The truth of the ancient aphorism ars longa, vita brevis is made more obvious in Rome than in any other European capital. All those great cities bear witness to rich and lengthy histories through miles of venerable structures and museums heaving with centuries’ worth of art, but Rome is different: there you will really feel how long art is and how short your time to soak it in. In such capitals as Paris and London monuments articulate a clear sense of historical change; Rome spreads out with multiple histories as vast and rambling as the city itself. Those other cities may simply feel more comprehensible because they are easier to traverse from end to end via long boulevards and snappy subways; while all roads may lead to Rome, finding the right one to get back to your hotel, or the correct bus or subway to get you from point to point to point is another story altogether. It is the un-embraceable bigness and depth of Rome—not so much a repository of art but a work of art itself—that is its glory, and the problem to the traveler who expects to “do” this city in four days, two weeks, whatever. There’s simply too much, and your time is too little.
The best you can do is to arrive with certain, select places that are of greatest interest to you, and then let the city do the rest. Navigating the city can be a challenge; negotiating it as a linear progress can be futile; expecting Italians to abide by posted opening hours is a fool’s errand. More importantly however, this is one of these places that will open up in unexpected ways if you have the time and willingness to walk around with less agenda and more free time. This is counter-intuitive if you travel with a checklist mentality, but ultimately, is the most rewarding; instead of seeing everybody’s Rome, you’ll discover your Rome.
What to see?
After you have followed our general advice on organizing your days (plus: read this blog), you need to determine which of the many, many famous things that have been drawing countless travelers to the banks of the Tiber. Be selective about what you choose and be willing to let some things go. But, if you need someone else to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:
I. The Pantheon
The great temple dedicated to all the Roman gods is stunning in photography and jaw-dropping in person. The effect of its spherical interior (the height of the interior from the floor to the top of the dome and the diameter of its circular plan are the same measurement) defies accurate description through words, drawings or photographs. That simplest of design concepts is made surprisingly complex by the veneers of colorful marble (brought from all ends of the Empire) in geometric patterns lining the walls and floor, and most notably by its ever-changing light source. The only window (so to speak) is the open oculus at the apex of the dome; depending on time of day and the quality of the weather (including rainy days, when it will rain inside the building), the light effects changes the interior. Visit the Pantheon as many times as possible to take in this shifting atmosphere. (Also, do not neglect to pay your respects at Raphael’s tomb.) The Pantheon makes us wonder if its (possible) designer Hadrian hadn’t been so distracted by all that emperor stuff, just what more would Roman Imperial architecture have become?
In the neighborhood: Lots of souvenir shopping in interesting galleries, paper makers, etc. Pricier than other neighborhoods, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially if your tchotchke reminds you that you were at the Pantheon. Lots of churchy shopping—tons of shops for elaborate vestments and altar ware. You don’t have to be a man of the cloth to enjoy window shopping for glittery, shiny crucifixes and incense burning devices and other sacramental gizmos. Church of the Gesù: home church of the Jesuits, built in the mid-sixteenth century. Fine church with powerful late Renaissance architecture, but the real reason you go is for the mind-blowing ceiling fresco painted by Baciccio in the 1660s-70s. Largo Argentina: This collection of ruined temples will only attract the attention of serious scholars of antiquities for the temples themselves. The rest of us, however, will be impressed by two other aspects of this interesting site. First, it appears significantly sunken which is, of course, the result of the ground around it rising across the centuries. In many places in Rome you will see the result of this phenomenon (the Pantheon itself used to be approached by a tall flight of steps; now you walk in virtually on grade), but no where quite as dramatically. Second, the site is a stray cat refuge, so you can observe dozens of i gatti di Roma lolling about ancient relics. Giolitti, one of the best gelato joints in town, favored by Michelle Obama and John Paul II. If it’s good enough for the FLOTUS and the Pope, it’s certainly good enough for you. We recommend the puro chocolate (approximately 137% cocoa), if you dare. (Like a lot of non-antiquities in Rome, this is not super-easy to find, so you are advised to print a map before you go. Here are MapQuest’s hilarious directions (you can obviously walk the pedestrian ways north of the Pantheon, through the piazza and beyond, and get there much more directly).
II. The Vatican
The Vatican comprises four things, each of them requiring a certain effort, stamina and planning. The Basilica is the church dedicated to St. Peter, designed and built for a century and a half starting in the first years of the sixteenth century. When it gets enormously crowded it loses its sense of being an active church, which is a shame. Be there at the very start of the day or the very end, when the crowds are smaller and you can experience the church in relative quiet, if not quite silence. If you are the first one in the door, head straight for Michelangelo ‘s Pietà, which is on the right as you enter, so you just have Plexiglas between you and the sculpture. Michelangelo’s Dome, which, likewise, you should see early in the day (again, shorter lines) or toward closing time (lines may have lengthened, but the sun will be behind you as you look into the center of town). It is not much more expensive to buy the ticket that allows an elevator ride to the base of the dome (make sure to get out and walk along the woopy nave roof), from which you must hike—but it’s a very cool hike through slanty, skinny corridors sliced through the dome. It’s tiring but, dude, you’re walking through a dome! And the view from above is not to be missed. The Museums, which are super crowded, all the time, and unfortunately everyone is herded through like cattle (except for the lengthy galleries full of art that Rick Steves hasn’t told his devoted followers to study). There’s not much choice but to join the line for the famous things, including the octagonal courtyard with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön, Raphael’s frescoed rooms and of course the Sistine Chapel. Just go in knowing it will be crowded and deal with it; after you exit you can find plenty of space to relax in The Piazza.
III. The Forum
Center of the world for centuries, during which the impossible complexity of this archaeological site grew in innumerable layers in a chaotic, picturesque, melancholy and inspiring tableau. Try to find a quiet (relative term here) corner to plant yourself and imagine your way back through well over two millennia of its history. Enter from the Campidoglio side, which will give you a splendid view across the whole site before you enter. Total nerds should carry a copy of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” with them to review throughout the day, alternating site visits with swooning fits as needed.
Nearby: The Colosseum. Helpful to have the RomaPass for this and other sites throughout and around the city. It will help you save a few euro along the way, and what is most valuable, save time by ducking around the longest lines for popular sites like this. Also close: the Campidoglio and Capitoline Museums; the former a brilliant urban and architectural design by Michelangelo; the latter a collection of art and antiquities with fine views across Rome and the Forum.
The sites above do not reflect any stunning discoveries, but they are super-famous for a good reason. They’re totally awesome; that is historic fact (we have graduate degrees in these subjects; trust us). But there are other ways to organize your time in Rome, reflecting the many historical layers of this great city. This is a different way to travel, one that privileges themes and chronologies rather than geographic proximity, but also demands that the traveler ignore great famous things to emphasize other things, arranged by theme. Behold:
I. Imperial Rome: The Ancient Concrete Jungle
Go to the Forum and the Colosseum, where concrete is used but not nearly to the sweeping effect you’ll see later. After the messy (Republican-era) Forum, admire what’s left of the order of the Imperial Fora; tour Trajan’s Markets and start to be excited about concrete—the market hall was the first big concrete vault built in a public building in Rome. At some point try to get tickets into Nero’s Domus Aurea, unless more of it has caved in so it’s all shut down again, in which case you will have to content yourself with the pictures on postcards. For his many, many faults, Nero was a great supporter of art and architecture, as his concrete house shows. Go to the Pantheon and admire the spatial and technical feat of that dome: concrete simulating the vault of Heaven. Not too far away you can catch the bus down to the Baths of Caracalla, a concrete structure as big as they come.
II. Baroque Rome
The Catholic Counter-Reformation prompted a bombastic building boom in Rome. During the sixteenth century, the city was blessed by the joint efforts of extraordinary artists and papal patrons who knew how to utilize their talents—and had access to the deep deep papal purse to support them. Catch a bus or taxi out to Michelangelo’s wild and wonderful Porta Pia, at the end of the Via 20 Settembre by the Corso d’Italia, and walk into the city along this busy long straight street—an anomaly in the otherwise irregular city plan, and indicative of the new urban planning undertaken in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Visit Santa Susanna and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (the latter fronts a piazza which is one of the densest scooter parking lots in the city). Take your time in Santa Maria delle Vittoria, which is pretty overpowering and heavy for its scale. But you, like most people, will be focused on the scene to the left of the altar: Bernini’s stunning chapel for the Cornaro family featuring the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In textbooks that only have room for one photo per artistic movement, that’s THE one for Baroque sculpture. Study the treatment of the skin, the clothes, the cloud, and remember: that’s a big freaking rock that he made look like skin, fabric and a floating cloud! Farther down the road are the pair of Baroque churches that every architecture major must learn by heart: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale. They’re both just barely on this side of sublime, and while much, much, muchmuchmuchmuch smaller than St. Peter’s, require a certain amount of time to absorb. Borromini will wow you with crazy melted architecture; Bernini will draw you through an evocative narrative portraying St. Andrew’s crucifixion, apotheosis and final reward in the Holy Spirit in the dome. When you plan this day, be aware that on Saturdays these small churches are very popular with weddings, so you may need to wait to dart in between ceremonies. Also, San Carlo has strange hours, so build your day around the times it is open. Once done with this leg of the journey through Baroque Rome, rest and eat, then continue on: the slightly later Trevi Fountain is nearby; hang on to your purse but make sure to throw a coin in the fountain (this assures your return to Rome one day). More in keeping with the theme of the day: head up to the Villa Borghese, which is in the midst of extensive public gardens. They are nice, and we like the umbrella pines, but you need to go to the Galleria Borghese, housed in the villa proper. It’s a weird villa building, but its patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, had divinely good taste and commissioned or snatched up a ton of Bernini’s best work. That’s where you’ll find his David and Apollo and Daphne; if you can view the latter without breaking into tears, you need to have your pulse checked. Make sure to reserve tickets in advance; they are limited every day and you don’t want to be left out. Lastly, wind your way down to the wonderful sixteenth-seventeenth-century Piazza del Popolo, which is treacherous for pedestrians but very cool to look at from a safe distance. Your destination is the less architecturally-remarkable Santa Maria del Popolo; head in there, marvel at some wacky ornament, and jostle your way with all the other people on the left side of the altar there to see two great paintings by Caravaggio; impressive on their own but especially when compared with the contemporaneous but yawn-inducing work by Annibale Carracci in between them. If you have not yet floated off to Baroque nirvana wander through the Piazza Navona. Play hide and seek with Borromini, whose Sant’Ivo della Sapienza is not too far away, but somewhat difficult to find, since the church is hidden behind a boring dirty orange wall on a street that looks like nothing important happens there. Like San Carlo, Sant’Ivo has weird hours, but it is part of the university and is sometime open for university events. If you are not dressed too terribly like a tourist, you can waltz right in there, take a seat and achieve Borrominirvana. If anyone talks to you in Italian, just strike a pose like a bored academic and they’ll leave you alone.
Tired of the famous things and the crowds they draw? Head across the Tiber to this part of Rome that preserves a medieval character more than most of the city. Trastevere has several sites of note that for most people are just not worth the walk across the Tiber: Santa Cecelia is a beautiful martyr’s shrine exhibiting every major architectural era in Rome (make sure to get way up front to see the haunting sculpture of Cecelia under the altar). Santa Maria in Trastevere likewise blends Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque motifs in a church that absorbed Roman antiquities (spolia) in its original design. Don’t miss the wacky recycled Roman columns by being overwhelmed by the apse mosaics. But the real joy of Trastevere is just wandering around and being partially lost, discovering great restaurants and cool small shops. Ditch the map; maybe watch the sun or a compass (if you travel with one of those) to have a certain sense of which way the river is so you can get back to your hotel eventually; but in general you will be well rewarded by discovering a private part of Rome that you will swear no other person has seen as you have.
IV. Early Christian Rome
The Early Christian church found its architectural expression under Constantine in Rome, and there’s a fair amount left to see, although much has been altered or unfortunately frosted with Baroque lusciousness. It takes a little effort to find the bus to get there, but it’s worth it to visit one of the catacombs (we liked the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where you can have a tour in one of a dozen languages), which show what little artistic expression the Christians were allowed prior to the faith being tolerated in 313 AD. Go to the cathedral in town, St. John Lateran, which still has its Early Christian plan and wonderful courtyard, although much of its architecture is altered. Especially important here is the Baptistery; make that THE Baptistery, the earliest one ever. EVER. One church that retains more of its Early Christian qualities is Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where you can also have your Roman Holiday moment with the Bocca della Verità, if you must). If you can manage the tram, a trip out to Santa Costanza, the mausoleum Constantine built for his daughter, is well worth it: it’s a round building with lots and lots of mosaics. Lastly, if you are really serious about getting in touch with early church history, make like a fourth-century penitent and get around to all seven of the official pilgrimage churches. The challenge of doing this today with subways, busses, and Aerosoles will really make you appreciate those dedicated pilgrims of earlier centuries and feel guilty about how much you’ve pathetically complained about your sore feet and stiff hotel pillow. Try sleeping with pigs and going barefoot, pilgrim!
V. Happy Museums
Rome is a great art city but the big museums can really be a trial (MoT firmly believes that museum-going is not a contact sport). Rome has several great museums, chock-full of work that would be treasured by any other city that wasn’t lousy with Michelangelo and Raphael, thus not overrun by tourists. Here are our favorites: The National Etruscan Museum/Villa Giulia is full of really old art and housed and in a unique Renaissance villa that is a series of pavilions, kiosks, gardens and water elements extended along a long axis. It’s good for ancient art and also breathing air under the super-blue Roman sky and seeing healthy plants, which are not to be had in abundance in Rome (this is kind of the point of building a villa). The Galleria Borghese is busy, but manageable due to their carefully timed entries; it comes with the benefit of being surrounded by a huge public garden. The Capitoline Museums are full of wonderful antiquities (inducing Constantine’s 8-foot-high head) and largely overlooked by tourists rushing on to the Forum. We love, love, love The Villa Farnesina, a small palazzo structure slathered with glorious frescoes by Raphael and his friends. Plan to spend quality time with Galatea; she will cure you of your jostled-traveler blues. A few hours in any one of these less-frequented museums can renew your spirit and energy to face down the hoards elsewhere in the city. If only the Romans had access to these institutions when Odoacer was bearing down on the city, who knows how things might have gone differently for the Goths?