No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Piazza Navona, whether it’s to admire the magnificent Baroque architecture or to pick up a souvenir in the art market. During the day, tourists and locals alike fill the restaurants and benches of the piazza, while at night it becomes comparatively peaceful, as you’ll discover on an evening tour of Rome.
Despite the many attractions of Piazza Navona, a beautiful square with many layers of history, it would be a shame to miss the equally charming back streets. The Parione rione (district) of Rome, which includes Piazza Navona and the surrounding streets, has a rich and fascinating history. Piazza Navona itself stands on the site of the stadium of Domitian – as you sip your cappuccino in the square, imagine the athletic competitions that took place here nearly two thousand years ago. In the Middle Ages, the area was densely populated and chaotic, and would have been almost unrecognisable when compared with the elegant Renaissance neighbourhood we see today. Artists such as Bernini and Borromini transformed the area, and these days it’s one of the most desirable places to live in the city centre.
A fifteenth century palazzo to the north of the piazza houses an impressive collection of classical sculpture. Palazzo Altemps is overlooked by many visitors, which is strange considering its central location. You can admire dramatic works such as the sculpture of a Gaul killing himself and his wife, and the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, a fabulously intricate and violent piece of art, while having the museum practically to yourself.
San Luigi dei Francesi, located between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, should be on the to-do list of any art enthusiast. The church has not one but three paintings by Caravaggio – The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of St Matthew, and The Martyrdom of St Matthew. For a more in-depth Caravaggio experience, join a Caravaggio in Rome tour, which includes San Luigi dei Francesi and other hidden gems in the area.
The back streets of Piazza Navona are paradise for shoppers, as you’ll discover when you start to explore the area, whether you’re on your own or part of a Rome walking tour. Via del Governo Vecchio has plenty of boutiques and vintage clothes shops. The bookshop AltroQuando hosts live events, while Caffè Novecento is the perfect place to stop for a coffee and a cake if you need a break from browsing.
A short walk to the north takes you to Via dei Coronari, perhaps one of the most pleasant streets in Rome. Even a simple bit of window-shopping is a real pleasure, as there are so many things to see. Peer through the windows of the countless antique shops – you’re bound to find something interesting. Make sure you stop off at the famous Gelateria del Teatro, which does some of the best gelato in town. All the flavours are delicious, and you can see the gelato being made through the window.
Some of Rome’s most famous and characteristic cafes are located not in Piazza Navona, but the web of streets surrounding it. The historic Caffè della Pace, particularly popular with locals, is in an ivy covered building in a quiet side street. Sipping a cocktail at one of the outside tables, you definitely feel like you’re living la dolce vita. For a very different vibe, head to Bar del Fico, one of the trendiest bars in the centro storico. Whether you’re looking to meet new people, enjoy some live music, or have an authentic Roman Sunday brunch, Bar del Fico has something for everyone at every time of day. If you need a coffee break, try Sant’Eustachio, which does one of the best cappuccinos in Rome.
Finally, here are two tips for interesting sights often overlooked. Just beyond the north eastern corner of Piazza Navona is Biblioteca Angelica, a beautiful library established in 1604, which can be visited on a guided tour. Then cross Piazza Navona and visit the tiny Piazza Pasquino, where you’ll find a talking statue. Pasquino is more than a thousand years old, and has been “talking” since the sixteenth century, when Romans began sticking satirical poems and political protests to the base of the statue.
So, after your walking tour of Piazza Navona and the city centre, head to the back streets. Piazza Navona may be beautiful, but from Caravaggio to cocktails, there’s so much more to discover.
~by Alexandra Turney~