One sunny Saturday in the spring of my first year there, Livia and I went to the beach. We laid out for hours getting tan and talking about all the sappy music we loved in high school, and that’s how we became friends and not just coworkers. A trip to Morocco and the discovery that we’re both as Gemini as Gemini could be sealed the deal. I think the best friendships are those that enrich your life and bring out the best in you, and I always walk away from a chat with Livia feeling motivated to start a new project or at peace with a big life decision. She’s the most centered, positive, and insightful person I know, and I am so happy we’re friends!
Well I was born in Rome but I’ve only really lived here for the past six years. The back story is that I’m half American, half Italian and my parents met here but we left right after I was born so I never spent much time in the city growing up. Fast forward 22 years, I had just finished university in the US and wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life when my dad, who was in the Foreign Service at the time, was posted to Rome again. At that point it was an easy decision for me to move back here with my family and start making Rome my new home. It’s been a pretty incredible homecoming getting to know my place of birth as an adult!
The beginning was pretty hard and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in Rome past the first year. I had spent the last eight years living in the US and Europe suddenly felt really foreign to me so that caught me off-guard. In spite of the fact that I’ve moved so many times during my life, I’m not sure you can ever get over the initial culture shock of settling down in a new place; it always seems to take a lot of time to get accustomed to a different lifestyle and start your life from scratch abroad. Once I started working and making friends though I was much happier and began to really enjoy the city and the country. Rome is a city with a lot of layers so the longer you live here the more you appreciate all of its subtleties and secrets and my love affair with the city continues to grow with each year.
You work as a writer and photographer – is this what you always wanted to do? How did you end up in this career?
It kind of happened accidentally! I always knew I wanted to do something creative but wasn’t sure exactly what that was and I’d been searching for my elusive passion since I was a child. I knew I was a pretty good writer and always enjoyed photography but I wasn’t confident in my skills and wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to stand out with so much competition in these areas. I spent time working for different international development agencies at first but I knew didn’t want to work an office job in the long-term so after three years as a communications consultant, I decided to take a leap of faith and quit my job. Once I had time to focus on my real interest areas things just slowly started falling into place. I applied to be a local writer for Spotted by Locals
and started writing about my favorite places in Rome when I realized that this was something I was good at and really enjoyed. Then a few months later I was contacted to author a book for The HUNT Guides and now I’m the Rome Editor for Culture Trip
so things have really come together in ways I could have never imagined a year ago!
Tell me about The HUNT Guide to Rome.
The HUNT Rome
is a travel guide about the best locally and passionately-owned businesses in the city, meaning restaurants, bars, cafés, boutiques, shops & services. It focuses on lifestyle rather than history so it’s different from other major guidebooks: The HUNT Rome really helps you experience the city from a local point of view and discover hidden gems rather than pointing out the same main attractions. It’s a really cute pocket-sized guide that has write-ups and photos about 100 different places along with illustrated maps so it feels like you’re getting personal travel advice from a friend, which is always the best!
What was the most rewarding thing about writing the book, and about writing about Rome in general?
Writing the book helped me learn so much more about Rome than I could have ever imagined! I already knew the city really well after living here for so many years but coming up with a diverse list of places across 10 neighborhoods forced me to dig deeper than I ever had before and I realized how much more depth there was to the city, it opened up so many new worlds to me all at once. Rome is a really expansive place (both geographically, let alone historically) so you can never truly conquer it all which makes living here so rewarding, there’s always something new to see, learn and experience. I also really enjoyed talking to business owners about their work and their passions. I’m usually pretty reserved so the book was a perfect excuse to engage with strangers and learn about the human side of running a business – now I’m hooked and want to hear everyone’s stories!
Do you think, being both Italian and American, you bring a different perspective to writing about the city than other writers?
I think that straddling both cultures gives me the advantage of seeing things as an insider and outsider, simultaneously. My mom instilled a lot of Italian values and mannerisms in me growing up but I always went to American school so I filter sensory stimuli in a unique way. I like to think I can fuse the best of both worlds by showing off the best experiences in Rome that would also appeal to a global audience, not just someone with a vested interest in the country. When you have a mixed identity and have traveled a lot, you’re able to observe scenarios based on a wide range of experiences and stay more objective about your conclusions which is what I hope I achieve in my writing.
Has moving to freelance been challenging? Any advice you would give fellow freelancers, or those just starting out?
Yes.. I did a lot of research before I decided to try freelancing so I knew it wouldn’t be easy but now I believe people when they say that it’s harder than working a desk job! The hardest part for me is self-discipline and trying to strike a balance between work and downtime, I feel like I’m always “on” because work and daily life become one and the same and that can get pretty exhausting. Luckily I really enjoy what I’m working on and relish the freedom of picking my own projects, it gives me a real sense of motivation knowing I’ve personally signed on to all of the work I’m doing. My advice to new freelancers would be to stay optimistic, dabble in different interests until you find the right fit and share your enthusiasm with others: you never know when a friend or acquaintance will connect you to a future job.
What do you love most about Rome?
The minute I arrive at the train station or the airport I feel immediately at home, it’s this wonderful embracing feeling of familiarity that washes over me each time and makes me realize I’m truly in love with the city. I love Rome for the same reasons so many people do: it’s so beautiful, the food is incredible, rich cultural heritage is everywhere, the climate is amazing, it has a slower pace of life.. and there is something very hedonistic about the city that is so seductive. Small luxuries are ubiquitous, from admiring ancient monuments on a morning walk and swooning every time the sunset bathes the city’s cupolas in a golden light to simply enjoying a glass of wine with friends on a cute cobblestone street before having a delicious dinner. When tourists visit the city they can’t believe this is how people live
their real lives and in Italy this kind of sweet decadence is not an exception, it’s the norm. Living here makes you feel really lucky to be able to indulge in simple pleasures on a daily basis.
In the six years you’ve lived in Rome, have you seen it evolve? If so, how?
So much! Well, and so little. The Eternal City is pretty resistant to change and Italians are very traditional people so a lot of things tend to stay the same through the decades and that longevity and connection with history is one of the nicest things about living in Rome. That being said, Romans are increasingly expressing their entrepreneurial spirit and opening trendy new fusion restaurants, speakeasy cocktail bars and hip boutiques so the food scene is definitely undergoing some major changes. There’s also a lot more going on technologically than six years ago, the city actually has the largest start-up accelerator in all of Europe which is pretty cool! There are a lot of new apps that make living in the city easier, like food delivery and ride sharing services. My current favorite is Scooterino which is like Uber on a scooter – the best way to get around Rome is definitely on a vespa!
If someone is visiting for three days, what are a few things they absolutely can’t miss in Rome?
- Visit the Orange Garden: This is always my first tip for visitors because the park is so idyllic and the view is so beautiful. It also holds a lot of memories for me because I used to have makeshift aperitivo picnics in the park with friends when I first moved to the city, it was the perfect place to have a glass of wine al fresco while watching the sunset.
- Check out the National Museums: Rome has four National Museums that are seriously underrated and usually empty which makes visiting them even more enjoyable. The combination ticket only costs €7 and it lasts 3 days so you can slowly make you way through all of them. Palazzo Altemps just north of Piazza Navona really struck a cord with me because although it’s an ornate gallery, it is very subdued with a dozen statues exhibited in beautifully frescoed rooms. It’s more of a museum that you feel and soak in rather than go “see” and it’s always empty meaning you have the place to yourself.
- Stroll through the Testaccio Market: I really like shopping for food or meeting friends for a coffee at the Testaccio Market. The building itself is really bright and modern and the stands inside are a perfect mix of old-school sellers along with more modern shops and eateries.
- Enjoy a glass of wine at Il Goccetto: I have a lot of beloved wine bars in the city but Il Goccetto tops my list. It’s a quaint little space with wood-paneled ceilings, hundreds of bottles lining the walls from floor to ceiling and locals of all ages.
- Listen to music at Black Market: Black Market is my favorite bar in the city and one of the reasons I’ll never be able to leave it. I hang out here almost on a weekly basis because the atmosphere is so warm and friendly: Emanuele, the owner, has the best taste in music and he has handpicked the coolest mismatched vintage furniture so the whole place has a really cozy vibe. The bar also hosts intimate live concerts in its back room with international and local artists so it’s a great multifunctional space.
Roman food – what should people be eating when they visit? Favorite spot to eat your favorite Roman dish?
I actually recently wrote a list on the 16 foods
you need to eat in Rome which covers most of my favorites. There are so many amazing foods but you can’t miss the classic Roman pasta dishes – carbonara
and cacio e pepe
. You also need to try a Roman-style pizza, which is thin and crispy, and order some fritti
as an appetizer. I personally love leafy greens and Italians are masterful at preparing vegetables so I always order a portion of cicoria
with my main course, they’re spicy, bitter and so flavorful. One of my favorite restaurants is Osteria Zi Umberto
in Trastevere because it’s right in the middle of the action but has a very local feel: it’s a boisterous place with quintessentially Roman service, the food is delicious and the prices are so affordable. I also saw Jude Law twice there last year while he was in town filming The Young Pope so you know it’s good if we’re both patrons.
Finally, you’re forced to leave Rome for some other beautiful Italian city. What’s in your carry on?
Distance from Rome only makes the heart grow fonder! Luckily Italy is filled to the brim with amazing cities so it’s never too rough to leave the capital for a weekend jaunt. Here are my travel essentials:
- A scarf: I think scarves are the ultimate accessory – mine usually ends up becoming a shawl because I’m always cold.
- A journal: I love to write when I’m traveling and always try to capture the immediate feelings I get in new places.
- My camera: I can’t go on a trip without my camera, it’s often the reason I go on a trip in the first place and is my trusted companion when I travel solo.
- My iPod: I might be the only person who still has an iPod classic but I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and love having it all in one place.
- An extra long iPhone cable: I recently got a 2 meter-long charger and it’s changed my life, you never realize how often you are at the mercy of a short cord!
Thank you Livia! I bet you all want to go to Rome now, don’t you? Make sure to take the HUNT Guide with you! And follow Livia on Instagram, Twitter, and her website for Rome envy on a regular basis.
*All photos courtesy of Livia Hengel