With its cobblestone streets and medieval palazzi, the neighborhood of Trastevere is one of Rome’s most evocative. While it sits just across the Tiber River from the heart of the centro storico (in fact, its name literally means “across the Tiber”), don’t let that fool you; the neighborhood is a quick tram ride (or lovely stroll) from the Jewish Ghetto, Campo de’ Fiori or Piazza Venezia.
While it used to be off the beaten path, in recent years, Trastevere’s reputation for nightlife, beauty and atmosphere has spread. Some of the quarter, particularly the area around the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, has become unarguably touristy. Even so, there are still hidden gems to be found — and plenty of corners where the neighborhood retains the local feel of centuries past.
But you have to know where to go. Here are some of the rione’s most fascinating sights, stunning art and local restaurants.
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Little in the exterior of the 12th-century church of San Crisogono sets it apart from Rome’s other churches. This is a benefit: It keeps the tourists away — particularly because most don’t know about its underground. Beneath San Crisogono lie the remains of the fifth-century church that existed on the site before, complete with eighth-century frescoes. It’s just one of many examples of how, throughout your time in Rome, you’re walking on a hidden, ancient city. (As is the case with many of Rome’s small churches, the underground closes around 11:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., so try to get there on the earlier side.)
Head across Viale Trastevere from San Crisogono for another secret: the remains of Trastevere’s ancient Roman fire station, which you can see if you peek beneath a grate under the building at Via della VII Coorte 9. The street’s name itself, “Road of the Seventh Cohort,” is a reference to the firehouse, where soldiers were stationed under Emperor Augustus to fight the city’s rampant fires.
3. Santa Cecilia's Stunning Sculpture
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The graceful, lovely basilica and convent of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has a fascinating history: The church is said to have been built on the home of St. Cecilia, who was executed while still a girl. Don’t miss the sculpture by baroque master Stefano Maderno of Cecilia herself, which is said to be modeled on what she looked like when her body was exhumed in 1599. Make sure you go underground to see the ancient Roman homes, complete with mosaics, that lie in the church’s foundations. Before you leave, visit the cloistered convent to see The Last Judgment, painted by Pietro Cavallini, one of the most important early Renaissance artists, in 1293.
4. Da Teo's Classic Roman Cuisine
At the tiny, all-but-impossible-to-find Piazza del Ponziani, Da Teo is a great pick for lunch or dinner. While hard-core trasteverini will swear up and down that the heart of Trastevere has the best food in Rome, don’t believe them; thanks to the quarter’s newfound popularity, mediocre meals are more and more commonplace. But not, luckily, at Da Teo. Grab an outdoor table, if you can, and order one of the many traditional Roman plates on the menu. My two favorites: the cacio e pepe and alla gricia pastas.
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The northwestern side of the Viale Trastevere tends to be much livelier — and, yes, more touristy — than the section you’ve been exploring so far. But you’ll see why. Crowds tend to gather around the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s oldest churches and well worth a stop for a glorious interior that sparkles with mosaics by Cavallini.
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If you time it right (the villa closes at 2 p.m.), visit the lavish, 16th-century Villa Farnesina to gawk at the stunning frescoes by Raphael, Sodoma and Baldassare Peruzzi, among others — including erotic ones that fit the villa’s theme particularly well, as it was built by banker Agostino Chigi for his young bride.
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Just down the street at Palazzo Corsini, the collection on display doesn’t rival that of, say, the Galleria Borghese or Palazzo Barberini — but standouts include works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Van Dyck. If you like, take a breather across the street at the Orto Botanico (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24; +39 06-4991-7107), a botanical garden run by the University of Rome.
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Once you’ve worked up your energy, grab a bus or take the half-hour hike along Via Garibaldi, which winds up the Janiculum hill. (Note the over-the-top Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a fountain built in the 17th century to commemorate the Aqua Traiana aqueduct’s restoration.) From the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi at the top, you have one of the finest views of all of Rome. Time it for sunset, and the city will look so stunning in all its pastel glory, you’ll never want to leave.
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On your way back down, stop for an aperitivo with the locals on the terrazza at Il Baretto. Or continue to lively Piazza Trilussa, a favorite of young Romans and students studying abroad, particularly the aperitivi at garage-turned-bar Freni e Frizioni (Via del Politeama 4/6; +39 06-4549-7499).
10. Pizza, Pasta and More
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End your night (or get it started) with pizza at the local institution Ai Marmi. For something more upmarket, grab the tram or bus to Osteria Fernanda (Via Ettore Rolli 1; +39 06-589-4333), which serves up creative twists on Italian dishes. (My personal favorite, though, is the very Roman amatriciana.)