If I could go back in time to a single epoch in history, I would have a hard time deciding between the late Roman Republic and early Empire (103 BC to 138 AD), and the height of Renaissance through the end of the Baroque era in Western Europe and colonial America (1504 to 1715). The first time period is probably the most important in world history, filled with key historical events and characters including Spartacus and his slave rebellion, the Roman Civil War with the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire, the final fall of Jerusalem, the height of the Empire’s territory, and the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater (aka, Colosseum). It is full of prominent individuals such as Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Cicero, Cato, Virgil, Ovid, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and the infamous depraved emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. Not to mention the crucial men and events of the Bible: the birth, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with His life, miracles, teaching, and the early spread of Christianity via His Apostles.
The latter period begins with the debut of Michelangelo’s David, and ends with the death of Louis XIV. This period includes the High Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, the colonization of the Americas, the founding of Harvard University, the publication of the King James Bible, the English Civil War, Interregnum, Restoration, and Glorious Revolution. Flamboyant leaders such as Louis XIV of France, Philip II of Spain, and Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles II of England, along with philosophers and writers such as Voltaire, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rousseau, Luther, and Calvin. In Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica was completed, the Popes oversaw the Counter-Reformation, and the city itself was turned into an artistic wonderland by the likes of Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Bernini.
The city of Rome is central in the first period, and plays a major role in the second. Thus the main reason I love visiting Rome is because it provides – in dramatic fashion – fascinating glimpses into both periods of history. Modern Rome doesn’t have the economic or cultural impact that New York, London, or Paris possess on a global scale, but the historical value is unrivaled by any other city. Along with the pyramids of Egypt and the Acropolis of Athens, the ruins of the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Colosseum are the greatest vestiges of the ancient world. The city’s main modern importance rests in the Vatican, the capital of Roman Catholicism and home of the Pope. St. Peter’s Basilica is still the site of many formal Catholic ceremonies and rituals, and also serves as a major repository for magnificent art.
The nearby Vatican Museum is easily one of the best in the world, punctuated by the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Salons. Art is everywhere in Rome, from Bernini fountains to magnificent baroque churches on every street corner. The Villa Borghese is one of my favorite museums anywhere, with a fantastic collection of Bernini masterpieces and excellent High Renaissance and Baroque era paintings, not to mention the architecture and ceilings of the Villa itself. And then there are random wonders such as the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Spanish Steps.
In my opinion, to really see Rome you need at least 4 full days. Why an itinerary for this post? For one thing, describing Rome Rome is difficult without some sort of context, but also because it illustrates just how many major sites need to be seen in the city. Below is how I would experience the city and its sites on such a schedule. I won’t go into the details of each site now, because really most of them deserve posts of their own. Rome is my favorite city to visit outside the U.S. Here’s how I would enjoy it:
Day 1: I would start a tour of Rome with the main ancient Roman sites. The bulk of the ancient sites are clustered close together and can be seen in one day. One pass gains access to the Palatine Hill, Forum, and Colosseum, and the other site worth visiting is the Golden House of Nero, also nearby. I would start the day by visiting the Palatine Hill in the morning. The Palatine was home to Rome’s wealthy aristocracy, most notably the emperors. Today it is a vast array of ruins upon ruins, including a stadium and a complex of baths built by Emperor Septimius Severus. One can walk through the house of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor and one of the great men in all of history, along with a host of homes belonging to other emperors and prominent citizens. The top of the ruins boasts a beautiful view of the city and a perfect view of what is left of the Circus Maximus, the site of the great chariot races in ancient Rome. On the Palatine, you truly walk in the footsteps of the emperors.
Walking down from the Palatine Hill one immediately enters the Roman Forum. The Forum is home to the monumental temples and basilicas of ancient Rome – most of what remains are looming columns and facades. The Temple of the Vestal Virgins can be seen, along with the Temple of Castor and Pollux, site of many key speeches by important leaders such as Julius Caesar.
The Curia, or old Senate meeting room, is relatively in tact (though reconstructed multiple times due to fires), and the site of the rostra (platform for speaking) is still visible nearby. Some of the ancient temples were converted to Catholic churches, which themselves are over a thousand years old. An almost perfectly preserved arch, the Arch of Septimius Severus, is a key feature. The forum is worth several hours of strolling and letting your imagination wander several millenia back, with a detailed guidebook in hand. I like to imagine what it was like walking through the forum 2,000 years ago, with men like Julius Caesar and Cicero passing you on the streets. As you walk down the Via Sacra, you are walking on the same road where the triumphs for victorious generals took place, with all the pomp including a parade of defeated rulers and generals, exotic animals, and magnificent feasts. To experience the Forum is to catch a glimpse of the soul of ancient Rome.
The Colosseum is literally across the street from the Forum. Enjoy the impressive Arch of Constantine outside, with its haunting figures of captive Dacians on the facade. At this point I would walk past the Colosseum and up the hill to find an array of small restaurants for lunch. After taking a break and enjoying lunch, I would head to the Golden House of Nero, where the frescoes on the wall are still clearly visible. Walking through this ancient palace offers a compelling window into the luxury in which the emperors dwelled, albeit amplified in the abode of this pathologic megalomaniac. A few blocks away from the Golden House of Nero is a church, San Pietro in Vincoli, which is home to one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, Moses. It is well worth a visit.
From here you should be ready for the Colosseum, which is less crowded late in the day. I won’t go into detail about the Colosseum now, since it clearly is deserving of an entire post. But I will say it is an incredible experience, walking into the arena where the gladiators fought, Vestal Virgins cheered, and Christians were martyred. It is one of the most iconic historic sites in the world. From the Colosseum walk down the main road to the gaudy but monumentally impressive memorial to Vittorio Immanuel, the first Italian king. Along the way look to the right, where the walkways and columns from Trajan’s Forum still stand, along with a column commemorating his victories. The walk ends with the massive white monument, which is also the site of the Italian Tomb of the Unkown Soldier.
Day 2: the second day is Vatican day. I would start with the Vatican Museum, where you will spend much of the day. Get in line early and if possible get a line pass ahead of time, which will reduce your wait by about an hour. The museum itself is jumbled, poorly labeled, and has very little information posted next to the works of art. Nonetheless, it is easily one of the best museums in the world for the value of its collection, which hosts an incredibly vast array of well-preserved ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The paintings are superb, with all the masters very well represented, and the tapestry collection is overwhelming. The collection of Renaissance and Baroque sculptures is second to none, with masterpiece after masterpiece tucked away in every corner of every room.
Yet the climax of the museum is undoubtedly the combination of Raphael’s salons and the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s rooms deserve hours of sitting and enjoying the ingenious use of color, magnificent figures, and the sheer scope and scale of the work – splayed out on all four walls and ceilings of the papal offices. While the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is more famous globally, I personally find Raphael’s rooms every bit as masterful. The dense crowd sweeps you through without giving them the attention they deserve on your way through a series of winding staircases to the Sistine Chapel. The series of paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel provide a fitting end to your visit. One of the most famous images in the world is that of God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger, but the rest of the vast room and its walls are also worthy of much study. The room is packed and the guards like to keep the crowd moving, but try to sit and enjoy one of the world’s great works of art for as long as possible. In my opinion this is one of the highlights of Rome.
From the Sistine Chapel I would eat lunch at a nearby restaurant, but possibly one off the beaten path rather than one of the overpriced tourist traps nearby. Make your way back to St. Peter’s Square with its massive, womb-like colonnade – a Bernini design. As you wait in line to make it through security, stand in awe of the truly awesome scale of the basilica. I am always amazed by its massive size, with the giant figures on top of the facade, with Jesus carrying a cross in the center. After making your way through security, the first few steps into the basilica are overwhelming – it’s impossible to take in the entire scene. Like the Colosseum, St. Peter’s deserves a post of its own. I will say to spend as much time there as you can, taking in the enormous statues that adorn every corner and alcove, the painting masterpieces, and of course Michelangelo’s Pieta, perhaps the best sculpture of all time. And don’t forget to make your way down the crypt, where almost every pope from Peter to John Paul II are buried; many of these men played a massive role in world history, and had enormous impact in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people for many centuries.
Day 3: today should be spent enjoying the key works of art and museums in Rome, of which there are many. Of course a discussion of museum and art in Rome begins with the incomparable Galleria Borghese, in the heart of the Villa Borghese. For me the museum is one of the must-see sites in Rome. The collection of Bernini sculptures alone is well worth the visit, but the gallery also boasts an excellent collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and the paintings on the walls and ceilings are masterpieces in their own rite. I could easily spend half a day in the superb but relatively small gallery.
After making your way through the Villa Borghese – Rome’s version of Central Park – walk down to the National Gallery of Art in the Palazzo Barberini. The palace is an architectural fantasy, and houses an incredibly rich collection of paintings, including Raphael’s famous La Fornarina and Holbein’s famous portrait of King Henry VIII. I have not yet visited this museum – it is a must-see on my next trip to Rome. From the Palazzo I would take a look at the nearby Piazza Barberini, in the middle of which sits a Bernini fountain, Triton. Then make your way back up past the Palazzo Barberini to the intersection of the Four Fountains, where a fountain sits on each corner with a sculpture representing one of the world’s great rivers. From this intersection make your way to the Santa Maria della Vittoria, home of Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy. The church is a superb baroque piece by itself, but Bernini’s masterpiece makes it an important site in Rome. From here walk back to the Quirinal, a papal summer home where states offices are now located. In the piazza there several massive 5th century equestrian statues taken from the Baths of Constantine.
Day 4: the last day in Rome, if it must be your last, should be spent simply walking the streets of Rome, with several important sites to visit along the way. I would start at the Piazza Navona, home to yet another Bernini masterpiece, the incredible Four Rivers Fountain. With massive figures representing the world’s great rivers, this fountain is both haunting and aesthetically appealing. After enjoying the fountain and the many interesting vendors and street performers in the piazza, make the short walk to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is an almost perfectly preserved temple from the 2nd century. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in the early 1st century, it was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt a century later. That exact structure – with a perfect dome – still stands today. After walking through the Pantheon (now a church), spend some time eating lunch and enjoying the impressive building.
From the Pantheon make your way up to the Spanish Steps, the top which affords a beautiful view of the city and the dome of St. Peter’s. From the Spanish Steps head down to one of Rome’s most iconic sites, the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is one of my favorite places to visit in Rome. It is massive, over the top, classic, monumental, and beautiful. I could sit and enjoy the fountain for hours, with its horses, tritons, and figures, especially the central figure of Neptune. It is a microcosm of the beauty of Baroque era Rome and papal excess.
Those are the sites to see, and plenty of others were left out including the catacombs, Castel Sant Angelo, mausoleum of Augustus, and multiple major museums. But don’t forget to enjoy Rome itself. This quick little itinerary contains a variety of superlatives such as “most,” “greatest,” “famous,” “largest,” “oldest,” “masterpiece,” etc. Indeed, Rome is filled with key historic, artistic, and architectural treasures. But remember Rome is a charming, attractive city, filled with hospitable people and wonderful food. Yes, the food. Enjoy the fresh and flavorful sauces, the home made pasta, the tender and tasty meats, and of course the gelato. Smooth, rich, thick, and tasty, the Roman ice cream is my favorite everywhere. But above all just enjoy exploring Rome. Enjoy the fantastic architecture around every corner, the small sample of Roman ruins in a random side alley or square. Rome is filled with nearly 3,000 years of history, much of it rich and important. Just relish being in such a historically endowed place.
There is nowhere else like Rome. It is a historical and artistic wonderland, a city worth exploring and savoring. No other city ignites my imagination, my artistic enjoyment, and my historical curiosity quite like the Eternal City. I think it’s one of those places I’ll always look forward to visiting.