Because the night: an illuminating walk through Rome after dark

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Rome

For all its beauty, Rome is rather uncomfortable on summer days, when Italy’s searing heat is at its peak — the sun so fierce even pavements sometimes melt. Darting out to meetings, I feel a bewildered sympathy for the tourists marching grimly through the streets, determined to tick “must-see” sites off their bucket list, in defiance of Helios’s fury.

As a veteran of hot climes, I find my summer bliss in Rome by adopting Italian rhythms and stepping out at night. After sunset, the city usually cools off nicely and residents reclaim their streets from the weary tourist hordes, gathering with friends and family for drinks, a meal or a leisurely passeggiata (evening stroll).

My own favourite after-dark activity is a night walk through Rome’s historic centre, to gape anew at the monuments, fountains, churches and ruins that give the Eternal City its extraordinary character. 

A narrow cobblestoned lane in Rome, flanked by stone buildings and leading to a flight of steps
On a night walk in Rome, the ‘mood in the ancient labyrinth of winding cobblestoned streets is far more relaxed’

Many of Rome’s most noteworthy sites seem better appreciated at night, once the dazzling Mediterranean sunshine is replaced by gentle spotlights, illuminating details otherwise lost in the blinding glare. The mood in the ancient labyrinth of winding cobblestoned streets is also far more relaxed, once the sun has gone and crowds have thinned.

In truth, I find a Roman night walk — punctuated by an aperitivo, dinner, gelato or all of the above — is a magical experience at any season, as my daughter and out-of-town visitors all know well. But there is a special charm in the summertime, as piazzas deserted in the stifling afternoons come alive with sounds of glasses clinking, cutlery on china plates and the hum of Italians in passionate conversation. 

As I’ve learned to navigate the centre’s maze, I’ve worked out my own quirky itinerary that takes in some of Rome’s most noteworthy, and beautifully illuminated, landmarks in one all-encompassing walk.

I begin at Piazza Colonna, right in front of Palazzo Chigi, which houses the Italian prime ministerial offices, and where local journalists wait to grab impromptu interviews with lawmakers, officials and other participants in Italy’s typically feverish political debates. 

The piazza holds the elaborately carved, almost 2,000-year-old Column of Marcus Aurelius, which in its relief sculptures recounts the hot political news of its day: the imperial campaign to secure the Danube front, complete with scenes of Roman troops crossing the river in barges. Bring your binoculars for a closer read.

The adjacent Piazza Montecitorio, where parliament stands, is the site of a heavily restored ancient Egyptian obelisk, one of many brought to Rome after Egypt was conquered and incorporated into the empire, and a potent reminder of the intertwined destinies of southern Europe and north Africa. 

Looking up at the illuminated facade of the Pantheon to the night sky
Night-time allows for unrestricted views of the Pantheon

Just a few minutes’ walk from the obelisk is the Pantheon, the largest ancient Roman structure to survive intact, thanks partly to its conversion into a church by an early pope some 500 years after its construction. Without the queues of impatient tourists waiting to enter, night-time offers a chance to take in an unrestricted view of the structure, contemplating the play of light and shadow of its ancient craggy stones, granite hauled all the way from Egypt and the grandeur of an engineering marvel that Michelangelo is believed to have said was designed “by angels and not men”.  

From there, I proceed to nearby Piazza Navona, once the site of an ancient Roman sports stadium and now known for its Roman Baroque masterpieces, including the huge Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and the impressive Fountain of the Four Rivers by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the brilliant 17th-century sculptor who was one of the style’s supreme exponents. 

In keeping with Piazza Navona’s long history as a place of public merriment, the elongated oval is ringed with lively bars and restaurants, and its festive atmosphere makes it a popular hangout spot for diverse visitors. Recently, I saw four young German students singing choral music near a group of merry Italians who were clad in “Team Bride” T-shirts and escorting an embarrassed bride-to-be wearing a blow-up penis costume. 

A fountain in a small square at the start of the Via dei Coronari
Via dei Coronari was once an artisanal quarter

From there, it’s on to Via dei Coronari, or “Street of the Rosary Makers”, once the heart of a thriving artisanal quarter dating back to the Middle Ages, where some of the greatest Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Raphael, lived and worked as pilgrims en route to the Vatican passed by. 

Today, the rosary makers have been replaced by boutiques selling art, antiques, high-end Italian housewares, perfumes and other luxuries, and the illuminated shop windows allow covetous passers-by to peer inside at their treasures. Among the temptations are those of the Gelateria del Teatro, with mind-bending flavours such as white chocolate and basil or rose and raspberry, along with more traditional options. Reader, I cannot resist.

Looking towards the front of the cylindrical Castel Sant’Angelo, illuminated at night
The cylindrical Castel Sant’Angelo

Sated, I carry on to Via di Panico and make a sharp right to the River Tiber, winding up with a view of the imposing bulk of Castel Sant’Angelo, the erstwhile Roman-era mausoleum transformed into a papal defence fortification.

I cross the Tiber over Ponte Sant’Angelo, a pedestrian bridge adorned by a procession of Bernini angels, whose facial expressions speak to me about the universality of human experience through time. At the bridge’s end, I peep at the Vatican in the distance, then retrace my steps across the bridge, plunging back into the warren of historic streets. 

An angel sculpture by Bernini on the Ponte Sant’Angelo at night, with the illuminated dome of St Peter’s in the distance
Angels by Bernini line the Ponte Sant’Angelo, with St Peter’s in the distance

It takes 15 minutes of walking through those picturesque streets — some thronging with people, others quiet and still — to reach Largo di Torre Argentina, a group of ancient Roman temples where Julius Caesar is believed to have been assassinated. The site, excavated in the 1920s, still very much looks like an archeological dig, sitting just across from the beautiful 18th-century Teatro Argentina.

From there, I follow the tramline for a few minutes down Via Arenula, an elegant 19th-century street, to reach one of my favourite stretches of the Lungotevere, or the Tiber’s banks, a spot notable for its mature trees and the rare sound of water rushing over rocks.

The view from Ponte Fabricio at night, with a brownstone building on Isola Tiberina to the left and a wall lined with trees on the riverbank to the right
Looking from Ponte Fabricio after dark, with Isola Tiberina to the left

By night, it offers an evocative view of an ancient stone bridge, Ponte Fabricio, leading to a small island, which could be a scene by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose prints of Rome’s ruins were favourites of 18th-century Grand Tourists. The island has been home to a hospital since Roman times — during the Nazi occupation, Jews from the nearby ghetto hid there, passed off as patients. 

Proceed down the Lungotevere to the elegant Great Synagogue, built in the Art Nouveau style and inaugurated in 1904. Just behind it lies the striking and mysterious Portico of Octavia, the only surviving entrance to what was once an extensive public compound, built by Emperor Augustus for his beloved sister. 

For centuries, the portico served as a boundary for the old Jewish ghetto, and the square in front has since been renamed Largo 16 Ottobre 1943 in a sombre commemoration of the day when German soldiers rounded up more than 1,000 residents of the quarter to deport them to Auschwitz.

The curving ruin of the Theatre of Marcellus and a classical column, photographed at night
‘The tangled layers of Rome’s history all on a single site’: the Theatre of Marcellus

It’s a few minutes to the last, spectacular focus of my walk: the Theatre of Marcellus, originally commissioned by Julius Caesar for the performance of classical plays, before they fell out of popularity — and the venue into disrepair. In the medieval era, the top of the structure was turned into a fortress, which became the palazzo of a powerful Roman noble family during the Renaissance. Today, the top of the ruined theatre has been divided into luxury apartments — a visible symbol of the tangled layers of Rome’s history all on a single site.

By this point, I’m usually spent and head to Piazza Venezia to catch a bus home. But with energy, there is plenty left to see: the nearby Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Colosseum and the nightlife of Monti, a quarter known for its lively bars and restaurants — all part of the charm of Rome on a warm summer’s night.

Where do you like to stroll on a summer evening in Rome? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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