The Top Ten Sights in Rome
The Eternal City is absolutely loaded with extraordinary sights to see. After all, it has been the capital of the greatest empire of the ancient world, the center of Catholic Christianity, and a major city of the Renaissance. Some of the sites you've heard of are overrated (I'm looking at you, Trevi Fountain. Rather, I would be if I could see it through the hordes of tourists). Some are not. If you go to Rome but don't see the Colosseum, then did you really even go to Rome? Others you may not have heard of at all, but are very worth seeing, such as Largo Argentina.
Here I've listed the top ten sights you must see if you visit Rome. Some well-known locations are conspicuously absent; that means they're not all they're cracked up to be (still trying to look at you, Trevi Fountain). That doesn't mean you shouldn't see them at all, just that these ten sites are better worth your time.
10. The Aventine Hill
The Aventine Hill is the southernmost of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. According to Rome's founding myth, Remus wanted to build the city on the Aventine Hill, while Romulus wanted it to be on the Palatine Hill. To settle their dispute, they each set up a tent on their respective hills and asked the gods to send them auspicious birds to show their favor. Whoever saw the most birds would have the honor of founding, naming, and ruling the new city (I'll let you guess who won).
Unlike the Palatine Hill, the Aventine is not really a tourist attraction. It's a bit off the beaten path and consists mostly of residential neighborhoods. But, if you're willing to take about a 20-minute walk from the Colosseum, you'll be treated to some of the best views in the city.
As you climb the hill along Via di Valle Murcia, you'll pass some churches on the right with open gardens. The gardens themselves are peaceful and beautiful--filled with orange trees instead of tourists--but the real treat is the view. These gardens at the top of the Aventine Hill look eastward over the Tiber, offering breathtaking views of Rome and the Vatican. At Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, look through the keyhole of the Priory gate for a secret view of St. Peter's Basilica.
9. The Palatine Hill
Romulus's chosen hill, as you may have guessed, was the legendary site of the founding of Rome. It is the most centrally located of the seven hills and was the chosen home of the emperors, beginning with Augustus.
Access to the Palatine Hill is included with the Forum and the Colosseum. It's not quite as impressive as those, but there are still some ruins of historically significant buildings, and the views of the Forum and the city from the top of the hill are excellent.
Trastevere is not so much a single sight; it's an entire neighborhood. It consists of the area south of the Vatican and on the west bank of the Tiber (the name "Trastevere" comes from the Latin for "beyond the Tiber"). You can easily walk there from any of the main tourist areas of the city.
Trastevere is special because unlike most of the nearby areas, it still feels like a real Roman neighborhood, not a tourist trap. You'll definitely still see tourists, but you'll see a lot more Romans who live here, going about their daily lives. Instead of souvenir shops and hotels, you'll see traditional homes and grocers, in the same traditional buildings as the rest of the old city. The restaurants here also serve much more authentic food than most in central Rome do.
Another great city view can be found in Trastevere atop Janiculum Hill. The way is a little bit long and steep, but it's a pretty walk and a prettier view.
If you're the kind of traveler who likes to see and experience the "real life" of a city and not just the tourist attractions, spend some time exploring Trastevere. It's a beautiful neighborhood with all kinds of interesting things to see. At the very least, avoid the tourist traps and come here for dinner.
7. Largo Argentina
More people probably stumble across Largo di Torre Argentina by accident than intentionally seek it out. Fortunately, it's easy to do both, as it's located just off the main road between ancient Rome and the Campo de' Fiori area.
The square is the site of the ruins of several ancient buildings, including the Theater of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. There are also the remains of several temples. None of the ruins are accessible to the public, but the surrounding square offers good viewing.
The ruins are a worthwhile attraction in their own right, but what really make Largo Argentina one of the most interesting sights in Rome are the cats that live there. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary shelters over a hundred stray cats, which wander through the site. Children and animal lovers will get a kick out of watching the cats appear from and disappear into hollows and play and sunbathe in the ruins.
6. The Pantheon
The Pantheon is really quite an amazing building. Built in the reign of Hadrian in the second century A.D., it is the only completely intact ancient Roman building. The reason for its remarkably good condition is that it has been, in some capacity, in continuous use for its nearly 2,000 year existence. Today, it is a functioning Catholic church (The Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs).
Even compared to the many other architectural achievements of the Roman Empire, the Pantheon is an impressive structure. The diameter and the height of the rotunda are perfectly equal at exactly 142 feet. In the center of the dome is a circular hole, or oculus, providing the only source of natural light. To this day, the dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
Inside, you can find the tombs of Rafael and two Italian kings, as well as the typically ornate interior of medieval Catholic churches. It's also totally free to enter, so there's no reason not to check it out.
5. Piazza Navona
Of the many piazzas in Rome, the long and narrow Piazza Navona is the most famous and the most beautiful. In the center is the magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers, flanked by two other fountains that aren't too shabby themselves. As if that wasn't enough, the square is overlooked by the Sant'Agnese in Agone, a gorgeous baroque church. In the midst of it all you'll find painters, caricaturists, souvenir sellers, all manner of street performers, and of course, lots and lots of tourists.
4. The Colosseum
The Colosseum is probably the first thing that comes most people's minds when they think of Rome, and for good reason. Its sheer magnitude inspires awe no matter how many times you've seen it.
Even though the interior has deteriorated significantly since the fall of the empire, it is intact enough to transport you straight back to height of the Roman Empire with a little imagination. The slow-moving line to get through security to enter only adds to the feeling of being a first-century Roman citizen filing in to cheer for brutal gladiatorial combat and public executions by wild animal.
On one side of the interior is a small museum exhibit, but just traversing the concourse, viewing the place where the stadium floor used to be and imagining what it was like in the old days, is where the real fun is. Try to come early in the morning when it first opens. It will still be crowded, but the crowds only increase as the day goes on, and being the most famous tourist attraction in Rome, it gets packed quickly.
3. St. Peter's Basilica and St. Peter's Square
It isn't technically in Rome, or even in Italy, but obviously Vatican City is an obligatory part of any tour of Rome, and St. Peter's Basilica is the focal point of this tiny state. It's the largest church in the world in the smallest country in the world.
The grandeur of the basilica is striking from the outside--the dome can be seen easily from many spots in Rome--but the interior is truly amazing. The incredible size of the building is even more astounding from the inside looking up at the ceiling. The number of statues and other pieces of religious artwork inside rivals that of some museums. Included among them is Michelangelo's Pietà, one of the artist's most renowned works. Bernini's baldachin, the pavilion-like structure over the altar, is at the center of the church under the dome and marks the site of Peter's tomb.
There's an incredible amount of stuff to see inside the basilica, so give yourself plenty of time to take it all in. I recommend doing some reading on its history and contents before you go. A detailed guidebook or audioguide will also help you get the most out of your visit.
Outside is St. Peter's Square, also designed by Bernini, which is as magnificent as the basilica. The elliptical plaza is lovingly embraced by curved colonnades topped with statues of popes, and at the center is an Egyptian obelisk, one of many brought back and displayed throughout Rome as symbols of the ancient empire's and the Church's conquests.
Every Sunday at noon, the Pope gives a short blessing and prayer (the Sunday Angelus) from the window of his study in the building just north of the basilica. The plaza gets quite crowded, but you can hear him and see him on the jumbotron screens from pretty much anywhere. There is also a longer papal audience on Wednesday mornings. This requires free tickets that can be requested through the Vatican's website. Seeing the Pope could be a special experience if you are Catholic. If you aren't, but you just want to see the Pope, I'd advise against it. The crowds are huge, and you'll need to arrive early, which means waiting around for a long time. Still, it's an option if it's something you're interested in.
2. The Roman Forum
You might be surprised to see the Forum ranked higher than the Colosseum, but as cool as the Colosseum is, there's just so much more to see here. Even though it's in ruins, you can still picture the bustling center of the Republic of Rome as you walk the ancient roads. This is another location that really requires a detailed guide, whether in book or audio form. Walk the roads and stop at every structure you see and learn about it. There are temples, monuments, the Senate building, and much more. I won't go into extensive detail or history of the buildings in the Forum, because there is just so much there, and the fun is in exploring and learning about it in person.
Afterwards, go up the stairs to the Piazza del Campidoglio outside the Capitoline Museum, just east of the Forum. Walk around to the back of the museum, and you'll have a spectacular view of the entire Forum. Hint: at night, they light up the ruins beautifully.
1. The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museums are the number one must-see spot in all of Rome and the Vatican, and one of the greatest museums in the entire world. The museums are so huge and their treasures so vast that it's impossible to see everything in one trip. You can keep coming back again and again and never feel like you've seen it all.
There is something for everyone here. If you're a lover of Renaissance sculpture, you'll be enthralled by famous statues such as the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön and His Sons. Prefer frescoes? There are several rooms elaborately painted by Rafael himself. More interested in ancient Egypt than Rome? Well, you probably should have gone to Cairo then, but you'll happy to know there are several rooms packed with Egyptian artifacts and even some mummies. The Map Room is pretty amazing by any standards, but if you love maps, you'll think you're in heaven.
Of course, the main feature here is the Sistine Chapel, unparalleled in the entire world of art. The only way the public can access it is at the end of the walk through the Vatican Museums. No matter how many times you've seen it in pictures, nothing will prepare you for the first time you see it in person. Michelangelo spent four years painting the ceiling, and returned 23 years later to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. You can see the evolution of his artistic style between the ceiling and the wall, and even between one side of the ceiling and the other. You'll inevitably start feeling stiff in the neck, but it's impossible to look away.
If you only see ten things in Rome, make them the ones on this list. Of course, there is so much more to see and do, so hopefully you've got more time to explore and see everything else this amazing city has to offer. You may even find some hidden gems that aren't on the standard lists. See as much as you can, but be sure to take the time to enjoy it all. If you can't fit everything in your schedule, you've just got an excuse to make another trip!
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