Nicknamed ‘The Eternal City’, it is unarguable that Rome has earned the title. Unlike anywhere else, here you can walk the same streets that the Caesar walked thousands of years ago, visit the smallest independent nation in the world and be inspired by some of the most incredible architecture, art and sculptures.
Since Rome was first established around 2,700 years ago it has been continuously inhabited, first as the headquarters of the Roman Empire and then the Roman Catholic Church. No wonder it is so revered. I actually had the pleasure to spend five days in Rome after winning an amazing competition from Bench Clothing, and found there is more than enough to keep you busy.
The ancient heart of Rome is largely contained to the area surrounding the Via dei Fori Imperiali. At the end of this road you find the city’s biggest attraction – the world-famous Colosseum. Completed in 80 AD, it is a sight that still dominates the Roman skyline even in its half-ruined state. In its prime, more than 50,000 spectators would fill this amphitheatre for free to watch the games unfold inside. These could last from a day to a few days, starting with comical acts and exotic animal displays and ending with fights to the death with gladiators. Not much beats the feeling of awe when you emerge into the arena in the sunlight and gaze at your surroundings, imagining the history past. Getting there early helps beat the queues, with a combined ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill costing a reasonable €12, or just €7.50 if you are an EU citizen under 25. The audio guide is very informative, allowing you to take it in at your own pace.
Just a stone’s throw away the history tour continues at the Roman Forum. If you close your eyes, you can picture the hustle and bustle that would have taken place in these ruins at what was the centre of Roman life. This plaza of political buildings, temples and markets marks the spot where the Senate began. Today, it looks like a bit of a disorderly mismatch of ruins and signage is poor, but audio guides give a great overview to what it once was.
For a slice of ancient religious history, then the Pantheon features on many visitor’s hit-lists. This temple to the gods of Ancient Rome is one of the best preserved Roman Buildings largely thanks to the fact that is has been in continuous use since its construction. It was converted in 609 AD into a church, and draws crowds of people daily to see the tombs of the famous artist Raphael and several Italian kings.
Almost 2000 years after its construction, it still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, with a central oculus at the top the only source of light. Come rain or shine this makes it a fascinating visit, whether watching the beam of light move around the interior, or to see rain drops bouncing off the tiled floor.
The most famous church in Rome however has got to be St Peter’s Basilica, actually not located in Rome at all. Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world, with an area of just over 100 acres and a population of less than 1000 people. Yet, it forms the heart of the Roman Catholic religion. Completely separate from, yet surrounded by Rome, the location of the Vatican just across the River Tiber is highly symbolic. It is said to be the spot where Saint Peter died and was buried. Marking this, St Peter’s Basilica and St Peter’s Square in front of it draw thousands of people, meaning the queues can be long. We were lucky enough on our trip to catch Pope Francis delivering Sunday mass out on the Square!
Probably the Vatican’s other most famous attraction is the Sistine Chapel, tucked away inside the vast Vatican Museums. Named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned it in the 15th century, it serves as the Pope’s private chapel and is also where conclave is held during the process of electing a new Pope. Most people will have heard it due to the amazing painted ceiling completed by the famous painter Michelangelo– the sheer scale, colour and detail of it takes your breath away. A little known fact however is that Michelangelo can’t take all the credit for the design; Botticelli was commissioned prior to the completion of the ceiling to paint some of the frescos found on the side walls of the chapel.
In a city with a church around every corner, a little smaller but also spectacular is the Santa Maria della Vittoria. If you have watched the film ‘Angels and Demons’, then you will recognise it as the spot where the third cardinal is killed by fire. This baroque church was built in the early 17th century and has just about as much drama and embellishment as can fit in one building. The highlight though is Bernini’s famous sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Teresa, beautifully carved and illuminated.
With so much crammed into Rome, it is hard to narrow it down to a handful of attractions. The final sight this touches upon contains another Bernini masterpiece – the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. Rome’s most famous square, it draws crowds of people to eat, people watch and shop the art that is sold there. The square is built on the former Stadium of Domitian, built by Emperor Domitian in 86 AD, giving it its long, oval shape. The fountain itself features four figures, each representing a river from a different continent – the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata.
Rome is a city full of history, awe-inducing sights and rich culture. It makes the most fantastic city to visit, whether for a long weekend, or a full week, I can safely say that you won’t run out of things to do.
My top tips for Rome:
- Getting into the city is made easy from the airport by the convenient Leonardo Express train. Running every 30 minutes and taking only 30 minutes, it is direct door to door and is also very comfortable with plenty of room for luggage.
- There is a wide variety of accommodation in Rome, but we found the hospitality and situation outstanding at Suite Dreams, located a few steps away from the Piazza della Repubblica in central Rome.
- It is easy enough to walk everywhere on foot, just be prepared for November rain (Guns N Roses knew their stuff!) if you visit when I did. On the plus side, there are far fewer tourists meaning a much more pleasant experience as a visitor.
- From countless pizzerias to family run trattorias, there is something for everyone when it comes to dining in Rome – and dining is a big deal here. Try the oldest Pizzaria in Rome, Ricci Est Est Est!, or the traditional Roman cuisine found at Armando al Pantheon.
- If queues are long at the Colosseum, you can also buy the combined ticket at entrance to Palatine Hill which helps to speed up the process.
- For one of the best views of Rome, head up the glass lift to the top of the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.
- The Vatican Museums are usually closed on a Sunday, but on the last Sunday of every month they are open and have free admittance.