Things to Do in Rome
The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.
In Ancient Rome, the Forum was the centre of the Roman Empire. Until the 4th century AD, a thousand years of decisions affecting the future of Europe were made here. When Roman soldiers were out conquering the world in the name of the Emperors, temples, courts, markets, and government buildings were thriving in the Forum.
Located between two of Rome's famous hills, the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it is now a collection of ruins having spent centuries as a quarry for marble and a cow paddock. The Forum became a very dense collection of buildings in its time but mostly all that remains today is columns, arches, and some scattered marbles so it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Ongoing archaeological work continues, and getting a map or a guide can really bring the bustle of the ancient site to life. You can get a great view over the Forum from the overlooking hills in the Farnese Gardens and from Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio.
Part of its fame is directly related to the papacy: The Sistine Chapel is where cardinals gather to elect a new pope (known as the Papal Conclave).
The primary reason for its fame is pure art: the ceiling fresco painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. The huge fresco depicts the creation of the world and - despite the often shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in the Sistine Chapel - packs a powerful artistic punch (heightened by a recent renovation here that brought back the true color and depth of the original work).
Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel between 1537 & 1541 to paint the magnificent 'Last Judgment' fresco on the altar wall. Few people leave a Sistine Chapel tour without feeling moved by Michelangelo's work.
The chapel itself is named after Pope Sixtus IV), who renovated an old chapel and commissioned the first artworks here. The chapel contains important works by Renaissance heavyweights such as Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli.
St Peter's Basilica was built between 1506 and 1590, when the dome was finally completed. It is on the site of the tomb of St. Peter; his relics were finally found and authenticated in the middle of the 20th century. Before the current grand basilica, a 4th-century church built by Emperor Constantine stood here.
This is a church like no other. It is huge and full of significant artworks and tombs, including that of Pope John Paul II. One of the most beautiful pieces is the marble Pieta by Michelangelo just inside the door on the right. It is now behind bullet proof glass after being attacked by an art-hating lunatic in 1972.
If you can time your visit with a Mass, you will see the most important hierarchy of the Catholic Church come to worship in their red robes and hats. Climbing to the top of the dome gives a wonderful view over the piazza and Bernini's enclosing colonnade below, and across Rome.
The popes were among the very first royalty to open their vast art collections to public viewing. Pope Julius II (1443 - 1513) began collecting sculpture during the Renaissance and, ever since, most popes have taken an active interest in art and in commissioning the best artists of their time.
Today you can view the Vatican's incredible collection while touring the so-called 'Vatican Museums', a huge complex of galleries and museums showcasing painting, sculpture, frescoes, tapestries and classical antiquities including Roman, Greek and Egyptian. There are, of course, also collections of religious art, papal portraits and, less obviously, carriages and automobiles.
Any visit to the Vatican should also include the famous Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Rooms. Leave plenty of time for winding your way through the museums and the narrow connecting corridors and staircases.
The Pantheon in Rome is a remarkable building architecturally. Basically a cylinder with the floating dome on top of columns, it is the largest masonry vault ever built. In the center of this dome is a hole bringing in a shaft of light to show the beauty of this building and its relatively simple, open interior. Being inside the Pantheon feels very special.
Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, the temple has been damaged and plundered over time. In 609 AD it became a Christian church dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century some of its bronze ceiling was taken and melted down for use in St Peter's Basilica. Important figures such as King Victor Emmanuel II and the artist Raphael are buried in the Pantheon.
The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.
Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.
The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.
In Ancient Rome, a “circus” was an oblong arena where events like chariot races, games, and other performances were held. As you might guess, the Circus Maximus was - in a word - huge. It was the Roman Empire’s largest stadium, measuring more than 2,000 feet long by 387 feet wide and capable of holding an audience of 150,000.
First built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Circus Maximus was expanded over the next several centuries (and rebuilt occasionally after fire and flood damaged), until it was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. In addition to chariot and horse races, the Circus Maximus also held religious ceremonies, and parades. The last recorded uses of the Circus Maximus are in the 6th century AD, and today there’s very little left of the structures. The site is now a public park, and you can see the overall oblong shape where the Circus used to be, as well as some of the starting gates.
More Things to Do in Rome
St. Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) is the grand colonnaded area in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. A visually imposing entry to this great church, the semi-circular colonnades on either side designed by the Roman Baroque sculptor Bernini, seem to reach out and enfold you in their arms. Within the colonnade lies the security-check for entry to St. Peter's and, on the other side, the Vatican post office, because the Vatican is its own municipality with its own stamps.
During times such as the death of a pope or election of a new one, and at Easter and Christmas, the piazza is jammed with pilgrims from all over the world.
The Piazza Venezia defies many assumptions one might make from the name. It’s an open space, so it can be called a piazza, but it’s really a gigantic intersection and not a public square. And it’s in central Rome, not Venice. The name comes from the nearby Palazzo Venezia, in which ambassadors from the Venetian republic once lived.
The enormous Vittorio Emmanuele Monument faces one side of Piazza Venezia, and the interchange is also at the base of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. In short, although this piazza isn’t one in which you’re likely to spend lots of leisure time, you’ll certainly pass through it on your way to and from other major attractions in central Rome.
Those of you taking the bus around Rome will find Piazza Venezia to be a major transportation hub, which is useful for getting around the city. And if you’re ambitious enough to be driving in Rome, you’ll probably pass through the intersection a number of times.
If your Mediterranean cruise stops off in Rome, Civitavecchia will be your port of call. Only 80km (50 miles) north-west of Rome, this busy cruise port is geared to ship travel and is your gateway to many historic sights of the Eternal City, where most shore visitors grab the opportunity to take a Rome excursion.
Getting to Rome from Civitavecchia requires about an hour's journey by train. The train station is a 10-minute walk from the port, or a short shuttle ride (alight at the Michelangelo Fort). Trains run half-hourly to Rome’s Termini station, taking around 75 minutes or under an hour if you catch an express. You could also organize a private transfer or shore excursion tour including return transport to Civitavecchia.
The Tiber is the third-longest river in Italy, rising in the Apennine mountains and ending at the sea at Ostia, once the port of Ancient Rome. It is 252 miles (406 km) long. The story goes that the infants Romulus and Remus were abandoned on the waters of the Tiber, were rescued by a she-wolf, and founded Rome 15 mi (25 km) from the sea in 753 BC.
The Tiber River has also been heavy with sediment and although Romans throughout history have dredged it, the river is now navigable only to Rome and not beyond. The port of Ostia was abandoned to mud as far back as 1 AD.
Raphael's Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) are four interconnected rooms in the Vatican which have frescoes painted by the renowned Renaissance artist Raphael (1483 - 1520). These late Renaissance frescoes are the second-most famous in the Vatican's collection, only behind the fresco adorning the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
Raphael's themes for his frescoes were religion and politics; he often swapped portraits of the incumbent pope for the faces of important figures. Originally commissioned by Pope Julius II in the early 1500s, the frescoes were patronized by Pope Leo X after Julius died in 1513. When Raphael also died in 1520, artists from his studio finished the paintings.
The 'Segnatura' room was the first to be decorated and contains Raphael's most famous painting, The School of Athens. The other rooms are known as 'Constantine', 'Heliodorus' and 'Fire in the Borgo'.
Vatican City was created in 1929 and run by the Pope (who is the supreme monarch!). The official population is a little over 800 and it covers an area of 110 acres (44 hectares). Within the walls of the city are St Peter's Basilica, St Peter's Square, the Vatican Museums, the residence of the Pope and offices of the Catholic Church.
Being a separate state, the Vatican has its own postage stamps, and the official language is Latin (as well as Italian). It has its own bank and the world's only ATM with instructions in Latin! Although it uses the euro, the Vatican does issue its own coins.
The economy revolves around tourism, printing, mosaics and manufacturing uniforms (who knew!). There are two forces for law and order; one is the Gendarmerie, who keep order, the other is the Swiss Guard (notable for their crazy yellow, blue and red uniforms) the Pope's personal bodyguard since 1506. All 134 members are indeed from Switzerland.
The Trastevere neighborhood of Rome is one of the city’s oldest districts; walking through its cobbled streets during the day you’re apt to forget the busy Roman streets and crowds outside the Colosseum. In the Trastevere, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into an Italian village. Because, in a way, you have.
The name “Trastevere” means “across the Tiber” (which is “Tevere” in Italian), which should tell you it lies on the opposite side of the river from monuments like the Roman Forum and Colosseum - it’s actually on the same side of the river as Vatican City. There are many inexpensive places to eat in the Trastevere, but the area is essentially hotel-free. To stay here, you’ll need to book an apartment rental or guesthouse, as that’s basically all that’s available for lodging.
By day, the Trastevere is almost unfailingly charming, and the small Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is straight out of an Italian countryside hill town.
Standing proud behind the Colosseum and steps away from the beginning of the Via Sacra, the imposing triumphal Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roma Senate in 315 AD in honor of Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that took place three years earlier. At 69 feet (21 meters) tall, the ornate monument was carved from a single enormous block of gray and white marble. In typical Classical style, the great central gateway is mirrored by two smaller side arches and supported by eight Corinthian columns. The arch is decorated with reliefs plundered from other long-forgotten memorials that describe feats of bravery by earlier Roman emperors, as well as inscriptions praising the achievements of Constantine.
Piazza di Spagna is one of Rome's best-known meeting places, thanks to a stunning statue, the iconic Fontana della Barcaccia and an attractive square that lies at the foot of the famed Spanish Steps. The landmark's central location grants travelers easy access to top attractions like nearby Trinita dei Monti, Keats-Shelley Memorial House and the Column of the Immaculate Conception.
Piazza di Spagna is also a prime destination for people-watching, thanks to the large number of visitors and locals who gather in the public garden and scenic space to celebrate sunshine when there's warmer weather.
The Capitoline Hill is one of Rome’s famous seven hills, and in Italian it’s called the Campidoglio. The Piazza del Campidoglio is the trapezoidal space atop the hill, with buildings on three sides and a grand staircase on the fourth. The piazza and surrounding buildings were designed by Michelangelo in the mid-1500s.
Michelangelo employed several visual tricks to give the space a balanced feel, despite its lack of literal symmetry. He designed facades for the existing buildings, made the staircase more of a gradual ramp, and crafted a pattern to be inlaid in the piazza that deceives the eye into thinking it’s a perfect oval (it’s actually egg-shaped). The buildings once served as government buildings, but they now house the Capitoline Museums. At the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio is a replica of an Ancient Roman bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The original bronze is nearby in the Capitoline Museums.
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