Bettany Hughes’s Guide to Rome

The TV historian gives her personal recommendations on what to see, do, eat and drink in the Italian capital

Colosseum also known as the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, Italy. Sunny day inside the coliseum.

What to see

Nero’s hidden palace

Nero’s Golden House (the Domus Aurea) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you enter the extraordinary world of this megalomaniac emperor – but it’s now hidden 30ft beneath the street. It is transporting to walk through the palace’s corridors, where you can still see glimpses of frescos on the walls. It was Nero’s headquarters, the centre of imperial power, so you have to imagine hundreds of slaves scurrying through it. Literary sources talked of a dining room where the ceiling rotated as if you were sitting underneath the heavens, and restoration has shown it to be true. You can spend four hours down there and come out feeling cold and clammy even in summer, so bring a scarf and cardigan.

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Buried treasure

The Protestant Cemetery, where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried, is a calm, verdant oasis in the city, heady with the scent of flowers and with birdsong. Here you’ll also find an Egyptian-style pyramid, which was built in 18 BC. After Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC, when the Romans conquered Egypt, suddenly everything Egyptian became fashionable in Rome.

The animal winch

Underneath the Colosseum is the recently reconstructed winch system that was used to lift wild animals into the arena. You have to book to see it, but it speaks volumes about the brilliance and the brutality of Rome. It reminds you of the horror of the slaughter but also of the unbelievable reach of the tentacles of Rome. The animals shipped in there, hundreds or thousands at a time, had been trapped in places like the Middle East and modern-day Turkey, boxed up, counted, recorded and sent to Rome to be killed. It was a terrible thing.

Take a stroll

The Orange Garden

If you start at the Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino (built in AD 422–432), you can then walk through the Orange Garden on the Aventine Hill – it’s lovely, all the locals go there – then down to the Forum. As you’re walking downhill, you’re walking back in time.

Stand on this spot

The papal – and the pagan

If you go to the Vatican and stand under the Pope’s balcony, buried beneath you there’s a temple to the potent pagan goddess called the Magna Mater – the Great Mother. The priests of the Magna Mater would slaughter bulls and stand covered in their blood. I love the fact that you can be in two times at once, at the centre of this great powerhouse of Roman Catholicism thinking about this deep pagan past.

Where to drink

Roman refreshment

The historic area around Via di Monserrato has become a heritage-filled hangout, where you get beautiful, tiny wine bars. You can sit outside and imagine traders sharing their wares through time. One of the best bars there is the Caffè Perù: it has a really good vibe to it and fantastic snacks.

Where to eat

Pizza, pasta, pesce

Porto Fluviale, near Roma Ostiense train station, is an amazing pizzeria where locals go and doesn’t cost much money. Close to the Forum, la Taverna dei Fori Imperiali is a beautiful, family-run restaurant that makes great arrabiata. And Osteria 140, a fish restaurant on the Via dei Banchi Vecchi, is fantastic, though pricey.

And don’t leave without…

Trying the ice cream at Gelateria la Romana, in the Roma Ostiense station area. It’s ice cream making as a total art. There are two other outlets: one quite central and close to the Tiber in Via Cola di Renzo; one on the busy Via Venti Settembre.

Bettany’s tips for a trip to Rome

The right frame of mind

When I travel to research a place, I force myself to think of it as where real people lived real lives, and always walk through the streets in a different century in my head. Rome has had such an incredibly exciting history from around 500 BC to the present that you can pick which part of human history you want to be in.

Wait till late

Historical sites like the Forum and the Colosseum can be rammed by 10am, but people start to evaporate by about 5.30pm. This is the time that the Romans

came back out to enjoy their city, so it’s the most beautiful and evocative time to be somewhere like the Palatine Hill.

Brolly good

It sounds a bit Victorian, but I carry an umbrella or a parasol — it means you’re not always dashing to find shade or feeling punished by the sun. This summer we were filming in a heatwave that the locals called Lucifer, and it really was pretty diabolic.

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All lit up

I always take with me a book written in or about Rome. It’s amazing to sit in the street and read a letter written by Cicero in the first century BC, or something by one of the English Romantic poets who visited the city.

Eight Days That Made Rome is on Channel 5, Friday, 9pm