Photo: People walk down baroque Spanish Steps, Rome

Rome's baroque Spanish Steps remain one of the city's iconic sites.

Photograph by Dave Yoder

By Andrew McCarthy

From the January/February 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Few cities make it easier to go local than Rome, with its trove of distinct quarters. Our author scouts out three neighborhoods, staying in lodgings—from luxe to basic—typical of each. His favorite? Read on.

It's midnight—the church bell just rang. The moon is a day past full. I am eating gelato while sitting on the steps of the fountain in the middle of Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome. I'm between a drunk and a young couple kissing with gusto. Hundreds of other people are buzzing around me. I am deep into an experiment that is turning out to be a pretty good idea.

I've visited Rome before. I've stayed at high-end hotels, at family-run pensioni, and in private apartments, and in each instance I've gotten a different feeling for the city. But this time I've decided to combine all three types of lodging in one trip. I will start out living in opulence, ratchet down to living reasonably, and proceed to living cheaply—in three very distinct neighborhoods. I want to see how different locations and accommodations affect my experience. I've relieved myself of the obligation to see anything in particular; I'm here to discover the rhythms and quirks of each neighborhood, and maybe a few of its secrets.

So I start at the top.

"Welcome sir," says the well-tanned man behind the counter. Then he squints. "Or should I say…welcome back. I think so. No?"

Does he remember me from ten years earlier? "I'm good with faces," Emanuele Minuz says, reading my mind and smiling. Arriving at a grand hotel is one of the more pleasurable sensations in travel. And when one is not only welcomed but received, the feeling touches something primal.

The Hotel Hassler is among the world's great addresses. Trends come and go, but the Hassler abides. I couldn't ask for a softer landing. Step out through the revolving door, however, and it's a different world. The famed Spanish Steps, all 136 of them, tumble down from the Hassler into the chaos below in Piazza di Spagna. Designed by an Italian, paid for by the French, and named for the nearby Spanish Embassy, these marble stairs are a meeting place for Italians and tourists alike, part Prada, part fanny-pack—a singular spot both thrilling and enervating, often simultaneously.

It doesn't take me long to seek refuge in the historic Antico Caffè Greco, on Via Condotti. All hued walls, marble-topped tables, and pastoral paintings beneath arched doorways and tinted mirrors, this café in its time was the stomping ground of writers like Goethe and Stendhal and Byron, and it still captivates. Yes, my hotel is sumptuous, but I only feel myself arrived in Rome once I enter the Greco. It's a place I always return to, sometimes taking a table, sometimes pounding an espresso at the bar with the locals for a quarter of the price.

It's safe to say that things in the neighborhood have changed a good deal since poet John Keats died in a residence beside the Spanish Steps in 1821. His former home is now the Keats-Shelley House, a discreet shrine to the Romantics. From his bedroom in the small, lightly visited museum, the poet, dying of consumption, gazed out on flocks of goats and the workshops of engravers and mosaic makers. Today, from the very same window, I peer out on Dior and Yves Saint Laurent stores, and at a shaved-headed man posing for a photo as he dunks himself into Pietro Bernini's boat-shaped fountain.

Safely back in the refined ambience of the Hassler's rooftop restaurant, I absently drink in my view over Rome as the sun sets behind the Vatican. Savoring my seaweed fritter in applesauce and caviar, I'm finding it difficult to imagine wanting much more out of life. But by my third dessert course I am ready again to rub a little elbow with the man on the street. And rub you do at the Fontana di Trevi. Swarming at all hours, Rome's largest and most famous fountain can seem like a crass and sweaty chore of obligation for visitors. Come here at night, however, and the experience transforms into a sensuous delight—a real pleasure of shared community.

I find a spot beside two people eating ice cream, one very young, one very old, both content. Lovers in different shapes and sizes thrust cameras at me to take their photos. I hear Italian and English, of course, and Korean, Portuguese, German, and Spanish. No one seems a stranger. There is a playful confidence in the crowd. Sculptor Nicola Salvi's monumental depiction of the chariot of the Greek god Oceanus being led by seahorses reined by brawny Tritons is a place to celebrate life—Roman life. Eventually everyone heads to the fountain's edge, turns, pauses, and in a moment of vulnerability that makes equals of all, tosses a coin over a shoulder to ensure a return trip to Rome.

My late-night walk back through cobbled streets soon finds me on a quiet block, experiencing one of those rare moments of tranquility only possible in a bustling city waiting to inhale again. Even at this late hour there is someone to hold the door for me at the Hassler. I find myself wishing he were home asleep—and from the look on his face, so does he.

While my time at the Hassler is lush, it offers only a veiled experience of Rome. My whims are indulged, but I find that whenever I leave the hotel, I do so with the tentativeness of an over-attended child. Eventually I rebel against my surroundings. Like an adolescent going off to college, I tromp down the Spanish Steps and make my way along Via Condotti to Rome's centro storico—historic center—where I take up residence in the 13-room Hotel Teatro di Pompeo, a family-run pensione at 8 Largo del Pallaro.

As I enter the two-person elevator, hands full, Paolo, the man at the desk, leaps around the counter, grabs an umbrella from its stand, and with Zorro-like precision jabs—just inches from my chin—the number "3" on the elevator panel. The door snaps shut. "Grazie," I shout.

A muffled "Prego" wafts back through the ascending elevator door. The Hassler is a thing of the past.

My room is a garret with a dark beamed ceiling. The view from my single window is of the fading brown facade of a building across the triangular piazza, its window-sills overflowing with sunburned geraniums. I watch an old man in a T-shirt lean out to open his shutters. The vista is a far cry from that of my mansion on the hill, but it is one in which I can locate myself. Its detail and human scale are both comprehensible and comforting. I feel myself relax.

The centro storico was the core of renaissance and baroque Rome. Its architecture owes much to rival 17th-century architects and sculptors Gian Lorenzo Bernini—who designed the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers on Piazza Navona—and Francesco Borromini, whose masterworks include the Church of Saint Agnes in Agone, also on Piazza Navona. The streets here are narrower and run at more random angles than the well-ordered avenues by the Spanish Steps. I ease into a routine that gives me more of a connection to place than when I was swaddled in luxury above the Spanish Steps.

Each morning I buy fruit from the same vendor, settle into the same café on quiet Piazza Farnese, and watch a grown son meet his mother at the table beside me for coffee. They arrive from different directions. She is as well turned out as he is unkempt. She sips cappuccino while he gulps an espresso. He tells her of his troubles, she nods and shrugs. Eventually they rise. He stoops to kiss her cheek, and they part, each returning from where they came. It's a variation on a scene I see throughout Rome, and one so telling about Italians.

Among the things that help anchor us in a neighborhood are local landmarks, and our ever-changing, never-changing relation to them. Buildings or parks we relate to or ignore on a daily basis become our touchstones, our points of familiarity and departure. It doesn't hurt that in Rome you rarely have to go far to see a "greatest hit." The landmark in the historic center that I keep returning to, admiring and passing and admiring again—often several times a day—is the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. A circular building with a columned portico, the Pantheon has survived from ancient times (thanks in part to being consecrated as a church in the 7th century, ensuring Christian upkeep). Michelangelo came to study its dome and oculus—the eye-like hole in the dome—before designing the cupola of St. Peter's Basilica.

By living locally, I experience the Pantheon throughout the day: in the still, early morning, during afternoons when it is burdened by heavy foot traffic, and in the evening, when its romance has returned. A relationship begins to form that penetrates in a way no single visit, no matter how thrilling, can approach.

I enter into a relationship of a very different sort with an establishment next to my pensione. Trattoria der Pallaro is the localest of local haunts. From her small kitchen, Paola Fazi has been turning out meals for 46 years. A squat woman in a blue house dress under a well-worn apron, Fazi is an Italian mamma's mamma. She wears her long black-and-silver hair pulled into a bun, which she wraps with a second apron, folded and tied around her head like a crown.

Der Pallaro has no menu. You eat what Fazi is making—and whatever it is on that particular day, she's making a lot of it. With deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose, she patrols her sidewalk tables with authority. I dare not leave one zito uneaten. When she stops by my table and sees I've cleaned my plate, she puts her arm heavily upon my shoulder. With the fear of a second-grader, I look up. Deep black rings pool under her eyes. She nods, slowly. I stop breathing. Then she unleashes a wicked smile. I exhale and lean my head upon her breast.

It turns out that der Pallaro is more than a local eatery turning out cucina rustica. History, or so Fazi confides, was made on this very spot. As I take my leave, she grabs my arm and pulls me in close. I am both frightened by her attention and proud to have won her affection.

"Julius Caesar, conosci?"

"Well, not personally, but, of course."

"É morto qui. He died right here."

"Here? Where we're standing?"

"Si, morto." Her voice is hushed, her eyes narrow. "Under the kitchen." It's not a fact I can confirm easily, but I'd never be one to doubt mamma. Perhaps Caesar didn't finish his ziti.

Life in my small top-floor room is entirely pleasurable, but one morning I grab my bag and walk out. Time to go. A final espresso at my café on Piazza Farnese, and I head down to the Tiber River and cross the pedestrians-only Ponte Sisto. The bridge is empty, save for an elderly couple strolling in the other direction holding hands. The Vatican is visible to my right.

When I step off I'm in the working-class quarter of Trastevere, which wasn't originally part of the city. Long since swallowed up, it has transformed into a melting pot for artists and immigrants as well as workers. It's a neighborhood I first visited 20 years ago and holds sweet remembrances. I've longed to return.

This time I'm doing it like a real local, taking up residence in an apartment. After a few wrong turns down craggy lanes too narrow for the passage of any car worth caring about, I slip a skeleton key in a door, climb a flight of stairs, turn another key, and swing open the shutters. I'm home. Instantly, I experience a sense of freedom that I relish, one that allows me to feel most myself. Over the days, each time I step out my new front door and hit the street I'm struck with the thrill of possibility, a thrill I always seek—and seem to find most often in travel.

There are no famous guidebook sights that need to be seen in Trastevere; it is a neighborhood for living in. Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere centers this new world, as the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon did in my two previous neighborhoods. From my new haunt, Caffè di Marzio, I admire the fading mosaic on the Romanesque facade of the Basilica di Santa Maria. The mosaic is an image that has lived in my memory for two decades. As I stare up at it while sipping my first espresso, I think what a long and twisting trip through the years it's been to get back here. There are times when travel helps us see just how lucky we are. I can't get the grin off my face.

In Trastevere my world becomes small in a way that delights me. Here details of life I rarely allow myself to focus on back home reveal a pattern of human behavior that connects me to the broader world. I find identification with nearly all, no matter how unlikely. Early in the morning, with no one yet loitering by the square's fountain,I watch a priest with a briefcase and a nun clutching a folded copy of the Repubblica newspaper cross paths without acknowledging each other. Next, a woman wearing a purple dress and sporting a pronounced black eye sneaks by on a Vespa. I spot an elderly man at a table near mine savoring a bowl of vanilla ice cream for breakfast. I look at him and hope that my children will do the same themselves when they reach his age.

A block away, en route to my apartment, I pass the Museo di Roma in Trastevere, a city museum in a converted monastery. One flight up is a temporary exhibit of a late 19th-century Roman painter named Ettore Roesler Franz. Given Rome's extraordinary collection of renaissance and baroque art, it seems a little odd to be looking at water-colors of Roman street life in the 1800s—or it would be, were I able to see them clearly. But the place is pretty dark. In fact, the lights are out. Eventually, the guard realizes she has company—I'm this morning's only visitor—and she hunts for the switch.

If these paintings were anywhere but Rome, they would be getting a lot more attention. Intimate and detailed, they capture scenes from a life not dissimilar to the one I'm living in Trastevere—simple, joyful. I feel a tingle of discovery as I wander from one deserted gallery to the next. I doubt Ettore Roesler Franz ever had a more admiring public.

Later I take an apperitivo at the very working-class Bar San Callisto. People are smoking, children orbiting. A few feet away, half a dozen day laborers cluster around a small table between parked cars to play a spirited game of Trumps. Half a dozen others hover close by, watching the cards snap down. It's a long way from my posh days by the Spanish Steps.

It seems I've lived three lives while on this journey in Rome. The trip has proven to be not only an exploration of place, but, like all worthwhile travel, an illumination of self. Only by experience did I learn that the attention and fantasy fulfillment the Hassler provided would give way eventually to a feeling of want. That the lowering of my sights at the family pensione would inspire a desire for investment in place. That crossing the Tiber River to independence would cause me to discover a sense of connection and simplicity I strive for, in both travel and life.

Now, in the midnight hour in Trastevere's Piazza di Santa Maria, hundreds of people are milling around. Nothing special is taking place, no one has anywhere special to go. Like me, they're content to just linger. I'm at home in the crowd, grateful to be part of it. I finish my gelato and push off from my seat at the fountain, making my way through the throng and off the piazza. I consider turning back and giving the setting one last look, but I keep walking. I turn down my street, rummage in my pocket, pull my skeleton key out, and snap open the lock.

Intelligent Travel: Rome, Italy

Entry requirements: U.S. citizens need a valid passport to enter Italy. Time Rome is five or six hours ahead of U.S. eastern standard time, depending on daylight savings. Currency The euro; for the current exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com. Phone calls To telephone Rome from the U.S., dial the international access code 011, the country code 39, the local code 06, and the number.

Antico Caffè Greco 86 Via Condotti; www.anticocaffegreco.eu.

Bar San Callisto 9 Piazza San Callisto.

Bartolucci Store 96/98 Via dei Pastini; www.bartolucci.com/Default.aspx.

Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere; .

Caffè di Marzio 15 Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Hotel Hassler 6 Piazza Trinità dei Monti; www.hotelhassler.com. Rates for a double room start at 350 euros ($520).

Hotel Teatro di Pompeo 8 Largo del Pallaro; www.hotelteatrodipompeo.it. Rates for a double room start at 180 euros ($270). Rates for a double room start at 180 euros ($270).

Keats-Shelley House 26 Piazza di Spagna; www.keats-shelley-house.org.

Museo di Roma in Trastevere 1B Piazza San Egidio; http://en.museodiromaintrastevere.it.

Pantheon Piazza della Rotonda.

Trattoria der Pallaro 15 Largo del Pallaro. Fixed menu at a fixed price.

Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) Between Via della Stamperia and Via Poli, facing Piazza di Trevi.

Apartment Rentals in Rome

The author located his rental through Rental in Rome, www.rentalinrome.com.

Other agencies that rent out apartments in Rome include:

Best Rent Rome www.bestrentrome.com.

Feel Home in Rome www.feelhomeinrome.com.

Italian Vacation Villas www.villasitalia.com.

Leisure in Rome www.leisureinrome.com.

Roman Homes www.romanhomes.com.

RomeApartHotels www.romeaparthotels.com.

RomePower.com www.romepower.com.

RomeRents www.romerents.com.

Rome Sweet Home www.romesweethome.it.

Under the Roman Sun www.undertheromansun.com.

Rome Tourist Board, 11 Via Parigi; 06-48-8991. Italian Government Tourist Board: www.italiantourism.com.

Andrew McCarthy, a frequent contributor, wrote an essay on Dublin for our “Places of a Lifetime” 25th Anniversary issue (Oct. 2009). Milan-based photojournalist Dave Yoder has shot for National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, the New York Times, and Smithsonian.

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