This article is part of a guide to Rome from FT Globetrotter
If you’re romantic by nature, walking into Rome’s Garbatella district will make you feel like you’re in a fairy tale. If you are a history buff, it’s like opening a book with perfectly preserved pages. If architecture and urban development are your passions, you will certainly be satisfied, while gourmands will be delighted at the charming restaurants dotted around this verdant neighborhood.
Whatever you are looking for, it is likely you’ll discover it in this historic area just south of central Rome, where amid secret gardens and courtyards the chaos of the Eternal City quietens to a point of tranquility.
“Here in Garbatella you can only feel serene and at peace with the universe,” said Sergio Pannunzio, a local resident, as he proudly showed me the faded red buildings adorned with laundry that seemed artfully arranged for a photograph. “This is one of the few neighborhoods where you can still feel the sense of community of the past. It’s like stepping back in time.” Children here still play football unsupervised and mothers call them in from the window when lunch is ready.
Garbatella is relatively young compared to other parts of Rome. It was founded in 1920 to provide railway and dock workers with social housing. When Mussolini came to power, he further expanded Garbatella for working-class Romans, after knocking down whole neighborhoods to make way for the monumental fascist architecture in the city centre.
Over the years, Garbatella, though little known to visitors, has arguably become one of Rome’s most interesting quartiers with its widely differing detached houses and eclectic array of traditional restaurants and trendy bars. To me, the best way to explore it is to follow your instincts and amble along its winding, uneven streets and stairways, but if you want to follow a pre-planned route, a good place to start is at Piazza Benedetto Brin, a square. with a fountain at its center that is considered the main entrance to the neighborhood. This is where the foundation stone was laid when the building of the district began; you can see it nestled in the grand arch that welcomes you in.
After passing through the arch, you will find yourself in a small inner courtyard, which was the heart of social housing in the early 20th century. Look up and take in the different colors of the houses. From here, walk down Via Luigi Orlando to see examples of area’s typical lotti, or housing blocks. The lotti were designed by various architects and built over 20 years, showcasing a diverse range of styles including medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, which sit harmoniously together.
Garbatella follows the English garden city movement, with low-rise housing overlooking central gardens and courtyards. As you head along the street, take a peek into the lotti gardens — they are open to the public (I suggest Lotto No. 5, one of the largest). Local residents are now used to strangers sneaking a glimpse, but be discreet and respectful.
At the end of Via Luigi Orlando, you will find a square, Piazza Bartolomeo Romano, where you can stop for breakfast at Bar Foschi, a quintessentially Italian café. Swig a caffe al volo (coffee on the fly) at the bar, as if your espresso were a tequila shot, or tuck into a foamy cappuccino and a pistachio or jam croissant at one of the tables outside and enjoy the view.
From here, you can see the local theater, the Palladium, an Art Nouveau-style building designed in the 1920s by architect Innocenzo Sabbatini. It was created to provide cultural activities to local residents, and has hosted concerts, film festivals and exhibitions over the decades. Today it is managed by Roma Tre University and is one of the venues for the Romaeuropa Festival, a celebration of art, performance art, contemporary dance, theater, music and cinema that takes place in the city each year.
In the streets around the theater, you’ll come across various types of graffiti that the neighborhood has become known for, celebrating artistic freedom and Garbatella’s bohemian soul. Take Via Francesco Passino and head towards Piazza Damiano Sauli, where the gentle curves and colors of the initial stretch of the route transition into the imposing block-like buildings of this fascist-era square.
The gray cubes don’t exactly offer the warmth of Roman life, so continue walking along Via Giacomo Rho and turn left on to Via Roberto de Nobili, where you’ll reach another colorful piazza that’s home to a famous café: Bar dei Cesaroni. It is named after I Cesaroni, a popular Italian TV series (2006-14) about a large Roman family whose life revolves around the neighborhood. The café was one of the main sets on the show.
Nearby, you’ll find Ambra alla Garbatella, a theater and performance space that also hosts film and music events, as well as art exhibitions throughout the year. The theater has a reading room and a small restaurant, L’Ambretta, which serves wine and small snacks.
From here, walk towards the Fontana della Carlotta, located at the foot of a long flight of steps that leads up to Piazza Giuseppe Sapeto. The fountain depicts a young woman with long hair, known as Carlotta, who is said to have welcomed travelers arriving in the neighborhood in its early days. She is considered one of the symbols of Garbatella.
By this point, you might be feeling peckish — but before lunch, stop at Piazza di San Eurosia for a prosecco or spritz in one of the bars overlooking the square. This is where director Nanni Moretti in Dear Diarya 1993 film beloved by Romans, says “Il quartiere che mi piace più di tutti e la Garbatella” (my favorite neighborhood above all is Garbatella) as he zips by on his Vespa.
From the piazza, walk back towards Via Francesco Orazio da Pennabili, where you’ll find a couple of traditional restaurants including Li Scalini de Marisa (Marisa’s Stairs), a historic trattoria serving huge portions of excellent classic Roman dishes such as carbonara, gricia and carciofi alla romana (artichokes Roman-style) at a modest price.
Another favorite restaurant is Il Timoniere, a small trattoria run by Luciana Di Marzio and her daughter Margherita Poduti, which has barely changed in more than 90 years. It is in the basement of one of Garbatella’s so-called. alberghi (“hotels”), erected to host Romans who were evicted from the area next to St Peter’s Square when Mussolini built the monumental Via della Conciliazione. Luciana will know what you should have on that day. Trust her: you may end up eating the best amatriciana of your life.
If you have time for a little detour, just outside Garbatella is one of Rome’s four ancient basilicas, Saint Paul Outside the Walls. With its spectacular colonnade, it is one of the most majestic churches in Rome, as well as one of the four highest-ranking churches in the eyes of the papacy (along with the basilicas of Saint Peter’s, Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major). . Despite being outside the Vatican state, it is administered by the Holy See and was built where St Paul was buried in the fourth century.
Towards the end of the day, head to Piazza Geremia Bonomelli to find more lotti to explore and pretty streets to photograph. When you are ready to return to modern life, make for Latteria Garbatella, a hip bar and symbol of the soft gentrification that is gently adding to the area without destroying it. Cap off your tour with a glass of wine and the aperitivo of the day.
Photography by Olimpia Piccolo
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