Whether you are first-timers or repeat visitors, beautiful and exciting Rome will turn you into eternal admirers for sure.
It is known as the Eternal City for a reason. Just like in Athens, there’s ancient history everywhere. It combines just fine with the modern, energetic, and sophisticated millennial metropolis.
Eternal City could as well refer to the number of sights and landmarks and beautiful spots in Rome. Because you actually might need a lifetime to experience everything this timeless metropolis has to offer. Few other cities can match Rome’s cultural wealth and fascinating variety.
So Many Places, So Little Time
To visit all the landmarks, churches, and museums introduced in this post, you’ll need about seven to ten days. I’ve structured my guide by neighborhoods. Ergo, it should be easy to compose your own itinerary – no matter how much time you spend in Rome.
Rome is not only the capital of Italy but is also the fourth largest city in Europe. It was built on the seven hills called Palatine, Aventine, Capitol, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, and Caelius. These outlooks grant visitors beautiful panoramic views of the many districts that make up the city.
Believably, Europe was built on Rome’s Capitolium – next to Golgota and the Acropolis.
- History in a Nutshell
- Roman Promenades
- Practical Information
- Pinnable Pictures
History in a Nutshell
Excavations on the Palatine have brought to light the remains of settlements from around 1000 BC. The Etruscans united various Latin and Sabine villages into one – eternal – city.
So obviously, Rome is basically breathing history. There are not many cities with structures that are more than 3,000 years old right in their center! Therefore, writing a short roundup of Rome’s history is an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, here are some milestones.
How It All Began
According to historians, Rome was founded around 753 BC on one of the seven hills. However, finds suggest that as early as 1000 BC human settlements must have existed in this area.
At the beginning of its history, Rome was a kingdom. The last Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus had to leave in 509 BC.
The then following Roman Empire was the era between the 8th century BC and the 7th century AD. The ancient official name was Senatus Populusque Romanus, hence, the Senate and the People of Rome. You’ll find the abbreviation S.P.Q.R. to this date all over Rome
The form of government developed from royal rule to a republic and finally to an empire.
The Roman Empire
Today, the history of the Roman Empire is roughly divided into four phases. The first one was the Roman royal period from 753 BC to 509 BC. The Roman Republic succeeded in 509 BC and lasted until 27 BC. The so-called high Roman Empire followed from 27 BC until the time of the imperial crisis of the 3rd century. And finally, the then following late antiquity smoothly transitioned into the early Middle Ages.
Obviously, everybody knows about Signore Gaius Iulius Caesar, the great strategist, general, and author. In fact, Caesar became the epitome of a statesman. Hence, the name became part of the title of all subsequent rulers of the Roman Empire.
In the 1st century AD, Rome was probably already a city of millions. Consequently, it was the geographical and as well as the political center of the Roman Empire. There was a functioning freshwater and sewage system, a well-developed road network. Also, functioning civil protection units served as fire brigades with police powers.
Under the rule of the Flavian dynasty, extensive construction work began. These new public structures included some of the most famous monuments such as the Colosseum and the Imperial Forums.
At the beginning of the 2nd century, they completed the last of these forums under Emperor Traian.
Also, large thermal baths, such as those built by Caracalla and Diocletian became an integral part of urban Roman life. Obsessed with the idea of surpassing their predecessors, the emperors built ever larger structures.
At the beginning of late antiquity around the year 300, Rome had reached its largest population. There was an estimated 1.2 million inhabitants. Nevertheless, as the various emperors preferred other residences like Constantinople, Milan, and Split, the city slowly lost its political importance.
In the 5th century, parts of the empire got into damaging civil wars and suffered attacks from outside. This, obviously, also affected the city of Rome.
From 781 to 810, Pippin, Charlemagne’s third son, was King of Italy. During his reign, Rome gained new importance as the capital of the Patrimonium Petri, the Papal State. Alongside Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela, the city was the most important place of pilgrimage for Christianity.
New splendor came to the city in the year 800. That year, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne to become Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Lombards, Saracens, and Normans attacked and looted Rome many times. Around 800, the population had shrunk to only 20,000. Due to this rapid population decline, a good three-quarter of the urban area was abandoned.
The neighborhoods on the banks of the Tiber were the most densely populated districts. Within the Aurelian Wall, this created distinctive contrasts. There were the abitato areas, the densely populated banks. And there was the disabitato, fallow, uninhabited spaces. This phenomenon characterized Rome from the 11th to the 19th century.
Today’s greatest attractions like the Roman Forum, the Capitol, the Imperial Forums, and the Colosseum were all in the disabitato.
Eventually, small settlements formed around Rome’s large churches outside the abitato. Fine examples are the Lateran Basilica and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as Santa Maria della Neve, is one of Rome’s four papal basilicas. Moreover, it is one of the seven pilgrim churches. However, it stands in the extra-territorial district of the Vatican State not far from the Roma Termini central train station.
Since this house of worship is the most important one among the more than forty St. Mary’s churches in Rome, it’s called Maria Maggiore.
Renaissance and Early Modern Age
The Renaissance began in Italy in the late 14th century, hence, the 15th and 16th centuries formed the core period.
The essential characteristic was the rebirth of the spirit of the Antiquity when humanism was the formative intellectual movement. Hence, anthropocentric views replaced the spiritual darkness of the Middle Ages.
Powers emerged with enormous economic and cultural advantages. However, this occurred more in the independent regions such as the Duchy of Milan and the Republics of Venice and Florence.
The decline of Italy began with the discovery of the New World. Then, trade shifted to the overseas colonies of Western European states. Politically, Italy became a pawn in the hands of foreign powers such as Spain, France, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
From the 16th to the 19th century, most of Italy was under foreign rule.
The Austro-Hungarian rule in Italy came to an end in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by the last emperor after its defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz.
The French Republic had spread republican principles. In 1849, France stationed troops in the Papal States. In 1870, however, France withdrew from Rome after declaring war on Prussia. The Italian military seized the opportunity and invaded the Papal States almost without a fight. It politically disempowered the Pope.
Italy annexed the Papal State by decree on October 6, 1870.
On January 26, 1871, Rome became the capital of the Italian nation. The inauguration of the Monumento Vittorio Emanuele II north of the Capitol Hill took place in 1911.
Fascism in Italy
In the wake of the social conflicts after WWI, the fascists under Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy. Under his rule, the discords between state and church ended by the Lateran Treaty with the Holy See in 1929. An independent state of Vatican City was established.
Unlike for instance in Germany, Italy didn’t necessarily remove fascist inscriptions and symbols. Also, you can still spot the architectural and propaganda representation of fascism in the cityscape.
I’m so excited to take you on a grand tour of this grand city! However, not only has it been impracticable writing a comprehensive roundup of Roman history. It is equally impossible to introduce you to all the amazing sights Rome has to offer.
Mind you, Rome has over 900 churches and more than 2,000 fountains alone! Hence, if you’ve been to Rome before, you might miss some of your favorite places on my Roman promenades. But hey, how about sharing your tips with me and my readers in the comment section below?
Also, I’m sure you’ll learn about some places that you haven’t known before. Keep in mind that you’ll need a lifetime to get to really know this Eternal City.
Anyway, I’ve tried to make things a bit easier especially for first-timers. Therefore, I’ve structured the promenade neatly by using some of those iconic Roman piazze as central starting points. From there, I introduce some of the important landmarks and the most beautiful spots in the area.
Along the Fori Imperiali
According to Rome’s history, we will start where it all began, obviously. Also, the area of the Fori Imperiali is in the very center of the city. All this makes it the perfect spot for commencing our exploration.
The Imperial Forums are four imperial terrains in the north and east of the Roman Forum. They were installed towards the end of the Roman Republic and in the early Imperial Era. Obviously, they carry their commissioners’ names – Caesar Forum, Augustus Forum, Nerva Forum, and Trajan’s Forum.
If you are a history buff, you’ll probably spend all your time in Rome in this neighborhood. There are uncountable temples, porticos, basilicas, and arches. The rocks’n’remnants and the dust of the past glory will make your head spin.
From 1924 to 1932, they built Via dei Fori Imperiali across the ancient ruins of the Imperial Forums. Benito Mussolini needed this broad boulevard for his military parades.
As you walk southeast on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, you’ll get to the Colosseum. This former Anfiteatro Flavio is not only the largest of all the amphitheaters stemming from ancient Rome. It is actually still the largest amphitheater worldwide!
The Colosseum was erected between 72 and 80 AD. As you know from books and movies, it was here where the imperial family organized incredibly brutal events. Hard to imagine that the free residents felt entertained and amused by those inhumane “games”. By the way, the entrance for them was free.
The entire area between the Colosseum and the Capitolino is basically an open-air museum. Hence, you can visit the premises only with a ticket.
Especially during the current pandemic, I highly recommend reading the website of the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo very thoroughly. On that site, you get all information regarding your visit. Most importantly, you can buy tickets online which saves you lots of time respectively makes a visit possible at all.
With the Forums, the Palatine, the Colosseum – to name just the most important spots – you can spend days at the Archeological Park. So, if you are not a total history buff or if you simply don’t have so much time to spare, you can just follow my guide alongside the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Or you climb the Capitolino to get a comprehensive view of these fascinating sites. Remember, it’s an open archeological site with basically no view obstruction. Therefore, you can see and even take pictures and get all the fascinating facts from a guidebook or an app. For the latter, you might want to check out MyWoWo. That’s a very informative and fun app that covers many great cities around the world. It is available in seven languages.
To continue our visit, you have to walk down the Via San Gregorio. Then, turn right into the Via dei Cerchi.
This boulevard runs alongside the Circus Maximus. Today, it’s an uncharming green space. Only the remains of a stone marble arena remind you that long ago, up to 250,000 Romans watched exciting chariot races from their seats.
Bocca della Verità
While today, the Circus Maximus is not very exciting, just around the corner is one of Rome’s quirkiest must-see.
The Bocca della Verità – the Mouth of Truth – is a disk-shaped relief. You’ll find it on the left side in the portico of the Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The bocca should be about 2,000 years old. However, it has been on the porch of the church only since 1632.
This landmark gained fame by the movie Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Since then, it’s a major tourist attraction.
According to the legend, anyone who puts his hand in the mouth and lies will have it bitten off.
The Legend of a Mouth
In the 15th century, the mouth was probably used for the examination of defendants. An executioner hid behind the mouth. Those who were found innocent were able to withdraw their hand unharmed. But the convicted ones had their hands cut off.
However, it’s unlikely that this has always been the Bocca della Verita’s purpose. It’s more likely that the disk once served as a manhole cover. According to its present appearance, it seems that people have walked on it for a long time. Also, it has five holes, namely the eyes, the nostrils, and the mouth. These enabled the water to drain into the Cloaca Maxima, which is located at the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church.
Across the Isola Tiberina
With 406 kilometers, the Tiber is Italy’s third-longest river. In Rome, over 30 bridges are crossing the Tiber. Ponte Fabricio, built in 62 BC, is the oldest one. However, it doesn’t cross the Tiber all the way. Actually, it spans from the left bank to the Isola Tiberina, the picturesque Tiber Island.
This island is, metaphorically and literally, the very center of the city of Rome. Its location made it one of the most important factors in the creation of Rome.
The Isle of the Sick’N’Tired
Around 290 BC, an epidemic struck the city – see, the mess we’re currently in isn’t even new. Following some superstitious mumbo-jumbo, they built a temple on the island. Porticos and other structures were added. This way, sick pilgrims found shelter. They were seeking miraculous cures on the premises. Several inscriptions are attesting to miraculous healings, votive tablets, and consecration gifts to the deity.
Also, masters sent their sick slaves to the island when the care became too burdensome for them. Actually, Emperor Claudius declared free all slaves who were healed on the island; which was indisputably a nice gesture.
Today, the island houses the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. Also, a hospital run by the Order of the Brothers of Mercy.
Also, Rome’s Jewish community used the island since the late 19th century.
Actually, there was a Jewish community in Rome since pre-Christian times. The area where most of the Jews lived was on the left bank of the Tiber.
In 1555, Pope Paul IV set up an enclosed living area for the Jews, a ghetto. It was named after the Jewish district in Venice. At the beginning of the 19th century, the ghetto had about 10,000 inhabitants. This made it one of the largest Jewish neighborhoods in Europe.
A five minutes walk west of the Piazza Mattei is another one of Rome’s wonders.
Somewhat hidden at the Piazza Capo di Ferro is the Palazzo Spada. Architect Bartolomeo Baronino built the palace in the 16th century. Bernardino Spada bought it in 1623 – hence the Palazzo’s name.
From 1635, Francesco Borromini restored the facade and laid out the famous perspective corridor. It is one of the most remarkable baroque optic illusions.
However, as you visit, they leave the best for last. First, you have to visit the Baroque art collection inside the historic rooms.
You’ll get to see for instance Rubens, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter who was the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
Trastevere – stemming from Latin trans Tiberim which translates to “across the Tiber” – was once Rome’s working-class neighborhoods on the right, western bank of the Tiber.
Throughout history, Trastevere has remained a multicultural district since immigrants came to this area for the relatively cheaper housing.
For the longest time, it was the most pristine and authentic district of the city. However, a disproportionately large number of old residential buildings and narrow streets have made Trastevere a tourist magnet. Consequently, since the 1970s, the neighborhood has been severely gentrified.
Porta Portese and Piazza dei Mercanti
One of the most popular spots in Trastevere for locals and tourists alike is the flea market that takes place every Sunday morning around the Porta Portese.
Walking up north, you’ll get to one of the most idyllic parts of Trastevere, the Piazza dei Mercanti. Apart from a gastronomic über-choice, there are some beautiful old churches such as the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere with Cavallini’s masterpiece fresco as well as a beautiful sculpture of Saint Cecilia. Also, there is the Ospitale di Santa Francesca Romana. It used to be a lodging house, designed in the 14th century as a refuge for the sick’n’tired. Today, it is a small yet fascinating museum.
For most of us visitors, all those beautiful churches housing sculptures by Michelangelo and paintings by Caravaggio are rather fancy museums. However, in a very Catholic country like Italy, they are full-functioning houses of worship. Hence, many have opening hours that do not match the ordinary traveller’s itinerary. For instance, many churches are on lunch-break between noon and maybe 4 p. m. So if you want to visit certain churches, check their opening hours. Normally, you’ll find them on the internet – sometimes right on google maps.
Nevertheless, always keep in mind that they often forbid touristy visits during service.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
Walking straight to the west, crossing the broad’n’ugly Viale di Trastevere, squeezing through all the narrow alleys takes you right to the quarter’s core, the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
A great square to enjoy a refreshment while rubbing shoulders with Romans – and, of course, some fellow travellers. But most importantly, it’s for the Santa Maria in Trastevere church, Rome’s oldest St. Mary’s Church that has been a Roman titular church since the early 12th century.
Already on the outside, the building is a piece of art with its golden mosaic facade and the four statues of saints. But let me tell you, the inside decor will just blow you away.
Pietro Cavallini created the mosaics on the triumphal arch and in the lower apse. They explicate the life of Mary in six pictures. From the birth of the Virgin over the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the wise, the offering of Jesus in the temple to her death.
Yes, the gentrification and mostly the popularity among visitors have transformed Trastevere into some sort of Italy-themed amusement park. However, while the Bohemian-Proletarian spirit is slowly fading away, the charming buildings and picturesque alleys still remain. A stroll through Trastevere is still mesmerizing.
So coming from the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, just dive into the net of alluring streets and alleys and walk north towards the Porta Settimiana, an archway from the 3rd century.
If you need a snack, turn right before the Porta Settimiana. Across from the Church of Saint Dorothea, hidden in a corner is the entrance to the teeny tiny Pizzeria La Boccaccia.
It’s basically a large hole in the wall where they sell some of the best pizza al taglio. That means that you determine how large a piece of their delicious pizzas you want and then you pay according to the weight. You can enjoy your pizza right on the spot or on the go.
Once you’ve finished your pizza, continue through the Porta Settimiana on Via della Lungara northwards.
On the next large block, two amazing artistic treasure boxes waiting for you to be opened.
The Riario family commissioned the villa in the 15th century. In the 18th century, the Corsini family remodeled it in a Baroque fashion.
In 1736, Pope Clement XII’s nephew Cardinal Neri Maria Corsini from Florence acquired the palace.
Today, the palace houses the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei as well as the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Corsini.
At this gallery, you get to admire works by Beato Angelico, Caravaggio, Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, and many, many more.
The gardens, however, are part of the Orto Botanica dell’Università di Roma, Rome’s botanic garden.
The galleries at the Palazzo Corsini are only one part of the Gallerie Nazionale, the National Galleries of Ancient Art. The other venue is the Palazzo Barberini that I’m introducing in the chapter Around Piazza Barberini below. For the price of 10 €uros, you can visit each venue once within ten days.
You can get further information on their website and buy tickets online for a small extra fee.
Please note that from October 1, 2020, the Palazzo Corsini is undergoing renovation. It will be closed until further notice.
Right across the street from the Palazzo Corsini is another magnificent, albeit, not that known venue, the Villa Farnesina.
The Tuscan banker and businessman Agostino Chigi commissioned the Villa in the early 16th century. Built by Baldassare Peruzzi, it proves the commissioner’s wealth as well as his passion for humanistic ideas and exquisite art.
Hence, famous artists of the early 16th century such as Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, and also Peruzzi himself decorated the rooms with their amazing frescoes.
In 1579, however, the villa came into the possession of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, from whom it then took its name.
Visiting the Villa
It consists of only six halls, but the frescoes on the walls and the ceilings are absolute masterpieces.
With its stylistic harmony and its elegance, the Villa Farnesina is one of the finest examples of the high renaissance in Rome and therefore absolutely worth the pretty high entrance fee of 10 €uros.
Also, on the presentation of your admission ticket to the Vatican Museums within 7 days after your visit, you’ll get a small discount at the Villa Farnesina.
Around Piazza di San Pietro
Strolling alongside the river Tiber from the Villa Farnesina up north, just turn left at the Vittorio Emanuele II bridge. From here, the broad and impressive Borgo Santo Spirito leads straight to Saint Peter’s Square.
Saint Peter’s Square was laid out by the Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1656 and 1667 under Pope Alexander VII in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Hence, it is on the territory of the Vatican City. In fact, the colonnades form the state border between the Vatican City and Italy.
These colonnades consist of 284 fifteen meter high columns of the Tuscan order, arranged in four rows.
140 statues of saints, each of them 3.2 meters high, are looking down on the visitors from the parapet. Holy moly, I didn’t even know there were this many Saints.
The paving of the square lowers towards the middle which allows overlooking the crowd.
In the square’s very center rises the so-called Vatican Obelisk 25 meters high. It was previously in Nero’s Circus and dates back to the 13th century BC.
To the north of the obelisk is a fountain designed by Carlo Maderno and to the south a font by the great Bernini himself.
The Vatican City
In 1929, the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See signed an agreement to establish the Vatican City. Since then, with only 0.44 square kilometers, this terrain has been the world’s smallest state.
The state territory is, obviously, surrounded by the Roman urban area. On the small terrain are the Papal Palace, Saint Peter’s Square with the basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Gardens, the Governor’s Palace, the barracks of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Radio, as well as other administration buildings.
According to the Lateran Treaties from 1929, the square and the basilica have remained open to the public. Also, the Italian police is in charge of security in this area. Nevertheless, their authority ends at the foot of the stairs that lead towards the basilica.
It’s an official state, hence, there are official documents. About 450 of the 800 residents have Vatican citizenship. The Holy See, however, issues personal, diplomatic, and service passports.
You don’t need to forsake your citizenship to get an official piece of the Vatican. Actually, the Vatican has its own postal service with a choice of particularly pretty stamps. So why not sending a postcard to your loved ones back home from the Vatican?!
By the way, rumor has it that even Romans are sending their mail by the Vatican post since they find it more reliable than the Italian one.
Basilica of Saint Peter
The Basilica of Saint Peter is the memorial church of Apostle Simon Peter and one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome. With a built-up area of 20,139 square meters and a capacity of 20,000 people, Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest of the papal basilicas and one of the world’s largest and most important churches.
From Bramante to Raphael
The first draft for the Basilica came from the first project manager Donato Bramante. After Bramante died in 1514, Raphael took over his duties together with Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giovanni Giocondo.
Then Came Michelangelo
Finally, in 1547, no less than Michelangelo Buonarroti took over. However, Michelangelo’s plans for Saint Peter’s were based on Bramante’s architecture. Hence, he designed a central building with four apses, the floor plan can still be found in the western part of the basilica.
To direct the gaze towards the tomb of Peter, Gian Lorenzo Bernini with the support of Francesco Borromini erected a 29-meter high bronze canopy right above the tomb.
Finally, in 1626, they had completed the construction so that Pope Urban VIII. consecrated the Saint Peter’s Basilica on November 18th.
As mentioned above, there are also the Vatican Museums on the premises of the Vatican State. To get there, you have to basically circumnavigate half of the state to the northside. Sounds a bit more effortful than it is since it actually takes about ten to fifteen minutes.
Especially during high season, I suggest you book your ticket a couple of days beforehand online. This way, you skip the sometimes extremely long lines.
The museums charge a considerable amount of almost 20 €uros so you can see all the treasures they got – and took – over the centuries.
I find that a bit questionable. Nevertheless, you get to see some of the world’s most precious pieces of art, so…
The Vatican Museums are mainly housing the papal art collections. These collections are some of the most important and largest in the world and include oriental antiquities from Egypt and Assyria and the classical Greco-Roman as well as Etruscan-Italian antiquities. Obviously, there is the early Christian and medieval art, art from the Renaissance and Baroque as well as modern and even contemporary art.
The most spectacular parts that can be visited are the Stanze di Raffaello, galleries covered by Raphael’s frescoes. And, of course, the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel
Pope Sixtus IV. commissioned the Sistine Chapel in the late 15th century and consequently named after him. The Holy See holds the conclave at this chapel. The Scala Regia and Sala Regia connect the Saint Peter’s Basilica with the Sistine Chapel. Nonetheless, tourists can enter only through the Vatican Museums.
Some of the world’s most famous images are embellishing the walls. Murals on the north and the south walls show scenes from the lives of Jesus and Moses. Some of the most famous Renaissance painters such as Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli decorated the chapel’s walls.
However, the ceiling is particularly noteworthy. In the early 16th century, Michelangelo Buonarroti painted scenes from the Genesis on a total of 520 square meters. There are no less than 115 larger-than-life figures.
Especially The Creation of Adam as God brings Adam to life with an outstretched finger is an often-cited excerpt.
Galleries, Chambers, and Gardens
The Sistine Chapel is indisputably the highlight of the Vatican Museums – and this is coming from me who usually hates the up-hyping of things. Still, there is much more to see. As a matter of fact, you could spend an entire day at these galleries.
Talking ’bout galleries, there are so-called Gallerie, namely the gallery of candelabras, the gallery of tapestries, and the gallery of maps. Even if you don’t pay much attention to the candelabras, tapestries, and maps, the beauty of the lavishly ornamented halls will mesmerize you.
Then there are all those countless unstintingly decorated and furnished halls. The chambers of Pius V., the Sobieski Hall, the Borgia-Apartments – all these will make your head spin.
West of the museum are the Vatican Gardens. They can also be visited, however, the entrance fee is not included in the museum ticket.
The Raphael Rooms
Another indispensable highlight of your museum visit will be the Raphael Rooms.
First commissioned by Julius II, Raphael and his contributors continued painting the frescoes under the patronage of Pope Leo X until 1524.
The four rooms are Sala di Costantino, Stanza di Eliodoro, Stanza della Segnatura and Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo according to their main themes.
Sala di Costantino
The Sala di Costantino is the largest room intended for official receptions. The four scenes from the life of Emperor Constantine are basically dealing with the victory of Christianity over paganism.
Stanza di Eliodoro
The Stanza di Eliodoro served as a room for private audiences under Julius II. The frescoes also have a political orientation and aim at the god-given wealth and independence of the papacy.
Stanza della Segnatura
Raphael decorated the Stanza della Segnatura with four of his most famous frescoes. They actually were a milestone of decorative arts during the High Renaissance.
This room was Julius II’s library and study. Today, the bookshelves are only simulated on the north wall.
In fact, the Stanza della Segnatura was the first of the four rooms that Raphael painted.
Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo
The Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo was second and painted between 1514 and 1517. While it was a dining room under Leo X., it served as a courtroom under Julius II.
What do you mean, you’re tired? By now, you’ve seen only a fraction of the Vatican’s treasures!
You still need to visit a handful of venues like the Egyptian or the Etruscan galleries. There’s the library and there are the collections of ceramics, vases, carriages. Presumably, there’s nothing that the Vatican has not collected.
One of my very favorite parts, however, is the Museum of Classical Antiquity. The sub-collections are some of the most important Greco-Roman collections of antiquities in the world.
Besides being arranged at the vast indoor galleries, many of those treasures are grouped al fresco at the Cortile Ottagono, the octagon courtyard.
One of Rome’s most iconic buildings is the somewhat unusual Castle of the Holy Angel. Originally, it was meant to be a mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian and his successors. Only later it was converted into a castle by various popes.
The architectural style, which goes back to the ancient Etruscan tombs, seems strange. Yet, there were similar buildings in those times like the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Via Appia Antica or Emperor Augustus’ mausoleum on the Campus Martius.
The complex got its current name in 590 during the plague. According to a legend, Archangel Michael announced the end of the disease to Pope Gregory I the Great by sheathing his sword in divine anger. Since the plague actually came to an end they put a statue of the angel on the top of the building. After all, you never know…
At the Museum
From 1901, the building was no longer in use as a castle and in 1906 finally became a museum. It deals with the building’s history and shows antique weapons, furniture, and everyday objects.
A 122 meters long ramp spirals upwards from the lowest level. On the second level, there are the former prison and storage rooms for wheat and oil. The third floor is the military one and has two courtyards.
The most important level is the fourth one. Here you will find the papal apartment, a series of rooms with mannerist frescoes by artists from Raphael’s school.
On the top is a terrace with the bronze angel as well as the so-called poor sinner’s bell.
Castel Sant’Angelo gained new fame in the early 20th century when in Puccini’s opera Tosca the protagonist commits suicide by throwing herself from the building.
Also, in Dan Brown’s novel Illuminati, the secret society of the very Illuminati met at the castle, and the assassin was also hiding here.
It was Emperor Hadrian who commissioned the Saint Angelo Bridge. He wanted to connect the Field of Mars directly to his mausoleum. Inaugurated in ancient times, it was considered the world’s most beautiful bridge.
You might think that the angel statues gave the bridge its name. As a matter of fact, it was the other way around. According to the bridge’s name, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his students created ten magnificent angels in baroque style. Each of them carries a prop connected to the passion story. One carries a cross, others the crown of thorns, a lance, etc.
However, two of the statues are just replicas. Bernini’s originals are now in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.
In the past, an unimaginable number of pilgrims came to Rome in search of indulgences for their sins. The throng of pilgrims across the Ponte Sant’Angelo pushing between the stalls of shopkeepers and jugglers must have been utter madness. Then, in 1450, the shy of some horses and mules among the crowds caused a total of 172 deaths. Consequently, Pope Nicholas V had all stands and booths removed to grant unhindered passage.
Also, this incident led to the construction of the Ponte Sisto.
Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II
Just a couple of meters west of Ponte Sant’Angelo is another truly artistic bridge, the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II.
Although construction had begun in 1886, the bridge was inaugurated only in 1911.
This bridge is like a small art gallery as you will encounter four monumental allegorical sculptures. Carved from travertine marble in 1911, they symbolize Monarchy gives Consolation to the People of Rome during the Flood 1870 by Cesare Reduzzi and Edoardo Rubino, Loyalty to the Statute by Giuseppe Romagnoli, Military Bravery by Italo Griselli, as well as Italy’s Unification by Giovanni Nicolini.
It is noteworthy that the flame of freedom in the group Loyalty to the Statute is protected against the winds blowing from the Vatican. This is a clearly anticlerical message
Along Piazza Navona
Just like there are hundreds of churches and thousands of fountains in Rome, there are uncountable Piazze. Obviously, not each of these squares is huge and mesmerizing. Yet, many are, and Baroque Piazza Navona is definitely one of the most glorious places.
Built in the heart of the former Field of Mars, the territory served as a rather provisional stadium for games of the Greek type, hence, athletic competitions for about 30,000 spectators.
The first church was built inside the stadium. Little by little, houses were added to the substructures. This way, the shape of the arena has been preserved to this day.
Fountain of Four Rivers
In the mid 17th century, turbo-designer Bernini created the iconic Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers.
Four colossal male figures symbolize the largest rivers of the then known four continents: Europe’s Danube, the African Nile, the Ganges in Asia, and Río de la Plata in the Americas.
Bernini also redesigned the two older fountains, the Fontana del Moro in the south and the Neptune fountain in the north, that Giacomo della Porta had built in the 16th century.
The noble Pamphilj family, originating from Umbria, was politically and ecclesiastically highly influential – to say the least. In the 16th and 17th centuries, not only a pope and several cardinals emerged from that clan. They also owned incredible palaces all over the place.
So the most majestic building on Piazza Navona is the Pamphilj Palace, the seat of the Brazilian embassy since 1920. Further below, I’m also introducing the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, another stately palace housing an exquisite art collection.
Due to its historic significance, its central location, and last not least its beauty, the Piazza Navona is a must-see when visiting Rome. Consequently, it’s very touristy with loads of souvenir shops and restaurants on the buildings’ ground floors. Also, be a bit cautious when strangers are addressing you.
Especially on mild summer evenings, the place is bustling with life.
On Piazza Navona’s southern tip is the Museo di Roma, housed in the Palazzo Braschi – just in case my post doesn’t supply with enough info on the city.
Chiesa di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
As you leave the square on the southeastern corner and get to the Corso del Rinascimento, the awe continues right away. At the end of a courtyard, you’ll spot the Chiesa di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. This church was designed by Baroque master Borromini. It has a geometrically quite complex interior and on top is a very unique spiral lantern.
Actually, to me, Swiss-born Francesco Borromini is at least as big an architectonic and artistic genius as Bernini. His work is actually far more sophistically detailed and distinctive. Yet, his attribution to Rome’s artistic glory is kind of overshadowed by Bernini in terms of quantity.
On the complex’s outer northern wall you shouldn’t miss one of Rome’s most endearing fountains. Or is it endeering? Because its round arch actually has a deer head placed between four ancient books. It’s there in honor of the Sapienza University, and if you drink from this fountain of knowledge, you get admitted to a faculty of your choice tuition-free for one year.
Yes, you got me there: I was just making that up. Nevertheless, the fountain is beautiful.
What I’m not making up – and find pretty amazing – is the fact that you can actually drink from most of Rome’s 2,000 public fountains. Or, obviously, fill up your drinking bottle. Only if it’s explicitly interdicted, the water is not potabile, hence, drinkable.
As you continue further north on the Corso del Rinascimento, passing by some glorious palazzi such as the Palazzo Carpegna and the Madama Palace that today serve as governmental buildings, you’ll get to the Church of Saint Louis of the French.
Caravaggio in Sacred Spaces
As I mentioned above, many of Rome’s churches are not open all the time. Especially since the last time I visited, a pandemic impeded some of the planned visits.
Still, you find Caravaggio’s paintings around the Piazza Navona at the San Luigi dei Francesi Church. Here you get to see three paintings since the Cycle of Saint Matthew consists of The Calling, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
Just a few steps further north is the Church of Sant’Agostino where you get to see the Pilgrim’s Madonna, also known as the Madonna of Loreto,
Above Piazza del Popolo
The third Roman church where you can admire two paintings by Caravaggio is the Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo.
Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo
This basilica was founded in the 11th century and restored by no one less than Bernini in the 17th century. Apart from Caravaggio’s paintings Conversion of Saint Paul and Crucifixion of Saint Peter that are flanking the Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci at one of the most important paintings at the Basilica is Raphael’s.
The Piazza del Popolo is one of Rome’s most famous squares. It was here where visitors entered the Eternal City in ancient times.
Then, Giuseppe Valadier created today’s appearance in a neoclassical style in the very early 19th century.
Frankly, when it comes to a lively Roman atmosphere, there are certainly nicer squares within the city center. Nevertheless, the Piazza del Popolo is definitely worth a visit for its splendid architecture.
An outstanding feature, however, are certainly the famous twin churches on the square’s southern side. To the left is Santa Maria in Montesanto and to the right Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Both houses of worship were created by Carlo Rainaldi, Carlo Fontana, and – of course! – Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Between the two churches, by the way, starts the Via del Corso, Rome’s busiest shopping streets. Flanked by branches of basically every popular chain store on earth, it leads all the way to Piazza Venezia.
To the east of the square stands Valadier’s Fontana della Dea Roma. Behind the Goddess’s back rises the Pincio hill. From the Pincio’s terrace, you have a grand view of the western part of the city.
Right on top of the Pincio is the Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s most famous parks. Since the city is rather famous for dusty old rocks, it might come as a surprise that it is Europe’s second ‘greenest’ city. In fact, we are talking about 15 parks, public gardens, and historical villas, hence, greeneries.
The Villa Borghese emerged from the estate of a noble family. Originally, the lots included vineyards, nurseries, stables. and coach houses. Also, there used to be a zoo with exotic animals and plants, an aviary, and waters.
Already the 17th century, however, the Villa Borghese became also famous for its ancient art treasures.
In the early 17th century the so-called Casino Nobile was built to house the private art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Today, it’s one of the world’s most famous and valuable private art collections. The Galleria Borghese is also the park’s most famous attraction.
Museo Carlo Bilotti
Yet, the Galleria Borghese is only the most famous of the museums at the Villa, by far not the only one.
In the garden’s northwestern part, not far from the Laghetto is the Carlo Bilotti Museum. At the Villa Borghese’s Orangery is the collection donated by the Italo-American entrepreneur and collector Carlo Bilotti. On display are paintings by Gino Severini, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, and a vast collection of works by Giorgio De Chirico.
The museum is rather small and if you aren’t a De Chirico-nut, you’ll have a great visit to Rome even if you skip it. On the other hand, entrance is free, so once you’re in the area, why not just dropping in?!
Museo Pietro Canonica
Another small yet beautiful museum is just around the corner from the Museo Carlo Bilotti.
Sculptor Pietro Canonica lived at La Fortezzuola until he died in 1959. Now it houses his museum. On the ground floor is the late artist’s study. There is also a copy of the stele for the monument to Paisiello, one of his latest works, and all the tools.
He created his sculptures in a Naturalistic Realism with clear influence from Romantic and Renaissance fashion. However, later, Canonica devoted himself to more religious artworks. Inspired by Donatello’s sculpture, he created works like Christ Scourged in Blood, a Crucified Christ, and a Deposed Christ.
Besides statues of Italian and foreign aristocracy such as the last Russian Tsar, he also designed monumental and artistic mausoleums and tombs.
Just like the Museo Carlo Bilotti, you can visit the Museo Pietro Canonica free of charge.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GNAM)
The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art houses a comprehensive collection of Italian and foreign art from the 19th century to today. It was founded in 1883.
In 1915, the collection transitioned from the Palazzo delle Esposizioni to the Palazzo delle Belle Arti.
Today, the collection includes over 5,000 paintings and sculptures from the neoclassical period to contemporary. You can admire works by Antonio Canova, Alexander Calder, Alighiero Boetti, Giorgio De Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Giacometti, Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, Henry Moore, Pistoletto, and Andy Warhol – to name just a few of the internationally renowned artists on display.
A visit to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna can be pretty refreshing after all the Antiquity, Renaissance, and Baroque you get to see all around the city. Apart from Monday, it’s open daily from 9 a. m. to 7 p. m. and the general entrance fee is 10 €uros.
At Piazza di Spagna
The Piazza di Spagna is just a stone-throw from the southern corner of the Villa Borghese. And just like you have to see the Empire State Building in New York or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you have to have visited the Piazza di Spagna. For the myth.
Obviously, also for the world-famous Spanish Steps that connect the square with the Church Santa Trinità dei Monti. In front of the steps is another artistic fountain. It was the grand Bernini’s father Pietro who built the Fontana della Barcaccia in the form of a stranded boat.
On the square’s southern part is the Palazzo di Spagna. It houses the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta. The fact that it was basically an extraterritorial property of Spain for centuries gave the square its name.
The Colonna dell’Immacolata, the Pillar of the Immaculate, stands right in front of the Palazzo di Spagna. On the feast day of the Conception of Mary on December 8th, the Pope traditionally comes to the column to pray.
While the Pope is praying, many others come to this neighborhood to pay homage to the Gods of fashion. Actually, the Piazza di Spagna is the center of Rome’s high fashion district. The most important Italian and international fashion brands have branches on Via dei Condotti and the side streets.
Fontana di Trevi
Only ten minutes south of the Piazza die Spagna is another truly legendary landmark. The Trevi Fountain is with a height of 26 meters and a width of 50 meters Rome’s largest fountain. Also, it is definitely one of the most famous fountains in the world.
In 1640, on behalf of Pope Urban VIII., Gian Lorenzo Bernini began building an elaborate fountain. For lack of money, however, they only enlarged the square and built a large shallow basin. Around the same time, the Counts Conti di Poli built the two wings of their palace next to the fountain.
Finally, by then rather unknown architect Nicola Salvi built today’s fountain in the mid-18th century.
The fountain has a palace facade with a protruding triumphal arch. In front of it, sea figures cavort on a rocky landscape. In between, water runs into a large flat basin.
Legend has it that throwing a coin in the fountain guarantees your return to Rome. Judging from my many trips to Italy’s capital, for me, it’s definitely working.
A couple of movies contributed to the fountain’s fame – mind you, before Instagram.
Already in 1954, the American movie Three Coins in the Fountain made the custom of tossing coins into the fountain popular.
Then, in 1960, in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg takes a nightly bath in the fountain with Marcello Mastroianni. It’s actually one of the most famous scenes in film history.
In the film Totòtruffa 62, the Italian comedian Totò tries to sell the Trevi Fountain to a tourist in 1961. By then, the fountain was already ridiculed as a tourist magnet.
The fountain also appeared in Hollywood’s most favorite production set in Rome. Roman Holiday is a romantic film featuring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the leads. For Hepburn, the success of the film was her breakthrough in Hollywood, and her portrayal of a modern princess earned her the Oscar for Best Actress.
Around Piazza Barberini
The Piazza Barberini was laid out in the 16th century and named after the adjacent Palazzo Barberini. Until the 18th century, unknown deceased were displayed on the square to be identified.
There are two remarkable fountains on the square – mind you, two of 2,000. Both were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century. I mean, one could really think that this good man built today’s Rome practically by himself.
Although both fountains have a rather ocean-related theme, they are adorned with three bees. The bees, as a symbol of hard work, dedication, and eloquence, are an important element in the Barberini family’s coat of arms. Due to the family’s wealth and importance, they were incorporated in many of the Baroque designs.
Le Quattro Fontane
Talking ’bout fountains: Not far from the Piazza Barberini, actually, just one very long block up south are even four fountains at each corner of a street crossing.
Appropriately, they are named Quattro Fontane, hence, four fountains. And guess who built them: Domenico Fontana! I mean, come on, how crazy is that?!
These four basins are at the intersection of Via Quirinale and Via delle Quattro Fontane on top of the Quirinal hill. The artist chose four deities, namely the river gods of Arno and Tiber as well as the goddesses from Roman mythology Diana and Juno.
This intersection is actually also a piece of art in terms of urban planning. The center of the crossing is located on the visual axes of four distinctive buildings in Rome. From here you spot the obelisks on the Piazza di Quirinale, at the Piazza di Spagna, and in front of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore as well as the city gate of the Porta Pia.
Once you’re at the intersection, you might want to pay Francesco Borromini’s Baroque Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane visit. Borromini built it in the mid 17th century, and it is considered one of his masterpieces.
Two nephews of Pope Urban VIII, namely Taddeo and Francesco Barberini, commissioned this Baroque palace in the early 17th century.
The first architect was Carlo Maderno, however, after his death in 1629, no other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini took over.
Also, the man in Bernini’s shadow, Francesco Borromini, designed the spiral staircase in the south wing.
The art collection of over 1500 works ranks from the 12th century to neoclassicism. The foundation of this amazing collection came into the possession of the Italian state after the dissolution of the Papal States in 1870.
Some of the most famous works are Madonna col Bambino by Filippo Lippi, Raphael’s La Fornarina, Jacopo Tintoretto’s Christ and the Adulteress,
El Greco’s Adorazione dei Pastori and – last not least – Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes.
As in many Italian museums, also when visiting this gallery, you shouldn’t pay attention to the paintings and sculptures. Let also the lavishly decorated walls and most of all the amazing ceilings distract you from the exhibits.
Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power
Particularly the grand salon will just blow you away. It’s twice as high as the other rooms. The walls are coated with a shimmering golden silk wallcovering.
But look up! On the ceiling, Pietro da Cortona painted the fresco Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power.
Four lateral areas and one central motive cover more than 400 square meters. The central scene represents the Divine Providence, equipped with a scepter, and surrounded by a luminous halo that alludes to its divine emanation. Behind it, you’ll spot Justice, Piety, Power, Truth, Beauty, and Modesty. Above flies Immortality, represented as Urania.
Above, at the peak of the image, the three theological virtues Faith, Hope, and Charity are holding a laurel wreath with the iconic Barberini bees in its center.
The four lateral images celebrate the “good governance” of the Pope and his nephews, the Barberini brothers.
The galleries at the Palazzo Barberini are only one part of Gallerie Nazionale in Rome. The other venue is the Palazzo Corsini that I’m introducing in the chapter At Trastevere.
For the price of 10 €uros, you can visit each venue once within ten days.
However, from October 1, 2020, the Corsini will remain closed for renovation until further notice.
Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
North of the Piazza Barberini, basically behind the Fontana delle Api, is the church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.
Pope Urban VIII’s brother Antonio Barberini was a Capuchin friar. Hence, the Pope himself commissioned the church Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins. It was built in the early 17th century by Antonio Casoni. Actually, to this date, it belongs to a Capuchin monastery.
Various grand paintings by famous artists are decorating the small nave and the side chapels. At the altar, you can admire the Madonna in Glory Among Angels with Saint Felix of Cantalice in Adoration of the Child Jesus by Veronese Baroque painter Alessandro Turchi.
The most important work, however, is indisputably Guido Reni’s dramatic altarpiece of St. Michael the Archangel at the first chapel.
Museo e Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini
While visiting the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is free of charge, if you want to visit the adjacent museum and the crypt, general admission is 8 €uros.
As for the museum, I’d say whatever, the crypt is quirky’n’creepy and totally worth the visit.
This ossuary contains the remains of 4,000 friars buried between 1500 and 1870. During that period, the Roman Catholic Church permitted burials in and under churches.
Obviously, those Capuchin friars were very witty and creative. Hence, they tinkered pretty designs from their co-religionist’s mortal remains.
In a corridor and at six small chapels, the clever and talented friars arranged skulls, pelvic bones, and shoulder blades into lovely wall decorations such as garlands, flowers, and other decors. You can also see a chandelier made entirely of bones. In addition, they left some of the skeletons intact. Wearing their Franciscan habits, they decoratively stand amidst their brothers’ shinbones.
Several famous authors wrote after they had visited the crypt. Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the crypt in his novel The Marble Faun. Marquis de Sade affirmed in his Journey to Italy he had never seen anything more striking. And Mark Twain portrayed the crypt in his travel book The Innocents Abroad.
Across Piazza della Rotonda
Now to get from the Piazza Barberini to the Piazza della Rotonda, you can just walk down the Largo Chigi. It’s about 15 minutes – and I recommend you stop about halfway at the Rinascente, since 1865 Italy’s high-end department store.
You don’t need to shop there to get to the 6th floor and the rooftop terrace. From there, you have a grand panoramic view of Rome – and maybe you’d like to enjoy it while having an aperitivo. La Dolce Vita can be so…sweet.
The Piazza della Rotonda itself is not that exciting. However, there are some of the most important landmarks in the vicinity.
The Pantheon has been consecrated as a Roman Catholic Church. Its official name is Santa Maria ad Martyres.
For over 1,700 years, the pantheon had the world’s largest dome, measured by its inner diameter. It is one of the best-preserved buildings of Roman antiquity. Construction began under Emperor Trajan around 114 AD and ended under Emperor Hadrian between around 125 AD.
From the Renaissance onwards, the Pantheon has been the burial place of important artists such as Annibale Carracci and, of course, Raphael.
After the unification of Italy, the building also served as the burial place of the first two Italian Kings Vittorio Emmanuele II and Umberto I. The remains of the last Italian King Vittorio Emmanuele III, however, were not admitted to the Pantheon because of his doubtful position during the fascist era.
Interestingly, in contrast to most other Roman churches, the Pantheon is owned by the Italian state, not by the Catholic church.
Chiesa di Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola
But don’t you worry, there are enough houses of worship left for the Curia. For instance, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, next to the Chiesa del Gesù the second-largest Jesuit church in Rome. It is the burial place of three saints and a Pope.
Its most outstanding features, however, are the perspective frescoes by Andrea Pozzo, a painter, and Jesuit friar.
This master of perspective architecture had to solve the lack of an actual dome by illusionistic painting. Since the dome painting was such a success, Pozzo eventually painted the entire vault.
The theme of the huge fresco above the nave is the apotheosis of Saint Ignatius.
I’ve seen an incredible number of ceilings at churches and palaces in Rome, however, this fresco has actually been the most impressive one.
Gelateria Della Palma
Talking ’bout impressive – no visit to Rome would be complete with loads and loads of gelato. Whereby I have to clarify for once and for all that gelato is the Italian word for ice cream and does not necessarily describe some delicacy. Consequently also bad ice cream is gelato – bad gelato.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to find bad gelato in Italy, they have practiced for eternities. And with that, they have developed the most delicious and unusual gusti – flavors. During this trip, I had my most unusual gelato at Corniglia in the Cinque Terre: Basil ice cream, topped with native olive oil.
However, you can try gusti ranging from ordinary vanilla and chocolate to all kinds of exotic fruits at the Gelateria della Palma just a few steps from the Pantheon. At their parlor on Via della Maddalena, you can choose from 150 flavors!
Sampling 150 flavors takes a little time. Therefore it’s very convenient that they are open every day from 8.30 a.m. to 12.30 a. m.
Colonna di Marco Aurelio
Licking your gelato – quickly before it melts and drops on your light-colored summer dress walk eastwards to the Piazza Colonna.
They call it this for the Colonna di Marco Aurelio, a column erected in honor of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
This Doric column’s shaft is over 29 meters high. You can add 10 more meters for the pedestal.
27 marble blocks were brought from Carrara to Rome to build the moment. To build an inner staircase, the builders had to hollow the blocks out. This way, it was possible to climb up all the way to the platform.
The relief band spirals in 23 turns and depicts 116 scenes from the Marcomannic Wars. Marcus Aurelius appears 62 times.
Around the Piazza della Rotonda and the adjacent streets are a couple of jewelers selling replicas of Etruscan and Ancient Roman earrings, rings, and necklaces. If you are into this style, it’s a good place to shop for them. You’ll get very similar stuff at the gift shops of some of the museums, however, for a much higher price.
Also, this kind of jewelry makes a great gift for your loved ones at home who haven’t been so lucky to make it to Rome.
Around Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano
The huge Lateran complex consists of several buildings, not just the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.
There are also the Lateran Palace, the cloister, the baptistery, and the obelisk. The Papal Chapel and the Holy Stairs are just across the street.
Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano
The San Giovanni in Laterano is the episcopal church of Rome – and not Saint Peter’s Basilica which is at the Vatican State, as you know. It is one of Rome’s seven pilgrimage churches and one of the five papal basilicas.
At the request of Innocent X., Francesco Borromini remodeled the dilapidated church. Although he retained the original shape of the church, he had to completely rebuild the aisles. In the main nave, he reduced the original design to 5 arches per side with wall panels in between.
In the walled-in niches, he built large aedicules for colossal marble statues of the twelve apostles by baroque sculptors such as Camillo Rusconi, Pierre Legros, and Pierre Monnot.
Popes were crowned in the Lateran until the 19th century, and there are numerous papal tombs in the church.
The octagonal Baptistery of the Lateran is probably the oldest in Christendom. It is freestanding on the square’s western side and is considered the prototype of all baptisteries.
The baptistery stems from 315 and got its octagon shape in the early 5th century. Despite many alterations, it still shows some remains of ancient mosaics and the ancient columns made of Egyptian porphyry.
“Do you need any information?” asked the young man at the entrance in a quite snappy tone.
“This is not a museum, this is part of the Holy See!” he kept snapping. “Okay?”
“Do you want to go up on your knees or do you want to take the regular stairs?”
“Uhm…beg your pardon?”
“That’s why I asked whether you needed information. To go up, you can either take the stairs to your right. Or you do it on your knees” he pointed to the stairs behind me where four ladies were crawling up the stairs on their hands and knees, mumbling the Lord’s prayer on every step.
I’m so not the type that crawls on her knees. I’m very much into equal footing. No pun intended, but also, in this case, I will go on foot.
“Okay, then you can take pictures and eventually go up the other stairs” shrugged the young man.
To me, the sight of people crawling on their knees deems so demeaning’n’disturbing. Hence, it’s very irritating that on the one hand I got lectured about this Sacred place – and on the other hand, I can merrily snap away….weird.
As I get to the Chapel Sancta Sanctorum upstairs, I spot a large sign that from here, taking pictures is prohibited. So the faithful are granted at least a little dignity.
The staircase led originally to the Lateran Palace. During the modification of the Palace, they moved the three-flight marble staircase to its current location. Architect Domenico Fontana extended the stairs by two more lateral flights.
Above Piazza Venezia
On my first visits to Rome, the Piazza Venezia scared the…you know what out of me. There were streams of cars and motorbikes moving quickly in circles and there seemed to be no chance to cross the square alive. We held each other by the hands and hesitantly searched for a way of crossing. Doing as the Romans do gets a whole different, life-saving meaning. We were looking for locals to cross this square of death in their slipstream.
Although already in the time of the Roman Republic, the square was an important traffic junction, it got its current shape when the Monumento Vittorio Emmanuele II was built on its south side.
Monumento Vittorio Emmanuele II
The Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the so-called Altar of the Fatherland, completed in 1927, is dedicated to the first king of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy. It is one of the state symbols of the Italian Republic.
Giuseppe Sacconi began to build it in 1885. In 1911, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Italy’s unification, it was inaugurated while still unfinished. It was not completed until 1927. The monument indicates the taste of the neoclassical style. Typical are the massive marble stairs, a twelve-meter-high bronze equestrian statue of the King, and a monumental row of columns on the upper level.
There is a tomb of the unknown soldier and the “Altar of the Fatherland” (Italian Altare della Patria) on the Vittoriano. The eternal flame is guarded day and night by two soldiers. From there the view extends over the Roman Forum, the imperial forums in the southeast, and far over the city of Rome.
An eternal fire burns in the middle of the stairs in honor of the Unknown Soldier. Two soldiers are guarding it 24/7.
On top of the monument are two quadrigas, one symbolizing freedom and the other unity.
Museo Centrale del Risorgimento
In the eastern part of the building is the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento. In the middle part, you can visit a flag museum for free.
The ascent to the first terrace is free, you only have to pay for the elevator to the viewing terrace on the rooftop.
Mind you, the drive is definitely worth it since from there, you have a spectacular 360-degree view over Rome.
Welcome to my favorite Roman museum! Just like the Musei Vaticani, the plural is not a typo, but well-deserved. Various marvelous art collections are presented in spacious galleries. Those are in three buildings standing around the Piazza del Campidoglio just behind the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.
The Capitoline Museums date back to 1471 when the city of Rome received a collection of sculptures of ancient Greek and Roman gods from Pope Sixtus IV. Also, when Pius V wanted to clean the Vatican palaces of pagan statues, he transferred them to the Conservator’s Palace, one of the Capitoline Museum’s galleries.
Only after the acquisition of Cardinal Albani’s art collection, the exhibition was opened to the public in 1734.
During the 20th century, further galleries were incorporated into the museums. Nevertheless, in 1997, part of the collection was moved to the Centrale Montemartini due to construction work but remained a permanent branch.
Around the Piazza del Campidoglio are these three buildings:
Palazzo dei Conservatori
On the ground floor of this building are the ticket offices and the main entrance.
The frescoes, stuccos, carved ceilings, and doors have as their main theme the ancient history of Rome. The oldest frescoes date back to the early 16th century. They are on the building’s main floor, called Apartment.
The other rooms were renewed according to Michelangelo’s designs.
Also, in these galleries, the most iconic works like the Lupa Capitolina nursing Romulus and Remus, the Artemis of Ephesus, and the Capitoline Thorn Extractor are on display, next to uncountable other lesser-known treasures.
Particularly the former courtyard where you can see the original equestrian statue of Marc Aurelius, as well as the hall with the sculptures from the Horti Lamiani, are just mind-blowing. This amazing sculpture collection once adorned the Lamian Gardens atop the Esquiline Hill.
In a wing added in the mid-20th century is a Pinacotheca. Here, you will admire famous works by Caravaggio, Titian, Rubens, and many other famous artists from Italy and other European countries.
Pieces of larger-than-life sculptures are awaiting you at the Palazzo’s cortile.
Galleria Lapidaria and the Tabularium
The underground Lapidary Gallery has been connecting the Capitoline palaces Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo 8 meters below the ground floor level since the end of the 1930s. It also preserves the remains of Roman dwellings from the II century AD.
Passing through the Lapidary Gallery, you enter the Tabularium.
There, a gallery is opening onto the Roman Forum – to me, one of the Musei’s most amazing parts.
Based on Michelangelo’s project, the Palazzo Nuovo was built to bring the design of the Capitoline square to perfection.
Following ornamental criteria, rows of sculptures from different periods are lining both sides of the galleries. Mind you, many of the statues are Roman copies of Greek masterpieces.
The precious ancient sculptures are mostly stemming from private collections of Roman clerics and noble families.
Sculptures of gods and personages from ancient mythology grant a unique overview of figurative art from antiquity.
Two heads are better than one
My favorite exhibits are the Hall of the Emperors and the Hall of the Philosophers. Both contain shelves of sculpted portraits of Emperors and Empresses and other important personages of the Imperial Age respectively Greek and Roman philosophers.
Notwithstanding many changes that had taken place over the centuries, this part of the gallery has more or less maintained its original 18th-century appearance.
At the Palazzo Nuovo’s cortile is a large niche with a massive fountain from the 1st century AD. Its central piece is Marforio, the powerful river god.
National Museum of the Palazzo di Venezia
The Palazzo Venezia, in the 15th century a papal palace, was during the fascist era the seat of Mussolini’s government until 1943. From the balcony, the dictator gave his speeches to the Romans and proclaimed Italy’s entry into the war against France and Great Britain in 1940.
Doria Pamphili Gallery
I’ve already introduced the wealthy and powerful Pamphilj family above.
While the majestic Pamphilj Palace stands at the Piazza Navona, the Doria-Pamphilj Villa is on the Via del Corso, just a stone’s throw from the Piazza Venezia.
The story of the Doria-Pamphilj is the result of various alliances between noble families from all parts of Italy.
The property originally belonged to the Della Rovere family. Since 1647, it belongs to the Pamphilj family by marriage.
In 1671, Pamphilj’s daughter Anna married the Genoese aristocrat Giovanni Andrea III Doria-Landi. Their descendants inherited the palace, while the Roman branch of the Pamphilj family died out in 1760. In 2000, with Prince Filippo Doria-Pamphilj-Landi’ only daughter Donna Orietta, the family had died out.
Today’s Galleria Doria Pamphilj houses a valuable collection of paintings and art objects and is open to the public.
The Galleria Doria Pamphilj contains baroque halls with furniture and interior decorations. But also, there is one of Rome’s most important private art collections on display.
You’ll get to see numerous famous paintings by old masters like Raffael, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Carracci, and Guercino.
In 1666, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj initiated a vast collection of precious paintings.
Make sure to pick up one of the audio guides to learn many fascinating details about the families, the building, and, of course, the works on display.
All Roads Lead to Rome: How to Get There
Rome has two airports: The Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Fiumicino and the G.B. Pastine International Airport in Ciampino. The latter is basically a hub for Europe’s low-cost airlines.
You have 3 options for transportation from Fiumicino Airport to the city center. The most comfortable option is taking a Fiumicino airport taxi. The flat rate to the center is currently 48 €uros. Depending on the traffic, the trip takes around 40 minutes. The cheapest transfer is by bus. The tickets are only 5.80 €uros. The bus should need less than an hour. The best way, however, is by train. There are two trains to choose from. The direct ride costs 14 €uros. With changing trains at Trastevere, you pay only 8 €uros.
By Long-Distance Bus
Travelling by long-distance bus is getting really popular in Europe. The cheap prices make up for the little loss of time compared to trains. And since various companies are competing, the service is usually very reliable.
One of the most popular bus companies in Europe is flixbus. They are going to Rome from many European cities like for instance Ljubljana in 10 hours, Munich in about 14 hours, or Vienna in approximately 18 hours. Obviously, there are also many connections within Italy like Milan and Venice.
There are two main bus terminals in Rome. One is Anagnina, which is the southeastern terminus of subway line A. The other is Roma Tiburtina, actually Rome’s second-largest railway station. It is located in the northeastern part of the city.
Also, the trains to the town of Tivoli are leaving from the Tiburtina station.
I know that Italian trains do not have a great reputation. I cannot subscribe to that. Having taken tons of trains in Italy, I never had to face major disruptions or problems.
Compared to other European countries, train travel is very cheap – if you book well ahead, even in first-class coaches.
Also, trenitalia, the national train company, has a very clear, well-functioning website. Here you can make a reservation and, hence, take advantage of great offers.
Like most other Italian cities, Rome has various train stations, whereby the most important one is Roma Termini. Hence, when buying a ticket, always double-check from which station your train is leaving and at which station it will arrive.
How to Get Around
Since there are landmarks, churches, and museums everywhere in Rome, I spend basically entire days walking. Already around noon, this app on my phone that I’ve actually never installed tells me that I reached my day’s goal. And those are scarily many steps.
Although it can be very tiresome, I do recommend exploring Rome walking. It’s the only chance to enjoy also all those unexpected corners and cobblestone alleys. And really, Rome’s center is not that large. Only if you intend to visit places outside the very core, you might want to go by public transport.
There are subways and trams, however, the most comprehensive coverage is by bus.
You’ll get all connections in real-time on google maps.
An individual ticket costs 1.50 €uros and is valid for 75 minutes from the moment of validation. It allows unlimited transfers between the subway, trams, buses, and urban trains within the municipality of Rome. However, you cannot leave the metro and return through the turnstiles with the same ticket.
If you intend to use public transportation more often, the following travel passes might be a better deal. A travel pass granting unlimited use of public transportation for one day costs 6 €uros. For three consecutive days, the pass sets you back 16.50 €uros and for a week 24 €uros.
You can buy tickets from vending machines at subway stations, few bus stops, designated convenience stores, and newsstands.
With an Italian phone number, you can also buy tickets by SMS.
Ladies, make sure to wear flat, comfortable shoes. Not only will you do a lot of walking. Some of Rome’s alleys are also romantically paved with cobblestones. Hence, there go your heels.
Also, Rome is very hilly. There are slopes’n’stairs practically everywhere. While walking uphill is exhausting, walking downhill can be even more dangerous if your soles are slippery. Good sneakers or even hiking shoes will make your exploration of Rome safe and enjoyable.
Where to Stay
Rome is one of the most touristy cities in Europe. Obviously, there is a wide choice of accommodation. Besides big, modern, and luxurious hotels, there are many smaller, rather cozy, and romantic guest houses and B&Bs.
On this map, you can choose convenient according to the price and the location*:
What to Eat
Well, it’s Italy, hence you won’t be starving.
Obviously, in Italy’s capital city, you can choose from a broad menu of international cuisines. There is a remarkable number of Chinese restaurants, and even an American fast-food chain has branches in Rome.
However, if you’re going for quick snacks on the go, you’re lucky. Italians kind of invented fast food, after all.
Pizza and Focaccia
There are many small businesses selling pizza al taglio. This means that you choose how big of a piece you want from which kind of pizza. Then you pay for it according to the weight. The pizza’s weight, not yours.
In contrast to other Italian cities, Romans are not afraid of pizza toppings. The classics are zucchini flowers and anchovies, figs and cheese, and chicory, a very hearty green spinach-like vegetable. Also, there is pizza bianca, pizza without toppings that you can stuff with hearty or sweet ingredients as you please.
Another bread-ish snack is focaccia. It is made from pizza dough and can be eaten with cheese or prosciutto like a sandwich. If it already comes with rosemary, olives, dried tomatoes, or garlic, you might also enjoy it plain.
My favorite pizza-places in Rome are
1. Molino Roma around the corner from the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore on Via Merulana and
2. La Boccaccia at Trastevere across from the Parrocchia Santa Dorthea.
Romans don’t like only carbohydrates, they also love fat. They love to cover things in dough and fry them. They do it with all kinds of vegetables. The most sophisticated ones are fried zucchini blossoms.
Another classic are supplì, small fried rice balls. You can get them either plain or with gorgonzola, spicy blue cheese, and other Italian delicacies.
You might know them from other regions in Italy by the name Arancini.
Aperitivo is a fantastic Italian invention. In the early evening before dinnertime, you go for a drink and feast on some complimentary niblets. What exactly you get depends on the business.
Some places charge something like 5 €uros for an Aperol Spritz or any other long drink. You get some peanuts, crisps, or small chunks of focaccia and pizza with your drink.
In other places, you pay seven or eight €uros. But here the niblets are actually an entire dinner with small sandwiches, salads, pasta, you name it.
Most of the time, if you choose so, an Aperitivo can replace an entire dinner.
If you’re still hungry, you will find big and small, cheap and expensive restaurants all over the place. In general, there is a big price difference between lunch and dinner. Also, at lunchtime, you can get a menu for a good price. It includes a starter – mostly spaghetti – and the main course. Often, it comes also with water or wine.
Cash, Cards, and Deals
Until now, 20 European countries replaced their former local currency with the €uro starting in 2002. Obviously, Italy is one of them. The exchange rate is 1 US$ = 0.94 EUR as of January 2023. However, you can check today’s conversion rate on this page.
You can pay with credit cards basically everywhere.
Rome is certainly not a cheap city, but it isn’t neck-cutting, either. Unfortunately, there is no city pass that could save you a significant amount of money. The Roma Pass, issued by the tourist office, is quite expensive considering that you still don’t have free access to the included attractions. For 32 €uros for two days, you can visit only one attraction for free. At the other sites, you have to pay a discounted entrance fee. The same goes for the three-days-pass, whereby you get two attractions for free but have to pay 52 €uros.
Mind you, the archeological sites, as well as most museums in Rome, are very large. Consequently, you simply won’t have time to visit that many in two or three days.
Also, they advertise that public transportation is included. As I stated above, unless you stay on the outskirts, you probably won’t use it that often. And after all, a single ride is only 1.50 €uros, anyway.
To cut a long story short, I really don’t think that these cards are a good deal and strongly recommend you do your maths before purchasing them.
In Rome, many people speak decent English. However, older people don’t really like to speak it, even when they are working in the service and tourism sector.
Zushini, Gnotchi, Raditcho – I’m bleeding from my ears since I hear these mispronunciations so often. Seriously, guys, it’s not so hard. So here are some general rules. As in any other Romance language, C is hard before A, O, and U. Consequently, you have to pronounce it K.
If followed by E or I, it’s tch as in witch. Now, if a C followed by E or I should be pronounced K, an H is added. Some examples are Zucchini, Gnocchi, Radicchio – Zukkini, Gnokki, Radikkio. On the other hand, if C followed by A, O, or U should be pronounced tch, they slip a – silent! – I in: Ciocolata, Ciabatta – Tchocolata, Tchabatta – forget about the I in-between.
Italian Classes in the Eternal City
It might be a great idea to learn some Italian or brush up on what you already know. A great place to do so is the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci. Not only do they have campuses in Milan and Rome, but they are also in Siena and Florence.
If you’d like to take Italian classes, but you’re insecure about how to organize your stay, don’t worry. The friendly and efficient ladies at the Scuola’s office can arrange literally everything for you.
After a placement test, they advise you which class would be your best choice. They actually help you with every little detail including providing housing for the duration of your course.
You’ll get more info on my personal experience in a former post.
Connection and Communication
Since June 2017, If you have a European mobile phone contract, no roaming charges apply within the EU. This applies in all 27 countries of the European Union as well as in Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.
The EU roaming regulation applies to all contracts.
In case European roaming is not available, you can connect to the internet without any issue at basically every museum, eatery or café, and, of course, hotel. As a matter of fact, I had the impression of having the fastest internet ever.
If you insist on being online 24/7, you can, of course, get a SIM card. Preferably from Vodafone.
The standard voltage in Europe is 220 V and the frequency is 50 Hz. In Italy, they use three plug types, namely C, F, and L.
Whereby, since nowadays, all these chargers have integrated adapters, in general, the voltage and frequency don’t really matter.
By the way, you’ll find comprehensive travel info in my post World’s Most Complete Travel Information – an indispensable globetrotter-classic.
This map should help you to find all the wonderful places I’m introducing in this post. This way, you can plan your itinerary accordingly. Clicking on the slider symbol at the top left or the full-screen icon at the top right will display the whole map including the legend.
If you choose to pin this post for later, please use one of these pictures:
Note: I’m completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in January 2023.
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During this stay, Scuola Leonardo da Vinci granted me a small discount on my super-intensive course. Still, all opinions on their service are mine. They were by no means influenced by my cooperation partner. The provided links are a service to my readers.
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