Rome’s Colosseum, Sistine Chapel and Pantheon are all extraordinary creations, but there’s more to Rome than the tourist attractions. If you only visit the major sites you’ll spend more time fighting tour groups than enjoying the atmosphere of the city. To get a feel for what it’s like to be a modern Roman, visit the neighbourhoods.
Trastevere is one of our favourite Roman neighbourhoods. It’s pretty, quiet, and it’s easy to walk to many places in Rome. It’s firmly on the tourist path though. On our last visit to Rome we did a food tour of the Testaccio neighbourhood and knew that we wanted to return and spend longer exploring the area, so this time we decided to stay there.
Most visitors to Rome have never heard of Testaccio. There are no famous tourist attractions, it’s not particularly attractive, and it’s a bit out of the way. We love it though. It has an unusual history, some quirky sights, the best market ever, and most importantly an amazing food scene (yep, that’s the real reason we stayed there).
More than anything Testaccio just feels so…Italian. There’s a lively atmosphere of normal day to day life—old ladies stocking up in local delis; elderly gentlemen shooting the breeze on a piazza bench; teenagers licking gelato on street corners; stylishly dressed young Italians downing espressos at the bar with their morning cornetto. There aren’t any other tourists around so by participating in these daily rituals you allow yourself to become, just briefly, Italian.
Testaccio has a fascinating story too and some interesting things to look out for.
In the centre of the neighbourhood there’s a small hill called Monte Testaccio. We didn’t notice it until we learned its story. In Roman times food such as honey, sugar, wine and olive oil was transported in terracotta pots called amphorae. Olive oil would degrade the containers so when they could no longer be used they were demolished. Testaccio’s hill is actually a rather scenic garbage dump of 53 million broken amphorae.
Restaurants and nightclubs now surround the hill—Testaccio is popular with young Italians for a night out—and the layers of amphorae provide natural air conditioning. Some have glass windows within the building so you can see the remnants of the pots that make up the hill.
Another surprise in Testaccio is discovering the graves of the English poets Keats and Shelley in the non-Catholic cemetery on Via Caio Cestio, where Protestant foreigners were banished. The peaceful, garden-like cemetery is a pleasant place for a wander and you can also see the rather bizarre pyramid, which feels out of place in a city of Roman ruins.
Keats’ grave doesn’t bear his name. He requested only the words “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water” on his grave but his friends added “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone.” They later regretted the addition which made Keats look bitter at the bad reviews of his poetry.
His friend Joseph Severn is buried next to him and is described on his grave as “Devoted friend and death-bed companion of John Keats”.
MACRO al Mattatoio Art Gallery
From 1890-1975 Testaccio was the slaughterhouse district of Rome until the trucks could no longer navigate Rome’s busy roads. The workers at the stockyard got free meat—but only the bits that couldn’t be sold so their wives became creative with the rejected heads, tails, hearts, lungs, and intestines. The tradition lives on and many of the neighbourhood’s restaurants still serve offal. Luckily for us vegetarians there’s a strong pasta tradition too.
The old slaughterhouse is still standing and makes an amazing space for MACRO al Mattatoio, a branch of Rome’s contemporary art gallery. The vast space has been renovated to incorporate the original features, including the meat hooks hanging from the elevated track that was used to transport the cattle, and the animal pens outside. In keeping with Testaccio’s popular nightlife scene the art gallery is open from 4pm until midnight, Tuesday to Sunday (Piazza Orazio Giustiniani 4, €6). When we visited it was hosting a fantastic international photography festival.
Opposite MACRO is the new market building. This contemporary building is the new home of one of Rome’s oldest markets (open every morning except Sunday). I love this market. Many of the stalls have been run by the same family for generations and they have enormous pride in the quality of their produce including a wide variety of seasonal vegetables and fruit, cheese, bread, meat and fish.
Where to Stay
The new market building is also home to one of the few hotels in Testaccio, Hotel Re Testa. We love apartments so were excited to find that at this new hotel all the rooms are studio or one bedroom apartments with small kitchens and their own spacious balconies—a real find in Rome.
They are stylishly decorated in red, white and slate and the sliding glass doors let in lots of light. There’s good WiFi, A/C, a flat screen TV, a big desk area, an outside seating area on the balcony, and a couple of arm chairs, making it great for digital nomads. The kitchen is small—just a microwave, double hob, fridge, and sink, without much of a work surface, but it’s fairly well equipped and is fine for making snacks and light meals.
It’s the perfect base for exploring Testaccio and the only downside was some noise from traffic and from the nightclubs after midnight on weekends. This is Rome though so it’s to be expected and didn’t really bother us.
Hotel Re Testa is great value for Rome with apartments from €88-118 a night. It’s located at Via Beniamino Franklin 4, at the crossroads with Via Galvani.
Where to Eat
We were first introduced to Testaccio on the Eating Italy food tour which we highly recommend if you want to discover some delicious eats and learn more about Italy’s food culture.
Here are some of our favourite places to eat in the neighbourhood.
- Flavio al Velavevodetto Via di Monte Testaccio, 97/99 – It’s one of the restaurants built against the Monte Testaccio and you can get a peek at the amphorae in the inside dining room or sit outside on the terrace. The tonnarelli cacio e pepe (a thick spaghetti with pecorino cheese and black pepper) is a Roman classic and is delicious (and huge) here. The ravioli alla velavevodetto is an interesting mix of cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs and cream. Don’t miss the tiramisu—it’s wonderful, and I don’t even usually like tiramisu.
- Pecorino Via Galvani 64 – Another good choice for cacio e pepe and it’s one of the few restaurants we found that did a vegetarian friendly antipasto of vegetables and beans—delicious!
- Pizzeria Nuovo Mondo Via Amerigo Vespucci 15 – Remo is the famous pizzeria in the neighbourhood but there’s always a queue so we went to this place around the corner instead. It’s a typical Roman pizzeria—basic decor, bustling atmosphere, and delicious thin crust pizzas.
- Giolitti Via Amerigo Vespucci 35 – After your pizza head a few doors down for homemade, artisanal gelato at this family-run bar that’s been making it since 1890.
- Volpetti Via Marmorata 47 – Stock up on picnic ingredients in this foodie treasure trove where the counters are overflowing with cheeses, salami, olives, bread, fresh pasta, truffles and more.
How to Get to Testaccio
- We like to walk in Rome and that is possible from Testaccio—it’s particularly pleasant along the Tiber river. It’s about 20 minutes to Trastevere, 30-40 minutes to the historic centre, and 30 minutes to the Colosseum.
- To save your legs Testaccio has a metro stop too—Piramide is on Metro line B. It was about a 15 minute walk from Piramide to Hotel Re Testa where we stayed.
- It’s easy to get to Fiumicino airport by train from Ostiense train station, next to the Piramide metro stop. It takes 30 minutes and costs €8 each way.
- From Ciampino airport you can get one of the airport coaches to Termini train station and then the metro from there. Just don’t buy tickets on board Ryan Air like we did—we had to wait ages for their coach to arrive and in the meantime there were three coaches from Terravision.
Testaccio isn’t the place to stay if you are only interested in visiting the big attractions but if you want to get under Rome’s skin and see an alternative side of the city, where Romans live, eat and drink then we’d recommend giving Testaccio a go.
Thanks to Hotel Re Testa who gave us a discount on our stay.