“When in Rome…” The catchphrase suggests that you do as the Romans do. A tall order when the Romans accomplished so much even before the fall of the Empire. Should you do as Roman leaders did, visiting by visiting their spectacular structures? Or should you follow the lead of the artisans, and take part in the artistic pilgrimage that has also made this city famous? We offer a few suggestions, but be sure to create your own agenda as you tour Rome, highlighting the sites that pull most at your heartstrings.
Tip: To get an overall view of Rome’s splendor check out Piazzale Garibaldi on Janicum Hill for extraordinary views from high atop the city.
As the premiere entertainment arena as early as 80 A.D., the Coliseum provided a battle ground for Italy’s bravest warriors and their fierce beastly competitors. Historians claim battles lasted weeks at a time as a crowd of 50,000 spectators cheered to a bloody end. Stand in the shell than now remains, and catch a glimpse into this ancient past-time when Roman gladiators ruled the famous amphitheater. Peer down from the reconstructed center stage to the labyrinth of original passages below. The elliptical structure is now the axis of Rome’s largest traffic circle, an ancient epicenter standing among the modern world around it.
Tip: Don’t leave without seeing the nearby Arch of Constantine, which memorializes the end of Christian persecution in Rome and the beginning of the marriage of Pagan and Christian lifestyles around 300 A.D.
Originally meaning “temple of all the gods,” the Pantheon is a monument to the seven pagan deities of Ancient Rome. Now the most well-preserved of all Roman buildings, the Pantheon is an architectural wonder: a perfect concrete sphere resting in a cylinder, designed and built by 125 A.D. Approaching the building, the eight column façade may be familiar to you, as it is the most photographed part of the monument. Step through columns inside the massive dome, and stand in awe of the craftsmanship. Keep in mind the limited resources available at the time of its erection. We argue that this historical wonder is the number one sight to see in Rome.
Tip: To avoid the crowds here, consider visiting at night, when the moon is visible through the oculus, or during a rainstorm, when a column of raindrops shower down from the center of the dome. Either visit will create a unique photo opportunity.
Catacombs of St. Domitilla
Witness an eloquent depiction of early Christian life after death, in one of the most well preserved underground burial sites in Rome. Enter through a sunken 4th century church and descend deep into the earth through 15 kilometers of underground caves on two levels. Tour guides will walk you through galleries containing inscription and symbolic imagery as tribute to the Christian martyrs Nereus and Achillius. Deeper past these intricate walls you’ll reach rectangular shaped chambers holding the loculi (tombs) of early Christians. Some are cover by slabs of marble, others lay open exposing the inner walls of the subterranean mausoleum. In this real slice of ancient Rome history seems to speak for itself. Tip: I suggest this over all other catacombs, as St. Domitilla is one of the few Roman catacombs that still contains bones. Most human remains in Rome have been moved to alternative burial sites.
A City within a City
Looking beyond the iconic Pantheon and the Coliseum, Rome has other famed sites, including the reverant Vatican City. See how modern and historical religion coexist inside these headquarters of the Catholic church, and home of the Pope. Situated inside the city of Rome, Vatican City is its own sovereign entity, complete with independent postal system and armed forces. Even a dozen trips inside the city walls would not allow enough time to see the wealth and beauty of the Vatican. We’ve listed a few sites that can’t be ignored.
Part of the Papal palaces, the Vatican Museums were created from the former papal private apartments to display pieces of antiquity and the Renaissance. Built from the 1200s on, the Vatican Museums are a labyrinthine series of grouping of 54 lavishly adorned palaces, apartments, and galleries housing the vast treasure of 11th to 19th century art acquired by the Vatican. You’ll stand among pieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, Botticelli and Fra Angelica. Our favorite is the Raphael salon (room no. 8), where three paintings by Raphael stand larger than life: the Coronation of the Virgin, the Virgin of Foligno, and the enormous Transfiguration, which he finished just before his death.
Work your way through all 53 preceding galleries to reap your reward: enter the famed 54th gallery, known as the Sistine Chapel. Stand awestruck in this structure erected to imitate Solomon’s temple of the Old Testament. Well known for its decorated ceiling, it is impossible not to look skyward and stare in wonderment at Michelangelo’s ethereal scenes. Be sure you don’t miss Raphael’s tapestries and the incredible paintings of Botticelli also found here. The Sistine Chapel is used for a variety of religious and papal activities, including the conclave, the formal gathering of the Catholic Church’s most elite to select a new Pope.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The most prominent building inside the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, was originally built in 324 AD over the tomb of its namesake. Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and later the first bishop of Rome, was executed and buried at this site in 64 AD. The current structure was completed in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is filled with works of art by Italian artists including Raphael, Michelangelo and Maderno. Michelangelo’s Pieta, which brilliantly captures the human form, is located in the first chapel. The building seethes of over the top renaissance and baroque details of marble and mosaic, making it easy to become overwhelmed in its powerful entity. Descend to the lower level where the Vatican grottoes hold the tombs of ancient and modern Popes.
Tip: Apply in advance to descend further into the Vatican necropolis where you’ll tour the area around St. Peter’s tomb.
If you’re not too overwhelmed by what you’ve seen, we recommend you finish your tour of St. Peter’s Basilica by climbing Michaelangelo’s dome, where after nearly 500 steps, you’ll stand above the rooftops of Rome and witness the most amazing views of the Vatican gardens and the Papal apartments.
Tip: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums (including the Sistine Chapel) are not in close proximity. Take the shuttle offered from St. Peter’s Square to save yourself the lengthy walk.
Other Must Sees:
South of the Vatican City lies another Roman city within a city. Trastevere, an ancient neighborhood that become part of Rome under Augustus’ rule, is filled with ancient winding roads, irregular and narrow. It now provides a cultural clash of old and new, providing modern eateries and nightlife among antiquated houses and cobblestone roads that working class Romans called home thousands of years ago. Don’t leave Rome without dining here at least once.
Make your way into the tiny piazza, where you’ll be surprised by the abruptness of the famous fountain that resides here. The vision of Salva in the 18th century, the fountain features Neptune in a shell chariot, guided by two Tritons. The fountain’s water is supplied by Aqua Virgo, Rome’s ancient aqueduct constructed in 19 BC. Follow tradition and toss a coin into the water. If the legend is true, your toss will guarantee a return to Rome. Tip: This is on everyone’s itinerary. Visit Trevi Fountain after midnight when the water’s dance is enhanced with soft lighting. The void of crowds will offer the unique opportunity to hear the water splash into the pool below.