Rome was an ancient civilization that prospered for more than one-thousand years, and many of its architectural marvels still exist in the modern day city. Rome is a central hub for European travel and flocked to by tourists from all around the world. In this post I will show you some of the best places to visit in Rome if you are a history buff, or just want to experience the ancient city.
All the sites are easily accessible by public transportation or you can walk around the city like us broke college kids. The city is laid out well and one day in Rome is adequate enough to see all the attractions. There are also museums attached to many of the sites, for more immersion.
1. The Vatican City
The first stop I recommend on your Roman ruins tour is the Vatican City. This is one of the most popular attractions in the world and getting here before other tourists will give you the best viewing opportunity. Inside the Vatican City is the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the famous Vatican Gardens. The city is a sovereign state within the Roman capital, and is the smallest country in the world. The city is encircled by a 2 mile border wall covering about 100 acres, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. The population is made up of priests and nuns from many nationalities, and has more than 4 million tourists every year.
You do not need a ticket to enter the city or St. Peter’s Basilica, but get there early to beat the lines. The gates open at 7:00 am, so we got there around 6:30 am waiting to get breakfast after. The north wall entrance typically has fewer people in line, and is closer to the Basilica. You are allowed to take photographs inside of the Basilica, and the church’s large windows blissfully cascade light into the dimly lit church.
After leaving the Basilica you will get the opportunity to freely explore the massive courtyard and main street of the city. Since it is still early in the day other tourists are still in line for the Basilica, so you will really be able to appreciate the surroundings. We continued exploring down main street and exited the city, walking along the walled banks of the River Tiber towards the next ruin.
If you want to access all of the sites at the Vatican City you will need to adhere to their strict dress code and respect their religious sanctity. Sleeveless and low cut garments, shorts above the knee, miniskirts, and hats are prohibited. You can find a full list of rules and other ticket information on their website.
2. Castel Sant’Angelo
After leaving the Vatican city walk towards the River Tiber to a bridge connecting central Rome to Castel Sant’Angelo. This castle is a large museum and one of ancient Rome’s tallest buildings. The popes converted the former Mausoleum of Hadrian into the Castel Sant’Angelo in the 14th century. Originally the castle was used to house ashes of the Roman emperor Hadrian and following emperors until 217 AD. The grounds of the castle are decorated with large figures including statues of angels holding instruments of the Passion of Christ. You can enjoy the lavish architecture and intricate statutes if you are on a budget, or pay a few euros to enter the museum. After finishing cross one of the bridges out front and proceed into the heart of Rome.
3. Piazza Navona
Cross over the River Tiber and continue walking into a large public square called the Piazza Navona open space, identifiable by many fountains and a large central obelisk. The large plaza was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, used for athletic contests in the first century. You can explore the plaza’s sculptures, Roman architecture, and Italian monuments. We got breakfast here and got ready for a long day of walking and site seeing. Also if you run into a McDonalds try their juice selections, I could not process that they belonged to the franchise, they were so good.
4. Campo di’Fiori
At the south exit of Piazza Navona you can access Campo de’ Fiori, home to Italian markets and a great place to grab snacks or brunch if you are hungry. The square is identified by the large statue of Giordano Bruno, an early philosopher famous for his cosmic ideologies. He was one of the first philosophers to describe the ideas of stars as distant suns and far away planets that may foster life. This square also houses daily vegetable and fish markets, previously held in the Piazza Navona.
I included Trastevere because of its unique atmosphere outside of the city, only about 15 minute, 1.4 km walk from Campo di’ Fiori. From Campo di’ Fiori head southwest and cross back over the River Tiber. Trastevere is the 13th district of Rome, identified by roman numerals R. XIII on the streets and buildings. This part of the city offers picturesque streets and a local environment not seen in touristy Rome. The city is known for its intricate and narrow cobblestone streets lined with ancient houses, buildings, and pubs. If you are too busy during your day trip to Rome, definitely come back at night to check out the pubs or brunch in the morning.
Trastevere was originally conquered by Rome to control access on that side of the river, but ancient rulers had little interest in its development. The best way to access the 13th district from central Rome is to cross over the Ponte Sisto, one of the earliest bridges constructed after 642 BCE. The architecture and building layout in the area is a stark contrast, more conservative than the lavish ruins from central Rome. Trastevere is known in modern Rome for its artists, universities, and famous musicians.
After Trastevere proceed to the Colosseum followed by the Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps.
Exiting the Piazza Navona to the east will lead to one of the most advertised Roman ruins called the Pantheon. It was originally built under emperor Augustus, but rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian after it burned down. The building is lined by large Corinthian granite columns, supporting the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome that is suspended as its roof. The pantheon remains a Catholic church still holding masses, weddings, and ceremonies.
7. Altar of the Fatherland
Leaving the Pantheon, travel southeast and you will soon cross in front of a massive building called the Altare della Patria, translated to Alter of the Fatherland in English. It will be hard to miss as the roads and traffic lead you directly to this point in the city. The Altar is a massive building with cascading staircases, large statues, decorations, and an extravagant street view wrapping around its base.
8. Roman Forum – Foro Romano
On the south side of the Altar is the entrance to the ruins of the Roman Forum, exploring on the way to the Colosseum. This area has many notable government ruins including my favorite, the three large pillars remaining from the Temple of Castor and Pollux foundations. This low lying valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills was formerly the teeming heart of ancient Rome, where the city’s people came together for local activities and events. The forum served as a venue for elections, speeches, trials, triumph marches, and other commercial affairs.
The valley was originally a marshy area collecting drainage water from nearby hills and over flow from aqueduct systems. The water in the valley eventually drained into the River Tiber via one of the world’s earliest sewage systems called the Cloaca Maxima. Draining the water combined with sequences of erosion in the surrounding hills, increased sediment levels at the base of the valley serving as the foundation for the forum development. The valley is quite literally between two hills so be prepared to climb back out if you go inside.
Continuing through the Roman Forum, you will finally be at one of the best known ruins in ancient Rome and the world! The Colosseum is a the largest standing amphitheater in the world located southeast of the Roman Forum. The large amphitheater had the capacity to hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, averaging audiences of about 65,000 during its peak use. The Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests, executions, dramas, and mock battles. Evidence also suggests that the ancient Romans may have filled it with water from surrounding aqueducts, to reenact maritime battles. The architectural design is still used today in modern stadiums, but with vastly different materials and much larger scales.
To enter the Colosseum you need to purchase tickets online, or in person at booths around the site. This is one of the ruins you should definitely dish out the few euros to go inside, because standing inside the walls lets you revel in the immense amount of history it is responsible for. Also definitely watch the movie Gladiator before you come so you can pretend you are Gerard Butler. When you go inside make go up all accessible levels, accessible by steep interior staircases. Go out on the floor of the Colosseum where you will see the complex tunnel system beneath the basin, and imagine standing there at the height of Rome. Of course if you were standing there back then it probably meant you were a about to enter a contest, R.I.P.
10. Trevi Fountain
Alright keep coming we have two more places to check out on this Roman ruin tour. Get your coins ready, head back toward the Altar of the Fatherland, and continue north to the world famous Trevi Fountain. You do not need to be a history buff to have heard of the Trevi Fountain. I first heard about it in The Lizzie McGuire Movie LOL. For movie buffs, it has been in other films like Three Coins in the Fountain, La Dolce Vita, and Roman Holiday.
The fountain sits at the intersection between three roads, and the terminus of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct that distributed water for over 400 years. The fountain has undergone several refurbishments in modern eras with its most recent construction ending in 2015. The fountain now has the addition of more than 100 LED lights to improve illumination at night. Bring your coins to the fountain as it is a long standing custom to toss them into the water accompanied by a wish. The correct form is to toss the coin with the right hand over the left shoulder, so make sure you practice in your hotel sink before looking like a fool. The money in the fountain is used to subsidize supermarket products for Rome’s underprivileged people, and can total as much as 3,000 euros a day,.
11. Spanish Steps
The last place included on this list is the famous Spanish Steps. What a better way to end your day than a place with lots of stairs. There are 135 steps leading up to the Trinita dei Monti church, using a unique triangular design reveled and replicated still to this day. The base of the steps is marked by the Piazza di Spagna and another fountain called the Fontana della Barcaccia, translated as the Fountain of the longboat. The stairs are named after the Spanish embassy located in the plaza. These steps have also found their way into popular media including films like the Roman Holiday, Besieged, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Recent regulations have increased pressure to preserve the stairs by keeping loiters off, so plan on having your picnic elsewhere.
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