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There are practically an endless list of things to see and do in Rome. From world-renowned sights that celebrate its long history and provide a glimpse into life during the Roman Empire to more obscure but no less delightful attractions, here are the Eternal City’s most magnificent.
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Rome’s most famous classical ruin, the Roman Colosseum, is something that is not to be missed. This half circus, half sports area — officially known as the Amphiteatrum Flavium — was inaugurated in the first century AD, seating more than 50,000 people into its neatly arranged stands and starting the tradition of fights between men and beasts. This was a gory, brutal place with some 5,000 creatures killed in the opening event alone. The last man vs. beast battle took place in 523 – by then, the wild animal population in North Africa had been decimated. Human-on-human combat also took place – gladiators were slaves who were often captured in war and trained in special schools to fight each other to the death.
In ancient Rome, the Forum was the center of life. It played host to celebrations and festivals as well as funerals and rituals. But it is a jumble of triumphal arches, temple ruins and marble fragments as well as other ancient architectural elements from multiple time periods. Pick up a map at the visitor center to take a self-guided tour and make sense of these amazing ruins. Evidence of human activities from as early as the 10th century BC have been found where the Forum stands. The first temples and public buildings were raised here by the 6th century BC, and it continued to be the center of life in Rome for well over a millennium.
The Palatine Hill was the place where everyone who wanted to see and be seen had a place back in the day. Legend has it that the city’s founders, Romulus and Remus, occupied huts here. Later leaders usually opted for more palatial residences as the towering remains attest. Today, it’s one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions, housing some of its most impressive ancient sites. Don’t miss the Casa di Augusto, the early emperor’s intimate private house with incredible frescoes as well as the small museum and the house of Livia.
The Roman Pantheon is the most preserved and influential building of ancient Rome, a temple dedicated to the gods that is remarkably intact. Especially remarkable considering it was originally built in 27 BC, and later rebuilt in the 2nd century AD after fire damage. The altar was added later for Christian worship after the nation abandoned its pagan gods. Following the Renaissance, it took on another role as the designated tomb for some of Rome’s renowned artists and elite, including the famous painter Raphael, his fiancé and former kings of Italy. The Pantheon also has the biggest brick dome in the history of architecture and is considered the forerunner of all modern places of worship. Some visitors opt to stay near the Pantheon because of all the nearby attractions within walking distance.
Even in ruins, this spectacular 52-room villa offers a true sense of ancient Rome’s opulence. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most forgotten sites. Don’t miss this ancient villa that was once home to Emperor Commodus, who stole it away from its owners, the Quintili, by accusing the family of plotting against them and had them executed so he could move in himself. You can even see his private gladiatorial training arena where it’s believed he trained for his fights with ostriches in the Colosseum.
Ostia Antica is another highly underrated gem that shouldn’t be missed. Just 30 minutes from the Colosseum, it offers ancient thrills that rival that of Pompeii, which is another four hours south. Wander around the well-preserved remains of Rome’s ancient port where you’ll see what’s left of the warehouses, apartment flats, mansions, shopping arcades, baths and docks. Strolling the ruins, you can trace the grid standard for Roman military towns: a rectangular fort with east, west, north, and south gates and two main roads converging on the Forum. Let your imagination take you back some 2,000 years ago, when this was once ancient Rome’s very colorful seaport.
Vatican City is an independent state, although it’s located in Rome. It has its own militia to protect the Pope, 800 full-time citizens and visiting residents along with its own stamps, coins and flag. View the Vatican’s vast art collection, started by Pope Julius II in the late 15th century who began collecting sculptures. The Vatican Museums are a huge complex of galleries and museums showcasing sculpture as well as paintings, frescoes, tapestries and classical antiquities. If you’re dressed appropriately: no shorts, skirts above the knees or bare shoulders, you can enter St. Peter’s Basilica to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, an incredibly stunning but sad sculpture. Of course, any visit here should also include the famous Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Rooms.
Trevi Fountain, one of Rome’s most beloved attractions, is a massive baroque flurry where water flows from rocks under the feet of Neptune, Triton and seahorses into a large pool, and is always surrounded by coin-tossing tourists. Travelers’ lore lists a number of reasons for throwing three coins into the fountain, with benefits ranging from a chance to return to the city to finding love. Some $3,500 is thrown into the fountain every day, but it all goes to a good cause. The coins are all collected and used to support food programs for Rome’s poor.
The Galleria Borghese is just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Housing one of the world’s great art collections, you’ll find Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne as well as Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and impressive works by master artists like Raphael, Correggio and Rubens. Just outside the villa are a series of secret gardens and a magnificent 17th century aviary. This museum requires reservations far in advance as it admits just 360 visitors every 2 hours.
While it’s definitely on the creepy side, the displays of bones and skulls at Capuchin Crypt located under Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, is a fascinating look at the lives, and deaths, of the religious order of the Capuchin friars. It holds the bones of some 4,000 dead monks, arranged in odd decorative displays and frames for Christian artwork in various spots throughout the crypt, including the Crypt of the Skulls and the Crypt of the Resurrection. Though morbid, the creations tell the story of life, death and resurrection, revealing a unique interpretation of the church’s teachings of good, evil and eternity. One sign seems to say it all, proclaiming: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.”
This fortress on the Tiber River that rises about the city offering magnificent views, was originally constructed as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 130 to 139 AD. Although it’s also been a prison and papal residence, used by former Popes who absconded there for protection during dangerous times. A covered passageway still connects the castle to the Vatican. Today’s it’s a museum that retraces its history through exhibits, which include everything from antique military weapons and pottery to Renaissance paintings. Visitors also can tour the apartments and see the statue of the archangel Michael rising above the terrace.
Although it’s not one of Rome’s most famous attractions and it’s not the easiest site to access, it’s well worth going to as what’s thought to be one of the best preserved Roman villa complexes in the world. Constructed in the early 2nd century, it was once the central hub of power in the Roman world for the latter years during Emperor Hadrian’s reign. It covers nearly 250 acres and is made up of more than 30 buildings as well as multiple other points of interest. Allow at least three hours to fully explore the complex, which also features a large colonnaded swimming pool, libraries, the famous Maritime Theatre and the Palestra. The highlight may be the remains of Hadrian’s small island retreat, including his own personal toilet that is said to have served as the emperor’s private escape from the stress of Imperial life.
The Spanish Steps are one of the longest and widest staircases in all of Europe, leading from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church, but that’s not what makes it a very popular tourist attraction. A Barcaccia fountain bubbles at the foot of the steps, while the church rises above the crowds at the spot. It was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in Roman Baroque style in an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. When its ramps are covered in spring flowers in May, they’re particularly beautiful. This is also a great spot for people watching – take a seat in the middle of the staircase and just watch the city with its beautiful people weaving in and out of eateries, upscale shops and boutiques.
Another somewhat morbid, creepy-yet-fascinating at the same time attractions, the Catacombs of San Callisto are the largest of Rome’s catacombs, founded at the end of the 2nd century and named after Pope Calixtus I. They became the official cemetery of the newly established Roman Church. It holds a half-million bodies, including seven popes who were martyred in the 3rd century, providing a glimpse of the macabre.
San Giovanni is the first Christian Basilica built in the world and the original Papal seat until the 14th century. For a thousand years, this monumental cathedral was the most important church in Christendom. Commissioned by the Emperor Constantine and consecrated in AD 324, it is still Rome’s official cathedral and the pope’s seat as the bishop of Rome. The interior has been renovated on a number occasions, although it owes much of its present look to Francesco Borromini who redecorated it for the 1650 Jubilee. It’s a truly magnificent sight with an impressive gilt ceiling, a gorgeous 15th-century mosaic floor and a wide central nave lined with over 15-foot-high sculptures of the apostles.
Perhaps not one of Rome’s most popular attractions, but who doesn’t think chocolate is magnificent? If you’d like to dive into a large bowl of hot chocolate, you won’t be disappointed. The 1920s chocolate factory includes a chocolate shop known to serve the best in all of Rome with all sorts of delights as well as a stylish restaurant/bar with industrial antiques and battered sofas. It’s a fabulous hideaway, tucked into an alley in the San Lorenzo District.