If you find yourself in the Eternal City—and you should make every effort to do so—you will find there are loads of things to do in Rome. Rome is filled with ancient wonders, medieval treasures, Renaissance riches, and Baroque splendors. It is a perfect place. Everywhere you turn there is something to see that tantalizes the senses. No visit to Rome would be complete without a trip to the historic center, Centro Storico, which I cover in another article. In this piece, I’m highlighting the fantastic things to do in Rome near the Colosseum—or Colosseo stop if you’re using the Metro system. There are only a few subway lines in Rome because of the archaeological sites underneath the city. Recently, an impressive amount of Roman barracks were unearthed near the Colosseo stop. The city plans to create a metro station museum similar to that of Athens!
The minute one sees the Colosseum it is difficult to resist the urge not to immediately race inside the magnificent structure, but since this is likely the one monument you know on sight it might be a good idea to visit the nearby Il Vittoriano and get a feel for the lay of the land first. Known by many names, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Altare della Patria, Il Vittoriano, the Typewriter, the massive white structure reminds that modern and ancient Rome live side by side. With traffic racing around it, its bright, white exterior seems incongruent with its ancient surroundings. It is a monument to the first king of a unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. Also honored are the remains of an unknown soldier of the Great War. There is a museum in the building and other exhibits, but the highlight is the elevator that whisks you to the top for great views of the Roman skyline. I prefer these views to those from St. Peter’s dome because these views include that beautiful dome. This is a great place for travelers to get their bearings. You can see a full view of the various forums, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill, which will help contextualize what you will see while visiting the rest of the stops in this article.
To the side of Vittoriano is the stunning Campidoglio square (named for its position atop Capitoline Hill), which once stood testament to Rome’s military, civic, and religious domination. There is a shortcut from Vittoriano, but the most stunning entrance is via the Cordonata (Michelangelo’s stairway) from street level off via del Teatro di Marcello. If you’re facing the stairway, to the left of it is another stairway (much steeper and scary looking) that leads to the church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli. This church has its own charms, but for now we’re going to concentrate on the beauty that is a piazza designed by Michelangelo. Notice how even his steps seem more civilized? After passing two ancient Egyptian lions made of black granite, you climb Michelangelo’s Great Stairway. Pots of flowers line the sides. Statues are in garden beds to the side and at the top. Looking up at terracotta clock tower I hope you are as overwhelmed as I by the beauty. Enjoying these gently sloping stairs that Michelangelo designed is truly one of life’s great gifts.
At the top of the Cordonata is Piazza Campidoglio. Atop an intricate Michelangelo-designed star decorating the pavement is a replica of a statue of Marcus Aurelius, the original is in the Capitoline Museum whose collection is housed in buildings on the sides of the Campidoglio. The Capitoline Museum holds a treasure trove of Rome’s ancient artifacts and allows access to the ancient tabularium (the building that held Rome’s public archives). According to a Roman tourism brochure, the Palazzo dei Conservatori (one of the museums buildings) was completed in 1568 and the oldest rooms were decorated at the beginning of the 1500s. It was opened to the public in the first half of the 1700s making it one of (if not the) oldest museums in the world. From the Capitoline Museum you get a great view of the Roman Forum, as well as one of Trajan’s Forum which features Trajan’s Column. If you so choose, you can buy a pass and roam around nearby Trajan’s Forum where you will be able to more closely see his column detailing his accomplishments in spiraling depictions. Or, you can get a pretty good view of the site from the walkways nearby and use your zoom lens to look at the column. Your choice. Since you’re likely going to the Roman Forum today, you might wish to forgo this one this time.
Cross the street and you will see the vestiges of another ancient meeting place—the Roman Forum. This is a good place to buy your combination ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill (the Palatine Hill entrance is usually less crowded than the Forum—choose whichever is closer, avoid the line at Colosseum at all costs). One ticket covers all three sites. You do not need to visit all three on the same day. You can visit each once.
The Roman Forum was the political, administrative and religious center of Rome. It was the place to see and be seen. As you’re walking along the main drag called the via Sacra (Sacred Way) imagine how these buildings would have looked in their heyday with marble facades, elaborate columns, colossal sizes, gilded interiors, and colorful exteriors. Think about how people of varying social statuses would run into each other here. This was a place where politicians debated and tried to garner support, where businessmen tried to get customers, where judges doled out justice, where people visited and talked about the latest news—“Did you hear about Pompeii?” Revel in the fact that standing where chariots raced by and caesars stood.
Triumphal arches at either end of the forum denote moments that emperors were proud of—check out the Arch of Titus where Roman victory in the Jewish War (66-73 CE) is depicted by showing a huge golden menorah and the Ark of the Covenant being carried away. The arches also pay tribute to one of the Romans greatest engineering feats. Only fragments exist of most of the buildings in the Forum, which is why I suggest a good tour our tour guide. Like most Roman monuments, there are not many placards to help you contextualize what you’re seeing so it is best to buy a map and guide book for the site or spend the time guessing. They may look childish, but I highly recommend buying one of the tourist books that has transparent overlays to show what the Forum looked like in the past to help place each fragment today. A good tour guide will help bring one along and show you, too. Some of my favorite things to see in the Forum are:
- Temple of Antoninus and Faustina—since this temple was converted to a Christian church it is relatively intact
- Spot where Caesar’s body was burned—a memorial still honors the dictator
- Santa Maria Antiqua—this 6th century church isn’t always open to the public, but when it is has amazing frescoes and is a “can’t miss”
- Temple of Vesta—Vestal Virgins were sworn to celibacy for 30 years—if they failed they were buried alive.
- Basilica of Maxentius—this was a gigantic hall where business or legal matters could be transacted.
After a day of debating politics and conducting politics, Romans could enjoys themselves at the nearby amphitheater. Built by the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian between 71 and 80 AD as a gift to the Roman Citizens, the Colosseum was a political gesture to reconcile the Roman citizens with the new dynasty and try to overcome the wounds of Nero. The arena boasted popular games such as hunts, gladiatorial fights, chariot races, and naval battles. On our last visit, we had a wonderful tour of the theater with The Roman Guy where we got to see restricted areas, including the dungeons and the third level. It was really awesome!
The Colosseum held between 50,000 and 70,000 spectators. Admission was free, but was strictly segregated and tickets were required. The Roman ruling class were obliged by law and by the expectations of the people to organize these shows to gain the favor of the citizens. The games were quite expensive and became a matter of public interest and regulated by law. The arena remained in service for four and a half centuries, although it was destroyed by fire or harmed by disaster many times. The last gladiatorial combat was recorded in 404 during a time of Roman decline when most ancient Roman traditions and lifestyle ceased to exist.
From the arches of the Colosseum, you can gaze upon the triumphal Arch of Constantine. This monument celebrates the triumph of the emperor Constantine over Maxentius, which took place on October 28, A.D. 312, following the victorious Battle at the Milvian Bridge. The images exalt Constantine as restorer of the Empire. He is shown as the legitimate heir to the throne of Rome. You can get a closer look on your way to Palatine Hill.
A trip to Rome would not be complete without a stroll through the scenic cypress groves of Palatine Hill. According to tradition, Romulus founded Rome in 754 BCE on this hill. You can see the remains of huts in a preserved archaeological section. Its elevated position, beautiful groves, great views of Rome, and proximity to the Tiber River made it a popular place to live and during the Republican Era it became a happening residential district for Roman aristocrats. Emperor Augustus turned Palatine Hill into the official seat of power and started construction of imperial palaces that were enlarged by subsequent emperors. We get our word “palace” from Palatine Hill; it stems from the Latin word Palatium. Roam past the Claudian Aqueduct (the best place I’ve found to see this within the city center) and see one of the engineering marvels that made Rome great. Stroll through the gardens of former palaces. Enjoy the remnants of those majestic manors. Check out the relatively new lookout area where you can survey all of the Roman Forum. Bring a picnic lunch and a water bottle (there will be places to refill it) and plan to spend the day. Palatine Hill is a peaceful respite from chaotic Rome. It is obvious today why it was prime real estate in the past.
A short bus ride from the Colosseum is a fascinating church that deserves a visit if you have time–Basilica di San Clemente. The present-day church dates from the 12th century, but features an archaeological site that you can visit (for a 10€ fee) where you can descend below the church to see the 4th century church it was built upon and 1st century structures (including a Mithraeum) that they were built upon. The medieval church is quite beautiful. Mosaics in the nave show the tree of life. Chapels off to the side depict the lives of various saints. As gorgeous as the 12th century mosaic was, the 4th century church was more interesting. Here was a basilica built in the century when the Edict of Milan had been declared making the persecution of Christians a forbidden activity. Although it was formally forbidden to torture or kill Christians, surely they must have been nervous to practice their religion openly. Their church had lots of frescoes and incorporated pagan symbols, too. Christianity has drawn on other religions, such as incorporating December 25 the birthday of Mithras to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Christ. Speaking of Mithras….if you descend further, there is a Mithraic area (Mithras was a god and the symbol of light and purification from sin, representing the path to moral perfection). Here was a Mithraic altar, a Mithraic “school,” and a public area. Although I had purchased a guide, I was at a loss most of the time to figure out what I was looking at or where I was and wished I had booked a tour guide to lead me through the labyrinth. It was quite dark, and as is the case with most Roman sites there were few markers to let me know what I was viewing, I could hear water rushing though and eventually came upon a water source that I found out leads to the Tiber. In all, it was a good time and I would like to go back with someone to show me around.
This article highlights just a few of some of the best things to do in Rome. In a series of blog posts, I am grouping various Rome sites by area. Check out my article on the historical center, Centro Storico, for more fabulous sights to see in the Eternal City. Roma has something for everyone. It is a beloved city and one that holds my soul. Stay tuned for my next article when I cover sights off the beaten path. Ciao!
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