Rome in January is beautiful. Coming from cold Venice to “warmish” Florence and now to sunny and 60 degrees was a welcomed relief. AND we rode the train down from Florence to Rome in first class! Our professors didn’t reserve us seats on the train ride from Venice to Florence so I kept getting kicked out of my seat during the 3 hour train ride. I ended up riding in the very back of the train with a few other students and an Italian man who has family in Presque Isle, Maine. What are the odds of that!? It never ceases to amaze me how small the world truly is. Out of all the people who look at me funny when I say that I’m from Maine, I always find at least one person who has ties to Maine one way or another and it makes me very happy.
I was delighted to visit Rome as it is the birthplace of the Roman Empire on my two week short course with my college. I’ve always loved Roman history so I was excited to see an ancient city and learn more about the Etruscans, the Punic Wars, and the infamous Julius Caesar.
Rome is Italy’s capital and is home to close 3 million residents. Rome’s history spans for over 2,500 years when the city was founded around 753 BC. History, but most likely mythology, claims that the city was founded by twins Romulus and Remus. The legend goes that the twins’ mother abandoned them in the Tiber River to only be saved by a she-wolf that allowed them to suckle on her teats. When the twins were older Romulus wanted to found a new city on Palatine Hill and Remus preferred Aventine Hill. They fought until Remus was killed. Romulus became the first king of Rome and thus the name… Rome. Rome’s long history is often intertwined with that of the Catholic Church. In fact, Vatican City, the world’s smallest internationally recognized independent state, is located within the city of Rome.
Today, Rome is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world. Rome is one of the birthplaces of modern civilization and is a hotbed of architecture and artistic wonders to be enjoyed by millions of tourists that flock to the city ever year. The city is home to the famous Colosseum, endless museums and art, fountain-splashed piazzas, and delicious pizza and gelato. But, the city is also home to large crowds, noisy and uncontrollable traffic, and groaning inefficiency. Nonetheless, the city if definitely worth the visit at least once in your lifetime.
The Highlights of Rome, Italy
You obviously can’t miss the Colosseum. Yes, it’s totally a tourist trap, but so much history has happened between those stone walls that you have to see it in person. The Colosseum was ordered to be built by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and was completed seven years later by his son, Titus. The Colosseum’s inauguration included the slaughtering of over 5,000 different animals and over 100 days of games and entertainment.
In its early days, the Colosseum held violent and decadent gladiatorial games where men, women, and even dwarfs would fight each other and sometimes animals for the crowd’s entertainment. The floor of the area was made of wood and covered by sand. Underneath the wooden floor was a maze of underground tunnels known as the hypogeum. At times the Colosseum would be flooded with water to host mock sea battles. The games were finally outlawed in AD 438 and fires and earthquakes began taking their toll on the area. During the Middle Ages large amounts of the stone were pillaged to build churches and palaces throughout the city. Preservation of the Colosseum began in 1744 and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (actually the entire historic district of Rome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Today you can walk through the Colosseum and imagine what it may have looked like thousands of years ago. Would you have liked to have seen a gladiator fight? The original floor is no longer visible, but you can still see the hypogeum and the stadium seating that could comfortably seat over 50,000 people. The Colosseum is open daily from 9 am to one hour before sunset. Tickets cost €12 for an adult and include the Roman Forum and Palatino. To avoid long lines you can purchase tickets at the Palatine entrance or at the Roman Forum. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.coopculture.it.
Palatine is the oldest and the original city of Rome. No one calls it home today as much of it is in ruins, but it’s definitely worth a walk around to see the ancient city. Most of the area is either covered by the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast 1st century palace complex or Orti Farnesiani (the Farnese Gardens). One of the best preserved building in Palatine is the Casa di Livia, which was home to Augustus and his wife. See above for ticket information.
Foro Romano (Roman Forum)
The Roman Forum is separate from Palatine, but is included in your ticket so once you’re done with Palatine walk over to the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum is the heart of the old Roman Empire and is crowded with ruins of temples, basilicas, and other important buildings spanning over 1,000 years. Important buildings to see are:
- Tempio di Antonino e Faustina – built by the Senate in AD 141 and later transformed into a church during the 8th century
- Tempio di Giulio Cesare – built by Augustus in 29 BC on the site where Caesar’s body was cremated
- Curia – the original seat of the Roman Senate
- Casa delle Vestali – an once-luxurious home belonging to the Vestal Virgins who were responsible for keeping the sacred flame burning next door in the Tempio di Vesta
The VaticanWhen in Rome you must go to the Vatican, right? The Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign state covering only 0.44 square kilometers. The Vatican is home to the papal powers of the Catholic Church. Vatican City is the result of the Lateran Treaty signed by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929 giving the Catholic Church its own land within the city of Rome. Even if you are not Catholic or even religious, the Vatican is a must see stop in Rome due to its complicated historic past, architecture, and art. Saint Peter’s Basilica cannot be missed as it is Italy’s biggest, richest and most beautiful church and is completely free to visit! You can climb to the top of the dome for €7. Saint Peter’s Square is the Vatican’s showpiece. From above, the layout of the square resembles a keyhole with two semicircular colonnades lined with columns encircling a giant ellipse. Each Wednesday the Pope addresses the crowds at 11am. The event is free, but you need tickets that can be obtained through the Vatican website.
Not to be missed in Vatican City is the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s famous frescoes. The Vatican Museums are expensive (€16 for an adult ticket), but they are the largest museums in the world containing some of the greatest art pieces in the world as well! The museums are housed in the Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano, which encompasses two palaces and three internal courtyards over 5.5 hectares. The two main highlights of the museum are the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms) and the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel). The Sistine Chapel is absolutely breathtaking, but I was surprised at how tiny the Creation of Adam fresco painting is on the ceiling. I imagined it taking up the whole ceiling. The Vatican Museum is open almost everyday of the year.
PantheonThe Pantheon is one of the best preserved historic sites in Rome. It was built in AD 128 by Hadrian and later became a Christian church in AD 609. The dome of the Pantheon was the largest in the world until about the 15th century and is still today the largest reinforced concrete dome ever built. Inside the Pantheon are the tombs of Raphael, the great artist, and kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I. The Pantheon is open daily and is completely free!
Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain)
The Trevi Fountain is Rome’s most famous fountain and once you see it in person you will know why. It’s stunning. The fountain is located in the Palazzo Poli and was designed by Nicola Salvi in 1732. The fountain depicts Neptune in a shell-shaped chariot being led by the Tritons and two sea horses represent the moods of the sea. It is tradition to throw a coin into the fountain to ensure you return to Rome someday. I’m sure there is a lot of money in that fountain! If you hang around the Palazzo long enough you’ll probably see a few people with long poles and magnets at the end picking coins out of the water. I don’t think this is legal, but it is certainly fun to watch.
Spanish StepsWhile I was in Rome the new Rocky movie had just come out in theaters. A few of my fellow students were lucky enough to see Sylvester Stallone walk up the Spanish Steps. I missed him by about 20 minutes! The Spanish Steps rise above Piazza di Spagna and have been a tourist trap since the 18th century. You would think that the Spanish Steps were built by the Spanish, but it was French money in 1725 that built the famous staircase. The Spanish Steps is the city’s most famous meeting place.
Rome is a huge city and has numerous highlights. You could spend months in the city and not explore every museum, art gallery, and gelato place. Rome may be a noisy and touristy city, but it is full of amazing history, architecture, and art. Not to mention gelato. Make sure you check out San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain and Gelarmony for world-class gelato. Yum!