Dolce far niente is the Italian expression for the sweetness of doing nothing, sweet idleness, something very much part of Italian lifestyle and attitude. While Americans and northern Europeans are often known to live for work, working constantly without taking time to smell the roses along the way, the Italians believe in doing the opposite. Instead of living to work, or even stopping to smell the roses along the way, they consciously work to live, and smelling the roses is part of every day.
This sweet idleness is something visitors to foreign lands find difficult to embrace. After all, there are sights to see, history to be learned, art to be understood, and time is usually pressing. But when in Rome, shouldn’t you try and do as the Romans do?
Rome, just like Paris, is a city that loves the idler, the flâneur, the connoisseur of life, and the city offers many places where it is nearly a crime to not stop and breathe, take a moment (or a dozen), and sit back and just be in Rome. Never mind the hustle and bustle all around, never mind the history at every corner, and never mind the pressing to-do list.
Here are some of my personal favorite places, in no particular order, to be idle and enjoy Rome. Try it, and you’ll find that it can be just as — if not more — rewarding than running from museum to museum.
1. The Tiber River
The river Tiber meanders through Rome and not only offers a connection between sights and many interesting bridges, but it also is a place to stroll under the overhanging branches of the Sycamore trees that line it. Many tourists hurtle along it, in buses or taxis, heading north on the east bank and south on the west bank, but few take time to walk along it.
Meandering southward from Piazza del Popolo, you pass the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Castel Sant’Angelo, get a glance at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, walk by the island, past the Mouth of Truth, one of the quirkier sights in Rome, and can then head inland to the Colosseum. Or you can cross over to the west bank and spend some time in bustling Trastevere.
Pro Tip: Either seek out the shade during the day, or head along the river around sunset, and stop on one of the bridges for a magnificent view of Rome bathed in pink. Just do it slowly.
2. The Isola Tiberina, Tiber Island
Lying off the neighborhood of Trastevere, full of bars, restaurants, and street musicians, making it one of the louder and most popular quarters in Rome, lies the quiet Isola Tiberina. Central Rome’s only island in the river, the isola has a long history of hospitality, with an ancient hospital still operating today, a church built on the ruin of a temple, and a small handful of restaurants and cafes.
Connected to both banks by bridges, it can get a little busy around sunset time, but settling down on one of the chairs on the restaurant terraces allows you to kick back, rest, and not only enjoy the ancient surroundings, but also the people, a mix of tourists and locals, crossing the river and making for excellent people-watching. A favorite game I tend to play is “guess the nationality” of tourists heading by and making up stories about them. With a plate of pasta in front of you or an aperitivo in hand, this is glorious idleness.
3. Circus Maximus
At the end of your walk along the river, head left up a slight hill and onto the Circus Maximus. If you stay on the right-hand side, you will find benches overlooking the entire field with the Palatine Hill behind. Small café vans sell you ice cream or drinks, and you can settle down for an impromptu snack or even a picnic.
Rather than running up and down the circus with a guide or traipsing through the many attractions on the Palatine Hill, the baths, temples, arches, and general, mind-blowing amount of history lying between you and the colosseum, you can sit back, enjoy the view, sip your espresso, and imagine what this place was like some 2,000 years ago without the dog-walkers and the cars tooting behind you.
Instead, men in clinking armor battled it out down below, people relaxed in the hot springs of the baths, and everybody spoke Latin. And all not really that long ago.
4. Villa Borghese
More often than not, parks fall foul of a busy travel itinerary. But the Villa Borghese allows you to combine some sightseeing with a bit of dolce far niente thrown in. Dotted throughout the large park are buildings, such as the Galleria Borghese, a gallery and art museum filled with treasures, so you can scratch your sightseeing itch before settling down on the grass or on a bench under the beautiful umbrella pines in the gardens — maybe indulging in a cannoli in one of the cute cafes such as the Casino del Lago by the lake, as the name suggests.
Breathe in the fresh air, maybe row a boat on the lake, or simply watch others have a go. Though the joggers might make you feel guilty for sitting down and not doing a lot, you’ll find that all the benches are filled with locals indulging in various forms of idleness, be it licking an ice cream, chatting with friends, or feeding the red squirrels (please only give them unsalted, raw nuts).
5. Any Bar
The aperitivo hour is practically an institution in Italy: a pre-dinner drink, sometimes even a pre-lunch drink, enjoyed at leisure and preferably with friends and/or family by your side. Walk around Rome just before sunset or dinner hour, never mind the season, and you’ll see the terraces, cafes, and bars full of people enjoying a spritz, negroni, or beer.
This, just like taking time for a coffee stop along the day, is very much part of the Italian lifestyle and dolce far niente, taking the time to enjoy life, a drink, some nibbles, company, and looking forward to a leisurely dinner afterward. No rush, just being in the moment. To be enjoyed in any bar or restaurant, terrace, or cozy interior throughout Rome.
6. Monti Neighbourhood
Just behind the Colosseum lies the Monti neighborhood, a young, hip, and beautiful quarter usually bypassed by tourists. Yet here, you can just meander through narrow lanes, look at the burnt-orange houses, most of which have a tiny garden made from terracotta pots outside the front door and often people sitting on the doorstep chatting to their neighbors. Here, you can smell the roses — in the pots, or on the walls, as my picture of the locally prevalent street art shows.
The quarter is perfect for lingering and exploring at a slow pace — just as well, as it can be quite hilly in places. Grab a table on the lovely little Piazza della Madonna dei Monti and settle down for the long run, doing as the Italians do: linger over coffee or food, enjoy your company, and celebrate the moment by doing nothing and not rushing off.
7. Via Dei Coronari
Whenever we travel, we tend to hasten to search out some souvenirs to bring with us for loved ones left behind or to grace our shelves, but do we ever take the time to really enjoy the moment, look closely at little details, take the time to actually enjoy the experience? Rarely.
In the sense of artful idleness and enjoying the moment, head to the tiny Via dei Coronari, not far from Piazza Navona, and take time to head into stores such as Vestopazzo, a jewelry store selling recycled metal jewelry and knickknacks, and Manufactus, all about craft made in Italy, selling wonderful leather items such as journals and notebooks. All the little stores are lovely to browse in, taking your time and enjoying being in Rome, while also selling non-tacky souvenirs.
Pro Tip: Dolce far niente is as much part of the Italian lifestyle as hygge is in Denmark, or lagom in Sweden. It is an attitude that we should incorporate into our lives whether we are on vacation or at home. Enjoying the moment, not stressing all the time, and smelling the roses along the way — consciously making time for it, even if it is literally a moment, is a worthwhile mindset. And when in Rome, it is even better.