The following are my suggestions about how to spend a week in Rome. They reflect our personal interests – art, history, sacred architecture – and do not offer a complete tour of the city. We haven’t put in specific addresses because all of these places are listed in standard guidebooks.
A Note on Roman History
Founded 2700 years ago, Rome is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. Unlike Marseilles, which is almost as old, Rome wears its history proudly. The Pantheon, a first century temple, is still relatively intact and open for visitors, albeit for a different purpose than the one it was originally intended. More than a few churches here have been open for business and functioning for centuries – only in Rome could a 14th Century church be called a “modern” one. And the city can hardly build a subway station without finding some new remnant of the past that must be excavated before work can continue.
Rome is, as you will quickly discover, a city neither in northern Italy or southern Italy. It is, simply, itself. One of the first signs of this you may notice are the SPQR signs that appear everywhere – on the city buses, on official notices, on the manhole covers, even the milk. SPQR – Senatus Populsque Romanus – means “the Senate and the People of Rome.” It was the sign the Roman legions used to carry on their standards.
If you’re coming in by car, you will also notice, when you hit the ring road outside of Rome, that the major highways bear their ancient names as well as their modern ones: Via Appia, Via Emilia, Via Flaminia. All roads in the ancient Mediterranean world really did lead to Rome, and many of the modern ones follow the ancient routes.
Rome had several periods of political prominence – the ancient Imperial era (roughly the 200 years after the birth of Christ) and the Baroque era (16th and 17th Centuries). Most of the best sights, therefore, date from these eras. There is relatively little medieval architecture in Rome, and no Gothic cathedrals. There are some important buildings dating from the late 19th Century, after Italian independence, but we don’t find them as compelling as the older ones.
Rome is built over a series of underground rivers, some of which can still be seen from the lower floors of certain churches. The barbarian sack of Rome in 476 destroyed not only the political structure of the city, but the system of aqueducts and waterworks that had allowed the city to support a population of nearly 1 million by the time of Augustus. Rome in the medieval period was really just a collection of villages, notionally connected by a common history. Beginning in the late 15th C, a series of Popes – Sixtus (for whom the Sistine Chapel was named), Alexander VI (Borgia) and Julius II embarked on an ambitious program of public development. They built bridges across the Tiber (the Ponte Sisto), created broad, straight streets on the Renaissance model (the via Giulia), implemented flood control measures, and restored the ancient waterworks. The Fountain of Trevi, today visited for its artistic beauty, was originally built to commemorate the restoration of the water system.
Outside the Vatican, Rome has no large museums where you can see a lot of art in relatively compressed period of time. There are some wonderful small museums, which are noted below. But much of the really good art is in churches. That can be challenging – there are over 400 churches in Rome, and the churches with major artworks in them aren’t necessarily close together. But t it also opens up many serendipitous possibilities. We have suggested some of the most interesting churches below. But you could do worse than follow our usual practice of going into any church you pass by – you never know what you’ll see!
Of Water, and Coffee
Rome was by far the largest city of the ancient world. It had a population of nearly a million in the first century – a level not seen again in Europe until modern times. And yet, unusually for an ancient city, it was not itself situated on a port – Ostia Antica, on the coast, was the port of Rome.
The secret of Rome’s success was its fortuitous proximity to numerous fresh-water springs, giving it a safe supply of drinking water. Upper-class Romans had running water in their homes for cooking, drinking and sanitation, but even ordinary Romans had access to public fountains with an ample water supply.
The attackers who pillaged Rome in 476 destroyed the city’s extensive networks of pipes and aqueducts. Rome became quite literally a backwater for the next 1,000 years, until the Renaissance Popes rebuilt the network from the underground springs that still exist beneath the city.
In some of the small towns just outside of Rome, even today, you can see locals filling empty bottles from springs along the road, a right they have enjoyed since ancient times.
In the city itself, don’t be surprised if you see locals drinking water out of some of the fountains. That’s because some of these fountains are actually connected to freshwater springs. Most of the fountains are decorative, though, and the water is pretty nasty.
Eating, Drinking, and the Pace of City Life
Rome is a modern European city, and it is the capital of the country, but it is not the country’s business heart. As a result, the pace of life is somewhat slower here than it is other major Italian cities such as Milan. Although few people can now go home for lunch, as was common as recently as 30 years ago, people still will often find time for a leisurely meal in the middle of the day.
Italians don’t eat much for breakfast – a small roll, or a sweet pastry, with a coffee, repeated as often as necessary until lunch time. Cappucino is commonly seen in the morning, but Italians don’t drink coffee with milk after lunch. American coffee is not generally available, but if you ask for yours “un po’ lungo” they will at least put more water in it. Italians will usually put enough sugar in their tiny cups of espresso to keep a small child wired until halfway to Sunday.
Lunch was traditionally the Italians’ main meal of the day. Patterns are changing to match the rest of Europe, though, and many Romans will now take a lighter meal in the middle of a work day. A relatively recent innovation in Rome is the “wine bar,” which offers wine by the glass and a selection of light meals, usually cheese, cold cuts, and a few types of pasta.
Roman pizza is excellent, and features a thin crispy crust. Don’t expect a lot of exotic toppings, though – that’s an American invention.
Seafood is excellent in Rome, and one of the best-kept secrets of Roman cuisine is the roast langostino (spiny Mediterranean lobster). Crab and clams are common too, but oysters are rarely seen. Fish is good, particularly branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) or pesce spada (swordfish). Roman restaurants that specialize in fresh fish will often show you the whole fish before they prepare it, to demonstrate its freshness. (Caution – if fish is priced on the menu by weight, you will pay for the whole fish, not just the part you eat). A relatively new dish is crudo, which is fish marinated in olive oil and lemon juice (although the word means “raw” in Italian, it is more like ceviche than sashimi).
As in most of Italy, you can order one course at a time, and you don’t have to take an entire meal. If you see fresh mozzarella or fresh ricotta on the menu, go for it – although many of these fresh cheeses are now available in the US, they really are best consumed shortly after they are made. Vegetables (contorni) are often sold separately – they will always be fresh, but many will be cooked more thoroughly than the current California taste. Desserts are relatively uncommon.
We don’t have restaurant reviews, because most Roman restaurants seem to offer pretty good food. You’re more likely to find reasonable restaurants in residential areas, but since Romans go out to eat a lot, you can find a decent restaurant even in tourist zones.
The area around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is filled with small restaurants and wine bars, many of which are surprisingly reasonable, and challenge the normal rule that a restaurant’s quality is inversely proportional to its distance from main tourist sites. Just stay away from the places filled with German and British tourists at 6 pm. You probably want to avoid the Campo dei Fiori in the evening (although the nearby Piazza Farnese/via Giulia area has a number of nice restaurants).
One big caveat – based on our limited experience in that part of town, the restaurants by the upscale shopping area in the Via Condotti seemed more questionable.
In our experience, the difference between a moderately-priced restaurant in Rome and a more expensive one is rarely quality – just better silverware. Fish restaurants may be an exception – you get a wider selection in the more expensive restaurants. But even moderately-priced fish restaurants are pretty good.
To get a coffee in Rome, which you should do frequently, you first go the cashier and place your order. You pay, get a receipt, and then bring your receipt to the bar to get your coffee. Tips are not expected, but you can leave small change if you want.
Italian cafes follow the French system of charging one price for drinking or eating at the bar, and a higher price for eating at a table. If you want to sit down, go to the table and they will take your order. You can stay as long as you like.
Rome has a subway system, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Every time they try to extend the lines, they hit some other ancient ruin, and work stops.
The Roman bus system is pretty good – some of the buses are electric. You can buy a bus map at any Tabac.
Taxis are everywhere, and the posted rates are not expensive. The drivers will usually add “surcharges” to the metered rates. Many of these surcharges are legitimate, but some are not, and there’s no way for a tourist to know.
Fortunately, most of the tourist sites in Rome are in a pretty compact area, other than the Vatican. So walking is a good option as long as the weather is reasonable.
Crime is not really a problem in Rome. Pickpockets are reputed to be rife on the bus to the Vatican, which is often very crowded. In sidewalk cafes, don’t hang your purse over the chair – put it on your lap, or place it under your table with the strap looped around your leg.
Crossing streets can be challenging in Rome, particularly around the Piazza Venezia, where traffic seems to come in from every direction and there’s never a walk light. To cross, you must make eye contact with a driver (which the drivers are resolutely trying to avoid). When in doubt, follow a local.
Motorcycles are ubiquitous in Rome. Some folks find the wasp-like buzzing of the popular Vespas (which means “Wasp” in Italian) part of the city’s charm (you can even rent them). But for many of us, they are simply a nuisance. They seem to exist in some alternate universe where neither the traffic signals applicable to pedestrians or autos apply to them. They won’t actually pass you on the sidewalk (as they do in Naples), but they swerve in and out of auto and foot traffic in a disconcerting fashion.
Public restrooms are few and far between in Rome. And there are no facilities in churches or department stores.
You can always go into a café and march confidently towards the facilities in the rear. Most won’t mind, even if you don’t buy anything, although it’s considered more polite if you buy a coffee or a soda (which generally aren’t expensive). A more reliable option is McDonalds – they always have clean, modern facilities and they don’t seem to care if non-customers use them. There are not many McDs in Rome, but I think there’s one near the Pantheon.
Italy adopted a “no-smoking in restaurants” rule several years ago, and it is surprisingly well-enforced. It only applies indoors, however – smoking is legal at tables that are even partly outside. And it’s not unusual to see folks step outside during their meal for a “smoking break” (if you see a whole table suddenly empty, with the meal obviously unfinished, that’s the reason).
The Vatican (allow a full day)
The Vatican Museum has one of the best art collections in the world, including some of the best collections (so I’ve been told) of Roman statuary and Egyptian art you’ll find anywhere. The Renaissance Popes, in particular, were worldly men, and engaged the best artists in Italy to decorate their palaces. But the Museum is vast, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by endless rooms of monumental, not-very-good depictions of the sometimes dubious achievements of various Popes.
Our advice – try to go early in the day, to avoid museum fatigue. Don’t try to see everything. I would budget about 2 hours – including 20-30 minutes for the Sistine Chapel.
At the museum entrance, you’ll find maps with several “alternate routes” through the museum, so you can decide what you want to see. All of the tours include the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel is every bit as astonishing as the hype, especially now that they have cleaned 400 years of candle soot off the paintings and you can actually see them. In addition to the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, there are works on the walls by Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and others – only here would such great artists be also-rans. But most of the art is two or three stories up, so if you’re prone to neck strain, it’s going to be challenging. Make sure to bring a guide book that offers a diagram, so you can identify the stuff you want to see more efficiently.
Other than the Sistine Chapel, our favorite parts of the Vatican Museum are the Rafael Stanze (rooms)– the private apartment of Julius II, painted by Raphael. These rooms include the famous painting “The School of Athens,” in which Raphael depicts ancient Greek philosophers with the heads of his contemporaries, including Leonardo and Michelangelo.
On various visits, we’ve also enjoyed the map gallery (a series of maps of central Italy, which is particularly interesting if you’ve been to some of those places), and the room of the giant Roman heads, notable for their sheer size. There are a couple of Caravaggio’s at the Vatican too.
From the Vatican Museum, it’s a short walk over to St. Peter’s Square. The basilica itself, as the center of the institutional Catholic Church, is more about power than faith – it’s not a very spiritual place. Entrance to the church is supposedly open to everyone, but there is a phalanx of male attendants (and they ARE all men) who take it upon themselves to determine who is not dressed appropriately and may not go in. Tourists in shorts and tank tops, and women in skirts above the knee, will not be admitted. (Women in pants are OK.) Women are no longer required to cover their heads, and men should remove their hats upon entering.
But it does include the most famous of the three Pietas by Michelangelo – the one with Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ. The statue is behind plexiglass these days, following a shocking vandal attack, but it’s still awe-inspiring.
You can climb the dome, and get a great view over the Square. Be aware that when we did this – about 20 years ago – the last bit involved climbing up a small ladder.
St. Peter’s Square is ringed by 4 rows of columns by Bernini (a sculptor whose work, you’ll soon discover, is all over Rome). There are two vantage points in the middle of the square, marked by circles on the pavement, where the 4 rows of columns are so perfectly aligned they look like a single row – awesome.
Ancient Rome (allow a full day)
Visiting the ancient Roman ruins in Rome can be a frustrating experience. There’s far too much to look at, and far too little information.
Start with the Forum – it’s free. (It’s sometimes called Caesar’s Forum, to distinguish it from the relatively recent excavations of the Imperial Forum.) If you’ve seen other Roman ruins, the thing that will most impress you is the Forum’s sheer size – this is what all those little Roman colonial towns were imitating. Bring a good guidebook, and lots of imagination – these are high quality ruins, but ruins nevertheless.
From the Forum, it’s an easy walk to the Palatine Hill or the Coliseum, both of which have an admission charge (sometimes you can buy a combined ticket). The Palatine Hill is where wealthy folks in ancient Rome had little cottages to get out of the oppressive summer heat. Check at the ticket booth and see if the “House of Livia” is open – it’s well-preserved. Other than that, the Palatine is just more ruins, and you can consider skipping it.
The Coliseum, though, is not to be missed. Even in its state of advanced decay, it’s hard not to be moved by stones worn with the grooves of centuries of feet.
Also check out the Arch of Constantine, which is just outside the Coliseum.
There is a relatively new excavation nearby called the Imperial Forum, or the Forum of Augustus. You can view it from above for free, but there is a small admission charge if you want to down and walk around. We have not visited.
Outside this area, the most famous Roman building is the Pantheon, built in the 1st C by Agrippa, Augustus’ advisor and chief engineer. It is one of the oldest concrete domes in the world. These days it sits in the middle of more recent buildings – one of Rome’s serendipitous blendings of old and new.
A few minutes’ walk from the Pantheon is the Piazza Navona, famous for its dueling statuary by Bernini and his great rival Borromini. According to Roman legend, the woman shielding her face in Bernini’s fountain is actually reeling in horror from Borromini’s church facade – but don’t believe it, since they were done in reverse order.
Also nearby is the Tazza d’Oro, which serves the best espresso in the world. (Romans and Neapolitans fiercely defend their respective cities as the espresso champion; obviously I have my opinion.) You can bring the coffee beans home but not, alas, the Roman water.
The Campo dei Fiori (“Field of Flowers”), one of our favorite spots in Rome, is a few minutes’ walk from the Pantheon. It is a flower and produce market during the day, although it has an active bar scene at night (translation – don’t eat dinner here).
Near the Campo dei Fiori is the Piazza Farnese, named after a prominent Roman family that gave the world several Popes and eventually married into the Spanish monarchy. The Palazzo Farnese, the square’s most prominent building, is now the French Embassy, and is usually closed to the public; however, it is occasionally open for special exhibits. The Palazzo is also famous for being one of the locations of the Puccini opera, Tosca.
A few minutes past the Piazza Farnese is the via Giulia, a wide (by Roman standards) straight street built by Pope Julius II. It is filled with boutiques and upscale fish restaurants , many of which are well-regarded and attract customers from all over Rome. We wandered into the PierLuigi restaurant twice, 20 years apart, and had a good experience each time. Maybe you will too.
The old Jewish Quarter is somewhere in this area too, but we’ve never been able to find it. However, the main Roman synagogue, also near here, is worth a visit. Although Jews have lived in Italy since the days of ancient Rome, and were generally tolerated during the medieval period (at least compared to some other European countries), there were significant restrictions on where they could live, and what they could build. The synagogue dates from the late 19th C, shortly after Italian reunification. They give public tours in English every day except Saturday.
This area of Rome, “across the Tiber” was its own little village in medieval times, until it was connected by the Ponte Sisto to the rest of Rome. It’s one of the few places in Rome you can see medieval churches – Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere are both quite lovely. It’s also filled with small funky restaurants which attract both tourists and Romans. Don’t expect a great meal here – but you’re likely to find good quality food at a fair price in a fun atmosphere.
Nearby, in the Gianicolo neighborhood, is the Villa Farnesina (not to be confused with the Palazzo Farnese). The Farnesina is noted for its wonderful murals of Cupid and Psyche, by Raphael and his pupils, celebrating the wedding of the scion of the rich banking family that owned the house. The mural decorations are full of fertility symbols, including succulent fruits that almost qualify as food porn.
The one you must not miss is the Villa Borghese, which has phenomenal statutes by Bernini and several works by Caravaggio and Raphael. Note: the last time we were there, due to renovations, the second floor could only be reached by going through the gift shop in the basement, and not from the ground floor. So be careful not to miss it.
The Villa Borghese is in a wonderful park called the Borghese Gardens. There is another museum in the gardens called the Villa Giulia – skip it unless you really like Etruscan pots. If you walk through the gardens, you will eventually reach an overlook called the Pincio, which has a nice view of the Piazza del Popolo, with Cleopatra’s Obelisk.
Another small museum is the Galleria Doria Pamphili (on the via del Corso, up the street from Piazza Venezia), which used to be the private home of a politically well-connected Roman family. Get the audioguide, which is narrated by a current member of the family, and you’ll get wonderful commentary on three centuries of Roman politics as well as the art.
Finally, there’s the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, in the Palazzo Barberini – Caravaggio, Raphael….
As noted above, some of the best art in Rome is located in its churches, although some of the churches are architecturally interesting in their own right.
You can find Caravaggios in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in the Piazza del Popolo and in San Luigi Francesi, near the Pantheon.
Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses is in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), not far from the Colosseum. Note that the “horns” on Moses’ head do not represent a diabolic connection, but result from a mistranslation of a Greek word meaning “rays of light.” The statue is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. One of the female mourners depicted on the tomb is believed to be Julius’ illegitimate daughter, Felice.
The Church of San Clemente, also not far from the Colosseum, is three churches in one, and kind of a metaphor for the many ages of Rome. The “modern” (14th C) church features a wonderful mix of columns scavenged from all sorts of ancient Roman buildings. Beneath is a 6th C church. And below that, underground, is a temple of Mithras.* Don’t lean over – the church sits atop some ancient underground rivers, and a boy who fell in a few years ago was carried by the river some miles away.
(* Mithraism, one of many small religions current in the later Roman empire, was particularly popular with the Roman military – Constantine was a Mithraist. Mithraists worshiped the sun, and celebrated the rebirth of the sun a few days after the winter solstice, which is believed to be why Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25.)
The Church of San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), not far from San Clemente, is, by tradition, the Pope’s parish church. It is quite pretty, and offers an early statue by Michelangelo.
Bernini’s master work, Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, is found in the Church of Santa Maria della Victoria. The saint is shown in mystic union with Christ; Cupid’s nearby arrow has nothing to do with her orgasmic expression. And the worthies depicted on the wall, surveying the scene, are obviously only interested in its theological ramifications. ;-/ This church is on the other side of the Quirinale Hill near the Palazzo Barberini.
Santa Maria Maggiore is another important church, not too far from the Colosseum.
San Paolo Fuore Le Mure (St. Paul Outside the Walls) is listed in many guidebooks as important church. It is done in an ornate, late Baroque style, which we find overdone. It’s also a bit outside the center. So if you’re maxed out on churches, this is probably one you can skip.
I suppose you have to see these things, but don’t spend too much time:
The Fountain of Trevi, is, as noted earlier, a commemoration of the successful completion of a major water project. Check it out, thrown in a coin over your shoulder (to guarantee a return to Rome), ignore the guys hawking cheap souvenirs, and leave.
The Spanish Steps are also called Piazza di Spagna (for the square at the bottom) or Trinita dei Monti (for the church at the top).
This square got its name because it used to be the residence of the Venetian Ambassador (you can see a little replica of the Doge’s palace on one corner). The large white building on top of the preposterous staircase dates from the 19th C. It is officially called the Campidoglio, but has a number of unofficial, less complimentary names, including the “wedding cake.” The building can be seen from many parts of the city, making it a useful navigational device. There’s a nice view from the top of the staircase. The museum of the Italian revolution inside the building is not that interesting to non-Italians, although sometimes there are special exhibits.
There’s a wonderful little church partway up the stairs (somewhat hard to find) called Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, which has some paintings by Pinturicchio (Raphael’s teacher).