With over 3,000 years of civilization under its belt, Rome is known as the Eternal City for good reason. No matter what history has thrown at it, from barbarian invasions to WWII bombings, Rome’s flame continues to burn brightly. The Italian capital boasts so many historical attractions and mesmerizing artworks that it’s almost overwhelming. This is especially true if you are there for just a short time. I spent three days in Rome and Vatican City and feel like I barely scratched the surface. Here are some unique and fun things to do in Rome that I particularly enjoyed, and hope you will as well!
1. Altar of the Fatherland
When I was touring the Vatican Museums, a gal in my group told me about a rooftop observation deck that looked down on the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Naturally I had to track it down. Some Internet sleuthing led me to Vittoriano, the monument dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, first king of unified Italy. Better known as the Altar of the Fatherland, this enormous marble structure towers over the rest of the city.
Head inside to access the glass elevators that lead to the roof. The 360-degree view of ancient Rome is definitely worth the ticket price! You’ll be able to see everything between Trajan’s Market and Palantine Hill, as well as the distinctive domes of the Pantheon and St Peter’s Basilica.
The most famous landmark in Rome opened in 80 AD and was originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre. 50,000 spectators filled the stands as gladiators put on the ultimate show. Trap doors hidden in the arena floor would open suddenly, unleashing bears, lions, tigers, elephants, and even giraffes for the gladiators to fight. These bloody battles raged until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD when the arena was abandoned. It’s estimated that over 400,000 people were killed at the Colosseum.
During the Middle Ages, the Colosseum’s many arches were filled with concrete so it could be used as a fortress to fend off barbarian attacks. When weapons were needed, medieval peasants dug holes in the travertine columns to reach the iron support brackets hidden within. The façade now resembles a wheel of Swiss cheese. I’m surprised it hasn’t collapsed!
3. Roman Forum and Palantine Hill
The most important area of ancient Rome was the Forum. It was the political and religious center of the empire, home to the senate house and several temples. The most interesting of these is the Temple of Vesta. Dedicated to the goddess of the hearth, the temple was also home to the Vestal Virgins. These priestesses tended the temple’s ever-burning hearth fire and enjoyed an exalted status in the community. Statues dedicated to them still line the courtyard of their former residence.
As with the Colosseum, the Roman Forum was abandoned after the fall of the empire. All the marble was carted off to build and decorate medieval palaces and churches, while the open spaces were used as cow pasture. The only structures to survive were converted into churches.
Palantine Hill, overlooking the Forum, is where the emperors and noble families lived. It’s also where, according to legend, twins Romulus and Remus were saved by a she-wolf in the 8th century BC. Sons of a Vestal Virgin and the god Mars, the brothers eventually had a falling out and Romulus killed Remus. Romulus then began building a city, named after himself, on Palantine Hill.
The best-preserved ancient Roman structure is the Pantheon. It was built in 120 AD by the Emperor Hadrian to honor the Roman gods. Its incredible dome features a circular opening at the top which gives worshipers a window to the heavens. (It also lets in rainwater, which disappears through small drains in the floor.) The Pantheon’s massive bronze doors are apparently originals and, given what I’ve learned about medieval scavenging, this seems truly miraculous.
The temple was consecrated as a Christian church in the 7th century AD and was a great source of inspiration during the Renaissance. The painter Raphael is entombed in the Pantheon, along with two Italian kings.
5. Gelato Break
Even the biggest history buff needs to take a break every once in a while. Good thing you are in Rome and gelaterias abound! Of all the gelato I sampled in the city, Gelateria Sweet Life served up the best. I panicked a little when I first walked in and saw all the delicious flavors, but the friendly server let me try several before committing. My ultimate choice? Nutella and black cherry.
6. Vatican Museums
Founded in the 16th century, the Vatican Museums have one of the greatest collections of art in the world. You’ve surely heard of Michelangelo’s soaring masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. But there are four rooms painted by Raphael that are nearly as impressive. Every centimeter is decorated, from the tile floors to the gilded ceilings, and you won’t know where to look first!
One of my favorite areas of the Vatican is the Gallery of Maps. This stunning hallway was painted by Ignazio Danti and depicts the various Italian kingdoms and regions of the 16th century. I could have easily spent an hour here if not for the tour guide moving us along.
The Vatican Museums include several galleries filled with the finest sculptures ancient Rome had to offer. But the sad fact is that there are so many people crammed into the space that it is nearly impossible to appreciate what you were seeing. Ditto for the Egyptian gallery. My tour began in this section at 10am, and it was already packed to the gills. Some crowd control measures would be greatly appreciated.
A gallery of modern art was added in the 1970s and includes works by Picasso, Dali, van Gogh, Matisse, and Chagall. I would have loved to linger in here a little longer, especially since this was the least crowded area of the Vatican Museums.
7. St Peter’s Basilica
Next door to the Vatican Museums is St Peter’s Basilica. This monumental church was completed in the 17th century and is one of the most important to the Christian world. It replaced a much older church on the same site, where some believe St Peter was buried in the 1st century AD. A baldachin, or ornamental canopy, created by Bernini with bronze taken from the Pantheon, stands at the center of the basilica over the Tomb of St Peter. The foot of a nearby bronze statue of St Peter has been rubbed by so many pilgrims that its toes are nearly gone.
Other sacred relics interred at St Peter’s Basilica include the Veil of Veronica, the skull of St Andrew, and 91 popes. Don’t miss the tomb of Innocent XI, whose silver-dipped skeleton is on full display.
The most notable sculpture inside the basilica is Michelangelo’s Pieta. Exquisitely carved from Carrara marble, it shows Mary holding Jesus in her lap after his crucifixion. This masterpiece is located just inside the entrance beside the Holy Door, which is opened once every 25 years. On that day, Catholics who enter have all their sins forgiven. Between openings, the backside of the door is sealed with concrete to prevent sinners from barging in uninvited.
Soaring high above it all is Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. Reaching a height of 136 meters, it is the tallest dome in the world. The interior is covered in gilded mosaics, which shimmer in the sunlight streaming in from the top. You can get a close-up look at these mosaics if you opt to do the St Peter’s Basilica dome climb. There is a lift that will take you to the walkway ringing the inside of the cupola.
If you want to continue up to the rooftop from there, you will need to climb 320 steps that get increasingly narrow and curved as you ascend to the roof. But the views over St Peter’s Square are one hundred percent worth the effort!
8. Trevi Fountain
Made famous by classic films such as La Dolce Vita and Roman Holiday, Trevi Fountain is one of the most popular (and crowded) spots in Rome. The travertine fountain features the god Neptune standing in a shell-shaped chariot led by seahorses. It is the largest fountain in Rome and takes up one whole side of a palace. According to legend, if you throw a coin in Trevi Fountain you are sure to return to Rome some day. (All the coins are collected daily and donated to charity.)
Speaking of fountains, Rome has over 300 and the water pouring out of them is safe to drink. I loved being able to refill my water bottle for free as I explored the city!
9. Spanish Steps
Have you even been to Rome if you haven’t seen the Spanish Steps? This beloved staircase was built in 1725 as a link between the Trinita dei Monti Church on the hill, and the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See in the plaza below. The boat-shaped fountain at the base of the steps was carved by Bernini and represents the fishing boat that supposedly washed into the plaza during a 16th century flood.
10. Borghese Gallery and Museum
Wow! This was the only word I could utter when I first set foot in the Borghese Gallery and Museum. Its cavernous rooms, with gilded frescoes on vaulted ceilings and floors of inlaid marble and ancient Roman mosaics, are worth the ticket price alone.
But it’s the dynamic, life-size Bernini sculptures that steal the show. There’s Persephone being abducted by Pluto, with a snarling Cerberus at their feet. David stretches back, about to launch a stone at Goliath, a look of intense concentration on his face. Apollo desperately clutches Daphne as she turns into a tree. The finely carved details make the statues seem like they could start moving at any moment.
Nearly as impressive is Venus Victorious, a sculpture of Princess Pauline Bonaparte completed by Canova in 1805. It depicts Pauline, sister of Napoleon, reclining nude on a sofa. Needless to say it caused quite a stir when it was unveiled. She’s said to have been very proud of her likeness!
Hanging on the walls are masterpieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, Titian, and Veronese, just to name a few.
This unbelievable art collection was created in the early 1600s by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who clearly exploited his position as nephew of Pope Paul V. It’s housed in Scipione’s villa and is not to be confused with Villa Borghese, his former estate turned public park.
11. See Where Caesar Was Killed
Et tu, Brute? On the Ides of March in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed literally and figuratively in the back by a group of his fellow senators. The assassination took place in the Theater of Pompey, a complex of temples and meeting halls. Located in what is now known as the Largo di Torre Argentina, the ruins weren’t discovered until the 1920s. Archeological work at the site is ongoing.
The area is also home to the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. This shelter for Rome’s street cats was founded in 1993 and operates out of the base of one of the temple ruins. All of the cats receive veterinary care, including vaccines and sterilization, and are available for adoption.
12. Try Roman Pizza and Pasta
I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think the food in Rome is as good as in other Italian cities like Naples and Venice. But, I did eat a few things that are worth mentioning. First up is the pizza from Antico Forno Roscioli. This popular bakery has been churning out pizzas (and breads and pastries) since 1972. Slices are served by the square, and come on either a crispy thin crust or pillowy focaccia. I went back twice so I could sample all the topping combos.
Roman cuisine is probably better known for its classic pasta dishes. The four pastas of Rome are: Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, Amatriciana, and Gricia. I tried the first three and Amatriciana was my favorite. It features a tomato-based sauce, whereas the others rely mainly on salty pork lardons and sharp pecorino cheese for flavor.
Of the three restaurants I went to for dinner, the only one I can recommend is La Ciambella. I opted for the traditional tasting menu, which the chef dedicates to her father. Every bite was delicious, from the creamy sweetbreads with chicory to the ricotta and cherry tart. I especially enjoyed the roast pork tacos – a modern take on the classic Roman porchetta street food sandwich. And definitely add on the wine pairing. The sommelier is delightful, and her pairings were on point.
13. Find all the Egyptian Obelisks in Rome
Rome is home to 13 obelisks, more than anywhere else in the world. Of these, eight are from ancient Egypt. Covered in hieroglyphics, these obelisks once stood in pairs outside temples and tombs. When Roman Emperor Augustus conquered Egypt in 30 BC, he had two brought back to Rome as victory monuments. Later emperors, including Caligula and Diocletian, added to the collection. The other five are ancient Roman copies.
Many of the obelisks were installed on top of Bernini fountains and sculptures during the Renaissance. My favorite is the “Elephant and Obelisk” in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. This Gothic church was built over the ruins of an ancient temple. Be sure to peek inside the church to see its brilliant blue ceiling!
14. Castel Sant’Angelo
This round fortress has stood on the banks of the Tiber River since 135 AD. Emperor Hadrian had it built as his family mausoleum. The structure was turned into an actual fortress during the Middle Ages as a refuge for the popes. It was connected to the Vatican with a fortified passageway which still stands today. Castel Sant’Angelo benefited from a Renaissance makeover and was used as a papal residence. While there’s not much left inside, it’s still an interesting space to explore. There’s also a great view of St Peter’s from the ramparts, though I was there at the wrong time of day to get a good photo.
15. Sip a Rooftop Cocktail
There is no better way to end a day of sightseeing in Rome than by enjoying a cocktail at a rooftop bar. I was partial to the one at my hotel, but there are plenty of options across the city.
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