You have thrown a coin in the famous Trevi fountain, climbed the never-ending steps of St Peter’s dome and visited the Colosseum. If you want to explore somewhere completely different, it is time to lose yourself in the charismatic back streets of Trastevere.
Armed with this guide you can make the most of this charming area and find the hidden gems in the backstreets of Trastevere.
The Rione of Rome
Rome is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Part of Rome’s beauty and charm is expressed through its different neighbourhoods, each and every one of them has an individual character and soul. The Romans call their neighborhoods Rione, the boundaries of each are marked by name plaques on the walls. It was the first Emperor Augustus who divided the city into 14 districts, as the city expanded in more modern times these increased to 20. Over time the districts developed their own character, with boundary stones, rione fountains and the residents were fiercely tied to their district. One that you cannot miss is the picture-perfect medieval back streets of Trastevere
Trastevere is the 13th region of Rome and one of the largest. It stretches 2.5km on the west bank of the river to the Vatican. The name comes from the Latin trans Tiberim and literally means ‘across the river Tiber’. This was the first inhabited area on the western side of the river. In Roman times it is where the first Jews, Syrians and Christians settled, the foreigners who came to the city to ply their trades. The streets were full of small shops where tradesmen and artisans were based. Trastevere is still known for foreigners today as it hosts three American universities and still has small shops selling artisan products and independent boutiques.
The allure of Trastevere is its labyrinth of quaint narrow cobbled streets and oddly-shaped colourful buildings covered in ivy. There is a distinctly oldy-worldy feel to Trastevere. Unlike the rest of Rome there are no grand palaces with elaborate fountains, because this part of the city was completely cut off from the rest of the city for over 1000 years. When the Barbarians came in the 400s AD they destroyed the bridges leaving the west side of the river completely cut off (unless you had a small boat), which meant the area developed differently and why it still retains a medieval feel today.
Some Romans claim that Trastevere is the true heart of Rome, it is popular with the locals on a Saturday night for eating and drinking thanks to its numerous bars and restaurants. The residents still celebrate the annual Festa de’ Noantri – literally the festival of ‘us others’. It is an ancient festival from 15-29 July that recalls Trastevere’s separation from the rest of the city and their fierce independent character.
Taking a stroll – una passeggiata
One of our favorite things to do in Rome is to take a refreshing stroll through the romantic back alleys, cozy restaurants, cute bars and enticing gelaterias of Trastevere. As you venture further into the delightful mess of odd-shaped medieval buildings and cobblestones it’s hard not to picture yourself living the idyllic lifestyle of the Dolce Vita in Trastevere. Whether it’s the smell of pizza dough cooking or the bitter-sweet scent of a freshly poured Aperol Spritz; Trastevere has something to stimulate everyone’s senses. We’ve included a Trastevere map below with a scenic route that covers the highlights of Trastevere, make sure to let your sense of adventure get you lost along the way!
Trastevere is where the Romans like to come on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon for an Aperitivo. They gather in the two most vibrant piazzas; Piazza Trilussa and Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Piazza Trilussa, is named after a famous 19th century poet who wrote bawdy poetry in the Roman dialect. You can reach it from near campo dei fiori via the Ponte Sisto. This delightful bridge was the first to reconnect the two sides of the city; built by the famous Sixtus IV who also built the Sistine Chapel in the 1480s. The piazza is on the side of the river and has an ornate fountain and grand steps usually buzzing with locals and tourists. This is where the teenagers gather to meet up on a Saturday night, drinking beers and chatting for hours and of course checking each other out!
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
This Piazza is at the heart of Trastevere and is surrounded by bars and restaurants where you can eat, drink and people watch. In the evenings, street entertainers gather in the square to perform. The central fountain surrounded by steps is another meeting point, many gather to chat and drink around the fountain. On one side of the square is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, a fascinating and ancient church. Archaeological remains date the church to the 330s AD, but tradition tells that it was built shortly after the martyrdom of Pope Callixtus in the 220s on the site of a military hospital. It is certainly one of the oldest churches in Rome and is where the first public mass was openly celebrated. When you visit, take note of the marble plaques in the entrance, these are the gravestones of early Christians buried in the area. Also note, inside the church the mismatched columns and marble flooring – these are the remnants of ancient Rome, palaces plundered to build the first churches.
By the sacristy is a curious little shrine which is named ‘fons olei’, it recalls a legend from Roman times that one night in 38BC a fountain of oil sprang up from the ground and for one whole day and night it ran like a river to the Tiber. Some legends say this foretold the coming of Christ.
Bar San Callisto
Near the church you will find a historic no-frills bar. There is nothing fancy about this place, it is one of the cheapest bars in town (large Peroni €1.50 long drinks for €2.50) but its long-standing staff and colourful clientele of all ages make it worth a visit. San Callisto has served students, locals and tourists for 50 years and is the heart of Trastevere. In days gone by it was a communist haunt which perhaps explains the prices still today.
Old fashioned medicine
Another curiosity, not far from the church is an old pharmacy dating back to the 1600s – Antica farmacia Santa Maria della Scala. Historically, this was the Pope’s pharmacy and the Carmelite monks based here prepared poultices and medicines here. You can go in just to take a look (it is still a functioning Pharmacy) or take a short tour of the ‘spezeria’ or ‘spice shop’ led by the Carmelite monks who explain apothecary through the ages and the history of the building. The monks are still based here and continue to produce creams and homeopathic remedies.
La Farnesina and the sensual frescoes of Raphael.
Trastevere also boasts the beautiful villa La Farnesina, which is considered the ultimate in Renaissance art and architecture. It is best known for its erotic frescoes painted by Raphael for the Pope’s banker Agostino Chigi. Often overlooked by tourists, this small villa is an absolute gem, set in gardens by the Tiber. Here you can marvel at the frescoed rooms and the loggia of Cupid and psyche by Raphael. The villa has hosted many famous visitors to Rome throughout its history including Queen Christina of Sweden who renounced her throne and moved to Rome in the 1600s.
The Janiculum hill and a panoramic view of Rome
Between the low-lying streets of Trastevere and the Vatican is the Janiculum hill or Gianicolo in Italian. Often called the eighth hill of Rome, it was not part of the ancient city. It is one the highest hills in Rome and the view from the top of the hill is breath-taking. It is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and has a number of interesting things to see. Historically the hill played an important role in the defence of the city against French troops in 1849 led by general Giuseppe Garibaldi (better known as a fruity biscuit in England). A grand bronze statue of him on a horse crowns the hill and numerous sculptures remembering the fallen heroes are dotted around the winding paths. The Italian army to this day commemorates the battle for the Republic by firing a canon daily at noon.
You can marvel at the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola an imposing fountain built in the 1600s to celebrate the repair of an old Roman aqueduct bringing water back to the Trastevere district by pope Paul V.
The church of San Pietro in Montorio houses the tomb of Beatrice Cenci (the most famous ghost in Rome). Attached is the Tempietto del Bramante a treat for architecture fans.
There is even a beautiful lighthouse (the Manfredi Lighthouse) given to the city in 1911 by Italians who migrated to Argentina.
We suggest getting the bus to the top and then meander down on foot which allows you to take in the sights and drops the warren of Trastevere’s rustic trattoria and osteria.
Time for lunch
After all of this exploring, you will no doubt be hungry and this is the best place to be for unassuming local trattorias. Trastevere is renowned for having some of Rome’s best eateries, a vibrant nightlife, and spending time here generally doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Check out our blog on how to find a good restaurant in Rome for some tips on how to find a good local place.
Carpe Diem Trastevere Food Tour
Alternatively, you could leave it to the experts and take our Trastevere Food Tour and we will guide you through an Italian menu and share the best of Roman cuisine. What makes our Trastevere Food Tour is our rapport with traditional family-owned establishments passed down for generations. You won’t just be eating the food; you will meet the chefs and learn their stories. Check out the Trastevere Food Tour now.