All roads used to lead to Rome – and of course they did: it was the Caput Mundi (capital of the world). The city has a wealth of art and monuments and some of the best food in the world. Combine that with its stylish-yet-laidback lifestyle, and Rome should definitely be on your to-visit list. Make the most of your trip to the Eternal City by focusing on the best; all killer, no filler.
Make time for these nine spectacular sights in the Italian capital. You’ll be getting 3,000 years worth of the best Rome has to offer!
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City packs a lot of significance into its 44 hectares. The centerpiece is St Peter’s Basilica – the home church of the pope. The present-day church, which was built during the 16th century to replace the 4th-century one, had no fewer than 14 architects. At different times Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, and Donato Bramante were each lead architect. That’s a lot of Renaissance heavyweights chipping in. And… RESULT!
St. Peter’s Basilica is a masterpiece of High Renaissance architecture, chock full of masterpieces. Highlights include Michelangelo’s Pietá and Bernini’s Baldacchino. But there are numerous other monuments, artworks, and tombs. And Michelangelo’s Dome perches like a pope’s hat atop it all.
From Piazza San Pietro in front to the High Altar, this is an architectural achievement like no other.
The whole Vatican Museums are pretty special. The Hall of Maps, the Laocoön, and the Pinacoteca are spectacular. But let’s face it: the Sistine Chapel causes all of the rest to fade into the background.
Michelangelo was a brash young sculptor when he received the commission to fresco the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1508. And rather than failing at it, as many had expected, he mastered the difficult art of fresco on the fly and created what is still regarded by many to be the finest work of art ever created. Not bad. Not bad at all.
And not only that: he came back to the Sistine Chapel 25 years later to fresco another masterpiece – The Last Judgement. This time on the altar wall. Together they represent the artistic culmination of one of the world’s most enduring geniuses. They need to be seen to be appreciated.
The Colosseum is both a testament to Ancient Roman ingenuity and architecture and a symbol of endurance. Picked apart by scavengers, ravaged by earthquakes and punished by time, the Colosseum is still breathtaking, even in its current ahem, “ruined” state. If you can stand in front of it and not be overawed, it’s a sign that you too are made of stone.
This symbol of Rome once played host to up to 80,000 spectators. Everyone was there to revel in various forms of violent physical entertainment, such as hunts, gladiator battles, and executions. (Don’t judge: these were very different times). Stepping inside is like traveling two millennia into the past.
Bring your imagination, and populate it with wild beasts, fierce fighting men, and bloodthirsty crowds roaring for their chosen combatant. Standing inside, in the same place as slaves, emperors, and gladiators once did, is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.
In ancient times, this valley was the beating heart of Rome and the vast Roman Empire. This valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills was the social, commercial, and religious hub of the city. There were triumphal arches, temples, marketplaces, courts, the senate house, and people galore; Ancient Romans going about their daily business.
Unbelievably, for many years it was known as the Campo Vaccino (Cow Pasture). Its archaeological riches lay buried in silt and sediment. It has long since been excavated, and now it’s a thrill for the modern visitor to walk the remains of this ancient civilization. Walk the Via Sacra from the Capitoline Hill to the Colosseum. As you go, think that you’re doing exactly as those togaed citizens of Rome did more than two millennia ago. Now you’re truly in Rome, doing as the Romans.
Bring a guidebook or guide to get the most out of your trip into the past. Highlights include the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Julius Caesar, and the Senate House.
The name Pantheon means ‘Temple to all the Gods’. However, this building, constructed between 118 and 128 AD on the site of an older temple, has been a Christian church since the 7th century. It’s one of the best preserved of the Ancient Roman structures and its early conversion to Christian church playing a big part of that.
Even though it was built almost two thousand years ago, the Pantheon’s famous dome is still the largest unsupported dome in the world. Fun fact: the interior is spherical with the diameter being exactly equal to the distance from floor to ceiling. In fact, it is sometimes called the world’s only architecturally perfect building
Rain or shine, walking into the Pantheon and having the elements pour through the oculus in the center of the dome is a truly magnificent sensation. Especially as you stand on the original marble floor.
Artistically daring and built to last, the Pantheon is an ancient marvel.
Piazza del Popolo
Rome’s Via del Corso is lined with shopping opportunities (which we would call ‘shopportunities’). But the square at the northern end is the best part. Piazza del Popolo has one of Rome’s tallest Eqyptian obelisks in the middle, a number of fountains, and a 17th-century ceremonial gate. But Santa Maria del Popolo, tucked into its east side, is our favorite feature. This unassuming minor basilica contains a number of spectacular Renaissance artworks.
The Cerasi Chapel features two large Baroque canvases by Caravaggio: the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. It also has two Baroque statues (Daniel and the Lion, Habakkuk and the Angel) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Chigi Chapel. And that’s not all: the aforementioned Chigi Chapel was designed by none other than Raphael. We told you it was special.
We told you it was special.
Piazza di Spagna is both an egalitarian free-for-all, and home to some of the city’s fanciest boutiques. Well, not the square itself, but nearby on Rome’s famous Via dei Condotti. Nose around the shops if you want, but the best activity here is people-watching from the famous Spanish Steps.
Pull up a stair spot (perhaps with a gelato) and watch all of the action of the city unfold in the square below. The focal point is the Fontana della Barcaccia, or Fountain of the Old Boat, Pietro Bernini’s ship-shaped fountain. If you recognize the name Bernini, well done: the fountain sculptor was the father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the inimitable sculptor credited with kicking off the Baroque movement.
For extra culture hits, get atop the stairs and see the French Trinità dei Monti church and the Roman obelisk in front. This imitation obelisk was built in the Egyptian style, with hieroglyphics copied off of real Egyptian obelisks. When you walk back down the steps check out the Keats-Shelley Memorial House off to the side – John Keats residence when he was under the spell of the Eternal City.
Galleria Borghese is a beautiful 17th-century villa built to house the massive art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Situated in the Villa Borghese, Rome’s bustling public park, a visit to the gallery’s 20 rooms is one of the finest art-going experiences you can hope for. Everywhere you look you see opulence and beauty (and a few other art lovers). The fact there’s timed entrance means that though the museum is always busy, it never gets crowded.
Galleria Borghese highlights include Canova’s racy sculpture depicting Napoleon’s sister Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as Venus Victrix, Bernini’s David and Apollo and Daphne, Caravaggio’s Boy with Fruit Basket, and Raphael’s extraordinary Deposition of Christ. A couple hours in Villa Borghese will give you a Cardinal-like appreciation for the finer things in life.
A couple hours in Villa Borghese will give you a Cardinal-like appreciation for the finer things in life.
There are about half a dozen spectacular fountains in the center of Rome, including the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Turtles. But Nicola Salvi’s tribute to the life force and awesome power of water is the one that’s unmissable. Fontana di Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in the city, and one of the most famous fountains in the whole world. It gets crowded here, but the centerpiece fountain still radiates serenity.
This fountain’s reputation really grew after Swedish actress Anita Ekberg bathed in it in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. But even without that iconic piece of movie history, the fountain captures the imagination.
From the horses representing the water’s power to destroy and to soothe, respectively, to the two figures tucked into the recesses behind, the fountain is bursting with symbolism. But if you don’t get all the meanings, no problem: just throw a coin in the fountain to ensure your return to Rome, and you can dive a little deeper into the city and its history next time around.