La bella figura, the quintessential Italian philosophy about putting careful thought into the appearance you present to the world, is best experienced in the stylish shopping districts of Rome, where the country's famed designerwear, jewellery, shoes and lingerie are housed in a comfortingly friendly set-up.
The Smart Shopper: Retail therapy in Rome
Made in Italy: still the best label in the world. When it comes to design – especially of luxurious clothing and jewellery – no one beats the Italians. They seem blessed with a collective good eye and a peerless ability to cut flatteringly, conjure the subtlest colours, and – once you’re pulling out your credit card – charm you into feeling you’re making the most sophisticated, discerning choice. We’ll ignore their aberrational fondness for Speedos on men and sequinned leopard-skin on women; at the top-end, Italian design is lean, clean and ultra elegant.
One of the great things about visiting this country is that, thanks to the national obsession with looking chic and creating la bella figura, even if you go to a small town, you can find designer boutiques and a couple of stores selling lovely underwear, nightwear and knockout beachwear. However, when it comes to a luxury shopping trip, there is nowhere better than Rome.
Italy’s most extravagantly beautiful city feels less tense than the fashion and business capital, Milan, and less choked by tourists than Florence. Crucially, most of the delectissimo shops, Italian and international, lie within the old heart of the city, around Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. Shopping on and around Via Condotti, Borgognona and Frattini is further simplified because most shops specialise in just one item. So, if you’ve finished your cappuccino, let’s go.
Maybe it’s the recession, but Rome’s sales assistants seem noticeably warmer than their too-cool-for-school, spikily thin counterparts in Milan.
“Sooo beautiful, yes?” smiles a sales assistant in Pucci. Enjoying a resurgence since the hiring of a new designer, explains Eleonora, my shopping guide, Pucci is “huuuge” now, and has just moved to large new premises in prime position on Piazza di Spagna. The assistant holds out one of the delicate little dresses that the house’s Peter Dundas has produced, with the classic swirly Pucci pattern embellished with beading (€1,750; Dh8,800), which, I agree, is utterly exquisite. As are the over-the-knee, rust suede boots to be worn with the slightly puffball-shaped, short lilac coat. Nearby, at Moncler, I linger by a vividly patterned white one-piece ski suit (€1,295; Dh6,515). “You ski?” asks Eleonora. Er, no. I don’t. But as with the knits at nearby Missoni, luscious dresses at Dolce & Gabbana, absolutely everything for men and women alike at Prada and Armani, whispers of silk blouses at Valentino, retro sunglasses at Trussardi, cashmere at Loro Piana and sumptuous bronze-and-slate-coloured bed coverlets at Frette, it is indeed sooo beautiful.
Hats & gloves, shoes & boots
“Belt loops without a belt, a hat without gloves, the wrong height on a heel, a coat without a scarf – these things make us Italians feel ill to see,” says Eleanora. And specialist accessory shops abound in Rome. At 20 Piazza del Popolo, a few minutes’ walk from Piazza di Spagna and just past Hotel de Russie, Borsalino has been selling hand-blocked hats made in Piedmont since 1857. Daniel Craig bought one of their flat wool caps (€85; Dh428) while filming Skyfall in Rome, Woody Allen added to his collection of floppy linen hats here (not a look anyone in their right mind would copy, admittedly), and Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone and the divine Andy Garcia have all bought Borsalino’s classic fedora (€263; Dh1,320). “But, you wear hats or you don’t,” admits Eleonora. Either way, you still need gloves (gloves without a hat being OK).
At 9a Via della Croce, Caesar: The Glove Shop has devastatingly chic, tight long gloves that button to the armpits of the slender-limbed for €189 (Dh950); the kind of flirty little wrist-length gloves that, once you’ve started browsing, you’ll want in five different colours, cost €39 (Dh196). Men’s driving gloves cost €99 (Dh498).
For the softest leather shoes and bags, there’s Gucci, Ferragamo, Campanile and Fratelli Rossetti; for slightly more reasonable prices, try Loriblu and Pollini; and, for the most comfortable shoes to walk around these cobbled streets, Tod’s rubber-soled slip-ons. If you prefer throwaway slip-ons, similar to Tod’s suede ones, Trendy Shoes at 146 Via Sistina has them for just €39 (Dh196).
Bedroom-wear, underwear & swimwear
When you go looking for the city’s loveliest lingerie for women, you might walk straight past Lingerie D’Elia, so anonymous is this little shop at 119 Via Sistina, where Princess Diana is thought to have ordered a pure silk, lace-trimmed nightdress (€1,500; Dh7,547). The stock in this tiny store, run by two middle-aged sisters, is of utmost beauty, but if the prices seem excessive, there’s La Perla at 28 Via Bocca di Leone. “Customers tell me prices here are half what’s charged in London,” says Eleonora, encouragingly, of the €330 (Dh1,660) silk-and-lace slips and €75 (Dh377) bras and knickers.
Also recommended: Brighenti boutique, where stars of Italy’s biggest film studio, Cinecittà, shopped, and Schostal for men’s cotton and silk pyjamas and dressing gowns.
Bulgari, on Via Condotti, with its devastatingly understated window displays – a little jewel-box embedded in each blank wall – is peerless. The new, young designers, who showcase at the regularly held, wonderful My Cup of Tea pop-up events are particularly worth investigating (www.mycupoftea.it). “But when you want to buy a special present for a friend, everyone goes to Lucia Odescalchi,” says Eleanora. And you can see why. What a find! An ex-model married to a prince, Lucia (www.luciaodescalchi.com; 00 39 366 260 0739) produces some of the most beautiful avant-garde jewellery I’ve seen; some, using gold and diamonds, are for €750+ (Dh3,773 onwards), others, made with resin, rubber, leather and so on, go for under €300 (Dh1,509).
“Dinner conversation” necklaces, so named because “wearing them always makes people ask you about them”, are seemingly made of luminous giant pearls (actually painted aluminium) and cost €260 (Dh1,300). Lucia plans to open her own store soon but in the meantime sells at the jeweller Gasparrini at 42 Via Fontanelle Borghese.
Where to stop for coffee
The 19th century Babington’s English Tea Rooms, right by the Spanish Steps, exert undeniable historic appeal, but are outrageously expensive. So, too, the seductively dark lair that is the old artists’ hangout, Caffe Greco, on Via Condotti. One gorgeous, old, untouristy cafe you won’t want to miss, though, is the 18th century Canova Tadolini on 150 Via del Babuino. The great Italian director Federico Fellini used to come here for coffee every morning and sit at one of the outside tables. Inside, a long wooden bar, glass display cases of inviting cakes and sandwiches, casts of some of the bronze and stone statues that decorate Rome, a glamorous manageress and a sardonic crew of waiters create as atmospheric a setting as you could hope for. Stand at the bar and a cappuccino costs just €1 (Dh5); sit at a table and it’s €2.50 (Dh12.5). It’s a bargain – and one that is repeated across the city (Babington’s Tea Rooms excepted).
For another glimpse of the luxurious life of the 1960s, head over to Via Veneto, a location for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for cappuccino at Harry’s Bar (great old photos but less great staff) or Cafe de Paris, opposite the Jumeirah hotel, with a 1940s interior and more photos from the 1960s.
On a chilly day, the plush Sala Vietri Lobby Bar at the majestic old Hotel Hassler – where Woody Allen stayed while filming To Rome With Love – is a deliciously comfortable spot to sink into a velvet sofa for afternoon tea.
Where to stay
The most stylish hotel is unarguably the Hotel de Russie, on Via del Babuino, off Piazza di Spagna, full of high-ceilinged spare interiors in jades, mustards and purples, and vases of berried twigs. But the best place to stay in Rome is actually slightly outside, a 15-minute trip by free shuttle-bus from the Trevi Fountain. The hilltop Cavalieri, now a Waldorf Astoria, and currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, has unrivalled views of the city – as well as a three-Michelin-starred rooftop restaurant where they change the table decorations before serving dessert, sumptuous Grand Spa Club, heated outdoor pools, and the 7th floor Imperial lounge serving all-day free meals and snacks. Breakfasting on the balcony here – with sparrows hopping out of the foliage in bright-eyed hope of croissant crumbs, and Rome spread gloriously below you – is dangerous, though. You just want to order another coffee and stay put. A double room costs from €240 (Dh1220) per night.
What to read
Profusely illustrated and comprehensive, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Rome is the best guidebook, while the easy-to-slip-into-your-pocket or download-as-an-app Luxe City Guide to Rome pinpoints the best places to see and shop in short, no-pix snippets.
Once in the city, you should go to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House museum by the Spanish Steps and, after looking around the flat where the famous English poet John Keats spent the last three months of his short life (in the end too weak to get out of the single bed – still in place – to look out onto the square), buy one of the histories of the 19th century Grand Tour Visits to Rome from the lovely little gift shop.
The entertaining style journalist Eleonora Attolico (00 39 06 687 2312) – who lives in a 17th-century palacio, knows everyone and doesn’t take commission from any of the shops she takes you to – charges €60 (Dh300) per person, per hour for her Art of Shopping tour. Tell her beforehand what you want to focus on – costume jewellery, upscale Italian designer boutiques, backstreet artisan shops, etc – and she’ll devise a personalised itinerary.
How to get there
Emirates (www.emirates.com) offers direct flights from Dubai to Rome from Dh3,195. Alitalia (www.alitalia.it) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Rome from Dh3,100. Etihad Airways (www.etihad.ae) will launch a direct service from July 15.