Triumphal arches, millennia-old roads, fountains designed by the world’s greatest artists delight you at every turn. With its golden-colored buildings, Rome looks like it’s perpetually bathed in setting sun. Its earthen hues and old-world charm make it one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My senses are constantly teased by the beauty of the art and architecture, the sound of church bells ringing and Romans laughing happily, the slight burn of walking over Rome’s seven hills, the smell of delicious food tantalizing the taste buds, and the taste of Roman cuisine. Rome is beautiful chaos and offers the traveler a melody of delights.
If you find yourself in the Eternal City—and you should make every effort to find yourself there—you will find there are loads of things to do in Rome. I’m a historian who lusts after all that is ancient and crumbling; I’m also incredibly seduced by Renaissance and Baroque art, so Rome is my perfect place. I’ve read dozens of articles outlining the “top 10 things to do in Rome.” Some are quite good, but most I find a bit too brief. Brevity has never been my forte. Instead, I’m going to highlight most of my favorite things to do in Rome outlining an itinerary as I would visit it, which means I’ve clustered places together to avoid extra transportation costs (financial or foot fatigue). I would encourage you not to pack your days too full of activities. Enjoy la dolce vita—the sweet life—by lazing around in piazzas, window shopping while eating gelato, drinking prosecco while watching selfie-stick salesmen bother young lovers, or eating several courses of the world’s finest food. If you will only be in Rome for a few days, you might want to consider picking a few things to see this time while planning your next trip there.
Location is key when choosing Rome hotels. If you love shopping, pick one by Piazza del Popolo or the Spanish Steps. But I love history. I want to see so many ancient columns that they become de riguer. I want to be so immersed in history that I’m blasé about a two-thousand year-old theater (not that that could every happen). Given my love for the ancient, I picked a hotel situated in front of Largo Argentina (the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed). Its location was utterly perfect. Massive double green doors marked the entry way. Our hotel occupied a floor of a 17th century mansion. Our spacious room had frescoed ceilings and our windows opened onto a very large, shared, covered terrace, which we treated like our outdoor living room. Having a hotel central to everything I love meant that nighttime strolls to the Pantheon were a breeze…even with tired feet. We were only a few blocks from the Roman Forum and a few blocks in another direction from the river.
I will cover interesting things to see in the historic center (or Centro Storico) in this article. In other pieces, I’ll cover groupings of what to do in Rome in other areas of the city. This grouping of Rome tourist attractions starts at the Trevi Fountain meandering across town then looping southwest. Most hotels will provide you with a map, which is nice, but can be more frustrating than helpful at times. Look for the name of streets (start with via) and piazzas on the sides of buildings. Sometimes, it’s best to just follow your instincts…or the crowds.
Get your coins ready, because a trip to Rome would not be complete without a trip to the Trevi Fountain and the ubiquitous coin toss that accompanies it. Although this Baroque fountain has only been flowing since the mid-1700s, this area has been a source of water for over 2000 years and marked the terminal point of the Aqua Virgo. To ensure that you will come back to Rome, with your back to the fountain toss a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand. It’s worked for me! Near the Trevi is Piazza Colonna with the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This neat monument tells a story of Aurelius’ triumphs in a spiral relief. Another cool thing to look at are the remains of the Temple of Hadrian (now incorporated into another building) in Piazza di Pietra. There is a lovely place to grab a beverage overlooking the ancient columns. A few blocks further is a Gothic (rare in Rome) church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In front of this church is a charming piazza with an obelisk (they are found so frequently throughout the city you would think you were in Egypt) punctuated with an elephant statue at its base. According to a salesman across the street, Bernini designed the elephant with a specific purpose in mind. The elephant’s behind faces the former Dominican headquarters where, allegedly, trials of the Inquisition were held and where Galileo was found guilty of heresy. In order to get back at the Catholic church for its persecution of a man he respected, Bernini allegedly placed the stinky end of the pachyderm towards the brotherhood. The brotherhood complained to the pope about the position of the elephant but Bernini denied any wrongdoing and to this day the elephant pollutes the Dominican Order’s headquarters. Inside the church is a fine Michelangelo statue, Christ Carrying the Cross. This 1518 marble masterpiece is as good as the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, but has far less crowds and unlike its Vatican sister doesn’t have glass surrounding it to protect against hammer-wielding maniacs.
If you only see a few things in Rome, please consider making one of them the Pantheon. This ancient temple with its massive columns is an engineering marvel. Stand inside and stare up at the open hole in the domed ceiling. Go early to avoid crowds. Pay your respects to the artist Raphael at his tomb. Sit on the stairs in front of the obelisk outside and ponder its magnificence. Imagine how it would have looked when reliefs decorated its triangular pediment. Try to ignore the men selling selfie sticks. When you’ve had your fill of this great ancient structure, you can wander a few blocks over to the Piazza Navona for some Baroque splendor and visit Bernini’s famed “Fountain of the Four Rivers” that depicts: the River Plata, the Danube, the Nile, and the Ganges. It is a masterpiece, but I also enjoy the two fountains at the end of the oval piazza. This is a very large piazza by the way. You can tell by its ovate shape that it used to be used for races. It is a very popular place, too, so prices at cafes and shops are higher. Nearby, is a flower and food market, Campo de Fiori. I love seeing the colorful stalls of vegetables and fruits. Buckets of flowers smell divine. In the middle of the covered market, standing above the tarps is a statue of Giordano Bruno—a Dominican friar who was burned at the stake on this spot for his heretical ideas about planetary revolution.
About two minutes away is Largo Argentina where Caesar met his demise. Towards the river is a delightful little fountain in Piazza Mattei, Fontana delle Tartarughe. The fountain’s façade is crumbling a bit, but I love the turtles on it, which I heard were added by Bernini as a tribute to the Jews who were forced to live in the nearby ghetto. According to the story, the turtle shell reminded him of Jews constantly being moved around and carrying everything on their backs. Indeed, nearby is the Jewish Ghetto which is a neat area to explore. From Piazza Mattei, make sure to take via dell Reginella since there are some cool shops on that street…and one hot one…a shop that sells food products made from hot peppers of varying degrees of intensity. In the Jewish Quarter, you can find several eateries including a decent gelateria and a bakery. In front of the ruins of the 1st century BC Portico of Ottavia (covered walk), one can pay their respects at Largo 16 Ottobre 1943 (largo stands for square) which is a square commemorating the Roman Jews deported to the concentration camps from that area. It looked to me like a Holocaust museum is being built and there is a very large synagogue nearby with its own museum.
I find the area around the former Jewish Quarter to be utterly charming and historically rewarding. The bridge crossing over to Isola Tiberina, Ponte Fabricio, is incredibly romantic and the oldest around. Artists sell their creations upon the bridge. Hold your nose and walk down the steps (it gets better but the stairs are stinky about halfway down) to the Tiber River. Gaze up and see the bridge’s beautiful arches. The bridge connects to an island in the middle of the river. Isola Tiberina was known as a place of healing; during the plague of 293 BC a temple was erected on this island and it has been connected with health ever since. The island has a magical quality about it. A quick stroll over a second bridge takes you to Trastevere, which has a lot of great restaurants but I’ll cover that area in another article.
To round out your historical journey through the Centro Storico we’re going to finish along the river in one of the most ancient areas of the city by a magnificent theater. I’m sure by now you’ve been wondering when I was going to get to the Colosseum. Well….we’re not covering that ancient area in this article. Because there is so much to see and do in the Colosseum area, I’m going to leave that part for another post, but we won’t be without a theater—we’re going to finish this walk with Teatro di Marcello (Theater of Marcellus). The theatre was started by Julius Caesar and finished by Augustus in 17 BC. The theatre was dedicated to the memory of Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew and heir who died prematurely. The theater could hold as many as 15,000 spectators. Today, it has been turned into luxury apartments, but you can wander around the base of the theater and see nearby fragments from ancient temples and other buildings. Following along the Tiber away from the Jewish Ghetto you will come upon the Forum Boarium marked by two temples and a fountain. This area was a cattle market until Imperial times and was very popular due to its position on the Tiber and its proximity to trade routes like the Appian Way. The area was associated with the god Hercules, who was known as a protector of this area and of traders in general. Legend has it that Hercules defeated the evil giant Cacus in the Forum Boarium area. A circular temple to the invincible Hercules, Temple of Hercules Invictus, is the most ancient in marble to survive in Rome; it dates to the end of the 2nd century BC. Right nearby is the rectangular Temple of Portunus. Portunus was the patron of the Tiber river port and of sailors. In front of the temples, is the Piazza Bocca della Verita with an 18th century fountain with a star-shaped basin, Fontana dei Tritoni. Across the street is the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin which stands upon the site of the Great Altar of Hercules. Inside the church is an ancient Roman mask, Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth). This face on a circular disk was probably a drain cover, but is now visited daily by scores of tourists who stick their hands in its mouth to test the legend. Legend being that if you are a liar your hand will be bitten off. We decided not to test it J
At this point, you are a stone’s throw from Palatine Hill where all the rich and famous lived during ancient Roman times. We’re going to look at more great things to do in Rome in part two of this series—Colosseo. Ciao for now!
Bonus stop: If you’re feeling particularly energetic and would like to add some of the famous Roman baths to your list, start your day at the Baths of Diocletian by the Termini Station. A church, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs), is built inside the frigidarium of the baths. Michelangelo worked to integrate the church into the baths. Parts of the National Museum of Rome are in another section of the bath complex. Piazza della Repubblica in front of the baths is quite famous for its Fountain of the Naiads. The area is worth a stop if you have time.
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