Before taking a tour of discovery in the city of Julius Caesar, you should first take a look at a map of the city and plan out a route for yourself. I’ll try to give you an idea of exactly what my own tour route looks like. (I took the following three areas as my major points of interest: 1. Vatican City, 2. Piazza Navona and its surroundings, 3. Coliseum and its surroundings).
As long as you make sure that you have some sneakers for walking around in, take your backpack, your guide book, and a bottle of water and you’re all ready to head out to Rome’s streets, squares and historical sights!
Despite being within Rome’s city limits, the Vatican is the smallest country in the world by area and its government represents the administrative center of the Catholic religion. The Pope is both the head of state and the spiritual leader Catholicism. Saint Peter’s square (the main square), Saint Peter’s basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are all within the Vatican’s walls.
Saint Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro)
The center of the Vatican, this is one of the most important squares in the world. Every Wednesday the Pope addresses the masses, and thousands of people flock to hear him. The famous sculptor Bernini designed the square in the 1600s and arranged the 284 columns that encompass it. On top of each column rests half-moon arches with statues of 96 saints and martyrs on top of them. In the middle of the square is a 25.5 meters-tall obelisk from Alexandria (Egypt) with a cross on top of it. There are also two fountains in the square. The basilica of Saint Peter’s rises in all of its glory out of the square, and as you wait in the kind of queue you’d expect, you get a full opportunity to gaze upon the beautiful magnificent wooden carved door and marble columns.
St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro)
One of the most important buildings in Rome, St. Peter’s is both a cathedral and a basilica (I’ll need to explain the differences in parenthesis because I still remember the confusion I had during my first trip to Rome. There are three different reasons to call a building a basilica: 1) Public buildings used for things like ceremonies, judgments, or decision-making that have since become used for worship. 2) Buildings built in the basilica architectural style. 3) Churches that have been authorized with ceremonial rites by the Pope. Cathedrals are where bishops reside, included within which is the church.
Underneath St. Peter’s is the Sacre Grotte Vaticane (Tombe dei Papi) which has the tombs of many old Popes.
Another treasure of the Basilica that can’t be overlooked is Michelangelo’s incredible Pieta sculpture! One of the interesting features of this sculpture is that it’s the only sculpture that Michelangelo ever signed. Now the statue is behind bullet-proof glass after someone attacked the statue with a hammer while it was exposed.
One of the sights of both Rome and the Vatican that is best seen from the top of a hill, you should make sure that you don’t leave the basilica without heading up to the dome that was designed by Michelangelo. The most tiring part of your trip will almost certainly be the journey up to the top of the 117 meter dome, up a narrow spiral staircase. To go all the way to top of the stairs costs 5 euros, and to take an elevator up part of the way costs 7 euros. The view, however, is absolutely worth both the effort and the cost.
Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani)
Don’t be fooled by the fact that they’re referred to in the plural, the museums are just one building. Over the years every pope has added wings and as a result it’s become a complex of many parts. If you happen to be visiting in the summer, you’ll probably have to deal with a massive queue to get in. If you visit the museum in an organized fashion you can save time. As you head toward the exit, you’ll see the “spiral staircase” designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, which never fails to affect me. I believe this is one of the most photographed structures in the world and you as well will revel in its beauty.
Sistine Chapel (Cappella Sistina)
Inside the Vatican Museums is a place that will enthrall you! Once you start staring at the walls and ceiling of the magnificent chapel, you completely lose yourself amidst the vast array of scenes depicted. Even though I’d done plenty of research before my first visit, I still remember being just stunned by the majesty of the work. The chapel’s massive frescoes like “The Creation of Adam” and “The Last Judgment” were originally meant for a place of worship but eventually took on a major role in the rites of the church and the chapel is now used as the meeting site of cardinals for selecting a new Pope.
On the banks of the River Tiber, a 10 minutes’ walk from the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was built originally as a mausoleum to the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family from 130-139AD. In the Middle Ages in order to protect the northern entrance the castle was converted and was used as a home for the popes as well as a prison. Today it serves as a museum. You may remember the use of the Passetto de Borgo in Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons” as an 800 meter tunnel that was used as a way for the popes to escape in periods of danger. At the edge of the castle is Hadrian’s Bridge along the banks of the Tiber. This bridge with its travertine sides is one of Rome’s most beautiful bridges.
After snapping a couple photos of the beautiful Hadrian’s Bridge you can cross to the other side of the river.
This stadium used to be a stadium in ancient Rome, and now it’s one of its most beautiful squares, surrounded by bars and cafes. The square is always packed with people wandering around Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers statue as well as many other works by many other famous architects. The Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) symbolizes the Nile of Africa, the Danube of Europe, the Ganges of Asia and the River Plata of South America. On one corner of the square is the Fontana del Moro and on the other is the Fontana Del Nettuno, while behind the fountains is the Baroque church Sant’Agnese. There are famously many street performers in this square, when the weather is nice and there are open markets in the square you can’t believe how quickly the time flies in Piazza Navona!
Minerva Square (Piazza della Minerva)
This square is smaller and more quiet than Piazza Navona and is home to another work by Bernini (an elephant with an obelisk on its back).
In Greek this means “Temple of All the Gods.” Now “pantheon” can be used to describe a place that houses the tombs of famous people. Originally the Pantheon was built as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome. When you look at the Pantheon from the outside, your eyes are immediately caught by its cylinder shape. As soon as you first step inside, the first thing that you notice is the “oculus” at the top of the dome. “Oculus” is Latin for “eye” and is at the top of the temple. When it rains, rain pours through this center and drains out along the sides. While you’re inside it can seem small, but from the outside you get a full grasp of the enormity of the structure. This still counts as one of the best-preserved structures remaining from the pagan period up to today. This concrete dome is 43 meters in diameter and is one of the most amazing architectural works ever created, and it’s still shrouded in mystery how they managed to build it. The Pantheon has been used has a Christian church since the 7th century and has the distinction of being the oldest reinforced concrete dome in Rome.
Column of Marcus Aurelius (Colonna di Marco Aurelio)
This column’s construction began in 176AD to commemorate Marcus Aurelius’ victories. The column is supposedly exactly the length of 100 Roman feet (about 29 meters) and still stands upright as it did upon its completion. There used to be a similar column in the Istanbul neighborhood of Cerrahpaşa (what used to be known as the Arcadius Forum) of Theodosius I but unfortunately it is no longer standing today.
Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
The Palazzo Poli forms the backdrop to this famous classical and baroque fountain by Nicolò Salvi, and is one of the most famous fountains in the world. It also serves as one of the symbols of Rome. In the 19th century Romans built a waterway to a source 20km away. When the water came in, its source of arrival was the Trevi Fountain. The name of the fountain itself comes from the Italian “tre vie,” or “three roads.” The fountain is located at the junction of three roads, and thus the origins of the name. The fountain depicts a scene highlighted by the god of the sea, with a horse carriage in the shape of seashells and winged horses rising out of the sea.
According to legend, anyone who throws a coin in the fountain will be certain to return to Rome one day. In another telling, those who throw two coins into the fountain will find new love and those who drink from the small fountain on the left will have their love strengthened. Maybe this is why it’s referred to as “the fountain of love” in Turkish. While these are just the tales about the fountain, in reality about 3,000 euros is tossed into the fountain every day.
Toss your coin (and your wish) into the fountain and let’s head on over to another of Rome’s famous places: the Spanish Steps.
The Spanish Steps and Square (Piazza di Spagna)
The Spanish steps were given their name as the Spanish Embassy has been here since the 17th century. The famous stairs were begun in 1723 and completed in 1725, and the French church Trinita dei Monti is connected with the square. The steps are always packed with people; winter/summer, day and night. The Fontana della Barcaccia (Old Boat Fountain) was built with the help of Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1627. The reason the fountain was built in the shape of a boat is that, according to the tales, rain caused the Tiber to flood in 1598, and the whole square was left under water. When the water receded, all that was left was a ship.
Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II (Altare della Patria)
Built between 1885-1911 by Giuseppe Sacconi, this monument was made to honor the first king of united Italy: Vittorio Emanuele II. The monument is made of pure white marble and can be seen from all over the city. Along the monument are long Corinthian columns, a statue of Vittorio Emanuele astride a horse, and on the left and right upper corners on top of the goddess Victoria are four horse statues that show the monument up in all its glory. The monument also houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier built after World War I, and the Museum of Italian Unification.
Capitoline Hill (Capitolinus)
This is the highest hill of Rome’s seven hills. According to Roman mythology, the city was founded in 753BC by Romulus and Remus on the Capitoline Hill. In ancient times, the hill faced the Roman Forum and was surrounded by temples. Between the years 500 and 1540 was home to ruins that provided nothing more than shelter to the animals that lived on the hill. In 1540 Michelangelo redesigned the Capitoline square and its surroundings so that it faced Saint Peter’s. Also located on the hill is the Capitoline Museum, which is the world’s oldest museum after being founded in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV. One of the reasons the museum was first established was to house a bronze statue of Romulus and Remus suckling a she-wolf.
Tarpeian Rock (Rupes Tarpeia)
In ancient Rome, murderers and traitors were executed by being pushed off the rock face to fall to their deaths. According to Roman mythology, the name of the Tarpeian Rock comes from the name of the commander of the Capitoline Castle Spurius Tarpeius’s daughter Tarpeia. According to legend, the Sabines attacked Rome and tried to take the city. One evening Tarpeia saw shining gold bracelets underneath their shields and decided that she wanted them. In return for opening the gates of the city, she was told that she would be given all the bracelets, but after she opened the gates she was killed. There are many other stories relating to the Rape of the Sabines, but this is the main story.
The Arch of Titus
Built to commemorate the suppression of the 70AD Jewish uprising in Jerusalem, this arch was built for the Roman emperor Titus, who reigned between 79-81AD and was known as Titus. His full name was Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus. On the underside of the arch there are figures of a menorah being brought from Jerusalem to Rome. Supposedly this arch inspired the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The Coliseum took 100 years to finish until it was completed in 80AD and still today is the inspiration for the modern stadium. It was the biggest Roman amphitheater built in history. 50,000 people can sit in its stands while another 10,000 fit in the standing room. It’s said that over 5,000 animals were killed within its grounds. It served as the main entertainment center for Rome for 450 years, though in 404AD gladiator fights were ended, and animal hunts ended in 523AD. This entertainment ground has stood in Rome for over 2000 years and it continues to be a focal point for visitors even today.
As with the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar’s most famous saying, “I came, I saw, I conquered (my curiosity)”. I recommend you do the same!