Rome’s Hottest ‘Hood (Hint: It’s Not Vatican City)

Two millennia ago, gladiators, prostitutes, and politicians—Julius Caesar, for one—rubbed shoulders in Monti, Rome, a red-light district adjacent to the Forum and Colosseum.

Today Monti is again red hot. In this zone where something new is always opening, Italians gather for animated conversations outside overflowing wine bars, and young women in stilettos pick their way through cobblestoned streets.

Even so, white-haired nonnas still shop for brutti ma buoni cookies at the local bakeries, passersby still greet one another by name, and only one big-name American retailer has sneaked in. “Monti has changed into a VIP zone,” says Giovanna Dughera, owner of a Monti art boutique. “But it still has a spirit of past times.”

Here are a few highlights:

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Sparkling from its gold-coffered ceiling to its fifth-century mosaics, this lavish papal church claims the world’s oldest crèche, sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 1200s to display wood slabs said to be from Christ’s crib.

Studio Silice
Young glassmaker Anna Preziosi’s play with texture and color makes for a style as eye-catching as it is contemporary—platters overlaid with rose-gold petals, bowls piled with gold-leafed glass straws à la an opulent bird’s nest.

Gelateria Fatamorgana
This newcomer to Monti scoops all-natural gelato in a small white-walled storefront with the ascetic look of a lab. Sample creative combinations (pear with Gorgonzola, black rice with rosebuds) at the counter, then take your treat to the piazza just outside.

Le Talpe
Adding pizzazz to Monti’s blossoming boutique scene, owner Giovanna Dughera excels in chic eclecticism, proving medical tubing can make surprisingly elegant necklaces and a fuzzy faux ermine can be worn as a stole.

Piazza della Madonna dei Monti
All kinds squeeze onto the 16th-century fountain steps of this “piazzetta” (as residents endearingly call it). For a more comfortable seat, grab an alfresco table at the bustling La Bottega del Caffè.

San Pietro in Vincoli
This fifth-century church houses the tomb Michelangelo designed for Pope Julius II as well as his famed Moses statue. Michelangelo designed the beard-twirling icon to be one of more than 40 towering statues, but money woes and a change of pope forced him to scrap his plans. The abandonment always haunted him.

Trajan’s Markets
Scholars say this soaring complex dates to the second century and once held ancient offices. Today it contains the Museum of the Imperial Forums, which lays out how this space built up by Rome’s power players looked in its heyday.

Enoteca Provincia Romana
This wine bar serves only local food and drink, including top-notch vino (try the crisp, golden Frascati), artisanal beer, and updated classics such as spaghetti carbonara topped with bright zucchini flowers.

This story, written by Amanda Ruggeri, appeared in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.