There are many ways to describe Italy’s ‘eternal’ capital, but 20th-century writer Anatole Broyard captured it most eloquently when he declared that Rome is “a poem pressed into service as a city”. Put simply, Rome assaults the senses and expands the mind. Every nook of the ancient metropolis oozes history and culture; every cobbled street reveals something new.
Getting the most out of the city requires a delicate balancing act. Cram too much into a short stay and Rome will leave you feeling exhausted and short-changed. The trick is to plan ahead and make time for the most iconic sites alongside more restful hours spent soaking up the atmosphere in a scenic spot.
Most visitors flock to the historic heart of the city (Centro Storico), which can be chaotic and frustrating to navigate with its persistent snarl of Vespa engines, cocktail of car fumes and bustling crowds. Yet it is also one of the most rewarding areas, packed with treasures.
Easy to explore on foot, a stroll through the jumble of streets between the colourful market at Campo de’ Fiori and Villa Borghese effortlessly immerses the visitor in two millennia of art and architectural history. Highlights include the elegant Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the photogenic Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.
Once the site of Emperor Domitian’s first-century stadium, Piazza Navona now effervesces with fountains and street performers, but Bernini’s glorious Fountain of the Four Rivers takes centre stage, capturing the precision and lifelike movement of Baroque art.
Built by Emperor Hadrian in the early second century, the Pantheon is the best-preserved building of ancient Rome. This marvel of engineering rests on the foundations of an earlier temple completed in 27 BC and features the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Entering the Pantheon is a magical experience. Sunlight pours through a large hole, or oculus, at the centre of the dome, illuminating sculptures and frescoes that were added after the seventh century, when the temple became a Catholic church. Even on rainy days, the mesmerising effect of the oculus is not diminished, as visitors can watch the water drain away through small holes strategically placed in the Pantheon’s floor. The tomb of the celebrated Renaissance artist Raphael is also housed here.
North of the recently restored Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps throng with the crowds that congregate outside the house where the celebrated Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821) spent his final months. But at the top of the steps, the Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s tranquil public parks, has a slower pace. Here travellers can sit with a gelato (Italy’s famous ice cream) and enjoy the dolce vita. The spacious gardens are home to a pretty boating lake, zoo, and the Galleria Borghese, which contains the remarkable art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577–1633). Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, Rubens and Bernini are all represented, while older works and artefacts, including pieces by the enigmatic Etruscan civilisation, which flourished in Italy between the eighth and third century BC, can be seen just beyond the gardens at Villa Giulia.
One of Rome’s greatest lures is the constellation of Roman ruins adjacent to the Colosseum. Once the epicentre of the Roman empire, the dusty remains of the Forum, the Colosseum, and the imperial palace on Palatine Hill evoke the city’s ancient grandeur and conjure a sense of its commercial, cultural and political importance. It isn’t difficult to picture politicians wrangling in the Forum or imagine the noise generated by the 50,000 or more spectators at the Colosseum’s inaugural gladiatorial games in AD 80. Nor is it hard to while away the hours contemplating the beauty and colour of Palatine Hill, where, according to legend, Rome’s mythological founders Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf.
Heading west across the river Tiber, the leafy streets of Trastevere offer a respite from the bustle of these popular sites. Life here is unhurried and time can be spent exploring the cool interior of the Basilica of Santa Maria, one of Rome’s oldest churches, or people-watching from cafes and restaurants.
Following the river as it winds back up to Castel Sant’Angelo reveals another area of contrast. Built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, and later used as a fortress, a prison and hiding place for the pope, the castle is never overwhelmed by the hordes eager to explore St Peter’s basilica and the museums at nearby Vatican City. Those who brave the many steps to the roof are rewarded with stunning vistas of the city and breathtaking sunsets. Watched over by a bronze Archangel Michael, this is the perfect spot for pondering the beauty and poetry that is Rome.
Professor Sarah Peverley is a medievalist who was a 2013 BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers
This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine