Rome is the capital of its region, Lazio, and also the capital city of Italy. It is sometimes known as the capital of two states, given that it is also home to the city-state of the Vatican. According to Roman mythology, the founders of the city were the twins Romulus and Remus in 753BC. After a fight, Romulus killed Remus, and thus gave his name to the city. Despite this legend, archeology has since found that populations inhabited this area of land for years before the 8th Century BC. As such, Rome is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in Europe. Its natives are of a mix of Etruscan, Latin and Sabine heritage.
Upon the birth of the Ancient Roman era, Rome has been the capital of the Roman Kingdom, then Republic and then Empire. It is sometimes goes by Caput Mundi (center of the world) for this reason, and also because historians often consider it to be the birthplace of Western culture and civilisation. Another of its nicknames, The Eternal City, was first coined by Tibullus in the 1st Century BC, and was later adopted by other great writers such as Ovid, Virgil and Livy.
The fall of the Roman Empire triggered the start of the Middle Ages. At this point, the papacy took political control of the city. This also marks the start of a rigorous long-term project to make Rome the cultural and artistic center of the world. This programme was widely successful, and the city is still famous as one of the centers for Italian Renaissance, and the birthplace of Neoclassical and Baroque movements.
That said, it did not remain the capital of Italy, especially given that ‘Italy’ as we know it today did not exist. In fact, it only became instated as the capital in 1871, after Italy’s unification as the Kingdom of Italy, and then as the Italian Republic in 1946. Today, this is Italy’s most popular tourist destination and one of Europe’s top 5 visited cities. Our Rome city guide can help you get the best out of your visit, giving you a run down of the best things to see, do, eat and how to get around as easily as possible.
What to see
It is almost difficult to know where to start with Rome’s incredible selection of attractions. Here you will not just find monuments, but ruins, churches, palazzi, parks and views, too. The historical center holds the majority of the biggest and most famous sights. However, even beyond the traditional tourist confines you will find countless treasures just awaiting your discovery. Depending on where you stay, you will be closer to some monuments than others. That said, wherever you are you will find plenty of facilities, restaurants, banks and shops – even in the very center of its historical quarters.
Of course, one of the highlights of the Eternal City is its variety of Ancient remains. The most famous of these is the majestic Colosseum, the biggest Ancient Roman amphitheater in the world. It was built in the 1st Century AD. People would come to this theater to see gladiatorial fights and other performances. These could range from battle re-enactions to animal hunts, executions and, of course, theatrical productions. Since the Roman times, the Colosseum has had many uses, from theater to fortress, quarry to Christian shrine. Today an incredible amount of the theater is still standing, which you can view inside and out. It is well worth renting an audioguide or even taking a guided tour of the building, given it has such a varied and eventful history!
Another important collection are the remains of the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. This is an unbelievable space that still holds the foundations, wall and interior remains of what was the Ancient center of Roman life. This is where temples, markets, baths and other facilities would have been based. It is also where festivals, trials, and all commercial affairs took place.
One of the best-preserved remains of Ancient Rome, and one that is still in active use today, is the majestic Pantheon. It was originally a temple to all of the Roman gods. This itself stands on the spot of a previous temple. The Emperor Marcus Agrippa built the first in the early 1st Century AD. It was the Emperor Hadrian that then built the second in the early 2nd Century. The architecture itself was unique at the time of its building, with its round body and circular sky light opening. That said, its design has since been copied many times in neoclassical architecture.
Moving into more recent history, monuments such as the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and the Altare della Patria spring to mind. The first of these lies in the Piazza di Spagna, where you will find the Fontana della Barcaccia, designed by the Pope’s architect in the early 17th Century. The steps were a late addition, and originally had the simple purpose of connecting the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti, though many more political ploys and strategies were involved than this might suggest.
The Trevi Fountain was a slightly more straightforward construction. Designed by Nicola Salvi it was constructed in the mid-18th Century. The fountain acts as a commemoration of the Acqua Vergine that supplied water to Ancient Rome for more than 400 years. Today it is best-known for its inclusion in Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. This turned the fountain into a symbol of Roman socialite glamor.
Finally, the Altare della Patria lies just ahead of the Piazza Venezia. This enormous white monument to unified Italy’s first king, Vittorio Emanuele II. Its construction reached a conclusion in 1925, and it now also holds the tomb to the unknown soldier. You can see this building from almost any vantage point in Rome, given it is one of the city’s tallest buildings. You can now take an elevator up to a 360° panoramic terrace at the top of the building!
One of the most unique and special things about Rome is that wherever you find yourself, you will find beauty. This means that even just by walking around the historical center, you will see a countless number of ‘sights’. A great place to start this search is one of the city’s many stunning piazze. The most famous include the Piazza del Popolo, the Piazza Venezia and the Piazza Navona. Each of these has its own charm and character. More importantly, each is close to some of the city’s most important sights. What is more, many are near some beautiful churches, that hold works by masters such as Caravaggio. These are usually a great place to find a nice restaurant or bar. For locals and tourists alike, these spaces act as meeting places and points of reference.
What to do
One of the most important things you can do in Rome is take a visit to the Vatican City and its basilica and museums. This is definitely a must-see: not only is it a country in itself, but its basilica is the largest church in the world. Moreover, its museums hold some of the most interesting artefacts, artworks and other exhibitions. Of course, this is also home to the magnificent Sistine Chapel, which is carefully managed and preserved in order to retain its original colors and magical atmosphere. The Basilica di San Pietro is also unforgettable. This impressive building has many chapels with beautiful artworks and sculptures by some of the Renaissance masters. The church also has a vast crypt which holds many tombs and memorials to various saints and popes. Many of these have been seminal in Italy’s, if not the world’s, history.
Whilst in the area, you can also take a trip down to the Castel Sant’Angelo, which presides over the River Tiber. This fortified structure has been many things throughout its lifespan. Originally, Hadrian built a mausoleum for his family in the 2nd Century AD. Since then it has been a papal residence, refuge and now a museum. From here you will get one of the best views of Rome from its terrace. In addition to this, its self-guided tours offer a wealth of highly interesting and digestible information about the castle’s colorful past.
For a more art-focused activity, Rome has a large variety of art galleries. Many of these are dedicated to older works of art. For those looking for something different, however, the city also has several modern and contemporary art galleries. Some of these are boutique spaces with every changing collections and exhibitions. Others are more established, national galleries, such as the MaXXI and the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Both of these offer a respite from the saturation of ancient and historic art found in Rome’s churches and more famous galleries.
If sightseeing and exploring gets too much, Rome also offers its visitors several parks and gardens in which to relax under the shade of their trees. For example, in the Villa Borghese Park you can hire bikes and boats to explore the park and its lake, whilst also stopping to enjoy the gorgeous view it offers over the Piazza del Popolo from its Pincio terrace. Alternatively, you can head to the paradisal Giardino degli Aranci. This tiny gated park area has a stunning view over the Tiber and historical center from its southern end. Moreover, it is the perfect place to relax with a book as it provides plenty of orange trees.
Rome is also a brilliant place for shopping. The most famous road for this is the Via del Corso. This road and the surrounding area is home to a large selection of designer stores. These offer the very best of Italian and international fashion. Even the high-street stores along these roads seem to offer their very best products, with glamorous displays that blend in seamlessly with their high-class neighbors.
What to eat
Roman cuisine is, for the most part, based on what the world knows and loves as Italian. Here you will find crispy-thin pizzas, rich and creamy pastas and sumptuous, good-quality meats and fish. However, the city also has many of its own specialities. For example, the ultimate Roman pasta dish is cacio e pepe, a simple yet effective bowl of pasta, tossed in aromatic cacio cheese and seasoned with pepper. For an appetizer or snack, you can pick up some supplì. Very similar to the Sicilian arancini, though usually smaller, these deep-fried rice balls are filled with anything from ragù sauce to mozzarella cheese.
An area particularly known for its cuisine is the Jewish Quarter, or Ghetto. This is a very elegant part of the historical center, despite having such a bleak and tragic past. Nevertheless, today you can find some of the most authentic tastes in Rome in this area. The speciality of this fusion of Jewish and Roman cuisine is the artichoke. Each restaurant will prepare this differently, and each will claim to have found the best seasoning and serving style. There’s only one way to decide – you just have to try each one!
Another tradition that you cannot miss out on is the apertivo. This is a famous and much-loved tradition throughout Italy. What is more, Rome definitely follows suit in its respect for the social ritual. One might compare this to Happy Hour, though it is so much more than just a reduced drink. The most popular version of apertivo consists of a 8-15(e) drink which is accompanied by an unlimited food buffet. Moreover, here you will find much more than processed finger food. Instead, you will find bite-sized offerings of freshly made pastas, salads, rice, flans, quiches, bruschette and meats. Sometimes you will even find mini burgers and tramezzini (small, crustless, triangular sandwiches). A great area to find good quality aperitivi is the characteristic Trastevere district.
Finally, a trip to Italy would not be complete without a taste of the best ice cream in the world. Rome has a ridiculous amount of gelaterie offering wide selections of flavor directions. That said, many of these are no good; stay away from those that display huge mountains of brightly colored gelato. These lack fresh tastes and textures, as additives dilute flavor whilst pumping up the volume. Instead head to places such as Fatamorgana, Gracchi and La Romana for authentic, freshly made gelato. These places and more will offer ice cream made on-site, with seasonal and innovative flavors as well as the classics.
How to get around
Rome is best explored on foot, given that the streets and piazze in between the monuments are often just as beautiful and atmospheric. That said, should you desire to travel from the Colosseum to the Vatican City, the public transport can be very useful. The main two metro lines in Rome are A and B. The A line can take you to Termini, the central station, as well as the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and the Vatican City. Metro B accesses areas such as Circo Massimo, the Colosseum, Tiburtina bus station, the characteristic Monti district, and Termini also.
The metro system, however, is not as extensive as many other capital cities. Instead, there is a large variety of buses and trams the traverse the remaining areas of the historical center and further afield. Many of the buses run along the river; others will pass through the central Piazza Venezia bus station. Most bus stops will have a sign listing the stops of each bus number, making it easy to navigate and plan journeys. The tram system is also helpful; each tram stop also provides the stops of each tram that runs through that area.
Helpfully, all public transport can be accessed with the same ticket. For €1.50 you can travel for 100 minutes on metro tram or bus. Note, however, that you cannot exit and re-enter a metro station within this time. These tickets can either be bought in metro stations or at tabacchini throughout the city. Please note that you cannot buy the ticket on buses or trams!