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Insider’s Guide to Rome

Rome,Italy,interior,hotel,Residenza Napoleone III,Napoleone Suite

Photo: David Leventi

Rome’s character can change in the crossing of a street. The languor of a passeggiata through the piazzas of the historic center becomes a 21st-century urban adventure—a foodie pilgrimage to Testaccio or the buzz of a night hopping the myriad bars of Trastevere. Romans themselves display staunch loyalty to their own rioni, or districts; it follows that the best way to co-opt their insider experience of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods is to check in to one of the small inns that manifest the energy and aesthetic of the streets and people around them. Here, four places that fulfill this brief with flying colors, while providing a warm welcome and a caliber of service that would earn our praise in any city.

Tridente: Residenza Napoleone III

The painted-parquet floors in the Napoleone Suite at the Residenza Napoleone III are visibly uneven; this is good. Good because their imperfect southerly slope is a testament to their unadulterated history—the calling card of this intimate B&B in the noble 16th-century Palazzo Ruspoli. The building is in fact still lived in by Princess Letizia Ruspoli, who is effectively your innkeeper, though her second-in-command, Beatrice Ziello, sees to most of the details of your stay.

Guests enter the palazzo through a set of oversize wooden doors, like the rest of its residents, a small cross-section of urban professionals and Roman elite. They emerge into Largo Carlo Goldoni, at the base of Via dei Condotti, to an aristocratic neighborhood that holds significant architectural and artistic treasures (Rainaldi’s chiese gemelle, or twin churches, of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Monte Santo, on the Piazza del Popolo; the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, with its renowned Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X). The area is also home to the alpha and omega of Italian luxury-goods houses—some of which, including Fendi, Bulgari, and Valentino, are as crucial a part of Rome’s historical fabric as the noble palazzi lining the Via del Corso.

But despite these patrician surroundings, the Residenza is not for those whose hospitality comfort zone is defined by iPad-controlled lighting, heated floors, and bathrooms the size of small aircraft hangars. It has none of these. What it has are two irreproducible suites (a third is set to open next year)—more apartments than conventional hotel accommodations—that offer a glimpse of how the nobility has adapted itself, and its often grand Renaissance and Baroque living quarters, to the exigencies of the 21st century. The pink marble bath in the three-room Napoleone Suite, for instance, is small—no getting around that—but it’s concealed behind an eight-foot-tall, 18th-century landscape painting, one of six hanging in the bedroom. Another canvas doubles as a headboard, while a third in the yellow reception area conceals an enormous flat-screen TV. The spiral staircase leading to the separate Roof Garden Suite is vaguely precarious, yes, but its reward is a breathtaking aerie decorated with heirloom art, furniture, and scores of books—tiny missals; giant artists’ monographs; novels of every era—and surrounded on three sides by more than 600 square feet of planted terrace. Very little about the Residenza Napoleone is symmetrical, contemporary, or perfect; almost everything about it is enchanting.

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Trastevere: Buonanotte Garibaldi

Trastevere trades in Rome’s most reliable postcard perfection. There is medieval appeal in its diminutive streets, papal splendor in its Villa Farnesina, and proto-Christian mystery in the famous church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. And if it occasionally teeters a bit close to a cliché of the artistic, up-by-its-bootstraps quartiere it once was (it’s no longer particularly hardscrabble, nor is it especially affordable for artists—unless they’re extremely successful ones), the appeal is undiminished and multifarious. It can take the form of the clamor of a typical Friday night, when young crowds spill into the vicoli, or alleyways, from such places as Freni e Frizioni and Bir & Fud, as well as the neighborhood’s other excellent bars and unpretentious trattorias. Or one can savor an entirely different version of it on a weekday afternoon, when the chiusura (closing hour) drops a hush over the low rooftops, the birds on Gianicolo Hill can be heard along the Via della Lungara, and there are walk-in tables for the taking at the old standby, Trattoria da Lucia.

Luisa Longo, the owner of Buonanotte Garibaldi, is a genuine Trastevere-dwelling artist; her three-room B&B, hidden behind a green gate in a wall of ivy on the Via Garibaldi, was her parents’ home. Past the entrance is a fragrant courtyard shaded by palm and orange trees; Longo’s Airedale terrier, Tinto, bounds about in greeting before disappearing, but Longo or one of her multinational staff remains available—though remarkably privacy-respecting, considering you’re in her house (the handsome boy I asked to fix my remote control turned out to be her son). The rooms are a unique mix of 19th- and 20th-century antiques, along with textiles designed by Longo herself. The Blue Room has a 645-square-foot terrace; the Chocolate Room, with its elegant Indian dhurrie and hand-painted headboard, has its own entrance off the courtyard. Breakfast is house-made tarts and jams served in the airy white dining room; evenings are about drinks in the garden, with Bach or Handel faintly audible through the French doors leading to the sitting room. In few hotels does the fantasy of being in one’s own house—one’s very chic bohemian bolt-hole, more like—shimmer so close to reality.

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Testaccio: Hotel San Anselmo

Testaccio’s designation as a district is new by Roman standards (it dates from 1921), but the area’s roots stretch back two thousand years, when millions of discarded clay amphorae used to transport foodstuffs from outlying regions of the empire formed the enormous mountain of waste known as Monte Testaccio. In the late 19th century, the surrounding pasturelands were built up in a grid of new streets, and modern-day Testaccio was born. Its working-class roots abide, though today the ranks of butchers, laborers, and tradesmen are joined by artists, students, and young families priced out of irretrievably gentrified Trastevere across the river.

Testaccio is not terrifically picturesque; its oblong Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice lacks the rose-saffron palette and crooked harmony of, say, the Piazza della Rotonda, near the Pantheon. But the Aventine, by contrast, is a verdant and eye-pleasing pocket of turn-of-the-last-century villas, located just across the Via Marmorata—a world apart from Testaccio’s coarse bustle. Here, on the tiny square of Sant’Anselmo, is the Hotel San Anselmo. It is a hotel of significant charms, though (or perhaps because?) it is neither new nor aggressively chic. The garden is lush with orange trees and dotted with green iron tables; also delightful is the lounge, with its low-sloping ceiling and long glass wall facing the garden. Room 829 has limed parquet floors and a romantically curtained bed; both it and No. 830 open onto private terraces. The rest skew flamboyant, not always with complete success. (Sigh-inducing or cringe-inducing? A few of the whimsies on display—amateur frescoes; the baldachin-style bed in No. 832—might force the polemic.) But the charms win the day, and are greatly enhanced by the competence of the staff. Guests benefit from the access the hotel affords to Testaccio’s authentic pleasures: a perfect ristretto at Pasticceria Linari, drunk squeezed between students from the nearby music school and a tiny old gentleman in threadbare jacket and impeccably clipped whiskers; or a turn through Volpetti, where jams made by Trappist nuns are arranged like jewels above a selection of artichokes prepared in half a dozen local styles. And at day’s end, visitors can ascend the leafy Via di Porta Lavernale to the tranquil square and appreciate the genteel foil the San Anselmo provides to Testaccio’s edge.

2 Piazza di Sant’Anselmo; aventinohotels.com. $$

Centro Storico: Gigli d’Oro Suite

The eminently wanderable alleyways of Rome’s historic center owe much of their appeal to resourceful reinterpretations of ancient structures; to calculated, eye-pleasing layering of the new-and-cool onto the very old. Gigli d’Oro Suite, a spare and contemporary retrofit of a building dating back to the 14th century, manifests this aesthetic to near perfection. Its modest three-story, two-window-wide façade—painted a cheery shell pink and profuse with cyclamens spilling out of window boxes—fronts a tiny but very cleverly organized hotel. There are just six rooms and a bright, compact breakfast lounge that, dimmed in the evening, has a complimentary cocktail bar laid out for guests to enjoy against the background of good jazz. The rooms themselves each harbor at least one original architectural detail, whether it be massive beams glimpsed in the Stelletta Suite or a granite fireplace in the rooftop Maschera d’Oro Suite. But all share a base code of white walls, oak wide-plank floors, and baths clad in biscuit-colored stone. Space (especially in closets and the bathrooms) has been ingeniously exploited; light floods the rooms at the front of the building, graced with slender French windows, and the two top-floor rooms.

Rarely do such modernizations occur without some loss of innate warmth; Gigli d’Oro Suite has retained a laudable amount—but then, there’s the contribution of the brisk and sunny service to factor in. The hotel’s ultra-solicitous management dispenses counsel on everything from purchasing exhibition tickets to the city’s best polpette.

Exit the hotel, and accidental beauty surrounds you. A stroll in any direction traces a route of faded and repainted colors and twisting half-shadowed cobblestones that lead to the splendid light of the Piazza Farnese or the half-mile-long stretch of the 504-year-old Via Giulia, with its ivy-covered arch designed by Michelangelo. But photogenic good looks are hardly this area’s only unique selling point; the Via del Governo Vecchio has for years had the city’s best independent fashion and design boutiques (Delfina Delettrez, the jewelry designer and daughter of Silvia Venturini Fendi, rates it highly enough to have relocated her shop there). Another street worth strolling: the Via del Pellegrino, across the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, where Patrizia Pieroni chose to open her namesake atelier in April 2011. And with at least three of Rome’s best enoteche within a half-mile radius, you won’t drink or snack poorly, either.

12 Via dei Gigli d’Oro; giglidorosuite.com. $$$

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