WHAT TO DO
Rome is the capital of Italy and one of the greatest cities in the world. It is an exhilarating mix of iconic ruins, magnificent art and vibrant street life. The result of three thousand years of history, this Eternal City on the Tiber River is a thrilling sight. Ancient treasures such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Pantheon recall the city’s golden age as caput mundi (capital of the world), while monumental basilicas tell of its history as seat of the Catholic Church. Lording over the skyline, St Peter’s Basilica towers over the Vatican, testifying to the ambition of Rome’s Renaissance popes and the genius of its game changing architects. Elsewhere, ornate piazzas and glorious fountains add a baroque flourish to the city's captivating streets. Few cities can rival Rome's astonishing artistic heritage. Throughout history, the city has starred in the great upheavals of Western art, drawing top artists and inspiring them to push the boundaries of creative achievement. The result is a city full of priceless treasures. Ancient statues adorn world class museums, Byzantine mosaics and Renaissance frescoes dazzle in art rich churches and baroque facades flank medieval piazzas. There is something incredible everywhere you look - sculptures by Michelangelo, paintings by Caravaggio, frescoes by Raphael and fountains by Bernini. A visit to Rome is as much about enjoying the dolce vita lifestyle as it is appreciating art and culture. Wandering around cobbled streets, spending hours at streetside cafes, people watching on pretty piazzas - these are all central to the Roman experience.
Rome's history spans twenty eight centuries. While Roman mythology dates the founding of Rome at around 753 BC, the site has been inhabited for much longer, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. The city successively became the capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and is regarded by some as the first ever metropolis. After the fall of the Western Empire, which marked the beginning of the Middle Ages, Rome slowly fell under the political control of the Papacy, and in the 8th century it became the capital of the Papal States, which lasted until 1870. The following year, Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, which, in 1946, became the Italian Republic. According to the founding myth of the city by the Ancient Romans themselves, the long held tradition of the origin of the name Roma is believed to have come from the city's founder and first king, Romulus. The most famous of all Roman myths is the story of Romulus and Remus - the twins who were suckled by a she wolf. They decided to build a city, but after an argument, Romulus killed his brother and the city took his name. According to the Roman annalists, this happened on April 21, 753 BC.
Rome's historic center is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and this is where you should begin your journey through this fascinating city. There's no better place to get underway than where it all began, at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (the most central of Rome's seven hills). The Palatine Hill (Palatino) is one of Rome's most spectacular sights - a beautiful, atmospheric area of towering pine trees, majestic ruins and unforgettable views. This is where Romulus supposedly founded the city and Rome's emperors lived in palatial luxury. The emperor Augustus lived here all his life and successive emperors built increasingly opulent palaces - the word ‘palace’ is derived from the hill's Latin name, Palatium. But after Rome's decline, the area fell into disrepair, and in the Middle Ages churches and castles were built over the ruins. During the Renaissance, members of wealthy families had landscaped gardens laid out on the site. Most of the Palatino is covered by the ruins of Emperor Domitian's vast complex, which served as the main imperial palace for 300 years. Divided into the Domus Flavia, Domus Augustana and a stadio, it was built in the 1st century AD. Enter the complex from the main entrance on Via di San Gregorio - as you walk, you're essentially going back in time as the ruins become increasingly older. The first recognizable construction you come to is the stadio. This sunken area, which was part of the main imperial palace, was probably used by the emperors for private games and events. A path to the side of it leads to the towering remains of a complex built by Septimius Severus, comprised of baths (Terme di Settimio Severo) and a palace (Domus Severiana). Here you can enjoy sweeping views over the Circo Massimo and, if they're open, visit the Arcate Severiane, a series of arches built to facilitate further development. On the other side of the stadio are the ruins of the huge Domus Augustana, the emperor's private quarters in the imperial palace. The white building next to the Domus Augustana is the Museo Palatino, a small museum which charts the development of the Palatino with video presentations, models and archaeological finds. North of the museum is the Domus Flavia, the public part of the palace complex. This was centered on a grand columned peristyle - the grassy area you see with the base of an octagonal fountain - off which the main halls led. To the north was the emperor's audience chamber (aula Regia); to the west, a basilica where the emperor judged legal disputes; and to the south, a large banqueting hall, the triclinium. Near the Domus, the Casa di Livia is one of the Palatino's best preserved buildings. Home to Augustus' wife Livia, it was built around an atrium leading onto what were once reception rooms decorated with frescoes of mythological scenes, landscapes, fruits and flowers. Nearby, the Casa di Augusto, Augustus' private residence, features some superb frescoes in vivid reds, yellows and blues. Northeast of the Casa di Livia lies the Criptoportico Neroniano, a tunnel where Caligula was thought to have been murdered, and which Nero later used to connect his Domus Aurea with the Palatino. The area west of this was once Tiberius' palace, the Domus Tiberiana, but is now home to the 16th century Orti Farnesiani - one of Europe's earliest botanical gardens. A viewing balcony at the northern end of the garden commands breathtaking views over the Roman Forum.
An impressive sprawl of ruins, the Roman Forum was ancient Rome's showpiece center, a grandiose district of temples, basilicas and vibrant public spaces. The site, originally a marshy burial ground, was first developed in the 7th century BC, growing over time to become the social, political and commercial hub of the Roman empire. Signature sights include the Arco di Settimio Severo, the Curia, the Tempio di Saturno and the Arco di Tito. Like many of ancient Rome's great urban developments, the Forum fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire until eventually it was used as pasture land. In the Middle Ages it was known as the Campo Vaccino ('Cow Field') and extensively plundered for its stone and marble. The area was systematically excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and excavations continue to this day. Entering from Largo della Salara Vecchia - you can also enter directly from the Palatino or via an entrance near the Arco di Tito - you'll see the Tempio di Antonino e Faustina ahead to your left. Erected in AD 141, this was transformed into a church in the 8th century, the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda. To your right, the 179 BC Basilica Fulvia Aemilia was a 300 foot long public hall with a two level porticoed facade. At the end of the path, you'll come to Via Sacra, the Forum’s main thoroughfare, and the Tempio di Giulio Cesare (also known as the Tempio del Divo Giulio). Built by Augustus in 29 BC, this marks the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated after his assassination in 44 BC. Heading right up Via Sacra brings you to the Curia, the original seat of the Roman Senate. This barn like construction was rebuilt on various occasions before being converted into a church in the Middle Ages. In front of the Curia is the Lapis Niger, a large slab of black marble that's said to cover the tomb of Romulus. At the end of Via Sacra, the 75 foot high Arco di Settimio Severo is dedicated to the eponymous emperor and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. It was built in AD 203 to commemorate the Roman victory over the Parthians. In front of the arch are the remains of the Rostri, an elaborate podium where Shakespeare had Mark Antony make his famous 'Friends, Romans, countrymen…' speech. Facing this, the Colonna di Foca (Column of Phocus) rises above what was once the Forum's main square, Piazza del Foro. The eight granite columns that rise behind the Colonna are all that remain of the Tempio di Saturno, an important temple that doubled as the state treasury. On the other side of Piazza del Foro, you'll see the stubby ruins of the Basilica Giulia, which was begun by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus. At the end of the basilica, three columns remain from the 5th century BC Tempio di Castore e Polluce. Nearby, the 6th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua is the oldest and most important Christian site on the forum. Its cavernous interior, reopened in 2016 after a lengthy restoration, is a treasure trove of early Christian art with exquisite 6th to 9th century frescoes and a hanging depiction of the Virgin Mary with child, one of the earliest icons in existence. Accessible from the church is the Rampa di Domiziano, a vast underground passageway that allowed the emperors to access the forum from their Palatine palaces without being seen. Continuing up Via Sacra, past the circular Tempio di Romolo, you'll come to the Basilica di Massenzio, the largest building on the forum. Started by the Emperor Maxentius and finished by Constantine in 315, it originally measured approximately 330 feet by 215 feet, roughly three times what it now covers. Beyond the basilica, the Arco di Tito was built in AD 81 to celebrate Vespasian and Titus' victories against rebels in Jerusalem.
Nearby is Italy's top tourist attraction, the magnificent Colosseum. Rome’s great gladiatorial arena is the most thrilling of the city's ancient sights. Inaugurated in AD 80, the 50000 seat Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, was originally clad in travertine and covered by a huge canvas awning. Inside, tiered seating encircled the arena, itself built over an underground complex where animals were caged and stage sets prepared. Games involved gladiators fighting wild animals or each other. The emperor Vespasian (r AD 69-79) originally commissioned the amphitheatre in AD 72 in the grounds of Nero's vast Domus Aurea complex. But he never lived to see it finished and it was completed by his son and successor Titus (r 79-81) a year after his death. To mark its inauguration, Titus held games that lasted 100 days and nights, during which some 5000 animals were slaughtered. Trajan (r 98-117) later topped this, holding a marathon 117 day killing spree involving 9000 gladiators and 10000 animals. The arena was originally named the Anfiteatro Flavio after Vespasian's family (Flavian), and although it was Rome’s most fearsome arena, it wasn’t the biggest - the chariot racing stadium, Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) could hold up to 250000 people. The name Colosseum, when introduced in medieval times, was not a reference to its size but to the Colosso di Nerone, a giant statue of Nero that stood nearby. The outer walls have three levels of arches, framed by decorative columns topped by capitals of the Ionic (at the bottom), Doric and Corinthian (at the top) orders. They were originally covered in travertine (light colored calcareous rock) and marble statues filled the niches on the 2nd and 3rd levels. The upper level, punctuated with windows and slender Corinthian pilasters, had supports for the 240 masts that held the awning over the arena, shielding the spectators from sun and rain. The 80 entrance arches, known as vomitoria, allowed the spectators to enter and be seated in a matter of minutes. The Colosseum's interior was divided into three parts: the arena, cavea and podium. The arena had a wooden floor covered in sand - harena in Latin, hence the word 'arena' - to prevent the combatants from slipping and to soak up blood. Trapdoors led down to underground chambers and passageways beneath the arena floor - the hypogeum. Animals in cages and sets for the various battles were hoisted up to the arena by 80 winch operated lifts. The cavea, for spectator seating, was divided into three tiers: magistrates and senior officials sat in the lowest tier, wealthy citizens in the middle and the plebs in the highest tier. Women (except for Vestal Virgins) were relegated to the cheapest sections at the top. The podium, a broad terrace in front of the tiers of seats, was reserved for emperors, senators and VIPs. Note: I highly recommend booking a private guided tour in advance to avoid the long lines and crowds.
The best preserved Roman monument (and my favorite treasure in the city) is the spectacular Pantheon. This striking 2000 year old temple, now a church, is one of the most influential buildings in the Western world. Built by Hadrian over Marcus Agrippa’s earlier 27 BC temple, it has stood since around AD 125, and while its greying, pockmarked exterior might look its age, it's still a unique and exhilarating experience to pass through its vast bronze doors and gaze up at the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. Hadrian's temple was dedicated to the classical gods - hence the name Pantheon, a derivation of the Greek words pan (all) and theos (god) - but in AD 608 it was consecrated as a Christian church and it's now officially known as the Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres. Thanks to this consecration, it was spared the worst of the medieval plundering that reduced many of Rome's ancient buildings to near dereliction. But it didn't escape entirely unscathed - its gilded bronze roof tiles were removed and bronze from the portico was used by Bernini for his baldachin at St Peter's Basilica. Its exterior is a massively imposing sight with 16 Corinthian columns, each 40 feet high and each made from a single block of Egyptian granite, supporting a triangular pediment. Rivets and holes in the brickwork indicate where the original marble veneer panels were removed. During the Renaissance, the building was much studied - Brunelleschi used it as inspiration for his cupola in Florence - and it became an important burial chamber. In the cavernous marble clad interior you'll find the tomb of the artist Raphael, alongside those of kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I. The real fascination of the Pantheon, however, lies in its massive dimensions and awe inspiring dome. Considered the ancient Romans' greatest architectural achievement, it was the largest cupola in the world until the 15th century and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence. Its harmonious appearance is due to a precisely calibrated symmetry - its diameter is exactly equal to the Pantheon's interior height of 145 feet. At its center, the 30 foot diameter oculus, which symbolically connected the temple with the gods, plays a vital structural role by absorbing and redistributing the dome's huge tensile forces. Rainwater enters but drains away through 22 almost invisible holes in the sloping marble floor.
Rome has many marvelous public squares and I would like to share a few of my favorites. Colorful and always busy, Campo de' Fiori (Il Campo) is a major focus of Roman life: by day it hosts one of the city's best known markets; by night it heaves with tourists and young drinkers who spill out of its many bars and restaurants. For centuries the square was the site of public executions - it was here that philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy in 1600, now marked by a sinister statue of the hooded monk, created by Ettore Ferrari in 1889. The piazza's poetic name (Field of Flowers) is a reference to the open meadow that stood here before the square was laid out in the mid 15th century. Not far away is the awesome Piazza Navona. With its showy fountains, baroque palazzi and lively cast of street artists, hawkers and tourists, Navona is central Rome’s elegant showcase square. Built over the 1st century Stadio di Domiziano, it was paved over in the 15th century and for almost 300 years hosted the city's main market. Its grand centerpiece is Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), a flamboyant fountain featuring an Egyptian obelisk and muscular personifications of the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate. Legend has it that the Nile figure is shielding his eyes to avoid looking at the nearby Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone designed by Bernini’s hated rival Borromini. In truth, Bernini had completed his fountain two years before Borromini started work on the church's facade and the gesture simply indicated that the source of the Nile was unknown at the time. The Fontana del Moro at the southern end of the square was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1576. Bernini added the Moor holding a dolphin in the mid 17th century, but the surrounding Tritons are 19th century copies. At the northern end of the piazza, the 19th century Fontana del Nettuno depicts Neptune fighting with a sea monster, surrounded by sea nymphs. The hilltop Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in 1538, is one of Rome's most beautiful squares. There are several approaches but the most dramatic is the graceful Cordonata staircase, which leads up from Piazza d'Aracoeli. The piazza is flanked by Palazzo Nuovo and Palazzo dei Conservatori, together home to the Capitoline Museums, and Palazzo Senatorio, Rome's historic city hall. In the center is a copy of an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original, which dates from the 2nd century AD, is in the impressive Capitoline Museums. Note: the museum is open every day from 9a-7p and is definitely worth a visit. Close by is the Vittoriano, (aka the Altare della Patria, Altar of the Fatherland), the colossal mountain of white marble that towers over Piazza Venezia. Built at the turn of the 20th century to honor Italy's first king, Vittorio Emanuele II - who's immortalized in its vast equestrian statue - it provides the dramatic setting for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, inside, the small Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, documenting Italian unification. The massive Piazza del Popolo was laid out in 1538 to provide a grandiose entrance to what was then Rome's main northern gateway. It has since been remodeled several times, most recently by Giuseppe Valadier in 1823. Standing sentinel at its southern approach are Carlo Rainaldi's twin 17th century churches, Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Basilica di Santa Maria in Montesanto. In the center, the 120 foot high obelisk was brought by Augustus from ancient Egypt - it originally stood in the Circo Massimo. After a short stroll along Via del Corso you will arrive at Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. A magnet for visitors since the 18th century, the Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti) provide a perfect people watching perch. The 135 gleaming steps rise from Piazza di Spagna to the landmark church, Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti. Piazza di Spagna was named after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, although the staircase, designed by the Italian Francesco de Sanctis, was built in 1725 with money bequeathed by a French diplomat. At the top of the steps, the Chiesa della Trinita dei Monti is notable for the great views over Rome offered from its front staircase, and for its impressive frescoes by Daniele da Volterra. Down on the piazza, you'll find the Barcaccia, the ‘sinking boat’ fountain.
From the top of the Spanish Steps, make your way to the nearby Villa Borghese gardens. This large park is a pleasant sanctuary from the city chaos and is also home to the outstanding Galleria Borghese. If you only have time for one art gallery in Rome, make it this one. Housing what's often referred to as the ‘queen of all private art collections’, it boasts paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian, plus sensational sculptures by Bernini. Highlights abound, but look for Bernini's Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Proserpina) and Canova's Venere Vincitrice (Venus Victrix). The museum's collection was formed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), the most knowledgeable and ruthless art collector of his day. It was originally housed in the cardinal's residence near St Peter's, but in the 1620s he had it transferred to his new villa just outside Porta Pinciana. And it's here, in the villa's central building, the Casino Borghese, that you'll see it today. The museum is divided into two parts: the ground floor gallery, with its superb sculptures, intricate Roman floor mosaics and over the top frescoes, and the upstairs picture gallery. Stairs lead up to a portico flanking the grand entrance hall, decorated with 4th century floor mosaics of fighting gladiators and a 2nd century Satiro Combattente (Fighting Satyr). High on the wall is a gravity defying bas relief of a horse and rider falling into the void (Marco Curzio a Cavallo) by Pietro Bernini (Gian Lorenzo's father). The statuesque scene stealer of Sala I is Antonio Canova's daring depiction of Napoleon's sister, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, reclining topless as Venere Vincitrice (1805-08). Further on, in Sala III, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Apollo e Dafne (1622-25), one of a series depicting pagan myths, captures the exact moment Daphne's hands start morphing into leaves. Sala IV is home to Bernini's masterpiece Ratto di Proserpina (1621-22). This flamboyant sculpture brilliantly reveals the artist's virtuosity. Caravaggio dominates Sala VIII. There's a dissipated looking self portrait, Bacchino malato (Young Sick Bacchus; 1592-95), the strangely beautiful La Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna with Serpent; 1605-06), and San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist; 1609-10), probably Caravaggio's last work. There's also the much loved Ragazzo col Canestro di Frutta (Boy with a Basket of Fruit; 1593-95) and the dramatic Davide con la Testa di Golia (David with the Head of Goliath; 1609-10) - Goliath's severed head is also said to be a self portrait. Upstairs, the pinacoteca offers a wonderful snapshot of Renaissance art. Don't miss Raphael's extraordinary La Deposizione di Cristo (The Deposition; 1507) in Sala IX, and his Dama con Liocorno (Lady with a Unicorn; 1506). Other highlights include Correggio's erotic Danae (1530-31) in Sala X, Bernini's self portraits in Sala XIV, and Titian's great masterpiece, Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Sacred and Profane Love; 1514) in Sala XX. Note: to limit numbers, visitors are admitted at two hourly intervals - you'll need to pre book tickets well in advance and get an entry time.
After the Borghese, head to the iconic Trevi Fountain. The Fontana di Trevi is a flamboyant baroque ensemble of mythical figures and wild horses taking up the entire side of the 17th century Palazzo Poli. The fountain's design, the work of Nicola Salvi in 1732, depicts sea god Oceanus in a shell shaped chariot being led by Tritons with seahorses - one wild, one docile - representing the moods of the sea. In the niche to the left of Neptune a statue represents Abundance; to the right is Salubrity. The water comes from the Aqua Virgo, a 1st century BC underground aqueduct, and the name Trevi refers to the tre vie (three roads) that converge at the fountain. Most famously, Trevi Fountain is where Anita Ekberg cavorted in a ballgown in Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960). The fountain also featured in Jean Negulesco's 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain, best remembered for its theme song sung by Frank Sinatra. Note: be sure to have some loose change on you - the tradition is to toss a coin into the water, thus ensuring that you'll return to Rome. The fountain gets very busy during the day; visit later in the evening when it's beautifully lit and you can appreciate its foaming majesty without such great hordes. Not far off from Trevi is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. One of Rome's four patriarchal basilicas, this 5th century church stands on Esquiline Hill's summit, on the spot where snow is said to have miraculously fallen in the summer of AD 358. Every year on August 5 the event is recreated during a light show in Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. Much altered over the centuries, the basilica is an architectural hybrid with a 14th century Romanesque campanile, Renaissance coffered ceiling, 18th century baroque facade, largely baroque interior and a series of glorious 5th century mosaics.
Next, cross the Tiber (Tevere) River on the Ponte Sant' Angelo (bridge) and arrive at Castel Sant' Angelo. With its chunky round tower, this castle is an instantly recognizable landmark. Built as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian, it was converted into a papal fortress in the 6th century and named after an angelic vision that Pope Gregory the Great had in 590. Nowadays, it is a moody and dramatic keep that houses the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant' Angelo and its grand collection of paintings, sculpture, military memorabilia and medieval firearms. Many of these weapons were used by soldiers fighting to protect the castle, which, thanks to a 13th century secret passageway to the nearby Vatican (Passetto di Borgo), provided sanctuary to many popes in times of danger. Most famously, Pope Clemente VI holed up here during the 1527 Sack of Rome. Walk along Via della Conciliazione until you reach St Peter's Square and Basilica. In this city of outstanding churches, none can hold a candle to St Peter's, Italy’s largest, richest and most spectacular basilica. Built atop a 4th century church, it was consecrated in 1626 after 120 years of construction. Its lavish interior contains many spectacular works of art, including three of Italy's most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pieta, his soaring dome, and Bernini’s 100 foot high Baldacchino over the papal altar. The original church was commissioned by the emperor Constantine and built around 349 on the site where St Peter is said to have been buried between AD 64 and 67. But like many medieval churches, it eventually fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until the mid 15th century that efforts were made to restore it, first by Pope Nicholas V and then, rather more successfully, by Julius II. In 1506 construction began on Bramante's design for a new basilica based on a Greek cross plan, with four equal arms and a huge central dome. But on Bramante’s death in 1514, building ground to a halt as architects, including Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo, tried to modify his original plans. Little progress was made and it wasn’t until Michelangelo took over in 1547 at the age of 72 that the situation changed. Michelangelo simplified Bramante’s plans and drew up designs for what was to become his greatest architectural achievement, the dome. He never lived to see it built, though, and it was left to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana to finish it in 1590. With the dome in place, Carlo Maderno inherited the project in 1605. He designed the monumental facade and lengthened the nave towards the piazza. Built between 1608 and 1612, Carlo Maderno’s immense facade is 160 feet high and 380 feet wide. Eight 90 foot high columns support the upper attic on which 13 statues stand representing Christ the Redeemer, St John the Baptist and the 11 apostles. The central balcony is known as the Loggia della Benedizione, and it’s from here that the pope delivers his Urbi et Orbi blessing at Christmas and Easter. The cavernous 620 foot long interior covers more than 160000 square feet and contains many artistic masterpieces, including Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful Pieta at the head of the right nave. Sculpted when he was only 25, it is the only work the artist ever signed - his signature is etched into the sash across the Madonna's breast. Nearby, a red floor disc marks the spot where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope. Dominating the center of the basilica is Bernini's famous Baldacchino. Supported by four spiral columns and made with bronze taken from the Pantheon, it stands over the high altar, which itself sits on the site of St Peter's grave. The pope is the only priest permitted to serve at the altar. Above, Michelangelo's dome soars to a height of 400 feet. Based on Brunelleschi's design for the Duomo in Florence, the towering cupola is supported by four stone piers named after the saints whose statues adorn the Bernini designed niches - Longinus, Helena, Veronica and Andrew. At the base of the Pier of St Longinus is Arnolfo di Cambio's much loved 13th century bronze statue of St Peter, whose right foot has been worn down by centuries of caresses. From the dome entrance on the right of the basilica's main portico, you can walk the 551 steps to the top or take a small lift halfway and then follow on foot for the last 320 steps. Either way, it's a long, steep climb. But make it to the top, and you're rewarded with stunning rooftop views. Excavations beneath the basilica have uncovered part of the original church and what archaeologists believe is the Tomb of St Peter. Note: I highly recommend booking a private guided tour of St Peter's Basilica, Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums.
Founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and enlarged by successive pontiffs, the Vatican Museums boast one of the world's greatest art collections. Exhibits, which are displayed along over 4 miles of halls and corridors, range from Egyptian mummies and Etruscan bronzes to ancient busts, old masters and modern paintings. Highlights include the spectacular collection of classical statuary in the Museo Pio Clementino, a suite of rooms frescoed by Raphael, and the Michelangelo painted Sistine Chapel. Housing the museums are the lavishly decorated halls and galleries of the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano. This vast complex consists of two palaces - the original Vatican palace (nearer to St Peter’s) and the 15th century Palazzetto di Belvedere - joined by two long galleries. On the inside are three courtyards: the Cortile della Pigna, the Cortile della Biblioteca and, to the south, the Cortile del Belvedere. Do not miss the following sculptures: Apollo Belvedere (2nd century representation of the sun god Apollo), Laocoon (1st century depiction of a muscular Trojan priest and his two sons in a mortal struggle with two sea serpents) and Torso Belvedere (a fragment of a muscular 1st century BC Greek sculpture), this was found in Campo de’ Fiori and used by Michelangelo as a model for his ignudi (male nudes) in the Sistine Chapel. Founded by Gregory XVI in 1839, the Egyptian Museum contains pieces taken from Egypt in Roman times. Fascinating exhibits include a fragmented statue of Ramses II on his throne, vividly painted sarcophagi dating from around 1000 BC and a macabre mummy. The Raphael Rooms are four frescoed chambers that were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. Raphael himself painted the Stanza della Segnatura (1508-11) and Stanza d’Eliodoro (1512-14), while the Stanza dell’Incendio (1514-17) and Sala di Costantino (1517-24) were decorated by students following his designs. The Stanza d’Eliodoro, which was used for private audiences, takes its name from the Cacciata d’Eliodoro (Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple), an allegorical work reflecting Pope Julius II’s policy of forcing foreign powers off Church lands. The Stanza della Segnatura, Julius’ study and library, was the first room that Raphael painted, and it’s here that you’ll find his great masterpiece, La Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens), featuring philosophers and scholars gathered around Plato and Aristotle. The seated figure in front of the steps is believed to be Michelangelo, while the figure of Plato is said to be a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, and Euclide (the bald man bending over) is Bramante. Raphael also included a self portrait in the lower right corner - he’s the second figure from the right.
Home to two of the world’s most famous works of art - Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-12) and his Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment; 1536-41) - the Sistine Chapel is the one place everyone wants to see, and on a busy day you could find yourself sharing it with up to 2000 people. Michelangelo's ceiling design, which is best viewed from the chapel’s main entrance in the far east wall, covers the entire 8600 square foot surface. With painted architectural features and a cast of colorful biblical characters, it's centered on nine panels depicting stories from the book of Genesis. As you look up from the east wall, the first panel is the Drunkenness of Noah, followed by The Flood, and the Sacrifice of Noah. Next, Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden famously depicts Adam and Eve being sent packing after accepting the forbidden fruit from Satan, represented by a snake with the body of a woman coiled around a tree. The Creation of Eve is then followed by the Creation of Adam. This, one of the most famous images in Western art, shows a bearded God pointing his finger at Adam, thus bringing him to life. Completing the sequence are the Separation of Land from Sea; the Creation of the Sun, Moon and Plants; and the Separation of Light from Darkness, featuring a fearsome God reaching out to touch the sun. Set around the central panels are 20 athletic male nudes, known as ignudi. Opposite, on the west wall is Michelangelo’s mesmeric Giudizio Universale, showing Christ - in the center near the top - passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are torn from their graves to face him. The saved get to stay up in heaven (in the upper right), the damned are sent down to face the demons in hell (in the bottom right). Near the bottom, on the right, you’ll see a man with donkey ears and a snake wrapped around him. This is Biagio de Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies, who was a fierce critic of Michelangelo’s composition. Another famous figure is St Bartholomew, just beneath Christ, holding his own flayed skin. The face in the skin is said to be a self portrait of Michelangelo, its anguished look reflecting the artist’s tormented faith. The chapel’s walls also boast superb frescoes. Painted in 1481-82 by a crack team of Renaissance artists - including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Perugino and Luca Signorelli - they represent events in the lives of Moses (to the left looking at the Giudizio Universale) and Christ (to the right). Highlights include Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ and Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys. Note: as well as providing a showcase for priceless art, the Sistine Chapel also serves an important religious function as the place where the conclave meets to elect a new pope.
Conclude your tour of Rome in its greatest neighborhood. With its old world cobbled lanes, ivy clad facades and bohemian vibe, trendy Trastevere is the city's most spirited community. Its very name, ‘across the Tiber’ (tras tevere), evokes both its geographical location and sense of difference. Be sure to check out its two significant churches, Basilica di Santa Maria and Basilica di Santa Cecilia. Nestled in a quiet corner of Trastevere's main square, Basilica di Santa Maria is said to be the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome. In its original form, it dates from the early 3rd century, but a major 12th century makeover saw the addition of a Romanesque bell tower and a glittering facade. The portico came later, added by Carlo Fontana in 1702. Inside, the 12th century mosaics are the headline feature. In the apse, look out for Christ and his mother flanked by various saints and, on the far left, Pope Innocent II holding a model of the church. Beneath this are six mosaics by Pietro Cavallini illustrating the life of the Virgin (c 1291). Not far away on Piazza di Santa Cecilia is the lovely Basilica di Santa Cecilia. The last resting place of the patron saint of music features Pietro Cavallini's stunning 13th century fresco in the nuns' choir of the hushed convent adjoining the church. Inside the church itself, Stefano Maderno's mysterious sculpture depicts St Cecilia's miraculously preserved body, unearthed in the Catacombs of San Callisto in 1599. The church is fronted by a gentle fountain surrounded by roses.
WHERE TO EAT
Rome has many great places to eat and have a drink. Start your day at Antico Caffe Greco, located at Via dei Condotti 86. Open since 1760, this elegant cafe is the oldest in town. Enjoy a cappuccino next to the grand piano in the back drawing room. Another great place is Pasticceria Regoli, found at Via dello Statuto 60. One of the city’s most beloved pastry shops, its display cases are packed with cakes, wild strawberry tarts, maritozzi (whipped cream filled buns), and seasonal treats like bigne in late winter, colombe at Easter, and pandoro at Christmas. Have pastries packaged to take away, or order at the counter and the kitchen will send the items to your table at the neighboring Caffe Regoli. One of my favorite morning spots is Roscioli Caffe, located at Piazza Benedetto Cairoli 16. Opened by the Roscioli family in 2016, this cafe with a modern decor and classic offerings is a short distance away from its sister restaurant - the excellent Salumeria Roscioli (more on this later). Have a coffee and a pastry in the standing room only bar area or head to the back room which offers table service. For more than three centuries, Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a walled ghetto along the Tiber River. The squalid buildings are long gone, but a historic ghetto era bakery survives on what has become the transformed neighborhood’s broad main thoroughfare. Found at Via del Portico d'Ottavia 1, Boccione sells traditional Roman Jewish sweets from a spartan storefront. The pizza ebraica - an almond flour based fruit cake studded with nuts, raisins and candied fruits - is an easy specialty to eat on the fly, but the ricotta and sour cherry tart is spectacular and worth the mess of eating a slice on one of the nearby benches. Also try the amaretti (sugar packed almond paste cookies) and biscotti made with heaps of cinnamon and a generous smattering of whole almonds. In the southwest corner of one of Rome’s most touristy squares, Forno Campo de’ Fiori (number 22) bakes sweet and savory Roman specialties like jam tarts and flatbreads. The pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) is especially good. The bakery closes from 230p to 445p, so in the meantime, head over to the annex across the alley (Vicolo del Gallo 14) for pizza con la mortazza (mortadella sandwiched between slices of simple pizza bianca).
There are pizza shops everywhere you look in Rome and the following two are not to be missed. Tucked behind the Chiesa di San Carlo ai Catinari at Via del Monte della Farina 28, Emma Pizzeria is a stylish set up with outdoor seating and a spacious, art clad interior. It specializes in wood fired pizzas, ranging from the ever present margherita to more inventive choices topped with Spanish ham and Cantabrian anchovies. The white pizza with artichokes was extremely tasty. The second spot is Pizzarium, located near the Vatican Museums at Via della Meloria 43. Gabriele Bonci’s landmark pizza by the slice shop has become a globally acclaimed destination where cold fermented, heirloom wheat based dough is topped with exquisite produce from biodynamic sources and artisanal cured meats and cheeses. Most toppings change from day to day, or even hour to hour, but Pizzarium’s signatures (tomato and oregano and potato and mozzarella) are always available. Also worth trying are the freshly fried suppli (risotto balls) and crocchette di patate (potato croquettes). Note: Pizzarium is always packed - so get there early, take a number and make some new friends. For food markets, hit Mercato Centrale and Mercato Testaccio. A gourmet oasis for hungry travelers at Stazione Termini (Rome's main train station), Mercato Centrale with its vaulted 1930s ceiling hosts stalls selling good quality fast food and fresh produce. Mercato Testaccio is the best place in central Rome to shop for seasonal produce, meat, fish and baked goods all in one place. Get there in the morning to see it in full swing (it’s open Monday through Saturday until 2p). Do visit Da Artenio (Stall 90) for takeaway pizza slices and pizzette, little pizzas topped with tomato sauce, potatoes or onions. Don’t miss the essential Mordi e Vai (Stall 15), where husband and wife team Sergio Esposito and Mara Cipriani prepare sandwiches filled with offal and meat based on family recipes (the only vegetarian options are oil simmered artichokes). The couple digs deep into the past to revive disappearing dishes like allesso di bollito (simmered brisket), which they serve on a broth drenched roll.
For some serious eating, make your way to Antico Arco at Piazzale Aurelio 7 in Trastevere. It serves contemporary cuisine that highlights seasonal Italian ingredients. Depending upon market availability, there may be cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino Romano and black pepper) with fried squash blossoms, hazelnut crusted lamb filet with porcini mushrooms or steak with chanterelle mushrooms and black truffles. As an added bonus, Antico Arco is open 365 days a year and is one of the few quality spots in town that does not close between lunch and dinner services. Two additional must visit places, located across the Tiber, are Da Enzo at Via dei Vascellari 29 and Trattoria Da Augusto at Piazza de Renzi 15. Da Enzo has vintage brown walls, yellow checked tablecloths and a traditional menu featuring all the Roman classics. What makes this tiny trattoria exceptional is its careful sourcing of local, quality products, many from nearby farms in Lazio. The seasonal, deep fried artichokes and the cacio e pepe (my favorite) are among the best in Rome. Be sure to save room for the heavenly homemade tiramisu. Note: Da Enzo is always busy so be sure to book ahead. Brave the lines and try to score one of Da Augusto's tables outside on the piazza and dive into some fabulous mamma style cooking on one of Trastevere's prettiest terraces. Hearty portions of Roman classics are dished up including lots of rabbit, veal and pajata (calf intestines). Note: Da Augusto is cash only. Back across the river at Via Angelo Brunetti 10, near Piazza del Popolo is Antica Osteria Brunetti. It is the perfect place to enjoy the pleasure of traditional Italian cuisine in a very comfortable and intimate setting. This wonderful spot has great service and superb food - try the rigatoni all’Amatriciana. The dishes at Nonna Betta (Via Portico d'Ottavia 16), a Kosher restaurant on the main street in Rome’s Jewish quarter, are inspired by traditions that evolved during the 300 year long period in which Roman Jews were confined to a walled Ghetto. Persecution and poverty gave rise to dishes favoring fried vegetables like carciofi alla giudia (deep fried artichokes) and pezzetti fritti (assorted battered vegetables), as well as humble fish offerings like alicotti con l’indivia (anchovy and endive casserole).
Nino Ristorante is located at Via Borgognona 11, near Piazza di Spagna. With a look that has endured since this restaurant opened in 1934 (wrought iron chandeliers, polished dark wood and white tablecloths), Nino is enduringly popular with well heeled locals and the food is quality Tuscan fare, including memorable bean soup and steaks. Nearby at Via della Croce 39 is Fiaschetteria Beltramme. This 19th century fiaschetteria (meaning 'wine seller’) is a stuck in time place with a short menu and a long list of local devotees. Here, regulars dig into huge portions of traditional Roman pastas (carbonara, cacio e pepe) and simple mains from recipes unchanged since the 1930s. Not far away at Via della Croce 76 is Antica Enoteca. Locals and tourists alike have been coming here since 1842, when this wine bar first opened its doors near the Spanish Steps. Sample wines by the glass, enjoy antipasti or fuel up on pasta, meatballs and pizza. With its cozy wooden interior and unwavering dedication to old school Roman cuisine, family run Armando al Pantheon (Salita dei Crescenzi 31) is almost as well known as its neighbor - the Pantheon. For more than five decades, the Gargioli family has been dutifully producing Roman classics like spaghetti ajo ojo e peperoncino (spaghetti with garlic, oil and chile) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail braised in tomato and celery). Note: reservations are essential. Located close by at Via dell'Arco della Ciambella 20 and undiscovered by the tourist hordes, La Ciambella beats much of the neighborhood competition. Its handsome, light filled interior is set over the ruins of the Terme di Agrippa, visible through transparent floor panels, setting an attractive stage for interesting, imaginative food. Start with a chickpea pancake, perhaps topped by stracciatella (creamy cheese) and anchovies, before a pasta dish of guinea fowl ragu and wild mushrooms - all accompanied by excellent Italian wine.
Located near the Trevi Fountain at Vicolo delle Bollette 13, Al Moro is among Rome’s most historic restaurants. Visit for a supremely Roman experience encompassing excellent traditional and seasonal dishes served in a set of dining rooms hung with art donated by more than eight decades of regulars. Order Al Moro’s seasonal dishes, like artichokes in the winter and early spring and mushrooms in the fall, then order the house pasta, Al Moro’s own version of carbonara made with a pancetta enriched egg sauce and red pepper flakes. A short distance away at Via degli Avignonesi 22 is Colline Emiliane. This friendly trattoria has been serving satisfying dishes from Emilia Romagna, a region in northeastern Italy, since 1931. The menu is rich in egg based homemade pastas like tortelli di zucca (pumpkin pasta with butter and sage) and tagliatelle alla bolognese (long strands of fresh, egg based pasta with a rich meat sauce). Note: Colline Emiliane is quite popular so book well in advance. Last but certainly not least is the previously mentioned (and my favorite spot in town) Salumeria Roscioli, located at Via dei Giubbonari 21. Founded in the historic center in 2004 by Rome’s premier baking family, this sensational eatery does triple duty as a deli, wine bar and restaurant. Though the menu is extensive, the real stars are the cheeses, cured meats (the burrata with semi sundried tomatoes and mortadella with Parmigiano Reggiano are particularly stellar) and pasta dishes (get the gricia, cacio e pepe, or carbonara). If you dine at lunch or on the early side at dinner, the bread basket will include freshly baked bread from nearby Antico Forno Roscioli. The wine lists (one Italian, the other international) have some real steals and do not miss the distilled spirits before closing out the meal. Note: be sure to book well in advance and request a ground floor table.
Rome has a number of fine establishments to satisfy your gelato cravings. Begin at Gelateria Fatamorgana, located at Via Laurina 10. Each visit to Fatamorgana is a new adventure for your taste buds. They change their selection frequently and their more creative flavors range from black rice and rose petal to avocado, white wine and lime to their bestseller - basil, walnuts and honey. Gelateria dei Gracchi can be found at Via di San Pantaleo 61 and is consistently rated as one of the top gelato spots in the city. Gracchi’s flavors faithfully follow the seasons and range from apple and mint to rum spiked chocolate and cantaloupe. Another solid spot is Gelateria San Crispino at Piazza della Maddalena 3. San Crispino’s passion for combining traditional and innovative recipes has made it a Roman institution known for superb gelato. Word is, San Crispino is so passionate about the purity of their product that they prefer to not sell the gelato in a cone because it may compromise the flavor. Conveniently located a short walk from Piazza Navona at Via dei Coronari 65, Gelateria del Teatro concocts its gelato with high quality ingredients like Avola almonds from Sicily and lemons from the Amalfi Coast. Flavors range from classics like strawberry and coffee to wildcards like lavender with white peach, dark chocolate infused with red wine and sage with raspberry. Established in 1900 and still a family run business to this day, Giolitti is arguably Rome’s best known gelateria. Their Pantheon location (Via Uffici del Vicario 40) is hands down the most elegant place to devour a gelato in the city. Located at Via della Lungaretta 96 in Trastevere - Fior di Luna is composed of true, certified organic and fair trade gelato artisans. They source most of their ingredients locally and sometimes offer gelato making courses. Do try seasonal favorites - pear and banana or strawberry and pistachio. Established in 1947 as a family run gelateria, La Romana have now expanded all over Italy. They have strict production rules, eco friendly packaging and they publish a full list of ingredients on their website. Try the location at Via Venti Settembre 60, and go with nougat with hazelnuts and chocolate or mascarpone with raspberry and toasted pine nuts.
Conclude your evening in Rome with a drink or two. Found at Vicolo Cellini 30 is The Jerry Thomas Project. This speakeasy style cocktail bar, which opened in Rome’s historic center in 2009, was a pioneer in the city’s craft cocktail movement and over the past ten years has inspired many copycats in the Italian capital. Jerry Thomas remains far ahead of the pack thanks to constant innovation and a diverse group of founders, each expert in different spirits. Over the years, the menu has grown from a litany of Prohibition and pre Prohibition cocktails to include drinks with a greater emphasis on Italian liqueurs, spirits and bitters. Note: the space is tiny and seating is limited, so call in advance to book. Located at Via Benedetta 25 in Trastevere is Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa. Routinely named among the best pubs in Europe, this long established craft beer bar has around a dozen draft beers from the USA, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the UK - in addition to a small but well curated assortment of bottles. The staff is unbelievably passionate and knowledgeable and can guide you to the right choice for your palate. As a bonus, Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa is open every day of the year - even on Christmas and Easter. Next, head to Keyhole at Via dell'Arco di San Calisto 17. This hip, underground speakeasy checks all the boxes: no identifiable name or signage outside; a black door smothered in keyhole plates; and Prohibition era decor including Chesterfield sofas, dim lighting and an excellent craft cocktail menu. Note: no password is required to get into Keyhole, but you'll need to fill out a form to become a member. Zuma Bar can be found on the rooftop terrace of Palazzo Fendi at Via della Fontanella di Borghese 48. Few cocktail bars in Rome are as sleek, hip or sophisticated as this - it is very Italian. City rooftop views are tremendous and cocktails mix exciting flavors like shiso with juniper berries, elderflower and prosecco. If you fancy wine, head to Cul de Sac at Piazza Pasquino 73. This perennially popular wine bar, just off Piazza Navona, has an always busy terrace and a bottle lined interior. Pick your poison first - the list of Italian regional wines is encyclopedic - then select from the ample menu of Italian staples, pates and platters of regional Lazio cold cuts and cheeses. Finish up at nearby Etabli, located at Vicolo delle Vacche 9. Housed in a 16th century palazzo, Etabli is a rustic bar where you can drop by for a digestivo. It’s laid back with a Provence inspired country decor - leather armchairs, rough wooden tables and a crackling fireplace - the perfect place to end the night.
WHERE TO STAY
Rome has several places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel de Russie, located at Via del Babuino 9. This sophisticated hotel is adjacent to Piazza del Popolo and a short walk from Villa Borghese. The plush rooms offer free WiFi, smart TVs and marble bathrooms. Upgraded quarters have sitting areas with sofas and some offer terraces with garden or city views. Other amenities include the outstanding Le Jardin de Russie restaurant and Stravinskij Bar, a spa with a saltwater hot tub, a sauna and a hammam.
A second option is The First Roma Arte, located at Via del Vantaggio 14. Set in a 19th century palazzo filled with contemporary art, this stylish, all suite boutique hotel is a short stroll from the Spanish Steps and not far from the Trevi Fountain. The posh suites come with complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and iPhone docks, as well as marble bathrooms and minibars. Upgraded accommodations add terraces with hot tubs. Additional perks include a rooftop restaurant with sweeping views and a fashionable bar.
Rome is full of culture, cuisine, art, architecture and history. It treated me well and I look forward to returning. Grazie Roma.