As the old saying goes, “Roma non fu fatta in un giorno”, or “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. It isn’t long before you realize the accuracy of this statement. Roman works-of-art and masterpieces are everywhere. Walking through Rome is like walking through two thousand years of history, all intertwined and juxtaposed into the present-day. At times, it can be overwhelming. There is so much to do and to see in Rome that even the locals may need a lifetime or two to capture it all. In fact, there is probably more to see in Rome than in any other city in the world.
With so much to see and do, where does one start?
Recommended First Day
The Roman Forum (“Foro Romano”), nestled in a valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills, is a good starting point. The forum is really an archaeological complex that you can enter from the piazza leading from the Colosseum. The Colosseum, of course, is the symbol of Rome. This is the famous amphitheatre that was able to hold up to 55,000 spectators as they watched gladiator fights, animal fights, etc. Completed in 80AD, it took 10 years to construct and originally had an adjustable canvas – the precursor to today’s stadiums with adjustable roofs. Architects today still marvel at the design, which allowed the Colosseum to be emptied in about 12 minutes (think of that next time you are at a major sporting event)!
The Roman Forum was the commercial, political and religious center of ancient Rome. In fact, much of our current political system here in the United States is derived from the Roman political system established during the rule of Caesar. Piazza di Spagna, and the so-called Spanish Steps is another popular Rome attraction. During the spring, it is blooming with flowers. This is a good place to people-watch and hang out, especially at night. The streets leading in and out of the piazza will offer Rome’s finest shopping. Look for Via del Corso. Guys beware: if your significant other likes to shop, she will love this district. A day of shopping here is usually a very potent aphrodisiac!
From there, you can take a stroll (it is best not to drive in Rome, unless you have a death wish – to the Trevi Fountain. Try to time your visit during evening hours, when the fountain is illuminated. Don’t forget to throw in a coin over your shoulder….legend has it that doing so will ensure your return to the Eternal City.
Recommended Second Day
You should plan to spend one day to seeing the Vatican, the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Sistine Chapel. The best way to get there is across the beautiful (angel-clad bridge) Ponte Sant’Angelo. The Vatican, literally is another country separate from Italy. It is also the spiritual and religious center for Catholicism.
Inside St. Peter’s Cathedral, to the right, you will find Michelangelo’s famous Pieta’ – sculpted when the artist was 25 years old. The dome of the cathedral offers the best view of Rome. Inside the Vatican Museum, you will find countless treasures collected or commissioned by the papacy over the centuries. There are many tours that range from 90 minutes to 5 hours. Of particular interest should be the Raphael room and the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel, with its most famous feature, the ceiling, is another Michelangelo (among others) masterpiece. The ceiling is supposed to depict scenes from the Book of Genesis, and took Michelangelo four years to complete.
Please note, that you will not be allowed to enter into St. Peter’s Cathedral if you are wearing shorts, sleeveless shirts, and above-the knee skirts. This is true even in the dead of summer. You still must remember that it is a place of worship. Italians take that very seriously, so dress accordingly. The summer of 2003 was the hottest summer in Rome in approximately 300 years…they still did not make an exception to their policy.
A good place to see after you visit the Vatican is Castel Sant’Angelo. This was originally built (138 AD) as a mausoleum, which was then converted to a papal fortress in the 6th century. And with its underground passageways, sometimes used to provide safe-haven for the pope to get to the Vatican. Inside there are numerous works-of-art and you can learn a great deal about the history of Rome. On the fourth floor there is a cafe’ where you can sip on an espresso while savoring some of the finest views of Rome.
Recommended Third Day
Piazza Navona is another one of Rome’s famous piazzas. This is the place to see artists as they sketch and grab a delicious espresso or panino in one of the many outdoor cafe’s. In the center of the piazza is a Bernini masterpiece…la Fontana dei Fiumi (Fountain of rivers). To the west of the piazza lies the beautiful church of Sant’Angese in Agone. Legend has it that this is where Agnese was exposed naked, only to be (miraculously) covered by the rapid growth of her hair. At the northern end of the piazza lies another fountain, La Fontana di Nettuno.
Speaking of fountains, you will see many people drinking from many of the fountains that Rome has to offer. Rome is blessed by a rich water-source and aqueduct system, much of which has been unchanged since originally fabricated during the Roman Empire. Whenever you see the sign “non potabile” is when you should NOT drink the water. The Pantheon, an architecturally geometric masterpiece, is also worth seeing. The building is still in remarkable condition. Its dimensions and lines are very symmetrical, almost perfect. Originally a temple built in dedication to “all the gods”, today, its concrete dome is the biggest in the world.
From here, you can do some more shopping down Via Nazionale. These are similar to the shops around the Spanish Steps, but not as expensive.
Extended stays in Rome
The above itineraries are somewhat rushed, but definitely possible. Ideally, you would probably want to spend a week in Rome and go at a more relaxed pace.
Should you have any more time remaining in Rome, check out the vibrant market of Campo dei Fiori. Here you will savor some of the finest flavors of Rome: fresh meats, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. This is where you can mingle with some of the locals. To the north of the campo lies a piazza and a lovely building that was built during the Renaissance (Palazzo della Cancelleria).
On the other side of the Tiber river lies Trastevere, an eclectic neighborhood full of great Baroque architecture, funky bars, cafe’s, restaurants, etc. It is a good place to go to experience the Rome night life. And on Sunday morning, you can even check out the flea-market (Porta Portese).
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, spend some time north of the Spanish Steps relaxing in the Villa Borghese. This is the greenest and most serene section of Rome. A nice little respite, and a good place to picnic. There are a few noteworthy museums, and a not so noteworthy zoo. You can also squeeze this in on the first day, if you like, since this is near the Spanish Steps.
For something a little out-of-the-ordinary, check out the Catacombs, an underground burial system used many centuries ago in Italy. Italians, like many others, are very respectful of those who have passed away. These are located on the outskirts of town. You will probably have to take 2 buses from Termini Station to get there.
Outside of Rome
Tivoli, about an hour east of Rome, makes a nice day-trip. This is a quaint little hill town famous for its quarry stone industry.
Ostia, about an hour west of Rome, is the where Romans go when they want to go to the beach. The seaside resort is worth a visit if you have time, but nothing really to write home about. The better beaches justify a weekend-outing further south on the Amalfi Coast and outside Sorrento. These locations require a few hours by train.
Heading north of Rome, Viareggio is a nice little beach resort in the Tuscany region. And of course, there are all the wonders of Florence, about a 3-hour train ride from Rome.
So there you have it…Rome in a nutshell. You will not leave disappointed, no matter how many days you are there. If anything, you will want to stay more. As the old saying goes about Rome, “Roma, una vita non basta”, or “Rome, a lifetime isn’t enough. ” So enjoy whatever amount of time you spend in Rome, because there is no other city in the world like it.