If you only have a week in Rome
Rome is my favorite city in the world.
If you have never been, find time before you die to explore the eternal city. Its 3000 years of history piled up and intermingled, its extraordinary art and architecture, its role in the creation of today’s world and our modern culture and language, its narrow streets, beautiful rooftops and delicious food. And people who kindly correct halting attempts at Italian.
Rome is perfect – dirty, hot, dusty, fragrant, glorious, inspiring, tiring, sweet and salty, did I say hot?, moving, educating, goosebump-making and fills my soul.
Here’s my must see list – and only a fraction of what you should see when you go. And remember comfortable shoes because Rome is a walking city!
The seat of Church power – the Vatican
Probably the world’s greatest art museum filled with the plunder of 2000 years. The glory and beauty is beyond words – the Sistine Chapel, the Rafael rooms, the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Renaissance sculptures and the spectacular floor mosaics taken from Roman palaces. No matter the crowds, it’s a must see.
On your way to and from the Vatican be sure to go into St Peter’s Basilica (read Basilica before you go), admire Bernini’s ellipse shaped piazza and if you are there on a Wednesday you can attend a service with the Pope. But if you are not of a catholic mind skip that and go on to explore the Castel St-Angelo – a Renaissance fortress and the final bolthole for Popes when Rome was attacked, but built on the Hadrian's mausoleum. Depth and grandeur in one place.
What Caravaggio left behind
Caravaggio was at his most prolific in Rome and while his paintings are now in the greatest art museums around the world, some of his finest are in churches and museums in Rome where you can get within a nose length to study mankind’s greatest painter’s work. Visit the three small churches in central Rome with (I think) his greatest paintings and don’t miss the Gallery Borghese but there are at least 8 more to be seen.
My two favorites are in Santa Maria de Poppolo: St Peter being crucified upside down and the of the conversion of St Paul – both notable for their shocking perspective, drama and yet also sense of humor.
One of the wondrous things about Rome is that the evidence of the power of the Roman Empire is all around, even today. Of course, the Colosseum is a must see but it is more fun at night than in the day and it’s worth getting a guide to walk through the Forum and up onto the Palantine (where the palaces were and where our word palace comes from).
The scale of the grandeur is hard to fathom, but if you really want to blow your mind explore Nero’s palace. This was buried shortly after Nero was killed and much of the wall paintings were preserved. They inspired a generation of Renaissance painters who found their way in through a hole in the ground, captured the “grotto” style of wall painting and copied it onto the walls of Renaissance villas and palaces. It’s underground, you need a hard hat and it’s magnificent.
Get out of town to Tivoli
Tivoli is a perfect day trip. Hire a driver and start out at Hadrian’s Villa. This 2nd century villa was a city in itself - inspired by the Greek and Egyptian ruins Hadrian saw on his travels and inspiring a generation of neo-classical architects more than a thousand years later. Be sure to walk the site and get back to the long, beautiful pool where Hadrian entertained.
But Hadrian was not the only person with too much wealth to go out to Tivoli to escape the heat. In the 16th century Cardinal Ippolito II D’Este rerouted a river to build glorious gardens with more than 100 fountains. Running down a hillside below his villa he used his gardens to impress, and even today, more than 400 years later, impress they do!
Since it’s a whole day you can easily find lunch in the town square of Tivoli, by the Villa’ D’Este.
The golden mosaics of Byzantium
When Constantine founded “New Rome” in Byzantium, which became Constantinople (now Istanbul) he took the skilled Roman mosaic artists with him. Some of the skill stayed back in Rome until the 5th century, but much was lost and brought back again by Byzantine artists in the 12th and 13th centuries. You can see countless, glorious examples of the mosaic artform in the churches of Rome. One of the most atmospheric is San Clemente. Built on a 2500 year old Mithraen temple… buried a floor below a 4th century church… buried a floor below a gorgeous 12th century church - you can explore all the levels and walk along a Roman herringbone street. Damp, dark and fascinating.
There are several local churches with brilliant examples such as Santa Pudenziana, St Maria in Trastevere, Basilica San Silvestro and Santa Prassede but if you want to get off the beaten path and see an example of earliest 4th century mosaics get a bus ticket, or a taxi and go out to Santa Costanza.
Every. Single. One Is worth a visit.
Museums, and more museums
Again, Gallery Borghese is a must for art lovers – and it sells out so be sure to buy your timed tickets 2 weeks in advance.
To see the many archeological finds found within Rome visit the National Museum of Rome near the Termini. This has not only wonderful mosaics and ancient sculptures but it also has Livvia’s dining room. Found on the Palentine this perfect, peaceful, painted room of birds and plants is thought to be a room from the Empress Livvia’s house – wife of Augustus. It really is perfect.
The first museum developed in Rome hundreds of years ago was the Capitoline. Site of the original temple of Jupiter of classical Rome it houses the finest archeological finds in a palace on Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the Capitoline Hill designed by none other than Michaelangelo himself. Be sure to walk to the basement of the Capitoline museum and walk under the building until you can see out over the Roman Forum. That basement area was there when the Forum was bustling.
When you are looking to relax
There are no end of good restaurants in Rome so I won’t even try, but a great place to people watch and buy an expensive beer is the Piazza Navona. Here there is yet another masterpiece from Rome’s most famous sculptor – Bernini – his fountain of the four rivers (where the face of the Nile is hidden).
The list goes on and on. If you are curious about everyday life in ancient Rome visit Trajan’s markets. If you want to see how Renaissance nobles lived go to the Palazzo Barberini. If you want to see a perfect, painted Renaissance villa check the opening times for the Villa Farnesina (which is not open every day). If you want to be made to feel very small and understand the scale of the late empire baths take a long walk (or a taxi) out to the Caracalla baths.
Tips for your trip:
Eat breakfast early to get a jump on the day because of the heat – retreat for lunch during the worst heat of the day – and eat dinner late.
Rent audio tours wherever you can.
Dress modestly for St Peter’s or they won’t let you in. No shorts or bare shoulders.
Many of the best experiences need tickets in advance, and sell out, so for Gallery Borghese, Nero's Palace, the Colosseum at night go online a couple of weeks in advance.