The City That Caesar Built
Rome, jam-packed with historic and religious icons at every turn, is one of Europe’s premier tourist destinations. Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, and Etruscan, whatever period in time you enjoy, or even if you just have a general interest in history, there’s no doubt you’ll find some spectacular sights here.
The city can be divided into several districts, and many are distinguishable just by the size of their streets. The historic centre is surprisingly narrow, with buildings packed tightly together, however, when you get to a significant monument there’s usually plenty of open space surrounding it. The main hive of tourist activity is around the districts of Old Rome and the Colosseo, which are home to some of the most well known buildings from throughout history. Here, you will find beautiful piazzas, open-air markets, and the Jewish neighborhood. Next, is the Modern Centre, although not everything here is what you would call modern. It’s where you can visit the Trevi Fountain and the Quirinale, it’s also home to many of the city’s hotels. The most famous landmark of the city, the Colosseum, has its own neighborhood; this is the ancient heart of the city, with the Forum and museums. To the north are the areas of the Vaticano, the Papal state, and the North Centre, with the Villa Borghese and the Spanish Steps.
If you’ve traveled to Rome before, and want to explore a little further, Trastevere, south of the Vatican, is the artistic part of the city full of narrow cobbled streets, Aventino-Testaccio is the place to head for authentic Italian cuisine, and San Lorenzo, in Nomentano, has some of the city’s best nightlife venues.
Taking It All In
[Also see our travel article “The Four Must-See Major Cities in Italy“]
So, where do you start? Well, that depends on what day it is. If you want to see the Vatican Museums, and that includes the Sistine Chapel, the very best time to visit is a Wednesday morning, just as the Pope is having his audience with the people in front of the Vatican. This is when the museums are at their quietest, and the queues are not as long. Once you’ve spent a morning here, take a look around the basilica with its incredible statues and magnificent dome. This building is enormous, 715 ft/218m long, 450 ft/137m high, and covering an area of 237,535 sq ft/22,067 sq m. All this was built in 1547, when Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to oversee the rebuilding of the crumbling basilica which dated back to AD324, marking the spot of St Peter’s crucifixion.
For the rest of the sights, it’s really not important when you visit, but there is one thing you should be prepared for, and that’s queues. Some of these can be avoided by getting yourself a ticket or a pass in advance. The best idea is to do as the Italians do, start early, take a long lunch break, and resume your sightseeing later in the day.
We’ll start with the largest of Rome’s monuments, the Colosseum. Approach from Via dei Fori, this is where you will get the best perspective of the arches. Built by Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, three Flavian emperors in AD72, this impressive structure took just eight years to complete, and once inside, the remains of the arena where gladiators and animals emerged to do battle can still be clearly seen.
[Also see our travel article “The Historic Wonders of Rome“]
Next door, at the Forum, walk along the most ancient Roman road, the Via Sacra, which links two triumphal arches, and some of the Forum’s most prestigious sites. This was where daily life was lived during Roman times, and to begin with it may just appear to be a jumble of ruins, but use your imagination, and you can almost see Julius Caesar making his way to the senate. The Forum began life as an area of marsh land used as a burial ground, but in 497BC, the Etruscans drained the marsh to erect the first temple dedicated to the God of Crops. When the Romans took over they continued to develop the area, however, by 44BC the Forum became overcrowded, and Julius Caesar moved the Curia out to the Fori Imperiali.
Still in the area of Old Rome and the Colosseum is the Pantheon, Rome’s best-preserved historic building. The original building dated back to 127BC, but after the great fire in 80AD, it was rebuilt by the second Emperor Hadrian. The spectacular dome is wider than St Peter’s Basilica, and its height is identical to its diameter, making it the largest diameter dome to be built, until the introduction of reinforced concrete. Outside, in the piazza’s and narrow streets there are some excellent places to stop for something to eat and drink, check out Da Fortunato Al Pantheon.
The most photographed fountain in the city, the Trevi Fountain, attracts thousands of tourists every day. Built in 1762 to replace a previous fountain, the Trevi was designed as part of a competition and features Neptune riding in a chariot, with Plenty, Health, and the Four Seasons around him. A rather cheesy, but a definite ‘must do’, is to take a coin in your right hand, put your back to the fountain, and toss the coin over your left shoulder. You can then make two wishes; the first can be anything you desire, the second is to return to the city one day. You might like to plan your visit here later in the day when the tourist buses have left, but whatever time of the day you visit, make sure you buy a fantastic gelato from one of the nearby shops.
Piazza Campo Dei Fiori is an attractive and lively square, surrounded by bookshops, the famous market, and some terrific places to eat and drink. In Roman times, the area was used for grazing cattle, as well as an execution site; don’t miss Il Forno, a bakery selling some of the best pizzas in the city. Another great place for people watching, and one of the most popular meeting places in Rome is the Spanish Steps, designed in the 1720’s, it also has the added benefit of having an incredible view from the top.
A strange but extremely interesting sight is the Cripta dei Cappuccini or Capuchin Crypt. With just six rooms, it won’t take long to explore the crypt’s interior which is packed with the remains of over 4,000 Capuchin monks, and the rooms feature complete skeletons.
If you’re visiting Rome for its museums, there are a lot to choose from. Apart from the museums of the Vatican, there’s the beautiful Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Borghese to house masterpieces from Bernini and Canova, Caravaggio, and Raphael. A top tip if you want to visit here is to book in advance, as there are a limited number of people who are allowed to visit every two hours.
If you enjoy Dan Brown’s books, then you have to visit Castel Sant’Angelo. Mausoleum, fortress, and Papal stronghold, the castle was a key location in the Da Vinci Code. The view from the top is spectacular, and the small museum contains historic artifacts from the Knights of Templar. Commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian in AD135 as his final resting place, the Castel Sant’Angelo also has a fine collection of ceramics, weapons, and Renaissance paintings.
A Feast Fit For A King (Or An Emperor)
When in Roman, do as the Romans, and when it comes to eating out that has to apply to the Cul de Sac, a great place for a spot of lunch or dinner, they have some seriously good wine too. The food is traditional Roman fare; meat and cheese antipasti, meatballs, and superb salads. If the weather’s good, the terrace with its view of the busy piazza is a great place to people watch, and inside, the cozy atmosphere brings you into close proximity with the locals. This is one of the most affordable restaurants in the city centre, so arrive before 8.30pm, or you’ll have a long wait for a table. The restaurant is just around the corner from Piazza Navona, in Piazza Pasquino.
A little farther out in Trastevere there are lots of options, some of the best pizza has to be at Dar Poeta, in Vicolo del Bologna. If you’re looking for a bar before you hit the town try Freni e Frizioni, in Vai del Politeama, for excellent cocktails; but if it’s up to the minute Roman cool you’re after, Pigneto, the bohemian area is where you will find Primo, on the Via del Pigneto. The street is lined with bars and restaurants, so if Primo is busy there are loads more to choose from.
Italy is all about eating, but there are some excellent clubs too. Two of the best are Brancalone, on Via Levanna with international DJ’s at the weekends, reggae on Thursday, and techno on Friday, and Goa, where you can spend the night in the company of some of the city’s most beautiful people; Thursday nights are the best, when top Italian DJ’s play electro music. Goa can be found at Via Libetta in Garbatella.
Just like any city, Rome has a wide range of places to stay, with prices starting from around €85 to over €1,000 per night. Usually, the farther from the centre you are, the less expensive it becomes, if you look hard, you can usually find a special offer on hotels near to the station.
There are quite a few options when it comes to getting around the city, but one to avoid is by car, driving is crazy, and at times even being a pedestrian can be nerve wracking. One of the best ways to see the sights is to use one of the ‘hop on hop off’ buses. The buses take you to the majority of the sights, it can be a good idea to take one of these tours, and when you’ve got your bearings, then try buses, taxis, and exploring on foot.
What You Should Know
There are a few things that every visitor to Rome should know, firstly, for one week per year, typically in mid May, entry into all the publicly owned historic landmarks is free. Known as ‘La settimana dei beni cultura’, this includes the Colosseum, and the Forum.
Some museums and restaurants, especially the smaller ones, close on Monday’s. This is also true on public holidays such as the 15th August, but if you’re in Rome on 2nd June, the birthday of the Republic, there are always celebrations around the Colosseum.
Finally, don’t dismiss a restaurant just because it looks dark, or because the furniture is a little ‘tired’ looking. More often than not, some of the most unsuspecting places can serve the best food.