E.M. Forster wrote: “In Rome, one had simply to sit still and feel.” As I lean over my balcony at Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese, an intimate, elegant hotel ensconced in an 1890s-era villa in the historic center, I feel a lot. I cast my eyes from my viewpoint to see a timeless carpet of city fabric cascade downhill toward the realm of the Spanish Steps. Edged by Villa Borghese to the right, with vistas of grand Villa Medici and its gardens in the distance, the hotel summons thoughts of a regal home. I expect to see nobility coming and going from my vantage point. Circling above the grounds, emerald-hued, long-tailed parrots fly over like otherworldly gatekeepers. On my terrace, musical chatter rises to encircle me from the ancient streets below, a sound I imagine unchanged for centuries. Here, in this re-imagined palace, with its nuvo-neoclassical chic design, rooftop restaurant and ceilings painted with cloud images evocative of the Sistine Chapel, I feel Rome’s gravitas as a physical jolt. It’s true, I don’t have to move a muscle to know that I am here in the Eternal City. Rome, at this unique hotel, is palpable.
But eventually I do get active. I go running. And Rome opens further. As it turns out, the Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese offers an array of innovative activities to guests meant to unveil undiscovered aspects of the city. These programs, curated and customized for Sofitel’s guests with some of the city’s best guides and touristic organizations rivets veteran Rome-goers as much as first time visitors. Each outing offers something for everyone. Today, I’ve signed up to jog through Rome with Isa Calidonna, an art historian, official tour guide, national track and field coach and personal trainer for the Italian National Olympic Committee who combines her talents and passion into her unique guide service, ArcheoRunning. She takes guests in small groups—or one-on-one tours—to combine workout time with sightseeing. The goal is a kind of slow travel, a way to discover snippets of Rome most visitors pass by, with the bonus motivation of expending energy while doing it. (That means one more serving of Bucatini all’Amatriciana, a worthy motivator.) I tromp, march and scurry from site to site, stopping to catch my breath as Isa regales me with her intricate knowledge and personal anecdotes. She’s not only an expert but a fan of Rome—and it shows. (With apologies to Forster, but Rome awakens when we move our bodies, as well! We don’t have to be still.)
We start early (Rome can be hot in the summer) and wend through nearly empty alleyways and arches, back streets and untrammeled piazzas. Though I’ve been to Rome dozens of times, Isa highlights new things and tells me unheard stories, shows me ruins I’ve walked by without seeing, and shares her contagious love for the city. Her helpful insider tips range from the best gelateria to her favorite cacio e pepe eatery, but she also points out which places to avoid and explains some aspects of Roman etiquette. Dashing around with her is an astonishing way to see Rome anew or to discover its profundities for the first time. It’s a tour one could do over and over again and always learn something new. A highlight for me was Passetto del Biscione, once the passageway to the Pompey Theater, a fresco-covered tunnel near Campo dei Fiore.
After three hours, we end our ramble at a sun-dappled al fresco table at Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffè (my favorite coffee shop in the world, renowned for its in-house, wood-roasted arabica coffee, circa 1938 vibe, and use of water from the Roman aqueduct). We sip coffee (Isa has fresh squeezed peach juice), feeling as local as the Vatican priest at the table nearby.
What we love:
- The location: On a quiet corner just a short walk from Via Veneto, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, Villa Medici and Piazza de Popolo, the ornate palazzo lies conveniently near a slew of residences, restaurants, shops and museums. A bit further, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon—even Trastevere—are walking distance, making the hotel an incredible base for sightseers.
- The design: The gloriously restored, Neo-classical 19th-century palazzo is listed as among one of Italy’s most significant 190 historic buildings. White backgrounds conjure images of Bernini-like sculpted marble in terms of texture and artistry, even as the hotel’s redo brings up-to-date, enchantingly ornate flourishes to play, with pops of bright color and French design motifs orchestrated by revered French designer Jean-Philippe Nuel. Revolving exhibits of artwork from local galleries adorn the lobby. Sleek and posh, the hotel fuses both Sofitel’s famous French driven art de vivre and Rome’s seductive Italian-fueled dolce vita.
- The restaurant and bar: Rooftop with nearly 360-degree panoramic views of Rome, Settimo serves elevated Roman food with some modern twists. Park at sunset on the terrace for a romantic dinner that might include fettuccini vongole (clams) and pan-fried sea bream with spinach and lemon. Or, sip an Aperol Spritz in the bar as you swoon over the view. Don’t miss breakfast, which provides a delectable buffet, rife with local cheese, hot dishes and fresh-baked breads.
- The rooms: Big, embellished mirrors, marble-topped tables, spacious bathrooms and large windows that frame sights such as St Peter’s Basilica compose airy rooms nice enough to lure you to linger. The aforementioned ceiling paintings match the magic of Sofitel’s famously comfortable beds. Gaze up at them before you sleep, and you’ll likely feel like a time traveler. For a large terrace and penthouse feel, choose one of the seven suites, perfect for longer stays and small families.
- The service: I truly loved the staff, both in the restaurant and at the front desk. The concierge knows everything. He’ll even meet with guests for an apertivo to organize the activities for their stay.
Need to know:
- They love families: Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese offers a variety of new multigenerational family packages, including opportunities for Gladiator School, Gelato Workshops, Horseback Riding on the Appian Way, Stargazing like the Roman Astronomers, Italian lessons, and yoga among the ruins.
- They feed foodies: Beyond meals at Settimo, Sofitel Rome Villa Borghese “bites down hard” on Rome’s food scene with custom tasting itineraries created by Davvero Rome, founded by delightful ex-pat, epicurean Lauren Caramico. She’ll take you to all her favorite places. Enjoy options such as a gelato tour, truffle hunting, pizza making classes, walking and tasting adventures in Trastevere—and so much more.