on which people used to leave messages and notes of dissatisfaction in cases of injustice and misgovernment. This is where one of the most picturesque parts of your walk begins, along Via del Governo Vecchio. This street has a wonderful vibe and is full of restaurants, cafes, handcraft and vintage shops, antiquaries, a Coop mini market to get your water supplies and many gelaterie. Walk all the way to the end of the street, the further you go, the better the quality of the shops. And don’t forget to look upwards because the buildings’ facades are often impressively decorated with embossed patterns.
Follow the same way back and once you reach Piazza dell’ Orologio stop for a while in order to admire the clock tower with the beautiful depiction of Virgin Mary. Go around the building so you’ll get at its front side, where the main avenue called Corso V. Emanuelle II and Piazza della Chiesa Nuova are. There you can visit Chiesa Nuova, the majestic, baroque church of the Counter – Reformation era. In the luxurious interior with a long line of richly decorated chapels, don’t miss the three paintings by Rubens on the altar and Pietro da Cortona’s frescoes at the dome.
An alley at the side of the church will lead you back to Via del Governo Vecchio and if you feel it’s time for a light, tasty snack, a cup of coffee or a sweet you can take a break at the lovely Caffe Novecento. Otherwise, further down the street on no 112, you’ll find Frigidarium one of the best gelaterie in Rome. Don’t pass it by without tasting its amazing ice cream! Choose 2-3 flavors and let them dip your gelato in melted chocolate which will only make it even more delicious! If you’re feeling really hungry next to Frigidarium you’ll find one of the top roman pizzarie, Da Baffetto. Ques line up since midday for the huge, extremely thin pizzas which are really so light than you could easily eat a whole one! It certainly is an experience you shouldn’t miss while in Rome!
Art and fun on a magical setting
Let the road bring you back to Piazza Navona where you can just wander around trying to guess which river is which robust statue in the central fountain. Opposite Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi stands one of the works of his famous opponent : Borominni’s Sant’ Agnese in Agone which was built in honor of a young martyr who was tortured right there in Domitian’s stadium. On the rooftop of this small baroque gem, the saint’s statue overlooks the square. Go inside in order to admire the dome’s wonderful interior.
Back to Piazza Navona and it’s now time to explore its unique shops. If you travel with your kids or you just want to feel like a kid again, you must head to both Berte and Al Sogno. They are two of Rome’s oldest toy shops, since 1962 and 1945 respectively, the kingdoms of wooden Pinocchios, porcelain dolls and cute teddy bears. And don’t forget that no walk in Piazza Navona can ever be complete without a tartufo ice cream from Tre Scalini! Give in to the ultimate chocolate temptation in the form of a big chocolate scoop with bitter choc chips, covered in rich chocolate shavings and a cherry hidden inside! It looks like a big truffle and it’s amazing!
Behind Tre Scalini and Piazza Navona the alleys are full of surprises. Follow them without any particular destination and enjoy their authentic atmosphere… Every now and then check your map to make sure you don’t miss Piazza del Fico, a small square with a big fig tree where it gets its name from. Bar del Fico is a bohemian all day hot spot and your ultimate destination for another cup of coffee or an aperitivo. Eventually EVERYBODY comes by, including even George Clooney or Brad Pitt. I’ve never been lucky enough to run into them, but i always enjoy watching at least one group of pleasant, old Romans who play chess under the fig tree. Iconic!
One of Rome’s most romantic streets
When you feel like you’ve walked enough in the area, head north where your walk originally started, to Piazza di Tor Sanguigna. Via dei Coronari, one the city’s most beautiful streets lined with expensive shops of antiques and art objects, expands from here. The scenery is ideal for a walk before sunset as lights are gradually turned on, creating a magical atmosphere as they reflect on dusty pink and yellow walls of the so often covered by ivy old buildings. You really shouldn’t forget to make a stop in front of Gelateria del Teatro and watch live, through a large window, the process of making original gelato. Needless to say that you have to go in and give it a try!! Enjoy it in Piazza di San Salvatore in Lauro, on the opposite side of the street, watching passers-by, or keep on walking till the end of the road…A small turn to the right and the magical view of Ponte Sant’ Angelo is revealed . Bernini’s angels on both sides of the bridge are full of intense, dramatic movement while the imposingly lit Castel Sant’ Angelo, mausoleum – fortress – castle – prison and finally a museum, stands proudly on Tiber’s bank since 2nd century A.D. A night walk across the bridge with St Peter’s lit dome in the distance is always an amazing experience.
Your walk ends with the return to Navona area, still crowded during the night. For dinner I suggest 3 of Rome’s best pizzarie, all within walking distance from Piazza Navona:
– Da Baffetto as mentioned before, will be flooded by young locals as well as tourists who wait patiently for a table in order to enjoy delicious and well priced pizzas. Pizzas are the only thing served here but you really don’t need anything else!
– Da Baffetto 2 is the other restaurant serving the same fantastic pizzas as well as amazing pasta dishes. Their “Amatriciana” is in my opinion the best in Rome! Another must try is “Gnocchi 4 formagi”and the traditional roman specialty “Saltimbocca alla Romana”, thin veal slices with prosciutto and sage cooked in a light white wine sauce.
– La Montecarlo belongs to the same family as the previous two pizzarie and serves equally tasty pizzas and spaghetti in a simple space full of black n’ white photos of famous clients. The one of Armani posing with the owners, just proves that in Italy you can eat a perfect meal even in the simplest restaurant ! ( Don’t miss the delicious appetizer “Olive Ascolane”- meat stuffed olives covered in bread crumbs and deep fried. )
The excellent museums of Navona area
This mini tour can keep you busy one whole day. But you could also combine it with visits to three excellent museums in this area and so extend it to two days, with intermediate stops to the following sights :
– Museo Nationale Romano – Palazzo Altemps Τhis magnificent palace is part of the National Roman Museum complex and stands out for its beautiful loggia lined with statues. It mainly houses roman sculpture, part of the Ludovisi family collection that includes the elegant Greek sculpture of Venus stepping out of her bath known as the “Ludovisi throne”. You will also see a collection of elaborate sarcophagi and a joyful fresco of the Riorio- Sfortza wedding, the first family that lived there.
– Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi Paintings, frescoes, engravings, photographs and busts are on display in the long suffered but beautifully restored Palazzo Braschi, that was built as a luxurious residence for a member of a papal family and was even used as a shelter for homeless families after World War II. The museum often hosts interesting periodical exhibitions.
– Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica A small but concise collection of significant ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Etruscan sculpture. It really deserves a couple of hours of your time.
If you combine this walk with a morning stroll around Campo dei Fiori, across Corso V. Emanuelle II avenue, you will have seen the whole of Parione area, widely considered the heart of Rome!