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Visit Rome, Italy

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Visit Rome, Italy

Arguably one of the most pivotal cities in ancient history, Rome's enduring influence spans 2,500 years from the legend of the first king Romulus and his defeated twin brother Remus, to Julius Caesars’ Republic and the birth of the Empire under Augustus. The city has truly earned its status as the Eternal City and is awash with grandiose architectural achievements dating back to antiquity, intricately designed Baroque fountains and churches, powerful Renaissance artworks and lively modern piazzas. It is also home to the Vatican, a beautiful city state that is home to some of the greatest artworks in the world.

During the day, Rome is an open-air museum, dense with history and art. But at night, its modern café culture comes alive: locals drink and relax in the squares, while ramshackle trattorias serve delicious food.

Italy specialist Shannon

Things to see and do in Rome

The Pantheon

Although the Colosseum is more recognizable, the Pantheon gets the glory as Rome’s most complete Roman structure. Your first view of this temple-turned-church is likely to be a glimpse of the large dome from one of the narrow side streets around the Piazza della Rotonda where it stands. Stepping across the portico, past three rows of monolithic Corinthian columns, you enter the vast rotunda, perfectly symmetrical, clad in marble and richly decorated.

Tombs occupy alcoves in the walls — Raphael is buried here, among other notables - but your eyes are drawn to the coffered dome of the ceiling, a Roman master feat of engineering executed in concrete and still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. A rainy day in Rome might not be what you wish for, but it does have a silver lining — watching the water pour in through the dome’s central hole, or oculus, and bouncing off the marble floor.

The Trevi Fountain

Trevi fountain, RomeFive minutes' walk from the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, or Fontana di Trevi, remains hidden behind tall buildings and narrow lanes until the last moment. Rome’s largest and most flamboyant fountain is squeezed into a modest square at the point where three streets (tre vie, hence the name) meet, which leaves you with the impression of a grand spectacle in an intimate setting. Because the fountain fills most of the piazza, it feels crowded throughout the day, but the early morning is a quiet time to appreciate the fountain’s Baroque statuary illuminated by the rising sun.

The water that cascades out from beneath the central statue of Oceanus and over a series of basins is still fed by a Roman aqueduct which was renovated in Renaissance times. Legend has it that if you throw a coin over your shoulder and into the fountain’s main pool you will return to Rome in the future. About €3,000 is collected from the fountain each day and donated to local good causes.

The Spanish Steps

There’s something of a Sunday afternoon feel about the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna at their feet: people sit chatting on the steps, street entertainers perform for children and friends congregate on the long, narrow piazza giving it a convivial atmosphere. The steps look particularly beautiful in spring when vibrant azaleas cascade down their length to the Fontana della Barcaccia, or Fountain of the Old Boat, which was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father. The half-submerged boat shape nods to the piazza’s past susceptibility to flooding, while the two sun-shaped faces that spout the water are symbols of Urban VIII, the pope who commissioned the fountain.

The steps are crowned by the Trinità dei Monti, an imposing French church with double towers. The obelisk in front of the church is a Roman homage to Egyptian sculpture, while inside, some of its chapels contain works by Michelangelo’s pupil, Daniele da Volterra. Although the famous square and steps are named after their location close to the Spanish Embassy, the steps were funded by a legacy from the French, who supposedly wished to make the climb to the church a little easier for their nuns.

Keats-Shelley House by the Spanish Steps

Overlooking the lower section of the steps, on the right-hand side as you face them, is Keats-Shelley House. Behind its shuttered windows is the apartment where 25-year-old John Keats, an English poet associated with Romanticism and probably best known for his odes ‘To Autumn’ and ‘On a Grecian Urn’, died in 1821. Suffering from tuberculosis, he had come to Italy in the hope the warm Italian climate would improve his health. Now a small museum dedicated to Keats as well as his contemporaries, poets Shelley and Byron, it’s a little literary oasis hidden in plain sight.

The Vatican City

St Peters Square, Vatican CityThe Vatican City is split from the historic heart of Rome by the River Tiber but the colossal dome of St Peter's Basilica is visible on the skyline from most vantage points in the city. The dome, or cupola, crowns a place of worship that is, by turns, a mass gathering place for pilgrims and the Catholic Church’s ultimate demonstration of wealth and power. Although not the largest of Rome’s squares, the vast oval Piazza San Pietro in front of the basilica sets the scale with space for over 400,000 worshippers. The basilica and the two encircling arms of its colonnaded walkways showcase the combined talents of a succession of architects including Bernini.

The dome however, was designed by Michelangelo and the Vatican, the smallest state in the world, holds the greatest collection of his works, among its other High Renaissance treasures. The entrance to the Vatican Museums is five minutes' walk from Piazza San Pietro. Once inside, you’re directed through palatial corridors and stanzas (rooms) until, quite unexpectedly, you step into the Sistine Chapel and are under Michelangelo’s triumphant ceiling with his painting of the Last Judgement covering the altar wall.

The Colosseum

Rome's most famous sight is its massive Colosseum and within these foreboding walls the emperor hosted his legendary battles where gladiators, slaves and exotic animals met in bloody combat to entertain up to 87,000 spectators. Completed in AD 80, the structure was originally clad in travertine with marble statues filling the alcoves in the walls. Although much of this exterior decoration was stripped away when the games were finally banned in the 6th century, the sheer scale of what remains gives a clear impression of the barbarity and the popularity of this gory form of Roman entertainment.

During the battles a massive canvas would have covered the entire arena while a system of trapdoors in the wooden floor led down to a complex arrangement of passageways where animals were caged and sets prepared. Your entrance ticket is valid for three days and also gives access to the adjacent Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Once the center of political and commercial activity in ancient Rome, the forum covers a massive, sprawling area of ancient ruins of temples, basilicas and archways. Highlights include the 3rd-century Arco di Settimio Severo and the Curia, the seat of the Roman Senate which was reconstructed in 1937.

Galleria Borghese in the Villa Borghese gardens

Central Rome’s green lung, the Villa Borghese gardens are a cool and shady respite from the heat of the day. The park sits on the Pincian Hill, and the viewpoint from its southern edge, looking out across a skyline of church cupolas dominated by the dome of St Peter’s, is a classic image of Rome.

Set within the park, the Galleria Borghese was once a villa before its owner, the 16th-century art magnate Cardinal Scipione Borghese, turned it into a gallery to showcase his swiftly growing collection of works from artists such as Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio. The sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini left his mark all across Rome in the century following the Renaissance, but the Cardinal commissioned two of his greatest works — the Rape of Persephone and Apollo and Daphne — which still stand in the spots intended for them in Sala I of the Galleria. Bernini was a master in taking the cold, hard medium of marble and turning it into warm, pliable flesh. Note the way Pluto’s gripping fingers sink into Persephone’s thigh to witness his mastery.

Rome’s local churches

As the view from the Villa Borghese gardens will tell you, Rome is dense with churches. Many contain architectural curiosities, impressive art, or architectural feats like Borromini’s elliptical dome on San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane Church.

The Jesuit Sant’Ignazio Church, a couple of streets away from the Pantheon, has an opulent interior studded with precious stones and a trompe l’oeil dome. Its planned dome was never built, so artist Andrea Pozzo painted a canvas for the ceiling that gives the impression you’re seeing a lofty, coffered dome when viewed from a marked spot in the church.

Sant’Agostino Basilica, near the Piazza Navona, has a wonderful yet undervisited Caravaggio painting, the Madonna di Loreto. It was a controversial work in its day: the woman who modeled for Caravaggio was allegedly a prostitute, and contemporary viewers were shocked by the artist’s depiction of everyday details, such as the beggar’s grubby feet.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a Gothic church with a cobalt-blue nave ceiling almost adjacent to the Pantheon, is built on the foundations of a Roman temple to the goddess of wisdom (hence its name ‘Maria over Minerva’). Look for Michelangelo’s muscular statue of the Risen Christ, to which the church later added a bronze loincloth.    

Rome’s fountains

As well as the Trevi, Rome has a number of other intriguing but less heralded fountains, which were often commissioned by popes to commemorate their generous restoration of ancient Roman aqueducts.

Bernini’s Quattro Fiumi (Four Rivers) fountain on Piazza Navona has a great urban legend attached to it. Notice how the fountain’s figures facing the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone are cringing or covering their faces with a veil. The story goes that Bernini lost out on the church commission to contemporary architect Borromini, and the statues are Bernini’s way of saying that his rival’s church is ugly.

Another Bernini masterpiece is the Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini, showing the mythological sea god Triton blowing into a conch. At the periphery of the same piazza is the Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees). An inscription explains that Pope Urban VIII commissioned it, along with the Triton Fountain. The bees — sitting on a bivalve shell — are an emblem of the Pope.

The Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) has been trickling away in the tiny Piazza Mattei, a few streets west of the Campo de’ Fiori (flower market), since 1581. Originally created by della Porta, its four bronze tortoises were a later addition and their creator remains unknown.

The Trastevere District

This jumble of narrow cobblestone streets and piazzas is across the River Tiber from central Rome’s historic heartland. It retains a medieval feel: its streets are punctuated by bell towers, lines of laundry, and shrines to the Virgin Mary. While in parts it retains its down-to-earth character, it’s also speckled with chic restaurants, cafes, boutiques and nightclubs attracting a young crowd who congregate around the fountain in the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The church of the same name that stands on this piazza dates back to the 3rd century. The granite columns in its nave were pillaged from ancient Roman sites. Today it’s most celebrated for its 13th-century mosaics by Cavallini, which have a realism and intensity unusual for the period.

Another church worth visiting in this district is Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, dedicated to the Roman martyr and patron saint of music. The remains of her house and an ancient Roman tannery lie underneath. A visit to Trastevere can be included in a Vespa tour of Rome.

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