SIGHTS IN ROME - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


I’ve clustered Rome’s sights into walkable neighborhoods, some quite close together (see “Rome’s Neighborhoods” map on here). Save transit time by grouping your sightseeing according to location. For example, the Colosseum and the Forum are a few minutes’ walk from Capitoline Hill; a 15-minute walk beyond that is the Pantheon. I like to tour these sights in one great day, starting at the Colosseum, then the Forum, then Capitoline Hill, and from there either to the Pantheon or back to the Colosseum (by way of additional ruins along Via dei Fori Imperiali).

When you see a Image in a listing, it means the sight is described in greater detail in one of my self-guided walks or tours. A Image means the walk or tour is also available as a free audio tour (via my Rick Steves Audio Europe app—see here). Some walks and tours are available in both formats—take your pick. This is why some of Rome’s most important sights get the least coverage in this chapter—we’ll explore them in greater depth elsewhere in this book.

For general tips on sightseeing, see here. The best website for current opening hours is

To connect some of the most central sights, follow my Heart of Rome Walk (see the next chapter), which takes you from Campo de’ Fiori to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. This walk is most enjoyable in the evening—after the museums have closed, when the evening air and lit-up fountains show off Rome at its most magical. To join the parade of people strolling down Via del Corso every evening, take my Dolce Vita Stroll (see the end of the Nightlife in Rome chapter).

Price Hike Alert: Many of Rome’s sights host a special exhibit and require you to pay extra for your ticket, even if all you want to see is the permanent collection. This means admission fees jump by €3 or more. Expect this practice at the Capitoline Museums, Borghese Gallery, National Museum of Rome, Ara Pacis, and others. The prices I’ve listed here include these obligatory temporary exhibits. Come expecting this higher price...and consider yourself lucky if you happen to visit on the rare occasion when you can get in for less.

Free Sundays: The state museums in Italy are free to all on the first Sunday of each month (no reservations are available). Among the biggies in Rome, that means the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Borghese Gallery, National Museum of Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo, Etruscan Museum, and Baths of Caracalla are free—and packed. It’s actually bad news and I’d make a point to avoid the Colosseum and Roman Forum on that day.

Ancient Rome

The core of ancient Rome, where the grandest monuments were built, is between the Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. Among the ancient forums, a few modern sights have popped up. I’ve listed these sights from south to north, starting with the biggies—the Colosseum and Forum—and continuing up to Capitoline Hill and Piazza Venezia. Then, as a pleasant conclusion to your busy day, consider my relaxing self-guided walk back south along the broad, parklike main drag—Via dei Fori Imperiali—with some enticing detours to nearby sights.





▲▲▲Colosseum (Colosseo)

This 2,000-year-old building is the classic example of Roman engineering. Used as a venue for entertaining the masses, this colossal, functional stadium is one of Europe’s most recognizable landmarks. Whether you’re playing gladiator or simply marveling at the remarkable ancient design and construction, the Colosseum gets a unanimous thumbs-up.


Cost and Hours: €12 combo-ticket includes Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (see here), free and very crowded first Sun of the month, open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset (see here for times), last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5.50, Metro: Colosseo, tel. 06-3996-7700, For line-avoiding tips, see here.

Image See the Colosseum Tour chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

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. When 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, Constantine became sole emperor of the Roman Empire and legalized Christianity. The arch is free to see—always open and viewable.


The Arch of Constantine is covered in more detail on here of my Image Colosseum Tour chapter, and Image in my free audio tour.

▲▲▲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 a few fragments of that glorious past remain, history seekers find plenty to ignite their imaginations amid the half-broken columns and arches.


Cost and Hours: €12 combo-ticket includes Colosseum and Palatine Hill (see here), free and very crowded first Sun of the month, open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset (see here for times), last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5, Metro: Colosseo, tel. 06-3996-7700,

Image See the Roman Forum Tour chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

▲▲Palatine Hill (Monte Palatino)

The hill overlooking the Forum was the home of the emperors and now contains a museum, scant (but impressive when understood) remains of imperial palaces, and a view of the Circus Maximus (if it’s not blocked by ongoing archaeological work).


Cost and Hours: €12 combo-ticket includes Roman Forum and Colosseum—see here, free and very crowded first Sun of the month, open same hours as Forum and Colosseum, audioguide-€5, Metro: Colosseo.

Image See the Palatine Hill Tour chapter.


Mamertine Prison (Carcere Mamertino)

This 2,500-year-old cistern-like prison on Capitoline Hill is where, according to Christian tradition, the Romans imprisoned Saints Peter and Paul (it’s also known as Carcere di San Pietro). You can walk through and imagine how this dank cistern once housed prisoners of the emperor. Amid fat rats and rotting corpses, unfortunate humans awaited slow deaths. It’s said that a miraculous fountain sprang up inside so Peter could convert and baptize his jailers, who were also subsequently martyred.

Cost and Hours: €3; daily June-Sept 9:00-19:00, Oct-May 9:00-17:00, audioguide-€2, Clivo Argentario 1, tel. 06-6992-4652,

Bocca della Verità

The legendary “Mouth of Truth” at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin—a few blocks southwest of the other sights listed here—draws lots of mindless “selfie-stick” travelers. Stick your hand in the mouth of the gaping stone face in the porch wall. As the legend goes (and was popularized by the 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn), if you’re a liar, your hand will be gobbled up. The mouth is only accessible when the church gate is open, but it’s always (partially) visible through the gate, even when closed. If the church itself is open, step inside to see one of the few unaltered medieval church interiors in Rome. Notice the mismatched ancient columns and beautiful cosmatesque floor—a centuries-old example of recycling.


Cost and Hours: €0.50 suggested donation, daily 9:30-17:50, closes earlier off-season, Piazza Bocca della Verità, near the north end of Circus Maximus, a 10-minute walk south from Piazza Venezia, bus #81, #87, and #170, tel. 06-678-7759.



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 re-establish this square as a grand center. Michelangelo placed the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius as its focal point. Effective. (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 mayoral palace (Palazzo Senatorio).

Tips on Sightseeing in Rome

These tips will help you use your time and money efficiently, making the Eternal City seem less eternal and more entertaining. For general advice on sightseeing, see here.


Roma Pass: Rome offers several sightseeing passes to help you save time and money. For most visitors, the Roma Pass ( is the clear winner. Two versions are available:

The full three-day Roma Pass costs €36, includes free admission to your first two sights, a discount on 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, Castel Sant’Angelo, Montemartini Museum, Ara Pacis, Etruscan Museum, Baths of Caracalla, Trajan’s Market, and some Appian Way sights. The pass also covers four branches of the National Museum of Rome (considered a single sight): Palazzo Massimo (the most important of the lot), Crypta Balbi (medieval art), Palazzo Altemps (sculpture collection), and Museum of the Bath (ancient inscriptions). The pass does not cover the Vatican Museums (which contain the Sistine Chapel).


If you’ll be using public transportation 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 your reduced (ridotto) price—about 30 percent off.

To get the most out of your 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). If in town for a short visit, the 48-hour version can be worthwhile, especially if you’re visiting the Colosseum/Roman Forum/Palatine Hill and don’t have a reservation.

A Roma Pass can work well for families. 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 three adjacent sights (no individual tickets are sold). The combo-ticket allows one entry per sight and is valid for two days. To avoid ticket-buying lines at the Colosseum and Forum, purchase your combo-ticket (or Roma Pass) at the lesser-visited Palatine Hill, or buy your combo-ticket online in advance (see here).

Top Tips

Museum Reservations: The marvelous Borghese Gallery requires reservations in advance (for specifics, see here). You can 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). Kamikaze tourists maximize their sightseeing hours by visiting churches before 9:00 or late in the day; during the siesta, they 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.


Picnic Discreetly: Public drinking and eating is not allowed at major sights, though the ban has proven difficult to enforce. To avoid the risk of being fined, choose an empty piazza for your picnic, or keep a low profile.

Miscellaneous Tips: I carry a water bottle and refill it at Rome’s many public drinking spouts. Because public restrooms are scarce, use toilets at museums, restaurants, and bars.

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. Notice how 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 (see photo). 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 (see sidebar).

▲▲▲Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini)

Some of ancient Rome’s most famous statues and art are housed in the two palaces that flank the equestrian statue in the Campidoglio. You’ll see the Dying Gaul, the original she-wolf, and the original version of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Admission includes access to the underground vacant Tabularium, with its panoramic overlook of the 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,

Image See the Capitoline Museums Tour chapter.

Shortcut to the Victor Emmanuel Monument and Aracoeli Church

A clever shortcut lets you go directly from Piazza del Campidoglio, the square atop Capitoline Hill, to Santa Maria in Aracoeli Church and an upper level of the Victor Emmanuel Monument, avoiding long flights of stairs. Facing the square’s equestrian statue, head to the left, climbing the wide set of stairs near the she-wolf statue. Midway up the stairs (at the column), turn left to reach the back entrance to the Aracoeli Church, which brings you in near the altar. The main entrance (at the other end of the church) leads to the Victor Emmanuel Monument, making this a worthy detour. Or, to skip the church and go directly to the Victor Emmanuel Monument, pass the column and continue to 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 Rome from the Sky elevator.


Santa Maria in Aracoeli Church

The church atop Capitoline Hill is old and dear to the hearts of Romans. It stands on the site where Emperor Augustus (supposedly) had a premonition of the coming of Mary and Christ standing on an “altar in the sky” (ara coeli).

Cost and Hours: Free, daily 9:00-18:30, tel. 06-6976-3839.


Visiting the Church: While dedicated pilgrims climb up the long, steep staircase from street level (the right side of Victor Emmanuel Monument as you face it), savvy sightseers prefer to enter through the shortcut atop Capitoline Hill (see sidebar).

The church is Rome in a nutshell, where you can time-travel across 2,000 years by standing in one spot. The building dates from Byzantine times (sixth century) and was expanded in the 1200s. Inside, the mismatched columns (red, yellow, striped, fluted) and marble floor are ancient, plundered from many different monuments. The medieval world is evident in the gravestones beneath your feet. The early Renaissance is featured in beautiful frescoes by Pinturicchio (first chapel on the right from the main entrance), with their 3-D perspective and natural landscapes. The coffered ceiling celebrates the Christian victory over the Ottoman Turks (Battle of Lepanto, 1571), with thanks to Mary (in the center of the ceiling). The chandeliers in the nave hint at the elegance of Baroque. Napoleon’s occupying troops used the building as a horse stable. But like Rome itself, it survived and retained its splendor.


The church comes alive at Christmastime. Romans hike up to enjoy a manger scene (presepio) assembled every year in the second chapel on the left. They stop at the many images of the Virgin (e.g., the statue in the marble gazebo to the left of the altar), who made an appearance to the pagan Augustus so long ago. And, most famously, they venerate a wooden statue of the Baby Jesus (Santo Bambino), displayed in a chapel to the left of the altar (go through the low-profile door and down the hall). Though the original statue was stolen in 1994, the copy continues this longtime Roman tradition. A clear box filled with handwritten prayers sits nearby.

The daunting 125-step staircase up Capitoline Hill to the entrance was once climbed—on their knees—by Roman women who wished for a child. Today, they don’t...and Italy has Europe’s lowest birthrate.

Rome at a Glance

▲▲▲ 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. 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. Hours are subject to change. 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.

▲▲Palatine Hill Ruins of emperors’ palaces, Circus Maximus view, and museum. Hours: Same hours as Colosseum. See here.

▲▲Trajan’s Column, Market, and Forum Tall column with narrative relief, forum ruins, and museum with entry to Trajan’s Market. Hours: Forum and column always viewable; museum open daily 9:30-19:30. See here.

▲▲Museo dell’Ara Pacis Shrine marking the beginning of Rome’s Golden Age. Hours: Daily 9:30-19:30. 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.

▲▲Catacombs Underground tombs, mainly Christian, some outside the city. Hours: Generally open 10:00-12:00 & 14:00-17:00. See here and 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.

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.

Piazza del Campidoglio Square atop Capitoline Hill, designed by Michelangelo, with a museum, grand stairway, and Forum overlooks. 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 open daily 9:30-18:30; elevator open Mon-Thu 9:30-18:30, Fri-Sun 9:30-19:30. See here.

Trevi Fountain Baroque hot spot into which tourists throw coins to ensure a return trip to Rome. Hours: Always flowing. See here.

Castel Sant’Angelo Hadrian’s Tomb turned castle, prison, papal refuge, now museum. Hours: Tue-Sun 9:00-19:30, closed Mon. See here.

Baths of Diocletian Once ancient Rome’s immense public baths, now a Michelangelo church. Hours: Mon-Sat 7:00-18:30, Sun 7:00-19:30. See here.


This vast square, dominated by the big, white Victor Emmanuel Monument, is a major transportation hub and 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, Benito Mussolini whipped up Italy’s nationalistic fervor from a balcony above the square (it’s the less-grand building on the left). He gave 64 speeches from this balcony, including the declaration of war in 1940. This Early Renaissance building (with hints of medieval showing with its crenellated roof line) was the seat of Mussolini’s fascist government. Fascist masses filled the square screaming, “Four more years!”—or something like that. Mussolini 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. Mussolini lied to his people, mixing fear and patriotism to push his country to the right and embroil the Italians in expensive and regrettable wars. In 1945, they shot Mussolini and hung him from a meat hook in Milan. (Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s headquarters are still located—thought-provokingly—just behind Mussolini’s. That explains all the security on Via del Plebiscito.)

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.

Continuing on, you reach two staircases leading up Capitoline Hill. One is Michelangelo’s grand staircase up to the Campidoglio. The steeper of the two leads to Santa Maria in Aracoeli, a good example of the earliest style of Christian church (described earlier). The contrast between this climb-on-your-knees ramp to God’s house and Michelangelo’s elegant stairs illustrates the changes Renaissance humanism brought civilization.

From the bottom of Michelangelo’s stairs, look right several blocks down the street to see a condominium actually built upon the surviving ancient pillars and arches of Teatro di Marcello.

Victor Emmanuel Monument

This oversize monument to Italy’s first king, built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country’s unification in 1861, was part of Italy’s push to overcome the new country’s strong regionalism and create a national identity. The scale of the monument is over-the-top: 200 feet high, 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, and a person could sit within the horse’s hoof. At the base of this statue, Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (flanked by Italian flags and armed guards) 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).

Background: With its gleaming white sheen (from a recent scrubbing) and enormous scale, the monument provides a vivid sense of what Ancient Rome looked like at its peak—imagine the Forum filled with shiny, grandiose buildings like this one. It’s also lathered in symbolism meant to connect the modern city and nation with its grand past: The eternal flames are reminiscent of the Vestal Virgins and the ancient flame of Rome. And it’s crowned by glorious chariots like those that topped the ancient Arch of Constantine.

Locals have a love/hate relationship with this “Altar of the Nation.” Many Romans say it’s a “punch in the eye” and regret its unfortunate, clumsy location atop precious antiquities. Others consider it a reminder of the challenge that followed the creation of the modern nation of Italy: actually creating “Italians.”

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 (well-described in English) on the movement and war that led to the unification of Italy. A section on the lower east side hosts temporary exhibits of minor works by major artists (€5 to enter museum, temporary exhibits around €10, tel. 06-322-5380, A café is at the base of the top colonnade, on the monument’s east side.

Best of all, the monument offers a grand view of the Eternal City. You can 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 the grandest, 360-degree view of the center of Rome—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. You can 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. Helpful panoramic diagrams describe the skyline, with powerful binoculars available for zooming in on particular sights. It’s best in late afternoon, when it’s beginning to cool off and Rome glows.



(See “The Imperial Forums” map, here.)

Though the original Roman Forum is the main attraction for today’s tourists, there are several more forums nearby.

As Rome grew from a village to an empire, it outgrew the Roman Forum. Several energetic emperors built their own forums complete with temples, shopping malls, government buildings, statues, monuments, and piazzas. These new imperial forums were a form of urban planning, with a cohesive design stamped with the emperor’s unique personality. Julius Caesar built the first one (46 B.C.), and over the next 150 years, it was added onto by Augustus (2 B.C.), Vespasian (A.D. 75), Nerva (A.D. 97), and Trajan (A.D. 112).


Today the ruins are out in the open, never crowded, and free to view any time, any day. The forums stretch in a line along Via dei Fori Imperiali, from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. The boulevard was built by the dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s—supposedly so he could look out his office window on Piazza Venezia and see the Colosseum, creating a visual link between the glories of the imperial past with what he thought would be a glorious imperial future. Today, the once-noisy boulevard is a pleasant walk, since it now is closed to private vehicles—and, on Sundays and holidays, to all traffic.

Image Self-Guided Walk: For an overview of the archaeological area, take this walk from Piazza Venezia down Via dei Fori Imperiali to the end of the Imperial Forums. After a busy day of sightseeing, this stroll offers a relaxing way to wind down (while seeing a few more ancient wonders, but without crowds or turnstiles) on your way to Via Cavour and the nearby Cavour and Colosseo Metro stops.

✵ Start at Trajan’s Column, the colossal pillar that stands alongside Piazza Venezia.

Trajan’s Column: The world’s grandest column from antiquity (rated ▲▲) anchors the first of the forums we’ll see—Trajan’s Forum. The 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 truly 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, St. Peter is on top.) 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). The staggering haul of gold plundered from the Dacians paid for this forum. The narrative starts at the bottom with a trickle of water that becomes a river and soon picks up boats full of supplies. Then come the soldiers themselves, who spill out from the gates of the city. A river god (bottom band, south side) surfaces to bless the journey. Along the way (second band), they build roads and forts to sustain the vast enterprise, including (third band, south side) Trajan’s half-mile-long bridge over the Danube, the longest for a thousand years. (Find the three tiny crisscross rectangles representing the wooden span.) Trajan himself (fourth band, in military skirt with toga over his arm) mounts a podium to fire up the troops. They hop into a Roman galley ship (fifth band) and head off to fight the valiant Dacians in the middle of a forest (eighth band). Finally, at the very top, the Romans hold a sacrifice to give thanks for the victory, while the captured armor is displayed on the pedestal.


Originally, the entire story was painted in bright colors. If you were to unwind the scroll, it would stretch over two football fields—it’s far longer than the frieze around the Parthenon in Athens.

✵ Now, start heading toward the Colosseum, walking along the left side of Via dei Fori Imperiali. You’re walking alongside...

Trajan’s Forum: The dozen-plus gray columns mark one of the grandest structures in Trajan’s Forum, the Basilica Ulpia, the largest law court of its day. Nearby stood two libraries that contained the world’s knowledge in Greek and Latin.

Rome peaked under Emperor Trajan (ruled A.D. 98-117), when the empire stretched from England to the Sahara, from Spain to the Fertile Crescent. A triumphant Trajan returned to Rome with his booty and shook it all over the city. Most was spent on this forum, complete with temples, law courts, and the monumental column trumpeting his exploits. To build his forum, Trajan literally moved mountains. He cut away a ridge that once connected the Quirinal and Capitoline hills, creating this valley. This was the largest forum ever, and its opulence astounded even jaded Romans.

✵ But most astounding of all was Trajan’s Market. That’s the big, semicircular brick structure nestled into the cutaway curve of Quirinal Hill. If you want a closer look, there’s a pedestrian pathway that leads you up to it.

Trajan’s Market: This structure was part shopping mall, part warehouse, and part administration building and/or government offices. For now the conventional wisdom holds that at ground level, the 13 tall (shallow) arches housed shops selling fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers to people who passed by on the street. The 26 arched windows (above) lit a covered walkway lined with shops that sold wine and olive oil. On the roof (now lined with a metal railing) ran a street that likely held still more shops, making about 150 in all.


By now, Rome was a booming city of more than a million people. Shoppers could browse through goods from every corner of Rome’s vast empire—exotic fruits from Africa, spices from Asia, and fish-and-chips from Londinium.

Above the semicircle, the upper floors of the complex housed bureaucrats in charge of a crucial element of city life: doling out free grain to unemployed citizens, who lived off the wealth plundered from distant lands. Better to pacify them than risk a riot. Above the offices, at the very top, rises a tower added in the Middle Ages.

The market was beautiful and functional, filling the space of the curved hill perfectly and echoing the curved side of the Forum’s main courtyard. (The wall of rough volcanic stones on the ground once extended into a semicircle.) Unlike most Roman buildings, the brick facade wasn’t covered with plaster or marble. The architect liked the simple contrast between the warm brick and the white stone lining the arches and windows.

If you’d like to walk around the market complex and see some excavated statues, visit the Museum of the Imperial Forums (described later; enter just uphill from Trajan’s Column).

✵ Return to the main street, and continue toward the Colosseum for about 100 more yards.

You’re still walking alongside Trajan’s Forum. In Trajan’s day, you would have entered the forum at the Colosseum end through a triumphal arch and would have been greeted in the main square by a large statue of the soldier-king on a horse.

But none of those things remain. The ruins you see in this section are actually from the medieval era. These are the foundations of the old neighborhood that was built atop the ancient city. In modern times, that neighborhood was cleared out to build the new boulevard.

You’ll soon reach a bronze statue of Trajan himself. Though the likeness is ancient, this bronze statue is not. It was erected by the dictator Benito Mussolini when he had the modern boulevard built. Notice the date on the pedestal—Anno XI. That would be “the 11th year of the Fascist Renovation of Italy”—i.e., 1933. Imagine Mussolini strolling proudly down this historic boulevard with his fellow fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, in 1938. Anticipating the chance to host Hitler, he made sure all the props were in place enabling him to share stories of Rome’s tradition of powerful rulers.

Across the street is a similar statue of Julius Caesar. That marks the first of these imperial forums, built by Julius in 46 B.C., as an extension of the Roman Forum. Near him stand the three remaining columns of his forum’s Temple of Venus—the patron goddess of the Julian family.

✵ Continue along (down the left side). As Trajan’s Forum narrows to an end, you reach a statue of Emperor Augustus that indicates...

The Forums of Augustus and Nerva: The statue captures Emperor Augustus in his famous hailing-a-cab pose (a copy of the original, which you can see at the Vatican Museums). This is actually his “commander talking to his people” pose. Behind him was the Forum of Augustus. Find the four white, fluted, Corinthian columns that were part of the forum’s centerpiece, the Temple of Mars. The ugly gray stone wall that borders the forum’s back end was built for security. It separated fancy “downtown Rome” from the workaday world beyond (today’s characteristic and trendy Monti neighborhood) and protected Augustus’ temple from city fires.

Farther along is a statue of Emperor Nerva, trying but failing to have the commanding presence of Augustus. (In fact, he seems to be gazing jealously across Via dei Fori Imperiali at the grandeur of the Roman Forum—the Curia and Palatine Hill.) Behind Nerva, you can get a closer look at his forum. Gaze down at an original marble inlaid floor that was once under a grand roof, surrounded by offices and shops within a semicircular mall. As with Augustus’ Forum, the big stone wall (composed of volcanic tuff) on the far side was built to protect the “important” part of town from the fire-plagued working-class zone beyond.

Continuing a little farther (toward the Colosseum), find some fine marble reliefs from Nerva’s Forum showing women in pleated robes parading in religious rituals.

✵ You’ve reached the end of the Imperial Forums. You’re at the intersection of Via dei Fori Imperiali and busy Via Cavour. From here, you have a number of options.

Nearby: Here at the intersection stands an impressive crenellated tower. This was a medieval noble family’s fortified residence—a reminder that the fall of Rome left a power vacuum, and with no central authority, it was every big shot for himself. Behind that (and the firewall) is the colorful neighborhood of Monti (see here, and home to a slew of fun little eateries, see here).

Two blocks up busy Via Cavour is the Cavour Metro stop. From there, you could turn right to find St. Peter-in-Chains Church (see here).

Across Via dei Fori Imperiali is an entrance to the Roman Forum (see here). 100 yards farther down Via dei Fori Imperiali (on the left) is a tourist information center with a handy café, info desk, and WC.

✵ Our walk is over. Your transportation options include the Cavour and Colosseo Metro stops. Several buses stop along Via dei Fori Imperiali. And it’s easy to hail a cab from here.


Several worthwhile sights sit across Via dei Fori Imperiali from the Roman Forum—and offer a break from the crowds.

Museum of the Imperial Forums (Museo dei Fori Imperiali)

The museum, housed in buildings from Trajan’s Market, features discoveries from the forums built by the different emperors. Though its collection of statues is not impressive compared to Rome’s other museums, it’s well displayed. And—most importantly—it allows you to walk outside, atop and amid the ruins, making this the only way you can actually get up close to Trajan’s Market and Forum (described earlier). Focus on the big picture to mentally resurrect the fabulous forums.

Cost and Hours: €14, €9.50 when no special exhibitions, daily 9:30-19:30, last entry one hour before closing, tel. 06-0608, Skip the museum’s slow, dry €4 audioguide (you’ll find some English descriptions within the museum); enter at Via IV Novembre 94 (up the staircase from Trajan’s Column).

Visiting the Museum: Start by simply admiring the main hall—three stories with marble framed entries, fine brickwork, and high windows to allow natural light. (Cheapskates can see this much from outside the entrance without paying admission.) A caryatid (a female statue serving as a column) from the Forum of Augustus stands in the museum’s entryway, alongside a bearded mask of Giove (Jupiter). Nearby, a bronze foot is all that’s left of a larger-than-life Winged Victory that adorned Augustus’ Temple of Mars the Avenger. Then explore the statues and broken columns that once decorated the sites.

Upstairs, cross over to the other side of the hall (use the outdoor balcony) to find a section on Julius Caesar’s Forum, including baby Cupids (the son of Venus and Mars) carved from the pure white marble that would eventually adorn all of Rome.

The rest of the upstairs is dedicated to the Forum of Augustus. A model of the Temple of Mars and some large column fragments give a sense of the enormous scale. You’ll see bits and pieces of the hand of the 40-foot statue of Augustus that once stood in his forum.

From here, you can go outside. Walkways let you descend to stroll along the curved top of Trajan’s Market. You get a sense of how inviting the market must have been in its heyday. As you walk around, you’ll also enjoy expansive views of Trajan’s Forum, his column, other forums in the distance, and the modern Victor Emmanuel Monument.

Rome vs. Milan: A Classic Squabble

In Italy, the North and South bicker about each other, hurling barbs, quips, and generalizations. All the classic North/South traits can be applied to Rome (the government capital) and Milan (the business capital). Although the differences have become less pronounced lately, the sniping continues.

The Milanese say the Romans are lazy. Roman government jobs come with short hours—cut even shorter by too many coffee breaks, three-hour lunches, chats with colleagues, and phone calls to friends and relatives. Milanese contend that Roma ladrona (Rome the big thief) is a parasite that lives off the taxes of people up North. Until recently, there was a strong Milan-based movement seriously promoting secession from the South.


Romans, meanwhile, dismiss the Milanese as uptight workaholics with nothing else to live for—gray like their foggy city. Romans do admit that in Milan, job opportunities are better and based on merit. And the Milanese grudgingly concede that the Romans have a gift for enjoying life.

While Rome is more of a family city, Milan is the place for high-powered singles on the career fast track. Milanese yuppies mix with each other...not the city’s long-time residents. Milan is seen as inward-looking and wary of foreigners, and Rome as fun-loving, tolerant, and friendly. In Milan, bureaucracy (like social services) works logically and efficiently, while in Rome, accomplishing even small chores can be exasperating. In Rome, everything—from finding a babysitter to buying a car—is done through friends. In Milan, while people are not as willing to discuss their personal matters, they are generous and active in charity work.


Milanese find Romans vulgar. The Roman dialect is considered one of the coarsest in the country. Much as they try, Milanese just can’t say, “Damn your dead relatives” quite as effectively as the Romans. Still, they enjoy Roman comedians and love to imitate the accent.

The Milanese feel that Rome is dirty and Roman driving nerve-wracking. But despite the craziness, Rome maintains a genuine village feel. People share family news with their neighborhood grocer. Milan lacks people-friendly piazzas, and entertainment comes at a high price. But in Rome, la dolce vita is as close as the nearest square, and a full moon is enjoyed by all.

Monti Neighborhood: Village Rome

Tucked behind the imperial forums is a quintessentially Roman district called Monti. One of the oldest corners of Rome, this was the original “suburb” (from “subura”—outside the sacred center). Separated from the Imperial Forums by a tall stone firewall (which stands to this day), this was the rough, working-class zone...prone to fires. And it kept that character until just a few years ago when it became trendy. As a result, artisans, prostitutes, and colorful misfits were mostly driven out by higher rents.

Squeezed between Via Nazionale and Via Cavour, this hilly tangle of lanes helps visitors understand why the Romans see their hometown not as a sprawling metropolis, but as a collection of villages. Exploring back lanes you can still find neighbors hanging out on the square and chatting, funky boutiques and fashionable shops sharing narrow streets with hole-in-the-wall hardware shops and alimentari, and wisteria-strewn cobbled lanes beckoning photographers. How this charming little bit of village Rome survived, largely undisturbed, just a few steps from some of Italy’s most trafficked sights, is a marvel. While well-discovered by now (savvy travelers have been reading about Monti in “hidden Rome” magazine and newspaper articles for years), it’s still a great place to peruse.

From the Roman Forum’s main entrance, 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. That fountain is the neighborhood’s meeting point—and after hours, every square inch is thronged with young Romans socializing and drinking. They either buy bottles of wine or beer to go at the little grocery at the top of the square or at a convenience store on nearby Via Cavour.

From this hub, interesting streets branch off in every direction. The characteristic core of the district can be enjoyed by strolling one long street with three names (Via della Madonna dei Monti, which leads from the ancient firewall 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, or for a memorable meal; for recommendations, see here. It’s also a fine place to shop (see here) or hang out after dark (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). Check out the much-venerated chains under the high altar, then focus on mighty Moses. (Note that this isn’t the famous St. Peter’s Basilica, which is in Vatican City.)

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 steps) from the Cavour Metro stop; tel. 06-9784-4950.

Image See the St. Peter-in-Chains Tour chapter.

Pantheon Neighborhood

Besides being home to ancient sites and historic churches, the area around the Pantheon gives Rome its urban-village feel. Wander narrow streets, sample the many shops and eateries, and gather with the locals in squares marked by bubbling fountains. Just south of the Pantheon is the Jewish quarter, with remnants of Rome’s Jewish history and culture.



Exploring this area is especially good in the evening, when the restaurants bustle and streets are jammed with foot traffic. For a self-guided walk of this neighborhood, from Campo de’ Fiori to the Trevi Fountain (and ending at the Spanish Steps), Image see the Heart of Rome Walk chapter.


For the greatest look at the splendor of Rome, antiquity’s best-preserved interior is a must. Built two millennia ago, this influential domed temple served as the model for Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s and many others.

Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-19:30, Sun 9:00-18:00, holidays 9:00-13:00, audioguide-€5, tel. 06-6830-0230.

Image See the Pantheon Tour chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

▲▲Churches near the Pantheon

For more information on the following churches, see the latter half of my Pantheon Tour chapter. Modest dress is recommended.

The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi has a magnificent chapel painted by Caravaggio (free, daily 10:00-12:30 & 15:00-18:45 except closed Thu afternoon, between the Pantheon and the north end of Piazza Navona). The only Gothic church in Rome is the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with a little-known Michelangelo statue, Christ Bearing the Cross (free, Mon-Fri 7:00-19:00, Sat-Sun 8:00-12:30 & 15:30-19:00, on a little square behind the Pantheon, to the east). The Church of San Ignazio, several blocks east of the Pantheon, is a riot of Baroque illusions with a false dome (free, Mon-Sat 7:30-19:00, Sun 9:00-19:00). A few blocks away, across Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is the rich and Baroque Gesù Church, headquarters of the Jesuits in Rome (free, daily 7:00-12:30 & 16:00-19:45, interesting daily service at 17:30—see here for details).

Two blocks down Corso Vittorio Emanuele from the Gesù Church, you’ll hit Largo Argentina, an excavated square about four blocks south of the Pantheon. Stroll around this square and look into the excavated pit at some of the oldest ruins in Rome. Julius Caesar was assassinated near here. At the far (west) side of the square is a cat refuge where volunteers care for some 250 cats, though there’s talk of eviction (

Galleria Doria Pamphilj

This underappreciated gallery, in the heart of the old city, offers a rare chance to wander through a noble family’s lavish rooms with the prince who calls this downtown mansion home. Well, almost. Through an audioguide, the prince lovingly narrates his family’s story as you tour the palace and its world-class art.

Cost and Hours: €11, includes worthwhile 1.5-hour audioguide, daily 9:00-19:00, last entry one hour before closing, elegant café, from Piazza Venezia walk 2 blocks up Via del Corso to #305, tel. 06-679-7323,


Visiting the Galleria: The story begins upstairs in the grand entrance hall (Salone del Poussin), wallpapered with French landscapes. In the adjoining throne room, you’ll see a portrait of Pope Innocent X (1574-1655), patriarch of the Pamphilj (pahm-FEEL-yee) family. His wealth and power flowed to his nephew, who built the palace—a cozy relationship that inspired the word “nepotism” (nepotem is Latin for “nephew”). The family eventually married into English nobility, which is why today’s prince speaks the Queen’s English. You’ll visit the red velvet room, the green living room, and the mirror-lined ballroom that once hosted music by resident composers Scarlatti and Handel. Along the way, the prince tells charming family secrets, like when he and his sister were scolded for roller-skating through the palace.

Past the bookshop is the painting collection. (Major works have a number to dial up audioguide information.) Don’t miss Velázquez’s intense, majestic, ultra-realistic portrait of the family founder, Innocent X. It stands alongside an equally impressive bust of the pope by Bernini. Stroll through a mini-Versailles-like hall of mirrors to more paintings, including works by Titian and Raphael. Finally, relax along with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and let the angel serenade you in Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt.

Piazza di Pietra (Piazza of Stone)

The square is lined by the still-huge remains of the Temple of Hadrian, dedicated to the deified emperor responsible for building the Pantheon, nearby. To help you imagine the square in A.D. 145, look for a model of the temple in a window across the square at #36. Typical of practical Romans, in 1696 the city incorporated temple columns that were still standing into the building of Rome’s central customs house. Today the building houses the chamber of commerce. The holes chipped into the ancient stones could be where the marble facing (which once adorned the temple) was attached. Historians think that Dark Age scavengers dug out the metal pins the Romans used to hold the marble stones in place; or the holes may have been used to anchor beams of medieval buildings built into this ruined structure. Look down over the railing to see ground level—with some original paving stones—from 1,900 years ago. (The piazza is two blocks toward Via del Corso from the Pantheon.)

Trevi Fountain

The bubbly Baroque fountain, worth ▲▲ by night, is a minor sight to art scholars...but a major nighttime gathering spot for teens on the make and tourists tossing coins. Those coins are collected daily to feed Rome’s poor.

Image See the Heart of Rome Walk chapter.



From the 16th through the 19th centuries, Rome’s Jewish population was forced to live in a cramped ghetto at an often-flooded bend of the Tiber River. While the medieval Jewish ghetto is long gone, this area—between Campo de’ Fiori and Capitoline Hill—is still home to Rome’s synagogue and fragments of its Jewish heritage.

Image See the Jewish Ghetto Walk chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

Synagogue (Sinagoga) and Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico)

Rome’s modern synagogue stands proudly on the spot where the medieval Jewish community was sequestered for more than 300 years. The site of a historic visit by Pope John Paul II, this synagogue features a fine interior and a museum filled with artifacts of Rome’s Jewish community. The only way to visit the synagogue—unless you’re here for daily prayer service—is with a tour.

Cost and Hours: €11 ticket includes museum, audioguide, and guided tour of synagogue; mid-June-mid-Sept Sun-Thu 10:00-19:00, Fri 10:00-16:00, shorter hours off-season, closed Sat year-round; last entry 45 minutes before closing, English tours usually at :15 past the hour, 30 minutes, check schedule at ticket counter, modest dress required, on Lungotevere dei Cenci, tel. 06-6840-0661, Walking tours of the ghetto are conducted at least once a day except Saturday.

Vatican City

(See “Vatican City & Nearby” map, here.)

Vatican City, the world’s smallest country, contains St. Peter’s Basilica (with Michelangelo’s exquisite Pietà) and the Vatican Museums (with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel). A helpful TI is just to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica as you’re facing it (Mon-Sat 8:30-18:15, closed Sun, tel. 06-6988-1662, 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. For information on Vatican tours, post offices, and the pope’s schedule, see here.


Modest dress is required of men, women, and children throughout Vatican City, even outdoors. Cover your shoulders; bring a light jacket or cover-up if you’re wearing a tank top. Wear long pants instead of shorts. Skirts or dresses should extend below your knee.

▲▲▲St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica San Pietro)

There is no doubt: This is the richest and grandest church on earth. To call it vast is like calling Einstein smart.

Cost and Hours: Free, daily April-Sept 7:00-19:00, Oct-March 7:00-18:30. The church closes on Wednesday mornings during papal audiences (until roughly 13:00). Masses occur daily throughout the day. Audioguides can be rented near the checkroom (€5 plus ID, for church only, daily 9:00-17:00). The view from the dome is worth the climb (€7 for elevator to roof, then take stairs; €5 to climb stairs all the way, cash only, allow an hour to go up and down, daily April-Sept 8:00-18:00, Oct-March 8:00-17:00, last entry one hour before closing if you take the stairs the whole way). Tel. 06-6988-1662,

Image See the St. Peter’s Basilica Tour chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

▲▲▲Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani)

The four miles of displays in this immense museum complex—from ancient statues to Christian frescoes to modern paintings—culminate in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel.

Cost and Hours: €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 and frequent holidays; look online for current times. Lines are extremely long in the morning—go in the late afternoon, or skip the ticket-buying line altogether by reserving an entry time on their website. A €7 audioguide is available (ID required). Tel. 06-6988-3860 or 06-6988-1662,

Image See the Vatican Museums Tour chapter. You can also Image download my free Sistine Chapel audio tour.



Castel Sant’Angelo

Built as a tomb for the emperor, used through the Middle Ages as a castle, prison, and place of last refuge for popes under attack, and today a museum, this giant pile of ancient bricks is packed with history. The structure itself is striking, but the sight feels empty and underexplained—come for the building itself and the views up top, not for the exhibits or artifacts.

Cost and Hours: €10.50, free and very crowded first Sun of the month, Tue-Sun 9:00-19:30, closed Mon, last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5, near Vatican City, 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square, Metro: Lepanto or bus #40 or #64, tel. 06-681-9111,

Background: Ancient Rome allowed no tombs—not even the emperor’s—within its walls. So Emperor Hadrian grabbed the most commanding position just outside the walls and across the river and built a towering tomb (c. A.D. 139) well within view of the city. His mausoleum was a huge cylinder (210 by 70 feet) topped by a cypress grove and crowned by a huge statue of Hadrian himself riding a chariot. For nearly a hundred years, Roman emperors (from Hadrian to Caracalla, in A.D. 217) were buried here.

In the year 590, the archangel Michael appeared above the mausoleum to Pope Gregory the Great. Sheathing his sword, the angel signaled the end of a plague. The fortress that was Hadrian’s mausoleum eventually became a fortified palace, renamed for the “holy angel.”


Castel Sant’Angelo spent centuries of the Dark Ages as a fortress and prison, but was eventually connected to the Vatican via an elevated corridor at the pope’s request (1277). Since Rome was repeatedly plundered by invaders, Castel Sant’Angelo was a handy place of last refuge for threatened popes. In anticipation of long sieges, rooms were decorated with papal splendor (you’ll see paintings by Carlo Crivelli, Luca Signorelli, and Andrea Mantegna). In 1527, during a sacking of Rome by troops of Charles V of Spain, the pope lived inside the castle for months with his entourage of hundreds (an unimaginable ordeal, considering the food service at the top-floor bar).

Visiting the Castle: Touring the place is a stair-stepping workout. After you walk around the entire base of the castle—buying your ticket en route—take the small staircase down to the original Roman floor (following the route of Hadrian’s funeral procession). In the atrium, study the model of the mausoleum as it was in Roman times. Imagine being surrounded by a veneer of marble, and the niche in the wall filled with a towering “welcome to my tomb” statue of Hadrian. From here, a ramp leads to the right, spiraling 400 feet. While some of the fine original brickwork and bits of mosaic survive, the marble veneer is long gone (notice the holes in the wall from the pins that held it in place).

At the end of the ramp, turn left, and go up the stairs. A bridge crosses over the room where the ashes of the emperors were kept. From here, more stairs continue out of the ancient section and into the medieval structure (built atop the mausoleum) that housed the papal apartments. Explore the rooms and enjoy the view. Then go through the Sala Paolina and up the stairs; don’t miss the Sala del Tesoro (Treasury—likely once Hadrian’s tomb, and later a prison), where the wealth of the Vatican was locked up in a huge chest. (Do miss the 58 rooms of the military museum.) From the pope’s piggy bank, a narrow flight of stairs leads to the rooftop and perhaps the finest view of Rome anywhere (pick out landmarks as you stroll around). From the safety of this dramatic vantage point, the pope surveyed the city in times of siege. Look down at the bend of the Tiber, which for 2,700 years has cradled the Eternal City.

Ponte Sant’Angelo

The bridge leading to Castel Sant’Angelo was built by Hadrian for quick and regal access from downtown to his tomb. The three middle arches are actually Roman originals and a fine example of the empire’s engineering expertise. The statues of angels (each bearing a symbol of the passion of Christ—nail, sponge, shroud, and so on) are Bernini-designed and textbook Baroque. In the Middle Ages, this was the only bridge in the area that connected St. Peter’s and the Vatican with downtown Rome. Nearly all pilgrims passed this bridge to and from the church. Its shoulder-high banisters recall a tragedy: During a Jubilee Year festival in 1450, the crowd got so huge that the mob pushed out the original banisters, causing nearly 200 to fall to their deaths.


Today, as through the ages, pilgrims cross the bridge, turn left, and set their sights on the Vatican dome. Around the year 1600, they would have also set their sights on a bunch of heads hanging from the crenellations of the castle. Ponte Sant’Angelo was infamous as a place for beheadings (banditry in the countryside was rife). Locals said, “There are more heads at Castel Sant’Angelo than there are melons in the market.”


North Rome


Villa Borghese Gardens

Rome’s semi-scruffy three-square-mile “Central Park” is great for its quiet shaded paths and for people-watching plenty of modern-day Romeos and Juliets. The best entrance is at the head of Via Veneto (Metro: Barberini, then 10-minute walk up Via Veneto and through the old Roman wall at Porta Pinciana, or catch a cab to Via Veneto—Porta Pinciana). There you’ll find a cluster of buildings with a café, a kiddie arcade, and bike rental (€4/hour). Rent a bike or, for romantics, a pedaled rickshaw (riscio, €12/hour). Bikes come with locks to allow you to make sightseeing stops. Follow signs to discover the park’s cafés, fountains, statues, lake, and prime picnic spots. Some sights require paid admission, including the Borghese Gallery (see Borghese Gallery Tour chapter), Rome’s zoo (described on here), the National Gallery of Modern Art (which holds 19th-century art; not to be confused with MAXXI, described later), and the Etruscan Museum (described later).


You can also enter the gardens from the top of the Spanish Steps (facing the church, turn left and walk down the road 200 yards beyond Villa Medici, then angle right on the small pathway into the gardens), and from Piazza del Popolo (in the northeast corner of the piazza, stairs lead to the gardens via a terrace with grand views out to St. Peter’s Basilica—bikes and Segways can be rented nearby).

▲▲▲Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese)

This plush museum, filling a cardinal’s mansion in the park, offers one of Europe’s most sumptuous art experiences. You’ll 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: €11, price includes €2 reservation fee, free and very crowded first Sun of the month, Tue-Sun 9:00-19:00, closed Mon. Reservations are mandatory and easy to get in English online ( or by calling 06-32810. The further in advance you reserve, the better—a minimum of several days for a weekday visit, or at least a week ahead for weekends. Admission times are strictly enforced (you’ll get exactly two hours). The 1.5-hour audioguide (€5) is excellent.

Image For more on reservations, as well as a self-guided tour, see the Borghese Gallery Tour chapter.


Etruscan Museum (Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia)

The fascinating Etruscan civilization thrived in Italy around 600 B.C., when Rome was an Etruscan town. The Villa Giulia (a fine Renaissance palace in the Villa Borghese Gardens) hosts a museum that tells the story. The displays are clean and bright, with good English information.

Cost and Hours: €8, free and very crowded first Sun of the month, Tue-Sun 8:30-19:30, closed Mon, last entry one hour before closing, good English information, 20-minute walk from Borghese Gallery or from most of the Villa Borghese Garden’s entrances, Metro: Flaminio, then tram #2 to Viale delle Belli Arti and a 5-minute walk (east) to the museum, Piazzale di Villa Giulia 9, tel. 06-322-6571,

Visiting the Museum: A map of the Etruscan world (in Room 1) shows the Etruscans centered from Rome northward (in modern-day Tuscany and Umbria), co-existing with neighboring civilizations like the Greeks and Phoenicians. Find key Etruscan cities (Vulci, Tarquinia, Cerveteri) where the museum’s treasures were unearthed. Farther along, a painted, room-sized tomb from Tarquinia (Room 8, down the spiral staircase) shows how Etruscans buried their dead along with their possessions, thus preserving these objects. Stroll through room after room of cases with vases—pottery painted either red-on-black or black-on-red. The star of the museum is the famous “husband and wife sarcophagus” (Il Sarofago degli Sposi, Room 12)—a dead couple seeming to enjoy an everlasting banquet from atop their tomb (sixth century B.C. from Cerveteri). Room 13b has a few gold sheets from Pyrgi, with inscriptions in two languages—the “Etruscan Rosetta Stone” that has helped scholars decipher their odd language.


Upstairs on the mezzanine, pass through the long hall of small, mostly bronze objects (statuettes and mirrors). Continuing up to the second floor, you can ogle the gold jewelry of the sophisticated, luxury-loving Etruscans (Room 24). Near the exit, Room 40 displays the well-known terra-cotta statue, the Apollo of Veio, which stood atop Apollo’s temple. The smiling god welcomes Hercules, while his mother Latona stands nearby cradling baby Apollo.


Rome’s “National Museum of Art of the 21st Century,” billed as Italy’s “first national museum dedicated to contemporary creativity,” is a playful concrete and steel structure filled with bizarre installations. Like many contemporary art museums, it’s notable more for the building (designed by Zaha Hadid and costing €150 million) than the art inside. To me, it comes off as a second-rate Pompidou Center. While not to my taste, it’s one of the few places in the city where fans of contemporary architecture can see the latest trends.

Since it’s away from the center, consider combining it with a walk around fellow “starchitect” Renzo Piano’s Auditorium to see how the city continues to evolve (15-minute walk to auditorium, from MAXXI follow Via Guido Reni to tram #2 stop and keep going—it’s just beyond the elevated road; see here).

Cost and Hours: €11, Tue-Sun 11:00-19:00, Sat until 22:00, closed Mon, last entry one hour before closing; no permanent collection, several rotating exhibits throughout the year—preview on their website; tram #2 (direction: Mancini) from Piazza del Popolo to the Apollodoro stop, then walk west 5 minutes to Via Guido Reni 4a; to return (direction: Flaminio), the tram stop is 50 yards closer to MAXXI, tel. 06-322-5178,


In the 1960s, movie stars from around the world paraded down curvy Via Veneto, one of Rome’s glitziest nightspots. Today it’s still lined with the city’s poshest hotels and the US Embassy, and retains a sort of faded Champs-Elysées elegance—but any hint of local color has turned to bland.

Capuchin Crypt

If you want to see artistically arranged bones, this (while overpriced) 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 for the delight—or disgust—of the always-wide-eyed visitor.

Cost and Hours: €8, daily 9:00-19:00, modest dress required, no photos, Via Veneto 27, Metro: Barberini, tel. 06-8880-3695.

Visiting the Crypt: Before the crypt, a six-room museum covers the history of the Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan order. You’ll see painting after painting of monks with brown robes and tonsure (ring-cut hair). The exhibits, featuring clothing, books, and other religious artifacts used by members of the order, are explained in English, but the only real artistic highlight is a painting of St. Francis in Meditation, once attributed to Caravaggio (but now thought to be a contemporary copy).

For most travelers, however, the main attraction remains the morbid crypt. You’ll begin with the Crypt of the Three Skeletons (#1). The ceiling is decorated with a skeleton grasping a grim-reaper scythe and scales weighing the “good deeds and the bad deeds so God can judge the soul”—illustrating the Catholic doctrine of earning salvation through good works. The clock with no hands, on the ceiling above the aisle, is a symbol: It means that life goes on forever, once led into the afterlife by Sister Death. The chapel’s bony chandelier and the stars and floral motifs made by ribs and vertebrae are particularly inspired. Finally, look down to read the macabre, monastic, thought-provoking message that serves as the moral of the story: “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.”

In the large Crypt of the Tibia and Fibia (#2), niches are inhabited by Capuchin friars, whose robes gave the name to the brown coffee drink with the frothy white cowl. (Unlike monks, who live apart from society, the Capuchins are friars, who depend on charity and live among the people, and are part of the Franciscan order.) In this chapel we see the Franciscan symbol: the bare arm of Christ and the robed arm of a Franciscan friar embracing the faithful. Above that is a bony crown. And below, in dirt brought from Jerusalem 400 years ago, are 18 graves with simple crosses.

The Crypt of the Hips (#3) is named for the canopy of wavy hipbones with vertebrae bangles over its central altar. Between crypts #3 and #4, look up to see the jaunty skull with a shoulder-blade bowtie.

In the Crypt of the Skulls (#4), look close on the central wall to find the hourglass with wings. Yes, time on earth flies.


The next room (#5) is the boneless chapel. This is part of a church, and the monks sometimes hold somber services here.

In the last room, the Crypt of the Resurrection (#6), with a painting of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, sets the theme of your visit: the Christian faith in resurrection.

As you leave (humming “the foot bone’s connected to the...”), pick up a few of Rome’s most interesting postcards—the proceeds support Capuchin mission work. Head back outside, where it’s not just the bright light that provides contrast with the crypt. Within a few steps are the US Embassy, Hard Rock Café, and fancy Via Veneto cafés, filled with the poor and envious keeping an eye out for the rich and famous.


These sights are on or within a short walk of the bustling Via del Corso thoroughfare, which connects Piazza del Popolo to the heart of town.

Piazza del Popolo

This vast oval square marks the traditional north entrance to Rome. From ancient times until the advent of trains and airplanes, this was just about any visitor’s first look at Rome. Today the square, known for its symmetrical design and its art-filled churches, is the starting point for the city’s evening passeggiata (see the Dolce Vita Stroll at the end of the Nightlife in Rome chapter).


In 1480, Pope Sixtus IV recognized that the ramshackle medieval city was making a miserable first impression on pilgrims who walked here from all over Europe (similar to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). He authorized city planners to appropriate property (establishing “eminent domain”), demolish old buildings, and create straight streets to accommodate traffic. This was the first of several papal campaigns to spruce up the square and make it a suitable entrance for the grand city. The German monk, Martin Luther, would have been impressed when, after walking 700 miles from Germany, he entered the city through this gate (in 1510).

From the Flaminio Metro stop, pass through the third-century Aurelian Wall via the Porta del Popolo, and look south. The 10-story obelisk in the center of the square once graced the temple of Ramses II in Egypt and the Roman Circus Maximus racetrack. The obelisk was brought here in 1589 as one of the square’s beautification projects. (The oval shape dates from the early 19th century.) At the south side of the square, twin domed churches mark the spot where three main boulevards exit the square and form a trident. The central boulevard (running between the churches) is Via del Corso, which since ancient times has been the main north-south drag through town, running to Capitoline Hill (the governing center) and the Forum. The road to the right led to the Vatican, and the road to the left led to the big pilgrimage churches of San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore. With the help of this tridente, pilgrims arriving without a good Rome guidebook knew just where to go. The three churches on Piazza del Popolo are all dedicated to Mary, setting the right tone.

Along the north side of the square (flanking the Porta del Popolo) are two 19th-century buildings that give the square its pleasant symmetry: the Carabinieri station and the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

Two large fountains grace the sides of the square—Neptune to the west and Roma to the east (marking the base of Pincio Hill; steps lead up to the overlook with fine views to St. Peter’s and the rest of the city). Though the name Piazza del Popolo means “Square of the People” (and it is a popular hangout), the word was probably derived from the Latin populus, after the poplar trees that once stood here.

Church of Santa Maria del Popolo

One of Rome’s most overlooked churches, this features two chapels with top-notch art by Caravaggio and Bernini, and a facade built of travertine scavenged from the Colosseum. The church is brought to you by the Rovere family, which produced two popes, and you’ll see their symbol—the oak tree and acorns—throughout.

Cost and Hours: Free but bring coins to illuminate the art, Mon-Sat 7:00-12:30 & 16:00-19:00, Sun 8:00-13:30 & 16:30-19:30, often partially closed to accommodate its busy schedule of Masses, on north side of Piazza del Popolo—as you face the gate in the old wall from the square, the church entrance is to your right.


Visiting the Church: Go inside and enjoy the big view from the entrance. This Augustianian church is a fine example of Roman Renaissance architecture, exuding harmony, rhythm, and lightness as its arches lope to the front where a few rare Renaissance glass windows shine behind the altar. (Most church windows in Rome are from Baroque times, and are clear.)

Like a mini art-history class, this church exposes you to various periods: art of the 1400s, celebrating realism (in the Della Rovere Chapel); the 1500s, embracing humanism (Chigi Chapel); and the 1600s, getting emotional with Baroque and the Counter-Reformation (Cerasi Chapel).

In the Della Rovere Chapel (immediately right of the church entrance), Pinturicchio’s Nativity with St. Jerome illustrates the groundbreaking mastery of realistic landscape painting typical of the Renaissance. It’s a Bible scene but it’s set in 1490 Italy, so that parishioners could relate to it. Enjoy the delicate and harmonious scene with a stretch of ancient Rome’s brick wall included.

The Chigi Chapel (KEE-gee, second on the left from the entrance) was designed by Raphael and inspired (as Raphael was) by the Pantheon. Notice the Pantheon-like dome, pilasters, and capitals. Above in the oculus, God looks in, aided by angels who power the eight known planets. Raphael built the chapel for his wealthy banker friend Agostino Chigi, buried in the pyramid-shaped tomb in the wall to the right of the altar. Later, Chigi’s great-grandson hired Bernini to make two of the four statues, and Bernini—in good Baroque style—delivers with theatrics. In one corner, Daniel straddles a lion and raises his praying hands to God for help. Kitty-corner across the chapel, an angel grabs the prophet Habakkuk’s hair and tells him to go take some food to poor Daniel in the lion’s den.

In the Cerasi Chapel (left of the main altar) Carracci’s Assumption of Mary is pretty, classical, and forgettable. The highlights are the two Caravaggios on either side. Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul (from 1601) shows the future saint sprawled on his back beside his horse while his servant looks on. The startled Paul is blinded by the harsh light as Jesus’ voice asks him, “Why do you persecute me?” In the style of the Counter-Reformation, Paul receives his new faith with open arms. The big butts, dirty feet, harsh foreshortening, and striking angels are all classic, melodramatic Caravaggio.


In the same chapel, Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter is shown as a banal chore; the workers toil like faceless animals. The light and dark are in high contrast. Caravaggio liked to say, “Where light falls, I will paint it.”

▲▲Dolce Vita Stroll

All over the Mediterranean world, people are out strolling in the early evening. Rome’s passeggiata is both elegant (with chic people enjoying fancy window shopping in the grid of streets around the Spanish Steps) and a little crude (with young people on the prowl). Watching the spectacle is a key Rome experience; I recommend following the action on Piazza del Popolo and along Via del Corso (roughly Mon-Sat 17:00-19:00 and Sun afternoons; for more, see the Dolce Vita Stroll in the Nightlife in Rome chapter).

Spanish Steps

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 warm evenings, it attracts young people in love with the city. Image For more about the steps, see the Heart of Rome Walk chapter.

Shopping Triangle

The triangular-shaped area between the Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia, and Piazza del Popolo (along Via del Corso, see map on here) contains Rome’s highest concentration of upscale boutiques and fashion stores. For more, see the Shopping in Rome chapter.

▲▲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 gathered the altar’s scattered parts and reconstructed them in a building here in 1938. Today, the Altar of Peace stands in a pavilion designed by American architect Richard Meier (opened 2006). If this modern building seems striking, perhaps that’s because 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, tightwads can look in through huge windows for free, 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,

Image Self-Guided Tour: 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. (The Ara Pacis originally faced west; now it faces east. Be aware that some art-history books and even the Ara Pacis website may describe it using the original—and opposite—orientation.) Nearby, you’ll also see a row of emperors’ heads, a good film telling the story of the Ara Pacis and its recovery (press the button for English), and other exhibits.

Entrance Side: 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-like walls that enclose a consecrated space. Its well-preserved reliefs celebrate Rome’s success. After a sacrifice, the altar was washed, and the blood flowed out drain holes still visible at the base of the walls. Flanking the doorway are (badly damaged) reliefs of Rome’s legendary founders—Romulus and Remus (on the left, being suckled by the she-wolf) and bearded Aeneas (right), the mythical hero of Troy and Rome, who’s pouring a wine offering and preparing to sacrifice a sow.

Interior: Climb the 10 steps and go inside. From here, the priest would climb the eight altar steps to make sacrifices. The walls of the enclosure are decorated with the kinds of things offered to the gods: animals (see the cow skulls), garlands of fruit, and ceremonial platters to present the offerings. Circle to the left side of the altar to find a relief showing a sacrifice in action. Priests lead the animals to slaughter. They carry swords to do the job, plates and jugs for offering food and wine, and leafy sprigs to dip into the blood and shake around.

Right (North) Side: Head back out and walk around the right side of the structure. This relief probably depicts the parade of dignitaries who consecrated the altar. Just left of center is Augustus, his body sliced in two vertically by a missing stone—he’s the one with only half a body. Augustus wears the victor’s crown of laurel leaves, having just conquered parts of Spain and Gaul. Augustus is followed by a half-dozen bigwigs and priests (with spiked hats) and the man shouldering the sacrificial ax. Next comes Agrippa (wearing the hood of a priest), Augustus’ right-hand man in battles against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Agrippa married Augustus’ daughter, Julia—their little son, Gaius, tugs on his dad’s toga while turning to look at Livia, Augustus’ wife (a few heads farther back). When Agrippa died, Gaius was adopted and named as successor by Augustus. Gaius also died young, making the next in line Tiberius, Livia’s son by a first marriage, shown standing next to his mother. Confused? Find these names and other descendants of Julius Caesar on the genealogical chart and the row of busts in the museum lobby.

Before proceeding farther around the altar, look out the window to see the overgrown Mausoleum of Augustus and his family, once capped with a dome of earth, elegant spruces, and statues of the emperor. To the left is an example of Mussolini’s fascist architecture—intended to remind Italians of their imperial Roman roots. Note the travertine, brick, low-relief propaganda, stony inscriptions, Roman numerals, and cold rationality. (Locals don’t like it.) This area was the Field of Mars, Rome’s only neighborhood continuously inhabited since ancient times.

Back Side: The altar’s back door is flanked with reliefs celebrating the two things Augustus brought to Rome: peace (goddess Roma as a conquering Amazon, right side) and prosperity (fertility goddess surrounded by children, plants, and animals, left side). For a closer look at details from the various reliefs, see the model back near the museum entrance.

Left (South) Side: Leading the parade of senators is a lictor—a ceremonial bodyguard—carrying the fasces. This bundle of sticks symbolized how unity brings strength, and it gave us the modern word “fascism.” The reliefs feature the first official portrayal of women and children in a public monument.

Beneath the parade, notice the elaborate floral relief that runs all the way around the Ara Pacis. Acanthus tendrils spiral out, forming decorative garlands, intertwining with ivy, laurel, and more. Swans with outstretched wings hide among the patterns. Some 50 plants are blooming in this display of abundance. Imagine the altar as it once was, standing in an open field, painted in bright colors—a mingling of myth, man, and nature.


▲▲Catacombs of Priscilla (Catacombe di Priscilla)

Of the dozens of catacombs honeycombing the ground just outside the ancient city walls, only five are open to the public. While most tourists and nearly all tour groups go out to the Appian Way to see the famous catacombs of San Sebastiano and San Callisto, the Catacombs of Priscilla (on the other side of town) are less commercialized and less crowded—they just feel more intimate, as catacombs should.

Cost and Hours: €8, Tue-Sun 8:30-12:00 & 14:30-17:00, closed Mon, closed one random month a year—check website or call first, tel. 06-8620-6272,

Getting There: The catacombs are northeast of Termini train station (at Via Salaria 430), far from the center (a €15 taxi ride) but well-served by buses (20-30 minutes). From Termini, take bus #92 or #310 from Piazza Cinquecento. From Piazza Venezia, along Via del Corso or Via Barberini, take bus #63 or #83. Tell the driver “Piazza Crati” and “kah-tah-KOHM-bay” and he’ll let you off near Piazza Crati (at the Nemorense/Crati stop). From there, walk through the little market in Piazza Crati, then down Via di Priscilla (about 5 minutes). The entrance is in the orange building on the left at the top of the hill.

Visiting the Catacombs: The Catacombs of Priscilla likely originated as underground tombs for Christians, who’d meet to worship in the wealthy Christian’s home that was on this spot. As poor people couldn’t generally afford a nice plot in a cemetery, they would dig graves at a generous person’s home...and dig and dig.

At the Catacombs of Priscilla, you enter from a convent and explore the result of 250 years of tunneling that occurred from the second to the fifth century. Visits are by 30-minute guided tour only (English-language tours go whenever a small group gathers—generally every 20 minutes or so). You’ll see a few thousand of the 40,000 niches carved here, along with some beautiful frescoes, including what is considered the first depiction of Mary nursing the Baby Jesus.


As in other catacombs, some of the tunnels date from an earlier quarry. Volcanic tuff, the stone ancient Rome was built with, works great for burial niches—it’s easy to dig and dries hard when exposed to air.

Image For more information on catacombs, see the Ancient Appian Way Tour chapter.

East Rome


Most of these sights are within a 10-minute walk of the train station (except for the Baroque Surprises Stroll and art exhibitions, which are a bit farther).

▲▲▲National Museum of Rome (Museo Nazionale Romano Palazzo Massimo alle Terme)

The National Museum’s main branch, at Palazzo Massimo, 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 very 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,

Image See the National Museum of Rome Tour chapter.


Baths of Diocletian (Terme di Diocleziano / Basilica S. Maria degli Angeli)

(See “Baths of Diocletian” map, here.)

Of all the marvelous structures built by the Romans, their public baths were arguably the grandest, and the Baths of Diocletian were the granddaddy of them all. Built by Emperor Diocletian around A.D. 300 and sprawling over 30 acres—roughly five times the size of the Colosseum—these baths could cleanse 3,000 Romans at once. Today, tourists can visit one grand section of the baths, the former main hall. This impressive remnant of the ancient complex was later transformed (with help from Michelangelo) into the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 7:00-18:30, Sun 7:00-19:30. The entrance is on Piazza della Repubblica (Metro: Repubblica or buses #40 and #64). Note that the Museum of the Bath, attached to the back (north side) of the complex, is a lesser branch of the nearby National Museum and is included on the museum combo-ticket (€10).


Background: Large building projects like the baths were political security: They provided employment and fed the masses. Diocletian (ruled A.D. 285-305) struggled to find a system to rule his unwieldy empire. He broke it into zones ruled by four “tetrarchs.” During Diocletian’s “tetrarchs” period, architecture and art were grandiose, but almost a caricature of greatness—meant to proclaim to Romans that their city was still the power it had once been.

The baths were one of the last great structures built before Rome’s 200-year fall. They functioned until A.D. 537, when barbarians attacked and the city’s aqueducts fell into disuse, plunging Rome into a thousand years of poverty, darkness, and BO.


Image Self-Guided Tour: Start outside the church. The curved brick facade of today’s church was once part of the caldarium, or steam room, of the ancient baths. Romans loved to sweat out last night’s indulgences. After entering the main lobby (located where Piazza della Repubblica is today), they’d strip in the locker rooms, then enter the steam room. The caldarium had wood furnaces under the raised floors. Stoked by slaves, these furnaces were used to heat the floors and hot tubs. The low ceiling helped keep the room steamy.

Entry Hall: Step into the vast and cool church. This round-domed room with an oculus (open skylight, now with modern stained glass) was once the tepidarium—the cooling-off room of the baths, where medium, “tepid” temperatures were maintained. This is where masseuses would rub you down and clean you off with a metal scraper called a strigil (Romans mostly used oils, including olive, rather than soap).

Large Transept: Step into the biggest part of the church and stand under the towering vault on the inlaid marble cross. In ancient times, from the tepidarium, Romans would have continued on to this space, the central hall of the baths. While the decor around you dates from the 18th century, the structure dates from the fourth century.


This hall retains the grandeur of the ancient baths. It’s the size of a football field and seven stories high—once even higher, since the original ancient floor was about 15 feet below its present level. The ceiling’s crisscross arches were an architectural feat unmatched for a thousand years. The eight red granite columns are original, from ancient Rome—stand next to one and feel its five-foot girth. (Only the eight in the transept proper are original. The others are made of plastered-over brick.) In Roman times, this hall was covered with mosaics, marble, and gold, and lined with statues.

From here, Romans could continue (through what is now the apse, near the altar) into an open-air courtyard to take a dip in the vast 32,000-square-foot swimming pool (in the frigidarium) that paralleled this huge hall. Many other rooms, gardens, and courtyards extended beyond what we see here. The huge complex was built in only 10 years (around A.D. 300)—amazing when you think of the centuries it took builders of puny medieval cathedrals, such as Paris’ Notre-Dame.

Mentally undress your fellow tourists and churchgoers, and imagine hundreds of naked or toga-clad Romans wrestling, doing jumping jacks, singing in the baths, networking, or just milling about.

The baths were more than washrooms. They were health clubs with exercising areas, equipment, and swimming pools. They had gardens for socializing. Libraries, shops, bars, fast-food vendors, pedicurists, depilatories, and brothels catered to every Roman need. Most important, perhaps, the baths offered a spacious, cool-in-summer/warm-in-winter place for Romans to get out of their stuffy apartments and schmooze or simply hang out.

Admission was virtually free, requiring only the smallest coin. Baths were open to men and women—and during Nero’s reign, coed bathing was popular—but generally there were either separate rooms or separate entry times. Most Romans went daily.

Michelangelo’s Church: The church we see today was (at least partly) designed by Michelangelo (1561), who used the baths’ main hall as the nave. Later, when Piazza della Repubblica became an important Roman intersection, another architect renovated the church. To allow people to enter from the grand new piazza, he spun it 90 degrees, turning Michelangelo’s nave into a long transept. The four large paintings flanking the main altar were originally in St. Peter’s (they were replaced there with mosaics).

La Meridiana (1702): Embedded in the floor of the right transept (roped off) is a brass rod, pointing due north. It acts as a sundial. As the sun arcs across the southern sky, a ray of light beams into the church through a tiny hole high in the wall and a cut in the cornice of the right transept. (To find the hole, follow the rod to the right to the wall and look up 65 feet.) The sunbeam sweeps across the church floor, crossing the meridian rod at exactly noon (before modern innovations like Daylight Saving Time).


This celestial clock is also a calendar. In summer, when the sun is high overhead, the sunbeam strikes the southern end of the rod. With each passing day, the sun travels up the rod (toward the apse), passing through the signs of the zodiac (the 28-day months of the moon’s phases) marked alongside the rod. Many of the meridian’s markings were intended for its other use, charting the movement of the stars. However, the tiny window that once let in light from the North Star (originally above the archway of the entrance to the apse) has been filled in.

La Meridiana was Rome’s official city timekeeper until 1846, when it was replaced by the cannon atop Gianicolo Hill (which is still fired every day at exactly noon).

Exhibits: The small room to the left of the main altar, the Sacrestia, now houses temporary exhibits, often illuminating the church’s rich architectural history. Admire both the immensity and height of the ancient Roman brickwork in this room. Step outside into the courtyard and re-create the grand architecture. Notice the exedra (semicircular recess in a wall or building)—a motif Romans used for decoration and as a kind of stage for philosophers and orators. See the niches that once housed statues, the rectangular holes that could be used to hold wood-beam scaffolding, and the small pockmarks where iron pegs once secured the marble paneling.

Nearby: Piazza della Repubblica, in front of the baths, was once a garden at the center of the vast, ancient complex. It was called Piazza Esedra until Italian unification (and is still called that by many Romans). The building wrapping around it is a monumental office block, typical of Italian-unification architecture of the late 19th century. The thundering Via Nazionale starts on the far side at what was an ancient door. Look down it (past the erotic nymphs of the Naiad fountain) to the Victor Emmanuel Monument. The Art Nouveau fountain of the four water nymphs created quite a stir when unveiled in 1911. The nymphs were modeled after a set of twins, who kept coming to visit as late as the 1960s to remind themselves of their nubile youth. Here at the site of the ancient Thermae, the statues bathe eternally.

Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria

This church houses Bernini’s best-known statue, the swooning St. Teresa in Ecstasy.

Cost and Hours: Free (anyone collecting money at the door is not affiliated with the church), pay €0.50 for light, Mon-Sat 8:30-12:00 & 15:30-18:00, Sun 15:30-18:00, about 5 blocks northwest of Termini train station at Via XX Settembre 17, Metro: Repubblica.

Visiting the Church: Inside the church, you’ll find St. Teresa to the left of the altar. Teresa has just been stabbed with God’s arrow of fire. Now, the angel pulls it out and watches her reaction. Teresa swoons, her eyes roll up, her hand goes limp, she parts her lips...and moans. The smiling, cherubic angel understands just how she feels. Teresa, a 16th-century Spanish nun, later talked of the “sweetness” of “this intense pain,” describing her oneness with God in ecstatic, even erotic, terms.


Bernini, the master of multimedia, pulls out all the stops to make this mystical vision real. Actual sunlight pours through the alabaster windows, bronze sunbeams shine on a marble angel holding a golden arrow. Teresa leans back on a cloud and her robe ripples from within, charged with her spiritual arousal. Bernini has created a little stage-setting of heaven. And watching from the “theater boxes” on either side are members of the family who commissioned the work.

The church, originally a poor Carmelite church, was slathered with Baroque richness in the 17th century. (It grew popular in modern times for its part in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, something that serious historians scoff at.) At the altar, in the center of the starburst, is an icon of the Virgin Mary, considered miraculous for the military victories attributed to it during the Thirty Years’ War (early 1600s). And, as the 17th century was a time when the Roman Catholic Church was threatened by Protestants, the ceiling shows Mary defeating (Protestant) snakes, who grasp scriptures translated from the pope’s Latin into the evil vernacular.

Santa Susanna Church

The home of the American Catholic Church in Rome, Santa Susanna may be closed for renovation during your visit. When open, they hold Mass in English Monday through Saturday at 18:00, and on Sunday at 9:00 and 10:30; if they’re closed, check their website for the temporary locations and times. They arrange papal audience tickets (see here), and their excellent website contains tips for travelers and a list of convents that rent out rooms. You’ll find a description of the church’s facade next, in my Baroque Surprises Stroll.


Cost and Hours: Free, Mon-Sat 9:00-12:00 & 16:00-19:00, open Sun only for Mass, Via XX Settembre 15, near recommended Via Firenze hotels, Metro: Repubblica, tel. 06-4201-4554,

Baroque Surprises Stroll on Via XX Settembre

When Pope Sixtus V developed an ambitious plan to reorganize Rome around key landmarks (c. 1580s), he transformed this formerly sleepy neighborhood near the Baths of Diocletian. Within three generations, it was a major traffic hub and the center of a new city water system. The streets were lined with grand fountains, obelisks, and churches, all decorated in the new style of the 1600s—Baroque.

Image Self-Guided Walk: This half-mile walk starts in Piazza di San Bernardo (near the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, with Bernini’s famous statue of St. Teresa, described earlier), travels down Via XX Settembre, and ends at the Palazzo del Quirinale, where you can see a distant obelisk (see map on here for route). The churches we’ll look at are free to enter; the hours are listed for each one, but keep in mind that they close for an early afternoon break (from 12:00 or 13:00 until 15:30 or 16:00).

✵ Start at the wide square known as...

Piazza di San Bernardo: At the end of the square is the imposing Fountain of Moses. After a thousand years of living on well water, the citizens of this neighborhood finally got fresh running water with the opening of this public fountain (1585-1588). It was built by Pope Sixtus V as the end point for a newly restored, 15-mile-long ancient aqueduct. From here, water was distributed to dozens of other nearby fountains. The vast undertaking was celebrated with statues by Domenico Fontana, starring Moses—renowned for miraculously bringing forth water in the desert. Take a look at the fountain’s four huge columns, recycled from ancient ruins. Besides being decorative, the fountain was functional, designed to quench the thirst of visiting pilgrims and their horses.

Also on the square is the Church of Santa Susanna. You’re looking at what was considered the first Baroque facade—see the date: MDCIII (1603). It was designed by Carlo Maderno at the same time he was working on the facade of St. Peter’s. As this is Baroque rather than Renaissance, the columns are in higher relief. The structure seems to pop out at you from the center with an energy that enlivens the entire building. The architect added a new Baroque element—curves—seen in the scrollwork “shoulders.” We’ll see curves in spades later in this walk. (This church usually offers a daily Mass in English but may be closed for renovation—see previous page and can also help you get tickets for a papal audience—see here).

Turn 180 degrees. Opposite the Church of Santa Susanna is the circular Church of San Bernardo (built 1598). Why is the church round? Because it was incorporated into one of the corner towers of the Baths of Diocletian. Think of how far away the baths’ central hall is (see map on here), and appreciate how vast that ancient health club was.

✵ Now, with the Fountain of Moses at your back, walk down...

Via XX Settembre: This is an ancient road. Pope Sixtus knew it as Via Pia, but its name now memorializes a modern military victory—the capture of Rome by Italian nationalists in 1870 on the “20th of September.” As you walk, you’ll pass the local “Pentagon” (on the left, with the stony bottom and pink top) and other governmental buildings marked by uniforms, tight security, barriers against car bombs, and Italian and European flags.

✵ At a very pedestrian unfriendly spot, you reach...

Via delle Quattro Fontane: This intersection, named for its four fountains, was a big deal for 16th-century pilgrims, as two main roads crossed here. Imagine poor and haggard wayfarers trudging into town with little money and bereft of a Rick Steves guidebook. They navigated by sighting the obelisks and domes that Sixtus’ plan had planted around the city. Entering from the north (as most Northern European visitors did), they’d pause here to drink from their choice of fountains. They could then either continue straight to the famous pilgrimage church of Santa Maria Maggiore—whose spire is visible to the left—or (spotting the obelisk down the road), head for Palazzo del Quirinale, then the residence of the pope. The intersection’s fountains depict river gods relaxing in the shade. They were designed by a familiar name—Domenico Fontana, or Signor “Fountain.”

✵ Just past the fountain on the left side of the street (best viewed from the right side, to take in the full facade) is the...

Church of San Carlo alla Quattro Fontane: On the facade, the distinct curves of Baroque have now evolved into undulating waves, rippling the surface of this watershed church. And the medallion on top introduces another Baroque element—the oval.

The church was designed by Francesco Borromini (c. 1640), who had served his apprenticeship at St. Peter’s, carving putti for his cousin Maderno and building the altar canopy (baldacchino) for the famous Bernini. He and Bernini split on bad terms. Now Bernini’s competitor, Borromini used this church as a chance to finally go solo and show his stuff.


Step inside (Mon-Fri 10:00-13:00 & 15:00-18:00, Sat 10:00-13:00, Sun 12:00-13:00). The tiny interior is oval-shaped, topped with an oval dome, which is itself topped with a tiny oval lantern. The whole upper story is a riot of wavy lines—ovals, arches, circles—that defy classical notions of symmetry. The dome is coffered with a complex mix of polygons and crosses. The dome seems to float, with no visible support, and is lit by no obvious light source.

The church looks rich. But Borromini’s patrons—an order of poor monks—had little money. So the church is small and made of simple materials—brick, concrete, and plaster—but manipulated with lots of 3-D tricks. Borromini’s design is brilliant: light, soft, and as if in a cloud. Light, a symbol of God, pours in from the holy dove in the cupola above (which seems higher than it is). Borromini designed everything for the tight space—notice the tidy little confessionals. And the cherubs are ever so huggable.

With this church, Borromini shocked the critics. But over the centuries, it’s become classically Roman—locals fondly call it San Carlino. Borromini, who went on to contribute much to Rome’s architecture, committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest.

✵ Head one block farther down the street (which is now called Via del Quirinale). On the left is the...

Church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale: Often called the “Pearl of the Baroque,” this exquisite church sums up the Baroque style (1661). It was designed by the most famous Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as a chapel for the pope’s entourage at the Palazzo del Quirinale. As it was actually used by popes, Bernini had plenty of money for the work—there’s lots of marble and gold—but he needed to be pretty conventional. This feels more solid, stable, and classical than the Borromini church.

Inside, the focus is on the altar, dedicated to St. Andrew, or Sant’Andrea (Tue-Sat 8:30-12:00 & 14:30-18:00, Sun 9:00-12:00 & 15:00-18:00, closed Mon). Bernini—the master of multimedia—uses every artistic device to tell Andrew’s story. The apostle (depicted in the altar painting) is being crucified on his X-shaped cross. He gazes up toward the light. His soul seems to follow the bronze angels above him, up through a light-filled shaft. Then he reappears—now as a marble statue—above the altar. He bursts through the pediment, ascending on a cloud, into the golden light where he joins his fellow saints in the dome of heaven.

Bernini makes all these elements come together. The pink marble columns color-coordinate with the pink frame of the painting. A bronze angel rests his hand on the painting’s marble frame. The delightfully backlit cherubs at the base of the shaft playfully look down on the action. And the suffused light filtering in from the dome brings all the colors together. Bernini combines sculpture, painting, and architecture into “un bel composto”—a beautiful whole.

✵ Continue down Via del Quirinale, walking along the loooong extent of Palazzo del Quirinale (on your right). The building looks somewhat bigger than it is, because the side we’re walking along is actually just a long, skinny building enclosing the formal Quirinale Gardens (for a glimpse of them, peek past the guards when you get to the square). Keep walking toward the main entrance on Piazza di Quirinale.

Palazzo del Quirinale: The building (by Maderno and Signor Fountain) dates from 1583, but this site has housed Rome’s ruling elite for 2,000 years. Ancient Roman aristocrats, Baroque-era popes, the kings of reunited Italy (after XX Settembre, 1870), and today’s presidents of Italy have all resided here—it feels like a combination White House/Palace of Versailles. The current president is Sergio Mattarella (the president is elected by parliament and serves a seven-year term). While less powerful than the prime minister, Mattarella is very well respected, acting as a stabilizing influence in Italy’s chaotic political landscape. Notice the three flags above the entrance: Europe, Italy, and—if he’s currently at home in the palace—the personal flag of the president. The palace is occasionally open and tourable—in Italian—on Sunday mornings (see for details).


Piazza del Quirinale: The square in front of the palace marks the summit of Quirinal Hill, the highest of Rome’s fabled seven hills. The fountain in the middle of the square has colossal statues of horses and men (probably Castor and Pollux, third century); as part of his reordering of the city, Pope Sixtus V had the figures moved here around 1585 from a spot near the Baths of Constantine. The obelisk, which formerly stood in front of the Mausoleum of Augustus, was erected here in the late 1700s. Take in the views—there’s a fine vista of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. From here, a set of stairs (in the direction of the dome) leads down to the Trevi Fountain. The big road continues on to Piazza Venezia.

Art Exhibitions

Two temporary exhibition spaces, near Palazzo del Quirinale and just a few blocks from each another, show top-notch art on a rotating basis. Scuderie del Quirinale typically focuses on the great masters (Titian, Vermeer, Caravaggio), while Palazzo delle Exposizioni favors contemporary artworks and photography.

Cost and Hours: €12 for each, can be more with some exhibits; both open Sun-Thu 10:00-20:00, Fri-Sat 10:00-22:30 except the Palazzo is closed Mon; both may open—and stay open—much later in summer; last entry one hour before closing; Scuderie—Via XXIV Maggio 16, tel. 06-696-271,; Palazzo—Via Nazionale 194, tel. 06-3996-7500,


East of the Colosseum (and south of Termini train station) are several venerable churches that Catholic pilgrims make a point of visiting. Near one of the churches is a small WWII museum.

Image See the Pilgrim’s Rome Tour chapter.

▲▲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.


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, last entry 15 minutes before closing; Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, Metro: San Giovanni, or bus #85 or #87; tel. 06-6988-6409,

Museum of the Liberation of Rome (Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma)

This small memorial museum, near the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, is housed in the prison wing of the former Nazi police headquarters of occupied Rome. Other than a single pamphlet, there’s little in English. Still, for those interested in resistance movements and the Nazi occupation, it’s a stirring visit. You’ll see a few artifacts, many photos of heroes, and a couple of cells preserved as they were found on June 4, 1944, when the city was liberated.

Cost and Hours: Free but donations accepted, Tue-Sun 9:30-12:30, Tue and Thu-Fri also 15:30-19:30, closed Mon and Aug, just behind the Holy Stairs, look for the flags at Via Tasso 145; tel. 06-700-3866.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

Home of Rome’s best-surviving mosaics line the nave of this church built as Rome was falling. The nearby Church of Santa Prassede has still more early mosaics (described on here in the Pilgrim’s Rome Tour chapter).

Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:00-19:00, Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, Metro: Termini or Vittorio Emanuele, tel. 06-6988-6802.

Church of San Clemente

Besides visiting the church itself, with frescoes by Masolino, you can also descend into the ruins of an earlier church. Descend yet one more level and enter the eerie remains of a pagan temple to Mithras. It’s one of the easiest places to fully appreciate the layers of history that lie underfoot in Rome.

Cost and Hours: Upper church-free, lower church-€10, both open Mon-Sat 9:00-12:30 & 15:00-18:00, Sun 12:00-18:00; Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, Metro: Colosseo, or bus #85 or #87; tel. 06-774-0021,

South Rome

The area south of the center contains some interesting but widely scattered areas, from Trastevere to Testaccio to E.U.R. Many sights appear on the color map of South Rome at the beginning of this book. Note that Metro line B hits several of the outlying sights listed here: Piramide (Testaccio area and trains to Ostia Antica), Garbatella (Montemartini Museum), Basilica San Paolo (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls), and E.U.R. Magliana (Palace of the Civilization of Labor). For maximum efficiency, use this spine to quickly hop between these sights.


Trastevere is the colorful neighborhood across (tras) the Tiber (Tevere) River. Trastevere (trahs-TAY-veh-ray) offers the best look at medieval-village Rome. The action unwinds to the chime of the church bells. Go there and wander. Wonder. Be a poet. This is Rome’s Left Bank.

Image See the Trastevere Walk chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

This proud neighborhood was long a working-class area. Now that it’s becoming trendy, high rents are driving out the source of so much color. Still, it’s a great people scene, especially at night. Stroll the back streets (for restaurant recommendations, see the Eating in Rome chapter). For details on getting there, see the Trastevere Walk chapter.


Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

One of Rome’s oldest church sites, a basilica was erected here in the fourth century, when Christianity was legalized. It is said to have been the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The structure you see today dates mainly from the 12th century. Its portico (covered area just outside the door) is decorated with fascinating fragments of stone—many of them lids from catacomb burial niches—and filled with early Christian symbolism. The church is on Piazza di Santa Maria. While today’s fountain is from the 17th century, there has been a fountain here since Roman times.

Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:30-21:00.


Villa Farnesina

Here’s a unique opportunity to see a sumptuous Renaissance villa in Rome decorated with Raphael paintings. It was built in the early 1500s for the richest man in Renaissance Europe, Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. Kings and popes of the day depended on generous loans from Chigi, whose bank had more than 100 branches in places as far-flung as London and Cairo. His villa was the meeting place of aristocrats, artists, beautiful women, and philosophers.

Architect Baldassare Peruzzi’s design—a U-shaped building with wings enfolding what used to be a vast garden—successfully blended architecture and nature in a way that both ancient and Renaissance Romans loved. Orchards and flower beds flowed down in terraces from the palace to the riverbanks. Later construction of modern embankments and avenues robbed the garden of its grandeur, leaving it with a more melancholy charm. Inside, cavorting gods and goddesses cover the walls and ceilings, most famously Raphael’s depiction of the sea nymph Galatea.


Cost and Hours: €6; Mon-Sat 9:00-14:00, closed Sun except open 9:00-17:00 on second Sun of month; across the river from Campo de’ Fiori, a short walk from Ponte Sisto and a block behind the river at 230 Via della Lungara; tel. 06-6802-7268,

Image Self-Guided Tour: Enjoy the best bits of the villa with this commentary.

✵ Begin in Room 1.

Loggia of Galatea: Note the ceiling painted by Peruzzi, showing the position of the signs of the horoscope at the exact moment of Agostino’s birth (21:30, November 29, 1466). The room’s claim to fame is Raphael’s painting of the nymph Galatea (on the wall by the entrance door). She shuns the doting attention of the ungainly one-eyed giant Polyphemus (in the niche to the left, painted by another artist) and speeds away in the company of her rambunctious entourage on a chariot led by dolphins. She turns back and looks up, amused by the cyclops’ crude love song (which, I believe, was “I Only Have Eye for You”). The trigger-happy cupids and lusty, entwined fauns and nymphs announce the pagan spirit revived in Renaissance Rome. All the painting’s lines of sight (especially the cupids’ arrows) point to the center of the work, Galatea’s radiant face. Galatea is considered Raphael’s vision of female perfection—not a portrait of an individual woman, but a composite of his many lovers in an idealized vision.


✵ Continue into Room 2.

Loggia of Psyche: This room was painted by Raphael and his assistants. Imagine it without the glass windows, as a continuation of the garden outside, where plays were performed to entertain Agostino’s guests. Raphael’s two ceiling frescoes were painted to look like tapestries (complete with ruffled edges), suspended from the ceiling by garlands, making the room appear to be an open bower. View the frescoes from the top, with your back to the garden. The ceiling shows episodes in the myth of a lovely mortal woman, Psyche, who caught the eye of the winged boy-god Cupid (Eros). See the loving couple at the far left end, at the base of the ceiling. The big ceiling fresco on the left depicts the gods of Olympus gathered to plan a series of ordeals to test whether Psyche is worthy to marry a god. (Find Hercules with white beard and club, and Dionysius pouring the wine.) The other shows the happy ending, as Cupid (boy with wings) and Psyche (to his left, in topless robe) stand before Zeus to celebrate their wedding feast, attended by the pantheon of gods.


The whole setting—the room by the gardens, the subject of the frescoes, the fleshy bodies—has an erotic subtext. At the time, Raphael was having a passionate affair with the celebrated Fornarina (the “baker’s daughter,” who lived down the street). Agostino, noticing that his painter was constantly interrupting his workday to be with her, had the girl kidnapped so that Raphael would finally concentrate. But production slowed even more, as Raphael was depressed. Agostino gave up and had the Fornarina move in with Raphael to keep him company as he happily resumed work in this cheery room. The room’s imagery abounds with images both phallic and yonic (the female counterpart of phallic). Next to the ripe and split-open cantaloupe (right end, base of ceiling), find the gourd wearing a condom.

✵ Upstairs, accessed from the stairway near the entrance, is the...

Room of the Perspectives: Peruzzi, another trendsetter, painted this room. Walls seem to open onto views and perspectives that actually correspond with what lies outside. The insulting-to-Catholics graffiti (for example, on the wall at the far end) dates from 1527, when Protestant mercenaries sent by Charles V sacked the city.

Agostino had his wedding banquet in this room. His parties were the talk of the town. On one occasion, he invited his guests in the (now lost) dining loggia overlooking the Tiber to toss the gold and silver dishes they had just used into the river. (The banker had nets conveniently placed just below the river’s surface.)


The small chamber at the end of the Room of the Perspectives was the bedroom. The painting on the wall depicts the wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxanne. Roxanne has the features of Agostino’s bride, and the bed is the jewel-encrusted ebony bed that received Agostino and his bride here in this room. On the entrance wall, find the three-arched ruins of the Basilica of Constantine in the Forum. The room was painted by Il Sodoma, a devoted fan of Michelangelo and one of the artists who was canned when Raphael took over the decoration of the papal apartments at the Vatican. Had that not happened, the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican might have looked like this.

Agostino had famous affairs with the most beautiful courtesans of his day. He eventually settled down, but his wild-living descendants didn’t, and—in the space of a couple of generations—the Chigi family lost its fabulous fortune.

Gianicolo Hill Viewpoint Hike

From this park atop a hill, the city views are superb, and the walk to the top holds a treat for architecture buffs. (It’s easy to follow the route described below on the map on here.) Start at Trastevere’s Piazza di Santa Maria and go south (to the left as you face the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere) a couple of blocks through Piazza di San Calisto to Via Luciano Manara. Go right, and walk until you come to the fountain at the base of the hill (on Via Goffredo Mameli). Go right, following Via Goffredo Mameli until it intersects with Via Garibaldi. Just to the left of the intersection is access to the ramp and stairs that lead to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio. To the right of the church, in a small courtyard, is the Tempietto by Donato Bramante. This “small temple,” built to commemorate the martyrdom of St. Peter (once believed to have happened at this spot), is considered a jewel of Italian Renaissance architecture and a prototype for the design of St. Peter’s dome.

From the church, go right and continue up Via Garibaldi. You’ll see immediately across the street on your left the white fascist arches of the Italian Independence War Memorial, commemorating the 1849 battle fought here, when Giuseppe Garibaldi’s forces valiantly tried to hold back the invading French army. Atop one side is the inscription Roma o Morte (Rome or Death), the battle cry of Garibaldi’s troops.

Continuing up, as the road curves, you’ll see the monumental Baroque Acqua Paola fountain, named after Pope Paul V of the Borghese family (if you’ve been to the Borghese Gallery, you’ll recognize the eagle and dragons from their coat of arms). Like the Trevi Fountain, it commemorates the restoration of an aqueduct that brought water to the city and incorporates columns from the original St. Peter’s Basilica. Expansive views of the Roman skyline open up on your right. You can’t miss the blocky, gleaming white Victor Emmanuel Monument along with assorted domes that rise above the Roman roofscape (look straight out for the rather nondescript, shallow dome of the Pantheon). The green space beyond the roofline is the Villa Borghese Gardens, and looming in the distance are the Alban Hills (home to Frascati, a town known for its wine production, and Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the popes).

From here, you have two choices. To return to Trastevere, retrace your steps. But a short climb farther is rewarding. If you were to continue up Via Garibaldi you’d reach the cube-shaped Porta San Pancrazio, an opening in the Aurelian Walls that were extended up this hill in the third century to protect Rome’s strategic water mills.

But by now your quad muscles are reminding you that you are climbing a hill—the Janiculum (Gianicolo in Italian) Hill, named after the two-faced Roman god Janus (who also gives name to the month January—looking back to the previous year and forward to the next). Leaving the fountain, cross the street and take a right through the gate with two urns up the tree-lined Passeggiata del Gianicolo and enter the hill-crowning park. You’ll soon reach the large Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi, dominated by the equestrian statue of the swashbuckling military leader of the Italian unification. He enjoys a magnifico view of the Eternal City that you can drink in by standing at the railing on the right. A little farther along, look left to find the baby-carrying, gun-wielding, horse-riding statue of Anita Garibaldi, Giuseppe’s Brazilian-born partner in battle (and in life). The nearby Manfredi Lighthouse was built as a gift to Rome from Italian immigrants to Argentina.

From here you can follow the road that snakes its way down to the river. Or if your feet are screaming “Roma o Morte,” catch any northbound bus (#115 or #870) down to the river. Consider doing this hike in reverse by taking a bus (or taxi) to the top of the hill and then walking steadily downhill to Trastevere.


In the gritty Testaccio neighborhood, several fascinating but lesser sights cluster at the Piramide Metro stop. (This is a quick and easy stop as you return from E.U.R., or when changing trains en route to Ostia Antica.)

In ancient times (when Rome was the first city on earth to reach a population of one million), wharves lined the banks of the Tiber River here. Back then, 90 percent of the city’s food came through this area. More recently, the neighborhood was known for its huge slaughterhouse that opened in the late 19th century, after Rome became the capital of the unified Italy and the population boomed. Now the formerly abandoned complex is being redeveloped into a mix of functions—a branch of Rome’s contemporary art museum (MACRO), temporary exhibition space, classrooms from a nearby university, and a weekend farmers and craft market all set against the backdrop of meat hooks and cattle pens. Yet the culinary tradition remains as Romans come to Testaccio to enjoy its numerous tasty eateries.


Long a working-class neighborhood, Testaccio has gone trendy-bohemian. Visitors wander through an awkward mix of hipster and proletarian worlds, not noticing—but perhaps sensing—the “Keep Testaccio for the Testaccians” graffiti.

You can pick and choose among the Testaccio sights described here or link them with my walking directions, starting at the Piramide Metro station. Use the map to follow along. Note that the neighborhood is quiet, and many restaurants are closed on Sunday.

✵ As you exit the Metro station, look straight across the busy (and slightly seedy) square to find the giant pyramid and the adjacent brick fortress. For a closer look at these—and to begin our walk—carefully cross the several busy lanes of traffic and head for the gap between these two landmarks.

Pyramid of Gaius Cestius

In the first century B.C., the Roman occupation of Egypt brought exotic pharaonic styles into vogue. Stoking the fascination with Egypt even further was the love affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra; this power couple was the ancient equivalent of Brangelina (Cleopantony?). A rich Roman magistrate, Gaius Cestius, had this pyramid built as his tomb, complete with a burial chamber inside. Made of brick covered in marble, the 90-foot structure was completed in just 330 days (as stated in its Latin inscription). While smaller than actual Egyptian pyramids, its proportions are correct. It was later incorporated into the Aurelian Wall (explained next), and it now stands as a marker to the entrance of Testaccio. The most dramatic views of the pyramid are from inside the Protestant Cemetery (described later), on the other side of the wall.


✵ Across the narrow street from the pyramid is the...

Porta San Paolo and Museo della Via Ostiense

This formidable gate is from the Aurelian Wall, begun in the third century under Emperor Aurelian. The wall, which encircled the city, was 12 miles long and averaged about 26 feet high, with 14 main gates and 380 72-foot-tall towers. Most of what you’ll see today is circa A.D. 400, but the barbarians reconstructed the gate later, in the sixth century.

Inside the gate is a tiny free museum (find entrance near pyramid; Tue-Sun 9:00-13:30, closed Mon, tel. 06-574-3193). The museum offers a chance to explore the gate and a few models of Rome’s ancient port, Ostia Antica; its neighbor, Porto, with its famed hexagonal harbor; and the Ostian Way, the straight Roman road that paralleled the curvy Tiber for 15 miles from Rome to the sea.

For more on the Aurelian Wall, visit the San Sebastiano Gate and Museum of the Walls (described in my Image Ancient Appian Way Tour chapter). For more on Ostia Antica, see the Image Ostia Antica Day Trip chapter or Image download my free audio tour.

✵ Go through the gap between the pyramid and the gate on Via Raffaele Persichetti/Via Marmorata. On your right, notice the beige travertine post office from 1932. This is textbook Mussolini-era fascist architecture; the huge X design on the exterior celebrates the 10th anniversary of the dictator’s reign.

Take the first left, on sleepy Via Caio Cestio, and walk about 100 yards, looking on the left for the gate of the cemetery.

Protestant Cemetery

Lush and lovingly cared for, the Cemetery for the Burial of Non-Catholic Foreigners (Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri al Testaccio) is a tomb-filled “park,” running along the wall just beyond the pyramid. The cemetery is also the only English-style landscape (rolling hills, calculated vistas) in Rome, making it a favorite spot for a quiet stroll.

Cost and Hours: €3 suggested donation—leave in box by entrance, Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00, WC inside, staff at info office can help you find specific graves, tel. 06-574-1900,


Visiting the Cemetery: Originally, none of the Protestant epitaphs were allowed to make any mention of heaven. Signs direct visitors to the graves of notable non-Catholics who have died in Rome since 1716. Many of the buried were diplomats. And many, such as the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821), were from the Romantic Age. They came to Italy on the Grand Tour and—“captivated by the fatal charms of Rome,” as Shelley wrote—never left.

Shelley’s tomb is straight ahead from the entrance, up the hill and a bit to the left, at the base of the stubby tower. It’s a big, inscribed, flat slab in the ground. Like so many Romantic age artists and writers, Shelley was enamored with Rome. In 1821 he wrote, “Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness” (from Adonais, his elegy on Keats’ death).


Back at the entrance, with your back to the gate, head 90 degrees left to find Keats’ tomb, near the fence in the far corner of the big park facing the pyramid. Keats died in his twenties, unrecognized. He wanted to be unnamed on a tomb that read, “Young English Poet, 1821. Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” (To see Keats’ tomb when the cemetery is closed, look through the tiny peephole on Via Caio Cestio, 10 yards off Via Marmorata.)

Keats and Shelley on Mortality

Ponder mortality along with Keats and Shelley, with these excerpts from their poetry:

From Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

From Shelley’s “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!

Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears

Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!

...I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;

Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,

The soul of Adonais, like a star,

Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

There are cats everywhere. At the big park overlooking the pyramid, look down and to the right to find Matilde Talli’s cat hospice. Volunteers use donations to care for these “Guardians of the Departed” who “provide loyal companionship to these dead.”

✵ Exit the cemetery through the main gate and turn left, continuing down Via Caio Cestio. Cross the wide street and head down into the sunken area ringing...

Monte Testaccio

This “hill,” actually a 115-foot-tall ancient trash pile, is made of testae—broken shards of earthenware jars mostly used to haul oil 2,000 years ago, when this was a gritty port warehouse district. For 500 years, rancid oil vessels were discarded here. Slowly, Rome’s lowly eighth hill was built. Because the caves dug into the hill are naturally air-conditioned, trendy bars, clubs, and restaurants compete with gritty car-repair places for a spot. Testaccio is one of Rome’s most popular nightlife spots and, in the summer, the area around here houses Testaccio Village, a festival with concerts and techno raves.

Loop around the left side of the hill until you reach the old slaughterhouse complex. Linger here to pick out the history of this spot—the ornamentation of the building itself, the frigorifero (ice house adjacent), and the fine view of the shard mountain.

Within Rome, Testaccio’s restaurants are known for serving menus heavy on offal—innards and other “unwanted” parts of the animals that were processed here (tripe, sweetbreads, oxtail, lungs, and so on). While the “nose to tail” foodie aesthetic has become trendy, Testaccio embraced that approach long before it was cool.

✵ Circling the rest of the way around Monte Testaccio, you’ll run right into main entrance of the former stockyards and, across the street, the very modern-looking...

Testaccio Market (Mercato di Testaccio)

The covered and colorful market is a focal point of the neighborhood. It recently moved to this more modern and “hygienic” location—many say that it’s lost some of its edgy charm. But while the structure may be new, the community ties are still old, as locals nurture close relationships with the merchants who sell them their favorite foods. A stroll through here affords a fine look at a traditional Roman market (open Mon-Sat until 14:00, closed Sun, WC on the north side, near the clothing stalls). Find the center (where the sky opens up) and look down at the ancient Roman road littered with the shards of broken amphorae.

For tips on where to eat within the market and the surrounding neighborhood, see here. For a better understanding of what Testaccio is all about, consider Eating Italy Food Tours. They lead an interesting, four-hour food-oriented walk that makes 10 tasty stops and packs the time with cultural insights (see here for details).


You can ride the Metro to the Montemartini Museum and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, but if you prefer to stay above ground, buses #23 and #769 run on Via Ostiense from the Piramide Metro stop to the museum (stop: Ostiense/Garbatella) and the church (stop: Viale S. Paolo).

Montemartini Museum (Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini)

This museum houses a dreamy collection of 400 ancient statues, set evocatively in a classic 1932 electric power plant, among generators and Metropolis-type cast-iron machinery. While the art is not as famous as the collections you’ll see downtown, the effect is fun and memorable—and you won’t encounter a single tourist. If you’re tackling Rome with kids, this museum is ideal: It’s uncrowded and cool, immersed in an old power plant, with art placed at kid level.

Cost and Hours: €7.50, Tue-Sun 9:00-19:00, closed Mon, look for red banner marking Via Ostiense 106, a short walk from Metro: Garbatella, tel. 06-0608,


St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (Basilica San Paolo Fuori le Mura)

According to Christian tradition, the body of St. Paul was buried here, where a small shrine once stood. It was replaced by a much bigger church in around A.D. 380—in what was the last major construction project of Imperial Rome and the largest church in Christendom until St. Peter’s. That church burned in 1823, and the stately if stark, Neoclassical church you see today was built on its footprint. Pilgrims flock here to venerate the saint, especially since forensic experts concluded in 2009 that the bones interred under the altar date from the first or second century.


Cost and Hours: Free, daily 7:00-18:30, modest dress code enforced, dry audioguide-€5 plus ID, Via Ostiense 186, Metro: Basilica San Paolo, exit the Metro station following via Ostiense sign, and look for the church’s round tower, the entrance is on the far side, tel. 06-6988-0800,

Visiting the Church: The column-lined courtyard leading up to the church is typical of early Christian churches—the first version of St. Peter’s Basilica also had this kind of welcoming zone. The facade, while 19th century, is early Christian in its style—with mosaics picturing Rome and Jerusalem flanking the Lamb of God. In the courtyard’s center is a statue of Paul holding his trademark sword, the instrument of his martyrdom. The palm trees, while not native to Rome, remind pilgrims of what they saw in the Holy Land. The central door of bronze and silver, from the 1930s, is dedicated to the patron saints of Rome, Peter (crucified upside-down) and Paul (beheaded).

Step inside and feel as close as you’ll get in the 21st century to experiencing a monumental Roman basilica. Marvel at the ceiling, with those massive gilded-wood panels.


The marble-inlaid floor is like that of the Pantheon and typically Roman. Alabaster windows light the vast interior. It feels sterile, but in a good way—as if you’re already in heaven. Along with St. Peter’s Basilica, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore, this church is, legally speaking, part of the Vatican rather than Italy (you can buy Vatican stamps here and send mail). The triumphal arch leading to the altar has a fifth-century mosaic of Christ raising his hand in blessing. He’s flanked by the four evangelists (in symbolic winged-animal guise) and, in white, the mysterious 24 elders of the Apocalypse. At the bottom of the arch are the two early followers of Jesus who, according to tradition, came to Rome to spread the Gospel and ended up dying for it: St. Peter (right) carries the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and St. Paul holds a sword symbolizing the piercing truth. Over the altar is a multicolored marble canopy (13th century). A 20-foot-tall Easter candlestick (c. 1170) stands to the right.

The fine 13th-century mosaic filling the dome in the apse is Byzantine in style; it was likely done by the same craftsmen who decorated St. Mark’s in Venice. Notice the tiny white bug-like creature washing Jesus’ toe. It’s Honorius III, the 13th-century pope who paid for the apse renovation—reminding people of his humbleness while getting some credit at the same time (€1 illuminates the dome; machine to the right of the apse).

The church is built upon the supposed grave of St. Paul. According to tradition, Paul was decapitated two miles from this spot. His head was preserved at San Giovanni in Laterano, and his body was buried here under the altar. In 2009, archaeologists unearthed a sarcophagus with early inscriptions identifying it as Paul’s, and carbon-dating on the bones inside confirmed their ancient origin. Today, you can descend a few steps in front of the central canopied altar to see the exposed end of Paul’s supposed stone coffin, and look down through the glass floor to see the remains of the much smaller original fourth-century church.

Ringing the upper part of the church are round mosaic portraits of 266 popes, from St. Peter (the first one in the right transept) to the present. Find the recent popes to the right of the central altar—not in the nave, but farther to the right, under the arches of the dim right aisle. You’ll see globetrotting John Paul II (Jo Paulus II) and progressive John XXIII, who oversaw the Vatican II changes of the 1960s. A portrait of Pope #266, Francis, sits alongside blank medallions for future popes.

The peaceful 13th-century cloister (€4; enter from the right transept) has elegant Romanesque columns and arches, and fragments of early Christian/Roman sarcophagi, a relic chapel, and a small painting gallery.


In the late 1930s, Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini planned an international exhibition to show off the wonders of his fascist society. But these wonders brought us World War II, and Il Duce’s celebration never happened. The unfinished mega-project was completed in the 1950s, and today it houses apartment blocks, corporate and government offices, and big, obscure museums filled with important, rarely visited relics.


If Hitler and Mussolini had won the war, our world might look like E.U.R. (AY-oor). Hike down E.U.R.’s wide, pedestrian-mean boulevards. Patriotic murals, aren’t-you-proud-to-be-an-extreme-right-winger pillars, and stern squares decorate the soulless planned grid and sterile office blocks. Patriotic quotes are chiseled into walls. Boulevards named for Astronomy, Electronics, Social Security, and Beethoven are more exhausting than inspirational. And, not to be outdone by the ancients, Mussolini had a towering fascist-style obelisk erected in the central Piazza Marconi.


Despite its grim past, E.U.R. is now an upscale district with a mix of businessmen and women at work—and young people enjoying its trendy cafés. Because a few landmark buildings of Italian modernism are located here, E.U.R. is an important destination for architecture buffs, and the new futuristic convention center nicknamed “The Cloud” (it’s meant to look like a cloud suspended in a glass box) promises to bring even more life to the area.

The Metro skirts E.U.R. with three stops (10 minutes from the Colosseum). Use E.U.R. Magliana for the Palace of the Civilization of Labor. Consider walking 20 minutes from the palace to the museum through the center of E.U.R.

Mussolini and Imperial Rome

Benito Mussolini incorporated much from ancient Rome during his dictatorship. His military was organized according to Roman terminology (divided into legions and run by centurions and consuls). The salute with the right arm raised, flat palm down (later used by the Nazis), was also Roman. More hygienic and quicker than a handshake, it fit the dynamic character of fascism.

While the classical values of power and discipline were stressed in the rhythmic march of military parades, convincing Italians of the need for order was a challenge even to Mussolini. He claimed it wasn’t impossible to govern the Italian people...just useless.

Mussolini’s title, Il Duce, was from the Latin dux—a generic term for leader. When chanted by crowds and carved onto monuments, it likely fueled Mussolini’s belief that he was carrying out extraordinary historical missions like Caesar and Augustus before him.


For his fascist symbol, rather than the she-wolf or eagle, Mussolini used the lictor’s fasces—an ax belonging to a Roman officer, with rods tied around the handle, carried in front of magistrates as a sign of authority. This was aimed at destroying the popular image of Italy as a joyous, carefree country and for promoting a new image of austerity and order. In ancient times, the ax stood for decapitation, the rods for flogging.

Fascist architecture, like ancient architecture, used a monumental scale, with arches, bold statues, and rhetorical inscriptions—resulting in an austere and impersonal feel that’s generally disliked by Romans today.

In spite of his supposed passion for ancient Rome, Mussolini had a dreadful approach to archaeology. He would isolate a major monument and destroy everything around it. Sections of the imperial forums were sacrificed to build the wide street, Via dei Fori Imperiali, from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. A famous fountain by the Colosseum that had survived almost 2,000 years was torn down without another thought.

Palace of the Civilization of Labor (Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro)

From the E.U.R. Magliana Metro stop, stairs lead uphill to this epitome of fascist architecture. With its giant no-questions-asked patriotic statues and its stark simplicity, this is E.U.R.’s tallest building and key landmark. It’s understandably nicknamed the “Square Colosseum.” Closed to the public while they decide how to use it, it’s still interesting to walk around. Downhill, in front of the palace, Caffè Palombini is a popular Roman institution; their buffet line is a hit with local workers for lunch (daily 7:00-22:00; good gelato, pastries, and snacks; Piazzale Adenauer 12, tel. 06-591-1700).

Museum of Roman Civilization (Museo della Civiltà Romana)

E.U.R’s Museum of Roman Civilization, with dozens of fascinating rooms of plaster casts and models illustrating the greatness of classical Rome, is closed for renovation with no indication as to when it will reopen.


Southeast of the city center lie several ancient sites that make the trek here worthwhile.

Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla)

Inaugurated by Emperor Caracalla in A.D. 216, this massive bath complex could accommodate 1,600 visitors at a time. Today it’s just a shell—a huge shell—with all of its sculptures and most of its mosaics moved to museums. You’ll see a two-story roofless brick building surrounded by a garden, bordered by ruined walls. The two large rooms at either end of the building were used for exercise. In between the exercise rooms was a pool flanked by two small mosaic-floored dressing rooms. Niches in the walls once held statues. The baths’ statues are displayed elsewhere: For example, the immense Toro Farnese (a marble sculpture of a bull surrounded by people) snorts in Naples’ Archaeological Museum.


In its day, this was a remarkable place to hang out. For ancient Romans, bathing was a social experience. The Baths of Caracalla functioned until Goths severed the aqueducts in the sixth century. In modern times, grand operas are performed here during the summer (

Cost and Hours: €6, includes the Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Villa dei Quintili on the Appian Way, free and very crowded first Sun of the month, Mon 9:00-14:00, Tue-Sun 9:00 until one hour before sunset (roughly April-Sept 19:00, Oct 18:30, Nov-mid-Feb 16:30, mid-Feb-March 17:00), last entry one hour before closing, audioguide-€5, good €8 guidebook; Metro: Circo Massimo, then a 5-minute walk south along Via delle Terme di Caracalla; bus #714 from Termini train station or bus #118 from the Appian Way—see the end of my Ancient Appian Way Tour; tel. 06-3996-7700.

Appian Way

For a taste of the countryside around Rome and more wonders of Roman engineering, take the four-mile trip from the Colosseum out past the wall to a stretch of the ancient Appian Way, where the original pavement stones are lined by several interesting sights. Ancient Rome’s first and greatest highway, the Appian Way once ran from Rome to the Adriatic port of Brindisi, the gateway to Greece. Today you can walk (or bike) some stretches of the road, rattling over original paving stones, past crumbling monuments that once edged the sides. The Tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Circus of Maxentius are the two most impressive pagan sights. Just a few hundred yards away are two major Christian catacombs (briefly described next).


Image For more on all of these sights, see the Ancient Appian Way Tour chapter.

▲▲Catacombs of San Sebastiano

A guide leads you underground through the tunnels where early Christians were buried. You’ll see faded frescoes and graffiti by early-Christian tag artists, as well as some pagan tombs that predate the Christian catacombs. Besides the catacombs themselves, there’s a historic fourth-century basilica with the relics of St. Sebastian, the (supposedly) original Quo Vadis footprints of Christ, and an exquisite Bernini statue.

Cost and Hours: €8, includes 35-minute tour, 2/hour, Mon-Sat 10:00-17:00, closed Sun and late Nov-late Dec, Via Appia Antica 136, tel. 06-785-0350,

▲▲Catacombs of San Callisto

The larger of the two sets of catacombs, San Callisto also is the more prestigious, having been the burial site for several early popes.

Cost and Hours: €8, includes 30-minute tour, at least 2/hour, Thu-Tue 9:00-12:00 & 14:00-17:00, closed Wed and Feb, Via Appia Antica 110, tel. 06-513-0151,