Pros: Unique blend of history, religion and culture - great ruins, churches, and museums
Cons: Can get crowded and hot in summer months
While Paris may be more beautiful, Florence may have more art, and New York may have more energy Rome is my favorite city in the world. Nowhere else will you find such a unique combination of history, religion, art, and culture. It has ancient ruins, religious landmarks, famed museums, and remarkable public squares not to mention the wonderful food! Below are brief summaries of some of my favorite sights in Rome and some of the most famous landmarks in the world.
1. The Pantheon
If you are only going to see one landmark in Rome, make it the Pantheon. Located near the Piazza Navona on the northeast side of the city proper. Built around 120 A.D., the Pantheon is the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings. To step inside this ancient domed rotunda is truly to step back in time. Originally dedicated to the major Roman gods by the emperor Hadrian, this building was consecrated (and thus saved) as a church in the 600s. My several visits to the Pantheon (it was near our hotel and kept drawing me back) represent one of those awe inspiring, tingle on the back of your neck experiences that I will never forget. My advice is to visit and to visit often observing the Pantheon in different lights. Three experiences stand out for me:
1. The first time I entered simply awesome.
2. Having dinner with my mom at a cafe in the courtyard outside the Pantheon staring up at the beautifully lit structure.
3. Stumbling upon an orchestra rehearsing for a performance inside the Pantheon and sitting inside the dome listening to classical music and just feeling the wonder of the ancient structure.
2. The Colosseum
I love history and I love being able to live history to go where historical characters were, to feel what they felt, to see what they saw. Both the Pantheon and the Colosseum, allow me to live history. It is truly an amazing feeling to step inside an ancient structure and to know that people have been standing in that exact spot for thousands of years before you. The Colosseum is located near the ancient center of Rome, and although not as well preserved as the Pantheon, is still a marvel to behold. Commissioned by the emperor Vespasian in the 70s A.D., the Colosseum was originally used as a sports complex where gladiators fought. When Constantine took over Rome and began to Christianize the empire in the 600s, he outlawed all forms of gladiator games and blood sport. Following this time, the Colosseum was abandoned and stripped of many of its treasure. This destruction reached its peak with Mussolini and continues to this very day pollution from traffic (even though the streets immediately next to it are now closed) continues to threaten the survival of the Colosseum. This building represents an important link in our human heritage and world history, it is an honor to be able to step back in time and still admire the work of the ancient Romans. I will never forget my visit to the Colosseum and my overwhelming desire to touch everything as I took in its history!
3. St. Peters
Perhaps there is no greater living testament to Romes storied past, than St. Peters. Over two thousand years of Roman and Christian history are represented and found in the history of St. Peters. The history of St. Peters begins with St. Peter himself. History tells us that St. Peter (one of the original twelve disciples and founder of the Church) was crucified around 65 A.D. in Neros Circus. It is said that he was buried nearby in a small cemetery on Vatican Hill. This spot is thought to lie directly below the current dome of St. Peters and is marked by a magnificent baldacchino. In addition to its history, St. Peters is also the largest, most important, and most famous church in all of Christianity. It is the home of the papal seat and the center of the Catholic Church. Finally, St. Peters rivals the greatest art museums in the world with the depths of its treasures. Artistic masterpieces and architectural design by such greats as Michelangelo, Bramante, Bernini, and Maderno grace its halls.
I visited St. Peters several times during my stay in Rome and each time I was amazed by its sheer size. It makes you feel so small in comparison to its great size. Each time I went, I also noticed new details and new pieces of art caught my eye. Also, be sure to take in and appreciate the wonder of St. Peters square. It is a truly beautiful exterior space, wonderfully designed, and each time I see it on television, I cant help thinking I was there! Two things that I did at St. Peters that I would recommend considering:
1. Climb the dome most of it is done through elevators, but you do have to climb some stairs. This trek offers truly remarkable views of St. Peters square and Vatican city, plus allows you to get up close and personal with Michelangelos handiwork (he designed the dome).
2. Visit the Vatican on the day when the pope is giving his papal audience. While I dont recommend doing this for your first visit to the Vatican (too crowded), on our last day we went back to St. Peters and were pleasantly surprised with a papal sighting. It was a unique experience and one I will not forget.
4. The Roman Forum and Palantine Hill
Unlike the Pantheon and the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Imperial Forums, and Palantine Hill are ruins. They no longer exist in the original magnificence. Still the ruins leave behind important clues about what once was and with a little (well at times a lot) of imagination, you can still picture what once was and imagine yourself walking amongst Romes ancient rulers and elite. If you plan on visiting the ancient ruins, I highly recommend getting the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome by Amanda Claridge the book provides extremely valuable maps, diagrams, and pictures that allow you to make sense of the ruins and to get your bearings. From these maps, we were able to identify many of the ruins and to have a much better understanding of exactly what we are looking at. The ruins are not labeled or marked in any way without a guide you will be lost! But if you read ahead and come prepared, a visit to the ruins can be a great historical and archeological adventure. The Roman Forum is the most famous of the Roman ruins and is a must see sight in Rome. The Palantine Hill also includes many famous ruins but is not as fully excavated or as popular it is a great quiet place of a picnic. In both places, I was amazed by how close you are allowed to get to the monuments and how unregulated both places are you are truly able to wander at will amidst the ruins.
5. San Clemente
This is one of my favorite churches and a true historical treasure. In San Clemente, you can truly see the different layers of Roman history. First you enter into a medieval church built in the 1100s and decorated with frescoes that date from the 15th -18th centuries. The current church is beautiful but what is even more wonderful is what lies beneath it three older structures, each taking you further back in time! Find the staircase in the back right corner of the sacristy and descend into the ruins of a fourth century Christian church. Even more remarkable, descend further to find the ruins of two ancient Roman structures one an ancient house with three rooms dedicated to the worship of the Persian god Mithras, the other an ancient warehouse. This church is just so incredibly cool I cant even really describe it. While the lower levels are somewhat dark and somewhat wet, it is really amazing to be able to descend through history and see for yourself the layers of Romes history. This is one of my favorite historical places ever and it is not well known and off the beaten path so you can explore it without fighting the crowds.
6. Piazza Navona
The Piazza Navona sits upon the ruins of the ancient Circus Domitianus. The present day piazza is ovular in shape and owes its shape to the ancient race track that once occupied the space. The Piazza is marked by three beautiful fountains, the most famous being the center fountain by the great Bernini. The center of the fountain is marked by a tall Egyptian obelisk and surrounding it are four figures representing the great rivers of the world. Another famous landmark in the piazza is the church of Saint Agnese. The facade of St. Agnese was designed by Borromini. Legend says that Bernini designed one of his figures in the fountain (the one covering its face) as a reflection of his thoughts on Borrominis design the two were great artistic rivals.
All around the Piazza are restaurants and cafes. Our hotel was a few blocks away from the Piazza and we visited the Piazza quite often. We had dinner there most every night and lunch there on our first day. It is a nice open busy place to dine and people watch and very conveniently located to both the Pantheon and the Vatican. I would recommend locating your hotel in this area.
7. Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps
I know, I know I am cheating by combining these two into one but I have good reason! These two sights are very close together spatially and to mean occupy the same spot on a Roman itinerary both are famous and beautiful and both should be seen but neither are particularly interesting in their own right (at least to me). My attitude towards these too monuments are probably skewed by the fact that when I visited them they were extremely crowded and it was hard to appreciate either due to the large masses of people. For background purposes, Trevi Fountain is a large sculptural fountain in the Baroque style. The fountain is famous for the legend that if you throw a coin into the fountain you are sure to return to the Eternal City. The Spanish steps are another famous landmark and familiar Roman image are located in the Piazza di Spagna.
8. Capitoline Museums
The Capitoline Museums are located aptly at the top of the Capitoline hill in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo. Pay particular attention to the square in front of the Palazzos as you approach the museum. This square is called the Campidoglio and was designed by Michelangelo. The museum contains many ancient sculptures from Rome, Greece and Egyptian. It also contains a picture gallery. My favorite part was the exhibits of the fragments of a giant colossal statute displayed in the museums courtyard. Some of my favorite pictures are of my Mom standing next to the giant head, foot, and hand. Also, please be warned that the Capitoline Museums are not well marked it is very difficult to know what you are looking it so it might be advisable to buy a guidebook. Another important point: the Capitoline Museums overlook the Roman forum so it is wise to plan to visit them together. Some of the best views of the Forum for pictures are taken from the museum. I really enjoyed my visit to the Capitoline Museums it was my favorite museum in Rome.
9. Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
Like the Capitoline Museums, the Vatican Museums are not well marked and so it is difficult to know exactly what you are observing. The Vatican Museums are vast and contain many treasures collected over thousands of years. The Vatican Museums are located in the papal palace and the most famous room inside the museum is the Sistine Chapel. As many know, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel contains Michelangelos most famous fresco painting. My memories of the Vatican Museums are not that favorable they are very very crowded, particularly the Sistine Chapel. When standing inside the Sistine Chapel, you are packed in like sardines and it is a somewhat claustrophobic feeling. However, the Vatican Museums holds many treasures and famed pieces of art and I do not regret visiting. Although it is crowded and a bit uncomfortable, I feel like ultimately it is worth it I would not have wanted to go to Rome and not see the Sistine Chapel.
10. St. John the Lateran
Contrary to what one might think, Saint John the Lateran is the official cathedral of Rome (and not Saint Peters). It is also the official seat of the bishop of Rome (also known as the pope). While the facade of Saint John the Lateran is Baroque in style, the cathedral is much older and is actually the oldest of Romes four main basilicas. Saint John the Lateran also contains many important Catholic relics, most notably the heads of the saints of Saint Peter and Paul. Saint John the Lateran is a huge beautiful cathedral. While not my favorite Roman church, due to its important role both historically for the city of Rome and religiously for the Catholic Church it is most certainly a must see sight in Rome.
Practical Matters About Visiting Rome
Rome is a large sprawling city and its sights are spread out over a rather large area. The ancient center of Rome also lacks a good subway system like many other major cities in Rome every time they dig to build one they run into more ruins! For that reason I recommend walking, taking buses, and taking taxes. If you choose a nice central location for your hotel (like the Piazza Navona) you can walk to many if not all of the major sights. Also, we found that taxis were very inexpensive and reliable. If I had it to do over again, I would take more taxis.
People in Rome are friendly and most speak at least a little English. We spoke very little Italian and had no problems getting around. We visited in May and I recommend traveling in either spring or fall. This will allow you to avoid both the large crowds and the heat of Roman summers.
Finally, I recommend reading about both the history of Rome and the art of Rome prior to visiting. I had read several books on the city prior to my visit and I think it really enriched my experience. In particular, I recommend the book Roma Amor: Rome is Love Spelled Backwards. You can read my review of the book here:
It is a great, short book that will provide you with an overview of the major sights.