Visiting Rome is always a good idea. A most ancient city, Rome is filled with unforgettable experiences. A delight for all the senses, Rome is one of the highlights of Europe. The Eternal City should be on the travel wish list of anyone who enjoys art and history. The mix of ancient and modern attractions in Rome means there's something for everyone. But with so many amazing things to see and do, how does one begin to decide on an itinerary for Rome? I've written before about some of the Rome travel tips I learned during our 12-day Roman holiday. To be of even more help, I've made a list of the 13 top attractions in Rome that any culturally curious traveler should see.
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The Forum is probably the most visited of Rome's attractions, drawing millions of visitors per year. It lies between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills and is home to some of the earliest temples and shrines.
From the moment you step foot on the dusty paths of The Forum, it's like walking into another dimension. Relics of the ancient era litter the pathways. Weeds entangle the fallen stones and pillars, unaware of the significance of the structures.
Entry to The Forum will give you access to a vast complex of ancient ruins. The park is home to ancient political, religious, and economic structures and is considered the civic center of ancient Rome. Atop the Palatine Hill sits the home of one of the most famous Roman emperors, Augustus. Standing where he once stood while looking out over Rome is intoxicating.
"All roads end in Rome." The famous saying evokes the sheer might and power of the once enormous empire of Rome. While attractions like The Forum reinforce the might of Rome, the Via Appia enhances the relevance of the empire's capital city.
This quiet countryside road is a popular place for lovers and families. You can bike and hike alongside ancient ruins and historically important attractions such as the Catacombs of San Sebastion. And as you approach the city along the Appian Way, it's easy to imagine what ancient travelers felt when they first lay eyes on the magnificent city.
Pro Tip: Consider renting a bike to tour the ancient road. It's a great way to see the sights and maximize your time at one of the best attractions in Rome.
While not my favorite, The Colosseum is culturally significant for many reasons. Standing in the shadow of this giant, you suddenly realize how advanced the ancient Roman civilization was. But when you listen to the stories of the arena, you realize at once how uncivilized they could be.
Constructed in the first century AD, the Colosseum was home to gladiatorial games of fate. The vicious games would pit man against man or man against beast for spectator sport. The largest of any Roman amphitheater ever built, the Colosseum was also the site of many theatrical events, such as battle reenactments and mythical sea battles.
The largest of any Roman amphitheater ever built, the Colosseum was also the site of many theatrical events. Romans would go to enjoy reenactments of famous battles and mythical sea battles. A knowledgeable tour guide should be able to explain how the structure was constructed to operate as a multi-functional arena.
Pro Tip: Get there as early as possible! Lines begin forming even before the Colosseum opens for the day.
Once home to one of the most powerful families in Rome, the Villa Borghese is now one of the largest parks in the city. The mansion is open to the public and hosts a museum quality collection of art and sculpture once owned by the Borghese family.
The treasures that adorn the walls and halls of the Borghese family villa are some of the most spectacular I've ever seen. Chiefly, I speak of the works of Bernini, the famous Italian sculptor. But many other remarkable examples of Italian art fill the mansion.
Works on display include paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, as well as many other important Italian artists. The Villa is surrounded by a lush English-style garden, which operates as a separate, stand-alone attraction.
If you must choose, skip the gardens and choose to explore the museum. But be sure to book your ticket in advance! Entry is timed, meaning you'll only be allowed into the museum at the time allotted.
Capitoline Hill & Museums
Located near the historic Forum, the Capitoline Hill is best known for the modern day Capitoline Museums, which house important works of art and ancient artifacts of Rome. The hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome, on which the original settlements of Rome were founded.
The Capitoline Museum is one of the many fantastic museums in Rome. But, in my opinion, it should be high on the list of attractions in Rome for any first time visitor. The Capitoline is home to some of the most famous works of Italian art known to man, and the grandiose museum is a stunner from start to finish.
A victorious and mounted Marcus Aurelius first greets visitors in the piazza. In the courtyard awaits the monolithic fragments of the Colossus of Constantine which beckon you to enter. Inside you'll find busts of gods and rulers, the mother of Romulus and Remus, and many more profoundly important works. The hits just keep coming as you wander through the Renaissance buildings that comprise the Capitoline museum.
Pro Tip: A single ticket can be purchased for the Forum, Capitoline Museum, and Colosseum. Visitors must use the ticket to visit each attraction within 48 hours of purchase.
Commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 BC, the Altar of Augustan Peace is one of the most precious ancient artifacts on display in Rome today. The original location of the altar was on the Campus Martius, a large, flat marshland used for training maneuvers by Roman soldiers. There it fell to ruin but was later fully excavated in the early 20th century. It is now reassembled in the Centro Storico near the mausoleum of Augustus.
The ancient altar now sits inside a modern house of glass and steel designed by Richard Meier, a striking contrast some may find unappealing. The sculpture reliefs of the altar depict various scenes of peace and prosperity and include images of Augustus, his wife Livia, and their massive court.
Plan to spend at least an hour or more carefully studying the altar and watching the informational video. After all, it's not that often that you stand next to a structure as old or as significant as the Ara Pacis.
Pro Tip: While you're in the area, venture over to the Piazza del Popolo to see some of the most magnificent city squares in Europe. The Piazza is also home to the oldest of the eight Egyptian obelisks scattered throughout Rome.
Commissioned by Emperor Hadrian and built between 118-126 AD, the Pantheon is one of the most ancient attractions in Rome. Constructed on the site of two previous pantheons commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and Domitian, the Pantheon has been a sacred spot since 27 AD. It now serves as a church and continues to be a place of worship for modern Romans.
Walking through the magnificent portico filled with giant Corinthian columns and into the rotunda is one of the most breathtaking experiences. The interior of the rotunda is bathed in the soft sunlight pouring through the oculus, the round opening at the center of the large dome that sits over the rotunda.
Visiting is free to all, with large crowds amassing outside and inside the structure. Be sure to visit the Tazza d'Oro coffee shop while you're in the area for a traditional Italian coffee experience.
Standing in this building was awe inspiring. #Rome itself was awe inspiring. Seeing the structures of #AncientRome and all of #Italy is something everyone should do. It puts so much into context. Humans have been suffering, building, thriving, living for thousands of years. Tonight I #prayforItaly and hope that help is available for all those suffering now.
While it may not be as famous as other attractions in Rome, the Janiculum is worth listing for the views alone. Located in the lively Trastevere neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River, the Janiculum provides unparalleled views of Rome. But you have to be willing to take the short but steep hike up the hill (buses also run in this area).
Situated among many of the international schools, the Janiculum is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. Atop the hill sits the monumental Fontana dell'Acqua Paola. A lush park surrounds the hillside, giving visitors a shady spot to escape the sun on hot summer days.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Found in the center of the famous Piazza Navona, the Fountain of the Four Rivers is one of many masterpieces of the Italian Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Completed in 1651, the fountain is comprised of four river gods who symbolize the largest rivers of the four major continents: Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Atop the larger-than-life gods sits an ancient Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk reportedly dates back to the first century AD. It is one of eight that are scattered about in Rome.
Bernini's attention to detail and impeccable workmanship is mesmerizing. To truly appreciate the beauty of the fountain, make your way to the Piazza at sundown and stay for a while. Seeing the sculptures bathed in the soft glow of the well-positioned lights is simply magical.
Arch of Constantine
Located next to the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine was commissioned by the Roman Senate in honor of the triumphant Emperor Constantine. The towering arch is highly decorated with relief sculpture and shows scenes of Constantine's victorious campaign over Maxentius. It marks the path of Constantine's procession into the city of Rome over which he now ruled.
Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano
Probably one of the lesser known attractions in Rome, the Basilica of San Clemente is a must see for any history lover. Beneath the facade of this medieval basilica lies the remains of centuries of Roman religious history.
The modern church, built in the 12th century, was constructed atop the remains of multiple previous places of worship, including a 4th-century basilica, an early 1st-century church, and a well-preserved Mithraeum (a pagan temple which served as a place of worship to the god Mithras).
Visitors of the modern structure can explore every level of history and marvel at the mosaics adorning the cathedral. Tickets can only be purchased at the church, but small-group tours can be booked online.
Pro Tip: The Basilica is located near the Colosseum, making it a logical next stop on your tour of ancient Rome.
Baths of Caracalla
Although not the largest public bath complex in the ancient city, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla leave little to the imagination. Constructed in the early 3rd century AD, the ancient bath complex offered Romans a variety of options for bathing, as well as exercise facilities for swimming and wrestling.
The existing ruins of the Baths of Caracalla are yet another example of the opulence and might of the ancient Roman empire. The vast complex and towering walls of the once magnificent halls is a great way to start your tour of the Via Appia, as the bath complex serves as a sort of gateway to the ancient road.
Today, the Baths of Caracalla play host to outdoor concerts and opera performances during the summer. If you enjoy outdoor performances, be sure to research concert dates before planning your visit.
Pro Tip: Tickets to the Baths of Caracalla also include entry to various attractions along the Via Appia, including the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian.
Papal Archbasilica di Saint John Lateran
Although the Vatican may be the home of the Pope, the Archbasilica of St John Lateran is the Pope's church. It serves as the Episcopal seat of Rome.
Originally part of the Lateran palace, the ancient basilica was appointed as the home of the Pope by Emperor Constantine in 324 AD, who later decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in 380 AD. The original structure fell into ruin and was later destroyed by a series of fires.
A new basilica was constructed in the 18th century. It now stands as a reminder of the Pope's official role as Bishop of Rome. A marvel to behold, St John Lateran is highly decorated in both inside and out with neoclassical architecture, gothic altars, and 18th-century sculptures of the apostles.
In addition to the magnificent structure, St John Lateran is also home to the Holy Doors of Constantine (found originally on the Senate House in the Forum), the Papal Tombs, and the Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta).
One More Thing
You'll notice that the Vatican Museum and Saint Peter's Basilica are noticeably absent from my list of top attractions in Rome. While some may argue that visiting both is important for any first-time visitor, my experience of touring both the Vatican Museum and Saint Peter's was extremely negative.
Not only is there no context for any of the art or artifacts, the sheer number of visitors makes it impossible to admire the museum's holdings. Shoving and squeezing through the crowd was extremely uncomfortable. I felt very much like an animal being herded rather than a visitor to a world-class museum collection.
My one piece of advice for anyone wishing to tour the Vatican and Saint Peter's is to consider a guided tour. A knowledgeable tour guide will be able to answer questions about the artifacts and provide some insight for those truly interested in the art and artifacts.
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