Rome by Night

To commemorate the Smithsonian Presents Travels with Rick Steves magazine — now on sale online, and at newsstands nationwide — Rick is blogging about the 20 top destinations featured in that issue. One of those destinations is Rome after dark.

Once you’ve been out on the town in Rome after dark, going out for the evening in a big American city is never quite the same. Rome has a few fast-food joints, but they’re held at bay by a stony cityscape that celebrates slow food instead. Waiters have worked so long together that they seem to communicate on their own frequency as they scurry their dishes back and forth. Scruffy boys selling single roses circulate among sidewalk tables, testing a wary truce they’ve worked out with the restaurateur — and finessing sales pitches that almost add charm to the ambience. Cars are lodged sloppily on curbs, and black-and-white notices announcing the newly dead are pasted haphazardly to walls.

Each slice of downtown Rome changes throughout the day and evening. What might be a tiny vegetable market in the day (Monet painting) becomes a destination for dressy couples going out to eat in the evening (how do her high heels work on the cobbles?)…and then, late at night, an edgy gathering place for those who ate at home and are now all about drinking. Squares enlivened by fountains shine after dark. While the architect who designed those Baroque fountains had no inkling of electronic illumination, the fountains seem made-to-order for thoughtful floodlighting.

Back in 1999, I went to Rome ready to make a TV episode entitled “The Best of the Eternal City.” But as the millennium approached, the best of the Eternal City was all still under scaffolding. I was traumatized. I remember sitting down with my producer and cameraman at the hotel’s breakfast table and exploring our options. Half the visual icons of the city were marred by scaffolding. Not only would the show be ugly if we shot it as planned; but by the time it aired, all the scaffolding would be down, and the famous sights would be better-looking than ever — and just perfect for a TV crew like ours.

We considered going home; heading for Sicily to film a program there; or rewriting the script to give Rome a new angle. I had never done this before (and I hope to never do it again), but we decided to salvage something out of Rome and come up with a new script. The show was called “Rome: Baroque, After Dark,” and shooting the city after dark turned out to be a delight. Rather than arenas and temples, we enjoyed convivial piazzas with kids who kick soccer balls until midnight, hand gestures that mean “absolutely delicious,” and men fawning over their neighbors’ Vespas.

The shoot worked out fine. And two years later, in the next millennium, we came back and shot the show we had intended to shoot in 1999. The scaffolding was all down, and the Eternal City was spiffed up fit for a caesar.


12 Replies to “Rome by Night”

  1. But in truth yes you have to do the biggies and cultural must sees but if u don’t spend time at night after enjoying a great meal just sitting in the squares watching. The river of like go by ur missing the best ppart of italy. Do t Totobiggiees

  2. I noticed you skipped over ‘Blogging’ while you were in Granada at the end of April. Were there any problemsm there?

  3. I love Rome for its rich, easily visible history and its openly emotional people. The bits of grit and disorder in Rome make it a more human place than the highly ordered and clean Northern European cities.

  4. Happy Birthday! Mr. Steves!! Thank you for sharing your experiences in such an elloquent way!!! You really make your experiences come alive with your colorful descriptions! I am very excited to see your blog on Rome as my daughter’s high school Madrigal group will be traveling, giving concerts and singing masses in St Mark’s and St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as a private tour and concert in the Sistein Chapel in early July!! I have appreciated your programs on PBS in the past but because I have the opportunity to accompany the Davis High school Madrigals this summer, I am becoming much more a “student” of yours, especially because I have never yet been any further east than Boston. So thank you, Mr. Steves, for all your work!!

  5. Rome does rock after sundown; I remember how amazing Trevi Fountain was at night. And how could I forget the passeggiata along Via del Corso. Thank you Mr. Steves for bringing back such great memories! P.S.–Rick, you should check out Trastevere at midnight, there’s a great live R&B club called Big Mama…I recommend it!

  6. I’m in ROMA now! Study abroad program with UNCC for architecture major/ perfect foundation to study architecture. I have enjoyed very much watching the travel videos on Italy, and we are hopefully going to the Cinque Terre in a few weeks. Let me know if you can recommend a great ristorante in on the hike. Gratzi!

  7. Rick, Thanks for another wonderful trip to Europe. My wife and and I followed your ETBD book on our honeymoon 15 years ago. We just returned from our 8th trip and had a wonderful time in Spain and Italy with our 6 year old daughter. We especially enjoyed your podcasts. My daughter loved your description of the Pantheon. Have you thought about creating travel information for children? (book or podcast?) Thanks again, Cory

  8. It’s early August, and my wife and I just returned to San Francisco from a 3-night-in-each-city tour of Rome, Montalcino, Florence & Venice. Following Rick’s guidebooks and podcasts, we so much enjoyed Rome. In the Forum, standing on the same ground and walking in the steps of Julius C, Brutus, etc., was humbling and awe-inspiring. On our last night, standing at the top of the Spanish Steps at 10:00pm, just before we walked back via the Trevi fountain to our “Rick recommended” hotel near the Pantheon we saw a couple hesitantly wanting to have someone take their photo. My wife offered – turned out that they lived close to where my wife was born, in Huddersfield (UK). It was their first night in Rome, our last – and to share a few minutes of their first night of discovery and awe was a rare pleasure.

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