Things to Do in Rome
Located at the southeastern end of the Roman Forum, the triumphal Arch of Titus stands as a memorial to an emperor's brother.
Emperor Domitian commissioned the arch in the 1st century to honor his brother Titus, with the scenes showing Titus' many victories in war. Among the scenes is the Siege of Jerusalem – you can see a Jewish Menorah being carted back to Rome among the spoils.
Triumphal arches are familiar sights in Europe today – the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is one of the most famous examples – but most were based on the design of the Arch of Titus.
Ancient Rome was famously composed of seven hills, but there are even more hills in modern Rome that weren't even included back then. One of them is the Janiculum Hill, or Gianicolo in Italian.
Gianicolo Hill sits on the western side of the Tiber River, near the Trastevere neighborhood, and takes its name from the god Janus – there was once an ancient cult to him located on the hill. Today, attractions on the hill include the San Pietro in Montorio church, a Bramante-designed shrine on the supposed location of St. Peter's crucifixion, and a botanical garden associated with the University of Rome. But the main draw is the view overlooking Rome – it's one of the best in the city.
No matter what you call it, it’s impossible to miss the imposing Vittorio Emmanuele Monument on the massive Piazza Venezia in central Rome. Built in the early 1900s to honor a unified Italy’s first king, the structure serves double-duty as the home of the tomb of Italy’s unknown soldier as well as the Museum of Italian Reunification.
Another reason to visit the Vittoriano is to ride the “Roma del Cielo” elevator to the top of the monument for some of the best views overlooking the city of Rome.
Standing an impressive 100 feet high, the Column of Marcus Aurelius was built as a Roman victory monument and stands in what is now called the Piazza Colonna, situated in what would have been the northern boundary of Ancient Rome.
The original date of construction is unknown, but there are inscriptions of the column throughout the region that promote the idea that the construction was completed, at the very latest, by 193 AD. Most scholars believe that the construction of the column may have started directly after the Roman victories over a number of their northern rivals. Parallel to this idea are the intricate carvings on the column that work in a spiral fashion and tlel the stories of victories, war and conquest. The details show images of men, horses, women and the destruction of certain villages. By the 15th century, the statue of Marcus Aurelius atop the column had already deteriorated.
A lush garden overlooking Roman rooftops and domes, the Giarino degli Aranci was once an ancient fortress and now offers some of the best panoramic views of Rome. Full of orange trees, there are many benches and grassy areas to relax on and escape the bustle of the city. Views stretch across the skyline from Trastevere all the way toward St. Peter’s Basilica.
Legend says that Saint Dominic planted a single bitter orange tree in the courtyard of the nearby Basilica di Santa Sabina in 1200 AD. It is said to be the first orange tree in the whole of Italy, and today the gardens have a pleasant orange aroma from the groups of many trees.
Upon entering the gardens, visitors can see the face of Giacomo Della Porta's fountain, believed to have been made in reference to the river god Oceanus. Overlooking the Tiber River, it has been called one of the most romantic spots in Rome.
Aventine Hill is one of Rome’s famous seven hills. It’s the southernmost hill, located on the eastern bank of the Tiber River. This hill is important in the myths involved with the founding of Rome. The brothers, Romulus and Remus, each chose one of the area’s hills on which to found a city. Remus chose the Aventine Hill, but it was his brother Romulus (set up on the nearby Palatine Hill) who saw more signs (supposedly from the gods) and who goes on to found the city of Rome.
Spots worth visiting on the Aventine Hill include the 5th century church of Santa Sabina, the rose garden, the orange garden, and the famous “keyhole” view of St. Peter’s Basilica at the building housing the Knights of Malta. The Circus Maximus is to one side of the Aventine Hill.
More Things to Do in Rome
Caelian Hill is the most south-eastern hill of the of the famous “Seven Hills of Rome,” which are located east of the river Tiber and form the geographical heart of Rome, within the walls of the ancient city. The other hills are Aventine Hill, Capitoline Hill, Esquiline Hill, Quirinal Hill, Viminal Hill and Palatine Hill, where Romulus founded the city and where the main archaeological remains can still be seen today.
The hills were initially not grouped in any way, and only started to interact with each other when denizens began playing religious games and turned the valleys separating them into lively markets named fora in Latin. It wasn’t until the 4th century, however, that the Servian Walls were built to protect newly-formed Rome.
Anyone who watched “Roman Holiday” was no doubt charmed by Audrey Hepburn’s reaction when Gregory Peck feigned having his hand cut off in the Mouth of Truth. You might not believe that you’re in any danger of losing a limb if you tell a lie, but your heart rate might increase when you pop your hand in that mouth anyway.
The Mouth of Truth - or Bocca della Verita in Italian - is located in one wall of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin at the base of the Aventine Hill. The circular face with an open mouth resembles many of the Roman fountains around the city, but this one doesn’t spout water. For centuries, the legend has been that if you insert your hand in the mouth and tell a lie, your hand will be chopped off. Other attractions around the Piazza della Bocca della Verita are two small Ancient Roman temples. The piazza is almost directly across from the Ponte Palatino bridge over the Tiber River, which leads to the Trastevere neighborhood.
One of the liveliest squares in the Rome’s ancient heart, pedestrianized Piazza della Rotonda is lined with endlessly crowded bars, cafés and restaurants and is the perfect spot for all-day people watching. The rectangular space is also home to the Pantheon, dating from 27 BC but entirely reconstructed by Emperor Hadrian in the early second century AD. It is remarkably intact and its simple but exquisite interior is softly illuminated from the shafts of light peeping through the hole in its round dome. The church is also the resting place of Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, as well as the artist Raphael.
Piazza della Rotonda was formed in the mid 15th century to the orders of Pope Eugenius IV, who wanted to clear the stalls, hovels and stores that were spoiling the view of the Pantheon. A fanciful marble fountain was built in 1575 by Giacomo della Porta, to which a Baroque Egyptian-style obelisk was added in 1711.
The enormous Trajan's Column near the Quirinal Hill was built in the 2nd century AD to commemorate Emperor Trajan’s victories in war. The column itself is 98 feet tall, but standing on its pedestal the entire structure is 125 feet tall.
The column is decorated with the story of Trajan’s war triumphs told in pictures, spiralling around the outside of the column, with the story starting at the bottom. Trajan’s ashes were originally interred in the base of the column. Amazingly, the column itself is actually hollow and contains a spiral staircase that leads to a viewing platform on the very top.
Trajan's Column was originally topped with a statue of Trajan himself, but in the late 16th century the then-Pope Sixtus V ordered that a statue of Saint Peter be put atop the column. It’s the statue of Saint Peter that you still see today. In order to see all of the bas relief carvings, you’ll need to visit Rome’s Museum of Roman Civilization.
Overlooking Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, the gardens on Pincio Hill have been present since the time of the ancient Romans. It is named for the Pincis, a noble Roman family whose estate was built on these grounds in the 4th century. The gardens were separated from the neighboring Villa Borghese by an ancient wall.
Filled with greenery, flowers, and bust statues of famous Italians, the present gardens were laid out in the 19th century. Tree-lined avenues were once (and still are) a grand place to go for a stroll. There’s also an obelisk and historic water clock located in the gardens. They are accessed via a steep, winding path up from the city. Once at the top, you’ll have one of the best views of Rome, looking out to rooftops, piazzas, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The panoramic outlook is arguably best at sunset.
One of the many ancient Roman ruins atop the Palatine Hill is the Domus Augustana, part of the huge Flavian Palace, built for Emperor Domitian.
The Domus Augustana – sometimes called the Domus Augustiana – was the luxurious residence of the emperor (his official name was Titus Flavius Domitianus, hence the name of the palace). The palace complex was built in the late 1st century, and the Domus Augustana was lived in by emperors until about the third century. It's fairly well-preserved.
By Rome's standards, the Church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola seems like it isn't very old at all – only consecrated in 1722 – but that's because prior to 1650, it was a private church.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus – better known as Jesuits – and the original church on this site was built entirely by Jesuit labor in the 1560s on the foundation of an earlier building. That church, built as the private chapel for the Collegio Romano (the first Jesuit university), was expanded slightly in 1580, but by the early 1600s it was already too small for the number of students at the college. Construction on the current church was started in 1626, a mere four years after Saint Ignatius of Loyola was canonized, and it opened to the public in 1650. The interior reflects the church's Baroque style with heavy ornamentation. There is gold decoration everywhere, enormous frescoes, and Jesuit iconography and stories depicted throughout.
Rome is full of fountains, but some are more famous than others. The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona is one of the fountains that, thanks to popular culture and a colorful legend about rival artists, is on many tourist must-see lists.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the artist behind the Fountain of the Four Rivers, which depicts four major rivers - the Nile, the Danube, the Rio de la Plata, and the Ganges - each representing a different continent. Sitting atop Bernini’s sculptures is an Egyptian obelisk.
The fountain was built in 1651 and sits at the center of the Piazza Navona, right in front of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. The statue representing the Rio de la Plata faces the church, and appears to be cowering away in horror at the design - the church was built by one of Bernini’s rivals. This is a common story, and a fun one, but it can’t be true - the church was built many years after Bernini’s fountain.
As a 17th century Baroque church facing Piazza Navona, the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone stands in one of the busiest areas of the in Rome’s historic city center — yet it remains a peaceful sanctuary and renowned Roman church. History tells us that the Early Christian Saint Agnes was martyred on site here in the ancient stadium built by Emperor Domitian. The structure itself was built in 1652 and meant to act as a personal chapel for the family of Pope Innocent X, who lived in the palazzo just beside it. Today it remains a beautiful chapel, known for its frescoed ceilings, many fine sculptures and altars, and impressive marble work. It is also a shrine to Saint Agnes, with her skull still on display to visitors and her body buried in the catacombs. The church’s architecture is characterized by its massive dome, Corinthian columns, and Greek cross plan.
Sitting in the heart of atmospheric Trastevere, Piazza Santa Maria is the focal point of the district and has several different faces. By day it is the haunt of young families and tourists, by night clubbers and students come out of the woodwork to party in the surrounding bars.
The piazza’s western flank is dominated by the ornate Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is one of the oldest in Rome, founded around 350 AD as Christianity was becoming prevalent. Several extensions and improvements ensued down the centuries, and now the church has a 16th-century portico and glittering medieval frescoes and mosaics in the apse as well as on its exterior, which glint when floodlit at night. The octagonal raised fountain in the center of the piazza has its origins in Ancient Roman times and was restored and added to by Baroque master architect Carlo Fontana in 1692.
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