I have to admit: it wasn’t until 2017 that I decided to visit Rome. I guess I always considered this city too close to home to actually put the effort into planning a vacation there; it was the kind of city you could visit anytime over the weekend. And to be honest with you, I didn’t really plan it in 2017 either, I just took my time to discover the city’s charm by walking its streets everyday for 7 days. Seriously, for an entire week I decided I would only walk the city to get to know it as a local. I have traveled in many countries in Africa or South America where it is not safe to walk so I have learned to appreciate the beauty of pedestrian tourism and take advantage of it whenever I can.
My first impression was: it has a lot of fountains! As it turns out, Rome holds the record of having over 2000 fountains, more than any other city in the world! It owes this to the Romans who built the aqueducts to supply water to the Imperial household, baths and owners of private villas. Each of the major fountains was connected to two different aqueducts, in case one was shut down for service. Call me impressed!
Located in the Piazza Barberini, this fountain is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture representing Triton, half-man and half-fish, blowing his horn to calm the waters. It was created based on a text by the Roman poet Ovid in the Metamorphoses.No matter how many tropical countries I have visited so far, there’s something in the Romanian side of me that makes me so happy to see citruses growing up on the side of the street. I guess my happiness has its roots from when I was little during the communist era and I only saw oranges at Christmas time. Regardless of the reason, I can tell you I was really happy walking down this street which is right next to Roma Termini, the train station.
While strolling the streets of Rome, don’t just walk by the fountains: take the time to learn about their history. The one below is called Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (The Fountain of Happy Water) or the Fountain of Moses due to the fact that it depicts Moses in the center, while Aaron and Joshua are flanking him. A tip: bottled water in Rome can be quite expensive if you buy it from street sellers. Some fountains have water that is safe to drink and fresh so you might want to hold on to a refillable bottle while trotting the streets: save some money and save the earth as well by not buying too much plastic. You’re welcome! 🙂
I was curious to see the Fountain of the Naiads past which Gregory Peck drives Audrey Hepburn on his Vespa during their famous Roman Holiday movie. I found it in the center of Piazza della Republica and it’s quite astonishing as you can see below.
Right across from it, stands tall the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (the Church of St Mary of Angels and Martyrs), dedicated to all Christian martyrs, known and unknown. It is built on a wing of the former Diocletian Baths but seeing how I was more curious about the worldly aspects of the Romans life, I didn’t visit the church. Instead, I walked briskly towards the baths. If you wish to do the same, just go around the corner of the basilica and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the baths.
Thermae Diocletiani or the public Baths of Diocletian is quite a huge place (120,000 square meters!) and contained hot and cold baths, a sauna and a library. It was build using Christian slaves and it could easily accommodate 3,000 people at the same time. There’s a lot more to read about it here if you’re interested. Right near the entrance you can see some tomb stones of Roman soldiers and it was fascinating for me to read their inscriptions.
Inside, the baths are quite luxurious and I can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like back in the days. A not so fun fact: while the baths were enjoyed by almost every Roman, there were those who criticized them. The water was not renewed often and the remains of oil, dirt or even excrement were kept warm, providing a milieu for bacteria. The emperor Marcus Aurelius complained about the dirtiness. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, while commending its therapeutic virtues, warns not to go with a fresh wound, because of the risk of gangrene. The objections of the philosopher Seneca were instead about the associated noise that interrupted his work when he resided above a bath.
The bathtubs are made of marble, adorned with various motifs and are quite spacious.
There is also a museum inside which features, among other artifacts, the first known Christian inscriptions. Those date back from the days when Christians were persecuted and in order to communicate and recognize each other as believers, they were using symbols such as a fish, a shepherd or a dove. The inscriptions pictured below are funerary.
Back on the streets of Rome, the surprises never stop. It is virtually impossible to walk without bumping on a piece of history. Whether it’s a house with amazing architecture or a fountain that dates back from the ancient centuries, Rome keeps you constantly in awe.
Heading to the Colosseum and the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum, one first has to walk passed the Trajan Forum. This forum was built on the order of the emperor Trajan with the spoils of war from the conquest of Dacia, the ancient Romania. As a Romanian proud of my origins, I was particularly impressed to see Trajan Column (pictured below) which was erected to commemorate Trajan’s victory over Decebal, the Dacian king.
In the vicinity, stands tall an impressive construction: Altare della Patria (the Altar of the Fatherland) also known as the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. This is the largest monument in Rome and it’s quite controversial since for its construction, a large area of the Capitoline Hill with a Medieval neighborhood were destroyed. The monument itself is often regarded as conspicuous, pompous and too large.
The monument holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an eternal flame, buried under the statue of goddess Roma after World War I.
Maybe it was the beautiful light playing hide and seek with the clouds or it was the fact that I befriended a seagull that was very proud to be Italian but I quite liked the monument and I stuck around to photograph it for a bit.
Here you can see the monument square and the Trajan Column in the far right.
Whenever you get a chance to get a glimpse of the Rome’s rooftops, don’t hesitate. The city doesn’t have loads of skyscrapers but it has many hills (7 to be more precise!) which offer a spectacular view of the blue sky, the reddish houses and the green trees.
Below you can see a view of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, the ruins of what use to be a flourishing city that sprang songs out of many poets hearts. You can view more details and read my thoughts about it here.
Another landmark that is a must see in Rome is Piazza del Poppolo (The People’s Square). The piazza lies inside the northern gate in the Aurelian Walls, once the Porta Flaminia of ancient Rome, now called the Porta del Popolo (People’s Gate). This was the starting point of the Via Flaminia, the road to Ariminum (modern-day Rimini) and the most important route to the north. At the same time, before the age of railroads, it was the traveler’s first view of Rome upon arrival. In the center of the square stands the Egyptian obelisk of Seti I that was brought to Rome in the year 10 B.C. Sadly, for centuries the Piazza del Popolo was a place for public executions, the last of which took place in 1826.
It does have beautiful statues and fountains that you can admire: here Neptune with his trident between two dolphins …
…or Rome between the Tiber and the Aniene on the east side, with goddess Roma armed with lance and helmet, having in front the she-wolf feeding Romulus and Remus.
Right behind this statue there is a small hill, Pincio, that has a nice park on top offering beautiful vistas and a chance for some refreshments. The park leads the way to Villa Medici and the Spanish Steps, two other attractions that you can’t miss when in Rome. If you visit during summertime, make sure you wear a sun hat and proper clothing as walking in the strong sun for a day can “bless” you with severe sun burns. The streets are calm and almost dormant under the strong afternoon sun. Some are empty as well: just the way I like them!
As you could have seen by now, Rome is filled with fabulous squares. Piazza Cavour is another one of them. The main building here is the Palace of Justice, featuring late Renaissance and Baroque architectural style.
In the middle of the square and facing the palace, there is a statue of Cavour, the man thought to be the mastermind behind the unification of Italy. Of course there is a fountain here as well and I was so glad to have found it: in the scorching afternoon heat, these fountains are a blessing because next to them the temperature drops approximately five degrees Celsius!
Keep on walking past the Palace of Justice and you will soon find yourself in the proximity of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Known also as the Hadrian’s Tomb, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a fortress located on the right bank of the river Tiber, just a short distance from the Vatican City. The construction of the building began in the year 135 under the direction of the Emperor Hadrian, who intended to use it as mausoleum for himself and his family. Shortly after it was finished, it became a military building.
Like any respectable castle, Sant’Angelo has its own legend. It seems that in the year 590, while a great epidemic of plague devastated the city, the Pope Gregory I had a vision of Saint Michael the Archangel on top of the castle, announcing the end of the epidemic. In memory of the apparition, the building was crowned with a statue of an angel. The castle offers a beautiful vista over it’s famous bridge and the Vatican. The bridge reminded me of Charles Bridge in Prague as it is flanked by statues as well. Because it is quite beautiful, there are many tourists and guys selling various stuff so taking a good photograph of it might test your patience.
Inside the castle there are some splendid decorated rooms but my heart was set on the views it offered.
After the visit, you may want to relax at the restaurant on top of the building over a cup of true Italian coffee.
As any respectable tourist, I went to the Vatican (a few times in fact!) and you can read about my visit here.
Don’t leave Rome without visiting the Spanish Steps, a great example of the Roman baroque style. This is a beautiful place to just sit down and enjoy the atmosphere and views of the Eternal City. The steps are a wide irregular gathering place consisting of 138 steps placed in a mix of curves, straight flights, vistas and terraces. They connect the lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper Piazza Trinita dei Monti, with its beautiful twin tower church dominating the skyline. Plenty of fashion stores for all pockets sizes can be found on the streets surrounding the steps.
A fun fact on how the steps became so famous: their unique design and elegance has made it a popular place for artists, painters and poets who were inspired by the place (even the poet Keats lived and died here). The artists’ presence attracted many beautiful women to the area, in the hope that they would be taken as models. This in turn, attracted rich Romans and travelers. After a short time, the steps were crowded with people of all kinds of backgrounds. The tradition of the Spanish Steps being a meeting place has lived on ever since.
Right next to Trinita dei Monti lies the Villa dei Medici with its beautiful views and rich history. You can read a short post about it here.
Keep on strolling the streets of the Eternal City and get back to the heart of it to discover its many treasures.
Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) is the largest baroque fountain in the city and is often viewed as the symbol of Rome. It wasn’t always like this, but Federico Fellini’s movies La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain have made it so famous that it is now literally impossible to see it without crowds of people tossing coins or taking selfies. In the center of the fountain stands Oceanus and in the niches flanking him, Abundance spills water from her urn and Salubrity holds a cup from which a snake drinks. Above, bas reliefs illustrate the Roman origin of the aqueducts.
There is an art to coins throwing: it seems they are meant to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder as it was shown in the 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain movie. Fact: an estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated US $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy; however, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain although it is illegal to do so.
Head west via the narrow streets to reach the Pantheon and while doing so, enjoy watching the houses and their beautiful gardens.
Cross Via del Corso and in 5 minutes you reach the Pantheon, a former Roman temple dedicated to every god, nowadays a catholic church and a place of burial for two Italian kings and Raphael, the renowned Renaissance painter and architect.
The interior of the dome was possibly intended to symbolize the arched vault of the heavens. A circular opening in the center of the dome, called oculus and the entry door are the only natural sources of light in the interior. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around this space in a reverse sundial effect. It also serves as a cooling and ventilation method. During storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through.
I randomly walked in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle located near Vittoriano and it did not disappoint me. The Baroque interior is beautifully adorned. There are two Papal tombs transferred from the Old St Peter’s: that of Pius II and Pius III. The artwork in the Sanctuary and its vault depicting the life and martyrdom of St Andrew is impressive.
Even during random walks on the streets it is impossible to not bump into a piece of history like this small temple below.
There were two churches that really impressed me in Rome: St Peter Basilica in Vatican and Santa Maria Maggiore located in the eastern side of the city, close to the Termini Station and Piazza della Republica. This papal church is one of the four ancient major churches and the largest Marian church in Rome. According to the legend, Mary the mother of Christ appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius in the year 356 and told him to build a church in this place where a miracle would take place. The next day, news of a strange snowfall on Esquiline Hill was announced to the Pope and he hurried to the top of the hill to sketch in the snow the design of the new church.
The present church was constructed nearly a century later and the interior still bears the original mosaics in the nave depicting Moses leading his people out of Egypt and the Egyptians being drowned as they tried to follow them across the Red Sea. The church was decorated with the first gold brought from the Americas. Beautiful and really-really disturbing at the same time if you think about how that gold was obtained.
Eating out is always a feast in Rome. Via Vittorio Veneto, colloquially called Via Veneto, is one of the most famous, elegant and expensive streets in Rome. It is named after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918), a decisive Italian victory of World War I. It is filled with haute cuisine restaurants so definitely try them out but at the same time don’t overlook the nice intimate cafe cuisine in the numerous restaurants situated in the Fontana di Trevi neighborhood.
Now that you have seen Rome most important landmarks by day, make sure to see how they look like by night as well. You can do so by reading this blog post.
I hope this mini guide has given you just the upsurge you needed to spend a few days in Rome. I would love to hear your impressions upon your return!