A writer goes on a quest to find the Eternal City’s most cinematic spots.
It’s no wonder the great Italian director Federico Fellini said, “Rome is the most wonderful movie set in the world.” Just strolling the cobblestoned streets while the church bells are ringing or sitting at a table observing locals animatedly dining at a trattoria, you can feel like you’ve stumbled onto a film set. This UNESCO Creative City of Film is one of the world’s most important cities for cinema after Hollywood. Acclaimed works of the silver screen such as The Bicycle Thief (1948), Roman Holiday (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and The Great Beauty (2013) are just a few of the countless movies filmed here. In advance of the Rome Film Festival (October 18 – 28) and a new exhibit at the Ara Pacis Museum dedicated to Italy’s most famous leading man, Marcello Mastroianni, here’s a guide to Rome’s most cinematic spots.
Piazza del Popolo
Any cinematic tour of the Eternal City should start with a cappuccino at Bar Canova on Piazza del Popolo, where Fellini used to hold court; rumor has it he had an office in the back of the bar. Black-and-white photographs, film stills, and his drawings hang on the walls. In the 1960s—the golden age of Italian cinema—much of the action was concentrated around this northern part of the city.
From there, take a leisurely stroll down Via Margutta, a quiet street where Fellini lived (you can see a plaque at number 110) and where today artisans and tradesmen still restore antique frames and carve marble plaques. Roman Holiday—which launched Audrey Hepburn’s career—was filmed at number 51. It’s privately owned, so you can’t go inside, but the street is so picturesque it’s worth a visit anyway. Walk south toward the Spanish Steps, where the fictional Caffè Dinelli was located in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In Fellini’s heyday, Via Veneto—a street stretching from Piazza Barberini to the Villa Borghese, where Fellini filmed several scenes for the 1960 classic La Dolce Vita—was the epicenter of the city’s nightlife. In the movie, it appears as the backdrop for raucous sidewalk cafes where aristocrats, movie stars, and intellectuals mingled; nearby, photographers like Paparazzo (the word “paparazzi” actually derives from the character’s name) lurked, waiting to photograph them doing something scandalous. Little remains from that era, but you can still visit Harry’s Bar. There, photographs of prominent actors like Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s wife, who starred in many of his award-winning films) hang in gold frames.
Just behind Via Veneto, Hotel Eden is a must-visit spot where Fellini used to conduct interviews with the press on the terrace. Last year, it emerged from a top-to-bottom renovation aimed at bringing it back to its original glory. The views from the rooftop restaurant and bar are some of the best in Rome and the pasta is fantastic. No doubt Fellini would approve.
The Baths of Caracalla
The Baths of Caracalla stand near the Circus Maximus, where Fellini and award-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino filmed 53 years apart. Built by the Roman emperor Caracalla in 216 C.E., the complex was once a lavish public bathhouse decorated in marble with frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures. Its ruins now form the most extensive surviving Roman bathhouse, which you can visit during open hours or for seasonal opera performances.
Rome’s centro storico is jam-packed with filming locations. The most iconic is certainly the Trevi Fountain, which Anita Ekberg’s character wades into in La Dolce Vita’s most famous scene. (Pro tip: wait to visit until after midnight, when the tourist crowds have dispersed.) From there, you might wander over to the Pantheon, which served as a backdrop in Roman Holiday. A more obscure filming location is the beautiful 15th century Palazzo Taverna; its ivy-covered courtyard appears in Sorrentino’s award-winning film The Great Beauty. The building contains private residences, so you can’t go in without the help of a guide like Fulvio de Bonis, president and founder of Imago Artis Travel, who took me to have coffee on the terrace of an aristocratic home located within the complex. The Bicycle Thief was also filmed in the centro storico, including on Via del Tritone, an important avenue near the Trevi Fountain.
You can’t talk about Italian film history without mentioning Pigneto, a historically working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city center. Neorealism, a post–World War Two movement in Italian cinema, was all about showing the good, the bad, and the ugly of everyday life for Rome’s average citizens. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini grew up in Pigneto and shot Accattone in its streets. Although still gritty and covered in street art, the neighborhood is gentrifying, especially since Metro line C made it much more accessible. If you go, be sure to have a drink at Necci dal 1924, Pasolini’s old haunt.
Built in 1937 to rival Hollywood, Italy’s largest motion-picture studio is located on the southeastern edge of Rome. (From the city center, it takes about an hour to get there by metro.) Countless filmmakers—including Fellini—and television productions—such as HBO’s Rome—have used its soundstages. Part of the studio has been opened as a permantent exhibit called Cinecittà Shows Off, which you can visit on a guided tour. Nearby, you’ll find the huge Parco degli Acquedotti, another location where both Fellini and Sorrentino filmed. (Fellini shot the opening scene of La Dolce Vita here.)
If You Go
The Cinema Tour by Scooteroma, a bespoke tour operator specializing in guided Vespa tours of Rome, is a fun way to see the sites and delve into Rome’s cinematic heritage on two wheels. The tours are led by Michele, who studied film at La Sapienza University and enthusiastically shares his passion for Italian cinema with guests. In three hours, you can cover the amount of ground it would take three days to visit if you relied on public transit.
The 13th Rome Film Festival will be held at the Auditorium Parco della Musica and other locations throughout the city from October 18 to 28. There will be screenings, talks, master classes, tributes, and exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Ara Pacis Museum dedicated to actor Marcello Mastroianni.