Jun 2, 2021
What it's like to visit Rome right now
Reopening Is Like First Day of School, Says Bottura
At sunset, the tables that spill outside Canova bar in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo are bathed in golden light as couples and groups of friends drink spritzes and nibble on canapés for their aperitivo. It’s the ideal spot for locals to wind down after work—or for travelers to refuel before heading up Pincio hill to watch the sun descend against the silhouette of St Peter’s Dome. For months, Canova sat quiet. Now, humming with life, it’s a sight most Italians had almost forgotten.
Since last March, the Eternal City has seen countless changes to its normal rhythms. While it hasn’t suffered from the pandemic as drastically as the country’s northern regions, where COVID-19 caseloads and deaths were significantly higher per capita, its restaurants and bars have followed a 6 p.m. closing time since early autumn, all but eliminating dinners out. Throughout the winter, table service was forbidden for weeks on end, as the government periodically tightened restrictions to curb COVID flares.
That seems to be in the rearview mirror. On April 21, Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced for the first time that restrictions could relax nationwide, and Italy started to reopen a few days later.
Draghi, a former central banker who took power just as virus variants began to spread worryingly fast in March 2021, has sped up the country’s moribund vaccination campaign so that by late April, the country was clocking around 500,000 inoculations per day. Today about 40 per cent of Italians have received at least one shot, creating enough optimism for Draghi to reopen the border to tourists from the European Union, the U.K., Israel, or other Schengen Area countries as of May 14—provided that those who visit are vaccinated, have recovered from the coronavirus, or have a negative test. Now, American travelers are on that list, too.
But life is still far from the pre-COVID “normal,” so it’s important that these visitors calibrate their expectations accordingly. Aperitivi often turn into unusually early dinners, as people concentrate their social life into the hours before 11 p.m., when policemen start telling stragglers to head home ahead of curfew. (The curfew will push to midnight on June 7; it’s expected to be abolished on June 21.)
And even if Romans, like all Italians, are taking to their newly rediscovered freedom with gusto, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a table without making a reservation, something that would’ve been outright impossible at most decent restaurants just two years ago. That seems on the precipice of changing, but for the moment it remains true.
Tempted to make your return? Here’s what living like a local currently looks like—the good, bad, and bubbly.
The Dining Scene
Restaurants and bars are open—with many having used the time off to renovate or relaunch—and indoor seating is available as of June 1. Outdoor seating, however, has been a boon to the city. Wooden terraces installed on many curbs have reduced the number of cars that often zoom murderously alongside pedestrians and block beautiful street views. They’re especially beneficial in residential yet touristic neighborhoods such as Garbatella, Pigneto, or Testaccio, which have a higher proportion of resident drivers than the city center.
Since restaurants have been running at limited capacity for months on end, it’s frowned upon to linger. Turnovers are critical for these businesses to make ends meet after an impossible year, and many are still teetering on the verge of closure. This also means some places are better about enforcing social distancing than others. The traditional aperitivo hot spots lining Trastevere’s Piazza Trilussa, like Freni e Frizioni, are bustling enough to feel like throwbacks to 2019; a quieter option is the low-key Enoteca 20e20, which serves wine and excellent baccalá fritters to locals near the Viale Libia metro station.
Culture Makes a Comeback
Rome is still shellshocked and emerging from the pandemic slowly. But here are a few ideas for how to spend your days, depending on whether you’re still COVID-cautious or ready to party like it’s 2019.
If you’re still COVID-weary: The Forum, the Palatine Hill, the Coliseum—they’re some of the best open-air museums in the world. Add to them the Pincio terrace at Villa Borghese, with its grand view over the Piazza del Popolo; the vast Aqueduct Park in the city’s southeastern corner, with winding walking trails that run alongside towering stone structures; and the Via Appia Antica, an ancient avenue that once connected the Eternal City to the Adriatic Sea and is now flanked by majestic trees and early Christian churches. All are perfectly suited for those who are still battling their pandemic nerves.
Also outdoors is the annual film festival from Piccolo America, an indie cinema group that screens Cinecittà hits as well as international titles at three outdoor sites throughout the summer.
If you need a gentle reentry: Museums with indoor galleries are currently limiting occupancy at varying percentages, many around 25 per cent. That makes for a blissfully semiprivate experience of iconic institutions such as the Galleria Borghese, the Vatican Museums, and the vast collection of antiquities at Palazzo Massimo. (Normally it can cost tens of thousands to privatize the Sistine Chapel, but nowadays you get a similar experience for just the cost of a ticket.) Reservations are required at least one day in advance on the weekends; there are no such rules on weekdays for now, but with an increasing number of tourists arriving, it’s worth making advance bookings if you’re set on certain days or times.
Two contemporary shows worth special attention include the new Damien Hirst exhibit at the Borghese featuring monumental and small-scale sculptures as well as a series of “spot paintings,” and the Banksy retrospective at the cloistered Chiostro del Bramante museum, with 250 works from the renegade artist.
If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened: Italy is still shaking off COVID, so don’t expect elbow-packed clubs. But athletic stadiums are open again at 25 per cent capacity. With the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament getting under way (a year later) across 11 host cities including Rome, you can bet the volume in the fan section will still be at full blast. And if you can’t get a ticket in, you can watch the games on megascreens—or even try your foot at three-on-three soccer—at the Euro 2020 village popping up in Piazza del Popolo.
How to Get Around
While Rome is infinitely walkable, it’s possible to get around town in other ways without compromising on COVID safety. A variety of electric scooter and bike companies have set up shop around town, making them feel ubiquitous. Rather than downloading the many companion apps, though, you can use Uber to rent a Lime e-bike—one of the fastest and easiest ways to move around.
Most taxis have plexiglass barriers between the driver and passengers. (It’s just bad luck when you’re met with an exception.) While buses should be at limited capacity, distancing requirements are often forgotten at rush hour. And because its three lines are convenient only to a handful of sites, the metros are still relatively empty on most days.
The Lingering Covid Etiquette
Italy’s phased reopening plan is built around colour codes, so learn what those mean before arriving. Red and orange reflect the highest risk levels and require most businesses in those regions to close, but none currently remain. Most of the country, including Rome’s home region of Lazio, is now yellow, meaning moderate risk. And some white, low-risk regions are emerging, bringing with them signs of normal life. (To be white-listed, regions must have fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants for three consecutive weeks.)
If you want to take day trips, perhaps to Florence or Naples, you can do so—but movement would become restricted again if one of those regions were to slide from yellow status into orange or red. You may be asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative test when crossing regional borders, but it doesn’t happen often.
Don’t forget to follow the basic rules. Face masks remain compulsory, even outdoors. People will shoot nasty looks if you forget yours, but Romans are becoming more comfortable lowering their masks in less crowded areas. It’s OK to be casual about them at restaurants, but expect to see (and use) hand sanitizer everywhere you go. And tip well: Many Romans are still wary that their hard-earned normalcy still stands on shaky ground.