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Completed before the end of the 1st Century, around 80 AD, the Colosseum is the original sports arena. Primarily used to host fight-to-the-death gladiator games, it offered tiered seating for some 50,000 spectators and 80 exits to prevent those spectators from crushing one another on their way out. A misplaced sense of civility aside, the Colosseum is a testament to the engineering genius of Imperial Rome—especially considering how much of the three-story amphitheatre is still standing. The Colosseum also had an elaborate subterranean system for transporting slaves and the wild animals they would be battling. You can see the underground tunnels by guided tour only—and well worth the nominal fee.
Most likely the best-preserved ancient structure in Rome, the nearly 2,000-year-old Pantheon is the definition of remarkable. For starters, it helped establish Classical architecture—with its portico and columns, triangular pediment, rotunda and dome—influencing the architectural style for important buildings the world over for centuries; its dome is one of the largest in the world (until the 15th Century, it was the largest), defined by a large oculus, which provides the only source of light; and finally, this Ancient Roman temple has been in continuous use since the 7th Century and is only now beginning to show its years. If possible, visit on a sunny day to see why the beams of light streaming into the rotunda are dubbed “God’s rays.”
One of Rome’s most popular attractions, the Trevi Fountain is as famous for its beauty as for its coin-toss tradition. Completed in 1762, the Baroque fountain features a sculptural composition of Neptune, winged horses and other mythological sea creatures, with a monumental palace façade as its backdrop. Director Federico Fellini gave the fountain pop-culture status in his film, La Dolce Vita, after which it has appeared in several American movies, including the 1953 Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, even a Bon Jovi music video. Legend has it that anyone tossing a coin into the fountain is guaranteed another visit to Rome. Skeptics should also participate, since the coins are collected nightly and donated to charity.
Famous the world over, St. Peter’s Basilica sits on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. One of the second largest churches in the world, it has a towering central dome, designed by Michelangelo, that dominates the Rome skyline. Completed in 1626, St. Peter’s was designed by a small army of the era’s most acclaimed architects, most notably Donato Bramante, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as well as Michelangelo, and is considered one of the most exquisite examples of Renaissance architecture. Its vast and majestic interior is unforgettable, and no words or images can do it justice. More than any other attraction in Rome, St. Peter’s begs for a guided tour in order to truly appreciate what you’re seeing.
Redesigned in the mid-17th Century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini some 30 years after St. Peter's Basilica was completed, St. Peter’s Square is itself quite impressive. Bernini, one of the architects of the Basilica, inherited an Egyptian obelisk on site, erected during the previous century, as well as a granite fountain created by the architect Carlo Maderno while working on the Basilica. With the goal to keep St. Peter's Square open and unobstructed for the Pope’s audience, Bernini framed it with a set of colossal colonnades on each side of the Basilica’s entrance. He later constructed a twin of the Maderno fountain, added to create the symmetry he felt the plaza lacked. Since then, the only other additions have come from enterprising vendors hawking Vatican souvenirs.
Established in 1506 by Pope Julius II, who was known for his patronage of the arts, the Vatican Museums possess one of the world’s greatest collections of religious art, including many renown and significant works. There are 54 galleries in all, including the superlative Sistine Chapel (not to be missed). It’s not possible to cover everything in one day, so plan accordingly—and rent an audio guide for maximum benefit. Highlights: Raphael’s suite of frescoed rooms; the Classic antiquities in Pio-Clementino; the circa 1932 spiral staircase; Modern religious art in the Borgia Apartment with works by Chagall, Gauguin and Kandinsky; and if time, the Gallery of Candelabra or the Gallery of Tapestries—or both.
As you walk through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel is the last “gallery”—and every inch as extraordinary as you might have imagined. With brilliant tapestries and frescoes everywhere you look, it’s a paean to the Italian Renaissance—and gives pause to modern invention. Even standing with a throng of visitors, it’s possible to spend hours gawping at the scenic frescoed surfaces, especially the ceiling for which the Sistine Chapel is most famous. Michelangelo's crowning achievement, best viewed from the chapel’s main entrance (opposite the visitor entrance), covers the entire 8,600-square-foot barrel ceiling. With a surround of painted architectural features, its central section includes nine magnificently painted scenes illustrating the Biblical creation narrative, from which comes the iconic image of the near-touching hands of God and Adam.
What looks, at first glance, like a remarkable jumble of ancient ruins is, in fact, what remains of the heart of the Roman Empire, from many different centuries and as far back as about the 7th Century BC. But with a little imagination—and a really good guide map that identifies the various standing remains and their time frames—it’s possible to construct grandiose urban hubs and appreciate the engineering and architectural feats that helped establish an impressive civilization. Since the 18th Century, the Forum has become one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.
Said to be the widest staircase in Europe, the Spanish Steps today provide an elegant people-watching perch and an excellent designated meeting spot. In 1725 when the Steps were built, they served a slightly loftier purpose: to access the 16th Century Trinita dei Monti church that stands high above ground level. In spring, the Steps are decorated with containers of azaleas; at Christmas, a decorative manger-like crib for Bambino Gesu Cristo stands midway up; and the rest of the time, the Spanish Steps make a cameo appearance in countless tourist selfies.
Considered the second most glorious church in Rome (after St. Peter’s), Santa Maria Maggiore dates to the 5th Century—but various restorations over the centuries have rendered its façade something of an architectural mash-up. Most of the current exterior is 18th-Century Baroque with a 14th-Century Romanesque belfry, the tallest in Rome at a soaring 246 feet. The interior retained its original layout and many adornments, including gilded cherubs over the high altar and stunning mosaics on either side of the nave, depicting scenes from the Old Testament. And while most of the original mosaics are intact, some were replaced in the 16th Century by panels of painted copies, which are themselves pretty incredible.
If you have time for only one art gallery while in Rome, make it the Borghese. Housed in a 17th Century jewel box of a villa, the collection features paintings and sculptures from antiquity to the 19th Century, “curated” by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579-1633), one of the most devoted art patrons of his era. Here, you’ll see some of the most important sculptures by Bernini, Canova and Cordier, plus paintings from Renaissance masters Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and Caravaggio. The Borghese occupies 20 salons on two floors, and is one of the most civilized gallery experiences, as visitors are limited to 360 at a time, admitted in reserved two-hour intervals. Book your tickets in advance to snag the most convenient entry time.
What began as a vineyard in the 16th Century is today one of the loveliest and most popular parks in the city. Rome’s equivalent of Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens or New York’s Central Park—but with more museums—Villa Borghese is a lush 148 acres of greens, plantings, walking paths, an abundance of statues and sculpture-laden fountains and a few small lakes. A magnet for locals and tourists alike, the park offers bike- and paddle-boat rentals, a vintage carousel, ice skating in the winter, the newly revamped Bioparco Zoo, a few cinemas and, true to Italian form, several cafes for replenishing. There are many entrances, but for a sweet view of the city, climb the steps on the east side of Piazza del Popolo to the Pincio Gardens terrace.
St. John’s is the oldest basilica in the world and remains one of Rome’s most magnificent. Consecrated in the year 324, it has been revamped countless times, inside and out. The interior we see today was redesigned for the 1650 Jubilee by noted architect Francesco Borromini—and from its mosaic floor to its gilt ceiling, it’s nothing short of resplendent. Its current façade dates to the 1700s and is a fantastic example of Baroque Classicism. With a nod to St. Peter’s Basilica, the white stone exterior, with its two-storied portico, is topped with 15 statues of Christ and the Apostles, each 22 feet high and all still originals.
This minor basilica is famous for housing Michelangelo’s early-16th Century sculpture, Moses. Seated and holding two tablets (aka, The Ten Commandments), the bearded statue is considered both exquisite (carved from Carrara marble) and controversial (wearing horns). Flanking him are two more Michelangelo sculptures, Leah and Rachel, from the same era. As for the rest of the church, its namesake—the chains reputed to have bound St. Peter while imprisoned by the Romans in Jerusalem—are displayed in a crystal case under the main altar.
Established in 1889, the National Roman Museum occupies four different sites throughout the city—with the sum total of holdings comprising the greatest collection of Rome’s historical treasures. And since the acquisitions are grouped thematically, it’s possible to treat each location as a separate museum. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, a 19th Century Neo-Renaissance-style manse, houses a comprehensive collection of Classical art—sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, jewelry, even coins—documenting the artistic culture of Imperial Rome. The Baths of Diocletian, a sumptuous complex erected around the turn of the 4th Century, features funereal works of art plus a 16th Century cloister (believed to have been designed by Michelangelo), which even today is a contemplative spot, despite being across from the bustling Termini Station. The late-15th Century Palazzo Altemps showcases a host of Greek and Roman sculptures once belonging to Rome’s nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries against beautifully restored baroque interiors. And the Crypta Balbi, the smallest of the four venues, depicts a city block in Rome’s historic center in ancient times, the Middle Ages and the 20th Century—supporting the transformations with excavated items from everyday life.
Originally built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the first half of the 2nd Century, Castel Sant’Angelo is today a museum of Renaissance-era rooms with a sixth-story terrace and cafe. In the centuries between, the cylindrical relic, high above the city, has served as a military fortress, a prison, even a safe papal haven during dangerous times. (A covered passageway still connects the Vatican with Castel Sant’Angelo.) It even plays a dramatic part in Puccini’s opera, Tosca. Worth a visit for the city views accompanied by an espresso.
Flanking a wonderful rococo piazza, this circa 1626 Jesuit church with a Carlo Maderno façade is most famous for a trompe l’oeil ceiling fresco, depicting St. Ignatius being welcomed into heaven by Jesus and the Madonna. For the best view of the uncanny three-dimensional image, stand on the marked spot of the nave floor and look up. Once off the mark, when you look up again, the optical illusion is gone—and you’ll see that the ceiling, which previously appeared to be curved, is actually completely and totally flat.
One of Rome’s most famous fountains, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, is the centerpiece of one of Rome’s most famous squares, Piazza Navona. Designed by the noted Italian sculptor, Bernini, it was completed in 1651 and features enormous statues of sea gods, representing what back then were considered the four greatest rivers: the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata. An added detail, looking a bit out of place but making the fountain that much more memorable, is an obelisk—52 feet tall, including its finial-like stone pigeon—rising from the rock on which the four sea gods sit.
One of the oldest churches in Rome, dating to the year 340, Santa Maria is located in the popular Trastevere neighborhood. A major makeover in the 12th Century included the addition of a Romanesque bell tower, and six centuries later the portico was added. But it’s the interior that’s the main draw with dazzling mosaic scenes, created in the 12th and 13th centuries, that are quite fantastical, looking deceptively like painted frescoes covering every surface. Visit the inside by day, then return after dark at least once when the church and tower are illuminated. The square in front of the basilica is always bustling at night.
Musei Capitolini are a group of important art and archeology museums situated on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Considered the world’s oldest collective museums still in operation, their history can be traced to the 15th Century, and their doors opened to the public in 1734. Featuring Medieval and Renaissance paintings and statuary, as well as decorative arts, the collections are remarkable for their scope and preservation.
Just behind the Pantheon, on Piazza della Minerva, stands this late-14th Century basilica—the only Gothic church in Rome. Exterior renovations in later centuries sadly left the building with a plain façade, but its interior was undisturbed. And what lies inside is magnificent: 15th Century frescoes; an important sculpture by Michelangelo, Christ Bearing the Cross, created for the church in the 1500s; a sky-blue vaulted arch with twinkly gilded stars, authenticall restored in the 19th Century; round stained-glass windows in brilliant colors; and several distinctively designed tombs.
This 12th-Century basilica features masterful mosaics and impressive frescoes, but the real beauty here is that the church is built over three layers of buildings, dating back nearly 2,000 years—and that portions of previous layers can be seen. Just beneath is a well-preserved 4th-Century church, built next to a 3rd-Century temple of Mithras, which was built over a 1st-Century home mostly destroyed in a fire during the reign of Emperor Nero. Excavations of the two oldest sites are still ongoing, offering a fascinating window onto previous societies—ancient, but hardly unsophsticated.
This is an amazing, if unwitting, archaeological “museum” featuring a one-hour multimedia tour of two opulent Imperial Roman villas. Discovered while attempting restoration work on the foundation of the 16th Century Palazzo Valentini, these villas of ancient Rome are shown with beautiful mosaics, inlaid marble floors and lavish adornments, thanks to the wonders of technology. Sophisticated computer-generated light and sound shows recreate what the rooms would have looked like while an automated narrative serves an audio guide. Suitable for kids ages 10 and older.
In the heart of Rome’s French community stands this 16th-Century church named for the patron saint of France, King Louis IX (hence, Luigi). Commissioned by Pope Clement VII (a great uncle of Catherine de Medici, wife of France’s King Henry II), the church’s quiet travertine façade belies an incredibly lavish Baroque interior, courtesy of the beyond-wealthy Italian Medici family coupled with the French monarchy. Of particular note: a magnificently gilded coffered ceiling surrounding an ethereal fresco by Charles Joseph Natoire, whose work also adorns the Palace of Versailles. And a trio of paintings by Renaissance master Caravaggio, whose art is also featured at the Borghese Gallery.
Since it was erected in 1935 to honor Italy's first king, this enormous white-marble monument has been called many things—"The Wedding Cake," "Giant Typewriter" and a slew of unmentionables—by the locals who considered it a huge and garish eyesore, unbecoming a city prized for its Renaissance art and architecture. That is, until 2007, when a glass-enclosed elevator with panoramic views was added, creating the “Rome from the Sky” attraction. It just so happens that this 230-foot-tall monument offers the best views in the city. Situated next to the Roman Forum, it also offers a rare overview of the ancient complex. And once you’re back on terra firma, visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, under the enormous statue of goddess Roma, marked by an eternal flame.