Rome’s iconic monument is a thrilling site. The 50,000-seater Colosseum was ancient Rome’s most feared arena and is today one of Italy’s top tourist attractions. Queues are inevitable but you can usually avoid them by buying your ticket at the nearby Palatine Hill.
Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was started by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and finished by his son Titus in AD 80. It was clad in travertine and covered by a huge canvas awning, held aloft by 240 masts. Inside, tiered seating encircled the sand-covered arena, itself built over underground chambers where animals were caged. Games generally involved gladiators fighting wild animals or each other.
To the west of the Colosseum, the Arco di Costantino was built to celebrate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312.
Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
Rome’s most famous ruins are what’s left of the Roman Forum, the social, political and commercial hub of the Roman Republic.
As you enter at Largo Romolo e Remo, ahead to your left is the Tempio di Antonino e Faustina, built by the senate in AD 141 and transformed into a church in the 8th century. To your right, the Basilica Aemilia, built in 179 BC, was 100m long with a twostorey porticoed facade lined with shops. At the end of the short path, Via Sacra traverses the Forum from northwest to southeast. Opposite the basilica stands the Tempio di Giulio Cesare erected by Augustus in 29 BC on the site where Caesar’s body had been burned.
Head right up Via Sacra and you reach the Curia, once the meeting place of the Roman senate and later converted into a church. In front of the Curia is the Lapis Niger, a large piece of black marble that purportedly covered Romulus’ grave.
At the end of Via Sacra, the Arco di Settimo Severo was erected in AD 203 to honour Emperor Septimus Severus and celebrate victory over the Parthians. It is considered one of Italy’s major triumphal arches. Nearby, the Millarium Aureum marked the centre of ancient Rome.
Southwest of the arch, eight granite columns are all that remain of the Tempio di Saturno, one of ancient Rome’s most important temples. To the southeast, the Piazza del Foro, the Forum’s main market and meeting place, is marked by the 7th-century Colonna di Foca (Column of Phocus). To your right are the foundations of the Basilica Giulia, a law court built by Julius Caesar in 55 BC. At the end of the basilica is the Tempio di Castore e Polluce, built in 489 BC in honour of the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux. It is easily recognisable by its three remaining columns. Southeast of the temple, and closed to the public, is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua, the Forum’s oldest Christian church.
Back towards Via Sacra, the Casa delle Vestali was home to the virgins employed to keep the sacred flame alight in the adjoining Tempio di Vesta.
Continuing up Via Sacra, you pass the vast Basilica di Costantino, also known as the Basilica di Massenzio, en route to the Arco di Tito, built in AD 81 to celebrate the victories of the emperors Titus and Vespasian against Jerusalem.
From here, you can climb the Palatine. Ancient Rome’s poshest neighbourhood, this is where Romulus is said to have founded the city in 753 BC.
Most of the Palatine is covered by the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast 1st-century complex. Divided into the Domus Flavia (imperial palace), Domus Augustana (the emperor’s private residence) and a stadio (stadium), it served as the main imperial residence for 300 years.
Among the best-preserved buildings on the Palatine is the frescoed Casa di Livia, home to Augustus’ wife Livia, and the Tempio della Magna Mater, built in 204 BC.
The world’s smallest sovereign state, the Vatican is the jealous guardian of one of the world’s greatest artistic and architectural patrimonies.
Covering just 0.44 sq km, the Vatican is all that’s left of the Papal States. For more than a thousand years, the Papal States encompassed Rome and much of central Italy, but after Italian unification in 1861 the pope was forced to give up his territorial possessions. Relations between Italy and the landless papacy remained strained until 1929 when Mussolini and Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty and formally established the Vatican State.
St Peter’s Basilica & Square
Italy’s biggest, richest, and most spectacular church, St Peter’s Basilica towers over the grandiose St Peter’s Sq. Built over the spot where St Peter was buried, the first basilica was consecrated by Constantine in the 4th century. In 1503, Bramante designed a new basilica, which took more than 150 years to complete. Michelangelo took over the project in 1547, designing the grand dome, which soars 120m above the altar. The cavernous 187m-long interior contains numerous treasures, including two of Italy’s most celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà, the only work to carry his signature; and Bernini’s 29m baldachin over the high altar.
Dress rules and security are stringently enforced at the basilica – no shorts, miniskirts or sleeveless tops.
St Peter’s Sq was designed by Bernini and laid out in the 17th century. The vast piazza is bound by two semicircular colonnades, each comprising four rows of Doric columns, and in its centre stands an obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula from Heliopolis (in ancient Egypt).
Boasting one of the world’s great art collections, the Vatican Museums are housed in the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano. Every inch of this vast 5.5-hectare complex is crammed with art, and you’ll need several hours just for the highlights. There are four colour-coded itineraries, each of which finishes at the Sistine Chapel, so if you want you can walk straight there, although bear in mind that you can’t backtrack once you’re there. Audioguides are available for €6.
Home to some spectacular classical statuary, the Museo Pio-Clementino is to the left of the entrance complex. Highlights include the Apollo Belvedere and the 1st century Laocoön, both in the Cortile Ottagono. Further on, the 175m-long Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery) features 40 huge topographical maps. Beyond these, the magnificent Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms) were once Pope Julius II’s private apartments, and were decorated by Raphael from 1508 onwards. Of the resulting frescoes, La Scuola d’Atene (The School of Athens) in the Stanza della Segnatura is considered one of his great masterpieces.
The climax to any visit to the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina). The chapel was originally built in 1484 for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it is named, but it was Julius II who commissioned Michelangelo to decorate it in 1508. Over the next four years, the artist painted the remarkable Genesis (Creation; 1508–12) on the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Twenty-two years later he returned at the behest of Pope Clement VII to paint the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgement; 1534–41) on the end wall.
The other walls of the chapel were painted by artists including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio and Signorelli.
Piazza del Campidoglio & Musei Capitolini
The lowest of Rome’s seven hills, the Campidoglio (Capitoline) was the spiritual heart of the Roman Republic. At its summit were the city’s two most important temples: one dedicated to Juno Moneta and another to Jupiter Capitolinus, where Brutus is said to have hidden after assassinating Caesar. In the 16th century Michelangelo redesigned Piazza del Campidoglio to face St Peter’s Basilica. The square, accessible by the Cordonata staircase, is bordered by Palazzo Nuovo to the left, Palazzo dei Conservatori on the right, and straight ahead Palazzo Senatorio, seat of city government since 1143. In the centre, the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius is a copy; the original is in Palazzo Nuovo.
A striking 2000-year-old temple, now church, the Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda) is the best-preserved of ancient Rome’s great monuments. In its current form it dates to around AD 120 when the Emperor Hadrian built over Marcus Agrippa’s original 27 BC temple. The dome, considered the Romans’ most important architectural achievement, was the largest dome in the world until the 15th century and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. Inside, you’ll find the tombs of Raphael and kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.
A few blocks west of the Pantheon, Piazza Navona (Corso del Rinascimento) is Rome’s great baroque centrepiece. Built over the ruins of the 1st-century Stadio di Domiziano (Domitian’s Stadium), it is focused on Bernini’s 1651 masterpiece, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). For 300 years the piazza was home to Rome’s main market and still today it attracts a colourful crowd of street artists, locals, tourists and pigeons.
Campo de’ Fiori
Dubbed ‘il Campo’, Campo de’ Fiori (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II), is a major focus of Roman life: by day it hosts a noisy market, and at night it becomes a vast open-air pub. For centuries it was the site of public executions, and it was here that the philosophising monk Giordano Bruno (the hooded figure in Ettore Ferrari’s sinister statue) was burned at the stake in 1600. The twin fountains are granite baths taken from the Terme di Caracalla (Via delle Terme di Caracalla 52), whose vast ruins are an awe-inspiring sight. The 10-hectare baths’ complex was inaugurated in AD 217 and included richly decorated pools, gymnasiums, libraries, shops and gardens.
Once the estate of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, this park, known as Villa Borghese (Porta Pinciana), is a good spot for a breath of fresh air. Bike hire is available at various points. There are also several museums, including the fabulous Museo e Galleria Borghese (Piazzale del Museo Borghese, Via Pinciana). With works by Caravaggio, Bernini, Botticelli and Raphael, this is arguably Rome’s finest art gallery.
Immortalised by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi; Piazza di Trevi; Barberini) was designed by Nicola Salvi in 1732 and depicts Neptune’s chariot being led by Tritons, with sea horses representing the moods of the sea. The custom is to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, thus ensuring your return to Rome. On an average day about €3000 is chucked away.
Piazza di Spagna & Spanish Steps
A hang-out for both flirting adolescents and footsore tourists, Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) have been a magnet for foreigners since the 18th century. Built with a legacy from the French in 1725, but named after the Spanish embassy to the Holy See, the steps were constructed to link the piazza with the well-heeled folks living above it.
Piazza del Popolo & Around
One of Rome’s landmark squares, Piazza del Popolo (Flaminio) was laid out in 1538 at the point of convergence of three roads – Via di Ripetta, Via del Corso and Via del Babuino – known as Il Tridente. Guarding the piazza’s southern approach are the twin 17th-century churches Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Chiesa di Santa Maria in Montesanto.
South of the piazza on Via di Ripetta, the Ara Pacis Augustae is considered one of the most important works of ancient Roman sculpture. Today it’s controversially housed in a white, glass pavilion designed by US architect Richard Meier.
Museo Nazionale Romano
Spread over five sites, the Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum) houses Rome’s vast collection of classical art and statuary.
Lovers of ancient sculpture should make a beeline for Palazzo Altemps (Tel 06 683 37 59; Piazza Sant’Apollinare 44), a lovely 15th-century palazzo which holds the best of the museum’s classical sculpture.
The happening neighbourhood in central Rome, Trastevere is an old working-class area made good. It’s a beautiful area at any time of the day, but it really comes into its own after dark when crowds of highspirited revellers descend on its medieval, bar-strewn streets.
Don’t miss the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Tel 06 581 48 02; Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere) in the lovely piazza of the same name, believed to be the oldest Roman church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. On the other side of the neighbourhood, the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (Tel 06 589 92 89; Piazza di Santa Cecilia; admission basilica/fresco free/€2; hbasilica 9am-12.30pm & 4-6.30pm, fresco 10.15am-noon Mon-Sat, 11.15am-12.15pm Sun; mViale di Trastevere) harbours fragments of a spectacular 13th-century fresco.
Appia Antica & the Catacombs
Known to the ancients as the regina viarum (queen of roads), Via Appia Antica (Appian Way) was started in 312 BC and finished in Brindisi in 190 BC. It was here that Spartacus and 6000 of his slave rebels were crucified in 71 BC and it’s here that you’ll find Rome’s most celebrated catacombs.
Rome’s extensive network of catacombs were built as communal burial grounds. A Roman law banned burials within the city walls and persecution left the early Christians little choice but to dig. And dig they did – carving some 300km of tunnels.
One of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Tel 06 48 31 95; Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore) was built by Pope Liberius in AD 352 on the sight of a miraculous snowfall. In its current form, it combines a 14th-century Romanesque belfry, an 18th-century facade, a largely baroque interior, and some stunning 5th century mosaics.
Similarly impressive is the great white Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (Tel 06 698 86 433; Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano 4). Consecrated in 324 AD, this was the first Christian basilica to be built in Rome and, until the late 14th century, was the pope’s principal residence.
Just off Via Cavour, the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Piazza di San Pietro in Vincolir) is home to Michelangelo’s magnificent Moses, as well as the chains worn by St Peter before his crucifixion.
The Basilica di San Clemente (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano), east of the Colosseum, is a very multilayered affair. The 12th-century church at street level was built over a 4th-century church that was, in turn, built over a 1st-century Roman house with a temple dedicated to the pagan god Mithras.
Considered one of the finest medieval churches in Rome, the Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Piazza della Bocca della Verità 18) is most famous for the Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) in its portico. Legend has it that if you put your right hand into the stone mouth and tell a lie, it will bite your hand off.