The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.
In Ancient Rome, the Forum was the centre of the Roman Empire. Until the 4th century AD, a thousand years of decisions affecting the future of Europe were made here. When Roman soldiers were out conquering the world in the name of the Emperors, temples, courts, markets, and government buildings were thriving in the Forum.
Located between two of Rome's famous hills, the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it is now a collection of ruins having spent centuries as a quarry for marble and a cow paddock. The Forum became a very dense collection of buildings in its time but mostly all that remains today is columns, arches, and some scattered marbles so it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Ongoing archaeological work continues, and getting a map or a guide can really bring the bustle of the ancient site to life. You can get a great view over the Forum from the overlooking hills in the Farnese Gardens and from Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio.
The Pantheon in Rome is a remarkable building architecturally. Basically a cylinder with the floating dome on top of columns, it is the largest masonry vault ever built. In the center of this dome is a hole bringing in a shaft of light to show the beauty of this building and its relatively simple, open interior. Being inside the Pantheon feels very special.
Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, the temple has been damaged and plundered over time. In 609 AD it became a Christian church dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century some of its bronze ceiling was taken and melted down for use in St Peter's Basilica. Important figures such as King Victor Emmanuel II and the artist Raphael are buried in the Pantheon.
The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.
Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.
The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.
The Piazza Venezia defies many assumptions one might make from the name. It’s an open space, so it can be called a piazza, but it’s really a gigantic intersection and not a public square. And it’s in central Rome, not Venice. The name comes from the nearby Palazzo Venezia, in which ambassadors from the Venetian republic once lived.
The enormous Vittorio Emmanuele Monument faces one side of Piazza Venezia, and the interchange is also at the base of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. In short, although this piazza isn’t one in which you’re likely to spend lots of leisure time, you’ll certainly pass through it on your way to and from other major attractions in central Rome.
Those of you taking the bus around Rome will find Piazza Venezia to be a major transportation hub, which is useful for getting around the city. And if you’re ambitious enough to be driving in Rome, you’ll probably pass through the intersection a number of times.
Piazza di Spagna is one of Rome's best-known meeting places, thanks to a stunning statue, the iconic Fontana della Barcaccia and an attractive square that lies at the foot of the famed Spanish Steps. The landmark's central location grants travelers easy access to top attractions like nearby Trinita dei Monti, Keats-Shelley Memorial House and the Column of the Immaculate Conception.
Piazza di Spagna is also a prime destination for people-watching, thanks to the large number of visitors and locals who gather in the public garden and scenic space to celebrate sunshine when there's warmer weather.
In Ancient Rome, a “circus” was an oblong arena where events like chariot races, games, and other performances were held. As you might guess, the Circus Maximus was - in a word - huge. It was the Roman Empire’s largest stadium, measuring more than 2,000 feet long by 387 feet wide and capable of holding an audience of 150,000.
First built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Circus Maximus was expanded over the next several centuries (and rebuilt occasionally after fire and flood damaged), until it was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. In addition to chariot and horse races, the Circus Maximus also held religious ceremonies, and parades. The last recorded uses of the Circus Maximus are in the 6th century AD, and today there’s very little left of the structures. The site is now a public park, and you can see the overall oblong shape where the Circus used to be, as well as some of the starting gates.
Standing proud behind the Colosseum and steps away from the beginning of the Via Sacra, the imposing triumphal Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roma Senate in 315 AD in honor of Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that took place three years earlier. At 69 feet (21 meters) tall, the ornate monument was carved from a single enormous block of gray and white marble. In typical Classical style, the great central gateway is mirrored by two smaller side arches and supported by eight Corinthian columns. The arch is decorated with reliefs plundered from other long-forgotten memorials that describe feats of bravery by earlier Roman emperors, as well as inscriptions praising the achievements of Constantine.
The Castel Sant'Angelo is actually a tomb, Hadrian's Mausoleum. The Roman Emperor built it for himself and his family; their ashes were placed there in 138 AD. Other emperors are also buried there, but the tomb became a fortress in 401 AD; in 410 it was raided and the ashes were scattered. It is likely that Hadrian himself ended up in St. Peter's where a lot of the finest ornamentation of the mausoleum and other Roman buildings were taken.
It was named Castel Sant'Angelo after 590 AD when the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared on top of the building, signifying the end of the plague. From the 14th century, the popes turned the place into a residential castle, connecting it with St. Peter's by a fortified corridor. Since 1925, it has been a museum. The complex maze of rooms and corridors now house beautiful furnishings, paintings, sculptures, archaeological finds and historic weapons.
The Capuchin Crypt was once thought of as one of Rome's more offbeat attractions, but it has become increasingly popular and is now on many a must-see list. Underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, there is a series of six small chapels that serve as the burial chambers for Capuchin friars. These are no ordinary graves, however. There were more friars to be buried in the crypt's sacred soil – brought directly from Jerusalem – than there was space, so older graves were dug up and the bones of the dead monks were used to decorate the chapel walls. Today, visitors can still see the incredibly intricate designs adorning the walls and curved ceilings of the chapels. A sign in the last chapel reminds us that we are just as the occupants of these chapels once were – and we will eventually be just like them, too. It's a slightly macabre stop, not necessarily recommended for children or the squeamish, but it's also not meant to be like a haunted house.
The Trastevere neighborhood of Rome is one of the city’s oldest districts; walking through its cobbled streets during the day you’re apt to forget the busy Roman streets and crowds outside the Colosseum. In the Trastevere, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into an Italian village. Because, in a way, you have.
The name “Trastevere” means “across the Tiber” (which is “Tevere” in Italian), which should tell you it lies on the opposite side of the river from monuments like the Roman Forum and Colosseum - it’s actually on the same side of the river as Vatican City. There are many inexpensive places to eat in the Trastevere, but the area is essentially hotel-free. To stay here, you’ll need to book an apartment rental or guesthouse, as that’s basically all that’s available for lodging.
By day, the Trastevere is almost unfailingly charming, and the small Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is straight out of an Italian countryside hill town.
The Piazza Farnese in the historic center of Rome is named for the huge Palazzo Farnese on one side of it, and is one of the nicest public spaces in this busy city. The Palazzo Farnese was begun in the early 16th century by a cardinal in the Farnese family who would eventually become Pope Paul III in 1534. No expense was spared – in fact, when he became the pope, the size of his still-under-construction palace actually grew. It remains the city's largest Renaissance palace, today serving as the French Embassy, and the dominant building on the eponymous piazza.
Other attractions on the Piazza Farnese include the Chiesa di Santa Brigida, a former house of the Swedish saint that was converted into a church upon her death in the 1370s, and two fountains that look like bathtubs – because they are. Each has as its base a bathtub from the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.
Atop the Quirinal Hill is the Piazza Barberini, one of Rome’s public squares that also serves as a bit of a traffic intersection. The piazza itself is pedestrian-only, making it at least possible to enjoy yet another of Rome’s public spaces, although the cars zipping around it make it slightly less than peaceful.
In the middle of the piazza is the Triton Fountain, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1640s. The piazza itself takes its name from the Palazzo Barberini, former home to a noble Roman family, one of whom eventually became Pope Urban VIII. That palace is now home to the Museum of Ancient Art.
Another fountain by Bernini - the Fountain of Bees - once occupied a corner of the Piazza Barberini, but it was moved to another spot on the nearby Via Vittorio Veneto. One of Rome’s two Metro lines (Line A) has a stop at the Piazza Barberini.
The Capitoline Hill is one of Rome’s famous seven hills, and in Italian it’s called the Campidoglio. The Piazza del Campidoglio is the trapezoidal space atop the hill, with buildings on three sides and a grand staircase on the fourth. The piazza and surrounding buildings were designed by Michelangelo in the mid-1500s.
Michelangelo employed several visual tricks to give the space a balanced feel, despite its lack of literal symmetry. He designed facades for the existing buildings, made the staircase more of a gradual ramp, and crafted a pattern to be inlaid in the piazza that deceives the eye into thinking it’s a perfect oval (it’s actually egg-shaped). The buildings once served as government buildings, but they now house the Capitoline Museums. At the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio is a replica of an Ancient Roman bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The original bronze is nearby in the Capitoline Museums.
Visitors to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano can see not only the present-day church, but also an older church and even older excavations underneath. Evidence suggests that the oldest building on this site likely dates from at least the 1st century B.C.E. It was the home of a wealthy Roman that was probably destroyed during a fire in 64 C.E., but even that structure is thought to have been built on the foundation of an even older building.
Other lower levels of the church have been excavated to reveal a room used in the 2nd century for worship of the cult of Mithras, as well as a 4th century basilica. The church you see at street level today was begun in the late 11th century and features an ornately decorated interior. A visit to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano is a fascinating step back in time.
Upon exiting the Vatican Museums, visitors have the opportunity to wind their way down the impressive 1930s double-helix staircase designed by Guiseppe Momo, but don’t mistake these steps for the iconic Bramante Staircase of 1512, designed by the innovative Donato Bramante, who lays claim to an immense amount of the Vatican's architecture. This set spins down and out of the Pio-Clementine Museum. This staircase is only visited by tourists on specialized tours through the Vatican and served as the inspiration for the more visible Vatican Museums steps.
The Bramante Staircase was designed in the architectural style known as the double-helix, which essentially means there are two layers to the stairs, allowing people to go upwards without meeting those walking down the stairs, and vice-versa.
The area of Rome known as the “centro storico,” or “historic center,” is sometimes referred to as whatever lies inside the ancient Aurelian Walls, but the border the walls created aren't exactly the same as what many people refer to as the Centro Storico today.
UNESCO designated the “Historic Center of Rome” a World Heritage Site in 1980, declaring the area inside the Aurelian Walls plus Vatican City (which was outside the walls) to be the city's Centro Storico. To most visitors, however, the Centro Storico is much smaller, and where many of the main attractions are located. In the Centro Storico, you can visit sights such as the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and the Capitoline Hill. The Forum and Colosseum are just outside the smallest interpretation of the Centro Storico, as are Vatican City and the Trastevere neighborhood.