Start: Isola Tiberina
Finish: Palazzo Corsini
Time: 3 hours, not counting museum visits
Best Times: Daylight hours during weekday mornings, when the outdoor food markets are open, or early on a Sunday, when there's very little traffic
Worst Times: After dark
Not until the advent of the Fellini films did Trastevere make a name for itself. Set on the western bank of the Tiber, away from the main tourist path, Trastevere (whose name translates as "across the Tiber") seems a world apart from the rest of Rome. Its residents have traditionally been considered more insular than the Romans across the river.
Because only a fraction of Trastevere has been excavated, it remains one of Rome's most consistently unchanged medieval neighborhoods, despite a trend toward gentrification. Dotted with ancient and dimly lit churches, crumbling buildings angled above streets barely wide enough for a Fiat, and very articulate inhabitants who have stressed their independence from Rome for many centuries, the district is the most consistently colorful of the Italian capital.
Be warned that street crime, pickpockets, and purse snatchers are more plentiful here than in Rome's more frequently visited neighborhoods, so leave your valuables behind and be alert to what's going on around you.
Your tour begins on the tiny but historic:
1. Tiber Island (Isola Tiburtina)
Despite its location in the heart of Rome, this calm and sun-flooded island has always been a refuge for the sick. The oldest bridge in Rome, the Ponte Fabricio, constructed in 62 B.C., connects the island to the Tiber's eastern bank. The church at the island's eastern end, San Bartolomeo, was built during the 900s by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, although dozens of subsequent renovations have removed virtually everything of the original structure. The complex of structures at the island's western end contains the hospital of Fatebenefratelli, whose foundations and traditions date back to the ancient world (the island was associated with the healing powers of the god Aesculapius, son of Apollo).
Walk south along the bridge (Ponte Cestio) that connects the island to the western bank of the Tiber. After crossing the raging traffic, which runs parallel to the riverbanks, continue south for a few steps. Soon you'll reach:
2. Piazza Piscinula
Named after the Roman baths (piscina) that once stood here, the square contains the tiny but ancient Church of San Benedetto, whose facade was rebuilt in a simplified baroque style during the 1600s. It's classified as the smallest Romanesque church in Rome and supposedly is constructed on the site where St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, lived as a boy. Directly opposite the church rises the intricate stonework of the Casa dei Mattei. Occupied during the Renaissance by one of the city's most powerful and arrogant families (the Mattei), it was abandoned as unlucky after several family members were murdered during a brawl at a wedding held inside. In reaction, the family moved to more elegant quarters across the Tiber.
Exit the piazza at the northwest corner, walking west along either the narrow Via Gensola or the somewhat wider Via della Lungaretta. In about 2 jagged blocks you'll reach the first of a pair of connected squares:
3. Piazza Sidney Sonnino
This first square was named after the Italian minister of foreign affairs during World War I. A few hundred feet to the north, facing the Tiber, is Piazza G. G. Belli, with a statue commemorating Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), whose more than 2,000 satirical sonnets (written in Roman dialect) on Roman life have made him a particular favorite of the Trasteverans. From one edge of the piazza rise the 13th-century walls of the Torre degli Anguillara and the not-very-famous church of St. Agatha; on the southern edge, across the street, stand the walls of the Church of San Crisogono. Founded in the 500s and rebuilt in the 1100s (when the bell tower was added), it contains stonework and mosaics that merit a visit.
Now, from a point near the southernmost expanses of these connected squares, cross the traffic-clogged Viale di Trastevere and head southeast into a maze of narrow alleyways. We suggest that you ask a passerby for Via dei Genovesi because street signs in this maze of piazzas might be hard to find. Walking along Via dei Genovesi, traverse Via della Luce, and then turn right onto Via Anicia (which was named after the family that produced the medieval leader Pope Gregory the Great). Then, at Via Anicia 12, on the west side of the street, you'll see the simple but dignified walls of the:
4. Chiesa di San Giovanni dei Genovesi
Built during the 1400s for the community of Genoan sailors who labored at the nearby port, it has a tranquil garden on the opposite side of the street, which you might or might not be able to visit, according to the whim of the gatekeeper.
After your visit, look across Via Anicia to the forbidding rear walls and ancient masonry of:
5. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
To reach its entrance, continue walking another block southeast along Via dei Genovesi; then turn right onto Via Santa Cecilia, which soon funnels into Piazza dei Mercanti. A cloistered and still-functioning convent with a fine garden, Santa Cecilia contains in its inner sanctum hard-to-visit frescoes by Cavallini. (If you want to see the frescoes, call tel. 06-5899289 to make an appointment. Viewing hours are daily 10:15am-12:15pm.) The church is more easily visited and contains a white marble statue of the saint herself. The church is built on the reputed site of Saint Cecilia's long-ago palace and contains sections dating from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Admission to see the frescoes and subterranean areas is 3€. The church is open daily 9:30am to 12:30pm and 4 to 6:30pm.
St. Cecilia, who proved of enormous importance in the history of European art as a symbol of the struggle of the early church, was a wealthy Roman aristocrat condemned for her faith by a Roman prefect around A.D. 300. According to legend, her earthly body proved extraordinarily difficult for Roman soldiers to slay, affording the saint ample opportunity to convert bystanders to the Christian cause as she slowly bled to death over a period of 3 days.
6. Take A Break
About half a dozen cafes are near this famous church. Any of them serves frothy cups of cappuccino, tasty sandwiches, ice cream, and drinks.
After your snack, take the opportunity to wander randomly down three or four of the narrow streets outward from Piazza dei Mercanti. Of particular interest might be Via del Porto, which stretches south to the Tiber. The largest port in Rome once flourished at this street's terminus (Porto di Ripa Grande). During the 1870s redesign of the riverfront, when the embankments were added, the port was demolished.
Retrace your steps northward along Via del Porto, turning left onto Via di San Michele. At no. 22, inside a stucco-covered, peach-colored building that never manages to lose its bureaucratic anonymity despite its age, you'll see:
7. San Michele a Ripa Grande
For many years, this was the temporary home of the paintings of the Borghese Gallery until that gallery was restored and reopened.
After your visit, turn north onto Via Madonna dell'Orto, a narrow street that intersects Via di San Michele. One block later, at the corner of Via Anicia, you'll see the baroque:
8. Santa Maria dell'Orto
This church was originally founded by the vegetable gardeners of Trastevere during the early 1400s, when the district provided most of the green vegetables for the tables of Rome. Famous for the obelisks that decorate its cornices (added in the 1760s) and for the baroque gilding inside, it's one of the district's most traditional churches.
Now walk southwest along Via Anicia. In 2 blocks, the street funnels into Piazza di San Francesco d'Assisi. On your left, notice the ornate walls of the:
9. Chiesa di San Francesco a Ripa
Built in the baroque style and attached to a medieval Franciscan monastery, the church contains a mannerist statue by Bernini depicting Ludovica Albertoni. It's Bernini's last known sculpture and supposedly one of his most mystically transcendental.
Exit from Piazza di San Francesco d'Assisi and walk north along Via San Francesco a Ripa. After traversing the feverish traffic of Viale di Trastevere, take the first left onto a tiny street with a long name, Via Natale del Grande Cardinale Merry di Val. (Its name is sometimes shortened to simply "Via Natale," if it's marked at all on your map.) This funnels into:
10. Piazza di San Cosimato
A busy food market operates here every weekday from early morning until around noon. On the north side of the square lies the awkwardly charming church of San Cosimato, sections of which were built around A.D. 900; it's closed to the public.
Exit from the piazza's north side, heading up Via San Cosimato (its name might not be marked). This will lead into:
11. Piazza di San Callisto
Much of the real estate surrounding this square, including the 17th-century Palazzo San Callisto, belongs to the Vatican.
The edges of this piazza will almost imperceptibly flow into one of the most famous squares of Rome:
12. Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere
The Romanesque church that lends the piazza its name (Santa Maria in Trastevere) is the most famous building in the entire district. Originally built around A.D. 350 and thought to be one of the oldest churches in Rome, it sports a central core that was rebuilt around 1100 and an entrance and portico that were added in the 1840s. The much-restored mosaics both on the facade and in the interior, however, date from around 1200. Its sense of timelessness is enhanced by the much-photographed octagonal fountain in front (and the hundreds of pigeons).
13. Take A Break
Try one of the many cafes that line this famous square. We especially like the Café Bar di Marzio, Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere 14B (tel. 06-5816095), where rows of tables, both inside and out, offer an engaging view of the ongoing carnival of Trastevere. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 7am to 3am.
After your stop, walk to the church's north side, toward its rear. Stretching from a point beginning at its northwestern edge is an ancient square, Piazza di San Egidio, with its own drab and rather nondescript 16th-century church (Chiesa di San Egidio) set on its western edge. Use it as a point of reference for the left street that funnels from its base in a northeasterly direction, Via della Scala.
The next church you'll see on your left, just after Via della Scala, is:
14. Santa Maria della Scala
This 17th-century baroque monument belongs to the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns. The interior contains works by Caravaggio and his pupils. There's also a pharmacological oddity in the annexes associated with the building: They include a modern pharmacy as well as a room devoted to arcane jars and herbal remedies that haven't changed very much since the 18th century.
In about 5 blocks, you'll reach a triumphal archway that marks the site of one of the ancient Roman portals to the city, the:
15. Porta Settimiana
During the 3rd century it was a vital link in the Roman defenses of the city, but its partially ruined masonry provides little more than poetic inspiration today. Much of its appearance dates from the age of the Renaissance popes, who retained it as a site marking the edge of the ancient Aurelian wall.
The narrow medieval-looking street leading off to the right is:
16. Via Santa Dorotea
Site of a rather drab church (Chiesa San Dorotea, a few steps from the intersection with Via della Scala), the street also marks a neighborhood that was, according to legend, the home of "La Fornarina," the baker's daughter. She was the mistress of Raphael, and he painted her as the Madonna, causing a scandal in his day.
Return to Via della Scala (which at this point has changed its name to Via della Lungara) and continue walking north. After Via Corsini, the massive palace on your left is the:
17. Palazzo Corsini
Built in the 1400s for a nephew of the pope, it was acquired by Queen Christina of Sweden, the fanatically religious monarch who abdicated the Protestant throne of Sweden for a life of devotion to Catholic causes. Today it houses some of the collection of the National Gallery of Ancient Art, plus European paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is open Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 7:30pm.
After your visit, cross Via della Lungara, heading east toward the Tiber, for a look at what was once the most fashionable villa in Italy, the:
18. Villa Farnesina
It was built between 1508 and 1511 by a Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi (Il Magnifico), who was believed to be the richest man in Europe at the time. After his death in 1520, the villa's frescoes and carvings were partially sacked by German armies in 1527. After years of neglect, the building was bought by the Farnese family, after whom it is named today, and then by the Bourbons of Naples in the 18th century. Graced with sculpture and frescoes (some by Raphael and his studio), it now belongs to the Italian government and is the home of the National Print Cabinet (Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe), whose collections are open for view only by appointment. The public rooms, however, are open Monday to Saturday 9am to 1pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.