The eternal city of Rome
When I found out we were being stationed in Europe, I compiled a must-see list—cities that featured prominently in both my day and wildest dreams. Rome sat prominently at the top. It’s a fabulous city that can be visited over a long weekend from anywhere in Europe.
In the spotlight for the past 3,000 years, Rome, also known as the Eternal City, is a lively city with reminders of its past everywhere. You will encounter the glories of Ancient Rome, medieval and Renaissance buildings and fountains, and great museums, fine restaurants and cafes, lively streets and squares. It’s a living museum of history from the Roman epoch to present. Reason enough to visit and get impressed by the many, many, many historical sights.
Situated on the River Tiber, Rome was once the administrative center of the mighty Roman Empire, governing a vast region that stretched all the way from Britain to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Today the metropolitan area is home to around 3.3 million people. As one of the few major European cities that escaped World War II relatively unscathed, central Rome remains essentially Renaissance and Baroque in character. The Historic Centre of Rome is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. According to the legend of Romulus and Remus, Rome was founded in 753 BC. The Roman Republic, founded in 509 BC, succumbed to civil war following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44BC. The defeat of Mark Anthony by the first Roman Emperor Augustus marked the beginning of Rome’s world dominance.
Rome’s decline began in the 5th century when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus was deposed. Power shifted east to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) with Christianity’s rise in popularity, and many of Rome’s pagan monuments, temples and statues were either destroyed or abandoned.
In a later resurgence, the city turned to the baroque masters of Bernini and Borromini to rebuild after the 1527 sacking of Rome by the Spanish king Charles V. Their exuberant churches, fountains and pallazzi changed the face of the city forever. The building boom following the unification of Italy in the late 1800s, coupled with the Mussolini-inspired building expansions during WWII, are key contributors to the Rome visitors see today.
They say that a lifetime is not enough for Rome (“Roma, non basta una vita”). And while it’s true that few cities can match its cultural legacy, you don’t have to be an archeologist to enjoy it. All you have to do is walk its animated streets. Stride through the fallen columns of the Forum and imagine them whole, smell the roasted chicken in the ancient markets, hear the roar of the crowds in the Colosseum, feast your eyes on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and taste the delicious fried rice ball called arancini, or little orange. You’ll be swept up in the emotion of a city that has been inspiring artists and lovers since time immemorial.
Some people would rather get a root canal rather than spend a day wandering around the boutique-lined streets near the Spanish Steps, but for others a day of window-shopping for leather-goods would rank as the highlight of their trip. Same goes for cramming a dozen churches and museums into a single day; heaven for some not so much for others. Double-decker bus tours also offer hop-on hop-off tours that are reasonably priced and offer an alternative to a lot of walking. Public transportation is good and inexpensive and should be utilized when possible.
Keep in mind that you may have to adjust your itinerary in case one of the days you’re in town happens to fall on a Monday (when most museums are closed) or a Sunday (when most everything else is closed, and those that remain open tend to operate on reduced hours). Many attractions are also closed on May 1st for Labor Day.
Movies to get you in character: "Roman Holiday," "Three Coins in a Fountain," "When in Rome" and "Angels and Demons."
Roman souvenirs: If you’re looking for a tasty memento, you can’t go wrong with either limoncello, olive oil or balsamic vinegar.
Need to Know: The strict dress code of St. Peter’s Basilica extends to the whole Vatican City. Even in hot weather, people in shorts, above-knee skirts, or sleeveless shirts may be stopped by Swiss Guards. Carry cover-ups, even if you don’t plan to enter the basilica.
If you are planning to visit the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Colosseum or the Gallery Borghese, skip the lines and purchase your tickets online. All sites have an official website. Or, consider purchasing the Roma Pass, which grants free admission to the first two museums and/or archaeological sites visited, full access to the public transport system, reduced tickets and discounts for any other museums and sites visited, as well as exhibitions, music events, theatrical and dance performances and all other tourist services.
The crowds are heavy mid-day year round, so either go early or late to avoid them.
Day 1: Rome in three days
Rome is a large city, but many of the sights are concentrated between Stazione Termini, the city’s main transport hub, and the Vatican. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day—and you aren’t going to be able to see it all in one day, either. Spend the early morning in the Vatican Museums (you’ll only have time for the highlights, make sure the first one is the Sistine Chapel). Walk over to St. Peter’s Basilica. To say it’s large is an understatement. Walk to the center, look straight up and rotate 360°. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s Alter.
Head over to the Tiber Bend area for lunch and spend the afternoon admiring the neighborhood’s churches and museums, including the Pantheon. Get some gelato, Italy’s edible art. The key to gelato appreciation is sampling. Ask, as the locals do, for “Un assaggio, per favore?” (A taste, please? Pronounced, oon ah-SAH-joh pehr fah-VOH-ray).
Take a stroll over to the gorgeous Piazza Navona to view the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini. For dinner, try the medieval Trastevere district. Romans and tourists mingle together in this colorful area on the other side of the Tiber River.
Day 2: The classics
While your imagination has to run overtime to picture it as it once was, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum, still create an indelible impression. The upper levels of the Colosseum offer a truly unique perspective of its internal spaces and the city.
Spend a couple hours marveling at the private art collection at the Borghese Gallery (advance reservation required); you won’t be disappointed even if you aren’t a huge art fan.
Then take a passeggiata and join the locals strolling from Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps at dusk, and be sure to head to the Trevi Fountain after dinner to toss in a few coins to ensure your return to Rome. Have more gelato.
Day 3: Day trips beyond Rome
There are numerous excursions beyond Rome that will stimulate your imagination, satisfy your curiosity or reveal the explorer in you. A side trip to Ostia Antica, Tivoli and Villa d’Este or Orvieto will do all three.
The ruins of the ancient Roman port of Ostia Antica are well worth a visit. It is a huge complex and you can easily spend several hours wandering around the old streets, shops, and houses. From Rome, take the Metro’s Red Line (Line B) to the Piramide stop. Exit and walk up the stairs staying to the right, following signs for the Roma-Lido train to Ostia Antica. Audio walking tours are available at the ticket office.
In Tivoli, you can see the villa, gardens and more than 500 fantastic fountains at the Renaissance Villa d’Este, built in the 16th century. Then take a short bus ride to the extensive grounds of Hadrian’s Villa, created by Emperor Hadrian in the second century. Take the Roma-Pescara Line from Rome’s Tiburtina station to Tivoli. It takes about a half hour. Then hop on a shuttle bus to the town centre and Villa d’Este.
Perched atop tufa cliffs, the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto makes an impressive sight. Orvieto’s monuments and museums cover millenniums of history. The stunning duomo (cathedral) with its mosaic facade is one of the best medieval monuments in Italy. To round out your Orvieto visit, window-shop for ceramics, and sample some Classico wine. Local wineries offer tours and tastings. Orvieto is a little over an hour from Rome by car or train (Termini station). Cars are not permitted in the city centre. A funicular connects the parking lot and train station of lower town with the medieval town above.
For information on hours of operation, brochures, special events, festivals, hotel and reputable tour operator information, visit the Italian Government Tourist Board.