Ostiense doesn’t actually make it onto many tourist maps – those tear-off sheets given out by hotels seem to cut off around Circo Massimo – which is a shame. The neighbourhood’s location just south of the centro storico makes it far away enough to feel like uncharted territory for most visitors while remaining easily accessible.
On the whole, Ostiense may be unconcerned with attracting tourists but that’s not to say it doesn’t offer a plethora of things to see and do. Historically industrial and working class, the area sticks to its roots while firmly embracing change. A former power plant is now home to one of Rome’s most engaging (yet least visited) museums and a wave of new restaurants and bars make this a popular spot after hours. Renowned street artists have given the neighbourhood a splash of colour too, transforming abandoned buildings into giant works of art. A 2,000-year-old Egyptian pyramid and a 1930’s gasometer watch over it all and dominate the local skyline.
Things to See & Do
Pyramid of Caius Cestius
Clad in Carrara marble and standing 36 metres high, the Pyramid of Cestius is Rome’s very own Egyptian-style pyramid. It was built in 12 BC as the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a senator and military general. After the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, anything and everything Egyptian became fashionable and Cestius decided a flashy funerary monument would be the perfect way to leave his mark on the Eternal City. The pyramid was incorporated into the Aurelian walls during the third century AD and today stands in the middle of a busy intersection on the border of Ostiense and Testaccio. For the best views of this striking landmark I like to hop over to the Non-Catholic Cemetery next door or climb the turrets of the Porta San Paolo across the road – both are free entry (donations welcome).
A public power plant turned classical art museum, Centrale Montemartini’s charm lies in its seemingly effortless curation of the old and the new(ish). A collection of ancient Roman marbles – an overspill from the Capitoline Museums – has found a new home here among turn-of-the-century turbines, colossal engines and other defunct industrial artefacts that once powered the city. Add in some Egyptian antiquities, intricate mosaics and decorative sculptural elements from the gardens of ancient Rome’s upper class, and you’ve got one of the city’s most captivating museums. Bonus: it’s rarely busy, even on weekends.
There’s enough street art in Ostiense to merit a dedicated exploration or even an organised tour, but if you just have time to take in the highlights, I recommend heading straight to the glorious multicolour murals of Blu on Via del Porto Fluviale. The Bolognese artist painted 27 bizarre faces on the side of a former military barracks here, drawing attention to building’s function as a squat and unofficial cultural centre. Opposite is Iena Cruz’s Hunting Pollution, a smog-eating mural created with anti-pollution paint. Around the corner, on Via dei Magazzini Generali, JB Rock’s Wall of Fame features portraits of famous faces while on Via del Commercio you’ll find Kid Acne’s Paint Over The Cracks.
India Estate is a summer-long schedule of events that takes place at Teatro India, just inset from the west bank of Tiber. The site was originally home to the Mira Lanza soap factory, but, since its closure in the 1950s, has been in varying stages of abandonment and degeneration. The first edition of India Estate in 2018 brought life back to this neglected part of town and each year sees the festival grow in size and scope. Check the Facebook page for specific events but between (roughly) June and September you can expect street-food stalls, live music, vintage markets, concerts and DJ sets. Though post-industrial Ostiense can still feel a little rough around the edges in places, India Estate uncovers the neighbourhood’s spruced-up potential.
Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls
Rome’s second-largest church, the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura, stands at the southern end of Ostiense and can seem a little uninspiring from the outside – particularly if you’re approaching on foot. Walk around the monolithic grey exterior to the atrium entrance on its western side, however, and you’ll see the dazzling and incredibly intricate golden mosaic that decorates the church’s façade. More mosaics adorn the interior, including on the 5th-century triumphal arch and 13th-century apse – although both have been extensively reworked after large swathes of the church were destroyed by a fire in 1823. My favourite detail is the series of papal portraits that sit in single file below the windows. The portraits form a frieze of popes throughout the ages, from 5th-century Pope Leo I to present-day Pope Francis. There are, however, only six spaces left – a problem the Catholic Church doesn’t officially care about but that some say predicts the apocalypse. No more space = no more popes = bad times.
Where to Eat & Drink
Opened at the end of 2018, restaurant and micro-bakery Marigold has become Ostiense’s newest darling, attracting locals and expats who are in search of understated, elegant food that is carefully prepared using seasonal, locally produced ingredients. Helmed by Sofie Wocher, a pastry chef from Denmark, and Domenico Cortese, former chef of the American Academy in Rome, this chic, Scandanavian-inspired spot serves up avocado on rye and buttermilk pancakes at breakfast, and sourdough sandwiches, homemade pastas and vegetable medleys at lunch and dinner. Leave with a cinnamon swirl or a slice of carrot cake for later and your day will only get better.
Trattoria Pennestri straddles the line between wholesome Roman fare and gourmet cuisine. While you will find traditional recipes – Pennestri’s carbonara was named one of the best in Rome by newspaper La Repubblica – most dishes are prepared with a lighter touch, such as the vignarola, a spring vegetable stew that, here, truly celebrates the season. Their modern approach also makes this the ideal place to dip a toe into cucina romana’s quinto quarto, or offal-based dishes.
Describing itself as a bakery, restaurant and wine bar, Doppiozeroo offers a wide range of eating options throughout the day, including a full dinner menu and an Italian-style buffet brunch at the weekend. It is, however, best known for its extensive aperitivo, which is available every day between 18:00 and 21:00. The appetising spread includes freshly baked pizza, savoury tarts, grilled vegetables, pasta dishes and, usually, a small selection of desserts. Fill up a plate for the price of a drink.
Another of the neighbourhood’s repurposed spaces, gastronomic megastore Eataly was opened in 2012 in the old air terminal of Ostiense train station. The spacious hangar now welcomes both local and international visitors with a taste for Italian cuisine. Come here to stock up on olive oil, cured meats, cheeses, wine and other delicacies from producers across Italy. As well as picking up souvenirs, gourmands can also dine in the numerous food stalls and restaurants and even take part in cooking classes, tastings and workshops.
Gelateria La Romana
I was hesitant about including La Romana in a list of the ‘best’ things in Ostiense as there is definitely better gelato to be found in Rome. Nevertheless, the shop on the corner of Via del Porto Fluviale is incredibly popular, often with a line forming out the door, so it doesn’t seem right to omit it. (Part of its success could be that they fill the cones with melted chocolate). The company markets itself as artisanal and obviously considers the quality of its ingredients – it uses organic milk and free-range eggs in its bases – but it is a chain and relies on other ingredients, such as stabilisers and emulsifiers, which you wouldn’t find in a truly artisanal gelateria. Choose for yourself if this matters to you. The gelato is intensely creamy and comes in a variety of flavours, from traditional fruit sorbets to the nostalgia-inducing foresta nera (black forest) and biscotto della nonna (crema gelato studded with biscuit pieces).
Serving only organic ingredients, 100% Bio keeps the residents of Ostiense fed and watered all day long. At breakfast there’s a choice of plant-based (as well as cow) milk for coffee and cappuccinos while cornetti and other pastries are palm-oil free and made with vegetable fat instead of the traditional animal fat. The biggest draw of this conscientious eatery, though, is the lunchtime vegan buffet. With fresh vegetables, grain salads, falafel, hummus and other dips, soups, pasta dishes and meat-free alternatives, there’s an embarrassment of healthy choices. Plus, diners pay by the weight of their plates, helping eliminate food waste.
Serving crispy, paper-thin pizzas with all the typical toppings – think margherita with mozzarella di bufala or diavola with spicy salami – this neighbourhood institution feels like it’s been around forever. It was, in fact, opened in 2014 by staff formerly of the much-loved Pizzeria Da Remo in Testaccio. Pizzeria Ostiense has a similar upbeat vibe, though service is undoubtedly friendlier than at its more famous counterpart. Opening your meal with fried starters, such as supplì or filetti di baccalà, is pretty much mandatory here.
How to Get to Ostiense
Ostiense is well connected by public transport routes but, if you’re already in the city, the easiest way to arrive is to take metro line B to the Piramide stop. The number 3 tram stops nearby, as do loads of buses from all around town. Ostiense train station links the neighbourhood to other main stations in the city, including Trastevere, San Pietro, and Termini, as well to Fiumicino airport.
Wonderful description of an overlooked area in Rome. Brava, Emma.