Best of Italy - Rick Steves (2016)
Rome is magnificent and brutal at the same time. It’s a showcase of Western civilization, with truly ancient sights and a modern vibrance. But with the wrong attitude, you’ll be frustrated by the kind of chaos that only an Italian can understand. On my last visit, a cabbie struggling with the traffic said, “Roma chaos.” I responded, “Bella chaos.” He agreed.
Over 2,000 years ago the word “Rome” meant civilization itself. Today, Rome is Italy’s political capital, the capital of Catholicism, and the center of its ancient empire, littered with evocative remains. As you peel through its fascinating and jumbled layers, you’ll find Rome’s buildings, cats, laundry, traffic, and 2.7 million people endlessly entertaining.
Despite Rome’s rough edges, you’ll fall in love with it...if you pace yourself, if you’re well-organized, if you protect yourself and your valuables with extra caution, if your hotel provides a comfortable refuge, and if you embrace the siesta. Rome is much easier to love if you can avoid the midsummer heat.
ROME IN 3 DAYS
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t hope to see it all in three. Pace yourself; never regret a siesta. If you miss something, add it to your list of excuses to return.
Remember to check the Daily Reminder before you head out (see here).
Day 1: The Colosseum is the best place to begin your tour of ancient Rome. Then continue to the Arch of Constantine, Roman Forum, Trajan’s Column, and Pantheon. Have dinner on the atmospheric Campo de’ Fiori. Then take this book’s Heart of Rome Walk to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps.
Day 2: See St. Peter’s Basilica and climb its dome, then tour the Vatican Museums, featuring the divine Sistine Chapel (closed Sun, except first Sun of month; smart to reserve a museum entry time in advance).
With any remaining stamina, choose among these sights (or save for tomorrow afternoon): the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano (Holy Stairs), St. Peter-in-Chains (Michelangelo’s Moses), and Capuchin Crypt (bone chapel).
Evening options: Do as the Romans do—join the Dolce Vita Stroll along the Via del Corso. Explore the Monti neighborhood; linger over dinner, or stop by an enoteca (wine bar) for a drink. Enjoy a classical concert or jazz.
Day 3: See the Borghese Gallery (reservations required, closed Mon; stroll through the park afterwards) and the Capitoline Museums. Zip up to the top of the Victor Emmanuel Monument for a grand view of the Eternal City.
With extra time: Take a day trip to Ostia Antica (the remains of an ancient Roman town; closed Mon) or to the hill town of Orvieto. Or visit Naples and Pompeii in a blitz day trip from Rome; take the early Rome-Naples express train (usually daily 7:35-8:45), see Naples, then Pompeii, and you’ll be back in Rome before bedtime (but avoid this trip on Tue, when Naples’ archaeological museum is closed).
Rick’s Tip: The siesta is the key to survival in summertime Rome. Lie down and contemplate the extraordinary power of gravity in the Eternal City. Drink lots of cold, refreshing water from Rome’s many drinking fountains.
Sprawling Rome actually feels manageable once you get to know it. The old core, with most of the tourist sights, sits in a diamond formed by Termini train station (in the east), the Vatican (west), Villa Borghese Gardens (north), and the Colosseum (south). The Tiber River runs through the diamond from north to south. In the center of the diamond sits Piazza Venezia, a busy square and traffic hub. It takes about an hour to walk from Termini Station to the Vatican. Think of Rome as a series of neighborhoods, huddling around major landmarks.
▲▲▲Heart of Rome Walk A stroll lacing the narrow lanes, intimate piazzas, fanciful fountains, and lively scenes of Rome’s most colorful neighborhood. Hours: Any time, but best in evening. See here.
▲▲▲Colosseum Huge stadium where gladiators fought. Hours: Daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset: April-Aug until 19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, off-season closes as early as 16:30. See here.
▲▲▲Roman Forum Ancient Rome’s main square, with ruins and grand arches. Hours: Same hours as Colosseum. See here.
▲▲▲Capitoline Museums Ancient statues, mosaics, and expansive view of Forum. Hours: Daily 9:30-19:30. See here.
▲▲▲Pantheon The defining domed temple—2,000 years old. Hours: Mon-Sat 8:30-19:30, Sun 9:00-18:00, holidays 9:00-13:00, closed for Mass Sat at 17:00 and Sun at 10:30. See here.
▲▲▲St. Peter’s Basilica Most impressive church on earth, with Michelangelo’s Pietà and dome. Hours: Church—daily April-Sept 7:00-19:00, Oct-March 7:00-18:30, often closed Wed mornings; dome—daily April-Sept 8:00-18:00, Oct-March 8:00-17:00. See here.
▲▲▲Vatican Museums Four miles of the finest art of Western civilization, culminating in Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel. Hours: Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00. Closed on religious holidays and Sun, except last Sun of the month (open 9:00-14:00). May be open some Fri nights by online reservation only. See here.
▲▲▲Borghese Gallery Bernini sculptures and paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian in a Baroque palazzo. Reservations mandatory. Hours: Tue-Sun 9:00-19:00, closed Mon. See here.
▲▲▲National Museum of Rome Greatest collection of Roman sculpture anywhere. Hours: Tue-Sun 9:00-19:45, closed Mon. See here.
▲▲Dolce Vita Stroll Evening passeggiata, where Romans strut their stuff. Hours: Roughly Mon-Sat 17:00-19:00 and Sun afternoons. See here.
▲▲Trajan’s Column Tall ancient Roman column with narrative relief. Hours: Column always viewable. See here.
▲▲Museo dell’Ara Pacis Shrine marking the beginning of Rome’s Golden Age. Hours: Daily 9:30-19:30. See here.
▲▲Church of San Giovanni in Laterano Grandiose and historic “home church of the popes,” with one-of-a-kind Holy Stairs across the street. Hours: Church—daily 7:00-18:30; Holy Stairs—generally same hours but closed for lunch. See here.
▲Arch of Constantine Honors the emperor who legalized Christianity. Hours: Always viewable. See here.
▲Monti Neighborhood Lively fun-to-explore neighborhood with trendy eateries, workaday shops, and inviting lanes. Hours: Always open. See here.
▲Palatine Hill Ruins of emperors’ palaces, Circus Maximus view, and museum. Hours: Same hours as Colosseum. See here.
▲Piazza del Campidoglio Square atop Capitoline Hill, designed by Michelangelo, with a museum, grand stairway, and Forum overlooks. Hours: Always open. See here.
▲Spanish Steps Popular hangout by day and night, particularly atmospheric when floodlit at night. Hours: Always open. See here.
▲Victor Emmanuel Monument Gigantic edifice celebrating Italian unity, with Rome from the Sky elevator ride up to 360-degree city view. Hours: Monument—daily 9:30-18:30; elevator—Mon-Thu 9:30-18:30, Fri-Sun 9:30-19:30. See here.
▲St. Peter-in-Chains Church with Michelangelo’s Moses. Hours: Daily 8:00-12:20 & 15:00-19:00, until 18:00 in winter. See here.
▲Trevi Fountain Baroque hot spot into which tourists throw coins to ensure a return trip to Rome. Hours: Always flowing. See here.
Ancient Rome: In ancient times, this was home to the grandest buildings of a city of a million people. Today, the best of the classical sights stand in a line from the Colosseum to the Forum to the Pantheon. Just north of this area, between Via Nazionale and Via Cavour, is the atmospheric and trendy Monti district.
Pantheon Neighborhood: The Pantheon anchors the neighborhood I like to call the “Heart of Rome.” It stretches eastward from the Tiber River through Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona, past the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain.
Vatican City: Located west of the Tiber, it’s a compact world of its own, with two great sights: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
North Rome: With the Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese Gardens, and trendy shopping streets (Via Veneto and the “shopping triangle”—the area along Via del Corso and between the Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia, and Piazza del Popolo), this is a more modern, classy area.
East Rome: This includes the area around Termini Station and Piazza della Repubblica, with many public-transportation connections.
South Rome: South of Vatican City is Trastevere, the colorful, wrong-side-of-the-river neighborhood that provides a look at village Rome. It’s the city at its crustiest—and perhaps most “Roman.”
Rome has two main tourist information offices and several TI kiosks. The TI offices are at the airport (daily 8:00-19:30, Terminal 3) and Termini train station (daily 8:00-19:30, 100 yards down track 24). Kiosks (generally open daily 9:30-19:00) are near the Roman Forum (on Piazza del Tempio della Pace), on Via Nazionale (at Palazzo delle Esposizioni), between the Trevi Fountain and Pantheon (at the corner of Via del Corso and Via Minghetti), and near Piazza Navona (at Piazza delle Cinque Lune). Additionally, an information center is directly across from the Forum entrance, on Via dei Fori Imperiali. The TI’s website is www.turismoroma.it, but most practical information is found at www.060608.it. That’s also the number for Rome’s call center—the best source of up-to-date tourist information, with English speakers on staff (answered daily 9:00-21:00, just dial 06-0608, and press 2 for English).
Two English-oriented websites provide insight into events and daily life in the city: www.inromenow.com (light tourist info on lots of topics); www.wantedinrome.com (events and accommodations).
Advance Tickets and Sightseeing Passes
Roma Pass: Rome offers several sightseeing passes. The Roma Pass is the clear winner (www.romapass.it). Two versions are available: three-day and 48-hour.
The three-day Roma Pass costs €36, includes free admission to your first two sights, a discount on many others, and unlimited use of public transit (buses, trams, and Metro). Using the pass at the Colosseum/Roman Forum/Palatine Hill (considered a single sight) gives you access to a special entrance that bypasses long ticket lines. Other sights covered (or discounted) include: Borghese Gallery (reservations required), Capitoline Museums, Ara Pacis, and Trajan’s Market. The pass also covers the National Museum of Rome. The pass does not cover the Vatican Museums (which contain the Sistine Chapel).
Sunday: The Vatican Museums are closed, except for last Sunday of the month, when they’re free and even more crowded. These sights are free to all on the first Sunday of the month, and no reservations are available: Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Borghese Gallery, and the National Museum of Rome.
Monday: Many sights are closed, including the National Museum of Rome, Borghese Gallery, and Ostia Antica. Major sights that are open include the Colosseum, Forum, Vatican Museums, Capitoline Museum, and Ara Pacis, among others. Churches are open as usual.
Tuesday: All sights are open in Rome. This isn’t a good day for a side trip to Naples because its Archaeological Museum is closed.
Wednesday: St. Peter’s Basilica is typically closed in the morning for a papal audience.
Thursday/Friday/Saturday: All recommended sights are open.
If you’ll be using public transit and visiting any two of the major sights in a three-day period, get the full pass. They are sold at participating sights, TIs, and many tobacco shops and newsstands all over town (look for a Roma Pass sign; all should charge the same price). Try to buy it at a less crowded TI or sight (even if you don’t intend to visit that sight). There’s no advantage in ordering a pass online—you still have to pick it up in Rome.
Validate your Roma Pass by writing your name and validation date on the card. Then insert it directly into the turnstile at your first two (free) sights. At other sights, show it at the ticket office to get about 30 percent off.
Rick’s Tip: To get the most out of your Roma Pass, visit the two most expensive sights first—for example, the Colosseum/Roman Forum/Palatine Hill (€12) and the National Museum of Rome (€10).
To use the included transit pass, write your name and birthdate on the pass and validate it on your first bus or Metro ride by passing it over a sensor at a turnstile or validation machine (look for a yellow circle). Now you can take unlimited rides within Rome’s city limits (until midnight of the third day). Once the pass is validated you can hop on any bus without showing it, but you’ll need to swipe it to get through Metro turnstiles.
The 48-hour Roma Pass costs €28 and includes free entry to one sight, small discounts on additional ones, and unlimited use of public transit (for 48 hours after validation).
Children under age 18 get into covered sights for free, and they can skip the lines alongside their pass-holding parents (but kids still need transit tickets or passes).
Combo-Ticket for Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill: A €12 combo-ticket covers these adjacent sights (no individual tickets are sold). The combo-ticket allows one entry for the Colosseum and one entry for the Forum/Palatine Hill complex, and is valid for two days. To avoid lines at the Colosseum and Forum, purchase your combo-ticket at the lesser-used Forum entrance near Palatine Hill or buy it online in advance.
Museum Reservations: The Borghese Gallery requires reservations in advance (see here). You can also reserve online to avoid long lines at the Vatican Museums (see here).
Opening Hours: Rome’s sights have notoriously variable hours from season to season. It’s smart to check each sight’s website in advance. On holidays, expect shorter hours or closures.
Churches: Many churches, which have divine art and free entry, open early (around 7:00-7:30), close for lunch (roughly 12:00-15:30), and close late (about 19:00). Visit churches before 9:00 or late in the day; if you’re not resting during the siesta, see major sights that stay open all day (St. Peter’s, Colosseum, Forum, Capitoline Museums, Pantheon, and National Museum of Rome). Dress modestly for church visits.
To sightsee on your own, download my free audio tours that illuminate some of Rome’s top sights and neighborhoods, including the Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel, and Ostia Antica (for more on the audio tours, see here).
Rome’s tour companies are highly competitive; I’ve listed several that are creative and well-established. Check their websites to learn about their various tours—there’s always an introductory tour. Three-hour guided walks (always in English) generally cost €25-30 per person. It’s sometimes required, and always smart, to book a spot in advance (easy online). Scheduling mishaps can occur. Make sure you know what you’re booking, and when and where to meet.
Each of these companies offers a 10 percent discount with online bookings for Rick Steves travelers:
Enjoy Rome—Tel. 06-445-1843, www.enjoyrome.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Europe Odyssey—Tel. 06-8854-2416, mobile 328-912-3720, www.europeodyssey.com, run by Rahul.
Rome Walks—Mobile 347-795-5175, www.romewalks.com, email@example.com, run by Annie.
Through Eternity—For discount look for “Group Tours Rome” and enter “RICKSTEVES”; tel. 06-700-9336, mobile 347-336-5298, www.througheternity.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, run by Rob.
Walks of Italy—For discount enter “10ricksteves”; US tel. 888/683-8670, Italian mobile 334-974-4274, tel. 06-9558-3331, www.walksofitaly.com, email@example.com, run by Jason.
Theft and Safety: Pickpocketing must be a sport in Rome. Stay alert, wear your money belt, and keep track of your possessions. To report lost or stolen items, file a police report (at Termini Station, with polizia at track 11 or with Carabinieri at track 20; offices are also at Piazza Venezia and at the corner of Via Nazionale and Via Genova).
Medical Help: Embassies and hotels can recommend English-speaking doctors. Consider MEDline, a 24-hour home-medical service; doctors speak English and make calls at hotels for €150 (tel. 06-808-0995). Anyone is entitled to free emergency treatment at public hospitals. The hospital closest to Termini Station is Policlinico Umberto 1 (entrance for emergency treatment on Via Lancisi, Metro: Policlinico, translators available). Readers report that the staff at Santa Susanna Church, home of the American Catholic Church in Rome, offer useful advice and medical referrals.
Emergency Numbers: Police—tel. 113. Ambulance—tel. 118.
Beggars: Throughout Rome, you’ll encounter downtrodden people asking for money. Many are actually able-bodied foreigners preying on people’s sympathy. You may see them at churches trying to collect money, sometimes for opening church doors. But they are not affiliated, and are lining their own pockets. Know that social services are available to them, so give at your own discretion.
Traffic Safety: Use extreme caution when crossing streets. Some streets have pedestrian-crossing signals (red means stop—or jaywalk carefully; green means go...also carefully; and yellow means go...extremely carefully, as cars may be whipping around the corner). Just as often, multilane streets have crosswalks with no signals at all. And even when there are traffic lights, they are provisional: Scooters don’t need to stop at red lights, and even cars exercise what drivers call the “logical option” of not stopping if they see no oncoming traffic. As noisy, gasoline-powered scooters are replaced by electric ones, the streets get quieter (hooray) but more dangerous for pedestrians.
Follow locals like a shadow when you cross a street. Find a gap in the traffic and walk with confidence while making eye contact with approaching drivers—they won’t hit you if they can tell where you intend to go.
Internet Access: Most hotels have Wi-Fi, but if yours doesn’t, your hotelier can point you to the nearest Internet café.
Free Water: Carry a water bottle and refill it at Rome’s many public drinking spouts.
WCs: Public restrooms are scarce. Use them when you can at museums, restaurants, and bars.
Travel Agencies: You can get train tickets and rail-pass-related reservations and supplements at travel agencies (at little or no additional cost), avoiding a trip to a train station. Your hotelier will know of an agency nearby.
These two self-guided walks give you a moving picture of this ancient yet modern city.
Heart of Rome Walk
Rated ▲▲▲, this walk through Rome’s most colorful neighborhood takes you through squares lively with locals, small lanes sporting shops or chunks of Roman ruins, and playful fountains that are people-magnets. During the day, this walk shows off the Campo de’ Fiori market and trendy fashion boutiques as it meanders past major monuments such as the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps.
But the sunset brings unexpected magic. A stroll in the cool of the evening offers the romance of the Eternal City at its best. Sit so close to a bubbling fountain that traffic noise evaporates. Jostle with kids to see the gelato flavors. Watch lovers straddling more than the bench. And marvel at the ramshackle elegance that softens this brutal city. These are the flavors of Rome, best enjoyed after dark.
This walk is equally pleasant in reverse order. You could ride the Metro to the Spanish Steps and finish at Campo de’ Fiori, near my recommended restaurants.
✵ Start this walk at Campo de’ Fiori, my favorite outdoor dining room (see here). It’s a few blocks west of Largo Argentina, a major transportation hub. Buses #40, #64, and #492 stop at Largo Argentina and along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II (a long block northwest of Campo de’ Fiori). A taxi from Termini Station costs about €8.
1 CAMPO DE’ FIORI M
This picturesque, bohemian piazza hosts a fruit and vegetable market in the morning, cafés in the evening, and pub-crawlers at night. In ancient times, the “Field of Flowers” was an open meadow. Later, Christian pilgrims passed through on their way to the Vatican, and a thriving market developed.
The square is watched over by a brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, an intellectual heretic who was burned on this spot in 1600. The pedestal shows scenes from Bruno’s trial and execution, and reads, “And the flames rose up.” When this statue honoring a heretic was erected in 1889, the Vatican protested, but they were overruled by angry Campo locals. The neighborhood is still known for its free spirit and anti-authoritarian demonstrations.
Campo de’ Fiori is the product of centuries of unplanned urban development. At the east end of the square (behind Bruno), ramshackle apartments are built right into the outer wall of ancient Rome’s mammoth Theater of Pompey. Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Theater, where the Senate was renting space.
The square is surrounded by fun eateries, and is great for people-watching. Bruno faces the bustling Forno (in a corner of the square), where takeout pizza bianca (“white pizza,” without red sauce) is sold hot out of the oven. On weekend nights, when the Campo is packed with beer-drinking kids, the medieval square is transformed into a vast street party.
✵ If Bruno did a hop, step, and jump forward, then turned left, in a block he’d reach...
2 PIAZZA FARNESE M
While Campo de’ Fiori feels free and easy, the 16th-century Renaissance Piazza Farnese, named for the family whose palace dominates it, stresses order. The nouveau riche Farnese family hired Michelangelo to design the top part of their palace’s facade—which today houses the French embassy. The twin Roman tubs in the fountains decorating the square date from the third century and are from the Baths of Caracalla. They ended up here because Pope Paul III, who was a Farnese, ordered the excavation of the baths, and the family had first dibs on the choicest finds.
✵ Walk back to Campo de’ Fiori, cross the square, and continue a couple of blocks down...
Campo de’ Fiori
3 VIA DEI BAULLARI AND CORSO VITTORIO EMANUELE II M
With a crush of cheap cafés, bars, and restaurants, the center of medieval Rome is now a playground for tourists, students, and suburban locals. High rents are driving families out and changing the character of this district. That’s why the Campo de’ Fiori market increasingly sells more gifty edibles than basic fruits and vegetables with each passing year.
✵ After a couple of blocks, you reach busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. In Rome, any road big enough to have city buses like this is post-unification: constructed after 1870. Look left and right down the street—the facades are mostly 19th century Neo-Renaissance, built after this main thoroughfare sliced through the city. Traffic in much of central Rome is limited to city buses, taxis, motorbikes, “dark cars” (limos and town cars of VIPs), delivery vans, residents, and disabled people with permits (a.k.a. friends of politicians). This is one of the rare streets where anything goes.
Cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and enter a square with a statue of Marco Minghetti, an early Italian prime minister. Angle left at the statue, walking along the left side of the Museum of Rome, down Via di San Pantaleo. A block down, at the corner, you’ll find a beat-up old statue.
4 PASQUINO M
A third-century b.c. statue that was discovered near here, Pasquino is one of Rome’s “talking statues.” For 500 years, this statue has served as a kind of community billboard, allowing people to complain anonymously when it might be dangerous to speak up. To this day, you’ll see old Pasquino strewn with political posters, strike announcements, and grumbling graffiti. The statue looks literally worn down by centuries of complaining about bad government.
✵ Wrap around Pasquino and head up Via di Pasquino to...
5 PIAZZA NAVONA M
This square retains the oblong shape of the athletic grounds built here around a.d. 80 by the emperor Domitian. Today’s square, while following its ancient foundation, is from the late Renaissance.
Three Baroque fountains decorate the piazza. The first fountain, at the southern end, features a Moor wrestling with a dolphin. In the fountain at the northern end, Neptune slays a giant octopus.
Piazza Navona with Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain
Heart of Rome Walk Map Key
1 Campo de’ Fiori
2 Piazza Farnese
3 Via dei Baullari & Corso Vittorio Emanuele II
4 Pasquino Statue
5 Piazza Navona
7 Caffe Tazza d’Oro
8 Piazza Capranica
9 Piazza di Montecitorio
10 Piazza Colonna & Via del Corso
11 Trevi Fountain
12 Column of the Immaculate Conception
13 Spanish Steps
The most famous fountain is in the center: the Four Rivers Fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Four burly river gods (representing the four quarters of the known world) support an Egyptian-style obelisk made in Rome.
Stroll around the fountain counterclockwise and admire the gods: The good-looking figure represents the Danube (for Europe). Next comes the Ganges (for Asia), holding an oar. After an exotic palm tree, you find the Nile (for Africa) with his head covered, since its headwaters were then unknown. Uruguay’s Rio de la Plata, representing the Americas, tumbles backward in shock, wondering how he even made the top four. The spilled coins represent the wealth of the New World. Bernini enlivens the fountain with horses plunging through rocks and the exotic flora and fauna of faraway lands.
Piazza Navona is Rome’s most interesting night scene, with street music, artists, fire-eaters, local Casanovas, ice cream, and outdoor cafés worth the splurge for their front-row seats for people-watching.
✵ Leave Piazza Navona directly across from Tre Scalini (famous for its rich chocolate gelato), and go east down Corsia Agonale, past rose peddlers and palm readers. Ahead of you (across the busy street) stands the stately Palazzo Madama, where the Italian Senate meets and the security is high. Jog left around this building, and follow the brown sign to the Pantheon, straight down Via del Salvatore.
After a block, you’ll pass (on your left) the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, with its très French decor and precious Caravaggio paintings. If it’s open, pop in. Otherwise, continue along, following the crowd, as everyone seems to be heading for the...
6 PANTHEON M
Sit for a while under the floodlit and moonlit portico of the Pantheon. The 40-foot, single-piece granite columns of the entrance show the scale of ancient Roman building. The columns support a triangular Greek-style roof with an inscription that says “M. Agrippa” built it. In fact, it was built (fecit) by Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 120), who gave credit to the builder of an earlier structure. This impressive entranceway gives no clue that the greatest wonder of the building is inside—a domed room that inspired later domes, including Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s and Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence.
✵ With your back to the Pantheon, veer to the right, uphill toward the yellow sign on Via Orfani that reads Casa del Caffè—you’ve reached the...
7 CAFFè TAZZA D’ORO M
This is one of Rome’s top coffee shops, dating back to the days when this area was licensed to roast coffee beans. Locals come here for granita di caffè con panna (coffee and crushed ice with whipped cream).
✵ From here, our walk continues past some interesting landmarks to the Trevi Fountain. But if you’d like to get to the fountain directly, take a shortcut by bearing right at the coffee shop onto Via de’ Pastini, which leads through Piazza di Pietra, then across busy Via del Corso, where it becomes the pedestrianized Via delle Muratte and heads straight for the fountain.
If you’d rather stick with me for the slightly longer version, bear left at the coffee shop and continue up Via degli Orfani to the next square...
8 PIAZZA CAPRANICA M
This square is home to the big, plain Florentine-Renaissance-style Palazzo Capranica (directly opposite as you enter the square). The six-story building to the left was once an apartment building for 17th-century Rome’s middle class. Like so many of Rome’s churches, Santa Maria in Aquiro, the church on the square, is older than the facade it was given during the Baroque period. Notice the little circular shrine on the street corner (between the palace and the apartment building).
✵ Leave the piazza to the right of the palace, heading down Via in Aquiro. The street jogs to the left and into a square.
9 PIAZZA DI MONTECITORIO M
The square is marked by a sixth-century b.c. Egyptian obelisk, taken as a trophy by Augustus after his victory in Egypt over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The obelisk was originally set up as a sundial. Follow the zodiac markings to the well-guarded front door of Italy’s parliament building.
✵ One block to your right is Piazza Colonna, where we’re heading next—unless you like gelato. A one-block detour to the left (past Albergo Nazionale) brings you to Rome’s most famous gelateria, Giolitti, reasonable for takeout or elegant and splurge-worthy for a sit among classy locals (open daily until past midnight, Via Uffici del Vicario 40).
10 PIAZZA COLONNA AND VIA DEL CORSO M
The centerpiece of Piazza Colonna is a huge second-century column. Its relief depicts the victories of Emperor Marcus Aurelius over the barbarians. Marcus once capped the column, but he was replaced by Paul, one of Rome’s patron saints.
Beyond Piazza Colonna runs noisy Via del Corso, Rome’s main north-south boulevard. It’s named for the riderless horse races that took place here during Carnevale. In 1854, the Via became one of Rome’s first gas-lit streets and hosted the classiest boutiques. Nowadays the northern part of Via del Corso is closed to traffic, and for a few hours every evening it becomes a wonderful parade of Romans out for a stroll (see the next walk, “Dolce Vita Stroll”). Before crossing the street, look left (to the obelisk marking Piazza del Popolo—the ancient north gate of the city) and right (to the Victor Emmanuel Monument).
✵ Cross Via del Corso to enter a big palatial building with columns, the Galleria Alberto Sordi shopping mall. To the left are convenient toilets and ahead is Feltrinelli, the biggest Italian bookstore chain.
Go to the right and exit out the back (if you’re here after 21:00, when the mall is closed, circle around the right side of the Galleria on Via dei Sabini). Once out the back, the tourist kitsch builds as you head up Via de Crociferi to the roar of the water, lights, and people at the...
11 TREVI FOUNTAIN M
This watery avalanche celebrates the abundance of pure water, which has been brought into the city since the days of ancient aqueducts. Oceanus rides across the waves in his chariot, pulled by horses and horn-blowing tritons, as he commands the flow of water. The illustrious Bernini sketched out the first designs. Nicola Salvi continued the project (c. 1740), using the palace behind the fountain as a theatrical backdrop.
The magic of the square is enhanced by the fact that no vehicular streets directly approach it. You can hear the excitement as you draw near, and then—bam!—you’re there. The scene is always lively, with lucky Romeos clutching dates while unlucky ones clutch beers. Romantics toss a coin over their shoulder, thinking it will give them a wish and assure their return to Rome. It sounds silly, but every year I go through this tourist ritual...and it actually seems to work.
✵ Facing the Trevi Fountain, walk along its right side up Via della Stamperia. Cross busy Via del Tritone. Continue 100 yards up Via del Nazareno. At the T-intersection ahead, veer right on Via Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. The security is protecting the headquarters of Italy’s Democratic Party (on the right).
The street becomes Via di Propaganda, and at the far end (on the right), it’s dominated by a palace that housed the 17th-century Propagande Fide, where missionaries learned how to evangelize. Here the street opens up into a long piazza. You’re approaching the Spanish Steps. But first, pause at the...
12 COLUMN OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION M
This ancient column is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. For Mary to be a worthy and pure vessel for Jesus, the Catholic Church decided she needed to be “immaculately conceived”—born without sin. Pope Pius IX and the Vatican finally settled the long theological debate in 1854 by formally establishing the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Three years later, officials erected this column honoring Mary. Every year on December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, this spot is the scene of a special celebration. The pope attends, the fire department places flowers on Mary’s statue, and the Christmas season begins.
To Mary’s immediate left stands the Spanish embassy to the Vatican. Rome has double the embassies of a normal capital because here countries need two: one to Italy and one to the Vatican. And because of this embassy, the square and its famous steps are called “Spanish.”
✵ Just 100 yards past Mary, you reach the...
13 SPANISH STEPS M
Piazza di Spagna, with the popular Spanish Steps, has been the hangout of many Romantics over the years (Keats, Wagner, Openshaw, Goethe, and others). The British poet John Keats pondered his mortality, then died of tuberculosis at age 25 in the orange building on the right side of the steps. Fellow Romantic Lord Byron lived across the square at #66.
The 138 steps lead sharply up from Piazza di Spagna, forming a butterfly shape as they fan out around a central terrace. The design culminates in an obelisk framed between two Baroque church towers.
The Sinking Boat Fountain at the foot of the steps, built by Bernini or his father, Pietro, is powered by an aqueduct (like all of Rome’s fountains).
The main sight here is not the steps but the people who gather around them. By day, shoppers swarm the high-fashion boutiques at the base of the steps, along Via Condotti. At night, the area is alive with people enjoying—and creating—the ambience of Rome’s piazzas.
✵ Our walk is finished. If you’d like to reach the top of the steps sweat-free, take the free elevator just inside the Spagna Metro stop (to the left, as you face the steps; elevator closes at 21:00). A pay WC is underground in the piazza near the Metro entrance, by the middle palm tree (10:00-19:30). A huge McDonald’s (with a WC) is a block to the right of the steps. When you’re ready to leave, zip home on the Metro or grab a taxi at either end of the piazza.
Dolce Vita Stroll
This chic evening stroll, rated ▲▲, moves from Piazza del Popolo (Metro: Flaminio) down a traffic-free section of Via del Corso, and up Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps. You’ll see people-watchers, flirts on the prowl, and shoppers browsing Rome’s most fashionable stores (some are open roughly 16:00-19:30, after the siesta).
Although it’s busy at any hour, crowds really come out from 17:00 to 19:00 (Fri and Sat are best), except on Sunday, when the stroll begins earlier in the afternoon. Leave before 18:00 if you plan to visit the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), which closes at 19:30 (last entry at 18:30). If you get hungry, see here for a couple of restaurant listings.
To reach Piazza del Popolo, take Metro line A to Flaminio and walk south to the square. The car-free piazza is marked by an obelisk that was brought to Rome by Augustus after he conquered Egypt. It used to stand in the Circus Maximus.
Piazza del Popolo
If you’re starting your stroll early enough, visit the Baroque church of Santa Maria del Popolo, next to the gate in the old wall on the north side of the square (Mon-Sat until 19:00, Sun until 19:30); look for Raphael’s Chigi Chapel (second on left as you face main altar) and two paintings by Caravaggio (in Cerasi Chapel, left of altar).
From Piazza del Popolo, browse your way down Via del Corso. With the proliferation of shopping malls, many chain stores lining Via del Corso are losing customers and facing hard times. Still, this remains a fine place to feel the pulse of Rome at twilight.
Historians should turn right down Via Pontefici to see the massive, round-brick Mausoleum of Augustus, topped with overgrown cypress trees. This neglected sight, honoring Rome’s first emperor, is slated for restoration and redevelopment. Beyond it, next to the river, is Augustus’ Ara Pacis, enclosed within a protective glass-walled museum (see here). From the mausoleum, walk down Via Tomacelli to return to Via del Corso and the 21st century.
From Via del Corso, window shoppers should take a left down Via Condotti to join the parade to the Spanish Steps, passing big-name boutiques. The streets that parallel Via Condotti to the south (Borgognona and Frattina) are also filled with high-end shops. A few streets to the north hides the narrow Via Margutta, where Gregory Peck’s Roman Holiday character lived (at #51). Today it’s filled with pricey artisan and antique shops.
Historians should ignore Via Condotti and forget the Spanish Steps. Stay on Via del Corso and walk a half-mile down to the Victor Emmanuel Monument. Climb Michelangelo’s stairway to his glorious square atop Capitoline Hill, floodlit at night. The mayor’s palace is straight ahead. Stand on the balcony (to the right of the palace) overlooking the Forum. Enjoy one of the finest views in the city as the horizon reddens and cats prowl the unclaimed rubble of ancient Rome.
Map: Ancient Rome
▲ARCH OF CONSTANTINE
▲▲▲ROMAN FORUM (FORO ROMANO)
Map: Roman Forum
▲PALATINE HILL (MONTE PALATINO)
▲PIAZZA DEL CAMPIDOGLIO
Map: Capitoline Hill & Piazza Venezia
▲VICTOR EMMANUEL MONUMENT
North of Via dei Fori Imperiali
▲MONTI NEIGHBORHOOD: VILLAGE ROME
▲ST. PETER-IN-CHAINS CHURCH (SAN PIETRO IN VINCOLI)
Map: Pantheon Neighborhood
▲▲▲ST. PETER’S BASILICA (BASILICA SAN PIETRO)
Map: St. Peter’s Basilica
▲▲▲VATICAN MUSEUMS (MUSEI VATICANI)
Map: Vatican Museums Overview
▲▲▲BORGHESE GALLERY (GALLERIA BORGHESE)
Map: Borghese Gallery—Ground Floor
▲▲MUSEO DELL’ARA PACIS (MUSEUM OF THE ALTAR OF PEACE)
▲▲▲NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ROME
▲▲CHURCH OF SAN GIOVANNI IN LATERANO
Near Rome: Ostia Antica
Map: Ostia Antica
I’ve clustered Rome’s sights into walkable neighborhoods, some close together.
When you see a in a listing, it means the sight is covered on a free audio tour (via my Rick Steves Audio Europe app—see here).
The best website for current opening hours is www.060608.it.
Rick’s Tip: Make it a point to visit sights in a logical order. Needless backtracking wastes precious time and energy.
The core of ancient Rome, where the grandest monuments were built, is between the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. You can tour these sights in one great day: Start at the Colosseum, then it’s a few minutes’ walk to the Forum, then Capitoline Hill. From there, it’s another 15-minute walk to the Pantheon. As a pleasant conclusion to your busy day, walk back south along the broad, parklike Via dei Fori Imperiali.
This 2,000-year-old stadium is one of Europe’s most recognizable landmarks—and a classic example of Roman engineering. Whether you’re playing gladiator or simply marveling at the ancient design and construction, the Colosseum gets a unanimous thumbs-up.
Cost and Hours: €12 combo-ticket includes Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, free and crowded first Sun of the month, open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset: April-Aug until 19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, off-season closes as early as 16:30, last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5.50, Metro: Colosseo, tel. 06-3996-7700, www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en.
Avoiding Lines: Crowds are thinner and lines shorter in the afternoon (especially after 15:00 in summer).
You’ll save time if you...
1. Buy your combo-ticket (or Roma Pass) at a less-crowded place. Try the Forum/Palatine Hill entrance facing the Colosseum. If that’s also crowded, try the entrance 150 yards away, on Via di San Gregorio (facing the Forum, with Colosseum at your back, go left down the street). You can also buy a Roma Pass at the green kiosk in front of the Colosseo Metro station, the information center on Via dei Fori Imperiali (across from the entrance to the Forum), or other sights around town. It costs the same no matter where you buy it.
2. Buy and print a combo-ticket online at www.coopculture.it (€2 booking fee). The “free tickets” you’ll see listed are valid only for EU citizens with ID.
3. Pay for an official guided tour or rent an audioguide or videoguide. Tell the guard at the ticket-holders entrance that you want a tour or audioguide, and they’ll direct you to the right desk, bypassing the ticket lines. The extra cost might be worth it just to skip the line.
4. Hire a private guide. Guides linger outside the Colosseum, offering tours that allow you to bypass the line. Be aware that these private guides may try to mislead you into thinking the Colosseum lines are longer than they really are.
Getting There: The Colosseo Metro stop on line B is just across the street from the monument. Buses #51, #85, #87, #118, #186, and #810 stop along Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum entrance, one of the Forum/Palatine Hill entrances, and Piazza Venezia.
Getting In: Follow the signs to get in the right line. The entrance is divided into two queues: The longer line is for those who need to buy a ticket. The shorter line is for ticket holders (combo-ticket, online ticket, or Roma Pass) and those requesting a tour or audioguide (go to the front of the line to talk to the guard). There’s a separate entrance for groups.
Tours: A fact-filled audioguide is available just past the turnstiles (€5.50/2 hours). A handheld videoguide senses where you are in the site and plays related clips (€6).
Download my free Colosseum audio tour.
Official guided tours in English depart nearly hourly between 10:00 and 17:00, and last 45-60 minutes (€5 plus Colosseum ticket, purchase inside the Colosseum near the ticket booth marked Visite didattiche).
A 1.5-hour “Colosseum, Underground and Third Ring” tour takes you through areas that are off-limits to regular visitors, including the top floor and underground passageways, but isn’t essential. If you want to sign up, it’s smart to reserve by phone or online a day or more in advance (no same-day reservations). The tour is operated by CoopCulture (€9 plus Colosseum ticket, tel. 06-3996-7700, answered Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 9:00-14:00, www.coopculture.it).
Private guides stand outside the Colosseum looking for business (€25-30/2-hour tour of the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill). Make sure that your tour will start right away and covers all three sights: the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill.
Services: A WC is inside the Colosseum.
Background: Built when the Roman Empire was at its peak in a.d. 80, the Colosseum represents Rome at its grandest. Known as the Flavian Amphitheater, it was an arena for gladiator contests and public spectacles. When killing became a spectator sport, the Romans wanted to share the fun with as many people as possible, so they stuck two semicircular theaters together to create a freestanding amphitheater. Towering 150 feet high, it could accommodate 50,000 roaring fans (100,000 thumbs). The outside (where slender cypress trees stand today) was decorated with a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Nero that gleamed in the sunlight. In a later age, the colossal structure was nicknamed a “coloss-eum.”
Rick’s Tip: Beware of the greedy, modern-day gladiators, who intimidate gullible tourists into paying too much money (€4-5) for a photo op. Also, look out for pickpockets.
Exterior: The Romans were great engineers, not artists; the building is more functional than beautiful. (Ancient Romans visiting the US today might send home postcards of our greatest works of art—freeways.) While the essential structure is Roman, the four-story facade is decorated with mostly Greek columns—Tuscan columns on the ground level, Ionic on the second story, Corinthian on the next level, and at the top, half-columns with a mix of all three. Copies of Greek statues once stood in the arches of the middle two stories, adding sophistication to this arena of death.
Only a third of the original Colosseum remains. Earthquakes destroyed some of it, but most was carted off to build other buildings during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Interior: The games took place in the oval-shaped arena, 280 feet long by 165 feet wide. When you look down into the arena, you’re seeing the underground passages beneath the playing surface (which can only be visited on a private tour). The arena was originally covered with a wooden floor, then sprinkled with sand (arena in Latin). The bit of reconstructed floor gives you a sense of the original arena level and the subterranean warren where animals and prisoners were held. The spectators ringed the playing area in bleacher seats that slanted up from the arena floor. Around you are the big brick masses that supported the tiers of seats.
The games began with a few warm-up acts—dogs bloodying themselves attacking porcupines, female gladiators fighting each other, or a one-legged man battling a dwarf. Then came the main event—the gladiators.
“Hail, Caesar! (Ave, Caesar!) We who are about to die salute you!” The gladiators would enter the arena from the west end, parade around to the sound of trumpets, acknowledge the Vestal Virgins (on the south side), then stop at the emperor’s box (marked today by the cross that stands at the “50-yard line” on the north side—although no one knows for sure where it was). They would then raise their weapons, shout, and salute—and begin fighting. The fights pitted men against men, men against beasts, and beasts against beasts. Picture 50,000 screaming people around you (did gladiators get stage fright?), and imagine that they want to see you die.
▲ARCH OF CONSTANTINE
This well-preserved arch, which stands between the Colosseum and the Forum, commemorates a military coup and, more important, the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire. The ambitious Emperor Constantine (who had a vision that he’d win under the sign of the cross) defeated his rival Maxentius in a.d. 312 to become sole emperor of the Roman Empire. He legalized Christianity soon after. The arch is free and always open. It’s covered in my free Colosseum audio tour.
Arch of Constantine
▲▲▲ROMAN FORUM (FORO ROMANO)
This is ancient Rome’s birthplace and civic center, and the common ground between Rome’s famous seven hills. As just about anything important that happened in ancient Rome happened here, it’s arguably the most important piece of real estate in Western civilization. While only fragments of that glorious past remain, you’ll find plenty to ignite your imagination amid the half-broken columns and arches.
Cost: €12 combo-ticket covers both the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill and the Colosseum (valid two consecutive days, but each sight can only be entered once); also covered by the Roma Pass. The Forum is free (and extremely crowded) the first Sunday of the month.
Hours: The Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Colosseum are open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset: April-Aug until 19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, Nov-mid-Feb until 16:30, mid-Feb-mid-March until 17:00, mid-March-late March until 17:30; last entry one hour before closing.
Avoiding Lines: Buy your combo-ticket (or Roma Pass) at a less-crowded place or get a combo-ticket online; for specifics, see here. Or visit later in the day when crowds diminish.
Getting There: The closest Metro stop is Colosseo. Buses #51, #85, #87, #118, #186, and #810 stop along Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, the Forum, and Piazza Venezia.
Getting In: The Forum and Palatine Hill share three entrances. The handiest (but often most crowded) is directly across from the Colosseum. This entrance puts you right by the Arch of Titus, where our tour begins. The Palatine Hill ticket office (on Via di San Gregorio) is often less crowded. After buying your ticket, reach the Arch of Titus by taking the path to the right; the path to the left goes uphill to the Palatine Hill ruins. A third entrance is along Via dei Fori Imperiali, about halfway between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, near the intersection with Via Cavour (and through a low-profile building set well back from the street). To reach the Arch of Titus from here, walk down the ramp and turn left.
Information: The free info center, located across from the Via dei Fori Imperiali entrance, has a TI (which sells the Roma Pass), bookshop, small café, and WCs (daily 9:30-19:00). Vendors outside sell a variety of colorful books with plastic overlays that restore the ruins (official price in bookstore for larger version with DVD is €20 and for smaller version is €10—don’t pay more than these prices). Info office tel. 06-3996-7700, http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en.
Tours: An audioguide helps decipher the rubble (€5/2 hours, €7 version includes Palatine Hill and lasts 3 hours, must leave ID), but you have to return it to where you rented it—meaning you may not be able to exit directly to Capitoline Hill or the Colosseum, for example. Official guided tours in English might be available (inquire at ticket office).
Download my free Roman Forum audio tour.
Length of This Walk: Allow 1.5 hours. If you have less time, end the walk at the Arch of Septimius Severus. And don’t miss the Basilica of Constantine hiding behind the trees.
Services: WCs are at the ticket entrances at Palatine Hill and at Via dei Fori Imperiali. Within the Forum itself, there’s one near the Arch of Titus (in the “Soprintendenza” office), and another in the middle, near #6 on the map. Others are atop Palatine Hill.
Plan Ahead: The ancient paving at the Forum is uneven; wear sturdy shoes. I carry a water bottle and refill it at the Forum’s public drinking fountains.
Roman Forum Map Key
1 Arch of Titus
2 Basilica of Constantine
3 Temple of Antoninus Pius & Faustina
4 Temple of Vesta
5 House of the Vestal Virgins
6 Caligula’s Palace
7 Temple of Castor & Pollux
8 The Forum’s Main Square
9 Temple of Julius Caesar
10 Basilica Aemilia
11 The Curia
13 Arch of Septimius Severus
14 Temple of Saturn
15 Column of Phocas
Improvise: Because of ongoing restoration, paths through the Forum are often rerouted. Use this tour as a starting point, but be prepared for a few detours and backtracking.
✵ Start at the Arch of Titus (Arco di Tito). It’s the white triumphal arch that rises above the rubble on the east end of the Forum (closest to the Colosseum). Stand at the viewpoint alongside the arch and gaze over the valley known as the Forum.
Viewing the Ruins: Try to see the Forum with “period eyes.” We imagine the structures in ancient Rome as mostly white, but ornate buildings and monuments were originally more colorful. Through the ages, builders scavenged stone from the Forum; the colored marble was cannibalized first. The white stone is generally what was left. Statues were vividly painted, but the organic paint rotted away as they lay buried for centuries. Lettering was inset bronze and eyes were inset ivory. Even seemingly intact structures, like the Arch of Titus, have been reassembled. The columns are half smooth and half fluted. The fluted halves are original; the smooth parts are reconstructions.
1 Arch of Titus (Arco di Tito): M The Arch of Titus commemorated the Roman victory over the province of Judaea (Israel) in a.d. 70. The Romans had a reputation as benevolent conquerors who tolerated local customs and rulers. All they required was allegiance to the empire, shown by worshipping the emperor as a god. No problem for most conquered people, who already had half a dozen gods on their prayer lists anyway. But Israelites believed in only one god, and it wasn’t the emperor. Israel revolted. After a short but bitter war, the Romans defeated the rebels, took Jerusalem, destroyed their temple (leaving only a fragment of one wall’s foundation—today’s revered “Wailing Wall”), and brought home 50,000 Jewish slaves...who were forced to build the Colosseum (and this arch).
Roman propaganda decorates the inside of the arch. A relief shows the emperor Titus in a chariot being crowned by the goddess Victory. The other side shows booty from the sacking of the temple in Jerusalem. Carved after Titus’ death, the relief at the top of the ceiling shows him riding an eagle to heaven, where he’ll become one of the gods.
Rome’s Rise and Fall (500 B.C.-A.D. 500)
Ancient Rome lasted for 1,000 years, from about 500 b.c. to a.d. 500. During that time, Rome expanded from a small tribe of barbarians to a vast empire, then dwindled slowly to city size again. For the first 500 years, when Rome’s armies made her ruler of the Italian peninsula and beyond, Rome was a republic governed by elected senators. Over the next 500 years, a time of world conquest and eventual decline, Rome was an empire ruled by a military-backed dictator.
Julius Caesar bridged the gap between republic and empire. This ambitious, charismatic general and politician, popular because of his military victories, suspended the Roman constitution and assumed dictatorial powers in about 50 b.c. A few years later, he was assassinated by a conspiracy of senators. His adopted son, Augustus, succeeded him, and soon “Caesar” was not just a name but a title.
Emperor Augustus ushered in the Pax Romana, or Roman peace (a.d. 1-200), a time when Rome reached its peak, controlling an empire that stretched from England to Egypt, from Turkey to Morocco.
Then Rome fell into 300 years of gradual decay. Its fall had many causes, among them the barbarians who pecked away at Rome’s borders. Christians blamed the fall on moral decay. Pagans blamed it on Christians. Socialists blamed it on a shallow economy based on the spoils of war. (Republicans blamed it on Democrats.) Whatever the reasons, the far-flung empire could no longer keep its grip on conquered lands. Barbarian tribes from Germany and Asia attacked the Italian peninsula, looting Rome itself in a.d. 410. In 476, when the last emperor checked out and switched off the lights, Europe plunged into centuries of ignorance and poverty—the Dark Ages.
But Rome lived on in the Catholic Church. Christianity was the state religion of Rome’s last generations. Emperors became popes (both called themselves “Pontifex Maximus”), senators became bishops, orators became priests, and basilicas became churches. The glory of Rome remains eternal.
✵ Walk down Via Sacra into the Forum. The original basalt stones under your feet were walked on by Caesar Augustus 2,000 years ago. After about 50 yards, turn right and follow a path uphill to the three huge arches of the...
2 Basilica of Constantine (Basilica Maxentius): M These arches represent only one-third of the original Basilica of Constantine, a mammoth hall of justice. There was a similar set along the Via Sacra side (only a few brick piers remain). Between them ran the central hall, spanned by a roof 130 feet high—about 55 feet higher than the side arches you see. (The stub of brick you see sticking up began an arch that once spanned the central hall.) The hall itself was as long as a football field, lavishly furnished with inlaid marble, a bronze ceiling, and statues. At the far (west) end was an enormous marble statue of Emperor Constantine on a throne. Pieces of this statue, including a hand the size of a man, are on display in Rome’s Capitoline Museums.
✵ Now stroll deeper into the Forum, downhill along Via Sacra, through the trees. Pass by Tempio di Romolo, with its original bronze door. Just past that, 10 columns stand in front of a much newer church. The colonnade was part of the...
3 Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina: M This temple honors Emperor Antoninus Pius (a.d. 138-161) and his deified wife, Faustina. The 50-foot-tall Corinthian (leafy) columns were awe-inspiring to out-of-towners who grew up in thatched huts. Although the temple has been inhabited by a church, you can still see the basic layout—a staircase led to a shaded porch (the columns), which admitted you to the main building (now a church), where the statue of the god sat. Originally, these columns supported a triangular pediment decorated with sculptures.
Picture these columns supporting brightly painted statues in the pediment, with the whole building capped by a bronze roof. Today’s gray rubble is a faded black-and-white photograph of a 3-D Technicolor era.
✵ With your back to the colonnade, walk straight ahead—jogging a bit to the right to stay on the path—and head for the three short columns, all that’s left of the...
4 Temple of Vesta: M This was perhaps Rome’s most sacred spot. Rome considered itself one big family, and this temple represented a circular hut, like the kind that Rome’s first families lived in. Inside, a fire burned, just as in a Roman home. As long as the sacred flame burned, Rome would stand. The flame was tended by priestesses known as Vestal Virgins.
Temple of Antoninus Pius
✵ Just to the left and up the stairs is a big, enclosed field with two rectangular brick pools (just below the hill). This was the courtyard of the...
5 House of the Vestal Virgins: M The Vestal Virgins lived in a two-story building surrounding a long central courtyard with two pools at one end. This place was the model—both architecturally and sexually—for medieval convents and monasteries.
Chosen from noble families before they reached the age of 10, the six Vestal Virgins served a 30-year term. Honored and revered, the Vestals even had their own box opposite the emperor in the Colosseum. The statues that line the courtyard honor dutiful Vestals.
A Vestal took a vow of chastity. If she served her term faithfully—abstaining for 30 years—she was given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. But if they found any Virgin who wasn’t, she was strapped to a funeral car, paraded through the streets of the Forum, taken to a crypt...and buried alive. Many suffered the latter fate.
✵ Looming just beyond this field is Palatine Hill—the corner of which may have been...
6 Caligula’s Palace (Palace of Tiberius): M Emperor Caligula (ruled a.d. 37-41) had a huge palace on Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum. It actually sprawled down the hill into the Forum (some supporting arches remain in the hillside). Caligula tortured enemies, stole senators’ wives, and parked his chariot in handicap spaces. He was not a nice person. But Rome’s luxury-loving emperors only added to the glory of the Forum, with each one trying to make his mark on history.
✵ Continue downhill, passing the three short columns of the Temple of Vesta, and head for the three taller columns just beyond it.
7 Temple of Castor and Pollux: M These three columns are all that remain of a prestigious temple—one of the city’s oldest, built in the fifth century b.c. It commemorated the Roman victory over the Tarquin, the notorious, oppressive Etruscan king. After the battle, the legendary twin brothers Castor and Pollux watered their horses here, at the Sacred Spring of Juturna (which was recently excavated nearby). As a symbol of Rome’s self-governing republic, the temple was often used as a meeting place of senators; its front steps served as a podium for free speech.
✵ You’re now standing at the corner of a flat, grassy area.
8 Forum’s Main Square: M The original Forum, or main square, was this flat patch about the size of a football field, stretching to the foot of Capitoline Hill. Surrounding it were temples, law courts, government buildings, and triumphal arches.
Rome was born here. According to legend, twin brothers Romulus and Remus were orphaned in infancy and raised by a she-wolf on top of Palatine Hill. Growing up, they found it hard to get dates. So they and their cohorts attacked the nearby Sabine tribe and kidnapped their women. After they made peace, this marshy valley became the meeting place and then the trading center for the scattered tribes on the surrounding hillsides.
Temple of Castor and Pollux
The square was the busiest—and often the seediest—section of town. Besides the senators, politicians, and currency exchangers, there were souvenir hawkers, pickpockets, fortune-tellers, gamblers, slave marketers, drunks, hookers, lawyers, and tour guides.
Ancient Rome’s population exceeded one million, more than any city until London and Paris in the 19th century. All those Roman masses lived in tiny apartments as we would live in tents at a campsite, basically just to sleep. The Forum—today’s piazza—is where they did their living. To this day, urban Italians spend a major part of their time outside, in the streets and squares.
The Forum is now rubble, but imagine it in its prime: brilliant marble buildings with 40-foot-high columns and shining metal roofs; rows of statues painted in realistic colors; processional chariots rattling down Via Sacra. Mentally replace tourists in T-shirts with tribunes in togas. Imagine people buzzing around you while an orator gives a rabble-rousing speech. If you still only see a pile of rocks, at least tell yourself, “Julius Caesar once leaned against these rocks.”
✵ At the near (east) end of the main square (the Colosseum is to the east) are the foundations of a temple now capped with a peaked wood-and-metal roof.
9 Temple of Julius Caesar (Tempio del Divo Giulio, or Ara di Cesare): M On March 15, in 44 b.c., Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by political conspirators. After his assassination, Caesar’s body was cremated on this spot (under the metal roof). Afterward, this temple was built to honor him. Peek behind the wall into the small apse area, where a mound of dirt usually has fresh flowers—given to remember the man who personified the greatness of Rome.
Caesar (100-44 b.c.) changed Rome—and the Forum—dramatically. He cleared out many of the wooden market stalls and began to ring the square with even grander buildings. Caesar’s house was located behind the temple, near that clump of trees. He walked by here on the day he was assassinated (“Beware the Ides of March!” warned a street-corner Etruscan preacher).
Though he was popular with the masses, not everyone liked Caesar’s urban design or his politics. When he assumed dictatorial powers, he was ambushed and stabbed to death by a conspiracy of senators, including his adopted son, Brutus (“Et tu, Brute?”).
The funeral was held here, facing the main square. Mark Antony stood up to say (in Shakespeare’s words), “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” When Caesar’s body was burned, his adoring fans threw anything at hand on the fire, requiring the fire department to come put it out. Later, Emperor Augustus dedicated this temple in his name, making Caesar the first Roman to become a god.
✵ Continue past the Temple of Julius Caesar, to the open area between the columns of the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (which we passed earlier) and the boxy brick building (the Curia). You can view these ruins of the Basilica Aemilia from a ramp next to the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina, or find the entrance near the Curia.
10 Basilica Aemilia: M A basilica was a covered public forum, often serving as a hall of justice. In a society that was as legal-minded as America is today, you needed a lot of lawyers—and a big place to put them. Citizens came here to work out inheritances, file building permits, and sue each other.
It was a long, rectangular building. The row of stubby columns forms one long, central hall flanked by two side aisles. Medieval Christians required a larger meeting hall for their worship services than Roman temples provided, so they used the spacious Roman basilica as the model for their churches. Cathedrals from France to Spain to England, from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance, all have this same basic floor plan.
✵ Now head for the big, well-preserved brick building (just beyond the basilica ruins) with the triangular roof—the Curia. (Ongoing archaeological work may restrict access to the Curia, as well as the Arch of Septimius Severus—described later—and the exit to Capitoline Hill.)
11 Curia (Senate House): M The Curia was the most important political building in the Forum. While the present building dates from a.d. 283, this was the site of Rome’s official center of government since the birth of the republic. Three hundred senators, elected by the citizens of Rome, met here to debate and create the laws of the land. Their wooden seats once circled the building in three tiers; the Senate president’s podium sat at the far end. The marble floor is from ancient times. Listen to the echoes in this vast room—the acoustics are great.
Rome prided itself on being a republic. Early in the city’s history, its people threw out the king and established rule by elected representatives. Each Roman citizen was free to speak his mind and have a say in public policy. Even when emperors became the supreme authority, the Senate was a power to be reckoned with. The Curia building is well preserved, having been used as a church since early Christian times. In the 1930s, it was restored and opened to the public as a historic site. (Although Julius Caesar was assassinated in “the Senate,” it wasn’t here—the Senate was temporarily meeting across town.)
✵ Go back down the Senate steps and find the 10-foot-high wall just to the left of the big arch, marked...
12 Rostrum: M Nowhere was Roman freedom more apparent than at this “Speaker’s Corner.” The Rostrum was a raised platform, 10 feet high and 80 feet long, decorated with statues, columns, and the prows of ships.
On a stage like this, Rome’s orators, great and small, tried to draw a crowd and sway public opinion. Mark Antony rose to offer Caesar the laurel-leaf crown of kingship, which Caesar publicly refused—while privately becoming a dictator. Men such as Cicero railed against the corruption and decadence that came with the city’s newfound wealth. In later years, daring citizens even spoke out against the emperors, reminding them that Rome was once free.
In front of the Rostrum are trees bearing fruits that were sacred to the ancient Romans: olives (provided food, light, and preservatives), figs (tasty), and wine grapes (made a popular export product).
✵ The big arch to the right of the Rostrum is the...
13 Arch of Septimius Severus: M In imperial times, the Rostrum’s voices of democracy would have been dwarfed by images of the empire, such as the huge six-story-high Arch of Septimius Severus (a.d. 203). The reliefs commemorate the African-born emperor’s battles in Mesopotamia. Near ground level, see soldiers marching captured barbarians back to Rome for the victory parade.
✵ Pass underneath the Arch of Septimius Severus and turn left. If the path is blocked, backtrack toward the Temple of Julius Caesar and around the square. On the slope of Capitoline Hill are the eight remaining columns of the...
14 Temple of Saturn: M These columns framed the entrance to the Forum’s oldest temple (497 b.c.). Inside was a humble wooden statue of the god Saturn. But the statue’s pedestal held the gold bars, coins, and jewels of Rome’s state treasury, the booty collected by conquering generals.
Even older than the Temple of Saturn is the Umbilicus Urbis, which stands nearby (next to the Arch of Septimius Severus). A humble brick ruin marks this historic “Navel of the City.” The spot was considered the center of the cosmos, and all distances in the empire were measured from here.
✵ Standing at the Temple of Saturn, one of the Forum’s first buildings, look east at the lone, tall...
15 Column of Phocas: M The Forum’s last monument (a.d. 608) was a gift from the powerful Byzantine Empire to a fallen empire—Rome. Given to commemorate the pagan Pantheon’s becoming a Christian church, it’s like a symbolic last nail in ancient Rome’s coffin. After Rome’s 1,000-year reign, the city was looted by Vandals, the population of a million-plus shrank to about 10,000, and the once-grand Forum was abandoned, slowly covered by centuries of silt and dirt. In the 1700s, English historian Edward Gibbon overlooked this spot from Capitoline Hill, pondered the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and thought, “Hmm, that’s a catchy title...”
✵ Your tour is over. From the Forum, you have several options:
1. Your closest exit is by the Arch of Septimius Severus. From here, you can walk out to Via dei Fori Imperiali, near Trajan’s Column. Or you can climb 50 steps up to Capitoline Hill.
2. You can exit through the Forum’s Via dei Fori Imperiali entrance.
3. An exit next to the Basilica of Constantine leads to Piazza del Colosseo, near the Colosseo Metro stop.
4. To exit near the Colosseum, return to the Arch of Titus. At the Arch, turn right, then (after walking uphill a few steps) turn left into the tunnel marked uscita/exit.
5. You could visit Palatine Hill. From the Arch of Titus, climb to the top of the hill.
▲PALATINE HILL (MONTE PALATINO)
The hill overlooking the Forum is jam-packed with history—“the huts of Romulus,” the huge Imperial Palace, a view of the Circus Maximus—but there’s only the barest skeleton of rubble left to tell the story.
We get our word “palace” from this hill, where the emperors chose to live. It was once so filled with palaces that later emperors had to build out. (Looking up at it from the Forum, you see the substructure that supported these long-gone palaces.) The Palatine Museum contains statues and frescoes that help you imagine the luxury of the imperial Palatine. From the pleasant garden, you’ll get an overview of the Forum. On the far side, unless excavations are blocking the viewpoint, look down into an emperor’s private stadium and then beyond at the grassy Circus Maximus, once a chariot course.
While many tourists consider Palatine Hill extra credit after the Forum, it offers insight into the greatness of Rome. If you’re visiting the Colosseum or Forum, you’ve already got a ticket.
Cost and Hours: €12 combo-ticket includes Roman Forum and Colosseum—see here, free and crowded first Sun of the month, open same hours as Forum and Colosseum, audioguide-€5, Metro: Colosseo, tel. 06-3996-7700, www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en.
Getting In: The closest Metro stop is Colosseo. The handiest entrance to the Forum/Palatine Hill complex is at the Forum’s Arch of Titus (near the Colosseum and Colosseo Metro stop). Next best is the one on Via di San Gregorio, which is 150 yards from the Colosseum and possibly less crowded. Once inside, just climb the hill.
Be sure to combine your visit with the Roman Forum; if you leave the complex, your ticket doesn’t cover re-entry.
Services: WCs are at the ticket office when you enter, at the museum in the center of the site, and hiding among the orange trees in the Farnese Gardens.
Of Rome’s famous seven hills, this is the smallest, tallest, and most famous—home of the ancient Temple of Jupiter and the center of city government for 2,500 years. There are several ways to get to the top of Capitoline Hill. If you’re coming from the north (from Piazza Venezia), take Michelangelo’s impressive stairway to the right of the big, white Victor Emmanuel Monument. Coming from the southeast (the Forum), take the steep staircase near the Arch of Septimius Severus. From near Trajan’s Forum along Via dei Fori Imperiali, take the winding road. All three converge at the top, in the square called Campidoglio (kahm-pee-DOHL-yoh).
▲PIAZZA DEL CAMPIDOGLIO
This square atop the hill, once the religious and political center of ancient Rome, is still the home of the city’s government. In the 1530s, the pope called on Michelangelo to reestablish this square as a grand center. Michelangelo placed the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius as its focal point. (The original statue is now in the adjacent museum.) The twin buildings on either side are the Capitoline Museums. Behind the replica of the statue is the mayor’s palace (Palazzo Senatorio).
Michelangelo intended that people approach the square from his grand stairway off Piazza Venezia. From the top of the stairway, you see the new Renaissance face of Rome, with its back to the Forum. Michelangelo gave the buildings the “giant order”—huge pilasters make the existing two-story buildings feel one-storied and more harmonious with the new square. The statues atop these buildings welcome you and then draw you in.
The terraces just downhill (past either side of the mayor’s palace) offer grand views of the Forum. To the left of the mayor’s palace is a copy of the famous she-wolf statue on a column. Farther down is Il Nasone (“the big nose”), a refreshing water fountain. Block the spout with your fingers, and water spurts up for drinking. Romans joke that a cheap Roman boy takes his date out for a drink at Il Nasone. Near the she-wolf statue is the staircase leading to a shortcut to the Victor Emmanuel Monument.
Rick’s Tip: Here’s a shortcut from Piazza del Campidoglio, the square atop Capitoline Hill, to an upper level of the Victor Emmanuel Monument and the entrance for the Rome from the Sky elevator. Facing the square’s equestrian statue, head to the left, climbing the wide set of stairs near the she-wolf statue. At the top of the stairs, pass through the iron gate, and enter the small unmarked door at #13 on the right. You’ll soon emerge on a café terrace that leads to the monument and the elevator.
Some of ancient Rome’s most famous statues and art are housed in the two palaces (Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo) that flank the equestrian statue in the Campidoglio. They’re connected by an underground passage that leads to the Tabularium, an ancient building with panoramic views of the Roman Forum.
Cost and Hours: €15, €9.50 if no special exhibitions, daily 9:30-19:30, last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5, tel. 06-0608, www.museicapitolini.org.
Visiting the Museums: You’ll enter at Palazzo dei Conservatori (on your right as you face the equestrian statue), then walk through a passageway underneath the square—stopping for a look at the Tabularium—to Palazzo Nuovo (on your left), where you’ll exit.
With lavish rooms and several great statues, the worthwhile Palazzo dei Conservatori was founded in 1471 when a pope gave ancient statues to the citizens of Rome. Many of the museum’s statues have become recognizable cultural icons, including the 13th-century Capitoline She-Wolf (the statues of Romulus and Remus were added in the Renaissance). Don’t miss the Boy Extracting a Thorn and the Commodus as Hercules. Behind Commodus is a statue of his dad, Marcus Aurelius, on a horse. The greatest surviving equestrian statue of antiquity, it was the original centerpiece of the square (where a copy stands today). Christians in the Dark Ages thought that the statue’s hand was raised in blessing, which probably led to their misidentifying him as Constantine, the first Christian emperor. While most pagan statues were destroyed by Christians, “Constantine” was spared.
Piazza del Campidoglio
The museum’s second-floor café, Caffè Capitolino, has a patio offering city views—lovely at sunset (public entrance for those without a museum ticket off Piazzale Caffarelli and through door #4).
The Tabularium, built in the first century b.c., once held the archives of ancient Rome. Its name comes from “tablet,” on which Romans wrote their laws. You won’t see any tablets, but you will see a stunning head-on view of the Forum from the windows. Palazzo Nuovo houses two must-see statues: the Dying Gaul and the Capitoline Venus (both on the first floor up).
This vast square, dominated by the Victor Emmanuel Monument, is the focal point of modern Rome. With your back to the monument (you’ll get the best views from the terrace by the guards and eternal flame), look down Via del Corso, the city’s axis, surrounded by Rome’s classiest shopping district. In the 1930s, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini whipped up Italy’s nationalistic fervor from a balcony above the square (it’s the less-grand building on the left) and created the boulevard Via dei Fori Imperiali (to your right, capped by Trajan’s Column) to open up views of the Colosseum in the distance.
With your back still to the monument, circle around the left side. At the back end of the monument, look down into the ditch on your left to see the ruins of an ancient apartment building from the first century a.d.; part of it was transformed into a tiny church (faded frescoes and bell tower). Rome was built in layers—almost everywhere you go, there’s an earlier version beneath your feet.
▲VICTOR EMMANUEL MONUMENT
This oversize monument to Italy’s first king, built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country’s initial unification in 1861, was part of Italy’s attempt to create a national identity. The over-the-top monument is 200 feet high and 500 feet wide. The 43-foot-long statue of the king on his high horse is one of the biggest equestrian statues in the world. The king’s moustache forms an arc five feet long. A person could sit within the horse’s hoof. At the base of this statue, Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is watched over by the goddess Roma (with the gold mosaic background).
Cost and Hours: Monument—free, daily 9:30-18:30, a few WCs scattered throughout, tel. 06-6920-2049. Rome from the Sky elevator—€7, Mon-Thu 9:30-18:30, Fri-Sun 9:30-19:30, ticket office closes 45 minutes earlier, WC at entrance, tel. 06-679-3598; follow ascensori panoramici signs inside the Victor Emmanuel Monument or take the shortcut from Capitoline Hill (no elevator access from street level).
Visiting the Monument: The “Vittoriano” (as locals call it) is open and free to the public. You can simply climb the front stairs, or go inside from one of several entrances: midway up the monument through doorways flanking the central statue, on either side at street level, and at the base of the colonnade (two-thirds of the way up, near the shortcut from Capitoline Hill). The little-visited Museum of the Risorgimento fills several floors with displays on the movement and war that led to the unification of Italy (€5 to enter museum, temporary exhibits around €10, tel. 06-322-5380, www.risorgimento.it).
Victor Emmanuel Monument
Climb the stairs to the midway point for a decent view, keep climbing to the base of the colonnade for a better view, or, for the best view, ride the Rome from the Sky (Roma dal Cielo) elevator, which zips you from the top of the stair climb (at the back of the monument) to the rooftop for a 360-degree view of Rome that is even better than from the top of St. Peter’s dome. Once on top, you stand on a terrace between the monument’s two chariots. Look north up Via del Corso to Piazza del Popolo, west to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and south to the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Panoramic diagrams describe the skyline, with powerful binoculars available for zooming in. It’s best in late afternoon, when it’s beginning to cool off and Rome glows.
This 140-foot column is decorated with a spiral relief of 2,500 figures trumpeting the emperor’s exploits. It has stood for centuries as a symbol of a cosmopolitan civilization. At one point, the ashes of Trajan and his wife were held in the base, and the sun glinted off a polished bronze statue of Trajan at the top. (Today, it’s been replaced with St. Peter.) Built as a stack of 17 marble doughnuts, the column is hollow (note the small window slots) with a spiral staircase inside, leading up to the balcony.
The relief unfolds like a scroll, telling the story of Rome’s last and greatest foreign conquest, Trajan’s defeat of Dacia (modern-day Romania). Originally, the entire story was painted in bright colors. If you were to unwind the scroll, it would stretch over two football fields.
North of Via dei Fori Imperiali
▲MONTI NEIGHBORHOOD: VILLAGE ROME
This quintessentially Roman district called Monti is one of the oldest corners of Rome...and newly trendy. Tucked behind Via dei Fori Imperiali, and squeezed between Via Nazionale and Via Cavour, this hilly tangle of lanes shows why Romans see their hometown not as a sprawling metropolis, but as a collection of villages. Neighbors hang out on the square and chat. Funky boutiques share narrow streets with hole-in-the-wall hardware shops and grocery shops; and wisteria-strewn cobbled lanes beckon photographers.
Whether you’re coming from Piazza Venezia or the Roman Forum, cross Via dei Fori Imperiali and angle up Via Cavour two blocks to Via dei Serpenti. Turn left, and in one block, you hit Monti’s main square, Piazza della Madonna dei Monti. (The Cavour Metro stop also gets you steps away.) To get oriented, face uphill, with the big fountain to your right.
From this hub, interesting streets branch off in every direction. I recommend strolling one long street with three names: Via della Madonna dei Monti, which leads to the central Piazza Madonna dei Monti, before continuing uphill as Via Leonina and then Via Urbana. Monti is an ideal place for a quick lunch or early dinner (see here).
▲ST. PETER-IN-CHAINS CHURCH (SAN PIETRO IN VINCOLI)
Built in the fifth century to house the chains that held St. Peter, this church is most famous for its Michelangelo statue of Moses, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II (which was never built). Note that this church is not the famous St. Peter’s Basilica, which is in Vatican City.
After viewing the much-venerated chains under the high altar, focus on mighty Moses. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to build a massive tomb, with 48 huge statues, topped with a grand statue of the egomaniacal pope himself. The pope had planned for his tomb to be in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica. When Julius died, the work had barely started; no one had the money or necessary commitment to finish the project.
In 1542, remnants of the project were brought to St. Peter-in-Chains and pieced together by Michelangelo’s assistants. Some of the best statues ended up elsewhere (Prisoners is in Florence and the Slaves is in the Louvre). Moses and the Slaves are the only statues Michelangelo personally completed for the project.
The statue of Moses is powerful. As he holds the Ten Commandments, his eyes show a man determined to win salvation for the people of Israel. Why the horns? Centuries ago, the Hebrew word for “rays” was mistranslated as “horns.” Flanking Moses are the Old Testament sister-wives of Jacob, Leah (to our right) and Rachel, both begun by Michelangelo but probably finished by pupils.
Cost and Hours: Free, daily April-Sept 8:00-12:20 & 15:00-19:00, until 18:00 in winter, modest dress required; the church is a 10-minute uphill walk from the Colosseum, or a shorter, simpler walk (but with more uphill steps) from the Cavour Metro stop; tel. 06-9784-4950.
The Pantheon area, despite its ancient sites and historic churches, has an urban-village feel. Exploring this neighborhood is especially good in the evening, when the restaurants bustle and the streets teem with pedestrians. Gather with the locals in squares marked by bubbling fountains.
Getting There: The Pantheon neighborhood is a 15-minute walk from Capitoline Hill. Taxis and buses stop at a chaotic square called Largo Argentina, a few blocks south of the Pantheon—from here you can walk north on either Via dei Cestari or Via di Torre Argentina to the Pantheon. Buses #40 and #64 run frequently between the Termini train station and Vatican City (#492 serves the same areas via a different route). Buses #85 and #87 connect to the Colosseum (stop: Corso/Minghetti). The elettrico minibus #116 runs between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Barberini via the Pantheon.
Built two millennia ago, this influential domed temple is perhaps the most influential building in art history, serving as the model for the Florence cathedral dome, which launched the Renaissance, and for Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, which capped it off. Its preserved interior offers the greatest look at the splendor of Rome.
Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-19:30, Sun 9:00-18:00, holidays 9:00-13:00, tel. 06-6830-0230.
When to Go: Don’t go midday, when it’s packed. To have it all to yourself, visit when it opens.
Dress Code: No skimpy shorts or bare shoulders.
Tours: The Pantheon has a €5 audioguide that lasts 25 minutes.
Download my free Pantheon audio tour.
Visiting the Pantheon: The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) of the gods (theos). The original temple was built in 27 b.c. by Augustus’ son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa. The inscription below the triangular pediment proclaims in Latin, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucio, three times consul made this.” But after two fires, the structure we see today was completely rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around a.d. 120. After the fall of Rome, the Pantheon became a Christian church (from “all the gods” to “all the martyrs”), which saved it from architectural plunder and ensured its upkeep through the Dark Ages.
The portico is Greek in style, a visual reminder of the debt Roman culture owed to the Greeks. You cross this Greek space to enter a purely Roman space, the rotunda. The columns are huge and unadorned, made from 40-foot-high single pieces of red-gray granite. They were quarried in Egypt, then shipped down the Nile and across the Mediterranean to Rome.
The dome, which was the largest made until the Renaissance, is set on a circular base. The mathematical perfection of this design is a testament to Roman engineering. The dome is as high as it is wide—142 feet from floor to rooftop and from side to side. To picture it, imagine a basketball wedged inside a wastebasket so that it just touches bottom. It is made from concrete that gets lighter and thinner as it reaches the top. The base of the dome is 23 feet thick and made from heavy concrete mixed with travertine, while near the top, it’s less than five feet thick and made with a lighter volcanic rock (pumice) mixed in.
Inside the Pantheon
At the top, the oculus, or eye-in-the-sky, is the building’s only light source. It’s completely open and almost 30 feet across. The 1,800-year-old floor—with 80 percent of its original stones surviving—has holes in it and slants toward the edges to let the rainwater drain. Though some of the floor’s marble has been replaced, the design—alternating circles and squares—is original.
While its ancient statuary is long gone, the interior holds decorative statues and the tombs of famous people from more recent centuries. The artist Raphael lies to the left of the main altar. Facing each other across the base of the dome are the tombs of modern Italy’s first two kings.
The bubbly Baroque fountain is a minor sight to art scholars...but a major nighttime gathering spot for teens on the make and tourists tossing coins. For more on the fountain, see here.
Vatican City, the world’s smallest country, contains St. Peter’s Basilica (with Michelangelo’s exquisite Pietà) and the Vatican Museums (with the Sistine Chapel). The entrances to St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums are a 15-minute walk apart (follow the outside of the Vatican wall, which links the two sights). The nearest Metro stop—Ottaviano—still involves a 10-minute walk to either sight.
▲▲▲ST. PETER’S BASILICA (BASILICA SAN PIETRO)
This is the richest and grandest church on earth. To call it vast is like calling Einstein smart. Plaques on the floor show you where other, smaller churches would end if they were placed inside. The ornamental cherubs would dwarf a large man. Birds roost inside, and thousands of people wander about, heads craned heavenward. Bernini’s altar work and twisting, towering canopy are brilliant. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pietà (behind bulletproof glass) to the right of the entrance. The huge square in front of the church is marked by an obelisk and bordered by Bernini’s colonnade.
Cost: Free entry to basilica and crypt. Dome climb—€5 if you take the stairs all the way up, or €7 to ride an elevator part way (to the roof), then climb to the top of the dome (cash only). Treasury Museum—€7 (€3 audioguide).
St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
Hello from Vatican City
The Vatican is the religious capital of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. If you’re not a Catholic, become one for your visit. The pope is both the religious and secular leader of Vatican City. For centuries, the Vatican was the capital of the Papal States, and locals referred to the pontiff as “King Pope.” Because of the Vatican’s territorial ambitions, it didn’t always have good relations with Italy. Even though modern Italy was created in 1870, the Holy See didn’t recognize it as a country until 1929.
The tiny independent country of Vatican City is contained entirely within Rome. The Vatican has its own postal system, armed guards, a helipad, mini train station, and radio station (KPOP). Like every European country, Vatican City has its own versions of the euro coin (with a portrait of the pope). You’re unlikely to find one in your pocket, though, as they’re snatched up by collectors before falling into circulation.
Post Offices: The Vatican postal service is famous for its stamps, which you can get from offices on St. Peter’s Square (one next to the TI, another between the columns just before the security checkpoint), in the Vatican Museums (closed Sun), or from a “post bus” that’s often parked on St. Peter’s Square (open Sun). To get a Vatican postmark, mail your cards from postboxes at the Vatican itself (although the stamps are good throughout Rome).
Hours: The church is open daily April-Sept 7:00-19:00, Oct-March 7:00-18:30. It closes on Wednesday mornings during papal audiences, until roughly 13:00. The dome (cupola) is open to climbers daily from 8:00; if you’re climbing the stairs all the way up, the last entry time is 17:00 (16:00 Oct-March); if you’re riding the elevator, you can enter until 18:00 (17:00 Oct-March). The Treasury Museum is open daily April-Sept 8:00-18:50, Oct-March 8:00-17:50. The crypt (grotte) is open daily 9:00-16:00.
Avoiding Lines: To avoid the worst crowds, visit before 10:00. Going after 16:00 works, too, but the crypt will be closed, and the area around the altar is often roped off to prepare for Mass. There’s no surefire way to avoid the long security lines; the checkpoint is typically on the right (north) side of the huge square in front of the church, but is sometimes closer to the church or tucked under the south colonnade.
St. Peter’s is often accessible directly from the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museums—a great time-saving trick, but unfortunately not a reliable one (for details, see here).
Dress Code: No shorts, above-the-knee skirts, or bare shoulders (this applies to men, women, and children). Attendants enforce this dress code, even in hot weather. Carry a cover-up, if necessary.
Getting There: Take the Metro to Ottaviano, then walk 10 minutes south on Via Ottaviano. The #40 express bus drops off at Piazza Pio, next to Castel Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Tomb)—a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s. The more crowded bus #64 stops just outside St. Peter’s Square to the south (get off the bus after it crosses the Tiber, at the first stop past the tunnel; backtrack toward the tunnel and turn left when you see the rows of columns; the return bus stop is adjacent to the tunnel). Bus #492 heads through the center of town, stopping at Largo Argentina, and gets you near Piazza Risorgimento (get off when you see the Vatican walls). Be alert for pickpockets on all public transit. A taxi from Termini train station to St. Peter’s costs about €12.
Information: The Vatican TI on the left (south) side of the square is excellent (Mon-Sat 8:30-18:15, closed Sun, tel. 06-6988-1662). For the Vatican, see www.vaticanstate.va.
Church Services: Mass is said daily, generally in Italian, usually in one of these three places: in the south (left) transept, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (on the right side of the nave), or the apse. Typical schedule: Mon-Sat at 8:30, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and 17:00 (in Latin, in the apse); and on Sun and holidays at 9:00, 10:30 (in Latin), 11:30, 12:15, 13:00, 16:00, 17:00 (vespers), and 17:45.
Tours: The Vatican TI conducts free 1.5-hour tours of St. Peter’s (depart from TI Mon-Fri at 14:15, confirm schedule at TI). Audioguides can be rented near the checkroom (€5 plus ID, for church only, daily 9:00-17:00).
Download my free St. Peter’s Basilica audio tour.
To see St. Peter’s original grave, you can take a Scavi (excavations) tour into the Necropolis under the basilica (€13, 1.5 hours, ages 15 and older only, no photos). Book at least two months in advance by phone (tel. 06-6988-5318), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or fax (06-6987-3017), following the detailed instructions at www.vatican.va (search for “Excavations Office”); no response means they’re booked.
Dome Climb: You can take the elevator (€7) or stairs (€5) to the roof (231 steps), then climb another 323 steps to the top of the dome. The entry to the elevator is just outside the north side of the basilica—look for signs to the cupola.
Length of This Tour: Allow one hour, plus another hour if you climb the dome (or a half-hour to the roof). With less time, you could stroll the nave, glance up at the dome, down at St. Peter’s resting place, and adore the Pietà on your way out.
Vatican Museums Tickets: Although it’s best to make advance reservations, there’s often a table selling priority-entry tickets to the Vatican Museums (with the Sistine Chapel) just inside the entrance of St. Peter’s. You pay the regular €16 admission plus a €9 service fee. It’s more than what you’d pay online, but you get an entry time and no wait, generally for the same day (see here for other Vatican Museums ticketing options).
Baggage Check: The free bag check (mandatory for bags larger than a purse or daypack) is outside the basilica (to the right as you face the entrance), just inside the security checkpoint.
Services: WCs are to the right and left on St. Peter’s Square (next to the Vatican post offices, with another near the baggage storage down the steps on the right side of the entrance) and on the roof.
To sample the basilica’s highlights, follow these points:
1 The atrium is itself bigger than most churches. The huge white columns on the portico date from the first church (fourth century). Five famous bronze doors lead into the church. The central door, made from the melted-down bronze of the original door of Old St. Peter’s, was the first Renaissance work in Rome (c. 1450). It’s only opened on special occasions. The far-right entrance is the Holy Door, M opened only during Holy Years (and Jubilee years, designated by the pope). On Christmas Eve every 25 years, the pope knocks three times with a silver hammer and the door opens, welcoming pilgrims to pass through.
2 On the floor near the central doorway is a round slab of porphyry stone in the maroon color of ancient Roman officialdom. This is the spot where in a.d. 800 the king of the Franks, Charlemagne, M was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Look down the main hall—the golden window at the far end is two football fields away. The dove in the window has the wingspan of a 747 (OK, not quite, but it is big). The church covers six acres. The babies at the base of the pillars along the main hall are adult-size. The lettering in the gold band along the top of the pillars is seven feet high. The church has a capacity of 60,000 standing worshippers (or 1,200 tour groups).
St. Peter’s Basilica Map Key
1 Holy Door
2 Charlemagne’s Coronation Site
3 Extent of Original “Greek Cross” Plan
4 St. Andrew Statue; View of Dome; Crypt Entrance
5 St. Peter Statue (with Kissable Toe)
6 Pope John XXIII
7 Main Altar (under Bernini’s Canopy & over Peter’s Tomb)
8 BERNINI—Dove Window & Throne of St. Peter
9 St. Peter’s Crucifixion Site
10 RAPHAEL—Mosaic Copy of The Transfiguration
12 Tomb of St. Pope John Paul II
13 Blessed Sacrament Chapel
14 Treasury Museum
15 Dome Entrance
16 Vatican Museums Tickets
3 Michelangelo was 71 years old when he took over the church project. He intended to put the dome over Donato Bramante’s original Greek-Cross M floor plan, with four equal arms. In the Renaissance, this symmetrical arrangement symbolized perfection—the orderliness of the created world and the goodness of man (created in God’s image). But the Church, struggling against Protestants and its own corruption, opted for a plan designed to impress the world with its grandeur—the Latin cross of the Crucifixion, with its nave extended to accommodate the grand religious spectacles of the Baroque period.
4 Park yourself in front of the statue of St. Andrew M to the left of the altar, the guy holding an X-shaped cross. (The crypt entrance, described later, is usually here.) Like Andrew, gaze up into the dome and gasp. The dome soars higher than a football field on end, 448 feet from the floor of the cathedral to the top of the lantern. It glows with light from its windows, the blue and gold mosaics creating a cool, solemn atmosphere. In this majestic vision of heaven (not painted by Michelangelo), we see (above the windows) Jesus, Mary, and a ring of saints, rings of more angels above them, and, way up in the ozone, God the Father (a blur of blue and red, unless you have binoculars).
5 Back in the nave sits a bronze statue of Peter M under a canopy. This is one of a handful of pieces of art that were in the earlier church. In one hand he holds keys, the symbol of the authority given him by Christ, while with the other hand he blesses us. His big right toe has been worn smooth by the lips of pilgrims and foot fetishists. Stand in line to kiss it, or, to avoid foot-and-mouth disease, touch your hand to your lips, then rub the toe. This is an act of reverence with no legend attached.
The nave of St. Peter’s Basilica
6 Circle to the right around the statue of Peter to find the lighted glass niche with the red-robed body of Pope John XXIII, M whose papacy lasted from 1958 to 1963. He is best known for initiating the landmark Vatican II Council (1962-1965), bringing the Church into the modern age. In 2000, during the beatification process (a stop on the way to sainthood), Church authorities checked his body, and it was surprisingly fresh. So they moved it upstairs, put it behind glass, and now older Catholics who remember him fondly enjoy another stop on their St. Peter’s visit. Pope John was canonized in 2014.
7 Sitting over St. Peter’s tomb, the main altar M (the white marble slab with cross and candlesticks) is used only when the pope himself says Mass. He sometimes conducts the Sunday morning service when he’s in town. The tiny altar would be lost in this enormous church if it weren’t for Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seven-story bronze canopy, which “extends” the altar upward and reduces the perceived distance between floor and ceiling. The corkscrew columns echo the marble ones that surrounded the altar in Old St. Peter’s.
8 Bernini’s dove window M shines above the smaller front altar used for everyday services. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a six-foot-high dove, pours sunlight onto the faithful through the alabaster windows, turning into artificial rays of gold and reflecting off swirling gold clouds, angels, and winged babies. During a service, real sunlight passes through real clouds of incense, mingling with Bernini’s sculpture. Beneath the dove is the centerpiece of this structure, the Throne of St. Peter, an oak chair built in medieval times for a king. Subsequently, it was encrusted with tradition and encased in bronze by Bernini as a symbol of papal authority.
9 According to tradition, this is the exact spot of Peter’s crucifixion M 1,900 years ago. During the reign of Emperor Nero, he was arrested and brought to Nero’s Circus so all of Rome could witness his execution. When the authorities told Peter he was to be crucified just like his Lord, Peter said, “I’m not worthy” and insisted they nail him on the cross upside down.
10 Around the corner (heading back toward the central nave), pause at the mosaic copy of Raphael’s epic painting of The Transfiguration. M The original is now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. This and all the other “paintings” in the church are actually mosaic copies made from thousands of colored chips the size of a fingernail. Because smoke and humidity would damage real paintings, since about 1600 church officials have replaced the paintings with mosaics produced by the Vatican Mosaic Studio.
11 Michelangelo was 24 years old when he completed this pietà—a M representation of Mary with the body of Christ taken from the cross. It was his first major commission, for Holy Year 1500. Michelangelo, with his total mastery of the real world, captures the sadness of the moment. Mary cradles her crucified son in her lap. Christ’s lifeless right arm drooping down lets us know how heavy this corpse is. Mary looks at her dead son with tenderness; her left hand turns upward, asking, “How could they do this to you?”
12 John Paul II M (1920-2005) was one of the most beloved popes of recent times. During his papacy (1978-2005), he was the face of the Catholic Church. The first non-Italian pope in four centuries, he oversaw the fall of communism in his native Poland, survived an assassination attempt, and stoicly endured Parkinson’s disease. When he died in 2005, hundreds of thousands lined up outside, waiting up to 24 hours to pay their respects. He was sainted in April 2014, just nine years after his death. St. John Paul II lies beneath a painting of the steadfast St. Sebastian, his favorite saint.
13 Step through the metalwork gates into the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, M an oasis of peace reserved for prayer and meditation. It’s next to St. John Paul II’s tomb, on the right-hand side of the church, about midway to the altar.
14 The skippable Treasury Museum, M located on the left side of the nave near the altar, contains the room-size tomb of Sixtus IV by Antonio Pollaiuolo, a big pair of Roman pincers used to torture Christians, an original corkscrew column from Old St. Peter’s, and assorted jewels, papal robes, and golden reliquaries.
✵ When you’re finished viewing the church’s interior, go down to the foundations of Old St. Peter’s, to the crypt (grotte or tombe) containing tombs of popes and memorial chapels. Save the crypt for last because it exits outside the basilica.
The crypt entrance is usually beside the 4 statue of St. Andrew, to the left of the main altar. Stairs lead you down to the floor level of the previous church, where you’ll pass the sepulcher of Peter. This lighted niche with an icon is not Peter’s actual tomb, but part of a shrine that stands atop Peter’s tomb. Next are the tombs of past popes. Finally, you can see a few column fragments from Old St. Peter’s (a.k.a. “Basilica Costantiniana”). Continue your one-way visit until it spills you out, usually near the checkroom.
15 For one of the best views of Rome, go up to the dome. M The entrance is along the right (north) side of the church, but the line begins to form out front, at the church’s right door (as you face the church). Look for cupola signs. There are two levels: the rooftop of the church and the top of the dome. Climb (for €5) or take an elevator (€7) to the first level, on the church roof just above the facade. From the roof, you can also go inside the gallery ringing the interior of the dome and look down inside the church. To get to the top of the dome, you’ll take a staircase that winds between the outer shell and the inner one. It’s a sweaty, crowded, claustrophobic 15-minute, 323-step climb, but the view from the summit is great, the fresh air even better. Admire the arms of Bernini’s colonnade encircling St. Peter’s Square. Find the Victor Emmanuel Monument and the Pantheon. The large rectangular building to the left of the obelisk is the Vatican Museums complex, stuffed with art. And down in the square are tiny pilgrims buzzing like electrons around the nucleus of Catholicism.
The view from atop St. Peter’s
Seeing the Pope
Your best chances for a sighting are on Sunday or Wednesday. Most Sundays (though not always, especially in July or August), the pope gives a blessing at noon from the papal balcony (to the right as you face the basilica) on St. Peter’s Square. You don’t need a ticket—just show up. On most Wednesdays, the pope holds a general audience at 10:00, giving a short sermon from a platform on the square. (In winter, it’s sometimes held indoors at the Paolo VI Auditorium, next to St. Peter’s Basilica, though Pope Francis prefers the square, even in cold weather.) Whenever the pope appears on the square, the basilica closes and crowds are substantial—so avoid these times if you just want to sightsee.
General Audience Tickets: For the Wednesday audience, you need a free ticket to get a seat. You have several options:
✵ Reserve tickets a month or two in advance by sending a fax request (access the form at www.vatican.va, under “Prefecture of the Papal Household”—this path also shows his schedule) or by calling 06-6988-3114. Pick up the tickets at St. Peter’s Square before the audience (available Tue 15:00-19:00 and Wed 7:00-9:00; usually under Bernini’s colonnade, to the left of the church).
✵ You can book tickets online through Santa Susanna, the American Catholic Church in Rome (free, but donations appreciated). Pick up your reserved tickets or check for last-minute availability at the church the Tuesday before the audience between 16:30 and 18:15—some stay for the 18:00 English Mass (Via XX Settembre 15, Metro: Repubblica, tel. 06-4201-4554, www.santasusanna.org).
✵ Starting the Monday before the audience, Swiss Guards hand out tickets from their station near the basilica exit. There’s no need to go through security—just march up, ask nicely, and say “danke.” While this is perhaps the easiest way, it’s best to reserve in advance.
Without a Ticket: If you just want to see the pope, get a photo, and don’t mind standing, show up for the Wednesday audience at least by 9:30, and take your place in the standing section in the back half of the square.
General Audience Tips: Dress appropriately (shoulders covered, no short shorts or tank tops; long pants or knee-length skirts are safest) and clear security (no big bags; lines move more quickly on the side of the square farthest from the Metro stop). To get a seat, get there a couple of hours early; there are far fewer seats than ticketholders. The service gets under way around 9:30 when the names of attending pilgrim groups are announced. Shortly thereafter, the Popemobile appears, winding through the adoring crowd (the best views are near the cloth-covered wooden fences that line the Popemobile route). Around 10:00, the Pope’s multilingual message begins and lasts for about an hour (you can leave at any time).
Rick’s Tip: If you’re claustrophobic or acrophobic, skip climbing the dome.
▲▲▲VATICAN MUSEUMS (MUSEI VATICANI)
The four miles of displays in this immense museum complex culminate in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel. This is one of Europe’s top three or four houses of art. It can be exhausting, so plan your visit carefully, focusing on a few themes. Allow two hours for a quick visit, three or four hours for enough time to enjoy it.
Cost and Hours: M €16, €4 online reservation fee, Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00, last entry at 16:00 (though the official closing time is 18:00, the staff starts ushering you out at 17:30), closed on religious holidays and Sun except last Sun of the month (when it’s free, more crowded, and open 9:00-14:00, last entry at 12:30); may be open Fri nights May-July and Sept-Oct 19:00-23:00 (last entry at 21:30) by online reservation only—check the website. Hours are subject to constant change.
The museum closes frequently for holidays, including: Jan 1 (New Year’s), Jan 6 (Epiphany), Feb 11 (Vatican City established), March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day), Easter Sunday and Monday, May 1 (Labor Day), June 29 (Sts. Peter and Paul), Aug 15 (Assumption of the Virgin), Nov 1 (All Saints’ Day), Dec 8 (Immaculate Conception), and Dec 25 and 26 (Christmas). Before you visit, check the current hours, holiday closures, and calendar at http://mv.vatican.va. Info tel. 06-6988-4676 or 06-6988-3145.
Reservations: Expect waits of up to two hours to buy tickets. Bypass the long ticket lines by reserving an entry time at http://mv.vatican.va for €20 (€16 ticket plus €4 booking fee). Choose your day and time, then check your email for your confirmation and print out the voucher. At the Vatican Museums, bypass the ticket-buying line and queue up at the “Visitor Entrance with Online Reservations” line (to the right). Show your voucher to the guard and go in. Once inside the museum, present your voucher at a ticket window (cassa), either in the lobby or upstairs, and they’ll issue your ticket.
When to Go: The museum is generally hot and crowded, except in winter. The worst days are Saturdays, the last Sunday of the month (when it’s free), Mondays, rainy days, and any day before or after a holiday closure. Mornings are most crowded. It’s best to visit on a weekday after 14:00—the later the better. Another good time is during the papal audience on Wednesday morning, when many tourists are at St. Peter’s Square (the only drawback is that St. Peter’s Basilica is closed until roughly 13:00, as is the exit to it from the Sistine Chapel—described later, under “Exit Strategies”).
Avoiding Lines: Booking a guided tour (see “Tours,” later) gets you right in—just show the guard your voucher. You can often buy same-day, skip-the-line tickets (for the same €20 online price) through the TI in St. Peter’s Square (to the left, as you face the basilica). Also, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (a.k.a., Roma Cristiana), a Vatican-affiliated tour company, sells same-day tickets for €27.50 (entrances almost hourly, office in front of St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Pio XII 9, tel. 06-6980-6380, www.operaromanapellegrinaggi.org). If you’re going to St. Peter’s Basilica first, you can buy priority-entry Vatican Museums tickets just inside the entrance (€25 includes admission plus service fee). Hawkers peddling skip-the-line access swarm the Vatican area, offering tours with guides of varying quality. It’s smarter to plan in advance, but if all else fails, this will get you in.
Dress Code: Modest dress is required (no shorts, above-knee skirts, or bare shoulders).
Getting There: The Ottaviano Metro stop is a 10-minute walk from the entrance. Bus #49 from Piazza Cavour/Castel Sant’Angelo stops at Piazza Risorgimento and continues right to the entrance. Bus #492 heads from the city center past Piazza Risorgimento and the Vatican walls, and also stops on Via Leone IV. Bus #64 stops on the other side of St. Peter’s Square, a 15- to 20-minute walk (facing the church from the obelisk, take a right through the colonnade and follow the Vatican Wall). A few other handy buses (see here) can get you close enough to snag a taxi for the final stretch. Or take a taxi from the city center—they are reasonable (hop in and say, “moo-ZAY-ee vah-tee-KAH-nee”).
Getting In: Make sure you get in the right entry line. Generally, individuals without tickets line up against the Vatican City wall (to the left of the entrance as you face it), and reservation holders (both individuals and groups) enter on the right. All visitors must pass through a metal detector (no pocket knives allowed).
Tours: A €7 audioguide is available at the top of the spiral ramp/escalator. A security ID is not required to rent an audioguide, and you can drop it off either where you rented it or after leaving the Sistine Chapel if taking the shortcut to St. Peter’s (described later, under “Exit Strategies”). Confirm the drop-off location when renting.
Download my free Sistine Chapel audio tour.
The Vatican offers guided tours in English that are easy to book on their website (€32, includes admission). As with individual ticket reservations, present your confirmation voucher to a guard to the right of the entrance; then, once inside, go to the Guided Tours desk (in the lobby, up a few stairs).
For a list of private tour companies and guides, see here.
Length of This Tour: Until you expire, the museum closes, or 2.5 hours pass, whichever comes first. If you’re short on time, see the octagonal courtyard (Laocoön), then follow the crowd flow directly to the Sistine Chapel, sightseeing along the way. From the Sistine Chapel, head straight to St. Peter’s (see “Exit Strategies,” next).
Exit Strategies: The museum has two exits. The main exit is near the entrance. Use this one if you’re asked to return an audioguide there or if you plan on following this self-guided tour exactly as laid out, visiting the Pinacoteca at the end.
The other exit is a handy (but sometimes closed) shortcut that leads from the Sistine Chapel directly to St. Peter’s Basilica (spilling out alongside the church). The shortcut saves you a 30-minute walk backtracking to the basilica’s main entrance and lets you avoid the long security line there. Officially, this exit is for Vatican guides and their groups only. However, it’s often open to anyone (depending on how crowded the chapel is and how the guards feel). It’s worth a shot (try blending in with a group that’s leaving), but be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get through.
Baggage Check: The museum’s “checkroom” (to the right after security) takes only bigger bags, not day bags.
Photography: No photos allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but photos without flash are permitted elsewhere.
Start, as civilization did, in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Decorating the museum’s courtyard are some of the best Greek and Roman statues in captivity. The Apollo Belvedere is a Roman copy (4th century b.c.) of a Hellenistic original that followed the style of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. It fully captures the beauty of the human form. Instead of standing at attention, face-forward with his arms at his sides (Egyptian-style), Apollo is on the move, coming to rest with his weight on one leg.
Laocoön was sculpted some four centuries after the Golden Age (5th-4th century b.c.), after the scales of “balance” had been tipped. Apollo is serene and graceful, while Laocoön is emotional and gritty. The figures (carved from four blocks of marble pieced together seamlessly) are powerful, with twisted poses that accentuate each rippling muscle and bulging vein.
The centerpiece of the next hall is the 2,000-year-old Belvedere Torso, which had a great impact on the art of Michelangelo. Finishing off the classical statuary are two fine fourth-century porphyry sarcophagi. These royal purple tombs were made for the Roman emperor Constantine’s mother and daughter.
After long halls of tapestries, old maps, broken penises, and fig leaves, you’ll come to what most people are looking for: the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
The highlight of the Raphael Rooms, frescoed by Raphael and his assistants, is the restored School of Athens. It is remarkable for its blatant pre-Christian classical orientation, especially considering it originally wallpapered the apartments of Pope Julius II. Raphael honors the great pre-Christian thinkers—Aristotle, Plato, and company—who are portrayed as the leading artists of Raphael’s day. Leonardo da Vinci, whom Raphael worshipped, is in the role of Plato. Michelangelo, brooding in the foreground, was added later. When Raphael snuck a peek at the Sistine Chapel, he decided that his arch-competitor was so good that he put their differences aside and included him in this tribute. Today’s St. Peter’s was under construction as Raphael was working. In the School of Athens, he gives us a sneak preview of the unfinished church.
Next is the brilliantly restored Sistine Chapel. This is the pope’s personal chapel and also the place where, upon the death of the ruling pope, a new pope is elected.
The Sistine Chapel is famous for Michelangelo’s pictorial culmination of the Renaissance, showing the story of creation, with God weaving in and out of each scene through that busy first week. It’s a stirring example of the artistic and theological maturity of the 33-year-old Michelangelo, who spent four years on this work.
The ceiling shows the history of the world before the birth of Jesus. We see God creating the world, creating man and woman, destroying the earth by flood, and so on. God himself, in his purple robe, actually appears in the first five scenes. Along the sides (where the ceiling starts to curve), we see the Old Testament prophets and pagan Greek prophetesses who foretold the coming of Christ. Dividing these scenes and figures are fake niches (a painted 3-D illusion) decorated with nude figures with symbolic meaning.
In the central panel of the Creation of Adam, God and man take center stage in this Renaissance version of creation. Adam, newly formed in the image of God, lounges dreamily in perfect naked innocence. God, with his entourage, swoops in with a swirl of activity (which—with a little imagination—looks like a cross-section of a human brain...quite a strong humanist statement). Their reaching hands are the center of this work. Adam’s is passive; God’s is forceful, his finger twitching upward with energy. Here is the very moment of creation, as God passes the spark of life to man, the crowning work of his creation.
This is the spirit of the Renaissance. God is not reaching down to puny man from way on high. They are on an equal plane, divided only by the diagonal bit of sky. God’s billowing robe and the patch of green that holds Adam balance each other. They are like the yin and yang symbols finally coming together—uniting, complementing each other, creating wholeness. God and man work together in the divine process of creation.
When the ceiling was finished and revealed to the public, it blew ’em away. It both caps the Renaissance and turns it in a new direction. The style is more dramatic and emotional than the balanced Renaissance works before it. This is a personal work—the Gospel according to Michelangelo—but its themes and subject matter are universal. Many art scholars contend that the Sistine ceiling is the single greatest work of art by any one human being.
Later, after the Reformation wars had begun and after the Catholic army of Spain had sacked the Vatican, the reeling Church began to fight back. As part of its Counter-Reformation, a much older Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Last Judgment (behind the altar).
It’s Judgment Day, and Christ—the powerful figure in the center, raising his arm to spank the wicked—has come to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. Beneath him, a band of angels blows its trumpets Dizzy Gillespie-style: a wake-up call to the sleeping dead. The dead at lower left leave their graves and prepare to be judged. The righteous, on Christ’s right hand (the left side of the picture), are carried up to heaven. The wicked on the other side are hurled into hell. Charon, from the underworld of Greek mythology, waits below to ferry the souls of the damned to hell.
When The Last Judgment was unveiled to the public in 1541, it caused a sensation. The pope dropped to his knees and cried, “Lord, charge me not with my sins when thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment.”
And it changed the course of art. The complex composition, with more than 300 figures swirling around the figure of Christ, went far beyond traditional Renaissance balance. The twisted figures shown from every imaginable angle challenged other painters to try and top this master of 3-D illusion. The sheer terror and drama of the scene was a striking contrast to the placid optimism of, say, Raphael’s School of Athens. Michelangelo had Baroque-en all the rules of the Renaissance, signaling a new era of art.
If you take the long march back, you’ll find, along with the Pinacoteca, a cafeteria (long lines, uninspired food), the underrated early-Christian art section, and the exit via the souvenir shop.
Rick’s Tip: A handy (but sometimes closed) shortcut leads from the Sistine Chapel directly to St. Peter’s Basilica, saving a 30-minute walk backtracking to the basilica’s main entrance and avoiding the security line there. Exit through the corner door labeled “for authorized guides and tour groups only.” Try blending in, or pretend that your group has left you behind.
▲▲▲BORGHESE GALLERY (GALLERIA BORGHESE)
This plush museum, filling a cardinal’s mansion in Rome’s semiscruffy three-square-mile “Central Park,” offers one of Europe’s most sumptuous art experiences. Enjoy a collection of world-class Baroque sculpture, including Bernini’s David and his excited statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, as well as paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. The museum’s mandatory reservation system keeps crowds to a manageable size.
Cost and Hours: €13, price includes €2 reservation fee, free and crowded first Sun of the month, Tue-Sun 9:00-19:00, closed Mon. Reservations are mandatory. The 1.5-hour audioguide (€5) is excellent.
Reservations: Required reservations are easy to get. Book online at user-friendly www.galleriaborghese.it. When the site asks what “Dispatch Type” you want, choose “Pick-up at the venue box office.” You can also reserve by phone (tel. 06-32810, press 2 for English); call during Italian office hours: Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat 9:00-13:00 (office closed Sat in Aug and Sun year-round).
Entry times are 9:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00, and 17:00; you’ll get exactly two hours for your visit. Reserve at least several days in advance for a weekday visit, and at least a week ahead for weekends.
After you reserve a day and time, you’ll get a claim number. Arrive at the gallery 30 minutes before your appointed time to pick up your ticket in the lobby on the lower level. Check your bags (free and mandatory), then peruse the gift shop or relax in the garden until your designated entry time. Arriving late can mean forfeiting your reservation.
You can use a Roma Pass for entry, but you’re still required to make a reservation (by phone only—not online; specify that you have the Roma Pass).
Getting There: The museum is set idyllically but inconveniently in the vast Villa Borghese Gardens. Bus #910 goes from Termini train station (and Piazza Repubblica) to the Via Pinciana stop, 100 yards from the museum. By Metro, from the Barberini Metro stop, walk 10 minutes up Via Veneto, enter the park, and turn right, following signs another 10 minutes to the Borghese Gallery.
Tours: Guided English tours are offered at 9:10 and 11:10 (€6.50). You can’t book a tour when you make your museum reservation—sign up as soon as you arrive. The superb 1.5-hour audioguide tour (€5) covers more than my description.
Planning Your Time: Two hours is all you get...and you’ll want every minute. Budget most of your time for the more interesting ground floor, but set aside 30 minutes for the paintings of the Pinacoteca upstairs (highlights are marked by the audioguide icons).
Services: Baggage check is free, mandatory, and strictly enforced.
Photography: Allowed without flash.
Visiting the Museum: It’s hard to believe that a family of cardinals and popes would display so many works with secular and sensual—even erotic—themes. But the Borgheses felt that all forms of human expression, including pagan myths and physical passion, glorified God.
The essence of the collection is the connection of the Renaissance with the classical world. As you enter, notice the second-century Roman reliefs with Michelangelo-designed panels above either end of the portico. The villa was built in the early 17th century by art collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who wanted to prove that the glories of ancient Rome were matched by the Renaissance.
In the main entry hall, high up on the wall, is a thrilling first-century Greek sculpture of a horse falling. The Renaissance-era rider was added by Pietro Bernini, father of the famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Each room seems to feature a Baroque masterpiece. In Room I is Pauline Borghese as Venus, for which Napoleon’s sister went the full monty for the sculptor Antonio Canova, scandalizing Europe. (“How could you have done such a thing?!” she was asked. She replied, “The room wasn’t cold.”) With the famous nose of her conqueror brother, she strikes the pose of Venus as conqueror of men’s hearts. Her relaxed afterglow say she’s already had her man.
In Room II, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David twists around to put a big rock in his sling. He purses his lips, knits his brow, and winds his body like a spring as his eyes lock onto the target: Goliath, who’s somewhere behind us, putting us right in the line of fire. Compared with Michelangelo’s David, this is unvarnished realism—an unbalanced pose, bulging veins, unflattering face, and armpit hair. Michelangelo’s David thinks, whereas Bernini’s acts. Bernini slays the pretty-boy Davids of the Renaissance and prepares to invent Baroque.
In Room III, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is the perfect Baroque subject. Apollo—made stupid by Cupid’s arrow of love—chases after Daphne, who has been turned off by the “arrow of disgust.” Just as he’s about to catch her, she calls to her father to save her. Magically, she transforms into a tree. Frustrated Apollo will end up with a handful of leaves.
In Room IV, Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina proves that even at the age of 24 the sculptor was the master of marble.
In Room VI, Bernini’s Aeneas and Anchises reveals the then 20-year-old sculptor’s astonishing aptitude for portraying human flesh.
Bernini, Apollo and Daphne
In Room VIII is a fabulous collection of paintings by Caravaggio, who brought Christian saints down to earth with gritty realism.
Upstairs, in the Pinacoteca (Painting Gallery), are busts and paintings by Bernini, as well as works by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Domenichino.
If you want to see artistically arranged bones, this is the place. The crypt is below the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione on the tree-lined Via Veneto, just up from Piazza Barberini. The bones of about 4,000 friars who died in the 1700s are in the basement, all lined up in a series of six crypts to instruct wide-eyed visitors of the inevitability of mortality. Its macabre motto (in the first chapel) is: “What you are now, we used to be.”
Cost and Hours: €8, daily 9:00-19:00, modest dress required, no photos but postcards are sold, Via Veneto 27, Metro: Barberini, tel. 06-8880-3695.
The wide, curving staircase, culminating with an obelisk between two Baroque church towers, is one of Rome’s iconic sights. Beyond that, it’s a people-gathering place. By day, the area hosts shoppers looking for high-end fashions; on balmy evenings, it attracts young and old alike. For more about the steps, see here.
▲▲MUSEO DELL’ARA PACIS (MUSEUM OF THE ALTAR OF PEACE)
On January 30, 9 b.c., soon-to-be-emperor Augustus led a procession of priests up the steps and into this newly built “Altar of Peace.” They sacrificed an animal on the altar and poured an offering of wine, thanking the gods for helping Augustus pacify barbarians abroad and rivals at home. This marked the dawn of the Pax Romana (c. a.d. 1-200), a Golden Age of good living, stability, dominance, and peace (pax). The Ara Pacis (AH-rah PAH-chees) hosted annual sacrifices by the emperor until the area was flooded by the Tiber River. For an idea of how high the water could get, find the measure (idrometro) scaling the right side of the church closest to the entrance. Buried under silt, it was abandoned and forgotten until the 16th century, when various parts were discovered and excavated. Mussolini had the altar’s scattered parts reconstructed in a building here in 1938. Today, the Altar of Peace stands in a striking pavilion designed by American architect Richard Meier (opened 2006). It’s about the only entirely new structure permitted in the old center of Rome since Mussolini’s day.
Cost and Hours: €14, €8.50 when no special exhibits, daily 9:30-19:30, last entry one hour before closing, good audioguide-€4; a long block west of Via del Corso on Via di Ara Pacis, on the east bank of the Tiber near Ponte Cavour, Metro: Spagna plus a 10-minute walk down Via dei Condotti; tel. 06-0608, www.arapacis.it.
Visiting the Museum: Start with the model in the museum’s lobby. The Altar of Peace was originally located east of here, along today’s Via del Corso. The model shows where it stood in relation to the Mausoleum of Augustus (now next door) and the Pantheon. Approach the Ara Pacis and look through the doorway to see the raised altar. This simple structure has just the basics of a Roman temple: an altar for sacrifices surrounded by cubicle walls that enclose a consecrated space. Climb the 10 steps and go inside. From here, the priest would climb the 8 altar steps to make sacrifices. The walls of the enclosure are decorated with the offerings to the gods: animals, garlands of fruit, and ceremonial platters. The reliefs on the north and south sides depict the parade of dignitaries who consecrated the altar, while the reliefs on the west side (near the altar’s back door) celebrate peace (goddess Roma as a conquering Amazon, right side) and prosperity (fertility goddess surrounded by children, plants, and animals, left side).
▲▲▲NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ROME
The National Museum’s main branch houses the greatest collection of ancient Roman art anywhere, including busts of emperors and a Roman copy of the Greek Discus Thrower.
Cost and Hours: €10 combo-ticket covers three other branches—all skippable, free and crowded first Sun of the month, Tue-Sun 9:00-19:45, closed Mon, last entry 45 minutes before closing, audioguide-€5, about 100 yards from train station, Metro: Repubblica or Termini, tel. 06-3996-7700, www.archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en.
Getting There: The museum is in Palazzo Massimo, situated between Piazza della Repubblica (Metro: Repubblica) and Termini Station (Metro: Termini). It’s a few minutes’ walk from either Metro stop. As you leave Termini, it’s the sandstone-brick building on your left. Enter at the far end, at Largo di Villa Peretti.
Visiting the Museum: The museum is rectangular, with rooms and hallways built around a central courtyard. The ground-floor displays follow Rome’s history as it changes from a republic to a dictatorial empire. The first-floor exhibits take Rome from its peak through its slow decline. The second floor houses rare frescoes and fine mosaics, and the basement presents coins and everyday objects.
On the first floor, along with statues and busts showing such emperors as Trajan and Hadrian, you’ll see the best-preserved Roman copy of the Greek Discus Thrower. Statues of athletes like this commonly stood in the baths, where Romans cultivated healthy bodies, minds, and social skills, hoping to lead well-rounded lives. Other statues on this floor originally stood in the pleasure gardens of the Roman rich—surrounded by greenery with the splashing sound of fountains, all painted in bright, lifelike colors. Though created by Romans, the themes are mostly Greek, with godlike humans and human-looking gods.
The second floor contains frescoes and mosaics that once decorated the walls and floors of Roman villas. They feature everyday people, animals, flowery patterns, and geometrical designs. The Villa Farnesina frescoes—in black, red, yellow, and blue—are mostly architectural designs, with fake columns, friezes, and garlands. The Villa di Livia frescoes, owned by the wily wife of Augustus, immerse you in a leafy green garden full of birds and fruit trees, symbolizing the gods.
Finally, descend into the basement to see fine gold jewelry, an eight-year-old girl’s mummy, and vault doors leading into the best coin collection in Europe, with fancy magnifying glasses maneuvering you through cases of coins from ancient Rome to modern times.
▲▲CHURCH OF SAN GIOVANNI IN LATERANO
Built by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, this was Rome’s most important church through medieval times. A building alongside the church houses the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) said to have been walked up by Jesus, which today are ascended by pilgrims on their knees. You can join them.
Cost and Hours: Church and Holy Stairs—free, cloister—€5, chapel at Holy Stairs—€3.50 (€8 combo-ticket covers both); church open daily 7:00-18:30, audioguide available; Holy Stairs open Mon-Sat 6:00-13:00 & 15:00-19:00, Sun 7:00-12:30 & 15:30-19:00, Oct-March closes daily at 18:30. The church is on Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano (east of the Colosseum and south of Termini train station, Metro: San Giovanni, or bus #85 or #87). Tel. 06-6988-6409, www.scalasantaroma.it.
Near Rome: Ostia Antica
For an exciting day trip, pop down to the Roman port of Ostia, which is similar to Pompeii but a lot closer and, in some ways, more interesting. Because Ostia was a working port town, it offers a more complete and gritty look at Roman life than wealthier Pompeii. Wandering around today, you’ll see warehouses, apartment flats, mansions, shopping arcades, and baths that served a once-thriving port of 60,000 people. With over 70 peaceful acres to explore and relatively few crowds, it’s a welcome break from the bustle of Rome. Buy a map, then explore the town, including the 2,000-year-old theater. Finish with its fine little museum.
Cost and Hours: €8 for the site and museum, €10 with special exhibits, April-Aug Tue-Sun 8:30-19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, Nov-mid-Feb 8:30-16:30, mid-Feb-March until 17:00, late March until 17:30, closed Mon year-round, last entry one hour before closing. The museum sometimes closes from 13:30 to 14:30 for lunch.
Getting There: Getting from Rome to Ostia Antica is a 45-minute combination Metro/train ride (costs only one Metro ticket each way): Take Metro line B to the Piramide stop, which is part of the Roma Porta San Paolo train station. Exiting the Metro, follow signs to Lido—go up the escalator, turn left, and go down the steps into the Roma-Lido train station. All trains depart for the Lido, leave every 15 minutes, and stop at Ostia Antica. Hop on the next train, ride for about 30 minutes (no need to stamp your Metro ticket again, but keep it handy in case it’s checked), and get off at Ostia Antica. Leaving the train station, walk over the blue skybridge, then head straight down Via della Stazione di Ostia Antica, continuing straight (through a small parking lot) to the large parking lot for the site (entrance on your left).
Information: A map of the site with suggested itineraries is available for €2 from the ticket office. Tel. 06-5635-0215. Helpful websites include www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it and www.ostia-antica.org.
Tours: Although you’ll see audioguide markers throughout the site, there may not be audioguides for rent. However, you can download my free Ostia Antica audio tour.
The best after-dark activity is to grab a gelato and stroll the medieval lanes that connect the romantic, floodlit squares and fountains. Head for Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Campo de’ Fiori, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps; these marvelous sights are linked together in my self-guided “Heart of Rome” walk (here). Another great evening activity is my “Dolce Vita Stroll” along Via del Corso (here).
A fun neighborhood to explore at night is Monti, which is more like a lively village. Hang out at the fountain on Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, which becomes the hottest scene around. Stop at the shop on the uphill side of the square, which sells cheap bottles of wine with plastic glasses, beer, fruit, and munchies. Or head to an actual bar, like Fafiuché (Via della Madonna dei Monti 28) or Enoteca Cavour 313 (Via Cavour 313).
Ostia Antica Theater
Get a copy of the entertainment guide Evento (free at TIs and many hotels) and check the listings of concerts, operas, dance, and films. For the most up-to-date events calendar, check these English-language websites: www.inromenow.com, www.wantedinrome.com, and www.rome.angloinfo.com.
The Teatro dell’Opera has an active schedule of opera and classical concerts. You’ll see locals in all their finery, so pull your fanciest outfit from your backpack (Via Firenze 72, tel. 06-4816-0255, www.operaroma.it).
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s Within the Walls offers musical events from orchestral concerts (usually Tue and Fri) to full operatic performances, usually on Saturdays (€20-30, performances at 20:30, tickets usually available on day of show, arrive 30-45 minutes early for a good seat, lasts 1.5-2.5 hours, corner of Via Nazionale at Via Napoli 58, tel. 06-482-6296, www.musicaemusicasrl.com and www.operaelirica.com). On Sunday evenings at 18:30, the church occasionally hosts hour-long candlelit Luminaria concerts (€10-20, buy tickets at the church on Sun, www.stpaulsrome.it).
The venerable Alexanderplatz hosts jazz performances most evenings (Sun-Thu concerts at 21:45, Fri-Sat at 22:30, closed in summer, Via Ostia 9, Metro: Ottaviano, tel. 06-3972-1867, www.alexanderplatzjazzclub.com).
Romans take great pleasure in dining well, treating it as a lengthy social occasion. Embrace this passion over a multicourse meal at an outdoor table, watching a parade of passersby while you sip wine with loved ones.
Rome’s fabled nightspots (most notably Piazza Navona, near the Pantheon, and Campo de’ Fiori) are lined with the outdoor tables of touristy restaurants with enticing menus and formal-vested waiters. The atmosphere is romantic, but you’ll likely be surrounded by tourists, killing the ambience and leaving you with a forgettable and overpriced meal. Restaurants in these areas are notorious for surprise charges, forgettable food, microwaved ravioli, and bad service. If you’re set on dining on a famous piazza, circle the square, observing both the food and the people eating it. Pizza is probably your best value and least risky bet. I enjoy the view by savoring just a drink or dessert on a famous square, but I dine with locals on nearby low-rent streets, where the proprietor needs to serve a good-value meal to stay in business.
I’m impressed by how small the price difference can be between a mediocre Roman restaurant and a fine one. You can pay about 20 percent more for double the quality. If I had $100 for three meals in Rome, I’d spend $50 for one and $25 each for the other two, rather than $33 on all three. For splurge meals, I’d consider Gabriello and Fortunato, in that order (details listed later).
Budget Eating: For a light budget meal, consider an aperitivo buffet offered by many bars. They serve complimentary, tasty appetizers to anyone buying a drink (at an inflated price), who then gets to eat “for free.” Drinks generally cost around €8-12, and the food’s out anywhere from about 18:00 to 21:00. Some places limit you to one plate; others allow refills.
Simple, fresh, seasonal ingredients dominate Roman cuisine. It’s robust, strongly flavored, and unpretentious—much like the people who’ve created it. Roman cooking didn’t come out of emperors’ or popes’ kitchens, but from the cucina povera—the home cooking of the common people. That could explain why Romans have a fondness for meats known as the quinto quarto (“fifth quarter”), such as tripe (trippa), tail, brain, and pigs’ feet.
Appetizers (Antipasti): Popular choices are prosciutto e melone (thin slices of ham wrapped around cantaloupe), bruschetta (toasted bread topped with chopped tomatoes), and antipasto misto (a plate of marinated or grilled vegetables, cheeses, cured meats, or seafood). Fritti are fried snacks that have been either battered or breaded, such as stuffed olives, potato croquettes, rice balls, and stuffed squash blossoms.
First Courses (Primi): A pasta dish born in Rome is spaghetti alla carbonara, with eggs, pancetta (Italian bacon), cheese, and pepper. Another traditional pasta is bucatini all’amatriciana, with tomato sauce, onions, pancetta, and cheese. Gnocchi alla romana are small, flattened dumplings baked with butter and cheese. If you like spaghetti with clams, try spaghetti alle vongole veraci.
Second Courses (Secondi): A very Roman dish is saltimbocca alla romana (thinly sliced, lightly fried veal layered with prosciutto). Filetti di baccalà is fried salt cod, like fish-and-chips minus the chips. Other choices are baby lamb chops (abbacchio alla scottadito), stewed baby eels (anguillette in umid), and braised oxtails (coda alla vaccinara). Trippa alla romana is braised tripe with onions and carrots.
Desserts (Dolci): Dessert can be a seasonal fruit, such as strawberries, peaches, or even cheese. Bignè are cream puff-like pastries filled with zabaione (egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine). Tartufo is a rich dark-chocolate gelato ball with a cherry inside, sometimes served con panna (with whipped cream). When you’re out and about on a hot day, try a grattachecca (flavored, sweetened shaved ice) from a vendor’s stand.
Local Wines (Vini): Frascati, probably the best-known wine of the region, is an inexpensive dry white. Others are Castelli Romani, Marino, Colli Albani, and Velletri. Torre Ercolana is a medium-bodied red; the merlot is the region’s best-quality red, aged at least five years.
For the cheapest meal, assemble a picnic and dine with Rome as your backdrop. Buy ingredients for your picnic at one of Rome’s open-air produce markets (mornings only), an alimentari (corner grocery store), a rosticcerie (cheap food to go), or a supermercato, such as Conad, Despar, or Co-op. You’ll find handy late-night supermarkets near the Pantheon (on Via Giustiniani), Spanish Steps (Via Vittoria), Trevi Fountain (Via del Bufalo), and Campo de’ Fiori (Via di Monte della Farina). Rome discourages people from picnicking or drinking at historic monuments (such as on the Spanish Steps) in the old center. Violators can be fined, though it rarely happens. You’ll be okay if you eat with a view rather than on the view.
I’ve listed restaurants in this central area based on which landmark they’re closest to: Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, or the Pantheon.
Near Piazza Navona
The joints lining venerable Piazza Navona are classic tourist eateries. For better values, head several blocks west of the square. These squares and streets, such as Piazza del Fico and Via del Corallo, host a thriving jungle of inviting eateries.
Ristorante del Fico is a sprawling, rustic-chic place—a huge Italian saloon filled with young locals. It has both a fun energy and a traditional Italian menu (€7 pizzas, €13-15 secondi, nightly from 19:30, 3 blocks west of Piazza Navona at Via della Pace 34, tel. 06-688-91373). Its Bar del Fico around the corner on Piazza del Fico has a similar local vibe—plus an antipasto buffet (buffet free with any drink, 19:00-21:00, www.bardelfico.com).
Ristorante Pizzeria “da Francesco,” bustling and authentic, has a 50-year-old tradition, great indoor seating, and a few tables on the quiet street (€9-11 pizzas and pastas, €13-20 secondi, daily 12:00-15:30 & 19:00-24:00, next to Bar del Fico at Piazza del Fico 29, tel. 06-686-4009).
Vivi Bistrot, known as the Museum of Rome café, is a good value at the south end of Piazza Navona, with two delightful window tables overlooking the square. Enjoy light meals any time or a €10 drink and antipasto buffet deal nightly after 19:00 (closed Mon, Piazza Navona 2, tel. 06-683-3779).
L’Insalata Ricca, specializing in healthy €6-9 salads alongside pastas and main courses, is handy and central (daily 12:00-24:00). They have a branch on Piazza Pasquino (tel. 06-6830-7881) and a more spacious location a few blocks away, on a bigger square next to busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele (between Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori at Largo dei Chiavari 85, tel. 06-6880-3656).
Near the Trevi Fountain
The streets surrounding the Trevi Fountain are littered with mediocre restaurants catering to tourists—try one of these instead.
Hostaria Romana is a busy bistro with a hustling, fun-loving gang of waiters. The upstairs is a glassed-in terrace, while the cellar has noisy walls graffitied by happy eaters. Try the traditional saltimbocca alla romana (veal) or the pasta dish, bucatini all’amatriciana (€11 pastas, €15 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:30-15:00 & 19:15-23:00, closed Sun and Aug, reservations smart, a block past the entrance to the big tunnel near the Trevi Fountain, corner of Via Rasella and Via del Boccaccio, tel. 06-474-5284, www.hostariaromana.it).
L’Antica Birreria Peroni serves hearty mugs of Peroni beer and lots of beerhall food and Italian classics (€7 pastas, €4-12 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-24:00, closed Sun, midway between Trevi Fountain and Capitoline Hill, a block off Via del Corso at Via di San Marcello 19, tel. 06-679-5310).
Close to the Pantheon
Eating on the square facing the Pantheon is a temptation worth considering, but a block or two away, you’ll get fewer views and better value.
Ristorante da Fortunato is an Italian classic, with fresh flowers on the tables and white-coated waiters serving good meat and fish to dignitaries and tourists with good taste. On the walls, everyone from Muammar Gaddafi and Prince Charles to Bill Clinton are pictured with Signore Fortunato, who started this restaurant in 1975. It’s a reliable and surprisingly reasonable choice—reserve ahead (plan on €50 per person, daily 12:30-23:30, a block in front of the Pantheon at Via del Pantheon 55, tel. 06-679-2788, www.ristorantefortunato.it).
Enoteca Corsi is a wine shop that grew into a thriving lunch spot, serving traditional cuisine to an appreciative crowd of office workers. Kids do their homework at the family table in back. Enjoy pastas, main dishes, and fine wine at a third of the price of most restaurants—buy from their shop and pay a corking fee (€9 pastas, €13 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-15:30, closed Sun, no reservations, a block toward the Pantheon from Gesù Church at Via del Gesù 87, tel. 06-679-0821).
Ristorante la Campana is an authentic slice of old Rome, claiming a history dating to 1518. It still serves appreciative locals typical Roman dishes and daily specials, plus a good self-service antipasti buffet (€10-12 pastas, €11-18 secondi, Tue-Sun 12:30-15:00 & 19:30-23:00, closed Mon, inside seating only, reserve for dinner, just off Via della Scrofa and Piazza Nicosia at Vicolo della Campana 18, tel. 06-687-5273, www.ristorantelacampana.com).
Osteria delle Coppelle serves traditional dishes to a local crowd. It has a rustic interior, jumbled exterior seating, and a fun selection of €3 cicchetti (€7 pizza, €9 pastas, €12 secondi, 12:30-16:00 & 19:00-late, Piazza delle Coppelle 54, tel. 06-4550-2826).
Miscellanea is run by much-loved Mikki, who’s on a mission to keep foreign students well-fed with inexpensive, hearty food (€4 sandwiches, €7 salads, €7-8 pastas, €10-15 secondi, daily 11:00-24:00, indoor/outdoor seating, facing the rear of the Pantheon at Via della Palombella 34, tel. 06-6813-5318).
Near the Spanish Steps and Ara Pacis
These restaurants are located near the route of the “Dolce Vita Stroll” (see map on here).
Ristorante il Gabriello is inviting and small—modern under medieval arches—serving creative Roman cuisine using farm-fresh, organic products. Trust your waiter and say, “Bring it on.” The atmosphere is fun and convivial (€11-18 pastas, €14-20 secondi, dinner only, Mon-Sat 19:00-23:00, closed Sun, reservations smart, air-con, dress respectfully—no shorts, 3 blocks from Spanish Steps at Via Vittoria 51, tel. 06-6994-0810, www.ilgabriello.it).
Antica Enoteca is an upbeat, atmospheric 200-plus-year-old enoteca. For a light lunch, enjoy a glass of their best wine at the bar (€6-10, listed on a big blackboard) and split a €14 antipasti plate of veggies, salumi, and cheese (€6-12 salads, €10-14 pastas, €12-18 secondi, daily 12:00-24:00, reserve for outdoor seating, Via della Croce 76, tel. 06-679-0896).
Near the Colosseum and Forum
Within a block of the Colosseum and Forum, eateries cater to weary sightseers, offering neither memorable food nor good value. To get your money’s worth, head to the Monti neighborhood. From the Forum, head up Via Cavour and then left on Via dei Serpenti; the action centers on Piazza della Madonna dei Monti and nearby lanes.
L’Asino d’Oro (“The Golden Donkey”), a top choice for foodies, serves Umbrian cuisine with a creative twist—mingling savory and sweet. The modern space is filled with savvy diners (€11-13 pastas, €14-17 main dishes, Tue-Sat 19:30-23:00, closed Sun-Mon, reserve ahead, Via del Boschetto 73, tel. 06-4891-3832).
La Cicala e La Formica has its own nook on Via Leonina, with a terrace good for people-watching and a lively, homey interior. Weekday lunch specials are good values (€10 pastas, €10 secondi, daily 12:00-15:30 & 19:00-23:00, Via Leonina 17, tel. 06-481-7490).
Taverna dei Fori Imperiali serves typical Roman cuisine in a snug interior that bustles with energy (€9 antipasti, €9-12 pastas, €12-16 secondi, Wed-Mon 12:30-15:00 & 19:30-23:00, closed Tue, reserve for dinner, Via della Madonna dei Monti 9, tel. 06-679-8643).
Alle Carrette Pizzeria, simple and rustic, serves the best pizza in Monti (€8 pizzas, daily 19:00-24:00, Vicolo delle Carrette 14, across from Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, tel. 06-679-2770).
Antico Forno ai Serpenti (“Old Bakery on Serpenti Street”) feels anything but old. This hip bakery serves good bread and pastries to enjoy at one of their few tables or to go. At noon they put out a small buffet of pastas and vegetables for €10, which includes a drink (daily 8:00-20:00, Via dei Serpenti 122, tel. 06-4542-7920).
Terre e Domus della Provincia di Roma, a modern eatery on the otherwise unwelcoming Piazza Venezia, has a peaceful dining room and a menu that shows off local ingredients and cuisine (€12 pastas, €12-15 secondi, daily 12:00-23:30, Foro Traiano 82, immediately below Trajan’s Column, tel. 06-6994-0273).
Near Vatican City
Eateries near the Vatican cater to exhausted tourists. Avoid the restaurant pushers handing out fliers: Their venues have bad food and expensive menu tricks. Tide yourself over at any of these eateries and save your splurges for elsewhere.
These listings are all fast and cheap, a stone’s throw from the Vatican wall, near Piazza Risorgimento: Hostaria dei Bastioni has noisy streetside seating and a quiet interior (€8-10 pastas, €8-13 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-15:30 & 18:30-23:00, closed Sun, at corner of Vatican wall at Via Leone IV 29, tel. 06-3972-3034); L’Insalata Ricca serves hearty salads and pastas (€7-12 meals, daily 12:00-23:30, across from Vatican walls at Piazza Risorgimento 5, tel. 06-3973-0387); and Duecento Gradi is a good bet for fresh and creative €5-8 sandwiches (daily 11:00-24:00, Piazza Risorgimento 3, tel. 06-3975-4239).
Ristorante La Rustichella serves tasty wood-fired pizzas (€6-9) and the usual pastas (€7-10) in addition to an excellent antipasti buffet (€8 for a single plate) in a no-frills setting (daily 12:00-15:00 & 19:00-24:00, closed for lunch Mon, opposite church at end of Via Candia, Via Angelo Emo 1, tel. 06-3972-0649). Consider the fun and fruity Gelateria Millennium next door.
The pedestrians-only Borgo Pio—a block from Piazza San Pietro near St. Peter’s Basilica—has restaurants worth a look. Consider Tre Pupazzi (Mon-Sat 12:00-15:00 & 19:00-23:00, closed Sun, at the corner of Via Tre Pupazzi and Borgo Pio) or Vecchio Borgo, across the street (Mon-Sat 9:00-21:00, closed Sun, Borgo Pio 27a).
Choosing the right neighborhood in Rome is as important as choosing the right hotel. All of my recommended accommodations are in safe, pleasant areas convenient to sightseeing.
Near Termini Train Station
The Termini train station neighborhood is handy for public transit and services. While not as charming as other areas of Rome, the hotels near Termini train station are less expensive. The city’s two main Metro lines intersect at the station, and most buses leave from here. Most of these hotels are a 10-minute walk west of the station, on or near Via Firenze, a safe, handy, central, and relatively quiet street. The Defense Ministry is nearby, so you’ve got heavily armed guards watching over you all night.
$$$ Residenza Cellini feels like the guest wing of a gorgeous Neoclassical palace, offering 11 rooms, four-star comforts and service, and a small, breezy terrace (Db-€195, larger Db-€215, extra bed-€25, air-con, elevator, Via Modena 5, third floor, tel. 06-4782-5204, www.residenzacellini.it, email@example.com).
$$$ Hotel Modigliani, a delightful 23-room place, is run in a clean, bright, minimalist style that its artist namesake would appreciate. It has a plush lounge and a garden (Db-€202, air-con, elevator; northwest of Via Firenze—from Tritone Fountain on Piazza Barberini, go 2 blocks up Via della Purificazione to #42; tel. 06-4281-5226, www.hotelmodigliani.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ IQ Hotel, facing the Opera House, lacks charm, but compensates with modern amenities. Its 88 rooms are fresh and spacious, the roof garden has foosball and a play area, and vending machines dispense bottles of wine (Db-€100-230, varies with room size and season—likely €200 in peak season, extra bed-€40, breakfast-€10, air-con, elevator, cheap self-service laundry, gym, Via Firenze 8, tel. 06-488-0465, www.iqhotelroma.it, email@example.com).
Abbreviations: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom
Price Rankings for Double Rooms: $$$ Most rooms €180 or more, $$ €125-180, $ €125 or less
Notes: Many Italian cities levy a hotel tax of €1.50-5 per person, per night (often collected in cash; usually not included in the rates I’ve quoted). Room prices change; verify rates online or by email. For the best prices, book directly with the hotel.
$$ Hotel Raffaello offers 41 rooms in a grand 19th-century building on the edge of the Monti district. This formal hotel comes with a courteous staff and a breakfast room fit for aristocrats (Sb-€100, Db-€180, Tb-€228, family rooms, ask about Rick Steves rate, air-con, elevator, Via Urbana 3, Metro: Cavour, tel. 06-488-4342, www.hotelraffaello.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Oceania is a peaceful slice of air-conditioned heaven. This comfortable 24-room manor house has tastefully decorated rooms and lots of thoughtful extra touches (Sb-€135, Db-€168, Tb-€198, Qb-€220, deep discounts in summer and winter, family suite, elevator, videos in TV lounge, Via Firenze 38, third floor, tel. 06-482-4696, www.hoteloceania.it, email@example.com).
$$ Hotel Aberdeen combines quality and friendliness, with 37 cozy rooms (Sb-€102, Db-€170, Tb-€180, Qb-€200, air-con, Via Firenze 48, tel. 06-482-3920, www.hotelaberdeen.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Opera Roma boasts 15 spacious, modern, and well-appointed rooms (Db-€150, Tb-€165, 5 percent discount if you pay cash, air-con, elevator, Via Firenze 11, tel. 06-487-1787, www.hoteloperaroma.com, email@example.com, Reza, Litu, and Federica).
$$ Hotel Selene Roma spreads its 40 stylish rooms out on a few floors of an elegant palazzo (Db-€160, Tb-€190, email directly to get the Rick Steves rate, plus an additional discount if you pay cash, air-con, elevator, family rooms, Via del Viminale 8, tel. 06-474-4781, www.hotelseleneroma.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Sonya offers 40 small, well-equipped if small rooms, a hearty breakfast, and decent prices (Sb-€90, Db-€150, Tb-€165, Qb-€185, Quint/b-€200, air-con, elevator, faces the Opera House at Via Viminale 58, Metro: Repubblica or Termini, tel. 06-481-9911, www.hotelsonya.it, email@example.com, Francesca and Ivan).
$$ Hotel Italia Roma is located safely on a quiet street next to the Ministry of the Interior, with 35 modest but comfortable rooms. The four “residenza” rooms upstairs on the third floor are newer and about €10 more expensive. They also have eight similar annex rooms across the street for the same price as the main hotel (Sb-€90, Db-€130, Tb-€160, Qb-€190, book directly via email for the best rates, air-con, elevator, Via Venezia 18, just off Via Nazionale, tel. 06-482-8355, www.hotelitaliaroma.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$ Hotel Nardizzi Americana has a small rooftop terrace and 40 standard rooms spread throughout the building (Sb-€95, Db-€125, Tb-€155, Qb-€175; email to get the best rates, additional discount if you pay cash, air-con, tiny elevator, reception on fourth floor, Via Firenze 38, tel. 06-488-0035, www.hotelnardizzi.it, email@example.com; friendly Stefano, Fabrizio, Mario, and Giancarlo).
Near Ancient Rome
Stretching from the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia, this area is central. Sightseers are a short walk from the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Trajan’s Column—and all of these listings (except Hotel Lancelot) are close to or in the charming Monti district, with good restaurants and shopping. While buses are your best bet here, I list a Metro stop if it’s convenient.
$$$ Hotel Lancelot is a 60-room hotel with the ambience of a comfortable B&B. Located in a pleasant, residential neighborhood, it’s quiet and safe, with a shady courtyard, restaurant, bar, and communal sixth-floor terrace (Sb-€128, Db-€196, Tb-€226, Qb-€266, €20 extra for Colosseum view, air-con, elevator, wheelchair-accessible, parking-€10/day, 10-minute walk behind Colosseum near San Clemente Church at Via Capo d’Africa 47, tel. 06-7045-0615, www.lancelothotel.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Paba is a cozy throwback, with seven fresh, chocolate-box-tidy rooms. It’s just two blocks from the Forum. Although it overlooks busy Via Cavour, it’s quiet enough (Db-€135, extra bed-€40, big beds, breakfast served in room, air-con, elevator, Via Cavour 266, second floor, Metro: Cavour, tel. 06-4782-4902, www.hotelpaba.com, email@example.com).
$ Hotel Rosetta, a homey and family-run pensione, rents 15 simple rooms. There’s no lounge and no breakfast, but its great location makes it a fine budget option (Sb-€75, Db-€110, Tb-€130, air-con, up one flight of stairs, Via Cavour 295, tel. 06-4782-3069, www.rosettahotel.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$ Casa Il Rosario is a tranquil, well-run Dominican convent renting 40 rooms with monastic simplicity in a steep but pleasant corner of the Monti neighborhood (S-€42, Sb-€56, Db-€94, Tb-€120, single beds only but can be pushed together, reserve several months in advance, some rooms with air-con and others with fans, elevator, small garden and rooftop terrace, 23:00 curfew, near bottom of Via Nazionale at Via Sant’Agata dei Goti 10, bus #40 or #170 from Termini, tel. 06-679-2346, www.casailrosarioroma.it, email@example.com).
The most romantic ambience is in neighborhoods near the Pantheon. Winding, narrow lanes are filled with foot traffic and lined with boutique shops and tiny trattorias... Rome at its best. Buses and taxis are the only practical way to connect with other destinations. The atmosphere doesn’t come cheap, but this is where you want to be—especially at night.
This neighborhood has two main transportation hubs: Piazza delle Cinque Lune (just north of Piazza Navona) has a TI, a taxi stand, and (just around the corner) handy buses #81 and #87; Largo Argentina has buses to almost everywhere and a taxi stand.
Near Campo de’ Fiori
You’ll pay a premium (and endure a little extra night noise), but these places are set deep in the tangled back streets near idyllic Campo de’ Fiori.
$$$ Casa di Santa Brigida overlooks the elegant Piazza Farnese. With soft-spoken sisters gliding down polished hallways and pearly gates instead of doors, this lavish 20-room convent will make you feel you’ve entered paradise. If you don’t need a double bed, it’s worth the splurge just for its ample public spaces and lovely roof terrace (Sb-€120, twin Db-€200, book well in advance, air-con, elevator, tasty €25 dinners, roof garden, plush library, Monserrato 54, tel. 06-6889-2596, www.brigidine.org, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Relais Teatro Argentina, a six-room gem, is steeped in tasteful old-Rome elegance, but has all the modern comforts (Db-€220, Tb-€265, discounts if you pay cash and stay 3 nights or more, air-con, no elevator, 3 flights of stairs, Via del Sudario 35, tel. 06-9893-1617, mobile 331-198-4708, www.relaisteatroargentina.com, email@example.com, Carlotta).
$$ Hotel Smeraldo, with 50 rooms run by a no-nonsense staff, is clean and a reasonable deal in a good location (Sb-€110, Db-€140, Tb-€170, air-con, elevator, flowery roof terrace, midway between Campo de’ Fiori and Largo Argentina at Vicolo dei Chiodaroli 9, tel. 06-687-5929, www.smeraldoroma.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). Their Dipendenza Smeraldo, 10 yards around the corner at Via dei Chiavari 32, has 16 similar rooms (same price, free breakfast, same reception and contact info).
Close to the Pantheon
These places are buried in the pedestrian-friendly heart of ancient Rome, about a five-minute walk from the Pantheon. You’ll pay more here—but the convenient location will save you time.
$$$ Albergo Santa Chiara is big and solid, with marbled elegance and 99 quiet, spacious rooms (Sb-€138, Db-€215, Tb-€260, elevator, air-con, behind Pantheon at Via di Santa Chiara 21, tel. 06-687-2979, www.albergosantachiara.com, email@example.com).
$$$ Hotel Portoghesi is a classic hotel with 27 peaceful, colorful rooms and a delightful roof terrace (Sb-€160, Db-€200, Tb-€260, Qb suite-€300, €30 extra for bigger deluxe room, breakfast on roof, air-con, elevator, Via dei Portoghesi 1, tel. 06-686-4231, www.hotelportoghesiroma.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Hotel Due Torri, on a tiny quiet street, feels professional yet homey, with generous public spaces and 26 rooms—the ones on upper floors are smaller but have views (Sb-€125, Db-€200, family apartment-€240 for 3 and €265 for 4, air-con, elevator, a block off Via della Scrofa at Vicolo del Leonetto 23, tel. 06-6880-6956, www.hotelduetorriroma.com, email@example.com).
Getting Around Rome
The cheap, efficient public transportation system consists primarily of buses, a few trams, and two Metro lines. Rome Walks has produced an orientation video to Rome’s transportation system; find it on YouTube by searching for “Understanding Rome’s Public Transport.” For information, visit www.atac.roma.it, which has a useful route planner in English, or call 06-57003. If you have a smartphone and an international data plan, consider downloading the free app “Roma Bus” by Movenda. The ATAC mobile website has similar info (www.muovi.roma.it).
All public transportation uses the same ticket (€1.50), valid for one Metro ride—including transfers underground—plus unlimited city buses and trams during a 100-minute period. Passes good on buses and the Metro are sold in increments of 24 hours (€7), 48 hours (€12.50), 72 hours (€18), one week (€24, about the cost of three taxi rides), and one month (€35, plus €3 for the rechargeable card, valid for a calendar month).
Metro stations rarely have human ticket sellers and the machines are unreliable (it helps to insert your smallest coin first). You can purchase tickets and passes at some newsstands, tobacco shops (tabacchi, marked by a black-and-white T sign), and major Metro stations and bus stops—but not on board.
Validate your ticket (arrow-side first) at the Metro turnstile or in the machine when you board the bus. It’ll return with your expiration time printed on it. At a Metro turnstile, use a transit pass or Roma Pass just like a ticket; on buses and trams, validate your pass only the first time you use it.
Rick’s Tip: Stock up on Metro tickets early (or buy a Roma Pass) to avoid wasting time searching for an open tobacco shop that sells tickets.
The Roman subway system (“Metro”) is simple, with two clean, cheap, fast lines—A and B—that intersect at Termini Station. The Metro runs from 5:30 to 23:30 (Fri-Sat until 1:30 in the morning). The C line serves Rome’s suburbs and is of little use to tourists.
Rick’s Tip: Beware of pickpockets when boarding, while on board, and when leaving buses and subways. To experience less crowding and commotion—and less risk—wait for the end cars of a subway rather than boarding the middle cars.
The following stops are helpful:
Termini (intersection of lines A and B): Termini Station, shuttle train to airport, National Museum of Rome, and recommended hotels
Repubblica (line A): Via Nazionale and recommended hotels
Barberini (line A): Capuchin Crypt and Trevi Fountain
Spagna (line A): Spanish Steps, classy shopping area, and Borghese Gallery
Flaminio (line A): Piazza del Popolo—the start of my “Dolce Vita Stroll” down Via del Corso, and easy buses to Borghese Gallery
Ottaviano (line A): St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museums, and recommended hotels
Tiburtina (line B): Tiburtina train and bus station (direction: Rebibbia; trains going in the direction of Conca d’Oro/Jonio do not stop at Tiburtina)
Colosseo (line B): Colosseum, Roman Forum, and recommended hotels
San Giovanni (line B): Church of San Giovanni in Laterano
Piramide (line B): Trains to Ostia Antica
The Metro is handy, but it won’t get you everywhere—take the bus (or tram). Bus routes are clearly listed at the stops. TIs usually don’t have bus maps, but with some knowledge of major stops, you won’t necessarily need one.
Regular bus lines start running about 5:30, and during the day run every 10-15 minutes or so. After 23:30 (and sometimes earlier) and on Sundays, buses are less frequent. Night buses are marked with an N and an owl symbol on the bus-stop signs. The exact frequency of various bus routes is difficult to predict (and not printed at bus stops). At major stops, an electronic board shows the number of minutes until the next buses arrive.
These are the major bus routes:
Bus #64: Links Termini Station with the Vatican, stopping at Piazza della Repubblica (sights), Via Nazionale (recommended hotels), Piazza Venezia (near Forum), Largo Argentina (near Pantheon and Campo de’ Fiori), St. Peter’s Basilica (get off just past the tunnel), and San Pietro Station.
Bus #40: This express bus mostly follows the #64 route but has fewer stops and fewer crowds. It ends near Castel Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Tomb, a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s) on the Vatican side of the river.
Rick’s Tip: Buses #64 and #40 are popular with tourists and pickpockets. If one bus is packed, there’s likely a second one on its tail with fewer crowds and thieves.
Other useful routes include:
Bus #16: Termini Station, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Giovanni in Laterano.
Bus #49: Piazza Cavour/Castel Sant’Angelo, Piazza Risorgimento (Vatican), and Vatican Museums.
Bus #62: Largo Argentina to near St. Peter’s Square and Castel Sant’Angelo.
Bus #81: San Giovanni in Laterano, Largo Argentina, and Piazza Risorgimento (Vatican).
Buses #85 and #87: Piazza Navona (#87 only), Pantheon, Via del Corso (#85 only), Piazza Venezia, Forum, Colosseum, San Clemente, and San Giovanni in Laterano.
Bus #492: Travels east-west across the city, connecting Tiburtina (train and bus stations), Largo Santa Susanna (near Piazza della Repubblica), Piazza Barberini, Piazza Venezia, Largo Argentina (near Pantheon and Campo de’ Fiori), Piazza Cavour (Castel Sant’Angelo), and Piazza Risorgimento (St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican).
Bus #714: Termini Station, Santa Maria Maggiore, and San Giovanni in Laterano.
Tram #3: Zips from the Colosseum to San Giovanni in Laterano in one direction, and to the Piramide Metro stop (with trains to Ostia Antica) in the other.
Elettrico Minibuses: Two elettrico minibuses wind through the narrow streets of old neighborhoods. Elettrico #116 runs through the medieval core of Rome: Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II (near Castel Sant’Angelo, on the Vatican side of Rome) to Campo de’ Fiori, near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, Piazza Barberini, and the southern edge of the scenic Villa Borghese Gardens. Elettrico #117 connects San Giovanni in Laterano, Colosseo, Via dei Serpenti, Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Spagna, and Piazza del Popolo—and vice versa. Where Via del Corso hits Piazza del Popolo, a #117 is usually parked and ready to go.
Taxis in Rome are reasonable and useful for efficient sightseeing. Taxis start at €3, then charge about €1.50 per kilometer (surcharges: €1.50 on Sun, €3.50 for nighttime hours of 22:00-7:00, one regular suitcase or bag rides free, tip by rounding up—€1 or so). Sample fares: Termini area to Vatican-€11; Termini area to Colosseum-€7; Termini area to the Borghese Gallery-€8 (or look up your route at www.worldtaximeter.com). Three or four companions with more money than time should taxi almost everywhere.
You can wave a taxi down, but an available one (with the sign on top illuminated) can be tough to find, especially at night. Find the nearest taxi stand (many are marked on this book’s maps) or ask a passerby or a clerk in a shop, “Dov’è una fermata dei taxi?” (doh-VEH OO-nah fehr-MAH-tah DEH-ee TAHK-see). Easiest of all, have your hotelier or restaurateur call a taxi for you. The meter starts when the call is received. To call a cab on your own, dial 06-3570, 06-4994, or 06-6645, or use the official city taxi line, 06-0609; they’ll ask for an Italian phone number (give them your mobile number or your hotel’s).
Beware of corrupt taxis, including rip-off “express taxis” at the train station or airport. Only use official Rome taxis. They’re white, with a taxi sign on the roof and a maroon logo on the door that reads Roma Capitale. When you get in, make sure the meter (tassametro) is turned on. If the meter isn’t on, get out and hail another cab. Check that the meter is reset to the basic drop charge (should be around €3, or around €5 if you phoned for the taxi). Some meters show both the fare and the time elapsed during the ride, and some tourists—mistaking the time for the fare—pay more than the fair meter rate. Also, keep an eye on the fare on the meter as you near your destination; some cabbies turn the meter off instantly when they stop and tell you a higher price.
By law, every cab must display a multilingual official price chart—usually on the back of the seat in front of you. If the fare doesn’t seem right, point to the chart and ask the cabbie to explain it.
Rick’s Tip: A common cabbie scam is to take your €20 note, drop it, and pick up a €5 note (similar color), claiming that’s what you gave him. Pay in small bills; if you only have a large bill, show it to the cabbie as you state its face value.
Arriving and Departing
Termini Train Station
Termini, Rome’s main train station, is a buffet of tourist services. Along track 24, about 100 yards down, you’ll find the TI (daily 8:00-19:30) and car rental desks. The baggage storage (deposito bagagli) is downstairs, hiding down the long corridor past the bathrooms, under track 24 and the TI. A snack bar and a good self-service cafeteria are perched above the ticket windows, accessible from the side closest to track 24 (daily 11:00-22:30). Elsewhere in the station are ATMs and late-hours banks.
Termini is a major transit hub. Local Metro lines A and B intersect downstairs at Termini Metro station. Buses leave from the square directly in front of the station. Hop-on, hop-off buses and those going to the airport leave from the north side of the station. The Leonardo Express train to Fiumicino Airport runs from track 23 or 24. Taxis queue in front and outside exits on both the north and south sides; if there’s a long taxi line in front, try a side exit instead.
Rick’s Tip: Shady characters linger around the station, especially near ticket machines. Some offer help for a “tip”; others have official-looking business cards. Avoid anybody selling anything unless they’re in a legitimate shop at the station. There are no official porters; carry your own bags.
The banks of Trenitalia’s user-friendly ticket machines (marked Biglietto Veloce/Fast Ticket) are handy, but cover Italian destinations only. They take euros and credit cards, display schedules, issue tickets, and even make reservations for rail pass holders (found under the “Global Pass” ticket type).
TRAIN CONNECTIONS FROM TERMINI STATION
The customer service and ticket windows in the station’s main hall (out in the big atrium, beyond the head of the tracks) can be jammed with travelers—take a number and wait. Handy red info kiosks are located near the head of the tracks. Ticket machines can also be helpful for checking schedules. Most trains departing from Termini are operated by Italy’s state rail company, Trenitalia, though a few Italo trains also use the station (for more on the privately run Italo, see here and www.italotreno.it). Unless otherwise specified, the following connections are for Trenitalia.
Rick’s Tip: Minimize your time in a train station—if you’re not near a station, it’s quicker to get tickets and train info from travel agencies or online.
From Rome by Train to: Venice (roughly hourly, 3.5 hours, overnight possible), Florence (2-3/hour, 1.5 hours, some stop at Orvieto en route), Siena (1-2/hour, 1 change, 3-4 hours), Orvieto (roughly hourly, 1-1.5 hours), Assisi (nearly hourly, 2-3.5 hours, 5 direct, most others change in Foligno), Pisa (2/hour, 3-4 hours, many change in Florence), Milan (2-3/hour, 3-3.5 hours), Milan’s Malpensa Airport (hourly, 5 hours, change in Milan), Naples (Trenitalia: 2-4/hour, 1 hour on Frecciarossa, otherwise 2 hours; Italo: 8/day, 1 hour).
Tiburtina Train and Bus Station
The smaller Tiburtina station (which also has a bus station) is located in the city’s northeast corner. Tiburtina has high-speed rail, including some Frecce trains and the private Italo service. A separate “Casa Italo” area has dedicated service counters, red ticket machines, and a small waiting area (in the upper part of the station, across from track 23). The station also has slower trains and some night trains (from Milan and Venice).
Tiburtina is known as a hub for bus service all across Italy (including a night bus to Fiumicino Airport). Buses depart from the piazza in front of the station. Ticket offices are located in the piazza and around the corner on Circonvallazione Nomentana (just beyond the elevated freeway).
Tiburtina is on Metro line B, with easy connections to Termini (a straight shot, four stops away) and the entire Metro system (when going to Tiburtina, Metro line B splits—you want a train signed Rebibbia). Or take bus #492 from Tiburtina to various city-center stops (such as Piazza Barberini, Piazza Venezia, and Piazza Navona) and the Vatican neighborhood (as you emerge from the station, the bus stop is to the left).
TRAIN AND BUS CONNECTIONS FROM TRIBUTINA STATION
From Rome by Train to: Florence (2-4/hour, 1.5 hours), Milan (hourly, 3-3.5 hours, overnight possible), Venice (almost hourly, 3.5 hours, overnight possible), Assisi (nearly hourly, 2-3.5 hours, 5 direct, most others change in Foligno), Naples (Trenitalia: almost hourly, 1.5 hours; Italo: at least hourly, 1-1.5 hours).
From Rome by Bus to: Assisi (2/day, 3 hours—the train makes more sense), Siena (9/day, 3 hours), Sorrento (1-2/day, 4 hours; this is a cheap and easy way to go straight to Sorrento, buy tickets at Ticket Bus at Tiburtina, other travel agencies, or on board for a €3 surcharge; tel. 080-579-0111).
Rome has two airports: Fiumicino and the smaller Ciampino.
Rome’s major airport, Fiumicino is manageable (a.k.a. Leonardo da Vinci, airport code: FCO, www.adr.it). Terminals T1, T2, and T3 are all under one roof—walkable end to end in 20 minutes. T5 is a separate building requiring a short shuttle trip. (T4 is still being built.) The T1-2-3 complex has a TI (daily 8:00-19:30, in T3), ATMs, banks, luggage storage, shops, and bars. For airport info, call 06-65951. To inquire about flights, call 06-6595-3640.
To get from the airport to downtown, take the direct Leonardo Express train to Termini train station (30 minutes for €14). Trains run twice hourly in both directions from roughly 6:00 to 23:00. From the airport’s arrival gate, follow signs to the train icon or Stazione/Railway Station. Buy your ticket from a machine, the Biglietteria office, or a newsstand near the platform; then validate it in a green or yellow machine near the track. Board the train going to the central “Roma Termini” station, not “Roma Orte” or others.
Trains from Termini train station to the airport depart at about :05 and :35 past each hour, usually from track 23 or 24. Check the departure boards for “Fiumicino Aeroporto” and confirm with an official on the platform that the train is indeed going to the airport (€14, buy ticket from any tobacco shop or a newsstand in the station, or at the self-service machines, Termini-Fiumicino trains run 5:35-22:35). Direct flights to the US usually depart from T5.
Allow lots of time going to and from the airport; there’s a fair amount of transportation involved. Flying to the US involves an extra level of security—plan on getting to the airport even earlier than normal (2.5 hours ahead of your flight).
Buses, including Terravision (www.terravision.eu), SIT (www.sitbusshuttle.com), and Atral (www.atral-lazio.com), connect Fiumicino and Termini train station, departing roughly every 40 minutes. While cheaper than the train (about €5 one-way), buses take twice as long (about an hour). The Terravision bus also stops near the Vatican. At the airport, the companies’ desks line up in T3, near the entrance to the train station.
Airport Shuttle vans can be economical for one or two people. It’s cheaper to go from the airport to downtown (around €10-15). To get from your hotel to the airport, consider Rome Airport Shuttle (€25/1 person, extra people-€6 each, by reservation only, tel. 06-4201-4507, www.airportshuttle.it).
Your hotelier can arrange a taxi or private car service to the airport at any hour. A taxi between Fiumicino and downtown Rome takes 45 minutes in normal traffic and costs €48. (Add a tip for good service.) Cabbies not based in Rome or Fiumicino are allowed to charge €70. It’s best to use a white Rome city cab (with a roof-top taxi sign and a maroon Roma Capitale logo on the door); the airport fare should be posted on the door. Confirm the price before you get in. If your Roman cabbie tries to overcharge you, state the correct price and say, “È la legge” (ay lah LEJ-jay; which means, “It’s the law”), and they should back off.
Rome’s smaller airport (tel. 06-6595-9515) handles charter flights and some budget airlines (including most Ryanair flights).
Various bus companies—including Cotral, Terravision, and SIT—will take you to Rome’s Termini train station (about €5 and 2/hour for each company, 45 minutes). Cotral also runs a quicker route (25 minutes) from the airport to the Anagnina Metro stop, where you can connect by Metro to the stop nearest your hotel (departs every 40 minutes).
The fixed price for any official taxi (with the maroon “Roma Capitale” logo on the door) is €30 to downtown (within the old city walls, including most of my recommended hotels).
Rick’s Tip: A car is a worthless headache in Rome. To save money and a pile of stress, park in the hill town of Orvieto at the huge, easy, and relatively safe lot behind the train station (follow P signs from autostrada) and catch the train to Rome (roughly hourly, 1-1.5 hours). Or, if Rome is the first stop of your trip, enjoy the city car-free, then take the train to Orvieto and rent a car there.
I don’t advise driving into or within Rome, but if you need to, here’s how: Rome’s ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare, encircles the city, with spokes that lead into the center. Entering from the north, leave the autostrada at the Settebagni exit. Following Via Salaria and black-and-white Centro signs, work your way doggedly into the Roman thick of things. This will take you along the Villa Borghese Gardens and dump you right on Via Veneto in downtown Rome. Avoid rush hour and drive defensively: Roman cars stay in their lanes like rocks in an avalanche.
Park your car in a safe place during your stay. Get advice from your hotelier, use Villa Borghese’s handy underground garage (€24/day, Metro: Spagna), or park at Tiburtina Station (€1/hour, www.atac.roma.it) and take a 10-minute ride on Metro line B into the center.