In Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn’s character – a crown princess on a state visit – escapes security to explore The Eternal City by herself. As she careers around on a Vespa, we take in the sights: the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Piazza di Spagna. It’s a great advert for the Rome Tourist Board. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, then it certainly cannot be adequately explored in one either, but if you’re there for a few days, here are some suggestions – with a musical slant, of course – for how to spend your time.

The Villa Borghese Gardens © Mark Pullinger
The Villa Borghese Gardens
© Mark Pullinger

Getting around is pretty straightforward. Rome isn’t the size of London and you’re never too far from anything on foot. If you do want public transport to take the strain, however, then a 48– or 72-hour Roma ticket gets you aboard buses, trams and metro system. All you have to remember to do is to stamp your ticket at the machine before starting your first journey.

Opera and concerts

Rome’s opera house – originally called the Teatro Costanzi – was opened in 1880, but has undergone a number of changes since. The Teatro dell'Opera di Roma doesn’t look anything special from the outside, but the auditorium is very pretty, a typical Italian horseshoe design. Seating is comfortable, the productions of an international standard (often co-productions with other big houses). Whilst they get the occasional “big name” singer (Anna Netrebko made her debut as Manon Lescaut there, for example) take advance casting with a pinch of salt. When it comes to publishing reviews, we often note changes from the originally announced line-up in our listings.

The Teatro dell'Opera di Roma © Mark Pullinger
The Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
© Mark Pullinger

Audiences like to dress up and first nights are still a big deal. Tickets prices range from the cheap up to around 160 Euros. Higher up in the auditorium, passions can get heated. I once heard the loggionisti disrupt a performance to boo a singer viciously and at a recent performance of Cav & Pag, the director – who took part in his production – was loudly jeered and whistled (from all parts of the house). In the city where Christians were thrown to the lions, perhaps it’s to be expected.

The Auditorium Parco della Musica is a different matter, a large modern complex housing three concert halls on the site where the 1960 Olympic Games were held. The hall is home to the excellent Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, whose Principal Conductor, Antonio Pappano, is a familiar face to London audiences, being also the Music Director at Covent Garden. The orchestra regularly fills the 2800-seater Sala Santa Cecilia for programmes which are given three times each. Acoustics are very good and Pappano has turned the Santa Cecilians into one of Italy’s finest, a worthy rival to the orchestra at La Scala. Ticket prices range from 19 to 52 Euros.

The Tosca tour

The most famous opera set in Rome is Tosca and every opera fan worth their salt would want to visit the locations specified in the libretto to Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”. The Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a short walk south of the Piazza Navona, looks especially gorgeous in the morning, when amber light floods the building. The dome – the third largest in Rome – has frescoes painted by Giovanni Lanfranco and Domenichino. You will search in vain for the the Cappella Attavanti, however, being an invention of the librettists (Victorien Sardou’s play on which the opera is based sets this act in Sant'Andrea al Quirinale).

Sant'Andrea della Valle © Mark Pullinger
Sant'Andrea della Valle
© Mark Pullinger

The Palazzo Farnese – where the wicked Baron Scarpia has the painter Cavaradossi tortured – is now the French Embassy (yes, the irony!) so is closed to the public, but it looks impressive from the outside and, at night, you can catch a glimpse of the ceilings so wonderfully rendered in Opera di Roma’s recreation of the original production.

Castel Sant'Angelo © Mark Pullinger
Castel Sant'Angelo
© Mark Pullinger

The Castel Sant’Angelo is a short walk across the Tiber. It was originally the Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, over which a papal fortress and prison were built. In Tosca, Cavaradossi is imprisoned here and, when he is killed by firing squad at dawn, Tosca takes her own life by leaping from the castle ramparts. You’d be hard pushed to follow her… it would entail quite a climb!

Churches, museums and galleries

Rome is packed with places to visit. If you must do the Colosseum, head to the ticket office on Palatine Hill to avoid the longest queues. And if visiting the Vatican, book ahead and print off your ticket, thus bypassing even longer queues than the Colosseum… it’s worth it for the splendour of the Sistine Chapel.

Even if you’re not a fine art fan, two locations are a must. The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo north of the Piazza del Popolo is home to a pair of stunning Caravaggio masterpieces: The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter. You walk into a seemingly empty church, then realise everyone has headed for the Cerasi Chapel to see the same paintings. It’s worth it though.

Bernini's <i>Apollo e Dafne</i> © Mark Pullinger
Bernini's Apollo e Dafne
© Mark Pullinger

And the admission price at the Galleria Borghese is worth it – in my opinion – just for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s stunning sculpture Apollo and Daphne, depicting the moment when the nymph, fleeing the god and pleading to be saved from his clutches, is turned into a laurel tree. If that isn’t stunning enough, the next room has Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina, where Pluto’s hand digs into her thigh – as sensual a depiction in marble as anyone’s ever seen.

Fountains of Rome

There’s plenty of Bernini to be seen in Rome’s public spaces, namely his many fountains. The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona is a must, as is the Triton Fountain in Piazza Barberini which has Triton blowing his horn to calm the waters (depicted in the second movement of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome). My favourite Bernini is the Fontana delle Tartarughe – originally by Taddeo Landini, depicting hands around the edge, to which Bernini cheekily added some turtles, so it looks as if the hands are guiding them into the water! No visit to Rome would be possible without braving the crowds to see the Trevi Fountain – an astonishing sight, but astonishingly busy.

Fontana delle Tartarughe © Mark Pullinger
Fontana delle Tartarughe
© Mark Pullinger

Cafés and gelaterie

There are many places to choose from to refuel on your walk about Rome’s fountains! My two favourite cafés though are just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon. Tazza d’Oro serves the best espresso – and still for just 90 cents – while Sant'Eustachio has the very best cappuccino, made behind a screen so nobody can spy the method, its foam like velvet on the tongue.  

Of the countless gelaterie in Rome, many head to Giolitti, just north of the Pantheon, which is superb. Purchase your ice cream at the counter first, then join the queues to pick your flavours. The tartufo at Tre Scalini is expensive, but you can console yourself by reflecting that you’re following in the footsteps of Francis Poulenc, who found inspiration there – over a gelato or two – to write his opera, Dia­logues des Car­mélites. San Crispino, east of Trevi, is excellent as are countless other places… just avoid the ones where the gelato is piled high – this is a sign it’s been pumped full of air.

Gelato at Giolitti © Mark Pullinger
Gelato at Giolitti
© Mark Pullinger