I have a friend who will shortly be visiting Rome for the first time, and she has asked me to draw up a short-list of sights to guide her exploration of the city. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to post it here as well, for the benefit of all interested parties. Her visit will be four or five days in duration, which is long enough to see a fair number of things.
You asked me for some suggestions for how you might profitably pass your time in Rome. I’m delighted that you did so. There is certainly much that I don’t know about the city, but there’s no city I love more, and that must count for something.
If the weather is good, I recommend staying outside and walking the streets. Much of Rome’s glory is in her buildings and churches, not gathered up into museums. When I’m there, I love to simply walk around. Around every corner there’s something wonderful to see.
I’ve included links to Wikipedia pages for most of the sights I mention. They usually contain a very useful link in the upper right corner that shows you the location on a map.
San Pietro and the Vatican. You could easily spend two days in and around the Vatican, but if pressed for time you can try to compress your visit into one (or two half-days). There are two main parts to the visit: the church and the museum. If you can, try coming to the church early in the morning (it opens at 7 am) before it fills up with visitors. At that hour you’ll find priests celebrating Mass in the many side chapels.
The church itself is immense, the largest in the world, and it’s full of wonders. The tomb of St. Peter is beneath the main altar. Look for Michelangelo’s famous Pietà near the main entrance. The interior of the church is filled with funeral monuments of Popes and saints; a guidebook can help you sort through them if you’re interested. I also recommend going into the crypt (to reach it, you have to leave the main church and go around to the north side), where you’ll find the tombs of many Popes, including that of John Paul II. And no visit to St. Peter’s would be complete without climbing the dome. You’ll have to pay a few Euros for entry, but the views from the top are well worth it.
The Vatican Museums are the great exception to the rule about Rome itself being better than its museums. They are vast, and there’s no way to see everything in a single visit, but, then again, there’s no way to see everything in two or three visits, so you’ll have to focus. Everybody wants to see the Sistine Chapel, and indeed it would be a shame to miss it. Besides that, you can take your pick: paintings, sculptures, maps, tapestries, jewelry – it goes on and on. Be warned: the Museum generates huge queues for entry, so it’s best to arrive first thing in the morning.
If you’ll be in Rome on a Sunday, you can see Pope Benedict at noon when he joins the crowd to pray the Angelus. He also usually holds a public audience on Wednesday mornings, but for this one must request a ticket on the previous day.
Forum Romanum and Colosseum. These are the historic ruins of the city, where the ancient city of Rome was focused. The ruins are really quite ruinous, and since there are no helpful signs it is possible to wander around without a clue as to what you’re seeing. A good guidebook can help, or you can latch onto one of the many guided walking tours that move through the area. Try to look like you don’t understand what’s being said, else you might be asked to pay.
In the Forum you’ll see the Roman Senate, the remains of a number of important temples and civic buildings, triumphal arches commemorating military victories, and the Rostra from which Roman leaders addressed the crowds (Marc Antony, for instance, addressed the people from this platform after the assassination of Julius Caesar), among other things. You’ll also see lots of little rocks and fragments of columns lying around.
Nearby is the Colosseum. You can pay to go inside, but doing so doesn’t add much to the experience, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s better to just sit and admire it. Next to it you’ll see the famous Arch of Constantine.
Santa Maria Maggiore. Rome has many churches under the patronage of Our Lady, but this is the main one. It’s located in the east end of the city center, near the Termini. There’s been a church here since the fifth century, but it has been enlarged and embellished many times over the years. It’s a beautiful, magnificent building, usually not as crowded as Rome’s other main sights. Since you’ll be staying near this church, you might try to attend an early morning Mass in one of the side chapels.
San Giovanni in Laterano. This church is Rome’s cathedral, and it is well worth a visit. Unlike Santa Maria Maggiore, which has a cool and dark interior, this church is bright and glorious. There are many things to admire inside, but don’t neglect to go around the side and visit the famous baptistery, which dates from the fifth century. The church is a little out of the way, but you can easily combine your visit with a trip to the catacombs.
The Catacombs. The catacombs are located to the south of the city center, and you’ll want to catch a bus to reach them. (The bus can be caught from a stop next to San Giovanni in Laterano. You’ll have to look up a route map to know which one.) There are a number of different entrances, and I believe that all access is guided. I recommend the catacombs of St. Domitilla, but since they all seem to follow highly irregular opening hours, take what you can get. It is a wonderful experience to walk through the underground passageways, seeing the ancient burial sites. In some cases you’ll see preserved wall paintings, and even early churches. A visit to the catacombs should be allotted about half a day.
Santa Maria ad Martyres, aka The Pantheon. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, this is one of Rome’s most memorable buildings. It’s essentially a single room, but what a beauty! It is the best preserved ancient Roman building in the city, and perhaps in the world. It would be difficult to miss seeing it, planted as it is in the center of old Rome.
Old Rome. I highly recommend you take some time to simply wander through this area of narrow streets that begins just across the Tiber from the Vatican and extends a kilometer or two to the west. It contains some of Rome’s best spots: Piazza Navona, in particular, is a nice place to relax. When I was last in the city the great fountain in the center of the piazza was under restoration, and unfortunately you may find the same thing. The Trevi Fountain is also somewhere nearby (I always have a hard time finding it). You should throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain to ensure that you are able to return to Rome one day.
Here are a few places that people often miss, but which are really worth seeking out.
San Clemente. This small church located near the Colosseum shows the history of Rome in miniature. It’s actually three separate buildings stacked one on top of the other. On the lowest level you find an old Roman building, including a small temple to Mithras, the Roman bull-god. Above you find an excavated fourth-century church. There’s not much left of it, but you can see the basic layout and some surviving wall paintings. On the top level is the most recent structure: a twelfth-century church, and a gorgeous one. It’s worth visiting just to see the magnificent mosaic behind the main altar. There’s a small fee to descend to the excavations.
Santa Prassede. This small church is just down the street from Santa Maria Maggiore, but hardly anyone goes there. It’s very beautiful. There’s a side chapel that has been decorated with floor-to-ceiling gold mosaics. In the ninth century a large set of bones of early Christians were brought here from the catacombs, and they are kept in a small crypt beneath the altar.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This is Rome’s only Gothic church, located just a few steps from the Pantheon. There are many reasons to love it, starting with the charming little elephant statue in its piazza. Inside you’ll find the tombs of St. Catharine of Siena (under the altar), the great medieval painter Fra Angelico, and there’s a side chapel painted with scenes from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is one of my favourite churches in the city.
Capuchin crypt. Certainly the strangest thing I’ve seen in Rome, and maybe the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, is the small crypt attached to the church of Santa Maria della Concezione, near Piazza Barberini. The Capuchin monks have decorated a set of rooms with – how to say this? – the bones of their deceased brethren. It’s not something you’ll soon forget.
There are many other worthy sights in the city, so don’t take these recommendations too seriously. Whatever you decide to do, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.