My family and I visited Rome for Christmas in 2015 and stayed in an apartment on Via del Governo Vecchio (the link is to the cafe next door). This guide to touring Rome will be based on our experience of seeing the city over a week during the winter.
Here’s everything you should see When In Rome.
Since the apartment my family rented was near Piazza Navona, I became very familiar with this part of Rome. That is where I’ll begin.
This square tells the story of a rival between Popes. The Church (pictured below) was designed by Borromini, who was favored by the Pope at the time. But that Pope’s successor, Innocent X Pamphilj. didn’t care for the previous Pope. So Innocent hired Bernini, the rival of Borromini, to design the famous fountain in the square (the third photo).
Above the fountain is the Agonalis Obelisk. The church behind it is Sant’Agnese in Agone.
Pictured above is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of Four Rivers). The figures depicted in the statue represent the four main rivers of the time: the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata. The figures are supposed to be looking away from the church, since it was built by the artist’s rival.
If you’re in this area and have time for a bite to eat or some window shopping, here are a few places we stopped at while we were staying in this neighborhood:
- Caffè Novencento – when you order espresso from Italian cafes, you are expected to drink it while standing at the bar. This is why many of the cafes are very small. And its a good idea to have your Euros ready so you can order, pay, drink, and get out of the way. This cafe has a little more room so you can sit down and enjoy a latte. (Avoid ordering coffee drinks with milk in the afternoon. Its a No No).
- Da Tonino – this is a small restaurant. It has a family-owned feel to it. It was really close to our apartment so we’d arrive for dinner, hungry from a day of walking, around 7 PM. We didn’t have to wait for a table. By the time we left there were several people standing in line down the street.
- Cambio Vita – This is one of the many places where you can get gelato. Daniel and I stopped in here one night for dessert. I got a crepe. They also have vegan options..so if you have any dietary restrictions this place probably has options for you, too.
- Cul de Sac – My family stopped here for lunch one day. I don’t remember the meal, but its hard to have a bad meal in Italy. What I do remember is the restaurant and the wine bottles lining the walls above the tables. Almost all of the restaurants on this street have a Google rating of 4.0 stars and above.
- Libreria Altroquando – Looking for a book? Here’s a bookshop. What about some craft beer and local music? If you’re in the neighborhood in the evening, check out this store’s basement for some entertainment.
- Circus – We stopped into this restaurant for an afternoon snack (before everything closed for a few hours before dinner). We ordered a large meat and cheese plate, adult drinks, and a hot chocolate for me (cause it was winter and its amazing).
- Giolitti – This is a famous gelateria in Rome. It was packed when we stopped in for some gelato (makes me wonder when the photos on Google were taken). It’s located north of the Pantheon and West of Trevi Fountain. So if you’re going from one location to the next, stop in here for some gelato. You’ll also pass through Piazza Colonna where you’ll see the Column of Marco Aurelio, and through Piazza Montecitorio where Parliament is located and an Egyptian obelisk.
The Pantheon is around 2000 years old – making it the best preserved monument from ancient Roman times. It used to have a bronze roof before one of the Popes had the tiles removed and melted down to be used in the Vatican. There are still church services in the Pantheon, so plan your walk-through accordingly.
And don’t forget to look up.
Like most tourist attractions, if you want a photo without all the crowds, you’ll have to go early in the morning. Otherwise, expect a lot of people when visiting the famous fountain. If you manage to get close enough, bring a coin to toss into the fountain for good luck (toss it over your shoulder–maybe the right shoulder?), or more than one if you’re searching for love (2 coins) or hoping for a wedding (3 coins).
North of the Trevi Fountain is where the Spanish Steps are located. It’s about a 12 minute walk if you go down the busy street where the high-end fashion stores are located. The steps were under renovation when we were there in December 2015, and as of July 2016 the church at the top of the steps was under renovation. The steps reopened in September of last year. The renovation project meant I didn’t get a chance to recreate this photo from Roman Holiday:
A portion of the steps along the sides were open to the public so we were able to walk up the steps (135 steps to be exact). Therefore, the only photos I have are from the top of the steps.
At the top of the Steps is the Church of Trinità dei Monti.
Borghese Villa and Gardens
The Villa was built in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese who collected a lot of art. The villa became a personal museum and now the public can enjoy his collection. It houses famous statues, so if you’re interested in seeing as much art as possible while in Rome, add this place to your list of things to see.
Here’s one of the many elaborate rooms inside the Villa.
And the gardens surrounding the villa.
Yes, I got engaged while we were in Rome. 🙂 It was a surprise to say the least. I still had a semester left of law school and had to sit for the Texas Bar, so engagement was far from my mind. But it was perfect. Afterwards we went to a jewelry store and spoke with one of the owners of the family-owned store about the kind of engagement ring I wanted. They didn’t have anything that matched so they offered to design one, using a diamond from the early 1900’s. It arrived in Texas at the end of January. And I LOVE it.
If you decide to head south rather than north from the Pantheon, it’s about a 10 minute walk south from the Pantheon to Piazza Venezia.
On the way, you can take a detour for gelato at Vale Gelato. It’s a place we stopped for ice cream one day on a walk back to our apartment. Since I’ve been there, I’m suggesting it.
Piazza Venezia is where the Vittoriano (Monument to Victor Emmanuel II) is located.
This building is massive. This photo is only the top portion. I cut out a lot of the steps because there were so many people. It was built to honor Italy’s first king. It is a relatively new building (built 1885-1911) and houses a museum and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We didn’t have time to go inside (or even up the stairs). You can find out more about it here to see if it should be on your list of things to see. You can hang out at the terraces on top of the building, too.
Behind the monument is the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. We didn’t go inside of this church (mainly because there are a lot of steep steps up to the entrance). Also behind the monument is Capitoline Hill. Pictured above, on the right, is Palazzo Nuovo which is located on the top of the hill in the piazza.
Pictured here is the Palazzo Senatorio. It is one of three palazzos in the Piazza del Campidoglio. The facades and the piazza were all designed by Michelangelo. On the right of the photo is the Capitol Museum entrance. By entering the basement level of the museum, you can take a tunnel under the piazza to the Palazzo Nuovo.
Here are some photos from our visit of the Capitol Museum. There is a cafe on the roof with some nice views of the city.
The Roman Forum
Below Capitol Hill is The Forum. The entrance is located off of Via dei Fori Imperiali and the “exit” is on the opposite end near the Colosseum.
We visited the Forum with a tour guide so we entered by the Arch near the Colosseum. She also purchased our tickets for the Forum, Colosseum, and the Palatine Hills. There are no people in the above photo because it was taken from Capitoline Hill on Christmas Day.
Here’s a site listing many of the temples and structures you can see in the Forum. I encourage you to check it out because if you don’t have a guide (person or app or something) telling you what you’re looking it, it’ll probably feel like you’re walking around really old, pretty rubble and temples.
When in Rome, visit the Colosseum.
We hired a tour guide for a half-day tour of Rome. We started at the Colosseum at 8 AM. If you’re staying in Rome for more than a day, this is the ideal time to visit major attractions, like the Colosseum. You’ll beat the crowds and the heat. Our guide purchased our tickets ahead of time, so we only had to wait in a short line (since it was winter) to go through security before we got inside. Here’s a photo I found on a website to help you figure out where the entrance/ticket office is located.
It’s amazing to stand inside this massive amphitheater and imagine what it would have looked like in ancient times. You can still see remnants of the marble flooring that used to also cover the stadium seats. Our tour guide had a book with her (a children’s book actually) which showed the Colosseum today with clear pages that would overlay the modern photo with what the structure looked like originally. I’m not saying you should go out and buy one of these books, but it definitely helped picture the statues that filled each window, the marble exterior, the masts that acted as covered awnings (think of the Houston Football Stadium roof), and where tigers and bears were housed.
After visiting the Forum and Colosseum, if you have time, head up to the Palatine Hill.
This is where Rome began. From the top of the hill you can see the Tiber River – what made this location ideal for early settlers (including the founder of Rome, Romulus). It became home to many senators and emperors. Here is a website with helpful information about visiting the Palatine Hill. This website has pictures to go with the descriptions.
Above is the inside of what remains of the Stadium of Domitian. Behind this and in the valley is where the Circus Maximus is located. This is where the chariot races were held. My family didn’t make our way to the Circus (it wasn’t on our list of things to see).
You can also look over the Forum on the opposite side of the hill.
It was still relatively early when we went to the Palatine. You can see there aren’t too many visitors at the Forum yet.
Mouth of Truth
A few minutes walk away from the Forum, towards the river, is Bocca della Verità. If you’re a Roman Holiday fan, you may be interested in visiting The Mouth of Truth.
Things to know about visiting the Mouth of Truth: (1) There was a line even on Christmas Day to take a picture with the carving. (2) You’re allowed one photo per person. (3) Someone stands guard to make sure you don’t take too long or too many photos. (4) A story behind the legend “you’ll lose your hand if you tell a lie”: an emperor suspected his wife of cheating on him (which she was) so he brought her to the Mouth, put her hand inside, and was going to ask her in front of everyone if it was true. But she was a clever woman and planted her lover in the crowd. Her lover sprang forward and kissed her before the emperor could ask. She then exclaimed “The only two men I’ve ever kissed are you and that man!”
If you go for the photo-op, take the time to tour the inside of the church. The church is from 772 AD and has a painted interior.
Up the river, across from the Vatican, is a fortress built by Emperor Hadrian. Access to the Castel Sant’Angelo is across the Ponte Sant’Angelo, a bridge lines with statues of angels.
The fortress has gone through many looks over the centuries. Once used by Popes for defense, it is now a museum with extremely ornate ceilings.
My family stumbled across the fortress one evening (because roaming without a plan is a must) and decided to head to the top to watch the sunset. From the terrace you can see St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
- Jewish Museum
- Teatro Marcello
- The Great Synagogue
- Fontane delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) – pictured below
Its a quaint neighborhood, steeped in its own history. We walked through the Jewish Quarter with our tour guide. So if you’re in this area of the city, I can recommend a restaurant. Our guide took us to her favorite restaurant, Emma. (It’s a 6 minute walk from the Jewish Museum).
Across the River Tiber from Rome’s city center, the walled-off Vatican City is within walking distance and has a few entrances. It’s about a 20 minute walk from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Museum Entrance. Entering the city is free, but if you want to see the Museum, Basilica, or other monuments, you must purchase tickets.
There are a few main sites to see within the walls of the Vatican. We only went to three (The Museum & Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica).
1. Vatican Museum
We met our tour guide outside of the Museum entrance early in the morning. You can see in the photo that it’s still close to sunrise. Our tickets were purchased ahead of time and it was very early so we only had to stand in a very short line for security. Here’s the Museum’s website with a listing of different tour options for the Museum and Sistine Chapel.
Some of the rooms you will walk through include the Tapestry Room, The Map Room, and the Raphael Rooms, with others in between. Here are a few photos from these rooms:
Inside each room is a group of boards explaining the contents of the rooms. In the Raphael Room, for example, it will explain the different scenes depicted in the frescoes, who is captured in each painting, and where Raphael sneaked his own self-portrait into his works.
2. The Sistine Chapel
You aren’t allowed to take photos within the Sistine Chapel. But you can go to the museum’s website, or Google for images if you’d like.
The chapel is a lot smaller than I imagined it would be. Even in the winter it was hot because of all the people crammed inside. There are a few small benches along the outer walls if you need to sit, but mostly its standing room only. The ceiling is what the Chapel is famous for, but every inch of the chapel is covered with frescoes and ornate decoration.
Remember, if you’re entering a church in Italy, you’ll need to cover your shoulders, knees, and toes before entering.
3. St. Peter’s Basilica
After our tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel we entered St. Peter’s Basilica. Italy definitely knows how to build impressive churches, and St. Peter’s is a prime example. It is massive. Below is a photo of me in front of the Papal Altar. If that doesn’t give you an idea of the size of this building, the photo of the entrance doors should.
And those letters on the ceiling? They’re around 6 feet tall.
Since it was winter and before Christmas, there weren’t too many people, but I think it would take A LOT of tourists inside the church for you to even notice a crowd.
Aside from the size of the Basilica, there’s plenty of artwork to marvel at. Including Michelangelo’s Pietà (pictured below). After people have tried to deface it, it is now behind glass.
If you want to tour the crypt, I believe you need to join a guided tour. We, instead, climbed to the top of the Dome to get a view of St. Peter’s Square. Its about 330 steps to the top.
4. Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square)
Pictured above is St. Peter’s Square. Since we were there during Christmas, you can see the very large Christmas Tree that was placed in the square. Also set up in the square was a nativity scene and chairs for the Pope’s homily on Christmas Day. That is why there is a big screen in the corner of my photo of the front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Words to prayers, songs, etc. would be displayed for the audience.
On top of the colonnades are statues of 140 saints. The building in the foreground, I believe, is the Papal office and apartments.
That was the end of our visit of the Vatican. But there’s more to see if you have a full day to explore.
5) The Vatican Gardens
We didn’t have time to check out the gardens, but if you’re interested here’s some information about visiting the Gardens on the Vatican Museum’s website.
To give you an idea of where everything is located, here’s a map from planetware.com.
Remember, even you don’t plan on entering the museum, basilica, etc., you can still expect lines to enter St. Peter’s Square.
Sights I didn’t cover in this post:
- Chiesa de S. Ignazio de Loya — which has a painted dome where the hole in the center changes its located depending on where you stand!
- San Luigi dei Francesi – church has paintings by Caravaggio
- Pinocchio Workshop – you will find wooden Pinocchios all over Italy. There are stores in Rome and Florence. The name of the store is Bartolucci.
- Basilica of St. John Lateran
- The Catacombs
- Baths of Diocletian National Museum
Any time you travel, take the time to wander around whatever city you are visiting and discover the gems not on listed on the tourist maps.
Have you been to Rome? What were your favorite sights, restuarants, places off the beaten path?