I’d never thought of Rome as a romantic city. But when we found ourselves in central Italy with a couple days to spare — one of them Valentine’s Day — we decided to spend them in Rome. What better excuse to discover Rome’s softer side? And maybe, since we’re both classic movie fans, some of its film-inspired romantic aura.
This was not a first visit for either of us, but we’d never been in Rome together. I’d seen it alone and with our pre-teen daughter; and my husband, Tim, saw it with visiting parents when he lived in Italy. Neither was conducive to an especially romantic view of the Eternal City.
Nor was the Italian winter. The cold damp of February isn’t quite right for buzzing around the city on a Vespa, as Audrey Hepburn did in Roman Holiday, but there are plenty of reasons for choosing winter to visit. It avoids summer’s oppressive heat, and instead of hordes of tourists, the city is filled with Romans enjoying restaurants and attractions during the high season for music and the arts.
Not knowing the city well, we stopped at the front desk of Hotel Mediterraneo to pick up a copy of Roma a Piedi, a collection of walks designed by the Bettoja family, Rome residents for more than a century. As we browsed through it over a leisurely cappuccino in nearby Piazza de la Republica, one route of antiques shops and art galleries caught our attention; and we learned it included Via Margutta, a Roman Holiday setting. Antiques shops, art galleries and a romantic movie connection: We headed toward Piazza del Popolo, a few metro stops away.
In medieval Rome, narrow Via Margutta was a lane of stables for nearby palaces. Over the years, artists and artisans converted these to studios — painters, marble cutters, metal smiths and sculptors. In the 1600s, part of the street’s attraction was that Pope Paul III allowed artists to live here tax free. More substantial buildings replaced stables, but the street continued to draw painters, including Picasso and Balla. Musicians Puccini and Mascagni composed in its studios, as did Debussy, Wagner and Liszt. Truman Capote wrote here, and Federico Fellini lived at No. 110. The scenes of Gregory Peck’s apartment in Roman Holiday were filmed at No. 51, and fans step through its arched entrance to look around the courtyard.
Today, the street still houses art studios and galleries, along with antiques shops, boutiques and restaurants. At the top of Via Margutta we stopped at Chic & Chocolate, an eclectic boutique that seemed to sum up the street, selling everything from artist-designed clothes and jewelry to locally made artisanal foods and confections. We left nibbling on chocolate-dipped candied fruit.
At Goffi Carboni Gallery, we admired Italian and English antiques, including a Venetian writing box and historic Murano glass. Francesca Antonacci specializes in 17th- to mid-19th-century art objects and furniture; Galleria Valentina Moncada and Monogramma Arte Contemporanea (No. 57) show works by local and international contemporary artists. Bottega del Marmoraro is a stone engraver’s, covered in tools and marble plaques carved with inscriptions. Look for these along the street, especially at Fellini’s home, where a carved poem rhapsodizes Via Margutta.
Farther along, Serra combines antique silver, jewelry of miniature mosaics from the Vatican School and eye-catching objets d’art, both traditional and contemporary. Opposite this gallery is Fontana delle Arti, designed by architect Pietro Lombardi in 1927, one of 10 fountains created by the city in recognition of its varied neighborhoods and crafts. Motifs include easels, paint brushes and sculptors’ tools.
All this creativity would make anyone hungry, so we stopped for a leisurely lunch at Osteria Margutta, where the art-filled interior is a match for the street outside.
The earlier stop at Chic & Chocolate reminded us that no romantic itinerary, let alone Valentine’s Day, should be without chocolate. A short detour en route to the Spanish Steps took us to Quetzalcoatl Chocolatier (Via delle Carrozze 26), certainly not your same-old candy shop. These edgy bonbons come in stripes and polka-dots and sit alongside ganache-filled meringues, macaroons from an old Venetian recipe, chocolate pralines and glistening fruit gels.
As we reached the Spanish Steps, surely one of Rome’s most romantic spots, although the sky was blue and temperatures unseasonably warm, no gelato vendors appeared below Europe’s widest staircase, so we had to forego that movie moment.
At the foot of the steps, the house where the poet Keats died at age 25 is now a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets. The Keats-Shelley House preserves Keats’ bedroom in shrine-like reverence, and throughout its beautiful rooms (these were not starving artists!) are mementos of the poets and their works. Views from the terraces would inspire the most prosaic to poetry, and the book shop carries plenty of bedtime reading.
We still hadn’t been to the Mediterraneo’s rooftop aerie, La Terrazza, and early evening seemed a good time to survey the city over an aperitif. At one of Rome’s highest points, the vista extends from Santa Maria Maggiore to St. Peter’s, encompassing the Quirinale, Victor Emmanuel II monument and the Colosseum. A retractable roof makes viewing comfortable year-round. We could have chosen more romantic spots for dinner than Trattoria Monti, but to us the romance is in the food, and good authentic local cuisine trumps candlelight.
Rome has other romantic spots and many more sights made familiar in movies, and we sought out some of them the following day as we wandered between the Pantheon and Campo Fiore. But by then we’d already fallen under the spell that previously eluded us, so it was easy to find la dolce vita in every street. On Via la Rotunda, I found it at Gianfranceschi and bought a beautiful hand-bound diary. On Corso Rinascimento, Ai Monasteri finds the best products made at Italian monasteries, selling herbal soaps and lotions, honey, teas and liqueurs.
Rome’s best-known chocolatier, Moriondo e Gariglio (Via Pie di Marmo 21), is a Valentine’s Day tradition. Their chocolate hearts often contain surprises entrusted to the shop in advance — such as diamond rings or other bijoux. (Rule to remember: If you get a milk chocolate heart and prefer dark, don’t exchange it.) Choose chocolates one by one, and each will be wrapped separately in tissue to fill a box.
We found roses at the flower market in Campo di Fiori, and the waiter at Il Convivio, near Piazza Navona, brought a vase of water to the table for them. In the evening, we savored an intimate candlelight dinner at Il Bacaro. And somewhere in between the treats and the shops, we found time to visit one of Rome’s least-known but outstanding art museums, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, to see masterpieces of Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and Bernini.
Mario Lanza may have belted out an operatic “Arrivederci Roma” in Piazza Navona, but we said our own arrivederci to Rome at Trevi Fountain late at night, with lights playing in its splashes and ripples. No crowds, just the two of us, like Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. Well, not quite … we didn’t wade in.
ROME INFO TO GO
Fiumicino International Airport (FCO) is 15.5 miles west of the city center. The Leonardo Express Airport Train (14 euros, about $18) takes 30 minutes to Termini Station in central Rome. Trains depart Roma Termini half-hourly from 5:52 a.m. to 10:52 p.m. and Fiumicino from 6:36 a.m. to 11:36 p.m. Termini is the hub for the metro system and buses. Taxis take longer and have a flat standard charge of 48 euros (about $63) between Fiumicino and all destinations in central Rome. Private car transfers are about 60 euros ($80).
Romantic Hotels in Rome
Hotel Mediterraneo A little luxury is conducive to romance, and this hotel offers a taste of Roman grandeur, excellent breakfasts and a rooftop terrace affording glorious views of Rome. Via Cavour 15 $$$
Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel & Spa Most of the luxurious guestrooms and suites have private balconies overlooking Villa Borghese park; the hotel is a five-minute walk from Via Veneto. Via G. Frescobaldi 5 $$$
Visconti Palace Hotel The chic design hotel on the right bank of the Tiber houses a fine collection of contemporary Italian art and offers valet parking and an underground garage. Via Federico Cesi 37 $$$
Romantic Restaurants in Rome
Il Bacaro Roma Intimate, romantic and dim, Il Bacaro doesn’t depend on the ambience: The menu is just as memorable, with creative takes on the Roman classics. Via degli Spagnoli 27 $$$$
Osteria Margutta Paintings hang frame-to-frame on paneled walls, and the menu offers Roman dishes such as tortelloni filled with pumpkin, walnuts and truffles. The wines are entirely Italian. Via Margutta 82 $$$
Trattoria Monti Don’t miss the daily flan of seasonal vegetables for a starter at this tiny family-run restaurant featuring food and wine from Italy’s Marches region. Via di San Vito 13A $$
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