Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)
HEART OF ROME WALK
Rome’s most colorful neighborhood features narrow lanes, intimate piazzas, fanciful fountains, and some of Europe’s best people-watching. During the day, this walk—worth ▲▲▲—shows off the colorful Campo de’ Fiori market and trendy fashion boutiques as it meanders past major monuments such as the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps.
But the sunset brings unexpected magic. A stroll in the cool of the evening is made memorable by the romance of the Eternal City at its best. Sit so close to a bubbling fountain that traffic noise evaporates. Jostle with kids to see the gelato flavors. Watch lovers straddling more than the bench. Jaywalk past polizia in flak-proof vests. And marvel at the ramshackle elegance that softens this brutal city for those who were born here and can’t imagine living anywhere else. These are the flavors of Rome, best enjoyed after dark.
(See “Heart of Rome Walk” map, here.)
Length of This Walk: Allow anywhere from one to three hours for this mile-long walk, depending on whether you linger and tour the Pantheon.
When to Go: This walk works well at any time. By day, you can enjoy Campo de’ Fiori’s morning market and sightsee the Pantheon and surrounding churches. But it’s most engaging after dark, when the fountains are lit and the cool evening air brings locals out for the passeggiata (for more on this Italian tradition, see the sidebar on here).
Getting There: Campo de’ Fiori is a few blocks west of Largo Argentina, a major transportation hub. Buses #40, #64, and #492 stop at Largo Argentina and along Corso Vittorio Emanuele II (a long block northwest of Campo de’ Fiori). A taxi from Termini Station costs about €8.
Pantheon: Free, Mon-Sat 8:30-19:30, Sun 9:00-18:00.
Other Options: This walk is equally pleasant in reverse order. You could ride the Metro to the Spanish Steps and finish at Campo de’ Fiori, near many recommended restaurants. To lengthen this walk, you could continue on from the Spanish Steps to Piazza del Popolo.
The Walk Begins
(See “Heart of Rome Walk” map, here.)
Campo de’ Fiori
Kick off this walk in one of Rome’s most colorful spots, Campo de’ Fiori. This bohemian piazza hosts a fruit and vegetable market in the morning, cafés in the evening, and crowds of drunks late at night. In ancient times, the “Field of Flowers” was an open meadow. Later, Christian pilgrims passed through on their way to the Vatican, and a thriving market developed.
Lording over the center of the square is a statue of Giordano Bruno, an intellectual heretic who was burned on this spot in 1600. The pedestal shows scenes from Bruno’s trial and execution, and reads, “And the flames rose up.” The statue honoring the heretic faces a Vatican administration building and was erected in 1889, a time when the new state of Italy and the Vatican were feuding. The Vatican protested, but they were overruled by angry neighborhood locals. This district is still known for its free spirit and anti-authoritarian demonstrations.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
Lauded as a martyr to free thought and reviled as an intellectual con man and heretic, the philosopher-priest Bruno has a legacy only a Roman could love. Details of his life are sketchy, and his writings range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The young Dominican priest was nonconformist and outspoken from the start. He had to flee Italy to avoid a charge of heresy and spent most of his adult life wandering Europe’s capitals. In Geneva, he joined the Calvinists, until he was driven out for his unorthodox views. In London, he met with Queen Elizabeth, who found him subversive. In Germany, the Lutherans excommunicated him.
In his writings, Bruno claimed to have discovered the “Clavis Magna” (Great Key) to training the human memory. He published satirical plays tweaking Church morals. He advanced the then-heretical (Copernican) notion that the earth revolved around the sun and speculated about other inhabited planets in the universe. All his works show a vast-ranging mind aware of the scientific trends of the day.
In 1593, Bruno was arrested by the Inquisition and sent to Rome, where he languished in prison for six years. Bruno was sentenced to death by fire. He replied, “Perhaps you who pronounce this sentence are more fearful than I who receive it.” On February 17, 1600, the civil authorities led him to the stake on Campo de’ Fiori. As they lit the fire, he was offered a crucifix to hold. He pushed it away.
Campo de’ Fiori is the product of centuries of unplanned urban development. At the east end of the square (behind Bruno), ramshackle apartments are built right into the old outer wall of ancient Rome’s mammoth Theater of Pompey (you can actually see two white columns and bits of the ancient wall high above street level). This entertainment complex covered several city blocks, stretching from here to Largo Argentina. Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Theater of Pompey, where the Senate was meeting while its main Forum building was being repaired after a fire.
The square is surrounded by fun eateries, and is great for people-watching. Bruno faces the bustling Forno (in the left corner of the square), where takeout pizza bianca is sold hot out of the oven. On weekend nights, when the Campo is packed with beer-drinking kids, the medieval square is transformed into one vast Roman street party.
✵ If Bruno did a hop, step, and jump forward, then turned left, in a block he’d reach...
While the higgledy-piggledy Campo de’ Fiori feels free and easy, the 16th-century Renaissance Piazza Farnese, named for the family whose palace dominates it, seems to stress order. The Farnese family was nouveau riche and needed to make a statement. They hired Michelangelo to design the top part of their palace’s facade—which today houses the French embassy, hence the French flag and the security. The twin Roman tubs in the fountains decorating the square date from the third century and are from the Baths of Caracalla. They ended up here because Pope Paul III, who was a Farnese, ordered the excavation of the baths, and the family had first dibs on the choicest finds.
✵ Walk back to Campo de’ Fiori, cross the square, and continue a couple of blocks down...
Via dei Baullari and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II
As you slalom through the crowds, notice the crush of cheap cafés, bars, and restaurants—the center of medieval Rome is morphing into a playground designed for tourists, students, and locals visiting from the suburbs. High rents are driving families out and changing the character of this district. That’s why the Campo de’ Fiori market increasingly sells more gifty edibles than basic fruits and vegetables with each passing year.
After a couple of blocks, you reach the busy boulevard, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. In Rome, any road big enough to have city buses like this is post-unification: constructed after 1870. Look left and right down the street—the facades are mostly 19th century neo-Renaissance, built after this main thoroughfare sliced through the city. Traffic in much of central Rome is limited to city buses, taxis, motorbikes, “dark cars” (limos and town cars of VIPs), delivery vans, residents, and disabled people with permits (a.k.a., friends of politicians). This is one of the increasingly rare streets where anything goes.
✵ Cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and enter a square with a statue of Marco Minghetti, an early Italian prime minister. Angle left at the statue, walking along the left side of the Museum of Rome, down Via di San Pantaleo. A block down, at the corner, you’ll find a beat-up old statue.
Pasquino—a third-century-B.C. statue that was discovered near here—is one of Rome’s “talking statues.” For 500 years, this statue has served as a kind of community billboard, allowing people to complain anonymously when it might be dangerous to speak up. And, to this day, you’ll see old Pasquino strewn with political posters, strike announcements, and grumbling graffiti. The statue looks literally worn down by centuries of complaining about bad government.
Speaking of government, the road stretching out the far end of this piazza is a typical pre-unification “Papal Road”—as big as roads got before the mid-19th century. It’s called the Via del Governo Vecchio—road of the old government.
✵ Wrap around Pasquino and head up Via di Pasquino to …
This square has been a center of Roman life since ancient times. It retains the oblong shape of the athletic grounds built here around A.D. 80 by the emperor Domitian. Today’s square, while following its ancient foundation, is from the late Renaissance. Coming out of the Middle Ages, the papacy was putting major scandals behind it. Rome was energized and laying out more efficient street plans, grand palaces, and great public spaces like this.
As you enter the square, the Palazzo Pamphilj (now the Brazilian embassy) is the first place on the left. The Pamphilj nobles were big patrons of the arts, and one of them, Giambattista Pamphilj, became Pope Innocent X in 1644. We can thank him for much of what we see on the square today.
Three Baroque fountains decorate the piazza. The first fountain, at the southern end, features a Moor wrestling with a dolphin. In 17th-century Rome, Moors (Africans) represented all that was exotic and mysterious. In the fountain at the northern end, Neptune slays a giant octopus.
The most famous fountain, though, is in the center: the Four Rivers Fountain by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the man who remade Rome in the Baroque style. As the water of the world gushes everywhere, four burly river gods (representing the four quarters of the world) support an Egyptian-style obelisk that was made in Rome. (The obelisk was popular with Roman emperors because Egyptian society saw its rulers as divine—an idea Rome liked to promote.) Bernini enlivens the fountain with horses plunging through rocks and the exotic flora and fauna of faraway lands.
Stroll around the fountain counterclockwise and admire the gods: The good-looking figure representing the Danube (for Europe) holds the coat of arms of the Pamphilj pope. Next comes the Ganges (for Asia), holding an oar. After an exotic palm tree, you find the Nile (for Africa) with his head covered, since its headwaters were unknown back then. Uruguay’s Rio de la Plata, representing the Americas, tumbles backward in shock, wondering how he ever made the top four. (Note, he has the same Moorish features we saw earlier—which for Bernini worked equally well for an American Indian as an African.) The spilled coins represent the easy-to-harvest wealth of the New World.
The Plata river god is gazing upward at the Church of Sant’Agnese (St. Agnes), which dominates the square. It’s a fine example of Baroque deception: While the facade is mammoth, its interior is only as wide as the middle four columns. It’s the work of Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s former student-turned-rival. Borromini’s concave facade helps reveal the dome and epitomizes the curved symmetry of the Baroque era. An old tradition says that Bernini designed his river god to look in horror at Borromini’s church. Or maybe he’s shielding his eyes from St. Agnes’ nakedness, as she was stripped before being martyred. But neither explanation can be true, since the fountain was completed two years before Borromini even started work on the church.
Piazza Navona is Rome’s most interesting night scene, with street music, artists, fire-eaters, local Casanovas, ice cream, and outdoor cafés that are worthy of a splurge if you’ve got time to sit and enjoy Italy’s human river.
✵ Leave Piazza Navona directly across from Tre Scalini (famous for its tartufo, a rich, chocolate gelato concoction), and go east down Corsia Agonale, past rose peddlers and palm readers. Ahead of you (across the busy street) stands the stately Palazzo Madama, where the Italian Senate meets. (Hence, security is high.) Jog left around this building, and follow the brown sign to the Pantheon, straight down Via del Salvatore.
After a block, you’ll pass (on your left) the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, with its très French decor and precious Caravaggio paintings (church described in detail on here in the Pantheon Tour chapter). If it’s open, pop in. Otherwise, continue along, following the crowd, as everyone seems to be heading for the Pantheon.
As you walk, notice the basalt cobbles underfoot. This is the same stone ancient Romans cobbled their streets with, quarried from volcanic mountains south of here (like Vesuvius). The public debate lately is whether to replace them with modern pavement (more practical and comfortable) or keep them (more character and a part of the heritage). Rounding the next corner, you come to...
Perhaps the most magnificent building surviving from ancient Rome is this temple to the “pantheon” (literally, all the gods). It faces a piazza, as it has since ancient times, when this was an elegant and shaded gathering place with covered walkways. The ancient Romans introduced the whole piazza culture, and you can see it thrives to this day. In antiquity, the Pantheon was above street level, approached by a staircase (the staircase survives but is buried beneath the square). Notice how the steps of the 18th-century fountain in the center of the square disappear into the modern pavement, and how the square slants down toward the street level of 2,000 years ago. The obelisk rising from the fountain originally decorated a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis (wife of Osiris). Rome had an important connection to Egypt (from where much of its grain came) and was happy to have a temple here for its Egyptian residents.
Sit for a while under the portico of the Pantheon (romantically floodlit and moonlit at night).
The 40-foot, single-piece granite columns of the Pantheon’s entrance show the scale the ancient Romans built on. The columns support a triangular Greek-style roof with an inscription that says “M. Agrippa” built it. In fact, it was built (fecit) by Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 120), who gave credit to the builder of an earlier structure. This impressive entranceway gives no clue that the greatest wonder of the building is inside—a domed room that inspired later domes, including Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s and Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence.
If it’s open, pop into the Pantheon for a look around. Also consider detouring to several interesting churches near the Pantheon before continuing on the walk (Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its purely Gothic interior, and San Ignazio, with its 3-D Baroque illusions, are just a few steps away). For details on the Pantheon and these other churches, see the Pantheon Tour chapter or download my free Pantheon audio tour.
✵ With your back to the Pantheon, veer to the right, uphill toward the yellow sign on Via Orfani that reads Casa del Caffè—you’ve reached the...
Caffè Tazza d’Oro
This is one of Rome’s top coffee shops, dating back to the days when this area was licensed to roast coffee beans. Locals come here for a shot of espresso or, when it’s hot, a refreshing granita di caffè con panna (coffee and crushed ice with whipped cream).
Circle through the interior and absorb the aroma and energy of a classic Italian café scene. Coffee to-go is simply wrong here in Rome. Locals pay at the cashier, bring their receipt to the barista, and enjoy an elegant little break. This scene is just as it was in the early 1980s, when Howard Schultz traveled to Italy and was inspired to start a fancy coffee shop in Seattle. (By the way, there is no Starbucks in Italy...yet.)
✵ From here, our walk continues past some interesting landmarks to the Trevi Fountain. But if you’d like to get there a bit more directly, you can take a shortcut by bearing right at the coffee shop onto Via de’ Pastini, which leads through Piazza di Pietra (with some surviving chunks of the Temple of Hadrian—described on here), then across busy Via del Corso, where it becomes the touristy, pedestrianized Via delle Muratte and heads straight for the fountain.
If you’d rather stick with me for the slightly longer version, bear left at the coffee shop and continue up Via degli Orfani to the next square …
This square is home to the big, plain Florentine-Renaissance-style Palazzo Capranica (directly opposite as you enter the square). Its stubby tower was once much taller, but when a stronger government arrived, the nobles were all ordered to shorten their towers. The six-story building to the left was once an apartment building for 17th-century Rome’s middle class. Like so many of Rome’s churches, Santa Maria in Aquiro, the church on the square, is older than the facade it was given during the Baroque period. Notice the circular little shrine on the street corner (between the palace and the apartment building). For centuries, worshipful spots like this have made pilgrims (and, today, tourists) feel welcome.
✵ Leave the piazza to the right of the palace, heading down Via in Aquiro. The street jogs to the left and into a square that’s home to Italy’s Parliament.
Piazza di Montecitorio
The square is marked by a sixth-century B.C. Egyptian obelisk taken as a trophy by Augustus after his victory in Egypt over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The obelisk—the only one in Rome still capped with a pre-Christian ornament—was originally set up as a sundial. Follow the zodiac markings to the well-guarded front door of Italy’s parliament building. This is where the lower house meets; you may see politicians, political demonstrations, and TV cameras.
The building caps one of ancient Rome’s man-made hills, Montecitorio. Before Italy was unified, this was where the high court of the Papal States presided (note the relief of Lady Justice to the right of the door). The facade is mostly a Bernini design—bulging in the middle to make this small and potentially cramped square feel grander. Intentionally jagged and unfinished stones at either end are in keeping with the “back-to-nature” style of the 17th century (as you saw at the Four Rivers Fountain and will see again at the Trevi Fountain).
✵ One block to your right is Piazza Colonna, where we’re heading next—unless you like gelato...
A one-block detour to the left (past Albergo Nazionale) brings you to Rome’s most famous gelateria. Giolitti is reasonable for takeout or elegant and splurge-worthy for a sit among classy locals (open daily until past midnight, Via Uffici del Vicario 40); get your gelato in a cone (cono) or cup (coppetta).
Piazza Colonna and Via del Corso
The centerpiece of Piazza Colonna is a huge column that’s stood on this spot since the second century. The decorative relief wrapped like a scroll around its length (called a “continuous narration”) comes with a propaganda message. It depicts the victories of Emperor Marcus Aurelius over the barbarians. When Marcus died in A.D. 180, the barbarians began to get the upper hand, beginning Rome’s long three-century fall. Marcus Aurelius once capped the column, but he was replaced by Paul, one of Rome’s patron saints. (Peter, the city’s other patron saint, stands atop Trajan’s Column nearby.)
The column (which has spiral stairs inside—notice the little windows) was originally painted. Try to imagine the ancient cityscape of Rome as very colorful. While 1,800 years ago, this was a major square surrounded by important classical buildings (such as a temple of Julius Caesar), today the square features Neoclassical facades. The big, important-looking palace (with the flags of Italy and the EU) houses the headquarters for the prime minister’s cabinet. Opposite is the office of the right-wing newspaper Il Tempo (comfortably situated in what was the headquarters of Mussolini’s fascist party).
Beyond Piazza Colonna runs noisy Via del Corso, Rome’s main north-south boulevard. It’s named for the Berber horse races—without riders—that took place here during Carnevale. This wild tradition continued until the late 1800s, when a series of fatal accidents (including, reportedly, one in front of Queen Margherita) led to its cancellation. Historically the street was filled with meat shops. When Via del Corso became one of Rome’s first gas-lit streets in 1854, the butcher shops were banned and replaced by classier boutiques, jewelers, and antique dealers. Nowadays the northern part of Via del Corso is closed to traffic, and for a few hours every evening it becomes a wonderful parade of Romans out for a stroll (see the “Dolce Vita Stroll” in the Nightlife in Rome chapter). Before crossing the street, look left (to the obelisk marking Piazza del Popolo—the ancient north gate of the city) and right (to the Victor Emmanuel Monument).
✵ Cross Via del Corso to enter a big palatial building with columns, the Galleria Alberto Sordi shopping mall. It is typical of the grand galleries built throughout Italy in the late 1800s, powered by the energy of a newly united and proud Italy. To the left are convenient toilets and ahead is Feltrinelli, the biggest Italian bookstore chain.
Go to the right and exit out the back, where you’ll continue directly to the Trevi Fountain. (If you’re here after 21:00, when the mall is closed, circle around the right side of the Galleria on Via dei Sabini.) Once out the back, the tourist kitsch builds as you head up Via de Crociferi to the roar of the water, lights, and people at the...
This fountain shows how Rome took full advantage of the abundance of water brought into the city by its great aqueducts. It was built to celebrate the reopening of several of ancient Rome’s aqueducts in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. After a thousand years of surviving on poor-quality well water, Romans could once again enjoy pure water brought from the distant hills east of the city. Even in ancient times the water outlet here sat lower then street level to give it maximal gravitational oomph. The Ionic columns built into the Benetton store facing the fountain are a reminder that long ago this was where the neighborhood gathered, jugs on heads, to fetch their water.
This watery Baroque avalanche by Nicola Salvi was completed in 1762. Salvi used the entire Neoclassical facade of the palace behind the fountain as a theatrical backdrop for the figure of Neptune, who represents water in every form. The statue surfs in his shell-shaped chariot through his wet kingdom—with water gushing from 24 spouts and tumbling over 30 different kinds of plants—while Triton—Neptune’s trumpeter—blows his conch shell.
Rome has 13 obelisks, more than any other city in the world. In Egypt, they were connected with the sun god Ra (like stone sun rays) and the power of the pharaohs. The ancient Romans, keen on exotic novelty and sheer size, brought the obelisks here and set them up in key public places as evidence and celebration of their occupation of Egypt. Starting from the 1580s, Rome’s new rulers—the popes—relocated the obelisks and topped most of them with Christian crosses. The obelisks came to acquire another significance that guaranteed their survival: the triumph of Christianity over all other religions.
The tallest (105 feet) and the most ancient (16th century B.C.) is the obelisk in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. It once stood in the Circus Maximus next to its sister, which now marks the center of Piazza del Popolo.
The obelisks were carved from single blocks of granite. Imagine the work, with only man and horsepower, first to quarry them and set them up in Egypt, then—after the Romans came along—to roll them on logs to the river or the coast, sail (or row) them in special barges across the Mediterranean and up the Tiber, and finally hoist them up.
Rome wasn’t above cheap imitations, however: A couple of the obelisks are ancient Roman copies. The one at the top of the Spanish Steps has spelling mistakes in the hieroglyphics.
The magic of the square is enhanced by the fact that no vehicular streets directly approach it. You can hear the excitement as you draw near, and then—bam!—you’re there. The scene is always lively, with lucky Romeos clutching dates while unlucky ones clutch beers. Romantics toss a coin over their shoulder, thinking it will give them a wish and assure their return to Rome. That may sound silly, but every year I go through this tourist ritual...and it actually seems to work.
Take some time to people-watch (whisper a few breathy bellos or bellas) before leaving. There’s a peaceful zone at water level on the far right.
✵ Facing the Trevi Fountain, walk along its right side up Via della Stamperia. Cross busy Via del Tritone. Continue 100 yards up Via del Nazareno (passing an exposed bit of the ancient aqueduct that for 2,000 years has brought water into Rome). At the T-intersection ahead, veer right on Via Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. The security is protecting the headquarters of Italy’s Democratic Party (on the right).
The street becomes Via di Propaganda, and at the far end (on the right), it’s dominated by a palace that, back in the 17th century, housed the Propagande Fide—the university where missionaries learned how to evangelize. This was just one arm of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation “propaganda” movement—a priority after the Protestants began stealing converts.
Here the street opens up into a long piazza. You’re approaching the Spanish Steps. But first, pause at the...
Column of the Immaculate Conception
An ancient column, topped with a statue of Mary, is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In Christian belief, everyone is born with the stain of original sin. But for Mary to be a worthy and super-pure vessel for Jesus, the Catholic Church decided she needed to be “immaculately conceived”—born without sin. Pope Pius IX and the Vatican finally settled the long theological debate in 1854 by formally establishing the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Three years later, officials erected this column honoring Mary, complete with venerable Church prophets—all in total agreement—at its base. Every year on December 8, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, this spot is the scene of a special celebration. The pope attends, the fire department places flowers on Mary’s statue (see remains of the festooning), and the Christmas season is kicked off.
To Mary’s immediate left stands the Spanish embassy to the Vatican. Rome has double the embassies of a normal capital because here countries need two: one to Italy and one to the Vatican. And because of this embassy, the square and its famous steps are called “Spanish.”
✵ Just 100 yards past Mary, you reach the...
Piazza di Spagna, with the very popular Spanish Steps, is named for the Spanish embassy to the Vatican, which has been here for 300 years. It’s been the hangout of many Romantics over the years (Keats, Wagner, Openshaw, Goethe, and others). In the 1700s, British aristocrats on the Grand Tour of Europe came here to ponder Rome’s decay. The British poet John Keats pondered his mortality, then died of tuberculosis at age 25 in the orange building on the right side of the steps. Fellow Romantic Lord Byron lived across the square at #66. Nearby, Caffè Greco opened in 1760 and was a favored haunt of artists and writers (just down Via dei Condotti at #86, with a historic interior).
The wide, curving staircase of the Spanish Steps is one of Rome’s iconic sights. Its 138 steps lead sharply up from Piazza di Spagna, forming a butterfly shape as they fan out around a central terrace. The design culminates at the top in an obelisk framed between two Baroque church towers.
The Sinking Boat Fountain at the foot of the steps, built by Bernini or his father, Pietro, is powered by an aqueduct. Actually, all of Rome’s fountains are aqueduct-powered; their spurts are determined by the water pressure provided by the various aqueducts. This one, for instance, is much weaker than the Trevi’s gush.
The piazza is a thriving scene at night. From here you can window-shop along Via Condotti, which stretches away from the steps. This is where Gucci and other big names cater to well-heeled jetsetters. It’s clear that the main sight around here is not the famous steps, but the people who sit on them.
✵ Our walk is finished. If you’d like to reach the top of the steps sweat-free, take the free elevator just inside the Spagna Metro stop (to the left, as you face the steps; elevator closes at 21:00). A pay WC is underground in the piazza near the Metro entrance, by the middle palm tree (10:00-19:30). The nearby McDonald’s (as you face the Spanish Steps, go right one block) is big and lavish, with a salad bar and WC. When you’re ready to leave, you can zip home on the Metro (usually open until 23:30, later on Fri-Sat) or grab a taxi at either the north or south side of the piazza.