In the 50s and 60s the Via Veneto was the most fashionable – and scandalous – street in Rome. The haunt of Hollywood stars and the setting for Fellini’s classic film La Dolce Vita, the street has the biggest concentration of luxury hotels in Rome and a prime location between the Piazza Barberini and the Villa Borghese Gardens. Here’s how to explore it, where to stay and what to do.
Rome’s Via Veneto
It’s late afternoon on the Via Veneto in Rome. My head is swivelling back and forth as I search for playboy reporter Marcello Rubini, starlets with bouffants and paparazzi leaping out from behind parked cars. Logically I know Marcello Rubini is a character in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that the paparazzi have revved up their vespas and moved on, but if any film imitated life it was La Dolce Vita, and if any street screams ‘Celebrity World of Days Gone By’ the Via Veneto is it, and it’s an intriguing attraction in Rome.
Where is the Via Veneto?
Shaped like a backwards ‘S,’ the Via Veneto – officially the Via Vittorio Veneto – curves north from the Piazza Barberini up to the Villa Borghese Gardens. In the 50s and 60s the street was a sparkling melee of flashbulbs, convertibles, sidewalk cafes, luxe hotels, women in dark sunglasses and men in sleek suits.
If it was a celebrity circus before, once Fellini’s La Dolce Vita came out in 1960 it became a celebrity explosion. Tabloid tales poured out, inflamed by the paparazzi’s brutally candid shots.
The good citizens of Rome were shocked. Did aspiring star Irini Demick really bring her pet cheetah to a sidewalk cafe? Was it true that attention-seeking starlets were parading down the street in nightgowns, pretending to sleepwalk? Did someone ride a horse into a cafe? Were Ava Gardener and Frank Sinatra duking it out in the Hotel Excelsior? Again?
Just another night in the jet-setting epicentre of Rome.
Flash forward to today: My husband, Mark, and I are staying on the Via Veneto for a week and I’m seeking out La Dolce Vita – the Sweet Life – for myself.
Why is the Via Veneto famous?
To understand the Via Veneto you need to go back to postwar Rome. The economy was picking up. The film industry was booming. Hollywood productions came in droves, capitalizing on Rome’s low post-war costs, scenic surroundings and the topnotch facilities at Cinecittà Studios, a multi-acred film studio founded by Mussolini.
Rome became the Hollywood on the Tiber. The stars camped out in the Via Veneto’s grand luxury hotels such as the Excelsior, the Grand, and the Baglioni Regina. From Anita Eckberg to Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel, the street became the place for A-listers to unwind.
Their reflected star shine attracted the corrupt and the glamorous. A carnal carnival ensued. According to Melton Davis in All Rome Trembled, the Via Veneto was “made to order for the fixers, for the dope-addled princes and dream-haunted paupers, for the whole fantastic parade that gathered there.”
And I say ‘bring on the decadence. Via Veneto here we come.’
Searching for La Dolce Vita in Rome
Our first hotel on the Via Veneto isn’t what I have in mind. We take the elevator up to the third floor but can’t find our room. Finally we run into a bellman. “You are moving rooms?” he asks.
“We can’t find our room.”
“Ah. You go outside.” He gestures to a door to the right of the elevator.
Mark and I look at each other. “Okaaay.”
We cross a terrace and find a stand alone room. I’m sure it’s nice in the summer with the terrace, at least that’s what they tell us at the front desk, but it feels as if we we’re not even in the hotel. The sound of an elevator scraping up and down is sandpaper on my spine.
“This isn’t the sweet life at all,” I tell Mark. So we move to the 5-star Majestic Hotel.
The Majestic Hotel
The Majestic may not be the most famous hotel on the Via Veneto but it is the oldest. It was built in 1899 and its Neoclassical design has impressive curb appeal, with two enormous pillars rising up into the sky. The little bar has a frilly frescoed ceiling and the service is hushed and divine. Our all-white room overlooks the Via Veneto, ideal for sticking my nose out the window and searching for the Sweet Life into the night.
“Finally.” I flop on the bed. “Now we can start to explore.”
What to see on the Via Veneto?
The Piazza Barberini
We start at the Piazza Barberini at the bottom of the street. The piazza is bleak and congested. (Do I know how to promote a popular Rome attraction, or what?) It was built in 1625 by the Barberini family, one of the most powerful families in Rome.
The reason to visit is to gaze at Bernini’s statue of Triton, carved by the Baroque master in 1643. Triton, a muscular water god rises from a shell supported by gape-mouthed dolphins, and his (literally) chiselled abs are as drool worthy as Charlton Heston’s in Ben Hur, an epic film shot in Rome. I wonder if Heston noticed the similarity when he stayed at the Hotel Excelsior up the street during filming.
Also worth seeking out on the Piazza Barberini is Bernini’s much-overlooked sculpture, the Fountain of the Bees, mainly because it’s called Fountain of the Bees, which may be the best name ever for a 17th-century sculpture. Most of the buzzing in the Piazza Barberini, however, comes from the traffic that whirls around like a diesel-fuelled tornado so, if you’re after the Sweet Life like I am, move on. The Via Veneto snakes northwest.
The Capuchin Crypt
Next up are the skeletons. The Capuchin Crypt at Via Vittorio Veneto, 27, crouches underneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church, and its rooms bulge with with the artfully-arranged bones of some 4,000 Capuchin monks – a powerful reminder that our lives are as fleeting as a paparazzo’s flashbulb.
Touring room after room of elaborate bone decor is unsettling, a bit like touring graves from the inside out, and it seems a stark contrast to the Via Veneto above, which was host to one of the most glittering life-bursting periods in film history.
The Excelsior Hotel
Back out in the daylight Mark and I stop outside the Westin Excelsior Hotel at Via Vittorio Veneto, 125. Under its signature cupola is one of the most expensive hotel suites in the world, the Villa de Cupola. The lavish suite comes complete with a ceiling fresco, private cinema, fitness room, wine cellar and priceless antiques. I can’t even imagine the parties that went on here.
“Now that,” I say, “is the Suite Life.”
The Excelsior was ground zero for Hollywood stars, and the hotel’s sidewalk cafe, Doney, was a celebrity-spangled watering hole. The hotel played a role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. When Marcello, played by Marcello Mastroianni, escorts the sensuality-oozing Sylvia back to the hotel after partying all night. Sylvia’s boyfriend slaps her then punches Marcello in the face.
It’s a case of life imitating art. Blond voluptuous Sylvia, who Marcello describes in the movie as the ‘most wonderful woman created since the beginning of time’ was based on Anita Eckberg, the Scandinavian bombshell who played her. Sylvia’s boyfriend was based on Eckberg’s real-life partner, the heavy-drinking Anthony Steel. Together they were fixtures at star-studded cafes like Doney and the Cafe de Paris, and their antics made rich fodder for the paparazzi.
The Cafe de Paris
When I spot the Cafe de Paris across the street, I race over. Surely, of any attraction on the Via Veneto, this is the pulse of the street’s swinging past, a nocturnal hive for the gilded and gorgeous. Even Fellini researched his film here.
The paparazzi kept the Cafe de Paris in their crosshairs, and when the next big thing happened they would dash in, flashbulbs popping, to immortalize the moment in time.
The rise of the paparazzi
And if the next big thing didn’t happen? Aggressive photographers created it themselves, provoking stars in the hopes of causing fights to get footage. Farouk I, the deposed King of Egypt, made headlines when he launched himself at a photographer, breaking his camera. Burt Lancaster reportedly beat a 260-pound photographer so badly the man was hospitalized.
The Cafe de Paris is shuttered.
My shoulders slump. My search for the Sweet Life is not going as planned.
Apparently the cafe was closed in 2009 after the Italian police declared it a front for mafia money-laundering. It’s reopening ended in 2014 when it was the target of an arson attack. Now there is nothing but a few faded photos behind glass.
Harry’s Bar Rome
At the northern tip of the street we find Harry’s Bar, another mythical Via Veneto attraction. Unlike the Cafe de Paris it’s been tended with care. White flowers ring the terrace and a suave maitre d ushers us forward. Inside, the wood-panelled walls and plush chairs whisper of parties gone by. A baby grand piano seems to resonate with the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing late into the night.
Downstairs a photo exhibit showcases the Hollywood on the Tiber. One of the most iconic images from the Via Veneto is of Sonia Rubinoff, a now-forgotten starlet shoving an ice cream cone into paparazzo Rino Barillari’s face. According to Barillari he’d spotted her with someone who was not her rich ‘geezer’ husband. Barillari was also attacked by Peter O’Toole, whose marriage would implode soon after photographers caught him with Barbara Steele.
Mark and I sit on the terrace of Harry’s Bar in the shadow of the Porta Pinciana, the ancient Aurelian gate that borders the Villa Borghese Gardens. My lobster salad is so pretty it looks like a film prop, and Mark sips an expensive espresso as we chat to the couple beside us. Tourists like us, they’re chasing la dolce vita through the mist of the past.
La Dolce Vita meaning
But what is la dolce vita exactly? Today the term suggests a world of jet-setting perfection: the rich life, the high life, parties until dawn.
I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have loved to experience it.
But Fellini’s film shows its vacuous side, the soulless quest for fame and fast gratification that leaves its characters longing for more. Paparazzi shots of the real stars highlight boiling emotions, alcohol-fuelled fights and relationships gone wrong.
Discarding a lobster claw, I think of the skeletons at the Capuchin Crypt and how time wears all flesh away. Maybe the sizzling spirit of la dolce vita has gone the way of the monks, but pieces remain: the paparazzi shots, Harry’s Bar and the luxury hotels, all artfully arranged and preserved on the Via Veneto like so many beautiful bones.
Via Veneto guide – where to eat, how to get there and where to stay
Where to stay in Rome: Luxury hotels on the Via Veneto
There are different tiers of 5-star luxury hotel, with prices that range from fairly reasonable to completely stratospheric. Hotels on the Via Veneto in Rome are no different, so here’s a rundown on a few, starting with the most affordable. (I’m an affiliate with Booking.com).
The Via Veneto gets more luxe as you rise up to the top towards the Villa Borghese Gardens and the best hotels are there. At the lower end of the street you’ll find a lot of tourist restaurants and cheaper hotels.
The hotel that shall remain nameless
I just can’t recommend the hotel we stayed at when we first stayed on the Via Veneto. Once we switched rooms it was fine, so I don’t want to slam it either. If you really need to know the name of it, you’ll have to ask me in person.
Ambasciatori Palace Hotel
A 5-star hotel on the Via Veneto in the affordable range is the neo-Renaissance Ambasciatori Palace, and breakfast is usually included. I’ve heard it’s a bit faded but you’ll be in good company: Tennessee Williams took up residence in a top floor room of the hotel in 1948.
Check prices and availability for the Ambasciatori Palace Hotel.
Hotel Majestic Rome
The Majestic Hotel is one of the more affordable luxury hotels in Rome and it was a great place to stay. We paid about $200 US a night in low season. In my mind, this was an incredible deal, and you’ll probably be looking at more like $300 in high season. Breakfast is pricy, but we indulged once for the experience.
Check prices and availability for the Hotel Majestic.
The Grand Hotel Via Veneto
Towards the north end of the street, the Grand Hotel Via Veneto was another popular choice for luxury accommodation during la dolce vita days. With marble staircases, Murano glass chandeliers and a rooftop terrace, it has a historic appeal.
Check prices and availability for the Grand Hotel Via Veneto.
The Westin Excelsior
Built in 1906, the Westin Excelsior is a landmark on the Via Veneto. Its guest list is a who’s who of the Hollywood on the Tiber: Liza Minnelli, Orson Welles, Richard Burton, Ava Gardener, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster …. I could go on and on. It’s slightly more than the Ambasciatori or the Majestic, but if you’re travel budget is sky high, their Villa de Cupola, is in the neighbourhood of $40,000 a night. Yes, I said $40,000.
Check prices and availability for the Westin Excelsior.
Baglioni Hotel Regina
At the top end of the spectrum is the Baglioni Hotel Regina. This Art Deco palace oozes luxury and Italian sophistication. Think patterned marble floors, ornate chandeliers and bouquets of fresh flowers. If price was no object, this would be my top pick for accommodation on the Via Veneto.
Check prices and availability for the Baglioni Hotel Regina.
Check out other hotels in Rome
Best restaurants near the Via Veneto
Restaurant Tullio. Near the Piazza Barberini, the lower-level Restaurant Tullio serves classic Italian dishes and is an upscale haunt for well-dressed business types. My pasta with black truffle was aromatic and perfectly cooked. Address: Via di S. Nicola da Tolentino, 26, 00187 Roma RM, Italy
Another fantastic restaurant near the Via Veneto was the Hostaria Romana Roma on via del Boccaccio, 1, 00187 Roma RM, Italy. We were lucky to get in without reservations – the people behind us didn’t, so make reservations. Like Restaurant Tullio, it’s a favourite with local business people, but not quite as upscale.
Harry’s Bar is a splurge but you’re there for the atmosphere as well as the food. Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 150.
Restaurant Doney. If you’re hankering for an expensive homemade black wheat rigatoni with cured pork cheek bacon or an amberjack fillet, the Westin Excelsior’s Restaurant Doney has a street-side view of the Via Veneto and is open and airy with a white decor tinged with gold. Address: Via Vittorio Veneto, 125, Rome 00187
Getting to the Via Veneto
The Via Veneto has a good central location, at least we thought so. It’s not as central as the Piazza Navona, but it’s in walking distance of the Spanish Steps (about a 10-minute walk), the Villa Borghese Gardens and Trevi Fountain. We walked to all the major sights except to Vatican City and the Appian Way. The Barberini Metro Station is at the bottom of the street.
For more great attractions and offbeat places to see visit Fun and Unusual Things to do in Rome.