Ah, Rome! Just the mention of its name transports you back 2,000 years in time. The history. The majesty. The glory. It is all here (and fairly well-preserved) for you to see. Each corner is steeped in both beauty and history, which makes it my favorite city to visit!
Of course, Rome is more than just towering arches and ancient relics. Today, Rome is a booming metropolis with modern buildings and amenities blending in perfectly with the ancient ruins they are built both around and – sometimes – within. Of course, Vatican City – the spiritual home to the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics – can also be found here. This tiny city, which happens to be the smallest sovereign country in the world, is located entirely within the city limits of Rome. So, while Ancient Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica may be the city’s biggest draws, there are plenty of modern sites to discover when visiting Rome as well. Let’s get rolling and discover Rome together, shall we?
Rome at a Glance
|Nicknames:||The Eternal City, City of Seven Hills|
|Population:||2.8 Million (city), 4.2 Million (metro)|
|Weather:||Mild, rainy winters; hot, dry summers|
|Known For:||Ancient Rome, The Vatican, Architecture, Art|
|Best Time to Visit:||April/May or Sep/Oct|
A (Very) Brief History of Rome
Buckle up folks! Let’s take a very brief look at the complicated history of this ancient and complex city. Ready…set…here we go!
According to legend, the ancient city of Rome was founded along the banks of the Tiber River by two young brothers – Romulus and Remus – who were raised by a she-wolf. In reality, the city was founded sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. and has been continuously occupied since then, which is where the nickname “The Eternal City” comes from. Originally governed by kings, the people eventually took control and decided to rule themselves, forming the Roman Republic in 510 B.C. The Roman Senate was born, and the people’s wishes were carried out at the famous Curia building.
This republic lasted for about 500 years until Julius Caesar, a Roman statesman and general, marched his army across the Rubicon River and conquered Rome for himself. Although the Roman Republic was technically still a thing, Caesar essentially ruled Rome as a dictator. The senators weren’t too keen on that idea and they assassinated him inside the halls of the Senate on March 15, 44 B.C. What followed was a tumultuous period of power struggles and wars from which Caesar’s great-nephew (and adopted son) Octavian eventually emerged victorious. In 27 B.C., the Roman Empire was born when Octavian named himself Caesar Augustus, becoming the empire’s first emperor.
With the wars now over, the coronation of Caesar Augustus kicked off the period known as the “Pax Romana” or Roman Peace. This period of relative peace throughout the Roman Empire lasted for nearly 200 years, ending with the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. During this time, the Roman Empire flourished, with its territory expanding across almost all of Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Eventually, the Roman Empire was divided into two halves, east and west. Additionally, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., meaning that it also became the defacto religion for all of Europe.
However, Rome had expanded too far and eventually fell, with the city itself being sacked in 410 A.D. The Eastern Roman Empire would also fall, sending Europe into a period of darkness for over 1,000 years that we now call the “Middle Ages.” Italy itself would be ruled by a series of small dukedoms, where powerful families controlled Italian cities and fought against one another. It would stay this way all the way until 1861, when Victor Emmanuel II reunified Italy (ending with the capture of Rome in 1870) and was pronounced King of Italy. Benito Mussolini seized control of the government in 1922 and allied with the Germans during World War II. However, Italy was eventually liberated by the Allied Forces and Mussolini was executed in 1945. In 1946, the people of Italy once again voted to become a republic, and the country remains so today.
Whew! How was that for a brief overview?!?
Things to Do In Rome
Enough about facts and figures! Let’s talk about what you need to see when you’re visiting Rome.
- The Colosseum – One of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire world, the Roman Colosseum is absolutely incredible. You can almost hear the crowd roar as you step into the arena where Christians were sacrificed, battles were seen as sport, and gladiators used to fight to the death. Built to seat more than 50,000 people, the sheer size of the building is awe-inspiring. Amazingly, it was constructed in just 10 years, opening in the year 80 A.D. With nearly 4 million visitors a year, the lines here can be unbearable. Make sure to plan your visit ahead.
- Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – The Roman Forum was the heart of the Ancient Rome, and quite possibly my favorite tourist destination in the entire world. This was where the ancient Romans lived and worked. Fairly well-preserved, you’ll be able to walk past dozens of ancient temples, buildings, and statues. See the famous Curia where the Senate met, and gaze at the Rostrum where Roman statesmen would address the crowds. Climb to the top of Palatine Hill and absorb a breathtaking view of the city. Imagine yourself standing here 2,000 years ago as Caesar Augustus triumphantly paraded down the Via Sacra (Sacred Road), with thousands of Romans waving banners and cheering him on. One note of importance: You can gain entry to the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill on the same ticket as your ticket for the Colosseum.
- The Vatican – OK, so technically the Vatican is in Vatican City, but this is one stop in Rome you can’t miss. Spend some time contemplating eternity while gazing at the columns and statutes in St. Peter’s Square. Visit the largest and grandest church in the world inside St. Peter’s Basilica. And, stroll through 4 miles of the world’s most precious art works (including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel) at the Vatican Museums. If you have time, you may even be able to see the Pope speak; he holds a Papal Audience every Sunday and Wednesday when he’s in town. Lines here can be outrageously long, so either book a tour or buy skip-the-line tickets in advance.
- The Pantheon – Built about 2,000 years ago, this ancient temple is probably the most important and influential building in archetectural history. The Pantehon’s domed roof was the inspiration for some of Italy’s other great domes, including the Florence Duomo and St. Peter’s Basillica. It also provides the best example of what Roman temples looked like inside. Unlike many Roman temples, this one was turned into a Christian temple – which is probably why it survives so well in tact. Be sure to grab a selfie with your camera pointed directly up at the hole in the ceiling, the only place in the building where light is able to come in. Entry is free.
- Trevi Fountain – Rome is filled with fountains, and none is more spectacular than Nicola Salvi’s Trevi Fountain. This is a popular nighttime gathering spot for tourists and romantics alike. Toss a coin in the fountain, and – as legend has it – you’ll be sure to return to Rome again! (Note: As of November 2015, the Trevi Fountain is currently under renovation and pumped dry.)
- Spanish Steps – One of The Eternal City’s most famous sites, this giant staircase winds its way up 138 steps to the Spain’s Vatican Embassy. It’s also a great spot to hang out and get your people watching in, especially at night.
- Piazza Navona – Built in 80 A.D. by the emperor Domitian, this piazza was originally used as a racetrack. Now, the track is surrounded by dozens of restaurants and a thriving nightlife. In the center of the piazza is the Four Rivers Fountain, created by Bernini. In the 1600’s, Bernini filled Rome with dozens of fountains, all in the over-the-top Baroque style of the times. This is probably his most famous.
- Borghese Gallery – If you are looking for art in Rome, look no further than the famous Borghese Gallery. Founded by the Borghese family, a family full of Roman Catholic cardinals and popes, the gallery features masterpieces from artists like Raphael, Rubens, Bernini, Titian, and Caravaggio. You’ll need reservations to get in, so be sure to plan ahead.
- Baths of Caracala – Fed by the ancient aqueducts, the gigantic bath complex was once able to host 1,600 bathers at a time. The complex is immense, but most of the artwork that once resided here has been moved to museums elsewhere. Still, you’ll be amazed by the size of this complex and get a feel for how bathing was a social highlight in Ancient Rome.
Best Way to See the City
When you travel to Rome, the last thing you want to do is waste time standing in line. As with most major cities, Rome offers a city pass that allows you to skip those lines. The Roma Pass is the easiest way to get around. At just €36, the pass is totally worth it. You gain free entry to 2 museums, passage on any city bus or metro, and discounted pricing to several other attractions for up to 36 hours. Another option is the Omnia Vatican & Rome Card. In addition to all the benefits of the Roma Pass, the Omnia Vatican & Rome Card also allows you skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. It does cost €98, but again, skipping-the-lines is well worth it. Be aware that you need to schedule an appointment to enter both St. Peter’s Basillica and the Vatican Museums with this card. This isn’t listed on their website, but you can simply schedule a time to go when you pick up your passes.
- Hot Tip: When visiting Rome, make sure to bring a water bottle with you. The city is filled with drinking fountains that run constantly. You’ll notice them everywhere, and the water is safe to drink. Just stick your bottle under the stream, and you’re good to go!
Getting Around Rome
Getting around Rome is fairly easy and safe. Most of the city’s attractions are centrally located, so be sure to bring your walking shoes. The city also has a stellar bus system that you can use to get pretty much everywhere. Just find a bus stop, look at the white signs which list the bus number and the order of stops, and hop on. The metro system is small, but also easy to use. However, only a few lines run through the center of town, so using the metro may be out if your hotel isn’t near a subway station.
If you are going to take a taxi, be sure that you only ride in an official taxi what is licensed by the city of Rome. They are all white with a yellow taxi sign on top. If not, you are almost certain to be scammed. Also, beware of gypsies looking to scam you at airports and train stations. Simply refuse their help and walk away…or you may end up paying dearly for help you didn’t really need or want.
Wrapping It Up
With incredible history, beautiful scenery, and welcoming people, Rome is my favorite city to visit! Visiting Rome is an awe-inspiring journey that you’ll never forget!
- Omnia Vatican & Rome Card
- [easyazon_link identifier=”1612389643″ locale=”US” tag=”travelbluebook-20″]Guidebook: Rick Steves’ Italy[/easyazon_link]
- [easyazon_link identifier=”163121179X” locale=”US” tag=”travelbluebook-20″]Guidebook: Rick Steves’ Rome[/easyazon_link]