Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rome's Top 10 Piazzas for Hanging Out

Campo de Fiori, (c) Michael Foley

The weather in Rome is finally getting warmer, dear bloglings, so it's time to get outside and do what Romans do best: hang out, people watch, take a passeggiata, sip an aperitivo, soak up the sun, in other words: see and be seen. And where is the best place to indulge in this Italian of all activities? In a piazza, of course.

So many tourists who visit Rome neglect to make time in their busy sightseeing schedule to participate in this utterly Roman activity: the dolce far niente, the art of doing nothing, that Italians do so well (too well sometimes!). Schlepping yourself from one tourist attraction to the next means you'll get a lot of important sites crossed off your list, but you might just miss out on getting to know Rome on a deeper level. Immerse yourself in the city's way of life, and you'll find that you'll go home with a greater understanding of this incomparable city.

The Italian piazza is the ultimate urban living room, a visually stimulating public space (preferably void of traffic) where the city’s residents can relax, and its visitors can take a well-deserved break from the demands of the day. Bright, airy, full of glorious works of architecture, and nine times out of ten with a fountain splashing in the center, Rome’s piazzas can sometimes feel like open-air museums. Most of the city’s major piazzas can also boast a café, a bench, or at the very least some convenient church steps, upon which to enjoy a few minutes or hours of sweet idleness.

If you’ve flipped through a guidebook, you’ve doubtless heard of (and probably already visited) Rome’s most famous piazzas, such as Piazza Navona with Bernini’s magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers, Piazza di Spagna with the iconic Spanish Steps, Piazza della Rotonda in the shadow of the Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo with its towering obelisk, and Piazza di Trevi with its eponymous fountain. These must-see squares are undeniably spectacular, but during the height of tourist season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a free place to sit, let alone a corner of tranquility to soak up Rome’s unique atmosphere. Luckily, the city has a seemingly endless supply of piazzas, each offering its own distinct character.

Just a few steps from the Pantheon, Piazza di Pietra is one of Rome’s most surprising squares. As you step into the piazza from one of the narrow side streets, the Corinthian columns of the Temple of Hadrian rise to greet you. The 2nd-century AD temple was erected on occasion of the deification of Emperor Hadrian, by his heir and adoptive son Antoninus Pius. Today, what remains of the temple has been incorporated into a 17th-century building, although the effect is no less arresting. Snag a table at chic Salotto 42 or opt for aperitivo or a full meal at Osteria dell'Ingegno, or if it's coffee hour, your best bet is La Caffettiera, a delightfully old-world café.

Piazza di Pietra, [source]
Piazza Farnese is the epitome of elegance and nobility. Dominating the rectangular piazza is Palazzo Farnese, the largest and most opulent once-private palace in the city. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo and Michelangelo, the palace is now the seat of the French Embassy, and features exquisite frescoes by the Carracci brothers. The two fountains that flank the square were repurposed from enormous ancient Roman bathtubs from the 3rd-century Baths of Caracalla, and the long travertine bench that runs the entire length of Palazzo Farnese makes the square a great place to park with a book and a gelato. Caffé Farnese is ridiculously overpriced, but you can't beat it for a Sunday afternoon of sunning yourself in one of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome. Ar Galletto is a historic restaurant (they claim to have been the official osteria of the Borgia family back in 1500!) with a large outdoor seating area to soak up the gorgeous square. And if you feel like splurging, there's no where to go but Camponeschi.

Piazza Farnese (c) Sébastien Bertrand [source]

If you’re more interested in people watching than sightseeing, Rome has many piazzas offering opportunities to do just that. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina is a triangular wedge in the heart of the Campo Marzio neighborhood where the well heeled can be seen browsing in shops like Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, and Pomellato, or stylishly sipping cappuccinos in one of the open-air cafés. While you’re there, be sure to visit the eponymous church, with works by Bernini, Guido Reni, and Carlo Saraceni, and an underground section that includes fragments of the original 4th-century church. Vitti in Lucina and Ciampi are both convenient spots to enjoy anything from coffee or tea, to gelato and pastries, to a full meal.

Campo de’ Fiori is a truly 24-hour square. Activity here starts around 5am when stalls selling fresh produce, spices, honeys, jams, cheese, fish, cured meats, and more set up as part of Rome’s most famous outdoor market. When the market winds down around 3pm (and after the street sweepers have done their work), the square becomes a magnet for the city’s social butterflies. Enjoy a lazy aperitivo at one of the square’s many outdoor bars, stick around for dinner, or join the rowdy drinking and amorous mingling that continues here long after midnight. Just try not to be intimidated by the ominous glare of the statue of Giordano Bruno! With so many eating and drinking choices, you won't have trouble finding refreshment. I'd recommend Obicà, a slick mozzarella bar serving more types of mozzarella than you knew existed, and Aristocampo, perfect for a quick sandwich if you want to stay on budget.

Across the Tiber River in trendy Trastevere, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the indisputable meet-up spot for Rome’s young international crowd, who can be found chatting on the steps of the fountain (the oldest in the city, according to legend) or milling around the square at any time of day or night. Lively 5-piece street bands, mimes, dancers, and other entertainers can be found performing for tips here any night of the week. But don’t be so distracted by the performers that you miss the stupendous church of the same name, decorated with medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini and 22 ancient Ionic and Corinthian columns. If you're in Rome in orange season (late fall, winter, and early spring), be sure enjoy a spremuta (freshly-squeezed orange juice) that is as tall as your forearm at the aptly named Caffè delle Arance. (Beware: the price matches the size!) Another option for lazing around and enjoying a tea or coffee is Caffè di Marzio. Try to score one of their wicker sofas, perfect for a tete-à-tete while you sip.

Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere [source]
Recording an episode of The BitterSweet Life with Katy Sewall in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

In the hip, happening neighborhood of Monti, Piazza Madonna dei Monti is home to a battered fountain with plenty of place to sit with a good book, a crossword puzzle, or your favorite hipster friend. The area is a great mix of both the you and older locals sho have called Monti home for decades, generations even. Lots of little bars and hot spots surround the square, with outdoor seating spilling out onto the cobblestones. La Bottega del Caffè is great for an informal glass of wine and tempting fingerfood just steps away from the picturesque fountain.

Piazza Madonna dei Monti [source]

If what you’re looking for in a piazza is character and charm, Rome will certainly not disappoint. A magnificent oak tree (quercia in Italian) gives its name to this adorable square just a few blocks from Campo de’ Fiori. Piazza della Quercia, home to the minuscule Santa Maria della Quercia, is so quaint in fact, that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a small Italian country village instead of the capital city. The only place to eat in this piazza is Osteria della Quercia. It's Rome at its most characteristic and adorable, but I've experienced inconsistent levels of cuisine there. 

Piazza della Quercia [source]

Although Piazza Mattei is a favorite square for many Roman residents, it is more often than not missed by the average tourist, since it is buried within the tangle of narrow backstreets that make up the Jewish Ghetto. The piazza’s crowning glory is the Fountain of the Turtles, a small but exquisite fountain by Giacomo della Porta, decorated with four bronze turtles that were, according to popular belief, added by Bernini. Bartaruga, a funky bar and a Roman institution, sadly closed recently (apparently the rent was becoming outrageous and they simply could no longer afford to stay in business). Luckily for us, a new locale has opened in its place, Le Tartarughe, a café/restaurant that also serves freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. For a full meal stop at Pan Vino e San Daniele.

Piazza Mattei (c) Jeroen van Luin [source]

Piazza di Pasquino, just around the corner from Piazza Navona, is famous for its “talking statue,” who gave his name to the tiny square back in the mid-16th century when it became an unofficial posting board for the complaints of an oppressed citizenry (long before freedom of speech or press had caught on in Rome). It is also the gateway to Rome’s best street for vintage and boutique shopping, Via del Governo Vecchio. If you're an enophile, grab a table (outdoor if you can manage it) at Cul de Sac, one of the city's trendiest wine bars that also serves scrumptious dishes carefully paired with their countless wines. Lovers of Tuscan cuisine should opt instead for Terra di Siena right next door, and those looking for lighter fare can try Bar Caffetteria Pasquino across the tiny piazza.

If there’s a single piazza in the Eternal City that will make you feel you’ve stepped back in time, it’s Piazza de’ Mercanti. Located on the quiet side of Trastevere (east of Viale di Trastevere), the square is lined with medieval buildings, dripping with ivy and lit by flaming torches come sundown. Two famous (if exceedingly touristy) restaurants, La Taverna de' Mercanti and Meo Patacca, vie for dominance on either side of the piazza.
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