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Things to Do in Rome

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Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano)
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Contrary to popular belief, St Peter’s Basilica isn’t the cathedral of Rome. This honor goes to “the Cathedral Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist at the Lateran.” Quite the mouthful, but the church is more commonly known as the St John Lateran’s Basilica or Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. The basilica is the most important of the four major basilicas in Rome, and on top of that, it’s the seat of the Bishop of Rome—the Pope himself—and considered one of the most important Catholic church in the world.

Although one might think so, St John Lateran isn’t a person. The church is named after its location at the Lateran Palace, ancient seat of the noble Roman Laterni family and later the main papal residence. When the palace came into the hands of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, he soon donated the property to the church.

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Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura)
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The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is one of four major basilicas in Rome and was once the largest basilica in the world. It held that title until St. Peter's Basilica was completed in 1626. The original church was built in the 4th century but burned down in 1823. It was replaced with the one that stands today. It is where St. Paul is presumed to be buried, which is why it is named after him. His burial site was located outside of the Aurelian Walls that surrounded Rome at the time.

The basilica's art gallery has paintings from the original church, some dating back as far as the 13th century. There are also some rare documents and engravings that were saved from the fire. The outside of the church has 150 columns and a huge statue of St. Paul. The facade is decorated with mosaics designed from 1854 to 1874.
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Church of Saint Louis of the French (Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi)
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The name “San Luigi dei Francesi” means Saint Louis of the French, and this church is France's national church in Rome. It was built in the 1500s at the instruction of a Cardinal in the Medici family who would later become Pope Clement VII. Catherine de Medici had married the French king, contributed to the church's construction, and donated the land on which the church was built – further cementing the French connection. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi occupies the site of a former church, Santa Maria, which was owned by the Medici family. It was begun in 1518 and consecrated in 1589. The interior is all Baroque ornamentation, so there's no shortage of stuff to see, but the biggest attraction inside is the series of three St. Matthew paintings by Caravaggio. These paintings were commissioned for the church, so it's a great chance to see artwork in its original home rather than an art museum.

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Sant'Angelo Bridge (Ponte Sant'Angelo)
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Ponte Sant'Angelo is the bridge across the Tiber River leading from the centre of Rome to the Castel Sant'Angelo, once Hadrian's tomb, then home to the popes, now a museum. The bridge dates from 134 AD when Hadrian built it to lead to his mausoleum, calling it Pons Aelius or Bridge of Hadrian. But when word got out that the Archangel Michael landed on top of the mausoleum to end the plague in Rome in 590, the bridge and castle both changed their name to Sant'Angelo.

The most striking feature of the now pedestrian-only bridge are the ten statues of angels which line it. These were commissioned by Pope Clement IX in 1669 from the famous artist Bernini. Unfortunately Bernini only finished two himself and these were taken into the pope's own collection. Those on the bridge were actually made by other sculptors to Bernini's scheme.

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Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere)
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The Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of Rome’s oldest churches, originally built in the 4th century. While the structure has been renovated and expanded upon since then - most notably in the 12th century, when it was essentially torn to the foundation and rebuilt - the floor plan still reflects its 4th century roots.

Although there is some dispute as to which was the first church in Rome dedicated to Mary, there is an inscription in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere that indicates this is the first such church. The original church on this spot was built in 340 under Pope Julius I, and in the 1140s Pope Innocent II tore it down in order to rebuild it completely.

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Church of St. Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli)
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The Church of St Peter in Chains, also known as San Pietro in Vicoli, is a basilica for both art lovers and pilgrims. The church was originally built in the fifth century to house the chains that bound St Peter when he was imprisoned by the Romans in Jerusalem, which eventually made their way to Rome, where they arrived in two parts. One part of the chain was sent to Eudoxia, the wife of emperor Valentinian III, and when compared to shackles held by Pope Leo I, legend says they miraculously fused together to form a single chain, which is now kept in a big bronze and crystal urn under the main altar.

The church is maybe best known for Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a part of a never completed funeral monument for Pope Julius II. Forty statues were planned, but Julius’ constant efforts to immortalize himself with giant projects soon had Michelangelo’s attentions diverted to the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

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Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo)
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One of three churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary that face the large Piazza del Popolo in northern Rome is the church that bears the same name as the piazza - Santa Maria del Popolo. Of the three, this is by far the most popular tourist draw, primarily for the incredible artwork it contains.

The present-day Church of Santa Maria del Popolo was rebuilt in the 1470s from an earlier church built on the site in 1099. Gian Lorenzo Bernini updated the facade to its Baroque style in the 1650s, and also worked on the Chigi Chapel in the church.

Santa Maria del Popolo contains frescoes by Pinturicchio, mosaics by Raphael, chapels designed by Bramante and Raphael, and two fabulous paintings by Caravaggio. Because of this stunning collection of in situ art, the church is as much (if not more) a tourist attraction for art and culture lovers as it is still a house of worship.

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Seven Hills of Rome (Sette Colli di Roma)
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Before the Roman Empire rose to power, before a city called Rome even existed, the area had already been occupied for many years. The marshy valleys and steep hills offered natural protection, and while it is thought that individual communities developed on the different hills in the area, they eventually grew together as population increased.

In the 4th century B.C., what are known as the seven hills were joined together by the Servian walls—the ancient walls of Rome—and while modern Rome has far outgrown its original limits, the area around these seven hills still forms the geographical heart of the city. According to the legend, the central hill of Palatine was where Rome was founded by Romulus on the site of older settlements. Today, the whole ridge is an archaeological site that houses the residence of Augustus, the Temple of Apollo and the Great Mother. The biggest of the seven hills is Esquiline Hill.

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More Things to Do in Rome

Barcaccia Fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia)

Barcaccia Fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia)

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At the base of Rome’s iconic Spanish Steps, the Barcaccia Fountain is one of the city’s most unique fountains. Designed in a Baroque style, it displays a half-sunken ship with fresh water overflowing its bow. Translated Barcaccia means ‘old boat.’ It dates back to the 17th century when it was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII Barberini. The fountain is said to be modeled after the boats left behind after the Tiber River would routinely flood. Sun and bee ornamentation is a symbol taken from the Pope’s family’s coat of arms.

Designed by Pietro Bernini, it features two heads on either end spouting water. Bernini’s son Gian Lorenzo went on to become a prominent Baroque artist with works all over the city. The travertine fountain has recently been restored after having been vandalized by football fans. It is one of the most well-known fountains in Rome.

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Farnese Palace (Palazzo Farnese)

Farnese Palace (Palazzo Farnese)

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The Palazzo Farnese is a 16th century palace originally built for the noble Farnese family. Today, it serves as the French embassy in Italy, given by the Italian state in 1936 to the French for a period of 99 years.

The member of the Farnese family who commissioned the Palazzo Farnese went on to become Pope Paul III not long after, so the building got even more palatial soon after it was done. The Farnese family were well-known sculpture collectors - parts of their collection make up Naples’ archaeological museum and Capodimonte Museum today. Although the Palazzo Farnese is the French embassy in Italy, there are tours available - which is good, given the art that remains in the palace, including frescoes on walls and ceilings. Even if you don’t go inside, you can see some of Michelangelo’s handiwork on the facade. The Renaissance master is responsible for, among other things, the central window that served as a focal point and something of a stage for Pope Paul III.

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Trinità dei Monti

Trinità dei Monti

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Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) and Chapel of San Lorenzo

Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) and Chapel of San Lorenzo

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Containing 28 steps in total, the Scala Santa (which translates to Holy Steps) are believed to have been carried from Jerusalem to Rome by St. Helena in the year 326. Many make religious pilgrimages to this site, as the white marble steps are said to be those walked upon by Jesus Christ during the Passion.

It is believed that the steps of Scala Santa once led to the Praetorium of the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, where Jesus was condemned. St. Helena brought them to Rome to her son, the emperor Constantine, who was building a basilica. The stairs were installed and still lead to the Sancta Sanctorum or Chapel of San Lorenzo, the private chapel of early popes. The interior of the chapel is richly decorated with frescoes depicting both the Old and New Testament.

Today the steps are protected by a wooden boards in the old Lateran palace and by tradition must be ascended on the knees. Over the centuries, several popes have participated in this devotion.

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Tiber River (Fiume Tevere)

Tiber River (Fiume Tevere)

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The Tiber is the third-longest river in Italy, rising in the Apennine mountains and ending at the sea at Ostia, once the port of Ancient Rome. It is 252 miles (406 km) long. The story goes that the infants Romulus and Remus were abandoned on the waters of the Tiber, were rescued by a she-wolf, and founded Rome 15 mi (25 km) from the sea in 753 BC.

The Tiber River has also been heavy with sediment and although Romans throughout history have dredged it, the river is now navigable only to Rome and not beyond. The port of Ostia was abandoned to mud as far back as 1 AD.

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Montecitorio Palace (Palazzo Montecitorio)

Montecitorio Palace (Palazzo Montecitorio)

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The Palazzo di Montecitorio is the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, the house of Italy’s parliament. It was completed under Pope Innocent X in 1650, designed by Bernini and afterwards expanded by Carlo Fontana. It was the pope's vision to house the Pontifical Curia here, but the building ended up serving a variety of functions over the years until it became the seat of the Chamber of Deputies later on. Although the look of the building has changed over the years and it got a makeover in the Art Nouveau style in the early 20th century, the clock tower, column, window sills and the baroque Bernini façade remain the same.

A newer addition is the long salon, where informal political discussions and agreements take place, leading to it being referred to as the informal center of Italian politics. The salon’s name, Transatlantico, refers to a construction company from Palermo.

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Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs (Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri)

Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs (Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri)

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This stunning basilica is dedicated the Christian martyrs and has been a staple in this Italian community since the late 1500s. Visitors who journey to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli will find a remarkable interior designed by Michelangelo and a near perfect example of Roman architecture. The church is also home to a historic sun dial that predicted the exact date of Easter each year and compete with the meridian built by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in Bologna.

This popular religious journey into Assisi is the perfect way for travelers to escape the city of Rome and explore outside the urban center. The two-hour drive is scenic and takes travelers through the rolling hills of Umbria.

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Via Sacra

Via Sacra

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Via Condotti (Via dei Condotti)

Via Condotti (Via dei Condotti)

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Shopaholics in Rome, head for Via Condotti, where even the window-shopping is worth the trip.

Via Condotti (its complete name is Via dei Condotti) is a street in central Rome that dates back to the ancient Roman era. It was a fashionable address as far back as the 18th century, when the Caffe Greco opened and was frequented by the likes of Goethe, Byron, Liszt, and Keats. The cafe remains open – and popular with visitors – to this day.

Most of Via Condotti is known for its fashion boutiques. Major names in fashion have shops along the street, including Gucci, Valentino, Armani, Prada, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, as well as many other designers – Italian and otherwise.

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