Rome had been on my bucket-list for years, and in January I finally made the trip. In the end, it was even better than I had imagined: the intense and lengthy history of the city is present everywhere, and makes for a fascinating city trip. I was also excited because Rome has been the home of many writers through the ages—Henry James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Goethe—and with a literature degree under my wing, I was eager to explore the Rome of authors. So, while you might think it’s a city that can appeal to ancient history fans, there’s also plenty of places to see if you’re also a fan of literature. These are five spots that I think are an absolute must-visit in Rome if you’re a fan of literature:
5. The Pincio Gardens
Located in the north of the city, these gardens are overshadowed by their more popular neighbours, the Borghese Gardens, but the Pincio gardens are the location of a number of important scenes in Henry James’ 1878 novella Daisy Miller. The story follows Frederick Winterbourne, who meets the eponymous Daisy while travelling around Europe and consequently follows her to Rome. Here, Daisy flaunts her beauty by wandering the gardens on the Pincio Hill with the Italian character, Giovanelli, much to the distaste of Frederick.
Henry James visited Rome frequently between 1869 and 1909, and would often sit at the Pincio Gardens to people-watch. Much of the second half of Daisy Miller is set in Rome, and without giving too much of the plot away, a crucial scene towards the end of the novel takes place in the Colosseum (it’s incredible to think that visitors could once wander into the site without having to wait in a queue.)
The gardens on the Pincio Hill offer fantastic panoramic views over the city from a viewpoint above the Terazza del Popolo—a curious and less-frequently seen angle of the city, which makes all the spires of the churches seem in the wrong places and gives the Vatican City a central spot in the urban sprawl. If you’re running out of time on your trip and can’t dedicate the hours to the sprawling Borghese, the Pincio is a good bet—it’s also fun to sit here, as Henry James did, and imagine a 19th-century Rome full of carriages and elaborately-dressed ladies.
4. Antico Caffè Greco
This ancient cafe just off the Spanish Steps, on the luxury Via Condotti, is actually easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there—even I almost walked past it, despite being on the lookout. The cafe, which opened in 1760 (making it the second-oldest bar in Italy and the oldest in Rome), has been the meeting-spot of many poets and novelists during its 250-year existence, including Romantics like John Keats (more on him below) and Lord Byron, as well as notable musicians like Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn.
It’s certainly not a cheap place to get your morning coffee compared to average Roman prices, but it’s worth it to sample the lavish interior—it feels almost as if it hasn’t changed at all since these authors and musicians were also sipping coffee here. If you’re at the Spanish Steps anyway and craving a caffeine-hit, it’s definitely worth a visit—and don’t do it the traditional bar way this time, but grab a cozy corner table and drink your coffee in the relaxed manner of the poets.
3. Casa di Goethe
The German novelist Johann Wolfgang Goethe arrived in Rome in 1786, 12 years after the publication of his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, now considered one of the founding texts of Romanticism in Europe. While in Rome, Goethe resided with a German painter in a house on the Via Del Corso, now a small museum dedicated to the writer. While certainly a characteristically German writer—his novels are also foundations of the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature, a precursor to the more widely known Romanticist movement—he is quoted as saying, “in Rome, I first found myself.” Entrance to the house costs €6—worth it to see the former home of one of the most famous Romantic authors.
2. The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are a popular destination for tourists in Rome anyway, but even more so if you’re even the slightest bit interested in English poetry. It was here, in 1820, that poet John Keats arrived and rented a room with his friend Joseph Severn, a last ditch attempt to save his health. Tragically, he would die just three months later, and now the rooms the pair rented have been transformed into the Keats-Shelley House, not just a memorial to Keats but a homage to a whole range of Romantic poets and novelists.
Even when the Spanish Steps are bustling with tourists, the house—located right on lower corner of the steps—is a haven. I visited just after the lunch closure, and was the only visitor inside for at least 30 minutes. Though Keats’ story is undeniably tragic, it’s easy to see why he may have got some joy from living here for those short few months—his room offers a pretty view over square, a real vantage point for people watching. For literature fans, the little house is full of memorabilia that will excite, including hand-written letters by Keats to family and friends and various portraits of key figures from the Romantic circle. I’d only ever visited his English home, in Hampstead, north London, and always been a little annoyed that the bulk of his letters and belongings remained in Rome—but it really is worth the visit, and only €6.
1. The Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome
Following on from the Keats-Shelley House, this is the real pilgrimage spot for literature fans in Rome, and a place that Oscar Wilde once proclaimed “the holiest place” in the entire city: the grave of Keats. Admittedly, it is a little out of the way—in the very southeast of the city, it requires a twenty-minute walk down a main road to reach it (though it does go past the Circus Maximus). The walk is worth it though for anyone that, like me, has had this on their literary-bucket-list for years.
His grave does require a bit of finding, though—it’s not located in the main hub as you first enter the cemetery, but off to the left, in another part of the cemetery entirely. Here, in the very bottom-left corner of the cemetery, is the humble grave of one of England’s best poets—and Keats is buried alongside Joseph Severn, the friend who accompanied him to Rome in 1820. It occupies a very pretty spot among the trees in a relatively quiet corner of Rome. Percy Bysshe Shelley is also buried in the same cemetery, another grave that requires a little hunt to find, buried as it is in the very top of the cemetery. For anyone who’s even the slightest fan of poetry, this cemetery is the ultimate pilgrimage spot; my top pick for sights to see in Rome if you’re a literature fan.