Things to Do in Rome
There are many churches in Rome - and throughout the world - dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The largest one is the Basilica Papale (or Papal Basilica) of Santa Maria Maggiore near the Termini Train Station in central Rome.
As you might guess from the name, Santa Maria Maggiore is technically part of the Vatican - just as a foreign embassy might be. As part of Vatican City, the Basilica is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes all extraterritorial properties of the Holy See in Rome.
Although the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore has been expanded upon and redecorated over the centuries, it was originally built in the mid-5th century and much of the original structure is still in place. In the years after the papacy was moved back to Rome from Avignon, part of the church was used as the papal residence until renovations to the Vatican Palace was completed.
Portico of Octavia was a large courtyard with many columns originally built in the 2nd century BC. It was rebuilt about 100 years later by Emperor Augustus and dedicated to his sister, Octavia. It once covered an area of almost 445 feet long and almost 380 feet wide, larger than a football field, and it had more than 300 Corinthian columns. The Temple of Juno Regina and the Temple of Jupiter Stator stood in the middle. Today not much remains of the structure compared to what it once was. Visitors can still see five columns and the ruins of the entrance gate.
In the Middle Ages, the ruins of the Portico of Octavia became the site of a fish market. A stone to the right of the portico's great arch still marks the location. Nearby you can find the Teatro Marcello, the Tiber River and Tiber Island, the Temple of Apollo Sosiano, and it's not far from the Roman Forum.
The Capitoline Hill is one of Rome’s famous seven hills, and in Italian it’s called the Campidoglio. The Piazza del Campidoglio is the trapezoidal space atop the hill, with buildings on three sides and a grand staircase on the fourth. The piazza and surrounding buildings were designed by Michelangelo in the mid-1500s.
Michelangelo employed several visual tricks to give the space a balanced feel, despite its lack of literal symmetry. He designed facades for the existing buildings, made the staircase more of a gradual ramp, and crafted a pattern to be inlaid in the piazza that deceives the eye into thinking it’s a perfect oval (it’s actually egg-shaped). The buildings once served as government buildings, but they now house the Capitoline Museums. At the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio is a replica of an Ancient Roman bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The original bronze is nearby in the Capitoline Museums.
Thermae Antoninianae, as per their Roman name, are, simply put, one of the largest and best preserved ancient thermal complexes in the world, and second largest in Rome itself. Built in 212 AD during the reign of the notoriously spiteful Emperor Caracalla, the complex was built as part of a political propaganda but had the particularity of being open to Romans from all social classes, as it was completely free of charge; the public opinion’s regarding the emperor was drastically improved in the following years, as they attributed their pleasant experience and extravagant surroundings to him.The Aqua Marcia aqueduct (the longest one in Rome) was specifically built to serve the great imperial and 25-hectares large complex, which was really more of a leisure center than a series of baths. Visitors could relax in the complex’s three different baths, exercise in one of the two gyms or the pool and catch up on their reading at the library.
Standing proud behind the Colosseum and steps away from the beginning of the Via Sacra, the imposing triumphal Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roma Senate in 315 AD in honor of Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that took place three years earlier. At 69 feet (21 meters) tall, the ornate monument was carved from a single enormous block of gray and white marble. In typical Classical style, the great central gateway is mirrored by two smaller side arches and supported by eight Corinthian columns. The arch is decorated with reliefs plundered from other long-forgotten memorials that describe feats of bravery by earlier Roman emperors, as well as inscriptions praising the achievements of Constantine.
At first glance, this ancient open-air theater appears quite a bit like a mini-Colosseum. Built during the later years of the Roman Republic, it was built nearly 100 years before the famous Colosseum. Named by the Emperor Augustus in 11 BC after his recently deceased nephew Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the theater may be the oldest surviving of its kind in the world.
The structure’s archways and tiers comprise a semicircular design (unlike the Colosseum, which is completely circular.) The third tier was lost in reconstruction during the Middle Ages, but ornamental Doric and Ionic columns still frame the theater. In its prime the structure could hold more than 15,000 spectators and was one of the most popular entertainment venues in Ancient Rome. Live music and drama performances filled its seats until it was adopted by noble families and luxury apartments (which can still be seen today) were built atop the ruins.
The area of Rome known as the “centro storico,” or “historic center,” is sometimes referred to as whatever lies inside the ancient Aurelian Walls, but the border the walls created aren't exactly the same as what many people refer to as the Centro Storico today.
UNESCO designated the “Historic Center of Rome” a World Heritage Site in 1980, declaring the area inside the Aurelian Walls plus Vatican City (which was outside the walls) to be the city's Centro Storico. To most visitors, however, the Centro Storico is much smaller, and where many of the main attractions are located. In the Centro Storico, you can visit sights such as the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and the Capitoline Hill. The Forum and Colosseum are just outside the smallest interpretation of the Centro Storico, as are Vatican City and the Trastevere neighborhood.
The Great Synagogue of Rome has a storied past, with the city housing one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. The first set arrived in the city in the second century BC, and by the mid-16th century, the area of Trastevere on the west banks of the River Tiber became a Jewish ghetto, which lasted for three centuries until it was disbanded by King Victor Emmanuel II. The Great Synagogue was built across the river from Trastevere shortly afterwards in memory of the dark days of the ghetto; the Art Nouveau structure is stopped with a distinctive square dome and ornamented with floral reliefs.
On April 13, 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the synagogue, making him the first pope since early Christianity to do so. The synagogue celebrated its centenary in 2004 and serves as a hub for the Jewish community of Rome, as well as housing for the offices of the Chief Rabbi.
More Things to Do in Rome
Quirinale Palace is the official residence of the president of Italy. It sits on Quirinale Hill, the highest of the seven hills of Rome. The palace was built in the late 1500s by Pope Gregory XIII as a summer home and was home to many popes for over three centuries. After the unification of Italy, it became the royal residence, until 1947 when the country's presidents began living there. The palace houses a wide variety of art including paintings, statues, tapestries, clocks, furniture, porcelain, glass chandeliers, and much more. In the Scalone d'Onore, the monumental staircase hall, visitors can see a frescoe by Melozzo da Forli that was once in the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli. Another impressive part of the palace is its garden, which offers views of Rome from its high vantage point. The style of the garden has changed many times over the centuries, but today it combines influences from the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors can also see the changing of the guard on Sundays.
Many visitors to Rome see the enormous Vittorio Emanuele II monument from the outside only, snapping a photo of the landmark locals often derisively call “the typewriter” before moving on. But if you climb the steps, you'll find there are sights to see inside, too.
The monument was completed in 1910 as a memorial to the first king of a united Italy. Italy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is part of the monument, added in 1921, and the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento – Museum of Italian Unification – is inside the monument itself. The museum entry can be difficult to find, with unmarked doors on the main steps, but you can also enter from via San Pietro in Carcere. Also inside the monument is the Complesso del Vittoriano, an art gallery with rotating exhibits, and the Sagrario delle Bandiere, a gallery of Italian naval flags and some other historical naval displays.
Inside the Galleria Agostiniana, part of the must-see Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, is the small Leonardo da Vinci Museum, dedicated entirely to the great inventor and artist. What started out as a temporary exhibition is now permanently housed in a church on the busy Piazza del Popolo. Larger museums dedicated to the life and work of Leonardo are in Milan, Florence, or even the artist’s hometown of Vinci, but the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Rome is a great comprehensive look at his Renaissance works.
The museum’s collection features more than 60 inventions modeled after Leonardo’s machines. There are more than 120 pieces on display throughout the museum, including artistic studies of famous pieces like “The Last Supper” and “Vitruvian Man.” Some of the models are interactive, making this a good option for families traveling with children.
Piazza della Repubblica is a square in Rome not far from Termini train station. The square was the original site of the Baths of Diocletian. It was known as Piazza Esedra until the 1950s, and many older locals still refer to it by its old name. In the center of the square is the large Fountain of the Naiads, or water nymphs. Figures of the four water nymphs adorn the sides of the fountain representing oceans, rivers, lakes, and underground water. When the fountain was unveiled in 1901, it was considered too provocative due to the nudity of the statues.
One of Rome's most well known streets, Via Nazionale, starts at Piazza della Repubblica. On this street and in the surrounding area you'll find upscale hotels, shops, restaurants, and cafes. Near the piazza is the Teatro Dell'Opera Di Roma, a lavish 19th century opera house. There are also several churches and ornate buildings in the area.
Located at the western end of Rome’s prettiest bridge, the Ponte Sisto, the Piazza Trilussa is in bohemian Trastevere, the city’s hard-drinking, clubbing district that comes alive at night when the backstreet bars are packed out. Named after a Roman poet from the 19th century, the cobbled square is home to a monument in his honor as well as the stately Acqua Paola water fountain, carved with the heads of dragons and lions. This travertine fountain was commissioned by Pope Paolo V, a member of the all-powerful Borghese family, and constructed in 1613 by Dutch architect and garden designer Giovanni Vasanzio (Jan van Santen in Dutch); it bears the Borghese family crest. Originally it was located on Via Giulia on the east side of the River Tiber but was reconstructed in its present home in 1898.
Ponte Sisto is a stone pedestrian bridge that crosses the Tiber River in Rome. It connects the historic center of Rome on one side of the river with the Trastevere neighborhood on the other side. The bridge dates back to the late 1400s and uses the foundations of an older Roman bridge that was destroyed in the early Middle Ages. Today the bridge is one of the few bridges crossing the Tiber River that does not allow vehicles. This makes it a pleasant crossing point for visitors exploring the city by foot.
The bridge also provides nice views of the city. From here, you can see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Ponte Garibaldi, Ponte Mazzini, Tiber Island, and Gianicolo Hill. The bridge connects Via dei Pettinari and Piazza Trilussa. Several boutique hotels, restaurants, and cafes can be found in this area on both sides of the bridge, some offering views of the river and the bridge itself.
The Appian Way (Via Appia), an important Imperial Roman road dating from the 4th century BC, was built to quickly move supplies and Roman soldiers to strategic points of the Roman Empire. The Appian Way was the first and most important Roman road, stretching from Rome to Brindisi on the southeast coast of Italy.
It was the work of architect Appius Claudius Caecus (hence the road's name). You can still walk the long straight cobblestone road, and along the way are catacombs and churches.
As the Roman Empire began its terminal decline, Rome was the focus of attacks and invasions by barbarians. In the third century AD the Aurelian Wall was built around the city's seven hills for protection. The Aurelian Wall had many gates, one of them being the Porta San Sebastiano (which still stands today). It was once called the Porta Appia because it marks the point where the Appian Way begins.
The Parco degli Acquedotti is one of Rome’s green spaces, and also one with major Ancient Roman structures in it. As the name tells you, a visit to the Parco degli Acquedotti means you get to see a Roman aqueduct - but in this park, you can actually see two.
Located just under five miles from Rome’s city center, the 593-acre Parco degli Acquedotti is criss-crossed by two different aqueducts, both of which were once critical parts of the Ancient Roman infrastructure. The two aqueducts in the park are Aqua Felix and Aqua Claudia. There’s also the ruins of a 2nd century palace in the park.
The Parco degli Acquedotti is largely undeveloped - so much so that livestock can sometimes be found grazing in its fields - but it’s close enough to the city that in nice weather it can be a welcome respite for both Romans and tourists to get away from the hectic city. You can reach the park via the Metro Line A, or by bus to the nearby Piazza Cinecitta.
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