Its not advisable to rush a visit to Rome as there is just so much history, art and culture to take in. But if you happen to only have a few days, as is most often the case, here’s my list of top ten attractions that are worth seeing when you’re in town.
WHAT TO DO
The Colosseum & The Arch of Constantine
As the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the silhouette of the Flavian Amphitheatre is to Rome. The largest structure left to us by Roman antiquity, the Colosseum still provides the model for sports arenas – present day football stadium design is clearly based on this oval Roman plan. The building was begun by Vespasian in AD 72, and after his son Titus enlarged it by adding the fourth story, it was inaugurated in the year AD 80 with a series of splendid games. The Colosseum was large enough for theatrical performances, festivals, circuses, or games, which the Imperial Court and high officials watched from the lowest level, aristocratic Roman families on the second, the populace on the third and fourth.
Beside the Colosseum stands the almost equally familiar Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch erected by the Senate to honor the emperor as “liberator of the city and bringer of peace” after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312.
The Vatican City
Even though it’s located in Rome, Vatican City has been an independent state since 1929 with its own flag, coins and stamps. It even has its own militia, the Swiss Guard, which protects this state, the Pope and the 800 full-time citizens and visiting residents. The first impressive site is St. Peter’s Square itself designed by Bernini in the late 17th century. As long as you’re dressed appropriately (no bare shoulders or shorts or skirts above the knee), you may enter St. Peter’s Basilica and see Michelangelo’s Pietá, a stunningly beautiful and sad sculpture.
Continue up to the roof where you can take in the view of the large square and city beyond. Also contained in the Vatican’s walls, the Vatican Museums hold Italian masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s painted ceiling at the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world, with an area of less than half a square kilometer, most of it enclosed by the Vatican walls. Inside are the Vatican palace and gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square, an area ruled by the Pope, supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. This compact space offers much for tourists to see, between its museums and the great basilica itself.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica is Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pieta, along with statuary and altars by Bernini and others. The unquestioned highlight of the Vatican museums is the Sistine Chapel, whose magnificent frescoed ceiling is Michelangelo’s most famous work. Inside the Vatican Palace are the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, the Vatican Library, and a number of museums that include the Picture Gallery, Museum of Secular Art, Etruscan Museum, and others. The collections you can see in these cover everything from papal coaches to 20th-century art reflecting religious themes.
Ticket lines for the Vatican’s top attractions are incredibly long, and you can spend several hours waiting in line. To save time, purchase a Skip the Line: Vatican Museums with St. Peter’s, Sistine Chapel, and Small-Group Upgrade tour in advance. This three-hour tour allows you to bypass the long lines and walk straight into the museums with a knowledgeable guide.
Headsets are provided, and you can choose from several different departure times or upgrade to an evening or small-group tour.
Vittoriano (Monument to Victor Emmanuel II)
Whether you think the imposing memorial built to mark the winning of Italian unity and honor its first king is a magnificent monument or a monumental eyesore, you must admit that it is an unmistakable Roman landmark. The National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II was built between 1885 and 1911 to celebrate the success of the Risorgimento and achievement of Italian unity in 1870. It is immense: 135 meters long by 130 meters deep, and rears up to a height of 70 meters. Halfway up are the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The east part of the monument houses the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, an interesting museum of the Italian independence movement.
Address: Piazza Venezia, Rome
The Pantheon – the best preserved monument of Roman antiquity – is remarkably intact for its 2000 years. This is despite the fact that Pope Gregory III removed the gilded bronze roof tiles, and Pope Urban VIII ordered its bronze roof stripped and melted down to cast the canopy over the altar in St. Peter’s and cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo. The Pantheon was rebuilt after damage by fire in AD 80, and the resulting brickwork shows the extraordinarily high technical mastery of Roman builders. Its 43-meter dome, the supreme achievement of Roman interior architecture, hangs suspended without visible supports – these are well hidden inside the walls – and its nine-meter central opening is the building’s only light source. The harmonious effect of the interior is a result of its proportions: the height is the same as the diameter. Although the first Christian emperors forbade using this pagan temple for worship, in 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated it to the Virgin and all the Christian martyrs, and since then, it has become the burial place of Italian kings (Victor Emmanuel II is in the second niche on the right) and other famous Italians, including the painter Raphael.
One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, this 17th-century masterpiece has been immortalized in films until it is almost a required visit. Throwing a coin (not three) into the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) is a tradition that is supposed to assure your return to Rome. Rome’s largest fountain, Fontana di Trevi is supplied by an aqueduct originally constructed by Agrippa, the great art patron of the first century BC, to bring water to his baths.
The fountain was created for Pope Clement XII between 1732 and 1751 by Nicolò Salvi, and built against the rear wall of the palace of the Dukes of Poli. It depicts the sea god Oceanus (Neptune), with horses, tritons, and shells. The water swirls around the figures and the artificial rocks, and collects in a large basin, always filled with coins.
San Giovanni in Laterano (Basilica of St. John Lateran)
As you might expect for the episcopal church of the Pope, St. John Lateran is one of Rome’s most impressive churches. After centuries of alterations, it still retains its original form from the age of Constantine, when it was built. Its façade, by contrast, is a purely baroque embellishment and a fine example of that period. Along with the mosaics in the apse, be sure to notice the beautiful 16th-century wooden ceiling. If the octagonal baptistery, San Giovanni in Fonte, looks a bit familiar, it’s because it provided the model for later ones throughout Europe. Built by Constantine, it is the world’s oldest Christian baptistery. Across the piazza, in the church of the Scala Santa, is the Holy Staircase, 28 steps believed to have been brought to Rome in the fourth century by St. Helen, from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem.
The Spanish Steps
Ironically, the flight of irregular stairs and landings called the Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) were paid for by the French ambassador and lead up to the French church of Trinità dei Monti. The stairs, however, take their name from Piazza di Spagna, the plaza at their base and one of Rome’s most typical squares. The stairs have been a favorite haunt of tourists, where they can sit and enjoy a gelato in the summer or warm their hands around cones of hot roasted chestnuts in the winter. The boat-shaped fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps is known as the Barcaccia and was created by Pietro Bernini, father of the great Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Trinità dei Monti, begun by Louis XII in 1502, still preserves some of the original Gothic arches and contains an Entombment by Daniele da Volterra, student of Michelangelo. Via Condotti, leading southwest from Piazza di Spagna, is Rome’s most fashionable shopping street, where the Caffè Greco is famous for the artists, writers, and musicians who have frequented it. Literary fans can visit the House of Keats and Shelley to see exhibits and portraits of the English poets and their contemporaries. The Spanish Steps may be the longest and widest staircase in all of Europe, but that’s not what draws visitors to this popular tourist spot. A Barcaccia fountain bubbles at the foot of the steps while the Trinità dei Monti church rises above the crowds at the top of the steps. But the best spot is somewhere in between the 2: take a seat in the middle of the wide staircase and watch the city go by as beautiful people hurry into the nearby high-end shops, designer boutiques and restaurants.
Address: Piazza di Spagna, Rome
An impressive – if rather confusing – sprawl of ruins, the Roman Forum was ancient Rome’s showpiece centre, a grandiose district of temples, basilicas and vibrant public spaces. The site, which was originally an Etruscan burial ground, was first developed in the 7th century BC, growing over time to become the social, political and commercial hub of the Roman empire.
Rome is known for beautiful and charming squares lined with restaurants and open-air cafes. The loveliest of them all is the large public square at Piazza Navona, once the site of sporting events at Domitian’s stadium in A.D. 89. The square contains 3 fountains, and the largest and most memorable is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers with each of the 4 statues representing a river from different continents.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
HOW TO DO ROME
For maximum flexibility while you’re seeing all the top attractions, sign up for the Rome Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour on an open-air double-decker bus. Accompanied by audio commentary, this convenient ticket covers all the top sights, with eight different stops, and you can hop on and off at your favorite attractions. You can choose a tour that’s valid for either 24 or 48 hours and upgrade to packages that include time-saving skip-the-line admission to attractions like Palatine Hill, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum.
Another fun way to see the top sights in the city without worrying about navigating your way around the city is the Rome Segway Tour. Included in this three-hour excursion are a brief orientation session, helmets, wet weather jackets (if needed), and audio commentary. Meet your guide near Piazza Venezia and see the sights of Ancient Rome, including the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Circus Maximus, learning all about them as you zoom around the city.
Click here to read Part One of the article – Where to stay in Rome.
Which attractions did you enjoy the most? Let me know in the comments
Thanks for visiting!