Rome See And Do
The Roman Empire was ruled from the Capitoline. Business was done in the Forum. Movers and shakers built grand homes on the Palatine. And the mob was entertained at the Colosseum. An unparalleled wealth of historical and artistic treasures clusters in a small area at the heart of the Eternal City. At the top of the cordonata (sloping road of steps) up from Piazza Venezia lies the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, with a modern copy of a statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius at its center. The first century A.D. original is now spectacularly displayed in a new wing of the Palazzo dei Conservatori—to your right as you enter the piazza—which also houses massive chunks of the ancient Temple of Capitoline Jupiter.
One of the world's oldest galleries, the Capitoline Museums (comprising the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo) host a worthwhile collection that ranges from some fine ancient Roman sculptures (check out the Dying Gaul in Palazzo Nuovo's Room 14) to canvases by the likes of Caravaggio and Velázquez (39-06-6710-2071; www.museicapitolini.org; Tues.–Sun. 9 am–8 pm). There is a breathtaking view over the Forum from the Tabularium, the ancient Roman archive building that joins the museum's two halves.
The Forum can be a bewildering jumble of masonry, but stroll along the Via Sacra—the ancient main drag—and up to the Palatine hill, which rises beyond. Here, the Horti Farnesiani gardens are a verdant haven, and the enormous dimensions of ruined imperial villas become easier to grasp (39-06-700-5469; daily 9 am–one hour before sunset).
Five thousand wild beasts were slaughtered during the Colosseum's inaugural party in A.D. 80. Nowadays, the battle is against fellow visitors, who pack into this monument in colossal numbers. (Note that tickets for the Palatine also cover the Colosseum and allow you to jump to the head of the interminable lines.) Climbing to the top is the only way truly to appreciate this feat of ancient engineering (39-06-3996-7700; daily 9 am–sunset).
Lungotevere in Augusta
Piazza del Popolo
Tel: 39 06 8205 9127
Romans are terribly protective of their historic cityscape, and U.S. architect Richard Meier's brand-new museum housing the first-century A.D. Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) was a battleground from day one. The museum was the first building to go up in the centro storico since World War II; Meier was given the commission by fans on the city council, not by way of a public contest; and he came up with a design that Romans either love or hate. Shiny white with acres of glass, it's definitely more of a statement than the little Fascist-era box that previously contained the beautiful Augustan altar with its delicately carved friezes. Meier's museum gives this exquisite work the breathing space it lacked before: Finally, visitors can stand back and admire the lower frieze of swirling acanthus leaves and, above, the delicately carved, wind-blown drapery in the togas and cloaks of Augustus and his family as they join a procession to mark the inauguration of the Ara Pacis itself.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 7 pm.
15 Viale Pietro de Coubertin
Tel: 39 06 80 242
Rome's huge performing arts center—a startling complex designed by superstar architect Renzo Piano—is the success story of recent years, shaking up the city's once-sleepy cultural scene. The three state-of-the-art concert halls, plus hyperactive bookshops, restaurants, bars, and outdoor performance area, are located about 15 minutes out of the city in a northern suburb. The venue is packed day and night with a variegated crowd drawn by a truly eclectic, democratic program ranging from the highest of highbrow classical through folk, jazz, world music, and electronic crossover. Rome's fledgling film festival (www.romacinemafest.org) fills the place to the point of bursting for ten days in the second half of October; a March math festival, with lectures by some of the world's leading number-crunchers, and a philosophy festival in May have also become unexpected annual hits. If nothing on the program grabs you, settle for a guided tour of the premises: Tour times change according to events but can be verified on the Auditorium Web site under "Activities." The popularity of events varies, but it's always best to buy tickets ahead of time.
Open daily 11 am to 8 pm.
Coffee punctuates the Roman day with a regularity that is almost monastic. The first shot—usually in the form of a cappuccino—is generally downed in one's local bar; unless you happen to be doing business over breakfast, it's swallowed rapidly at the counter, a brief blip in the streamlined morning rush. Another dose of caffeine midmorning fuels busy Romans through the energy trough and marks the last opportunity for diluting the beverage with milk. After lunch and dinner (when many Romans resort to decaf so as not to be kept awake), a short, sharp shot of caffè—an espresso—is de rigueur, and a cappuccino is simply unthinkable.
Every Roman has his or her favorite bar, but most agree that the ne plus ultra of coffee is found at Sant'Eustachio, a diminutive place near the Pantheon that has been roasting its own beans since 1938. Its standout is the gran caffè, a double espresso with a creamy foam on top; it comes already sugared, so specify "amaro" (bitter) if you prefer it without (82 Piazza Sant 'Eustachio; 39-06-6880-2048; www.santeustachioilcaffe.it; daily 8:30–1 am). Closely rivaling Sant'Eustachio is the Tazza d'Oro, right by the Pantheon, which also does a superb coffee granita in summer (84 Via degli Orfani; 39-06-678-9792; www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com).
In 1606, tortured genius Michelangelo Merisi—a.k.a. Caravaggio—fled Rome after killing a man over a tennis match. Behind him he left some of the Eternal City's most striking artwork. The church of San Luigi dei Francesi contains his St. Matthew cycle (1598–1601), three works that, with their haunting realism and groundbreaking use of light and shade, redefined painting in Rome. In Santa Maria del Popolo are The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul, two huge works made in 1601. The exquisitely touching Madonna of the Pilgrims (1603) in Sant'Agostino shocked contemporaries with its dirty supplicants kneeling before Mary. Other masterpieces by Caravaggio can be found in the Vatican Museums, the Palazzo Barberini, and the Borghese Gallery, which houses David With the Head of Goliath (1609), in which the head of Goliath is believed to be a self-portrait.
San Luigi dei Francesi
Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi
Tel: 39 06 688 271
Open Fridays through Wednesdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm and 3:30 to 7 pm, Thursdays 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Tel: 39 06 6880 1962
Daily 8 am to noon and 4 to 7:30 pm.
Santa Maria del Popolo
12 Piazza del Popolo
Tel: 39 06 361 0836
Mondays through Saturdays 7 am to noon and 4 to 7 pm, Sundays 7:30 am to 1:45 pm and 4:30 to 7:30 pm.
50 Lungotevere Castello
Tel: 39 06 681 9111
Remember the scene in Roman Holiday where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn dance on a barge before jumping into the Tiber? The beautifully lit building in the background was Castel Sant'Angelo, originally built as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian but converted by beleaguered Renaissance popes into an impregnable fortress, complete with luxury living quarters, gloriously decorated by Renaissance greats. The Chapel in the Cortile d'Onore was designed for Leo X by Michelangelo; Clement VII's tiny personal bathroom was frescoed by Giulio Romano. The castle's dank prisons and display of torture implements will entertain the kids. There's also a rooftop café where you can enjoy lunch with a 360-degree view of the city.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 7 pm.
For a complete detox after overdosing on Rome's classical wonders, take Metro Line B to EUR, the "model" suburb dreamt up by Mussolini and his Fascist urban planners. World War II halted work on the scheme, which was meant to host the 1942 Esposizione Universale Roma (World's Fair); the project was picked up later and significantly altered. Now largely a business district, EUR bustles from Monday to Friday, but on the weekends the deserted area becomes an eerie testament to Il Duce's delusions of grandeur. Check out Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro—nicknamed the "Square Colosseum"—and the imposing Palazzo dei Congressi. At the Museo della Civiltà Romana, a huge model shows what Rome looked like in its imperial heyday (10 Piazza Giovanni Agnelli; 39-06-592-6135; Tues.–Sun 9 am–2 pm). EUR's vocation for forward-looking architecture lives on today, with Massimiliano Fuksas' visionary new congress center—known as la nuvola (the cloud)—gradually taking shape.
Rome's exhibition scene hasn't always matched up to its status as one of the world's cultural capitals, but things have improved since the turn of the millennium with the opening of the professionally run Scuderie del Quirinale, a two-tier venue for serious grand master shows, housed in what used to be the stables of the Quirinale palace. Planning exhibitions three years or more in advance has allowed the Scuderie to stage some truly impressive events, like the ravishing 2006 Antonello da Messina show, or the comprehensive autumn 2008 Giovanni Bellini retrospective. The Scuderie's sister venue, the bombastic Risorgimento-era Palazzo delle Esposizioni, is in good shape after its recent five-year face-lift and has added a rooftop restaurant, basement café, and arts bookshop. This venue tends to stage two or three smaller shows at any one time, on subjects as diverse as archaeology, fashion, cinema, and contemporary art. Elsewhere, the cavernous interior of the Piazza Venezia eyesore Il Vittoriano (a.k.a. Altare della Patria) is used for crowd-pleasing exhibitions like the 2008 Renoir show. The one gap in Rome's cultural armor was a dedicated contemporary art space. But that was filled in 2010, when Zaha Hadid's futuristic MAXXI museum opened in the northern suburbs, not far from the Auditorium.
4A Via Guido Reni
Tel: 39 06 321 0181
The 2010 inauguration of MAXXI—the National Museum of 21st-Century Arts, designed by Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid—shook up Rome's complacent exhibition scene, finally providing the city with a dramatic space for contemporary art. This stunning, sinuous architectural masterpiece in the northern Flaminio suburb (a short walk from Rome's other contemporary catalyst, the Auditorium) is worth a visit for the building alone. The museum's remit also covers displays of modern and contemporary architecture. Although MAXXI's permanent collection is still very much in its infancy, the shows organized so far, though hardly blockbuster in nature, have exploited the magnificent container to the hilt.—Lee Marshall
Open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays 11 am to 7 pm, Thursdays and Saturdays 11 am to 10 pm.
However many artistic or gastronomic treasures they contain, some of Rome's rioni (districts) simply fail to become household names. Take San Lorenzo, for example, southeast of Termini station and right beside the campus of Rome's main university. With its hip restaurants, cutting-edge galleries, and Soho-like lofts, this shabby-chic district, built in the 1880s for railway workers, buzzes with students and Romans in the know. For many decades, the Esquiline district, south and west of the station, was grim; endless blocks of stolid apartment blocks were built in the 1870s over what had been some of classical and Renaissance Rome's greatest estates. But an influx of African and Asian immigrants in the 1980s has made this into Rome's most vibrant ethnic area; its Piazza Vittorio produce market has kosher meat and Indian spices as well as the usual Italian goodies (Via Lamarmora, Monday through Saturday mornings). The Esquiline backs onto Monti, an altogether more picturesque rione of narrow streets and some great little shops. The small grid of streets making up the Celio district is visited by swarms of tourists gasping for bottled water after their hike around the Colosseum. Few stay long enough to learn where they've ended up, to enjoy the little cafés, to visit the fascinating churches of San Clemente (Via San Giovanni in Laterano) and Santi Quattro Coronati (20 Via dei Santi Quattro), or to rest in the shady Villa Celimontana park.
717 Viale dei Romagnoli
Tel: 39 06 5635 8099
Ostia Antica is Rome's answer to Pompeii, and though it lacks the volcano backdrop, it is every bit as impressive. In fact, when it comes to atmosphere, ancient Rome's port, which reached its peak in the first and second centuries A.D., wins hands down. It's an intimate, lived-in kind of place. You can wander into the neighborhood taberna (bar), where wall paintings depict some of the dishes on offer and the refrigeration system consists of huge jars sunk into the floor. There are corn mills, their grindstones still in place. Offices of shipping companies in the Forum of the Corporation have floor mosaics showing the commodities dealt in, while the public latrine must have been a great place to pick up the day's gossip. During the summer, plays and concerts are staged in the towering Roman theater (bring mosquito repellent and a cushion for the stone seats). The program of events can be found at www.cosmophonies.com. To reach Ostia Antica, take the train from Roma–Lido station (20 minutes), which is next to Piramide metro station.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to one hour before sunset.
Piazza della Rotonda
Tel: 39 06 6830 0230
Nearly 2,000 years after it was erected by Emperor Marcus Agrippa, the Pantheon is still one of the most impressive buildings in the world. A 141-foot-diameter dome—whose radius perfectly matches its height—looms over the hushed interior, which originally housed a temple to Rome's 12 most important deities. Reconsecrated as a church in A.D. 609, it became the burial place of kings when united Italy was briefly a monarchy. The tomb of Raphael is tucked away in a quiet niche.
Open Mondays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 7:30 pm, Sundays 9 am to 6 pm.
Rome is a series of villages. And as in all Italian villages, life revolves around the piazza. Admittedly, few villages can lay claim to squares as gloriously theatrical as Piazza Navona, with Bernini's melodramatic Four Rivers fountain at its heart. Or to anything as elegantly urbane as Piazza di Spagna, from which the Spanish Steps ascend.
In centuries past, the piazza was where markets were set up, executions took place, business was done, or papal edicts were pronounced. Piazza del Popolo combined many of these functions and was also Rome's main gateway, standing at the end of the Via Flaminia, which carried travelers and pilgrims from the north. A makeover in the early 19th century by Giuseppe Valadier gave it its current neoclassical look, while a car ban in the 1990s restored its elegance. Campo de' Fiori, on the other hand, was and still is resoundingly a market square, packed with food shoppers every morning but Sunday. Once, though, it was also used for executions: A Darth Vader–like monument reminds us that the Inquisition burned unorthodox philosopher Giordano Bruno at the stake here in 1600. Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is Rome's largest square; its rather dull modern gardens contrast with the ramshackle vibrancy of the surrounding neighborhood, which today houses much of the city's Asian and African communities. Piazza Venezia, dominated by a bombastic waste of marble known as the Altare della Patria, is one big traffic intersection. A diminutive fountain, adorned by bronze sculptures of mossy boys hoisting turtles into the bowl at the top, makes tiny Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto arguably the city's most charming square.
A trip on a motorino around Rome's twisting alleys can be heart-stopping for even the bravest of adventurers. That said, the adrenaline rush and the chance to see the city as the locals do may tempt you to give it a whirl. Romarent is the best of the rental agencies and also offers guided bike and scooter tours in English (7A Vicolo dei Bovari; 39-06-689-6555).
The tiny sovereign state of the Vatican is an essential stopover on any Roman holiday and offers enough in itself to fill days if not weeks. Consecrated in 1626, the current St. Peter's Basilica remains the symbol and heart of the Catholic church and houses Michelangelo's stirring Pietà and Bernini's spectacular tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini is also responsible for the magnificent elliptical colonnade in St. Peter's Square. If you are up for the climb (and don't suffer from vertigo), take the steps up to the top of the dome for incomparable views—and a much welcome bar-café.
It would take weeks to do full justice to the overwhelming Vatican Museums, a 15-minute walk around the Vatican walls from the square, so choose the highlights that appeal to you. Besides the Sistine Chapel—with Michelangelo's Last Judgment (1512) on its altar wall and Creation (1535) on its ceiling, plus a veritable who's who of Renaissance greats on the side walls—areas not to miss are the Pinacoteca, with works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Raphael; the rooms frescoed for Pope Nicholas V by Raphael; and the Pio-Clementino museum with its peerless collection of ancient sculpture. Kids will enjoy the mummies in the Egyptian museum.
Note that a strict dress code applies in St. Peter's and the Vatican Museums: You will be turned away if you have bare shoulders or bare legs above the knee. The new, shorter visiting times listed below are for individual visitors; only prepaid groups can access the museums outside of these times. Note also that closing times are those of the ticket office, not the museums, which stay open for another 75 minutes to allow visitors to complete the circuit. Check the Vatican Web site for small variations to the times and days given here (for example, over the Christmas and New Year's period).
St. Peter's Basilica
Piazza San Pietro
Tel: 39 06 6988 1662
Open daily 7 am to 6 pm, October through March; 7 am to 7 pm, April through September.
Viale del Vaticano
Tel: 39 06 6988 3333
Open Mondays through Fridays 10 am to 3:30 pm, Saturdays 10 am to 1:30 pm, March through October; Mondays through Saturdays 10 am to 12:30 pm, November through February. Open the last Sunday of each month 9 am to 12:30 pm, free of charge.
Built at the end of the 19th century around the Mattatoio—the municipal slaughterhouse—the Testaccio neighborhood has grown ever trendier over the past couple of decades. At its produce market in Piazza Testaccio (Monday through Saturday mornings), locals elbow their way between clued-in shoe-seekers who know that this is where last season's models and this season's samples end up, at ridiculously cheap prices. Dug into the sides of Monte Testaccio—a hill made of broken amphorae deposited here in ancient times from the nearby river port—are some of the city's smartest clubs and discos, such as Akab (69 Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06-57-250-585; www.akabcave.com) and Caruso (36 Via di Monte Testaccio; 39-06-574-5019; www.carusocafedeoriente.com). For more venues, see Nightlife. Part of the former Mattatoio hosts exciting exhibits organized by MACRO, Rome's contemporary art museum (54 Via Reggio Emilia; 39-06-6710-70-400; www.macro.roma.museum).
South of Testaccio, the Ostiense district is now what Testaccio was 15 years ago: definitely not gentrified but appreciated by the cognoscenti. It is coming into its own with the completion of the first stage of a makeover of the former wholesale fruit and vegetable market—to a design by Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas. In the meantime, Ostiense is home to the coolest of clubs, such as Classico Village, Goa, and La Saponeria (in Via Libetta and Via degli Argonauti), and to the Centrale Montemartini. Perhaps Rome's most striking museum, the Centrale features ancient statues in a restored power station (106 Via Ostiense; 39-06-574-8030; www.centralemontemartini.org; Tues.–Sun. 9:30 am–7 pm).
Twenty-three miles east of Rome, Tivoli was already a popular day trip when Hadrian started work on the splendid Villa Adriana in A.D. 117. For the last 19 centuries, visitors have enjoyed the grandiose gardens and ruins of the imposing villa, whose design references Hadrian’s favorite buildings from his travels abroad. Up the hill, in the town of Tivoli itself, the lavish, romantic 16th-century Villa d'Este is a striking example of Renaissance innovation and refinement. The remarkable gardens feature more than 500 ingenious fountains whose theatrical effects were a technological marvel in their day. If you're traveling by car, take the A24 motorway and exit at Tivoli; COTRAL buses (take the one marked "Autostrada") leave frequently from Ponte Mammolo metro station.
Via di Villa Adriana
Tel: 39 0774 382 733
Open daily 9 am to 5 pm, November through January; 9 am to 6 pm, February; 9 am to 6:30 pm, March and October; 9 am to 7 pm, April and September; 9 am to 7:30 pm, May through August.
1 Piazza Trente
Tel: 39 0774 332 920
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am until sunset, approximately.
Ineffably picturesque, Trastevere is a district of two halves. West of Viale Trastevere, besotted tourists mingle with the few locals who have survived the influx of foreign residents, through twisting alleys packed with bars and restaurants (which are not always the cheapest or the best, but which usually guarantee atmosphere). Every alley seems to lead eventually to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the facade of the eponymous church glows with 13th-century mosaics, as does the apse, where the scenes from the life of the Virgin are by Pietro Cavallini, a lesser-known Roman contemporary of Giotto. More of Cavallini's extraordinary work can be seen to the east of Viale Trastevere in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where a fragment survives of his Last Judgment—an extravaganza of exquisitely colored angels' wings (2 Piazza Santa Cecilia; 39-06-589-9289; open Tues.–Thurs. 10 am–noon, Sun 11:30 am–noon). This side of Viale Trastevere is altogether a quieter, more laid-back neighborhood.
Villa Borghese, the most central of Rome's great parks, was saved from encroaching property developers in the 1870s when it was bought by a farsighted city council. A verdant place shaded by majestic trees, it's perfect for a pasta-burning run or for renting a bike or skates from the many outfits operating on the western side of the park, near the Pincio Terrace, with its spectacular view. Inside the park, the Galleria Borghese contains a superb art collection, including some of Baroque genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini's finest works: Note how Pluto's fingers press into the goddess's thigh in his Rape of Persephone (1622) and how the fleeing nymph's fingers metamorphose into laurel branches in Apollo and Daphne (1625). Also here are works by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Giorgione, Rubens, and Pinturicchio (the Borgheses sure liked their masterpieces). When it all gets too much for the kids, an unspectacular but well-intentioned zoo is a short stroll across the park.
Tickets for the Borghese gallery must be booked beforehand (though you can usually just turn up and get in on the same day, if you're prepared to wait), and visits are limited to two hours. The whole of the Villa Borghese park is a free-access Wi-Fi area.
1 Piazzale del Giardino Zoologico
Tel: 39 06 360 8211
Open daily 9:30 am to 5 pm.
5 Piazzale Scipione Borghese
Tel: 39 06 841 3979
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 7 pm.