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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrItaly’s capital city is arguably one of the world’s most enticing holiday destinations. This sprawling metropolis is home to more than 2.5 million people, 3,000 years of history and some of the most distinguishable landmarks in the whole country. An exhilarating abundance of priceless art, impressive Roman relics, incredible gastronomy, and vibrant nightlife make this one of the most comprehensive and rewarding cities to explore in all of Europe. Italy’s crown jewel is also home to the Vatican City, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, which boasts one of the world’s highest concentration of fine art.
As the saying goes: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Indeed, it would take you an entire lifetime to discover all that this magical city has to offer.
Brief HistoryThere are very few cities in the world which can boast such an illustrious history as Rome. The capital of the mighty Roman Empire is nowadays known as the “Eternal City”, one which seems to have existed since the beginning of time; or, at the very least, since about 700 BC. This is when Rome is thought to have been first founded, amidst a myriad of fascinating myths and legends. The most popular is that the city was founded by Romulus and Remus , the twin infants who were breast fed by a she-wolf. The babies suckling on the wolf is the most famous symbol of Rome, and one which is found drawn, painted, and sculpted in numerous places across the city. Romulus, after murdering his brother during a quarrel, founded the city and named it after himself. He is forever immortalized in the history books as the first king to have ruled over this majestic city.
The city was built on the famed Seven Hills of Rome and, for the first 250 years of its history, was ruled by a long line of illustrious kings. Yet it was the rise and rise of the Romans, who invaded the city and established what would be known as one of the greatest empires in our history, for which Rome is most renowned. At the height of their expansion, the Roman Empire stretched from the western tip of Europe, to the Middle East and from the tip of Great Britain to the northern shores of the African continent. All up, the empire covered an astonishing 6.5 million square kilometers. From Tiberius Gracchus to Julius Caesar ; Mark Antony to the Flavian Dynasty , builders of the revered Colosseum, the most famous Roman leaders were not only responsible for the expansion of their empire but also the spread of Christianity, over the course of the first millennia AD.
The fall of Rome as the most strategic and powerful empire in the world at its time was mostly due to the inability of a central capital city to oversee and control such vast expanses of land. Invaded, pillaged and decimated by rival armies, the Roman Empire ceased to exist by 400 AD although the influence in the city’s culture, architecture, and religion remain strong and visible to this present day.
The Catholic Church played an ever-increasing role in the history of Rome thereafter, with reigning Popes ruling over and protecting the interests of the city by mounting crusades and defensive wars right up until the 14th century. The 1400s brought a relative moment of calm in Rome, with the city blossoming socially and culturally under the influence of the Renaissance period. The city once again prospered, yet for altogether different reasons. At this time, it was renowned as the world capital of business, culture, and art. It wasn’t until 1861 that the Italy we know today was finally unified as one, homogeneous nation, with Rome declared as its capital.
As a relatively new country, Italy suffered greatly in during the 20th century. The losses of both World Wars, the rise of Fascism, and the ever-present cloud of widespread corruption have pretty much dictated its economic and political spheres for the last 100 years.
Interesting Facts about Ancient Rome
- During the time of the Roman Empire, a network of roads was built totalling over 32,819 square miles, which gave rise to the proverb, “All roads lead to Rome”.
- The historic center of Rome is home to 900 churches and almost 300 fountains.
- Romans are believed to have invented concrete and used it widely to build their palaces, aqueducts and bridges.
- A law which dates back to ancient Rome dictates that cats are not allowed to be evicted from the place in which they are born. Stray cats are still, nowadays, the most ubiquitous sight in all major Roman ruin sites.
- The dome of the Roman Pantheon is the world’s largest, self-supporting dome.
- The last gladiator battles in the Colosseum were held in 435 AD. It is believed that over half a million men and one million animals lost their lives here
- The Trajan’s Markets, a multi-leveled trading center is believed to be the world’s first ever ‘shopping mall’, and was built in 110 AD.
- Togas and stolas were garments which only free Roman men and women were allowed to wear.
- Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore: consecrated in 300 AD, this is one of Rome’s five great ancient basilicas.
- Aventine Hill: the southernmost hill in Rome, Aventine was not included in the original founding of the city, but holds much mythological importance. The ancient Temple of Diana was built here but, nowadays, the hill is a quiet, upmarket suburb which grants stunning views of St. Peter's Basilica.
- Capitoline Museum: in Piazza del Campidoglio, just north of the Roman Forum, is where you’ll find this collection of archaeological and ancient art museums.
- Santa Maria in Trastevere: one of the city’s oldest churches, this small-ish basilica is famous for its utterly breathtaking 12-century mosaic.
- Trastevere: one of the oldest suburbs of Rome and the latest to be gentrified, Trastevere is arguably one of the most interesting rioni of the city and the most interesting to stay in.
- Piazza del Popolo: this beautiful square is on the site of one of Rome’s ancient gates and is home to the city’s oldest obelisk.
- Baths of Caracalla: ancient Rome’s second largest public baths still boast striking mosaics and offer a chance to explore amazing ruins in relative peace and quiet. It’s a hike from the core of the historic center but worth every step.
- Catacombs of Rome; the city is home to almost 50 underground burial chambers and more are being discovered every decade. Those interested in early Christian history ought to join an organized tour of the most famous catacombs in the city.
- National Roman Museum: believed to contain the most important archaeological collection in the world, the National Roman Museum is spread out over four locations around the city. They include the Balbi Crypt, Baths of Diocletian, Altmeps Palace, and the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme which is, by far, the most popular and boasts four floors chock-full of sculptures, mosaics and ancient artifacts.
- Rigatoni carbonara: one of the most exported and arguably most altered of all the pasta dishes, authentic carbonara is simple, cream-free, and utterly addictive.
- Bucatini all’amatriciana: the most revered of all local pasta specialties, amatriciana sauce is cooked with guanciale (pig’s cheek), chillis and fresh tomatoes, topped with a heaped spoonful of local pecorino cheese. This recipe originates in Amatrice, a small town only 2 hours out of Rome.
- Gnocchi: aside pizza (which is best flavored in Naples) gnocchi would have to be the most internationally-renowned Italian specialty. It is also one of the oldest. In Rome, the most exquisite dishes come with an amatriciana sauce.
- Pecorino Romano: northerners can keep their softer tasting parmesan cheese, thank you. Romans prefer pecorino, a much spicier and tastier grated cheese.
- Trippa alla Romana: braised tripe cooked in a thick tomato and herb sauce served with pecorino.
- Baccala’: local Roman cuisine is not heavy on seafood, but the little it does include is extremely flavorsome. This is cod fish which is lightly crumbed and fried to golden perfection.
- Suppli’: this is probably Rome’s favorite street food and found in delis and pizzerias all over town. Suppli’ are mouthwatering rice balls, seasoned in tomato sauce, filled with a chunk of mozzarella, crumbed and fried.
- Carciofi alla Romana: best savored in artichoke season (between May and September), the local variant of this hard-to-cook vegetable comes stuffed with herbed and spiced breadcrumbs cooked in abundant olive oil.
City OverviewRome is a sprawling city often described as the world’s largest open-air museum. No matter where you stay, or which area of the city you explore, you will no doubt walk through some of the most awe-inspiring and ancient relics the world has ever seen. Having said this, there are certain areas which are more convenient for tourists, those close to the major attractions and well-serviced by public transport. The historic core is a UNESCO-listed treasure trove of archaeological ruins, palaces and monuments, yet you’ll find opulent sites and gems in just about every corner of the city.
If you wish to be centrally located, then look for accommodation near the Colosseum, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon. Trastevere, which is just on the western bank of the Tiber River, is considered the artsy suburb of Rome and the one favored by backpackers and budget travelers. While the Vatican will no doubt be at the top of your must-see list, note that this area is not necessarily the best to stay in as you’ll need to cover a lot of ground to visit other landmarks.
Although in most cities you’ll probably be looking to stay near a Metro station, do note that the Metro in Rome does not go anywhere near the major attraction, but circumvents them (by quite some distance), so you will either have to resign yourself to lots of walking (which is an insanely rewarding thing to do in Rome) or get acquainted with the public transport.
HighlightsThe entire city of Rome is one, colossal landmark not be missed but in an effort to help you create an itinerary of unmissable attractions, here’s our list of the city’s top 10 celebrated landmarks.
The Vatican CityHuge crowds and neck-pains notwithstanding, a visit to the largest proprietor of priceless artwork in the world, Vatican City, is an absolute must, no matter what your religious inclination may be. This sovereign state is home of St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums, all of which boast frescoes, sculptures, relics, and paintings created by some of history’s most illustrious artists. Michelangelo’s Pieta’ and the ceiling frescoes which took him four years to complete are found here, as well as works by Raffaello, Bernini, and many others. Climb the roof of the Basilica to take in breathtaking views of this stupendous mini-city but remember to dress conservatively or you may be refused entry into some of the most revered churches.
The ColosseumThis ancient entertainment arena dates back to around 80 AD and is Rome’s most iconic symbol. This amphitheater, which used to hold a crowd of 50,000 spectators, can be toured extensively on a guided walk but we strongly suggest tickets are pre-purchased online before visiting, to avoid lengthy queues. Around the Colosseum is Rome’s oldest area, crossed by the historic Via dei Fori Imperiali avenue, brimming with ancient Roman forums. The awe-inspiring and glistening white monument to Vittorio Emanuele is found here, as well as the Arch of Constantine and Piazza del Campidoglio; all framed and surrounded by a plethora of ruins dating back more than 2,000 years. This is Ancient Rome at its very best.
The PantheonThis temple was built in 125 AD and dedicated to the gods of the ancient pagan Romans, long before Christianity took hold of the region. Nowadays, it is considered one of Rome’s most spectacular sights, almost without rival. It is truly an astonishing sight and so immaculately preserved as to belie belief. Made entirely of concrete, an anomaly in the world at the time, the Roman Pantheon holds the record for being the most imitated ancient structure in the world and was constructed on the site where Romulus was collected by angels and taken up to the heaven at the time of his death. Or so the legend goes. The Pantheon is revered for its numerous columns, intersecting arches, gilded doors, and incredible dome, as well as for the fact that many of Rome’s most famous residents, including Vittorio Emanuele II and Raffaello the painter were buried here. The addition of an altar came much later, once the Romans abandoned their Paganism and embraced Christianity. Although many may regard this addition as a travesty, the fact the Pantheon continue to be used throughout history is the precise reason it was maintained in such great condition.
Piazza NavonaRome is a city brimming with incredibly striking and very vibrant squares, yet very few can match Piazza Navona in size, historical importance, and utter beauty. Bernini’s 17th-century Fountain of Four Rivers is found here, along with two other fountains (The Fountain of Neptune and Fountain of Moro) as well as a myriad of gorgeous cafés, shops and restaurants. This was the site of chariot races back in Ancient Rome, when it was known as the Stadium of Domitian or Circus Agonalis. Aside the very ornate fountains, the square is framed by extensively decorated Baroque mansions and the stunning St. Agnes’ Church.
The Roman ForumThe Foro Romano stands at what was the very core of Ancient Rome and is a rectangular piazza framed by some of the most pivotal government buildings at the time. Although this can be described as the most important ancient site in the city, it is the one which is best enjoyed on a guided tour, as many of the remnants, relics and half-destroyed ruins may not make a lot of sense or be nearly as impressive, without in-depth knowledge of what they used to be and represent. An experienced and well-knowledgeable local guide can really bring this entire complex to vibrant life.
The Spanish StepsThe fashionable heart of Rome is found on the Spanish Steps, an expansive marble staircase which joins Piazza di Spagna at its bottom end, with Piazza Trinita’ dei Monti, and its homonymous church, on the top end. The 135 steps were first build in the 18th century and have since been immortalized in countess paintings, novels, films, and songs. Along Via Condotti, which starts at the bottom of the staircase, is where you’ll find Rome’s designer boutiques and high-class restaurants. The steps are an extremely popular meeting point for locals and one of the city’s most famous sites, so if you head here in high season don’t be surprised at the sea of people you will no doubt encounter.
The Trevi FountainThe most famous of all the fountains of Rome, the Trevi Fountain is also, without doubt, the most crowded of all. Luckily, this quite astonishing Baroque-inspired work of art is so incredibly stunning, there’s nothing which manages to detract your attention, not even the hordes of hawkers and gazillions of tourists. Sculpted in 1732, the fountain features a handsome Neptune riding a shell-shaped chariot led by magical sea horses. Legend has it that if you throw in a coin, your return to Rome is guaranteed. Do note that at time of writing (2015) the Trevi Fountain is under massive reconstruction, however all should be back to its glorious best from 2016 onwards.
Castel Sant AngeloHadrian’s Mausoleum is found along the northern shores of the Tevere, just north of the historic center. Originally commissioned by Emperor Hadrian as a family mausoleum, this imposing complex was built in 130AD but later used as a papal fortress, prison, castle and, more recently, as an amazing museum. The views atop Castel St. Angelo are simply outstanding, as is exploring the castle at great length. To get here, simply hop on bus number 40, 62, or 64 from the Termini Station.
Villa BorgheseVilla Borghese is a large complex of mansions, gardens and art galleries located in one of Rome’s most splendid suburbs. As a landmark, this would have to be the most relaxing of all and is a very rewarding place to visit right at the end of your visit, when all the historical sites are out of the way. Spending a whole day here is a great idea, as there is much to see and do. Rent Segways and explore it at length, bring a packed lunch for a lovely picnic and spend a few hours visiting the galleries, museums and fountains, while enjoying the gardens, lake and children’s playgrounds. Villa Borghese is found atop Pincian Hill (just behind the Vatican) and its art gallery is home to what is arguably the best art collection in the city, second only to that of the Vatican City. Visitor numbers in the museums and galleries are restricted on an hourly basis so do make sure to book in your visit at least a few days in advance.
Palatine HillThe most central of all of Rome’s seven hills, Palatine Hill stand 40m above the Roman Forum and is the origin whence the term ‘palace’ originated. According to archaeologists, this is the bona-fide oldest part of Rome, and an area believed to have been inhabited for at least 3,000 years. Atop the hill you’ll find a vast amount of ancient ruins, including the Imperial Palaces of several Roman Emperors, as well as temples and churches. Palatine House believed to be the birthplace of Rome’s first Emperor (Augustus) was discovered in 2006 and archaeological excavations in this area are still ongoing. History buffs would do well to visit as part of a guided tour.
Further points of interest
CuisineIf there’s one aspect of ancient Rome which is still very much alive and well, it’s the love of good food. Having said this, do note that in a tourist-filled city like the Italian capital, you are actually much more likely to come across overpriced, mediocre meals rather than true blue gastronomic havens. Italian cuisine is exceptionally regional so half the battle is simply knowing which specialties belong to this city and this region.
Here are just some of the epicurean delights you ought to flavor while in Rome:
To add even more authenticity, it’s worth noting that Romans love routine as much they love food, meaning that certain days are designated for certain dishes. Gnocchis, for example, are a Thursday meal, while Fridays are designated to cod fish, and Saturdays to tripe. Of course you will find all these dishes on restaurant menus on any given day BUT, on their locally designated day, you’ll find them freshly made and at their very best.
NightlifeRome may not be renowned as Europe’s party central but it does not mean the city is boring after sunset. Quite the opposite in fact. What Rome boasts is a very healthy amount and variation of night-time activities, especially in summer, when a busy cultural itinerary sees the city hosting open air concerts, opera and all sorts of fun events.
Whatever is happening in Rome, it’s bound to start later than you’re probably used to. Locals don’t head out to inner until about 9 p0 feet, so nothing of note gets going until 10.30 p0 feet or 11 p0 feet Although there are plenty of underground clubs, most socializing is done outdoors and in Rome you’ll discover that every piazza turns into an open-air bar after dinner, places where wine is savored slowly, politics is discussed and friendships made.
Here are some areas you ought to check out:
Piazza NavonaThe piazza and its surrounding alleyways are home to upmarket wine bars and trendy cafés.
Campo dei FioriWhere young tourists and international students come to meet and party with young locals. Loud and proud and perhaps not for the over-40s.
TestaccioHardcore clubbing scene, with a heady mix of gay bars, salsa clubs, and house-music haunts. The Villaggio Globale is the former abattoir area and is nowadays home to a myriad of clubbing scenes to suit all tastes.
ShoppingRome is a phenomenal shopping destination where you’ll find everything ‘Made in Italy’; from Venetian masks and hand-blown glass, to Positano ceramics, Florentine leather, and Milanese haute-couture. Of course, all these things are found much cheaper in their original locations, yet the fact you have the chance to buy them at all counts as a bonus.
Here’s where to go to find the best (and tackiest) shopping in Rome:
Gag Gifts and Kitsch SouvenirsMichelangelo’s Pieta’ on keyrings, the Pope’s face on a coffee mug and the Colosseum printed on tea towels. All these, and so much more, can be found in stalls littering all the major tourist attractions in Rome.
Top-quality SouvenirsSkip the souvenir stalls near the Vatican and head to Monti instead, where you’ll find superb, locally-made artifacts including stunning oil paintings, wood-carved knick knacks, pencil drawings, and hand-made jewellry.
All the streets leading from the Spanish Steps encompass the most luxurious shopping district in Rome and some of the most expensive shops in the world. Max out your credit card or enjoy a drool-worthy session of window shopping here. If it has an internationally recognized brand name, it has a flagship store in this area.
Galleria Alberto SordiThis modestly-sized complex is the only shopping mall in the city center and, aside a mix of affordable and upper-class stores it is a stunning art-deco building to admire.
Fun, Authentic MarketsThe Porta Portese Market in Trastevere is home to a thousand traders who have been congregating here and flogging their wares ever since the end of WWII. Aside the myriad of Chinese-made junk, you’ll find some incredible pieces of antiques, old posters, vinyls, cheap fashion, souvenirs, and plenty of accessories. This is Italy’s most famous Sunday flea market and a place particularly loved by pick-pockets so stay alert.
How to get inWith every road leading to Rome, you can reach the Eternal City by whichever means you please. Driving is by far the worse option to take, as traffic, road signs and locals’ driving habits are all endless nightmares to the uninitiated.
Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport (or Leonardo Da Vinci Airport) is serviced by every airline in existence (probably) and nearby
Ciampino Airport is the smaller partner airport which is serviced by Europe’s low-cost carriers. Fiumicino is connected to the city center by buses and trains but if you land in Ciampino your best bet would be to catch the shuttle to Fiumicino and reach the city and the Termini Train Station from there.
The Stazione Termini is the city’s main transport hub located about 2kms east of the Trevi Fountain and historic center. The Eurostar train connections make traveling by train to Rome infinitely easy and very rewarding. Crossing the country by train say, from London and then Milan is relaxing and grants amazing countryside views.
How to get out and aboutIf you choose a central hotel in Rome you will have every little need to get acquainted with the public transport system and, considering the bus which plies the route between the major attractions is locally known as the ‘pickpocket express’, that may not be a bad thing after all. Due to the high concentration of sights, historic ruins, pedestrian streets, and one-way roads, walking around the center is the best option regardless. Even the hop-on/hop-off bus option is a hit and miss, as the driving restrictions around major landmarks leaves passengers to do quite a bit of walking nonetheless. The Metro stops are likewise close(ish) to attractions, yet this is at least a much faster way to get around than on buses so it’s a preferable option for tourists.
There are several ‘passes’ on offer, all including a mix of access to public transport and free or discounted entry into all the major sights. The most important thing to remember is that the Vatican City is a separate, independent country within Rome, so no Roma Pass can ever include it. For tickets to the Vatican and all its attractions visit the Vatican City Ticket Website .
As far the Roma Pass is concerned, its necessity depends highly on what you intend to visit and how many museums you wish to enter. Keep in mind that many of the attractions are free to access and the only fee payable is to visit their in-house museum. Aside the Vatican City, one can visit a plethora of ancient sites in Rome and spend very little in the process. Check out the Roma Pass Website for details of inclusions.
AccommodationRome boasts a near infinite array of accommodation choices of all shapes, sizes and budgets. The cheapest area is that of the Termini Station although, like many train station areas the world over, it’s also the least desirable and the one you would not want to roam at night on foot, alone. Trastevere can be considered the second-cheapest yet there are plenty of small, affordable B&Bs and hostels in the very center of Rome.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Aug 06, 2015