Rome Travel Guide


Capitoline Hill
The Capitoline Hill, now the seat of the city's municipal authorities, was the centre of government of ancient Rome, and is the geographical centre of the modern city. It is especially beautiful at night, when it is usually deserted.

The piazza were designed by Michelangelo in 1538. It is bordered by three buildings (also by Michelangelo): the Palazzo Nuovo and the Palazzo dei Conservatori, which together house the Capitoline Museums, and the Palazzo Senatorio at the rear.

The bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the centre of the piazza is a copy made from a mould created through computer-generated photographs. The original, which dates from the 2nd century AD, was badly damaged by pollution and pigeon dung and was removed in 1981. It has been restored and is now housed behind glass inside the Palazzo Nuovo.

For the greatest visual impact, approach the Capitoline Hill from Piazza d'Aracoeli and ascend the cordonata, a stepped ramp also designed by Michelangelo. It is guarded at the bottom by two ancient Egyptian granite lions and at the top by two mammoth statues of Castor and Pollux, which were excavated from the nearby ghetto area in the 16th century.

Castel Sant' Angelo
Reached by one of the world's most beautiful bridges - Bernini's billowing, angel-clad Pont Sant' Angelo - this strange, circular tank of a building was originally constructed as the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian.

It was converted into a papal fortress in the 6th century, and is linked by underground passages to the Vatican palaces. Several popes have felt the need to take advantage of the secret routes in times of threat.

The mausoleum is now an interesting museum, and its evocative atmosphere is heightened by the knowledge that it was from here that Puccini's Tosca plunged to her death.

Built over 900 years, the Roman Forum (Foro Romano) was the commercial, political and religious centre of ancient Rome from the Republican era until the 4th century AD.

The importance of the Forum declined along with the Roman Empire. During medieval times the area was used to graze cattle and extensively plundered for its precious marbles. During the Renaissance, with the renewed appreciation of all things classical, the Forum provided inspiration for artists and architects.

The area was systematically excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries, and you can see archaeological teams at work in ongoing digs.

The Forum is entered from the piazza leading from the Colosseum. You immediately enter another world: the past. Columns rise from grassy hillocks, and repositioned pediments and columns aid the work of the imagination.

Holy See
Not many religions actually own a country, but Catholicism isn't just any religion. Holy See (Vatican City) is probably per square foot the richest independent state in the world, making up for its total lack of natural resources with an astonishing collection of priceless art treasures.

No-one passed on that stuff about the camel and the needle's eye to the Vatican: it's probably the most hysterically, hyperbolically lavish display of wealth you'll ever see. For art lovers it's the mecca of meccas, with iconic treasures ranging from the Sistine Chapel to Bernini's imposing piazza.

Museo e Galleria Borghese
This 'queen of all private collections' was formed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the most passionate and knowledgeable connoisseur of his day. The collection and the mansion were acquired by the Italian state in 1902; a lengthy restoration took place in the 1990s.

The ground floor contains some important classical statuary and intricate Roman floor mosaics. But Bernini's spectacular carvings - flamboyant depictions of pagan myths - are the stars. His precocious talent is evident in works such as Pluto and Proserpine, where Pluto's hand presses into Proserpine's solid marble thigh, and in the swirling Apollo and Daphne, which depicts the exact moment at which the nymph is transformed into a laurel tree, her fingers becoming leaves, her toes turning into tree roots, while Apollo watches helplessly.

There are six Caravaggios, including the wonderfully naturalistic Madonna dei Palafrenieri (Madonna with the Serpent), whose uninhibited realism led to its rejection by its ecclesiastical commissioners, allowing Scipione to snap it up.

The paintings on the first floor are testimony to Scipione's connoisseur's eye, and include masterworks by Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Veronese, Botticelli, Guercino, Domenichino and Rubens, among others. It's advisable to book.

Marcus Agrippa's Pantheon is one of the world's most sublime architectural creations: a perfectly proportioned floating dome resting on an elegant drum of columns and pediments. It was built in 27 BC, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD.

The temple has been consistently plundered and damaged over the years; it lost its beautiful gilded bronze roof tiles in Pope Gregory III's time. Its extraordinary dome is the largest masonry vault ever built.

After being abandoned under the first Christian emperors, the Pantheon was converted into a church in 609 and dedicated to the Madonna and all the martyrs.

The Italian kings Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I and the artist Raphael are buried here.

Via Appia Antica
Known to ancient Romans as the 'regina viarum' (queen of roads), the Via Appia Antica extends from the Porta di San Sebastiano to Brindisi on the coast of Puglia. It was started around 312BC by the censor Appius Claudius Caecus, but didn't connect with Brindisi until around 190BC.

The first section of the road, which extended 90km (56mi) to Terracina, was considered revolutionary in its day because it was almost perfectly straight - perhaps the world's first autostrada. Every Sunday, a long section of the Via Appia Antica becomes a no-car zone. You can walk or ride a bike from the Porta di San Sebastiano for several kilometres.

Monuments along the road near Rome include the catacombs and Roman tombs. The Chiesa Di Domine Quo Vadis is built at the point where St Peter had a vision of Christ as he was escaping the Neronian persecution. Noticing he was going towards the city, Peter asked 'Domine, quo vadis?' - ('Lord, where are you going?') When Jesus replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified again, Peter took the hint and returned to the city, where he was arrested and martyred.

Off the Beaten Track

The Giancolo hill is a good place to take the kids if they need a break. Rising up behind Trastevere and stretching to St Peter's, it also affords a fabulous panoramic view of Rome.

For children, thrills abound. At the top of the hill, just off Piazza Garibaldi, there is a permanent merry-go-round and pony rides. A puppet show is regularly performed, and a cannon is fired daily at noon.

Ostia Antica

From the 4th century BC until the invasions of the 5th century AD, Ostia was a bustling port city of merchants, sailors and slaves. Situated at the mouth of the Tiber River, the ruins today provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the empire's plebs, contrasting with the more up-market ruins at Pompei. Ruins to look out for include the city's entrance, known as the Porta Romana, the Terme di Nettuno baths, the theatre, the mosaic-filled Piazzale delle Corporazioni (merchants' offices), the opulent residence known as Domus Fortuna Annonaria and the well-preserved Casa di Diana, as well as the usual assorted temples, forums and warehouses. Ostia Antica has a good museum, housing statues, mosaics and wall paintings found at the site.

Several important Etruscan archaeological sites, overbrimming with tombs, lie within easy reach of Rome. To help arrest the deterioration of these fragile remains, most sites are viewed from behind glass. One of the most important cities of the Etruscan League of city-states was Tarquinia, believed to have been founded in the 12th century BC. It was home to the Tarquin kings, who ruled Rome before the Republic. The necropolis here contains tombs richly decorated with frescoes, and the medieval town features several churches and the National Museum, full of Etruscan treasures, including a beautiful terracotta frieze of winged horses taken from the Etruscan site. Cerveteri was founded in the 8th century BC, and is famous today for the tombs known as tumoli, great mounds of earth with carved stone bases. Veio was once the largest city in southern Etruria, but today the only remains from this period are portions of a swimming pool and the lower section of a temple.

This hilltop resort town has been a popular summer playground for the rich and famous since ancient times. Ancient pleasures are evoked by Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian's summer hideaway. Although the site was successively plundered over the millennia for its building materials, enough remains to convey its former size, architectural sophistication and general magnificence. Highlights include an island villa (where Hadrian spent his pensive moments), the Imperial palace with its piazza of gold, and the remains of the baths complex.

Renaissance glories are still intact at the Villa d'Este, most famous for its fabulous landscaped gardens and mischievous fountains. The villa was built for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, grandson of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. Its prime attractions lie in the views of the gardens and fountains gained from its windows. In the gardens, water cascades into the air, pours down terraces, glides in horizontal pools and shoots unexpectedly from the mouths and nipples of statues.

Although its traditionally proletarian nature is changing as the crumbling palazzi become gentrified, a stroll among the labyrinthine alleys of Trastevere still reaps small gems of a bygone past. Washing strung out from the apartments in best Mama-leone tradition has everyone sighing and reaching for the Kodaks.

The lovely Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the area's heart. It's a true Roman square - by day peopled by mothers with strollers, chatting locals and guidebook-toting tourists, by night with artisans selling their craft work, young Romans looking for a good time, and the odd homeless person looking for a bed. The streets east of the piazza is where you'll find the most photographed washing in the world.

Other Italy Attractions

Amalfi Coast
Stretching for 50km (31mi) along a promontory from Sorrento to Salerno is some of Europe's most beautiful coastline. The road hugs the zigzagging bends and curves of the cliffy coast, overlooking intensely blue waters and passing picture-postcard villages that cling to the cliff walls like matchbox houses.

Walled Assisi is miraculous: it has somehow managed to retain some tranquil refuges amid the tourist hubbub. Perched halfway up Mt Subasio, looking over Perugia, the visual impact of its shimmering white marble buildings is magnificent. The town's many churches include Santa Maria Maggiore, San Pietro and St Clare.

The city is dominated by the massive 14th-century Rocca Maggiore - a hill fortress that offers fabulous views over the valley and back to Perugia. St Francis was born here in 1182, and work began on his basilica two years after his death in 1228. It's a magnificent tribute to the patron saint of animals, with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Martini. Relics from Imperial days include the excavated forum and the pillared facade of the Temple of Minerva; Roman foundations are a common feature of many buildings.

The cultural and historical impact of Florence (or Firenze if you're looking to impress) is overwhelming. Close up, however, the city is one of Italy's most atmospheric and pleasant, retaining a strong resemblance to the small late-medieval centre that contributed so much to the cultural and political development of Europe.

For eye-watering attractions you won't need to venture far from Florence's medieval core, a Renaissance wonderland containing the graceful span of Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo's skyscraping dome, the gilded splendour of Basilica di San Lorenzo and the well-hung Uffizi gallery.

The hard-working Milanese run their busy metropolis with efficiency and aplomb. Milano is the country's economic engine room, home to Italy's stock market and business centres. This stylish city is also the world's design capital and rivals Paris as a leading fashion centre.

Milan is a sprawling metropolis, but most of its attractions are concentrated in its centre. Its hub is the Duomo, a fantastic Gothic confection topped by the Maddonina (our little Madonna), Milan's protectress. Not far away is La Scala, one of the world's great opera houses.

Naples (or Napoli if you want to blend in like a local) is raucous, polluted, anarchic, deafening, crumbling and grubby. It's also a lot of fun. Superbly positioned on a bay, Naples has a little - and often a lot - of everything. It pulsates with noisy street markets and swarms of people buzzing around on Vespas with no regard for traffic rules.

Naples' historic centre features a church-encrusted piazza and some seriously elaborate architecture. In addition to the usual Italian quota of castles, museums and palazzi, Naples has the priceless treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum at its doorstep.

Siena had been a bustling economic centre based on its textiles, saffron and wine in the 12th century. At this time many buildings were created in Sienese Gothic style, giving this town its distinctive style. Visitors enjoy the cafe-lined square Il Campo and the imposing St Dominic's Church.

Venezia, La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, captivating city of canals and palaces...or tawdry sewer alive with crowds and charlatans? Venice's nature is dual: water and land, long history and doubtful future, airy delicacy and dim melancholy. When this precious place sinks, the world will be the poorer.

Take time to meander - losing yourself in the maze of canals and lanes is one of Venice's principal pleasures. The cluster of sights around the Piazza San Marco are heart-clutchingly beautiful, but the more secret pleasures of the hushed backstreets are just as entrancing.

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