Without a doubt, Rome, Italy, is one of the world’s most majestic, beautiful, and unique cities. Nicknamed “The Eternal City”, it has been around for a long time, as far back as 500 B.C.
Rome is a fascinating place to visit. It is not like most European capital cities that have a uniform style of architecture, usually either 18th or 19th century, that are so well laid out that they seem to have been artificially designed and planned. Rome evokes a sense of being “real, unplanned”. The city is so old that it has many different styles of architecture interspersed throughout it: classical, medieval, gothic, renaissance, baroque, modern, etc. There is no orderly plan to this city: it’s a virtual kaleidoscope of history. One minute you are standing amid classical ruins dating back 2,000 years ago when Rome ruled the western world, and the next minute you are standing in the chapel of an 18th century Baroque church. That is part of Rome’s charm: you can actually see and experience the passage of time—you feel like you are part of it.
Rome is full of incredible places to visit and explore. Every day is a different adventure. There are so many museums, churches, and places to visit that you could stay here for months and still not visit everything, so choose the most impressive sights, ones that will leave a lasting impression upon you. The best way to explore Rome is by foot. Ask your hotel for its business card with its address and location indicated on it, then buy a good map and just spend time wandering through Rome’s cobblestone streets; its ancient ruins, luxurious palaces, and spectacular churches; its fruit, vegetable, and flower markets; its sidewalk cafes; and its town squares known as piazzas. Experience Rome as a Roman would. Get used to using the city’s various landmarks to guide you, rather than actual street addresses. Be adventurous: if you get lost you can always hail a taxi, show the driver your hotel’s business card, and ask him to take you back to your hotel.
Imperial Rome: The Roman Forum and the Colosseum
Start your tour of Rome at its oldest and most significant location, the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum), often described as the historic heart of the city. The Forum is one of the world’s most important archeological sites. It was from this location that Rome ruled the entire western world, an area bordered by Egypt in the south, Northern England in the north, Spain in the west, and modern-day Iran and Iraq in the east. Rome ruled its vast empire with an iron fist. In order to truly understand and appreciate this city, you must know at least some of its history. Rome had unbelievable wealth, power, and a level of sophistication unequalled anywhere else. While most of the world’s population lived in wooden huts in small impoverished villages, ancient Rome had a million inhabitants who lived in the midst of a splendid setting: beautiful marble palaces, luxurious gardens, cobblestone streets, aqueducts that brought a steady supply of water into the city, a sewage system, and opulent bath houses that even had hot and cold water plumbing. It was no wonder that the Romans were so arrogant and looked at others with contempt. Rome had everything anyone could ever want—why look elsewhere when you lived in the best city in the world!
It is here in the Forum that you can walk amongst the ruins of this once mighty city. The Forum’s main sights include: the Arch of Septimius Severus (which is at one end of the Forum) and the Arch of Titus (which is at the other end), the Temple of Saturn, the Curia (where the Senate met), the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina. All of these sites are connected by the Sacra Via, the main road that runs through the Forum. When the victorious armies returned to Rome, they marched down the Sacra Via displaying all of the gold, silver, jewels, and other treasures that they had looted from other countries. Huge numbers of slaves clad in chains were also paraded in front of Rome’s citizens and in particular its emperor.
Beside the Forum is the Palatine Hill. Make sure to explore this Hill, once the site of fabulous botanical gardens and imperial palaces. Visit the House of Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus. Her home is famous for its elegant wall paintings of various mythological scenes. She on the other hand was famous for murdering (by poison) numerous Romans, many of whom were quite high profile. She is even reputed to have murdered her own husband, the Emperor Augustus, in order to make way for her son’s ascent to the throne. Ancient Romans may have surrounded themselves with beautiful art and architecture, but for many this was merely a façade, an attempt to hide their incredible violent tendencies as well as their insatiable appetite for power and wealth.
The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, so you can imagine the impact that this city has had upon the western world. Walk along the Palatine Hill and marvel at the incredible view of the city, and imagine the splendid buildings and peoples that lived here. Its once elegant marble palaces now lie in ruin, overgrown by trees, plants, and flowers and its once powerful inhabitants are long since dead. The entire area has an almost surreal feel to it, and believe it or not, an incredible sense of tranquility.
One site you will find very interesting is the Colosseum, near the Forum, at the metro/subway stop “Colosseo”. This huge amphitheatre seated 50,000 people and is almost 2,000 years old, a reminder of the ancient Romans genius for engineering and architecture. Believe it or not, this structure is made of concrete and is 4 stories high. It was the place where Romans went for entertainment, usually consisting of armed gladiators fighting each other (often to the death) or fighting wild animals such as lions and bears. If you watched the award-winning movie “Gladiator”, you have an excellent idea of how exciting, spectacular, and bloody these shows were. Inside the Colosseum you can see a maze of tunnels below ground. At one time a huge wooden floor covered this maze. The gladiators and wild animals would have walked through this maze on their way to certain death in the arena.
Food and Drinks: Trying Rome’s Famous Pizza
Some of the best pizza in the world is served in Rome. Take advantage of this: for lunch, go to a pizzerie and try Pizza Margherita, a thin-crust pizza made with tomato sauce, cheese, and basil. Or if you prefer to try something different, go to a tavola calda, which is similar to a cafeteria, serving a selection of ready-made dishes. One tavola calda that is popular for lunch is Caffe Pasticceria Dagnino (located on the street Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, near the “Repubblica” metro/subway station). It is well known for its Sicilian specialties, such as arancino, a rice ball made with peas and meat filling. Other popular lunchtime meals include: Frittata (an omelet), Polla alla cacciatore (chicken with tomatoes and mushrooms cooked in wine) or minestrone soup with freshly baked bread. If you are in a hurry, simply go to a nearby bar and have a panino sandwich. Most bars are also cafes.
During your stay in Rome, make sure to do as the Romans do: try the gelato ice cream. There are outlets all throughout the city. The best in town is supposed to be “Giolitti.” Ice cream in Italy is made with natural ingredients and real fruit, so be prepared for incredible, tasty flavors.
For dinner, try a wine bar (enoteche) where you can order a vast range of wines by the glass and snack on different appetizers. Try the traditional Chianti wine, from Northern Italy. After a day of sight seeing you may just want a relaxing evening sampling the local wine and food. If you want a larger meal, go to either a trattoria or ristorante. Be forewarned that a typical meal usually consists of appetizers, a first course (usually a plate of pasta), a second course (e.g. roast chicken with vegetables), and dessert. For something different, try Sambuca Romana, a star aniseed flavored liqueur, with your dessert. The food, in particular, in this city is incredible–you won’t be disappointed.
Museums: Piazza del Campidoglio and the Capitoline Museums
Make your way to the Piazza del Campidoglio, a spectacular square at the top of the Capitoline Hill, designed by the great artist, Michelangelo. It is located west of the Forum, behind the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (a huge white marble building) near the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In the center of the piazza is a statue of the famous Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (who expanded the empire into Northern Europe). View the square from a higher location in order to see the amazing geometric design on the pavement.
Bordering this piazza are the Capitoline Museums, housed in the Palazzo Nuovo and across from it, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, which includes the Pinacoteca Capitolina. These museums hold one of the world’s oldest and most spectacular collections of art, particularly classical-era statues. Some of their famous collections include: the Capitoline Venus, the Wounded Amazon, the Dying Galatian, the She-wolf, the colossal Constantine, and the Room of the Emperors which contains 65 busts of Roman emperors arranged in chronological order. Amongst these busts, look for two very well known emperors: the Emperor Nero who deliberately burned Rome to the ground while he played a fiddle, and then blamed Christians for the fire. As a result, thousands of innocent Christians were either burnt at the stake or thrown to the lions in the Colosseum for punishment. The other bust is Emperor Caligula who achieved notoriety for his delight in killing whomever he wanted and for his depraved and sadistic sexual tendencies. Rome’s history is anything but dull!
Special Places: The Spanish Steps and the Borghese Gardens
Make sure to visit the popular Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti) which are set in the beautiful Piazza di Spagna (the metro stop is: Spagna). This monumental staircase is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a popular place for Romans and tourists to meet. Nearby are some of Rome’s most fashionable shops, located on the street Via dei Condotti.
For relaxation, take a stroll through the Borghese Gardens (Villa Borghese), located in the center of Rome. Within the center of this park is the Borghese Gallery, a lavish mansion open to the public, full of beautiful art, especially sculptor by Bernini, such as his famous masterpieces “David” and “Apollo Chasing Daphne”.
The park is 6 kilometers in size with many trees, plants, and walking paths. It even has an artificial lake surrounded by an elegant garden. Romans go to the park to relax and at times to escape the unbearable summer heat.
Rome at Night: Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain
Rome at night can be a very special place, as many of the piazzas’ fountains and monuments are lit up, giving this city an air of elegance and romance. Romans love to walk about their city—many of the areas at night are pedestrian only. One of the most magnificent sites is Piazza Navona with its grand baroque fountains. During the days of ancient Rome, it was the site for great chariot races, and in medieval times the piazza was flooded with water and used for mock naval battles (with real ships).
Another interesting place is the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi). This huge Baroque-style fountain was completed in 1762. It was made famous in the movie “La Dolce Vita” when Anita Ekberg jumped into the fountain. At night it is beautifully lit. According to local legend, if you want to return to Rome you must throw a coin into the fountain. Go ahead and make a wish—your dreams may come true, especially if you are fortunate enough to come back to Rome!
The Appian Way and the Catacombs
Plan to spend some time outside the city, touring the beautiful countryside. Either walk or rent a bicycle and tour the legendary Appian Way (Via Appia Antica)—Europe’s first highway. If possible, go on a Sunday when cars are banned. The famous saying “All roads lead to Rome,” refers to the Appian Way—the highway into ancient Rome, build in 312 B.C. Believe it or not, it is still being used! This cobblestone road is lined with beautiful trees and monuments and is an unforgettable day trip. You can walk or ride your bike along the same road that Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony once rode on!
The Appian Way begins at Porta San Sebastiano, one of the entry points in the outer old wall that surrounds part of Rome. In ancient times, this highway used to be almost 350 miles (560 kilometers) long. It fell into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire, but was later restored (to a considerably shorter length) by order of Pope Pius VI. Along the Appian Way within a short distance of Rome you will see many tombs (of once noble families) lining both sides of the road and catacombs—underground tunnels where Christians hid in secret and buried their dead.
As strange as it may sound, these catacombs are actually beneath the Appian Way itself. Early Christians hid (and lived) in miles of these underground tunnels in order to escape persecution from the Emperor. Church services had to be held here in secret, as to be discovered would mean certain death in the Colosseum. Thousands of Christians lived in an elaborate underground city connected by miles of tunnels and caves.
After you leave Porta San Sebastiano, your first important site is the famous Church of Domine Quo Vadis. It was here that Jesus Christ appeared to the apostle Peter and inspired him to return to Rome to face death by crucifixion, and achieve martyrdom. Further along the Appian Way you will encounter the Catacombs of San Callisto (Catacombe di San Callisto). Make sure to visit these underground catacombs, as they are the most famous and impressive of all the catacombs. These catacombs cover a distance over 12 miles (19 km.) in length, are structured (layered) in four levels, go down about 65 feet (20 meters), and have almost no natural sources of light. There are almost half a million tombs of early Christians in this site. Look at the walls and see if you can find any diagrams carved onto the walls: a fish is the symbol for Jesus, a phoenix is the symbol for the resurrection of Jesus, and a ship’s anchor is an upside-down cross. It is unbelievable how these poor Christians must have suffered in order to worship Jesus—what incredible faith they must have had. These brave people are truly an inspiration to others!
After visiting these catacombs, continue along the Appian Way. You will pass the Catacombs of San Sebastiano and the Catacombs of Domitilla. The Appian Way itself has so much history. It was along this road, for example, that 6,000 slaves and their leader Spartacus were crucified. It is hard to believe that the Romans committed so much violence, even along this tranquil road. As you journey further along, you will come across sections of the Appian Way that are spectacular: beautiful pine and cypress trees line the road surrounded by miles of tranquil countryside, testimony to the fact that the violent past of ancient Rome has faded into history.
The Vatican: St. Peter’s Basilica, The Sistine Chapel, and Papal Palace
No trip to Rome would be complete without visiting the Vatican, the official residence of the Pope and the spiritual center for Roman Catholics worldwide.
The Vatican was built upon the grave of the first pope, St. Peter, also known as the apostle Peter. Its centerpiece, St. Peter’s Basilica, has been described as the most impressive church in the entire world. Its sheer size and grandeur was very accurately portrayed in the popular adventure movie “Angels and Demons”. The site covers 6 acres. The church itself is over 600 feet long and can hold thousands of worshippers. Make sure to walk up the stairs into the dome created by the famous artist, Michelangelo. You will have an incredible view of Rome from atop the dome.
In front of the basilica is Saint Peter’s Square (Piazza San Petro). In ancient Rome, it was the site of a racetrack and also the place where Christians were executed (for entertainment). Around 65 A.D. the apostle Peter was crucified nearby. It is little wonder that this location is sacred to many Christians.
Make sure to also visit the Sistine Chapel and view Michelangelo’s famous fresco “The Last Judgment”. On the ceiling, Michelangelo painted two frescos: “Original Sin” and “The Creation of Adam.” All three frescos are incredible for their size and powerful imagery.
You will notice as you walk about the Vatican that there are brightly dressed guards in renaissance-style clothing—these are the Swiss guards that are responsible for guarding the Vatican and especially the Pope.
Lastly, visit the Vatican Museums, housed in the palatial residence of the Pope. Its art collection is comprised of works from all parts of the world and from different time periods, everything from the statue “The Apollo Belvedere” from the days of imperial Rome to the paintings in the Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) from the 1500’s.
The Pantheon: Rome’s Architectural Masterpiece
Ancient Rome was famous for its great buildings. Unfortunately, all, but one, are in ruins. That exception is the Pantheon. As unbelievable as it sounds, it was built in 27 B.C. and is still in perfect condition—an example of the ancient Romans superior knowledge about architecture and engineering. It has been described as one of the architectural wonders of the world because of its incredible concrete dome. The only source of light in this church is the opening in the roof. The interior of this church is spectacular as well as its marble floors. According to legend, when the barbarians entered this church in the midst of their pillage of Rome, they were in such awe of its grandeur that they left the building perfectly intact. The bronze doors on the church are massive, each one of them weighs 20 tons. Also, take a look at the church’s granite columns: each of these huge columns was shipped from Egypt to Rome over 2,000 years ago.
St. John’s Church (San Giovanni in Laterano) and the Scala Santa
Located near the metro/subway stop “S. Giovanni”, this church was built by the first Roman Christian emperor, Constantine. It became a popular place to worship due to the skulls of both the apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, being buried here, making it an extremely important church for Christians. Strangely, the massive doors of this church were taken from the Curia, the ancient building where the senate used to meet in the Forum. When you look at the papal altar, you will notice a rough wooden altar table—the apostle, Peter, used it when he celebrated mass in the catacombs. Examine the incredible wooden ceiling and the beautiful mosaic floors of this church, both are incredibly rich in detail and design.
Of prime importance is to also visit the Scala Santa, the building beside the church. It houses the actual stairs that were taken from the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea (in the Holy Land), who condemned Jesus Christ to death. Jesus himself walked up these stairs to await his judgment. The mother of Emperor Constantine was responsible for bringing these stairs from the Holy Land to Rome. Many Christians and non-Christians come to this special site to pray for themselves and others. For hundreds of years it has been a holy site, reputed to work miracles upon those who come to ask for help and guidance.
Hotels in Rome
Stay at a hotel that is centrally located. Rome is a very difficult city to get around, simply because it is so old and totally unplanned. There are only two metro/subway lines and the bus system is at times unreliable. Rome’s lack of modern design makes the city adventurous to visit, but at times it can be frustrating getting around. That is why your choice of hotel is of major importance, as you will have to walk to reach many of Rome’s sites and monuments.
One centrally located hotel, recommended by the well known travel writer, Rick Steves, is Hotel Oceania, via Firenze, 38. It is near the metro stop “Repubblica”, and the “Termini” train station (about 500 meters away). Important sites like the Forum and the Colosseum are within walking distance.
Another centrally located hotel is Hotel Cosmopolita, via di Santa Eufemia, 5. It is near the Forum, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. This hotel has received many positive reviews from travelers to Rome.
Safety and Security
Rome is a relatively safe city. However, be careful of pickpockets and scam (con) artists, particularly around major tourist sights like the Forum and the Trevi Fountain. If someone approaches you and tries to give you something free (e.g. a rose), don’t accept it, as that person will then ask you for a “donation”. You can be easily swarmed by thieves if you are taking out and displaying money in front of everyone.
If you are overwhelmed by Rome’s layout (or lack of it), then sign up at your hotel’s front Reception Desk for day tours. Most tour companies will pick you up at your hotel and then drop you off later. It makes life much easier when you let someone who knows the city show it to you, especially for some difficult places to reach like the Appian Way and the catacombs.
Day Trips Outside Rome: Assisi, Sorrento, and Pompeii
Rome is a great city to use as a base in order to visit other nearby towns. Day trips are available to the famous town of Assisi, near Tuscany; the beautiful town of Sorrento, right on the Mediterranean Sea, on the famous Amalfi coast; and the ancient town of Pompeii (from the days of Imperial Rome), famous in antiquity for its burial by a volcano. There are several reputable tour companies available that can take you on these day trips. Go explore the beautiful countryside and have fun! Don’t worry if you miss some sights. If you have thrown a coin into the Trevi Fountain and made your wish, you will return to Rome again soon, exploring more of what this incredible city and its neighboring towns have to offer.
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.