Rome is Italy’s capital city and the greatest reminder of its Roman past. But Rome’s history spans over two thousand years and its streets, squares, churches, monuments and buildings also encapsulate its Medieval and Renaissance periods, as well as its ancient beginnings. Here are some of the top highlights and popular attractions on offer:
The Colosseum is Rome’s most iconic landmark and a truly spectacular sight. It is the largest surviving Roman monument with an estimated capacity of between 50,000 and 75,000. Over the years, fires and earthquakes have considerably damaged the upper levels but you can still get an idea of the structure of the seating, which was tiered like a modern stadium. The original wooden floor has gone but the benefit of this is you can look down on the maze of tunnels that were used to bring the gladiators, animals and other fighters onto the stage. The Colosseum is powerfully evocative: you can almost hear the roar of the crowd and smell the stench of blood and sweat.
A glimpse of the former glory of Rome can seen at the Forum, although there is relatively little left of the original structures. It is worth remembering that many of the ruins are more than 2000 years old and much of the site was left to fall into disrepair. Still, the ruins are beautifully captivating and as you stroll around the site, don’t forget that you are treading the same path as some of the most well-known names in Roman history, such as Julius Caesar, Nero, Hadrian and Caligula.
The most perfectly preserved of all the monuments in Rome is the Pantheon, which was was originally built by Marcus Agrippa between 27 and 25 BC and later restored by Emperor Hadrian between AD 118 and 125. The Pantheon’s conversion to a Christian church in AD 608 was the reason it escaped the desecration suffered by many other Roman buildings. One of its most striking features is the 9 metre hole (or oculus) in the middle of the dome, which was designed to allow visitors to directly observe the heavens. On a sunny day the oculus illuminates the inside of the Pantheon with a dramatic burst of light, while the sight of rain pouring through the hole is particularly wonderful.
Without a doubt one of the most beautiful fountains you will ever see, the Trevi Fountain covers the entire wall of the Palazzo Poli, emphasising its monumental scale. The source of the fountain’s water was originally the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct started by Agrippa in 19 BC to bring water from the hills outside Rome into the city. The present fountain was begun by pope Clement XII in 1732 and inaugurated by Clement XIII 30 years later. A particularly romantic setting in the evening, when the fountain looks stunning floodlit.
Piazza Navona is Rome’s grandest square, mainly because of the presence of 3 rather impressive fountains. The central Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers, which was designed by the great baroque architect Borromini, represents the four major rivers, the Nile, Ganges, Plate and Danube, and in turn the four corners of the world, Africa, Asia, America and Europe. The cafes surrounding the square are lovely and a great place to people watch, although a little on the expensive side. The square is usually busiest at night, when artists and caricaturists set up stalls and show off their work.
The Vatican is the world’s smallest independent state and the headquarters of the Catholic Church. The Vatican Museums are incredibly vast and complex (there are 12 in total) and contain a hoard of hidden treasures, most notably Michelangelo’s famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. There are paintings, sculptures and other works of art from all historical ages, including Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Renaissance, and the collection is often considered to be one of the world’s largest and richest. The Basilica di San Pietro (St Peter’s), as one of the most important churches in the world, is also worth visiting, even if only to admire the regal architecture. For many Catholics, it is a place of pilgrimage and regularly attracts crowds of thousands.
There are some 300km of catacombs running beneath Rome, as burial within the city walls was forbidden to all except emperors in ancient Rome. Pagans, Jews and Christians were usually buried within these long passages and chambers and there were niches in the walls where the bodies were placed. The most visited are the catacombs of Domitilla, San Sebastiano and San Callisto, but for a more atmospheric experience try some of the smaller and quieter catacombs.
Note. The cuisine of Italy is equally as famous as its historical monuments and in Rome, you can sample some truly delicious pizza, pasta and ice cream! Often the humble trattorias, with only locals sat around the few wooden tables scattered outside, are the most authentic but there are plenty of stylish restaurants serving quality food. Steer clear of the ones that are clearly over-priced.