Italy’s vibrant capital lives in the present, but no other city on earth evokes its past so powerfully. For over 2,500 years, emperors, popes, artists, and common citizens have left their mark here. Archaeological remains from ancient Rome, art-stuffed churches and the treasures of Vatican City vie for your attention, but Rome is also a wonderful place to practice the Italian-perfected il dolce far niente, the sweet art of idleness. Your most memorable experiences may include sitting at a caffè in the Campo de’ Fiori or strolling in a beguiling piazza.



The state prison of the Middle Ages has two subterranean cells where Rome’s enemies, most famously the Goth, Jugurtha, and the indomitable Gaul, Vercingetorix, were imprisoned and died of either starvation or strangulation. Legend has it that in the lower cell saints Peter and Paul were imprisoned under Nero, and a miraculous spring of water appeared with which they baptized their jailers. A church, San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, now stands over the prison. The multimedia tour has received mixed reviews: it focuses on the Christian history of the site, and the audio is more fluffy than historical.


In ancient Rome, traitors were hurled to their deaths from here. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tarpeian Rock became a popular stop for people making the Grand Tour because of the view it gave of the Palatine Hill. Today, the Belvedere viewing point has been long shuttered for restoration, but you can proceed a short walk down to Via di Monte Tarpeo, where the view is spectacular enough. It was on this rock that, in the 7th century BC, Tarpeia betrayed the Roman citadel to the early Romans’ sworn enemies, the Sabines, only asking in return to be given the heavy gold bracelets the Sabines wore on their left arm. The scornful Sabines did indeed shower her with their gold, and added the crushing weight of their heavy shields, also carried on their left arms.


During the Middle Ages, this city hall looked like those you might see in Tuscan hill towns: part fortress and part assembly hall. The building was entirely rebuilt in the 1500s as part of Michelangelo’s revamping of the Campidoglio for Pope Paul III; the master’s design was adapted by later architects, who wisely left the front staircase as the focus of the facade. The ancient statue of Minerva at the center was renamed the Goddess Rome, and the river gods (the River Tigris remodeled to symbolize the Tiber, to the right, and the Nile, to the left) were hauled over from the Terme di Costantino on the Quirinal Hill. Today, it is the regional seat of Rome’s Comune administration and is not open to the public.


Surpassed in size and richness only by the Musei Vaticani, this immense collection was the world’s first public museum. A greatest-hits of Roman art through the ages, from the ancients to the Baroque, it’s housed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo which mirror one another across Michelangelo’s famous piazza. The collection was begun by Pope Sixtus IV (the man who built the Sistine Chapel) in 1473 when he donated a room of ancient statuary to the people of the city. This core of the collection includes the She Wolf, which is the symbol of the city, and the piercing gaze of the Capitoline Brutus.

Buy your ticket and enter the Palazzo dei Conservatori where, in the first courtyard, you’ll see the giant head, foot, elbow, and imperially raised finger of the fabled seated statue of Constantine, which once dominated the Basilica of Maxentius in the Forum. Upstairs is the resplendent Salone dei Orazi e Curiazi (Hall of the Horatii and Curatii), decorated with a magnificent gilt ceiling, carved wooden doors, and 16th-century frescoes depicting the history of Rome’s legendary origins. At both ends of the hall are statues of two of the most important popes of the Baroque era, Urban VIII and Innocent X.

The heart of the museum is the modern Exedra of Marcus Aurelius (Sala Marco Aurelio), which displays the spectacular original bronze statue of the Roman emperor whose copy dominates the piazza outside. To the right, the room segues into the area of the Temple of Jupiter, with the ruins of part of its vast base rising organically into the museum space. A reconstruction of the temple and Capitoline Hill from the Bronze Age to the present day makes for a fascinating glimpse through the ages. On the top floor, the museum’s pinacoteca, or painting gallery, has some noted Baroque masterpieces, including Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller and St. John the Baptist.

To get to the Palazzo Nuovo section of the museum, take the stairs or elevator to the basement of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, where the corridor uniting the two contains the Epigraphic Collection, a poignant collection of ancient gravestones. Just over halfway along the corridor, and before going up into the Palazzo Nuovo, be sure to take the staircase to the right to the Tabularium Gallery and its unparalleled view over the Forum.

On the stairs inside the Palazzo Nuovo, you’ll be immediately dwarfed by Mars in full military rig and lion-topped sandals. Upstairs is the noted Sala degli Imperatori, lined with busts of Roman emperors, and the Sala dei Filosofi, where busts of philosophers sit in judgment—a fascinating who’s who of the ancient world. Within these serried ranks are 48 Roman emperors, ranging from Augustus to Theodosius. Nearby are rooms filled with masterpieces, including the legendary Dying Gaul, the Red Faun from Hadrian’s Villa, and a Cupid and Psyche.


Spectacularly transformed by Michelangelo’s late-Renaissance designs, the Campidoglio was once the epicenter of the Roman Empire, the place where the city’s first shrines stood, including its most sacred, the Temple of Jupiter. The Capitoline Hill originally consisted of two peaks: the Capitolium and the Arx (where Santa Maria in Aracoeli now stands). The hollow between them was known as the Asylum. Here, prospective settlers once came to seek the protection of Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome—hence the term “asylum.” Later, during the Republic, in 78 BC, the Tabularium, or Hall of Records, was erected here.

By the Middle Ages, however, the Capitoline had become an unkempt hill strewn with ancient rubble. In preparation for the impending visit of Charles V in 1536, triumphant after the empire’s victory over the Moors, his host, Pope Paul III Farnese, decided that the Holy Roman Emperor should follow the route of the emperors, finishing triumphantly at the Campidoglio. The pope was embarrassed by the decrepit goat pasture the hill had become and so commissioned Michelangelo to restore the site to glory. The resulting design added the third palace along with Renaissance-style facades and a grand paved piazza. Newly excavated ancient sculptures, designed to impress the visiting emperor, were installed in the palaces, and the piazza was ornamented with the giant stone figures of the Discouri and the ancient Roman equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. A copy of this extraordinary statue is still the piazza’s centerpiece (the 2nd-century original has been housed in the neighboring Musei Capitolini since 1999).

While there are great views of the Roman Forum from the terrace balconies to either side of the Palazzo Senatorio, the best view is from the 1st century BC Tabularium, now part of the Musei Capitolini. The museum café is on the Terrazza Caffarelli, with a magical view toward Trastevere and St. Peter’s, and is accessible without a museum ticket.


This majestic arch was erected in AD 315 to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. It was just before this battle, in AD 312, that Constantine—the emperor who converted Rome to Christianity—legendarily had a vision of a cross and heard the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” Many of the rich marble decorations for the arch were scavenged from earlier monuments, both saving money and placing Constantine in line with the great emperors of the past. It is easy to picture ranks of Roman centurions marching under the great barrel vault.


The most spectacular extant edifice of ancient Rome, the Colosseum has a history that is half gore, half glory. Here, before 50,000 spectators, gladiators would salute the emperor and cry Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant (“Hail, emperor, men soon to die salute thee”).

Senators had marble seats up front and the Vestal Virgins took the ringside position, while the plebs sat in wooden tiers at the back, then the masses above on the top tier. Over all was the amazing velarium, an ingenious system of sail-like awnings rigged on ropes and maneuvered by sailors from the imperial fleet, who would unfurl them to protect the arena’s occupants from sun or rain.

From the second floor, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the hypogeum: the subterranean passageways that were the architectural engine rooms that made the slaughter above proceed like clockwork (visitable via pre-booked tour). In a scene prefiguring something from Dante’s Inferno, hundreds of beasts would wait to be eventually launched via a series of slave-powered hoists and lifts into the bloodthirsty sand of the arena above.

Designed by order of the Flavian emperor Vespasian in AD 72, the arena has a circumference of 573 yards and was faced with travertine from nearby Tivoli. Its construction was a remarkable feat of engineering, for it stands on marshy terrain reclaimed by draining an artificial lake on the grounds of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Originally known as the Flavian amphitheater, it came to be called the Colosseo because the Colossus of Nero, a 115-foot-tall gilded bronze statue of the emperor, once stood nearby.

Legend has it that as long as the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand; and when Rome falls, so will the world … not that the prophecy deterred Renaissance princes (and even a pope) from using the Colosseum as a quarry. In the 19th century, poets came to view the arena by moonlight; today, mellow golden spotlights make the arena a spectacular sight at night.

Are there ways to beat the ticket lines at the Colosseum? First off, if you go to the Roman Forum, a couple of hundred yards down Via dei Fori Imperiali on your left, or to the Palatine, down Via di San Gregorio, the €12 ticket you purchase there includes admission to the Colosseum and, even better, lets you jump to the head of the long line. Another way is to buy the Romapass ( ticket, which includes the Colosseo. You can also book a ticket in advance through (for a €2 surcharge). Or you can book a tour online with a company (do your research to make sure it’s reputable) that lets you skip the line. Avoid the tours sold on-the-spot around the Colosseum; although you can skip the lines, the tour guides tend to be dry, the tour groups huge, and the tour itself rushed.


Rome’s first walls were erected in the 6th century BC, but the ancient city greatly expanded over the next few centuries, and when Rome was at its peak, it didn’t need walls. But in the 3rd century AD, Emperor Aurelian commissioned a 12-mile wall to protect the city, which was considered by many a sign of weakness. Indeed just over a century later, those walls were breached for the first time in a siege which would herald the end of the Empire. The ancient walls would eventually become the fortifications of the papal city, and would remain in use for 16 centuries until the Unification of Italy in 1870. Studding the Aurelian Walls were 18 main gates, the best preserved of which is the Porta di San Sebastiano at the entrance to the Via Appia Antica. That gate is also home to a small museum that allows visitors to walk a section of the ancient ramparts, from which there are wonderful views. Note that the museum closes relatively early at 2 pm.


Peek through the keyhole of the Priorato di Malta, the walled compound of the Knights of Malta, and you’ll get a surprising eyeful: a picture-perfect view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, far across the city. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 18th-century Rome’s foremost engraver, is more famous for rendering architecture than for realizing it, yet the square is his work along with the priory (1765) within. Stone insignia of the Knights notwithstanding, the square’s most famed feature is that initially nondescript keyhole in the dark green door of No. 3. Bend slightly and surprise your eyes with a view that is worth walking miles for. As for the Order of the Knights of Malta, it is the world’s oldest and most exclusive order of chivalry, founded in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Though nominally ministering to the sick in those early days—a role that has since become the order’s raison d’être—the knights amassed huge tracts of land in the Middle East. From 1530 they were based on the Mediterranean island of Malta, but in 1798 Napoléon expelled them and, in 1834, they established themselves in Rome. Tours are sometimes available if you would like to go inside; call for information.


Although this is one of Rome’s oldest churches, with a haunting, almost exotic interior, it plays second fiddle to the renowned artifact installed in the church portico. The Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) is in reality nothing more than an ancient drain cover, unearthed during the Middle Ages. Legend has it, however, that the teeth will clamp down on a liar’s hand, and to tell a lie with your hand in the fearsome mouth is to risk losing it. Hordes of tourists line up to take the test every day (kids especially get a kick out of it), although entering the church itself requires no wait. Few churches, inside or out, are as picturesque as this one. The church was built in the 6th century for the city’s burgeoning Greek population. Heavily restored at the end of the 19th century, it has the typical basilica form and stands across from the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, originally the location of the Forum Boarium, ancient Rome’s cattle market, and later the site of public executions.


Although this is one of Rome’s oldest churches, with a haunting, almost exotic interior, it plays second fiddle to the renowned artifact installed in the church portico. The Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth) is in reality nothing more than an ancient drain cover, unearthed during the Middle Ages. Legend has it, however, that the teeth will clamp down on a liar’s hand, and to tell a lie with your hand in the fearsome mouth is to risk losing it. Hordes of tourists line up to take the test every day (kids especially get a kick out of it), although entering the church itself requires no wait. Few churches, inside or out, are as picturesque as this one. The church was built in the 6th century for the city’s burgeoning Greek population. Heavily restored at the end of the 19th century, it has the typical basilica form and stands across from the Piazza della Bocca della Verità, originally the location of the Forum Boarium, ancient Rome’s cattle market, and later the site of public executions.


A former monastery, founded by monks of the order of San Saba after they fled Jerusalem following the Arab invasion, this is a major monument of Romanesque Rome. Inside, an almost rustic interior harbors a famed Cosmatesque mosaic pavement and a hodgepodge of ancient marble pieces.


This early Christian basilica demonstrates the severe but lovely simplicity common to churches of its era. Although some of the side chapels were added in the 16th and 17th centuries, the essential form is as Rome’s Christians knew it in the 5th century. Once bright with mosaics, today the church has only one: that above the entrance door (its gold letters announce how the church was founded by Peter of Illyria, “rich for the poor,” under Pope Celestine I). Meanwhile, the mosaics in the apse have been at least partially reproduced in Taddeo Zuccari’s Renaissance fresco of Christ and his apostles. The beautifully carved, 5th-century cedar doors to the left of the outside entrance are the oldest of their kind in existence.


A picture-perfect, if dollhouse-size, Roman temple, this rectangular edifice from the 2nd century BC is built in the Greek style. Positioned by the old river port and long known as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis (“Manly Fortune”), it was appropriately dedicated to Portunus, the protector of ports. It owes its fine state of preservation to the fact that it was consecrated as a church.


The Terme di Caracalla are some of Rome’s most massive—yet least visited—ruins. They’re also a peek into how Romans turned “bathing” into one of the most lavish leisure activities imaginable.

Begun in AD 206 by the emperor Septimius Severus and completed by his son, Caracalla, the 28-acre complex could accommodate 1,600 bathers at a time. Along with an Olympic-size swimming pool and baths, the complex also had two gymnasiums for weightlifting, boxing, and wrestling; a library with both Latin and Greek texts; and gardens. All the services depended on slaves, who checked clients’ robes, rubbed them down, and saw to all of their needs. Under the magnificent marble pavement of the stately halls, other slaves toiled in a warren of tiny rooms and passages, stoking the fires that heated the water.

Taking a bath was a long and complex process—which makes more sense if you see it, first and foremost, as a social activity. You began in the sudatoria, a series of small rooms resembling saunas, where you sat and sweated. From these you moved to the caldarium, a large, circular room that was humid rather than simply hot. This was where the actual business of washing went on. You used a strigil, or scraper, to get the dirt off; if you were rich, your slave did this for you. Next stop: the warm(-ish) tepidarium, which helped you start cooling down. Finally, you splashed around in the frigidarium, a swimming pool filled with cold water.

Today, the complex is a shell of its former self. Some black-and-white mosaic fragments remain, but you’ll need your imagination to see the interior as it would have been, filled with opulent mosaics, frescoes, and sculptures. But for getting a sense of the sheer size of ancient Rome’s ambitions, few places are better. The walls still tower, the spaces still dwarf, and—if you try—you almost can hear the laughs of long-gone bathers, splashing in the pools. If you’re here in summer, don’t miss the chance to catch an open-air opera or ballet in the baths, put on by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.


As suggested by the paths shaped like a menorah, what is now the city rose garden was once a Jewish cemetery: one tombstone is still visible on the side of the garden across from Valle Murcia, the name for the swamp that once separated this area from the Palatine. The garden is laid out to reflect the history of roses from antiquity to the present day. If you happen to be in town when the roses are in bloom, stop by: it’s closed the rest of the year.


Long called the Temple of Vesta because of its similarity in shape to the building of that name in the Roman Forum, it’s now recognized as the Temple of Hercules Victor. All but one of the 20 Corinthian columns of this evocative ruin remain intact. Like its next-door neighbor, the Tempio di Portuno, it was built in the 2nd century BC. The little park around the temples have benches to rest weary feet.


After visiting Rome’s many old palazzi, the Centrale Montemartini feels like a breath of fresh air. Rome’s first electricity plant, reopened as a permanent museum in 2005, houses the overflow of ancient art from the Musei Capitolini collection. With Roman sculptures and mosaics set against industrial machinery and pipes, nowhere else in Rome is the contrast between ancient and modern more apparent or enjoyable. A pleasure, too, is the sheer space of the building—but even better than soaring ceilings and high walls is the fact that you’re likely to be one of the only visitors here, making it the perfect stop for those feeling claustrophobic from Rome’s crowds. Unusually, the collection is organized by the area in which the ancient pieces were found. Highlights include the 4th-century-AD mosaic of a hunting scene, complete with horseman driving his sword into a boar, and the two portrait heads, so well preserved that they still, incredibly, retain flakes of the gold that once gilded them.


Piled up against the ancient Aurelian Walls, this famed cemetery was intended for the interment of non-Catholics. This is where you’ll find the tomb of John Keats, who tragically died in Rome after succumbing to consumption at age 25 in 1821. The stone is famously inscribed, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” (the poet requested that no name or dates should appear). Nearby is the place where Shelley’s heart was buried, as well as the tombs of Goethe’s son, founder of the Italian Communist Party and vehement anti-Fascist Antonio Gramsci, and America’s famed beat poet Gregory Corso. The cemetery is about a 20-minute walk south from the Arco di Constantino along Via San Gregorio and Viale Aventino, but the easiest way to get here is to catch the Metro Linea B from Termini station to the Piramide stop just around the corner from the entrance to the cemetery.


This monumental tomb was designed in 12 BC for the immensely wealthy praetor Gaius Cestius in the form of a 120-foot-tall pyramid; according to an inscription, it was completed in a little less than a year. Though little else is known about him, he clearly had a taste for grandeur and liked to show off his travels to far parts of the nascent empire. The pyramid was recently restored in a project funded by a €1 million donation from Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi.


A couple of Metro stops farther down Via Ostiense from Testaccio, in a rather dreary location near the river, St. Paul’s is one of Rome’s most historic and important churches. Its size, second only to St. Peter’s Basilica, allows ample space for the 272 roundels depicting every pope from St. Peter to the current Pope Francis (found below the ceiling, with spaces left blank for pontiffs to come). Built in the 4th century AD by Constantine over the site where St. Paul had been buried, the church was later enlarged, but in July 1823, a fire burned it almost to the ground. Although the rebuilt St. Paul’s has a sort of monumental grandeur, it’s only in the cloisters (€4) that you get a real sense of the magnificence of the original building. In the middle of the nave is the famous baldacchino created by sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio.


Set amid the greenery of the Celian Hill, this church wears its Baroque facade proudly. Dedicated to St. Gregory the Great (who served as pope 590–604), it was built about 750 by Pope Gregory II to commemorate his predecessor and namesake. The church of San Gregorio itself has the appearance of a typical Baroque structure, the result of remodeling in the 17th and 18th centuries. But you can still see what’s said to be the stone slab on which the pious St. Gregory the Great slept; it’s in the far right-hand chapel. Outside are three chapels. The right chapel is dedicated to Gregory’s mother, Saint Sylvia, and contains a Guido Reni fresco of the Concert of Angels. The chapel in the center, dedicated to Saint Andrew, contains two monumental frescoes showing scenes from the saint’s life. They were painted at the beginning of the 17th century by Domenichino (The Flagellation of St. Andrew) and Guido Reni (The Execution of St. Andrew). It’s a striking juxtaposition of the sturdy, if sometimes stiff, classicism of Domenichino with the more flamboyant and heroic Baroque manner of Guido Reni.


Perched up the incline of the Clivio di Scauro—a magical time-machine of a street, where the dial seems to be stuck somewhere in the 13th century—Santi Giovanni e Paolo is an image that would tempt most landscape painters. Marked by one of Rome’s finest Romanesque bell towers, it looms over a picturesque piazza. Underneath, however, are other treasures, whose excavations can be seen in the Case Romane del Celio museum. A basilica erected on the spot was, like San Clemente, destroyed in 1084 by attacking Normans. Its half-buried columns, near the current church entrance, are visible through misty glass. The current church’s origins date to the start of the 12th century, but most of the interior dates to the 17th century and later. The lovely, incongruous chandeliers are a hand-me-down from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, a gift arranged by the late Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, whose titular church this was. Spellman also initiated the excavations here in 1949.


Situated on one of those evocative cul-de-sacs in Rome where history seems to be holding its breath, this church is strongly imbued with the sanctity of the Romanesque era. Marvelously redolent of the Middle Ages, this is one of the most unusual and unexpected corners in Rome, a quiet citadel that has resisted the tides of time and traffic. The church, which dates back to the 4th century, honors the Four Crowned Saints: the four brothers Severus, Severianus, Carpophorus, and Victorinus, all Roman officials who were whipped to death for their faith by Emperor Diocletian (284–305). After its 9th century reconstruction, the church was twice as large as it is now; the abbey was partially destroyed during the Normans’ sack of Rome in 1084 but reconstructed about 30 years later. This explains the inordinate size of the apse in relation to the small nave. Don’t miss the cloister, with its well-tended gardens and 12th-century fountain. The entrance is the door in the left nave; ring the bell if it’s not open.

There’s another medieval gem hidden away off the courtyard at the church entrance: the Chapel of San Silvestro. (Enter the door marked “Monache Agostiniane” and ring the bell at the left for the nun; give her the appropriate donation through a grate, and she will press a button to open the chapel door.) The chapel has remained, for the most part, as it was when consecrated in 1246. Some of the best-preserved medieval frescoes in Rome decorate the walls, telling the story of the Christian emperor Constantine’s recovery from leprosy thanks to Pope Sylvester I. Note, too, the delightful Last Judgment fresco above the door, in which the angel on the left neatly rolls up sky and stars like a backdrop, signaling the end of the world.


This 5th-century church is thought to have been inspired by the design of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Its unusual round plan and timbered ceiling set it apart from most other Roman churches. So do the frescoes, which lovingly depict 34 of the goriest martyrdoms in Catholicism—a catalogue, above the names of different emperors, of every type of violent death conceivable. (You’ve been warned: these are not for the fainthearted.)


One of the most impressive archaeological sites in Rome, San Clemente is a historical triple-decker. A 12th-century church was built on top of a 4th-century church, which had been built over a 2nd-century pagan temple to the god Mithras and 1st-century Roman apartments. The layers were uncovered in 1857, when a curious prior, Friar Joseph Mullooly, started excavations beneath the present basilica. Today, you can descend to explore all three.

The upper church (at street level) is a gem in its own right. In the apse, a glittering 12th-century mosaic shows Jesus on a cross that turns into a living tree. Green acanthus leaves swirl and teem with small scenes of everyday life. Early Christian symbols, including doves, vines, and fish, decorate the 4th-century marble choir screens. In the left nave, the Castiglioni chapel holds frescoes painted around 1400 by the Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale (1383–1440), a key figure in the introduction of realism and one-point perspective into Renaissance painting. Note the large Crucifixion and scenes from the lives of Saints Catherine, Ambrose, and Christopher, plus the Annunciation (over the entrance).

To the right of the sacristy (and bookshop), descend the stairs to the 4th-century church, used until 1084, when it was damaged beyond repair during a siege of the area by the Norman prince Robert Guiscard. Still intact are some vibrant 11th-century frescoes depicting stories from the life of St. Clement. Don’t miss the last fresco on the left, in what used to be the central nave. It includes a particularly colorful quote—including “Go on, you sons of harlots, pull!”—that’s not only unusual for a religious painting, but one of the earliest examples of written vernacular Italian.

Descend an additional set of stairs to the mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the god Mithras. His cult spread from Persia and gained a foothold in Rome during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Mithras was believed to have been born in a cave and was thus worshipped in cavernous, underground chambers, where initiates into the all-male cult would share a meal while reclining on stone couches, some visible here along with the altar block. Most such pagan shrines in Rome were destroyed by Christians, who often built churches over their remains, as happened here.


Formerly accessible only through the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, this important ancient Roman excavation was opened in 2002 as a museum in its own right. An underground honeycomb of rooms, the site comprises the lower levels of a so-called insula, or apartment block, the heights of which were a wonder to ancient Roman contemporaries. Through the door on the left of the Clivo di Scauro lane a portico leads to the Room of the Genie, where painted figures grace the walls virtually untouched over two millennia. Farther on is the Confessio altar of Saint John and Saint Paul, officials at Constantine’s court who were executed under Julian the Apostate. Still, lower is the Antiquarium, where state-of-the-art lighting showcases amphorae, pots, and ancient Roman bricks, with stamps so fresh they might have been imprinted yesterday.


The massive 1st-century-AD arch was built as part of the original Aqua Claudia and then incorporated into the walls hurriedly erected in the late 3rd century as Rome’s fortunes began to decline; the great arch of the aqueduct subsequently became a porta (city gate). It gives an idea of the grand scale of ancient Roman public works. On the Piazzale Labicano side, to the east, is the curious Baker’s Tomb, erected in the 1st century BC by a prosperous baker (predating both the aqueduct and the city walls); it’s shaped like an oven to signal the deceased’s trade. The site is now in the middle of a public transport node, and is close to Rome’s first tram depot (going back to 1889).


This small, inconspicuous 9th-century church is known above all for the exquisite Cappella di San Zenone, just to the left of the entrance. It gleams with vivid mosaics that reflect their Byzantine inspiration. Though much less classical and naturalistic than the earlier mosaics of Santa Pudenziana, they are no less splendid, and the composition of four angels hovering on the sky-blue vault is one of the masterstrokes of Byzantine art. Note the square halo over the head of Theodora, mother of St. Paschal I, the pope who built this church. It indicates that she was still alive when she was depicted by the artist. The chapel also contains one curious relic: a miniature pillar, supposedly part of the column at which Christ was flogged during the Passion. It was brought to Rome in the 13th century. Over the main altar, the magnificent mosaics on the arch and apse are also in rigid Byzantine style. In them, Pope Paschal I wears the square halo of the living and holds a model of his church.


Apart from Ravenna, Rome has some of the most opulent mosaics in Italy, and this church has one of the most striking examples. Commissioned during the papacy of Innocent I, its early 5th-century apse mosaic represents Christ Teaching the Apostles and sits above a Baroque altarpiece surrounded by a bevy of florid 18th-century paintings. The mosaic is remarkable for its iconography; at the center sits Christ Enthroned, shown as an emperor or as a philosopher holding court, surrounded by his apostles. Each apostle faces the spectator, literally rubbing shoulders with his companion (unlike later hieratic styles in which each figure is isolated), and bears an individualized expression. Above these figures and a landscape symbolizing Heavenly Jerusalem float the signs of the four evangelists in a blue sky flecked with the orange of sunset, made from thousands of tesserae (mosaic tiles).

To either side of Christ, Sts. Praxedes and Pudentiana hold wreaths over the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul. These two women were actually daughters of the Roman senator Pudens (probably the one mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21), whose family befriended both apostles. During the persecutions of Nero, both sisters collected the blood of many martyrs before suffering their fate. Pudentiana transformed her house into a church, but her namesake church was constructed over a 2nd-century bathhouse. Beyond the sheer beauty of the mosaic work, the size, rich detail, and number of figures make this both the last gasp of ancient Roman art and one of the first monuments of early Christianity.


Michelangelo’s Moses, carved in the early 16th century for the never-completed tomb of Pope Julius II, has put this church on the map. The tomb was to include dozens of statues and stand nearly 40 feet tall when installed in St. Peter’s Basilica. But only three statues—Moses and the two that flank it here, Leah and Rachel—had been completed when Julius died. Julius’s successor as pope, from the rival Medici family, had other plans for Michelangelo, and the tomb was abandoned unfinished. The fierce power of this remarkable sculpture dominates its setting. People say that you can see the sculptor’s profile in the lock of Moses’s beard right under his lip, and that the pope’s profile can also be seen. As for the rest of the church, St. Peter takes second billing to Moses. The reputed sets of chains (vincoli) that bound St. Peter during his imprisonment by the Romans in both Jerusalem and Rome are in a bronze and crystal urn under the main altar. Other treasures include a 7th-century mosaic of St. Sebastian, in front of the second altar to the left of the main altar, and, by the door, the tomb of the Pollaiuolo brothers, two lesser 15th-century Florentine artists.


Despite its florid 18th-century facade, Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in Rome, built around 440 by Pope Sixtus III. One of the four great pilgrimage churches of Rome, it’s also the city center’s best example of an Early Christian basilica—one of the immense, hall-like structures derived from ancient Roman civic buildings and divided into thirds by two great rows of columns marching up the nave. The other three major basilicas in Rome (San Giovanni in Laterano, Basilica di San Pietro, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) have been largely rebuilt. Paradoxically, the major reason why this church is such a striking example of Early Christian design is that the same man who built the undulating exteriors circa 1740, Ferdinando Fuga, also conscientiously restored the interior, throwing out later additions and, crucially, replacing a number of the great columns.

Precious 5th-century mosaics high on the nave walls and on the triumphal arch in front of the main altar bear splendid testimony to the basilica’s venerable age. Those along the nave show 36 scenes from the Old Testament (unfortunately, tough to see clearly without binoculars), and those on the arch illustrate the Annunciation and the Youth of Christ. The resplendent carved-wood ceiling dates to the early 16th century; it’s supposed to have been gilded with the first gold brought from the New World. The inlaid marble pavement (called Cosmatesque, after the family of master artisans who developed the technique) in the central nave is even older, dating to the 12th century.

The Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel), in the right-hand transept, was created by architect Domenico Fontana for Pope Sixtus V in 1585. Elaborately decorated with precious marbles “liberated” from the monuments of ancient Rome, the chapel includes a lower-level museum in which some 13th-century sculptures by Arnolfo da Cambio are all that’s left of what was the once richly endowed chapel of the presepio (Christmas crèche), looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

Directly opposite, on the church’s other side, stands the Cappella Paolina (Pauline Chapel), a rich Baroque setting for the tombs of the Borghese popes Paul V—who commissioned the chapel in 1611 with the declared intention of outdoing Sixtus’s chapel across the nave—and Clement VIII. The Cappella Sforza (Sforza Chapel) next door was designed by Michelangelo and completed by Della Porta. Just right of the altar, next to his father, lies Gian Lorenzo Bernini; his monument is an engraved slab, as humble as the tombs of his patrons are grand. Above the loggia, the outside mosaic of Christ raising his hand in blessing is one of Rome’s most beautiful sights, especially when lighted at night. The loggia mosaics can be seen close-up by following a 30-minute guided tour (€5). Tours run roughly every hour, though have no fixed timetable. For information or to join either tour, go through the souvenir shop inside the church on the right and down the stairs to the right to the museum entrance.


According to tradition, the Scala Santa was the staircase from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem—and, therefore, the one trod by Christ himself. St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, brought the 28 marble steps to Rome in 326. As they have for centuries, pilgrims still come to climb the steps on their knees. At the top, they can get a glimpse of the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), the richly decorated private papal chapel containing an image of Christ “not made by human hands.” You can sneak a peek, too, by taking one of the (nonsanctified) staircases on either side. The splendid Sancta Sanctorum—the Pope’s private chapel long before the Sistine Chapel—is itself visitable, and well worth the price of admission.


The cathedral of Rome is San Giovanni in Laterano, not St. Peter’s. The church was built here by Emperor Constantine 10 years before he built the church dedicated to Peter, and because of its primacy it is the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome—also known as the Pope. Constantine obtained the land from the wealthy Laterani family and donated it to the Church. But thanks to vandals, earthquakes, and fires, today’s building owes most of its form to 16th- and 17th-century restorations, including an interior designed by Baroque genius Borromini. Before you go inside, look up: at the top of the towering facade, built for Pope Clement X in 1736, 15 colossal statues (the 12 apostles plus Christ, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary) stand watch over the suburbs spreading from Porta San Giovanni.

Despite the church’s Baroque design, some earlier fragments do remain. Under the portico on the left stands an ancient statue of Constantine, while the central portal’s ancient bronze doors were brought here from the Forum’s Curia. Inside, the fragment of a fresco on the first pillar is attributed to the 14th-century Florentine painter Giotto; it depicts Pope Boniface VIII proclaiming the first Holy Year in 1300. The altar’s rich Gothic tabernacle—holding what the faithful believe are the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul—dates to 1367. Head to the last chapel at the end of the left aisle to check out the cloister. Encrusted with 12th-century Cosmatesque mosaics by father-and-son team the Vassallettos, it’s a break from the Baroque . . . and from the big tour groups that tend to fill the church’s interior. Around the corner, meanwhile, stands one of the oldest Christian structures in Rome. Emperor Constantine built the standalone octagonal Baptistery in AD 315. Despite several restorations, a 17th-century interior redecoration, and even a Mafia-related car bombing in 1993, the Baptistery remains much as it would have been in ancient times.


According to tradition, the Scala Santa was the staircase from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem—and, therefore, the one trod by Christ himself. St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, brought the 28 marble steps to Rome in 326. As they have for centuries, pilgrims still come to climb the steps on their knees. At the top, they can get a glimpse of the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), the richly decorated private papal chapel containing an image of Christ “not made by human hands.” You can sneak a peek, too, by taking one of the (nonsanctified) staircases on either side. The splendid Sancta Sanctorum—the Pope’s private chapel long before the Sistine Chapel—is itself visitable, and well worth the price of admission.


The cathedral of Rome is San Giovanni in Laterano, not St. Peter’s. The church was built here by Emperor Constantine 10 years before he built the church dedicated to Peter, and because of its primacy it is the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome—also known as the Pope. Constantine obtained the land from the wealthy Laterani family and donated it to the Church. But thanks to vandals, earthquakes, and fires, today’s building owes most of its form to 16th- and 17th-century restorations, including an interior designed by Baroque genius Borromini. Before you go inside, look up: at the top of the towering facade, built for Pope Clement X in 1736, 15 colossal statues (the 12 apostles plus Christ, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary) stand watch over the suburbs spreading from Porta San Giovanni.

Despite the church’s Baroque design, some earlier fragments do remain. Under the portico on the left stands an ancient statue of Constantine, while the central portal’s ancient bronze doors were brought here from the Forum’s Curia. Inside, the fragment of a fresco on the first pillar is attributed to the 14th-century Florentine painter Giotto; it depicts Pope Boniface VIII proclaiming the first Holy Year in 1300. The altar’s rich Gothic tabernacle—holding what the faithful believe are the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul—dates to 1367. Head to the last chapel at the end of the left aisle to check out the cloister. Encrusted with 12th-century Cosmatesque mosaics by father-and-son team the Vassallettos, it’s a break from the Baroque . . . and from the big tour groups that tend to fill the church’s interior. Around the corner, meanwhile, stands one of the oldest Christian structures in Rome. Emperor Constantine built the standalone octagonal Baptistery in AD 315. Despite several restorations, a 17th-century interior redecoration, and even a Mafia-related car bombing in 1993, the Baptistery remains much as it would have been in ancient times.


Rome’s second Jesuit church, this 17th-century landmark harbors some of the most city’s magnificent trompe-l’oeil. To get the full effect of the marvelous illusionistic ceiling by priest-artist Andrea Pozzo, stand on the small disk set into the floor of the nave. The heavenly vision above you, seemingly extending upward almost indefinitely, represents the Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits and is part of Pozzo’s cycle of works in this church exalting the early history of the Jesuit Order, whose founder was the reformer Ignatius of Loyola. The saint soars heavenward, supported by a cast of thousands; not far behind is Saint Francis Xavier, apostle of the Indies, leading a crowd of Eastern converts; a bare-breasted, spear-wielding America in American Indian headdress rides a jaguar; Europe with crown and scepter sits serene on a heftily rumped horse; while a splendid Africa with gold tiara perches on a lucky crocodile. The artist repeated this illusionist technique, so popular in the late 17th century, in the false dome, which is actually a flat canvas—a trompe-l’oeil trick used when the budget drained dry. The overall effect of the frescoes is dazzling (be sure to have coins handy for the machine that switches on the lights) and was fully intended to rival that produced by Baciccia in the nearby mother church of Il Gesù. Scattered around the nave are several awe-inspiring altars; their soaring columns, gold-on-gold decoration, and gilded statues make these the last word in splendor. The church is often host to concerts of sacred music performed by choirs from all over the world.


This amusing palazzo was designed in 1591 by noted painter Federico Zuccaro to form a monster’s face. Typical of the outré Mannerist style of the period, the eyes are the house’s windows and the entrance portal is through the monster’s mouth. Zuccaro (1540–1609)—whose frescoes adorn many Roman churches, including Trinità dei Monti just up the block—sank all of his money into his new home, dying in debt before his curious memorial, as it turned out to be, was completed. Today, it is home to the German state-run Bibliotheca Hertziana, a prestigious fine-arts library. Access is reserved for scholars, but the pristine facade can be admired for free. Leading up to the quaint Piazza della Trinità del Monti, the nearby Via Gregoriana is quite charming and has long been one of Rome’s most elegant addresses, home to such residents as 19th-century French painter Ingres and Valentino’s first couture salon.


At the left foot of the Spanish Steps is Babington’s Tea Rooms, which has catered to the refined cravings of Anglo-Saxon travelers since opening in 1896. The “Inglesi” had long been a mainstay of Grand Tour visitors to Rome, so Anna Maria Babington found her “corner of England” a great success from the start. Inside, it is molto charming, and you half-expect to see Miss Lavish buttering a scone for Lucy Honeychurch—but it’s not a budgeteer’s cup of tea.


Standing high above the Spanish Steps, this 16th-century church has a rare double-tower facade, suggestive of late–French Gothic style; in fact, the French crown paid for the church’s construction. Today, it is beautiful primarily for its dramatic location and magnificent views.


This vibrant monument of the Imperial age is housed in one of Rome’s newest architectural landmarks: a gleaming, rectangular glass-and-travertine structure designed by American architect Richard Meier. Overlooking the Tiber on one side and the ruins of the marble-clad Mausoleo di Augusto (Mausoleum of Augustus) on the other, the result is a serene, luminous oasis right in the center of Rome. The altar itself dates back to 13 BC; it was commissioned to celebrate the Pax Romana, the era of peace ushered in by Augustus’s military victories. Like all ancient Roman monuments of this kind, you have to imagine its spectacular and moving relief sculptures painted in vibrant colors, now long gone. The reliefs on the short sides portray myths associated with Rome’s founding and glory; the long sides display a procession of the imperial family. It’s fun to try to play “who’s who”—although half of his body is missing, Augustus is identifiable as the first full-figure at the procession’s head on the south-side frieze—but academics still argue over exact identifications of other figures. The small museum has a model and useful information about the Ara Pacis’s original location and the surrounding Augustan monuments.


Inspired by Trajan’s Column, this 2nd-century-AD column is composed of 27 blocks of marble covered in reliefs recording Marcus Aurelius’s victory over the Germanic tribes. A bronze statue of St. Paul, which replaced the effigy of Marcus Aurelius in the 16th century, stands at the top. The column is the centerpiece of Piazza Colonna.


At the foot of the Spanish Steps, this curious, half-sunken boat in Piazza di Spagna is powered by Rome’s only surviving ancient aqueduct, the Acqua Vergine. The fountain’s design, a ship sinking into the piazza, is a clever solution to low water pressure and was created by fountain genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini, together with his father Pietro. The project was commissioned by Barberini Pope Urban VIII as part of his restoration, which had built up considerably during the 17th century, of the ancient aqueduct in an effort to bring more water to the area, . The bees and suns on the boat are symbols of the Barberini family. Some insist that the Berninis intended the fountain to be a reminder that this part of town was often flooded by the Tiber; others claim that it represents the Ship of the Church; and still others think that it marks the presumed site of the emperor Domitian’s water stadium in which sea battles were reenacted in the glory days of the Roman Empire.


The huge white mass of the “Vittoriano” is an inescapable landmark—Romans say you can only avoid looking at it if you’re actually standing on it. Some have likened it to a huge wedding cake; others, to an immense typewriter. Though not held in the highest esteem by present-day citizens, it was the source of great civic pride at the time of its construction at the turn of the 20th century. To create this elaborate marble monster and the vast piazza on which it stands, architects blithely destroyed many ancient and medieval buildings and altered the slope of the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill), which abuts it. Built to honor the unification of Italy and the nation’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II, it also shelters the eternal flame at the tomb of Italy’s Unknown Soldier killed during World War I. The flame is guarded day and night by sentinels, while inside the building there is the (rather dry) Institute of the History of the Risorgimento. You can’t avoid the Monumento, so enjoy neo-imperial grandiosity at its most bombastic.

The views from the top are some of Rome’s most panoramic. The only way up is by elevator (located to the right as you face the monument); stop at the museum entrances (to the left and right of the structure) to get a pamphlet identifying the sculpture groups on the monument itself and the landmarks you will be able to see once at the top. Opposite the monument, note the enclosed olive-green wooden veranda fronting the palace on the corner of Via del Plebiscito and Via del Corso. For the many years that she lived in Rome, Napoléon’s mother had a fine view of the local goings-on from this spot. The monument also houses the Caffetteria Italia, which has great views and follows the same hours as the elevator.


Rome’s grandest family built themselves Rome’s grandest private palazzo, a fusion of 17th- and 18th-century buildings on a spot they have occupied for a millennium. It’s so immense that it faces Piazza dei Santi Apostoli on one side and the Quirinale (Quirinal Hill) on the other (a little bridge over Via della Pilotta links the palace with the gardens on the hill). While still home to some Colonna patricians, the palace also holds the family picture gallery, which is open to the public on Saturday mornings. The gallery is itself a setting of aristocratic grandeur; you might recognize the Sala Grande as the site where Audrey Hepburn meets the press in Roman Holiday. At one end looms the ancient red marble column (colonna in Italian), which is the family’s emblem; above the vast room is the spectacular ceiling fresco of the Battle of Lepanto painted by Giovanni Coli and Filippo Gherardi in 1675—the center scene almost puts the computer-generated special effects of Hollywood to shame. Adding redundant luster to the opulently stuccoed and frescoed salons are works by Poussin, Tintoretto, and Veronese, and a number of portraits of illustrious members of the family such as Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo’s muse and longtime friend, and Marcantonio Colonna, who led the papal forces in the great naval victory at Lepanto in 1577. Lost in the array of madonnas, saints, goddesses, popes, and cardinals is Annibale Carracci’s lonely Beaneater, spoon at the ready and front teeth missing. (As W. H. Auden put it, “Grub first, art later.”) At noon, there’s a guided tour in English, included in your entrance fee. The gallery also boasts a caffè with a pleasant terrace when weather permits.


Centerpiece of the eponymous piazza, this palace was originally built for Venetian cardinal Pietro Barbo, who became Pope Paul II. It was also the backdrop used by Mussolini to harangue crowds with dreams of empire from the balcony over the main portal. Lights were left on through the night during his reign to suggest that the Fascist leader worked without pause. The palace shows a mixture of Early Renaissance grace and heavy Late Medieval lines; rooms include frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and an Algardi sculpture of Pope Innocent X. The loggia has a pleasant view over the tranquil garden courtyard, a million miles away from the chaos of Piazza Venezia on the other side of the building. The ticket price includes an audio guide.


Copies may have replaced Bernini’s original angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, but two of the originals can be found here, to either side of the choir. The door in the right aisle leads into one of Rome’s hidden gardens, where orange trees bloom in the cloister. Borromini’s fantastic contributions—the dome and a curious bell tower with its droop-winged angels looking out over the city—are best seen from Via di Capo le Case, across Via dei Due Macelli.


The geographic heart of the city, this is the spot from which all distances from Rome are calculated and the main center of city traffic. Piazza Venezia stands at what was the beginning of Via Flaminia, the ancient Roman road leading northeast across Italy to Fano on the Adriatic Sea. The Via Flaminia was, and remains, a vital artery. Its initial tract, from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, is now known as Via del Corso, after the horse races (corse) that were run here during the wild Roman carnival celebrations of the 17th and 18th centuries. It also happens to be one of Rome’s busiest shopping streets. The massive female bust near the church of San Marco in the corner of the piazza, a fragment of a statue of Isis, is known to the Romans as Madama Lucrezia. This was one of the “talking statues” on which anonymous poets hung verses pungent with political satire, a practice that has not entirely disappeared.


Along with the Palazzo Colonna and the Galleria Borghese, this spectacular family palace provides the best glimpse of aristocratic Rome. Here, the main attractions are the legendary old master paintings, including treasures by Velázquez and Caravaggio; the splendor of the main galleries; and a unique suite of private family apartments. The beauty of the graceful facade, designed by Gabriele Valvassori in 1730, may escape you unless you take time to cross to the opposite side of the street for a good view. While the foundations of the immense complex of buildings probably date from classical times, the current building dates to the 15th century. It passed through several hands before becoming the property of the Pamphilj family, who married into the famous seafaring Doria family of Genoa in the 18th century. The family still lives in part of the palace.

The gallery contains 550 paintings, including three by Caravaggio—a young St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and the breathtaking Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Off the eye-popping Galleria degli Specchi (Gallery of Mirrors)—a smaller version of the one at Versailles—are the famous Velázquez Pope Innocent X, considered by some historians to be the greatest portrait ever painted, and the Bernini bust of the same Pamphilj pope. Elsewhere you’ll find a Titian, a double portrait by Raphael, and some noted 17th-century landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet. The delightful audio guide is included in the ticket price. Narrated by the current heir, Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, it provides an intimate family history well worth listening to.


Sent to Rome in a last-ditch attempt to treat his consumptive condition, English Romantic poet John Keats lived—and died—in this house at the foot of the Spanish Steps. At that point, this was the heart of the colorful bohemian quarter of Rome that was especially favored by the English. Keats had become celebrated through such poems as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Endymion,” but his trip to Rome was fruitless. He took his last breath here on February 23, 1821, at only 25, forevermore the epitome of the doomed poet. In this “Casina di Keats,” you can visit his rooms, though all his furnishings were burned after his death, as a sanitary measure by the local authorities. You’ll also find a rather quaint collection of memorabilia of English literary figures of the period—Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Severn, and Leigh Hunt, as well as Keats—and an exhaustive library of works on the Romantics.


The iconic Spanish Steps (often called simply la scalinata, or “the staircase,” by Italians) and the Piazza di Spagna from which they ascend both get their names from the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican on the piazza—even though the staircase was built with French funds by an Italian in 1723. In honor of a diplomatic visit by the King of Spain, the hillside was transformed by architect Francesco de Sanctis with a spectacular piece of urban planning to link the church of Trinità dei Monti at the top with the Via Condotti below. In an allusion to the church, the staircase is divided by three landings (beautifully banked by azaleas mid-April–mid-May). For centuries, the scalinata and its neighborhood have welcomed tourists, artists, and writers in search of inspiration—among them Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Byron. Bookending the bottom of the steps are two monuments to the 18th century, when the area was known as the “English Ghetto”: to the right, the Keats-Shelley House, and to the left, Babington’s Tea Rooms—both beautifully redolent of the era of the Grand Tour. For weary sightseers, there is an elevator at Vicolo del Bottino 8, next to the Metro entrance. (Those with mobility problems should be aware that there is still a small flight of stairs after, however, and that the elevator is sporadically closed for repair.) At the bottom of the steps, Bernini’s splendid “Barcaccia” (sinking ship) fountain dates to the early 17th century and is fed by the ancient Aqua Vergine aqueduct; the spouts at either end still provide drinking water. Watch your step—it gets slippery.


One of the most prestigious contemporary galleries in the world opened its Rome branch in 2007 in a former bank. Temporary exhibitions have included megastars such as Cy Twombly, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons.


For the ultimate view from atop the Spanish Steps, you can climb up, take the elevator from inside the Spagna metro, or pay for the privilege at this wine bar, where an interior elevator takes you to the top terrace.


On chic Via del Babuino, the former studio of Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova and his student Adamo Tadolini is now a wonderfully atmospheric spot for coffee or a snack. Either go for the budget option and take your coffee at the bar while admiring the enormous plaster copies of the maestros’ work, or pay for table service and sit amid vast sculptures in this eccentric spot. Food is run-of-the-mill, but the setting is splendid.


Alive with rushing waters commanded by an imperious Oceanus, the Fontana di Trevi earned full-fledged iconic status in 1954 when it starred in 20th Century Fox’s Three Coins in the Fountain. As the first color film in Cinemascope to be filmed on location, it caused practically half of America to pack their bags for the Eternal City.

From the very start, though, the Trevi has been all about theatrical effects. An aquatic marvel in a city filled with them, the fountain’s unique drama is largely due to the site: its vast basin is squeezed into the tight confluence of three little streets (the tre vie, which may give the fountain its name), with cascades emerging as if from the wall of Palazzo Poli. The conceit of a fountain emerging full-force from a palace was first envisioned by Bernini and Pietro da Cortona for Pope Urban VIII’s plan to rebuild the fountain, which had earlier marked the end-point of the ancient Acqua Vergine aqueduct, created in 18 BC by Agrippa. Three popes later, under Pope Clement XIII, Nicolo Salvi finally broke ground with his winning design.

Salvi had his cake and ate it, too, for while he dazzles the eye with Baroque pyrotechnics—the sculpted seashells, the roaring sea beasts, the diva-like mermaids—he has slyly incorporated them in a stately triumphal arch (Clement was then restoring Rome’s Arch of Constantine). Unfortunately, Salvi did not live to see his masterpiece completed in 1762: working in the culverts of the aqueduct 11 years earlier, he caught a cold and died.

Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City, but not everyone knows how to do it the right way. You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.

The fountain grosses some €600,000 a year, and aside from incidences of opportunists fishing coins from the water, all of the money goes to the Italian Red Cross. Roll up on a Monday morning when the collection is made and you’ll find it empty.

Even though you might like to reenact Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni’s famous Trevi dip in La Dolce Vita, be forewarned that police guard the fountain 24 hours a day to keep out movie buffs and lovebirds alike. (Transgressors risk a fine of up to €500.)


If you find your imagination stretching to picture Rome as it was two millennia ago, make sure to check out this “new” ancient site just a stone’s throw from Piazza Venezia. As was common practice in Renaissance-era Rome, 16th-century builders simply filled in ancient structures with landfill, using them as part of the foundation for Palazzo Valentini. In doing so, the builders also unwittingly preserved the ruins beneath, which archaeologists rediscovered during excavations in 2007. It took another three years for the two opulent, imperial-era domus (upscale urban houses) to open to the public on a regular basis.

Descending below Palazzo Valentini is like walking into another world. Not only are the houses luxurious and well-preserved, still retaining their beautiful mosaics, inlaid marble floors, and staircases, but the ruins have been made to “come alive” through multimedia. Sophisticated light shows re-create what it all would have looked like, while a dramatic, automated voiceover accompanies you as you walk through the rooms, pointing out cool finds (the heating system for the private baths, the mysterious fragment of a statue, the porcelain left here when part of the site became a dump during the Renaissance) and evidence of tragedy (the burned layer from a fire that ripped through the home). If it sounds corny, hold your skepticism: it’s an effective, excellent way to actually “experience” the houses as ancient Romans would have—and to learn a lot about ancient Rome in the process. A multimedia presentation halfway through also shows you what central Rome would have looked like 2,000 years ago.

The multimedia tour takes about an hour. There are limited spots, so book in advance over the phone, online, or in person; make sure you book one of the three daily English tours (at 1:30, 2, and 2:30 pm). The tour should be enjoyable for older children, but little ones might be afraid of how dark the rooms can be.


The city of Rome’s modern art gallery is housed in the 18th-century Convent of the Discalced Carmelites, the perfect spot for the Roman 19th- and 20th-century paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. With more than 3,000 pieces by artists including Giorgio de Chirico, Gino Severini, Scipione, Antonio Donghi, and Giacomo Manzù, the permanent collection is too large to be displayed at once, so exhibits rotate. Regardless of what the particular exhibit is, stop by to soak in another side of the city—one where, in the near-empty halls, tranquillity and contemplation reign.


In this neighborhood of huge, austere palaces, Palazzo Spada strikes an almost frivolous note, with its pretty ornament-encrusted courtyard and its upper stories covered with stuccoes and statues. While the palazzo houses an impressive collection of old-master paintings, it’s most famous for its trompe-l’oeil garden gallery, a delightful example of the sort of architectural games rich Romans of the 17th century found irresistible. Even if you don’t go into the gallery, step into the courtyard and look through the glass window of the library to the colonnaded corridor in the adjacent courtyard. See—or seem to see—an 8-meter-long gallery quadrupled in-depth, a sort of optical telescope taking the Renaissance’s art of perspective to another level, as it stretches out for a great distance with a large statue at the end. In fact, the distance is an illusion: the corridor grows progressively narrower and the columns progressively smaller as they near the statue, which is just two feet tall. The Baroque period is known for special effects, and this is rightly one of the most famous. It was long thought that Borromini was responsible for this ruse; it’s now known that it was designed by an Augustinian priest, Giovanni Maria da Bitonto. Upstairs is a seignorial picture gallery with the paintings shown as they would have been, piled on top of each other clear to the ceiling. Outstanding works include Brueghel’s Landscape with Windmills, Titian’s Musician, and Andrea del Sarto’s Visitation. Look for the fact-sheets that have descriptive notes about the objects in each room.


Imbued with the supreme grace of the Florentine Renaissance, this often-overlooked church dedicated to Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, stands in what was the heart of the Florentine colony in Rome’s centro storico. Many of these Florentines were goldsmiths, bankers, and money changers who contributed to the building of the church. Talented goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini of Florence, known for his vindictive nature as much as for his genius, lived nearby. While the church was designed by Sansovino, Raphael (yes, he was also an architect) was among those who competed for this commission. Today, the church interior makes you feel you have wandered inside a perfect Renaissance space, one so harmonious it seems to be a 3-D Raphael painting. Borromini executed a splendid altar for the Falconieri family chapel in the choir. He’s buried under the dome, despite the fact that those who committed suicide normally were refused a Christian burial.


Topped by the highest dome in Rome after St. Peter’s (designed by Maderno), this huge and imposing 17th-century church is remarkably balanced in design. Fortunately, its facade, which had turned a sooty gray from pollution, has been cleaned to a near-sparkling white. Use one of the handy mirrors to examine the early-17th-century frescoes by Domenichino in the choir vault and those by Lanfranco in the dome. One of the earliest ceilings done in full Baroque style, its upward vortex was influenced by Correggio’s dome in Parma, of which Lanfranco was also a citizen. (Bring a few coins to light the paintings, which can be very dim.) The three massive paintings of Saint Andrew’s martyrdom are by Maria Preti (1650–51). Richly marbled and decorated chapels flank the nave, and in such a space, Puccini set the first act of Tosca.


Still a Renaissance-era diorama and one of Rome’s most exclusive addresses, Via Giulia was the first street in Rome since ancient times to be laid out in a straight line. Named for Pope Julius II (of Sistine Chapel fame), who commissioned it in the early 1500s as part of a scheme to open up a grandiose approach to St. Peter’s Basilica (using funds from a prostitution tax), it became flanked with elegant churches and palaces. Although the pope’s plans to change the face of the city were only partially completed, Via Giulia became an important thoroughfare in Renaissance Rome. Today, after more than four centuries, it remains the “salon of Rome,” address of choice for Roman aristocrats, although controversy has arisen about a recent change—the decision to add a large parking lot along one side of the street—that meant steamrolling through ancient and medieval ruins underneath. A stroll will reveal elegant palaces and churches (one, San Eligio, on the little side street Via di Sant’Eligio, was designed by Raphael himself). The area around Via Giulia is wonderful to wander through and get the feel of daily life as carried on in a centuries-old setting. Among the buildings that merit your attention are Palazzo Sacchetti (Via Giulia 66), with an imposing stone portal (inside are some of Rome’s grandest state rooms, still, after 300 years, the private quarters of the Marchesi Sacchetti), and the forbidding brick building that housed the Carceri Nuove (New Prison; Via Giulia 52), Rome’s prison for more than two centuries and now the offices of Direzione Nazionale Antimafia. Near the bridge that arches over the southern end of Via Giulia is the church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (Holy Mary of Prayer and Death), with stone skulls on its door. These are a symbol of a confraternity that was charged with burying the bodies of the unidentified dead found in the city streets. Home since 1927 to the Hungarian Academy, the Palazzo Falconieri (Via Giulia 106/6889671) was designed by Borromini—note the architect’s rooftop belvedere adorned with statues of the family “falcons,” best viewed from around the block along the Tiber embankment. (The Borromini-designed salons and loggia are sporadically open as part of a guided tour; call the Academy for information.) Remnant of a master plan by Michelangelo, the arch over the street was meant to link massive Palazzo Farnese, on the east side of Via Giulia, with the building across the street and a bridge to the Villa Farnesina, directly across the river. Finally, on the right and rather green with age, dribbles that star of many a postcard, the Fontana del Mascherone.


A bustling marketplace in the morning (Monday–Saturday 8–2) and a trendy meeting place the rest of the day and night, this piazza has plenty of earthy charm. Just after lunchtime, all the fruit and vegetable vendors disappear, and this so-called piazza trasformista takes on another identity, becoming a circus of bars particularly favored by study-abroads, tourists, and young expats. Brooding over the piazza is a hooded statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake here in 1600 for heresy, one of many victims of the Roman Inquisition.


The mother church of the Jesuits in Rome is the prototype of all Counter-Reformation churches. Considered the first fully Baroque church, it has a spectacular interior that tells a great deal about an era of religious triumph and turmoil. Its architecture influenced ecclesiastical buildings in Rome for more than a century (the overall design was by Vignola, the facade by della Porta) and was exported by the Jesuits throughout the rest of Europe. Though consecrated as early as 1584, the interior of the church wasn’t decorated for another 100 years. It was originally intended that the interior be left plain to the point of austerity—but, when it was finally embellished, the mood had changed and no expense was spared. Its interior drips with gold and lapis lazuli, gold and precious marbles, gold and more gold, all covered by a fantastically painted ceiling by Baciccia. Unfortunately, the church is also one of Rome’s most crepuscular, so its visual magnificence is considerably dulled by lack of light.

The architectural significance of Il Gesù extends far beyond the splendid interior. As the first of the great Counter-Reformation churches, it was put up after the Council of Trent (1545–63) had signaled the determination of the Roman Catholic Church to fight back against the Reformed Protestant heretics of northern Europe. The church decided to do so through the use of overwhelming pomp and majesty, in an effort to woo believers. As a harbinger of ecclesiastical spectacle, Il Gesù spawned imitations throughout Italy and the other Catholic countries of Europe as well as the Americas.

The most striking element is the ceiling, which is covered with frescoes that swirl down from on high to merge with painted stucco figures at the base, the illusion of space in the two-dimensional painting becoming the reality of three dimensions in the sculpted figures. Baciccia, their painter, achieved extraordinary effects in these frescoes, especially in the Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus, over the nave. Here, the figures representing evil cast out of heaven and seem to be hurtling down onto the observer. To appreciate in detail, the spectacle is best viewed through a specially tilted mirror in the nave.

The founder of the Jesuit order himself is buried in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, in the left-hand transept. This is surely the most sumptuous Baroque altar in Rome; as is typical, the enormous globe of lapis lazuli that crowns it is really only a shell of lapis over a stucco base—after all, Baroque decoration prides itself on achieving stunning effects and illusions. The heavy, bronze altar rail by architect Carlo Fontana is in keeping with the surrounding opulence.


The most beautiful Renaissance palace in Rome, the Palazzo Farnese is fabled for its Galleria Carracci, whose ceiling is to the Baroque age what the Sistine Chapel ceiling is to the Renaissance. The Farnese family rose to great power and wealth during the Renaissance, in part because of the favor Pope Alexander VI showed to the beautiful Giulia Farnese. The massive palace was begun when, with Alexander’s aid, Giulia’s brother became cardinal; it was further enlarged on his election as Pope Paul III in 1534. The uppermost frieze decorations and main window overlooking the piazza are the work of Michelangelo, who also designed part of the courtyard, as well as the graceful arch over Via Giulia at the back. The facade on Piazza Farnese has geometrical brick configurations that have long been thought to hold some occult meaning. When looking up at the palace, try to catch a glimpse of the splendid frescoed ceilings, including the Galleria Carracci vault painted by Annibale Carracci between 1597 and 1604. The Carracci gallery depicts the loves of the gods, a supremely pagan theme that the artist painted in a swirling style that announced the birth of the Baroque. Other opulent salons are among the largest in Rome, including the Salon of Hercules, which has an impressive replica of the ancient Farnese Hercules. The French Embassy, which occupies the palace, offers tours (in English) on Wednesday; book at least eight days in advance through the website, and bring photo ID.


Graceful and opulent, the arcaded, multistory courtyard of this palazzo is a masterpiece of turn-of-the-17th-century style. Designed by Carlo Maderno, it is a veritable panoply of sculpted busts, heroic statues, sculpted reliefs, and Paleo-Christian epigrams, all collected by Marchese Asdrubale Mattei. Inside are various scholarly institutes, including the Centro Studi Americani (Center for American Studies,, which also contains a library of American books. Salons in the palace (not usually open to visitors) are decorated with frescoes by Cortona, Lanfranco, and Domenichino.


Designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1581 and sculpted by Taddeo Landini, this 16th-century fountain, set in venerable Piazza Mattei, is one of Rome’s most charming. The focus of the fountain is four bronze boys, each grasping a dolphin spouting water into a marble shell. Bronze turtles held in the boys’ hands drink from the upper basin. The turtles are thought to have been added in the 17th century by Bernini.


Begun by Julius Caesar and completed by the emperor Augustus in 13 BC, this theater could house around 14,000 spectators. Like other Roman monuments, it was transformed into a fortress during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, it was converted into a residence by the Savelli, one of the city’s noble families. Today the archaeological park around the theater is used as a summer venue for open-air classical music concerts.


Sitting atop its 124 steps, Santa Maria di Aracoeli perches on the north slope of the Capitoline Hill. The church rests on the site of the temple of Juno Moneta (Admonishing Juno), which also housed the Roman mint (hence the origin of the word “money”). According to legend, it was here that the Sibyl, a prophetess, predicted to Augustus the coming of a Redeemer. He in turn responded by erecting an altar, the Ara Coeli (Altar of Heaven). This was eventually replaced by a Benedictine monastery, and then a church, which was passed in 1250 to the Franciscans, who restored and enlarged it in Romanesque-Gothic style. Today, the Aracoeli is best known for the Santo Bambino, a much-revered olivewood figure of the Christ Child (today a copy of the 15th-century original that was stolen in 1994). At Christmas, everyone pays homage to the “Bambinello” as children recite poems from a miniature pulpit. In true Roman style, the church interior is a historical hodgepodge: classical columns and large marble fragments from pagan buildings, as well as a 13th-century Cosmatesque pavement. The richly gilded Renaissance ceiling commemorates the naval victory at Lepanto in 1571 over the Turks. The first chapel on the right is noteworthy for Pinturicchio’s frescoes of San Bernardino of Siena (1486).


The fourth component of the magnificent collections of the Museo Nazionale Romano (and visitable on the same ticket), this museum is unusual in how many periods of Roman history it represents. The crypt is part of the Balbus Theater complex (13 BC) and other parts of the complex are from the medieval period, up through the 20th century. The written explanations accompanying the well-lit exhibits are excellent, and this museum is a popular field trip for teachers and school groups.


Looming over the Jewish Ghetto, this huge portico enclosure, with a few surviving columns, is one of the area’s most picturesque set pieces, with the time-stained church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria (seemingly under perpetual restoration) built right into its ruins. Named by Augustus in honor of his sister Octavia, it was originally 390 feet wide and 433 feet long, encompassed two temples, a meeting hall, and a library, and served as a kind of grandiose entrance foyer for the adjacent Teatro di Marcello. The ruins of the portico became Rome’s pescheria (fish market) during the Middle Ages. A stone plaque on a pillar (a copy; the original is in the Musei Capitolini) states in Latin that the head of any fish surpassing the length of the plaque was to be cut off “up to the first fin” and given to the city fathers, or else the vendor was to pay a fine of 10 gold florins. The heads were used to make fish soup and were considered a great delicacy.


On the top floor of the Palazzo Primoli—the same building (separate entrance) that houses the Museo Napoleonico—is one of Rome’s most unusual museums. As if preserved in amber, the apartment in which the famous Italian essayist Mario Praz lived survives intact, decorated with a lifetime’s accumulation of delightful Baroque and Neoclassical art and antiques, arranged and rearranged to create symmetries that take the visitor by surprise like the best trompe-l’oeil. As author of The Romantic Sensibility and A History of Interior Decoration, Praz was fabled for his taste for the arcane and the bizarre; here his reputation for the same lives on. You are obliged to follow a custodian through the museum; the visit takes about 50 minutes.


Housed in an opulent collection of velvet-and-crystal salons that hauntingly capture the fragile charm of early-19th-century Rome, this small museum in the Palazzo Primoli contains a specialized and rich collection of Napoléon memorabilia, including a bust by Canova of the general’s sister, Pauline Borghese (as well as a plaster cast of her left bust). You may well ask why this outpost of Napoléon is in Rome, but in 1798 the French emperor sent his troops to Rome, kidnapping Pope Pius VII and proclaiming his young son the King of Rome–-though it all ultimately came to naught. Upstairs is the Museo Mario Praz.


Housed in a Baroque masterwork by Borromini, this former religious residence named for Saint Philip Neri, founder in 1551 of the Congregation of the Oratorians, now contains Rome’s Archivio Storico. Like the Jesuits, the Oratorians—or Filippini, as they were commonly known—were one of the new religious orders established in the mid-16th century as part of the Counter-Reformation. Neri, a man of rare charm and wit, insisted that the members of the order—most of them young noblemen whom he had recruited personally—not only renounce their worldly goods but also work as common laborers in the building of Neri’s great church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. The Oratory itself, once the headquarters of the order, was built by Borromini between 1637 and 1662. Its gently curving facade is typical of Borromini’s insistence on introducing movement into everything he designed. The inspiration here is that of arms extended in welcome to the poor. The building houses the Vallicelliana Library found by Philip Neri, and the courtyard is usually accessible during the library’s opening hours.


Following the shape of Emperor Domitian’s Odeon arena, a curving, columned portico identifies this otherwise inconspicuous palace on a traffic-swept bend of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. In the 1530s, Renaissance architect Baldassare Peruzzi built this new palace for the Massimo family, after their previous dwelling had been destroyed during the Sack of Rome. (High in the papal aristocracy, they claimed an ancestor who had been responsible for the defeat of Hannibal.) If you visit on March 16, you’ll be able to go upstairs to visit the family chapel in commemoration of a miracle performed here in 1583 by St. Philip Neri, who is said to have recalled a young member of the family, one Paolo Massimo, from the dead (expect a line). Any other day of the year, though, you’ll only be able to view the building from the outside. The palazzo’s name comes from the columns from Domitian’s Odeon, of which one still stands in the square at the back of the palazzo.


The quintessence of Baroque architecture, this church has a facade that is a wonderfully rich mélange of bell towers, concave spaces, and dovetailed stone and marble. It’s the creation of Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), a contemporary and rival of Bernini. Next to his new Pamphilj family palace, Pope Innocent X had the adjacent chapel expanded into this full-fledged church. The work was first assigned to the architect Rainaldi. However, Donna Olimpia, the pope’s famously domineering sister, became increasingly impatient with how the work was going and brought in Borromini, whose wonderful concave entrance has the magical effect of making the dome appear much larger than it actually is. The name of this church comes from the Greek agones, the source of the word navona and a reference to the agonistic competitions held here in Roman times. The saint associated with the church is Agnes, who was martyred here in the piazza’s forerunner, the Stadium of Domitian. As she was stripped nude before the crowd, her hair miraculously grew to maintain her modesty before she was killed. The interior is a marvel of modular Baroque space and is ornamented by giant marble reliefs sculpted by Raggi and Ferrata.


Caravaggio’s celebrated Madonna of the Pilgrims—which scandalized all of Rome for depicting a kneeling pilgrim all too realistically for the era’s tastes, with dirt on the soles of his feet, and the Madonna standing in a less-than-majestic pose in a dilapidated doorway—is in the first chapel on the left. At the third column down the nave, admire Raphael’s blue-robed Isaiah, said to be inspired by Michelangelo’s prophets on the Sistine ceiling (Raphael, with the help of Bramante, had taken the odd peek at the master’s original against strict orders of secrecy). Directly below is Sansovino’s Leonardo-influenced sculpture, St. Anne and the Madonna with Child. As you leave, in a niche just inside the door, is the sculpted Madonna and Child, known to the Romans as the “Madonna del Parto” (of Childbirth) and piled high with ex-votos. The artist is Jacopo Tatti, also sometimes confusingly known as Sansovino after his master.


In 1656, Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII to enlarge the tiny Piazza della Pace in front of the 15th-century church of Santa Maria, to accommodate the carriages of its wealthy parishioners. His architectural solution was to design a new church facade complete with semicircular portico, demolish a few buildings here and there to create a more spacious approach to the church, add arches to give architectural unity to the piazza, and then complete it with a series of bijou-size palaces. The result was one of Rome’s most delightful little architectural set pieces. Within are several great Renaissance treasures. Raphael’s fresco above the first altar on your right depicts the Four Sibyls–-almost exact replicas of Michelangelo’s, if more relaxed. The fine decorations of the Cesi Chapel, second on the right, were designed in the mid-16th century by Sangallo. Opposite is Peruzzi’s wonderful fresco of the Madonna and Child. Meanwhile, the octagon below the dome is something of an art gallery in itself, with works by Cavalliere Arpino, Orazio Gentileschi, and others as Cozzo’s Eternity fills the lantern above. Behind the church is its cloister, designed by Bramante (architect of St. Peter’s) as the very first expression of High Renaissance style in Rome. The cloister has an exhibition space and a lovely caffè on the upper level.


This church, sometimes known as Chiesa Nuova (New Church), was built toward the end of the 16th century at the urging of Philip Neri and, like Il Gesù, is a product of the fervor of the Counter-Reformation. It has a sturdy Baroque interior, all white and gold, with ceiling frescoes by Pietro da Cortona depicting a miracle reputed to have occurred during the church’s construction: the Virgin and strong-armed angels hold up the broken roof to prevent it from crashing down upon the congregation below. The Church is most famous for its three magnificent altarpieces by Rubens.


The name of the church reveals that it was built sopra (over) the ruins of a temple of Minerva, the ancient goddess of wisdom. Erected in 1280 by Dominicans along severe Italian Gothic lines, it has undergone a number of more or less happy restorations to the interior. Certainly, as the city’s major Gothic church, it provides a refreshing contrast to Baroque flamboyance. Have a €1 coin handy to illuminate the Cappella Carafa in the right transept, where Filippino Lippi’s (1457–1504) glowing frescoes are well worth the small investment, opening up the deepest azure expanse of sky where musical angels hover around the Virgin. Under the main altar is the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, one of Italy’s patron saints. Left of the altar you’ll find Michelangelo’s Risen Christ and the tomb of the gentle artist Fra Angelico. Bernini’s unusual and little-known monument to the Blessed Maria Raggi is on the fifth pier from the door on the left as you leave the church. In front of the church, the little obelisk-bearing elephant carved by Bernini is perhaps the city’s most charming sculpture. An inscription on the base of Bernini’s Elephant Obelisk, which was recently cleaned and restored, references the church’s ancient patroness, reading something to the effect that it takes a strong mind to sustain solid wisdom.


The main facade of this eccentric Baroque church, probably Borromini’s best, is on the stately courtyard of an austere building that once housed Rome’s university. Sant’Ivo has what must surely be one of the most delightful “domes” in all of Rome—a dizzying spiral said to have been inspired by a bee’s stinger. The apian symbol is a reminder that Borromini built the church on commission from the Barberini pope Urban VIII (a swarm of bees figure on the Barberini family crest). The interior, open only for three hours on Sunday, is worth a look, especially if you share Borromini’s taste for complex mathematical architectural idiosyncrasies. “I didn’t take up architecture solely to be a copyist,” he once said. Sant’Ivo is certainly the proof.


This tiny piazza takes its name from the figure in the corner, the remnant of an old Roman statue depicting Menelaus. The statue underwent a name change in the 16th century when Pasquino, a cobbler or barber (and part-time satirist), started writing comments around the base. The habit caught on; soon everyone was doing it. The most loquacious of Rome’s “talking statues,” its lack of arms or face is more than made up for with commentary of any topic of the day.


One of the wonders of the ancient world, this former Roman pagan temple is a marvel of architectural harmony and proportion, and the best-preserved ancient building in the city. It was entirely rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian around AD 120 on the site of an earlier Pantheon (from the Greek: pan, or all, and theon, or gods) erected in 27 BC by Augustus’s right-hand man and son-in-law, Agrippa.

The most striking thing about the Pantheon is not its size, immense though it is, nor even the phenomenal technical difficulties posed by so massive a construction; rather, it’s the remarkable unity of the building. The diameter described by the dome is exactly equal to its height. It’s the use of such simple mathematical balance that gives classical architecture its characteristic sense of proportion and its nobility, and why some call it the world’s only architecturally perfect building. The great opening at the apex of the dome, the oculus, is nearly 30 feet in diameter and was the temple’s only source of light. It was intended to symbolize the “all-seeing eye of heaven.”

To do the interior justice defied even Byron. He piles up adjectives, but none seems to fit: “Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime.” Although little is known for sure about the Pantheon’s origins or purpose, it’s worth noting that the five levels of trapezoidal coffers (sunken panels in the ceiling) represent the course of the five then-known planets and their concentric spheres. Ruling over them is the sun, represented symbolically and literally by the 30-foot-wide eye at the top. The heavenly symmetry is further paralleled by the coffers: 28 to each row, the number of lunar cycles. In the center of each would have shone a small bronze star. Down below the seven large niches were occupied not by saints, but, it’s thought, by statues of Mars, Venus, the deified Caesar, and the other “astral deities,” including the moon and sun, the “sol invictus.” (Academics still argue, however, about which gods were most probably worshipped here.)

One of the reasons the Pantheon is so well preserved is the result of it being consecrated as a church in AD 608. (It’s still a working and Mass-holding church today, and it’s the church name, the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, that you’ll see on official signs.) No building, church or not, though, escaped some degree of plundering through the turbulent centuries of Rome’s history after the fall of the empire. In 655, for example, the gilded bronze covering the dome was stripped. Similarly, in the early 17th century, Pope Urban VIII removed the bronze beams of the portico. Most of its interior marble facing has also been stripped and replaced over the centuries. Nonetheless, the Pantheon suffered less than many other ancient structures. The temple’s original bronze doors have remained intact, if restored and even melted down and recast at one point, for more than 1,800 years.

The Pantheon is also one of the city’s important burial places. Its most famous tomb is that of Raphael (between the second and third chapels on the left as you enter).

Mass takes place on Sunday and mass on religious holidays at 10:30; it’s open to the public, but you are expected to arrive before the beginning and stay until the end. General access usually resumes at about 11:30.


Containing some of the finest ancient Roman statues in the world, Palazzo Altemps is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. The palace’s sober exterior belies a magnificence that appears as soon as you walk into the majestic courtyard, studded with statues and covered in part by a retractable awning. The restored interior hints at the Roman lifestyle of the 16th–18th centuries while showcasing the most illustrious pieces from the Museo Nazionale, including the collection of the Ludovisi noble family. In the frescoed salons you can see the Galata Suicida, a poignant work portraying a barbarian warrior who chooses death for himself and his wife, rather than humiliation by the enemy. Another highlight is the large Ludovisi sarcophagus, magnificently carved from marble. In a place of honor is the Ludovisi Throne, which shows a goddess emerging from the sea and being helped by her acolytes. For centuries this was heralded as one of the most sublime Greek sculptures, but, today, at least one authoritative art historian considers it a colossally overrated fake. Look for the framed explanations of the exhibits that detail (in English) how and exactly where Renaissance sculptors, Bernini among them, added missing pieces to the classical works. In the lavishly frescoed Loggia stand busts of the Caesars. In the wing once occupied by early-20th-century poet Gabriele d’Annunzio (who married into the Altemps family), three rooms host the museum’s Egyptian collection.


Here, everything that makes Rome unique is compressed into one beautiful Baroque piazza. Always camera-ready, Piazza Navona has Bernini sculptures, three gorgeous fountains, a magnificently Baroque church (Sant’Agnese in Agone), and, best of all, the excitement of so many people strolling, admiring the fountains, and enjoying the view.

The piazza has been an entertainment venue for Romans ever since being built over Domitian’s circus (pieces of the arena are still visible near the adjacent Piazza Sant’Apollinare). Although undoubtedly more touristy today, the square still has the carefree air of the days when it was the scene of medieval jousts and 17th-century carnivals. Today, it’s the site of a lively Christmas “Befana” fair.

The piazza still looks much as it did during the 17th century, after the Pamphilij pope Innocent X decided to make it over into a monument to his family to rival the Barberini’s palace at the Quattro Fontane. At center stage is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, created for Innocent by Bernini in 1651. Bernini’s powerful figures of the four rivers represent the four corners of the world: the Nile; the Ganges; the Danube; and the Plata, with its hand raised. One story has it that the figure of the Nile—the figure closest to Sant’Agnese in Agone—hides its head because it can’t bear to look upon the church’s “inferior” facade designed by Francesco Borromini, Bernini’s rival. In fact, the facade was built after the fountain, and the statue hides its head because it represents a river whose source was then unknown.

On the eve of the Epiphany (the night of January 5), Piazza Navona’s toy fair explodes in joyful conclusion, with much noise and rowdiness to encourage la Befana, an old woman who brings toys to good children and pieces of coal (represented by coal-looking candy) to the naughty. Meanwhile, the toy stores of Al Sogno (at No. 53) and Berté (at No. 3) enchant year-round.

If you want a caffè with one of the most beautiful, if pricey, views in Rome, grab a seat at Piazza Navona. Just be aware that all of the restaurants here are heavily geared toward tourists, so while it’s a beautiful place for a coffee, you can find cheaper, more authentic, and far better meals elsewhere.


A pilgrimage spot for art lovers, San Luigi’s Contarelli Chapel is adorned with three stunningly dramatic works by Caravaggio (1571–1610), the Baroque master of the heightened approach to light and dark. At the altar end of the left nave, they were commissioned for San Luigi, the official church of Rome’s French colony (San Luigi is St. Louis, patron saint of France). The inevitable coin machine will light up his Calling of St. Matthew, Saint Matthew and the Angel, and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (seen from left to right), and Caravaggio’s mastery of light takes it from there. When painted, they caused considerable consternation to the clergy of San Luigi, who thought the artist’s dramatically realistic approach was scandalously disrespectful. A first version of the altarpiece was rejected; the priests were not particularly happy with the other two, either. Time has fully vindicated Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte, who secured the commission for these works and stoutly defended them.


Decorated with the famous heraldic bees of the Barberini family, the upper shell and the inscription are from a fountain that Bernini designed for Pope Urban VIII; the rest was lost when the fountain was moved to make way for a new street. The inscription was the cause of a considerable scandal when the fountain was first built in 1644. It said that the fountain had been erected in the 22nd year of the pontiff’s reign, although in fact the 21st anniversary of Urban’s election to the papacy was still some weeks away. The last numeral was hurriedly erased, but to no avail—Urban died eight days before the beginning of his 22nd year as pope. The superstitious Romans, who had immediately recognized the inscription as a foolhardy tempting of fate, were vindicated.


The intersection takes its name from its four Baroque fountains, which represent the Tiber (on the San Carlo corner), the Arno, Juno, and Diana. Despite the nearby traffic and the tightness of the sidewalk, it’s worthwhile taking in the views from this point in all four directions: to the southwest, as far as the obelisk in Piazza del Quirinale; to the northeast, along Via XX Settembre to the Porta Pia; to the northwest, across Piazza Barberini to the obelisk of Trinità dei Monti; and to the southeast, as far as the obelisk and apse of Santa Maria Maggiore. The prospect is a highlight of Pope Sixtus V’s campaign of urban beautification and an example of Baroque influence on city planning.


Pope Gregory XIII started building this spectacular palace, now the official residence of Italy’s president, in 1574. He planned to use it as a summer home. But less than 20 years later, Pope Clement VIII decided to make the palace—safely elevated above the malarial miasmas shrouding the low-lying location of the Vatican—the permanent residence of the papacy until 1870, undergoing various enlargements and alterations over time. When Italian troops under Garibaldi stormed Rome in 1870, making it the capital of the newly united Italy, the popes moved back to the Vatican, and the Palazzo del Quirinale became the official residence of the kings of Italy. After the Italian people voted out the monarchy in 1946, the palazzo passed to the presidency of the Italian Republic. The palace is now open to visitors, but you need to prebook a guided tour. Outside the gates, you can see the changing of the military guard at 4 pm on Sunday (at 6 pm July and August), and occasionally you can glimpse the impressive presidential guard.


This strategic location atop the Quirinale has long been of great importance. It served as home of the Sabines in the 7th century BC—at that time, deadly enemies of the Romans, who lived on the Campidoglio and Palatino (all of 1 km [½ mile] away). Today, it’s the foreground for the presidential residence, Palazzo del Quirinale, and home to the Palazzo della Consulta, where Italy’s Constitutional Court sits. The open side of the piazza has an impressive vista over the rooftops and domes of central Rome and St. Peter’s. The Fontana di Montecavallo, or Fontana dei Dioscuri, comprises a huge Roman statuary group and an obelisk from the tomb of the emperor Augustus. The group of the Dioscuri trying to tame two massive marble steeds was found in the Baths of Constantine, which occupied part of the summit of the Quirinale. Unlike just about every other ancient statue in Rome, this group survived the Dark Ages intact and accordingly became one of the city’s great sights, especially during the Middle Ages. Next to the figures, the ancient obelisk from the Mausoleo di Augusto (Tomb of Augustus) was put here by Pope Pius VI at the end of the 18th century.


Sometimes known as San Carlino because of its tiny size, this is one of Borromini’s masterpieces. In a space no larger than the base of one of the piers of St. Peter’s Basilica, he created a church that is an intricate exercise in geometric perfection, with a coffered dome that seems to float above the curves of the walls. Borromini’s work is often bizarre, definitely intellectual, and intensely concerned with pure form. In San Carlo, he invented an original treatment of space that creates an effect of rippling movement, especially evident in the double-S curves of the facade. Characteristically, the interior decoration is subdued, in white stucco with no more than a few touches of gilding, so as not to distract from the form. Don’t miss the cloister: a tiny, understated Baroque jewel, with a graceful portico and loggia above, echoing the lines of the church.


Not for the easily spooked, the crypt under the church of Santa Maria della Concezione holds the bones of some 4,000 dead Capuchin monks. Arranged in odd decorative designs around the shriveled and decayed skeletons of their kinsmen, a macabre reminder of the impermanence of earthly life, the crypt is strangely touching and beautiful. As one sign proclaims: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be.” After a recent renovation, the crypt was reopened to the public with a new museum devoted to teaching visitors about the Capuchin order; the crypt is now located at the end of the museum circuit. Upstairs in the church, the first chapel on the right contains Guido Reni’s mid-17th-century St. Michael Trampling the Devil. The painting caused great scandal after an astute contemporary observer remarked that the face of the devil bore a surprising resemblance to the Pamphilj Pope Innocent X, archenemy of Reni’s Barberini patrons. Compare the devil with the bust of the pope that you saw in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and judge for yourself.


Designed by Bernini, this small church is one of the triumphs of the Roman Baroque period. His son wrote that Bernini considered it his best work and that he used to come here occasionally, just to sit and contemplate. Bernini’s simple oval plan, a classic form in Baroque architecture, is given drama and movement by the church’s decoration, which carries the story of St. Andrew’s martyrdom and ascension into heaven, starting with the painting over the high altar, up past the figure of the saint above, to the angels at the base of the lantern and the dove of the Holy Spirit that awaits on high.


Formerly known as Rome’s Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery, and before that formerly known as the Peroni beer factory, this redesigned industrial space has brought new life to the gallery and museum scene of a city formerly known for its “then,” not its “now.” The collection here covers Italian contemporary artists from the 1960s through today. Its sister museum, MACRO Testaccio (Piazza O. Giustiniani) is housed in a renovated slaughterhouse in the Testaccio neighborhood, a sort of Roman “Left Bank,” and features temporary exhibits and installations by current artists. The goal of both spaces is to bring current art to the public in innovative spaces, and, not incidentally, to give support and recognition to Rome’s contemporary art scene, which labors in the shadow of the city’s artistic heritage. After a few days—or millennia—of dusty marble, it’s a breath of fresh air. Check the website for occasional late-night openings and events.


When Pope Sixtus V (Felice Peretti) completed the restoration of the Acqua Felice toward the end of the 16th century, Domenico Fontana was commissioned to design this commemorative fountain. As the story goes, a sculptor named Prospero da Brescia had the unhappy task of executing the central figure, which was to represent Moses (Sixtus fancied himself a kind of “Moses,” having provided water to his thirsting population). The comparison with Michelangelo’s magnificent Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli was inevitable, and the largely disparaging criticism of Prospero’s work is said to have driven him to his grave. A full cleaning, however, has left the fountain—whose Moses in recent years had looked as if he were dipped in soot—sparkling white, revealing a great deal of its charm.


Come here to get a real feel for ancient Roman art—the collection rivals even the Vatican’s. The Museo Nazionale Romano, with a collection ranging from striking classical Roman paintings to marble bric-a-brac, has four locations: Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, the Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano, and this, the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. This vast structure holds the great ancient treasures of the archaeological collection and also the coin collection. Highlights include the Dying Niobid, the famous bronze Boxer, and the Discobolus Lancellotti. Pride of place goes, however, to the great ancient frescoes on view on the top floor, stunningly set up to “re-create” the look of the homes they once decorated. These include stuccoes and wall paintings found in the area of the Villa della Farnesina (in Trastevere) and the legendary frescoes from Empress Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, delightful depictions of a garden in bloom and an orchard alive with birds. Their colors are remarkably well preserved. These delicate decorations covered the walls of cool, sunken rooms in Livia’s summer house outside the city.


Often the first view that spells “Rome” to weary travelers walking from Termini station, this round piazza was laid out in the late 1800s and follows the line of the caldarium of the vast ancient Terme di Diocleziano. At its center, the exuberant Fontana delle Naiadi (Fountain of the Naiads) teems with voluptuous bronze ladies happily wrestling with marine monsters. The nudes weren’t there when the pope unveiled the fountain in 1870—sparing him any embarrassment—but when the figures were added in 1901, they caused a scandal. It’s said that the sculptor, Mario Rutelli, modeled them on the ample figures of two musical-comedy stars of the day. The colonnades now house the luxe Hotel Exedra, and a branch of foodie superstore Eataly recently opened in a former McDonald’s, gradually helping Piazza della Repubblica to return to its original status as a smart section of town.


The curving brick facade on the northeast side of Piazza della Repubblica is one small remnant of the colossal Terme di Diocleziano, the largest and most impressive of the baths of ancient Rome. A gift to the city from Emperor Diocletian, the complex was completed in AD 306. In 1561 Michelangelo was commissioned to convert the vast frigidarium, the central hall of the baths, into a church. His work was later altered by Vanvitelli in the 18th century, but the huge transept, which formed the nave in Michelangelo’s plan, has remained. The eight enormous monolithic columns of red granite that support the great beams are the original columns of the tepidarium, 45 feet high and more than 5 feet in diameter. The great hall is 92 feet high.


Like the church of Santa Susanna across Piazza San Bernardo, this church was designed by Carlo Maderno, but this one is best known for Bernini’s sumptuous Baroque decoration of the Cappella Cornaro (Cornaro Chapel, the last on the left as you face the altar), which houses his interpretation of divine love, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Your eye is drawn effortlessly from the frescoes on the ceiling down to the marble figures of the angel and the swooning saint to the earthly figures of the Cornaro family (some living, some dead at the time), who observe the scene from the opera boxes on either side, to the two inlays of marble skeletons in the pavement, representing the hope and despair of souls in purgatory.

As evinced in other works of the period, the theatricality of the chapel is the result of Bernini’s masterly fusion of sculpture, light, architecture, painting, and relief; it’s a multimedia extravaganza, and one of the key examples of the Roman High Baroque. Bernini’s audacious conceit was to model the chapel as a theater. The members of the Cornaro family meditate on the communal vision of the great moment of divine love before them: the swooning saint’s robes appear to be on fire, quivering with life, and the white marble group seems suspended in the heavens as golden rays illuminate the scene. An angel assists at the mystical moment of Teresa’s vision as the saint abandons herself to the joys of heavenly love. Bernini represented this mystical experience in what, to modern eyes, may seem very earthly terms. Or, as the visiting French dignitary President de Brosses put it in the 18th century, “If this is divine love, I know all about it.” No matter what your reaction, you’ll have to admit it’s great theater.


Though part of this ancient bath complex (the largest in the Roman world) is now the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and other parts were transformed into a Carthusian monastery or razed to make room for later urban development, a visit gives you an idea of the scale and grandeur of this ancient bathing establishment. Upon entering the church you see the major structures of the baths, partly covered by 16th- and 17th-century overlay, some of which is by Michelangelo. The calm monastery cloister is filled with the Museo Nazionale Romano’s collection of inscriptions; other rooms have pieces associated especially with remote Roman antiquity (think: huts), as well as archaeological finds from Rome’s Republican and Imperial periods, including a rare painted relief of the god Mithras.


Built for aristocrats-come-lately, the Torlonia family—the Italian Rockefellers of the 19th century—this villa became Mussolini’s residence and now serves as a public park. Long neglected, the park’s vegetation and buildings have recently been refurbished. The Casina Nobile, the main palace designed by the great architect Giuseppe Valadier is a grand, Neoclassical edifice, replete with a gigantic ballroom, frescoed salons, and soaring temple-like facade. While denuded of nearly all their furnishings and art treasures, some salons have important remnants of decor, including the reliefs once fashioned by the father of Italian Neoclassical sculpture, Antonio Canova. In the park, a complete contrast is offered by the Casina delle Civette (Little House of Owls), a hyper-charming example of the Liberty (Art Nouveau) style of the early 1900s: the gabled, fairy tale-like cottage-palace now displays majolica and stained-glass decorations, including windows with owl motifs—a stunning, oft-overlooked find for lovers of 19th-century decorative arts. Temporary exhibits are held in the small and elegant Il Casino dei Principi (The House of Princes), designed in part by Valadier.


Set just off the Piazza del Quirinale is the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, and within its grounds you’ll find the Casino dell’Aurora, originally built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The casino (a summer pavilion) has a fabulous ceiling fresco of Aurora (the personification of the Dawn) painted by Baroque artist Guido Reni—a painting once thought to be the last word in 17th-century style. The casino is only open to the public on the first day of every month except January.


Angels designed by Baroque master Bernini line the most beautiful of central Rome’s 20-odd bridges. Bernini himself carved only two of the angels (those with the scroll and the crown of thorns), both of which were moved to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte shortly afterward at the behest of the Bernini family. Though copies, the angels on the bridge today convey forcefully the grace and characteristic sense of movement—a key element of Baroque sculpture—of Bernini’s best work. Originally built in AD 133–134, the Ponte Elio, as it was originally called, was a bridge over the Tiber to Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Pope Gregory changed the bridge’s name after he had a vision of an angel sheathing its sword to signal the ending of the plague of 590. In medieval times, continuing its sacral function, the bridge became an important element in funneling pilgrims toward St. Peter’s. As such, in 1667 Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to design 10 angels bearing the symbols of the Passion, turning the bridge into a sort of Via Crucis.


Situated between the Tiber and the Vatican, this medieval “castle” has long been one of Rome’s most distinctive landmarks. Opera lovers know it well as the setting for the final scene of Puccini’s Tosca; the tempestuous diva throws herself from the rampart on the upper terrace. In fact, the structure began life many centuries before as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian. Started in AD 135, it was completed by the emperor’s successor, Antoninus Pius, about five years later. It initially consisted of a great square base topped by a marble-clad cylinder on which was planted a ring of cypress trees. Above them towered a gigantic statue of Hadrian. From the mid-6th century the building became a fortress, a place of refuge for popes during wars and sieges. Its name dates to AD 590, when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw an angel standing on the summit of the castle, sheathing his sword. Taking this as a sign that the plague was at an end, the pope built a small chapel at the top, placing a statue next to it to celebrate his vision—thus the name, Castel Sant’Angelo.

Enter the building through the original Roman door of Hadrian’s tomb. You’ll then enter a vaulted brick corridor that hints at grim punishments in dank cells. On the right, a spiral ramp leads up to the chamber in which Hadrian’s ashes were kept. Where the ramp ends, the Borgia pope Alexander VI’s staircase begins. Part of it consisted of a wooden drawbridge, which could isolate the upper part of the castle completely. The staircase ends at the Cortile dell’Angelo, a courtyard that has become the resting place of neatly piled stone cannonballs, as well as the marble angel that stood above the castle. (It was replaced by a bronze sculpture in 1753.) In the rooms off the Cortile dell’Angelo, look for the Cappella di Papa Leone X (Chapel of Pope Leo X), with a facade by Michelangelo.

In the courtyard named for Pope Alexander VI, a wellhead bears the Borgia coat of arms. The courtyard is surrounded by gloomy cells and huge storerooms that could hold great quantities of oil and grain in case of siege.

Take the stairs at the far end of the courtyard to the open terrace for a view of the Passetto, the fortified corridor connecting Castel Sant’Angelo with the Vatican. Pope Clement VII used the Passetto to make his way safely to the castle during the Sack of Rome in 1527. In the appartamento papale (papal apartment) the Sala Paolina (Pauline Room), the first room you enter, was decorated in the 16th century by Perino del Vaga and assistants with lavish frescoes of scenes from the Old Testament and the lives of Saint Paul and Alexander the Great. Look for the trompe-l’oeil door with a figure climbing the stairs. From another false door, a black-clad figure peers into the room. This is believed to be a portrait of an illegitimate son of the powerful Orsini family.


Neatly trimmed lawns and flower beds extend over the hills behind St. Peter’s Basilica, an area dotted with some interesting constructions and other, duller ones that serve as office buildings. The Vatican Gardens occupy almost 40 acres of land on the Vatican hill. They include a formal Italian garden, a flowering French garden, a romantic English landscape, and a small forest. There’s also the little-used Vatican railroad station, which now houses a museum of coins and stamps made in the Vatican, and the Torre di San Giovanni (Tower of St. John), restored by Pope John XXIII as a retreat for work, and now used as a residence for distinguished guests. To visit the gardens, join a two-hour guided walking tour or a 45-minute open-bus tour (no stops).


In 1508, the redoubtable Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the more than 10,000 square feet of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. (Sistine, by the way, is simply the adjective form of Sixtus, in reference to Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the chapel itself.) The task took four and a half years, and it’s said that for many years afterward, Michelangelo couldn’t read anything without holding it over his head. The result, however, was arguably the greatest artwork of the Renaissance. A pair of binoculars helps greatly, as does finding a seat on the benches around the edge of the chapel.

Before the chapel was consecrated in 1483, its lower walls were decorated by famed artists including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli, and Pinturicchio. They painted scenes from the life of Moses on one wall and episodes from the life of Christ on the other. Later, Pope Julius II, dissatisfied with the simple vault decoration (stars painted on the ceiling), decided to call in Michelangelo. At the time, Michelangelo was carving Julius II’s resplendent tomb, a project that never neared completion. He had no desire to give the project up to paint a ceiling, considering the task unworthy of him. Julius was not, however, a man to be trifled with, and Michelangelo reluctantly began work.

More than 20 years later, Michelangelo was called on again, this time by Farnese Pope Paul III, to add to the chapel’s decoration by painting the Last Judgment on the wall over the altar. The subject was well suited to the aging and embittered artist, who had been deeply moved by the horrendous Sack of Rome in 1527 and the confusions and disturbances of the Reformation. The painting stirred up controversy even before it was unveiled in 1541, shocking many Vatican officials, especially one Biagio da Cesena, who criticized its “indecent” nudes. Michelangelo retaliated by painting Biagio’s face on Minos, judge of the underworld—the figure with donkey’s ears in the lower right-hand corner of the work. Biagio pleaded with Pope Paul to have Michelangelo erase his portrait, but the pontiff replied that while he could intercede for those in purgatory, he had no power over hell. By way of signature on this, his late great fresco, Michelangelo painted his own face on the flayed-off human skin in St. Bartholomew’s hand.

The best way to avoid long lines is to arrive at the museum entrance after 2:30 p.m. when lines will be very short or even nonexistent (reservations are always advisable)—except free Sundays, which are extremely busy and when admissions close at 12:30. Even better, schedule your visit during the Wednesday papal audience, held in the Piazza di San Petro or at Aula Paolo Sesto, at 10:30 a.m.


The world’s largest church, built over the tomb of Saint Peter, is the most imposing and breathtaking architectural achievement of the Renaissance (although much of the lavish interior dates to the Baroque). It covers 18,000 square yards, runs 212 yards in length, and is surmounted by a dome that rises 435 feet and measures 138 feet across its base. Five of Italy’s greatest artists—Bramante, Raphael, Peruzzi, Antonio Sangallo the Younger, and Michelangelo—died while striving to build it.

The history of the original St. Peter’s goes back to AD 326, when the emperor Constantine completed a basilica over the site of the tomb of Saint Peter, the Church’s first pope. The original church stood for more than 1,000 years, undergoing a number of restorations and alterations, until, toward the middle of the 15th century, it was on the verge of collapse. In 1452, a reconstruction job began but was abandoned for lack of money. In 1503, Pope Julius II instructed the architect Bramante to raze all the existing buildings and build a new basilica, one that would surpass even Constantine’s for grandeur. It wasn’t until 1626 that the new basilica was completed and consecrated.

Though Bramante made little progress in rebuilding St. Peter’s, he succeeded in outlining a basic plan. He also built the piers of the crossings—the massive pillars supporting the dome. After Bramante’s death in 1514, Raphael, the Sangallos, and Peruzzi all proposed, at one time or another, variations on the original plan. In 1546, however, Pope Paul III turned to Michelangelo and forced the aging artist to complete the building. Michelangelo returned to Bramante’s first idea of having a centralized Greek-cross plan—that is, with the “arms” of the church all the same length—and completed most of the exterior architecture except for the dome and the facade.

As you climb the shallow steps up to the great church, you’ll see the Loggia delle Benedizioni (Benediction Loggia) over the central portal. This is the balcony where newly elected popes are proclaimed, and where they stand to give their apostolic blessing on solemn feast days. The mosaic above the entrance to the portico is a much-restored work by the 14th-century painter Giotto that was in the original basilica.

Pause a moment to appraise the size of the great building. It’s because the proportions of this giant building are in such perfect harmony that its vastness may escape you at first.

As you enter the church in the first chapel on the right, behind a protective glass partition, is Michelangelo’s Pietà, completed when the artist was only 24. The work was of such genius, some rivals spread rumors it was by someone else, prompting the artist to inscribe his name, unusual for him, across Mary’s sash. The second chapel on the right is dedicated to Saint Sebastian; below the altar is the tomb of Saint John Paul II (who was pope from 1978 to 2005).

In the central crossing, Bernini’s great bronze baldacchino—a huge, spiral-columned canopy—rises high over the papal altar. At 100,000 pounds, it’s said to be the largest, heaviest bronze object in the world. Bernini designed the splendid Cattedra di San Pietro (Throne of St. Peter), in the apse above the main altar and, above, placed a window of thin alabaster sheets that diffuses a golden light around the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, in the center.

The farthest right of the main gates entering the basilica leads to the Cupola (dome), as well as to a souvenir shop and the Vatican Grottoes. You can take the elevator or climb the long flight of stairs to the roof (06/69883462; €7 elevator, €5 stairs). From here, you’ll see a landscape of vast, sloping terraces, punctuated by domes. Another flight of stairs leads to the tamburo (drum)—the base of the dome—where there’s a bust of Michelangelo, the dome’s principal designer. Within the drum, another ramp and staircase give access to the gallery encircling the base of the dome. (You also have the option of taking an elevator to this point.) From here, you have a dove’s-eye view of the interior of the church. If you’re of stout heart and strong lungs, you can then take the stairs that wind around the elevator to reach the cramped space of the lantern balcony for a gorgeous panorama of Rome and the countryside on a clear day. There’s also a nearly complete view of the palaces, courtyards, and gardens of the Vatican.

Under the Pope Pius V monument, the entrance to the sacristy also leads to the Museo Storico-Artistico e Tesoro (Historical-Artistic Museum and Treasury; 06/69881840; €5), a small collection of Vatican treasures. They range from the massive and beautiful bronze 15th-century tomb of Pope Sixtus IV by Pollaiuolo, to a jeweled cross dating from the 6th century and a marble tabernacle by Donatello.

The entrance is tucked away to the right of the Basilica, by the entrance to the Cupola. The crypt is lined with marble-faced chapels and tombs and the confessional (directly beneath the high altar and on your left after you reach the bottom of the stairs), flanked by two angels and visible through glass, is the most sacred spot in the church, believed to be directly above the tomb of Saint Peter.

The Basilica is free to visit but a security check at the entrance can create very long lines. Arrive before 8:30 or after 5:30 to minimize the wait and avoid the crowds.


The Vatican palaces and museum spaces consist of an estimated 1,400 rooms, chapels, and galleries; one of the largest museums in the world for the smallest country in the world. Beyond the glories of the Sistine Chapel, the collection is so extraordinarily rich you’ll only be able to skim the surface. But few will want to miss out on the great antique sculptures, Raphael Rooms, and the Sistine Chapel.

The gems of the Vatican’s ancient sculpture collection are in the Pio-Clementino Museum. Just off the hall in Room X, you can find the Apoxyomenos (Scraper), a beautiful 1st-century AD copy of the famous bronze statue of an athlete. There are other even more famous pieces in the Octagonal Courtyard, where Pope Julius II installed the pick of his private collection. On the left stands the celebrated Apollo Belvedere. In the far corner, on the same side of the courtyard, is the Laocoön group. Found on Rome’s Esquiline Hill in 1506, this antique sculpture group influenced Renaissance artists perhaps more than any other.

In the Hall of the Muses, the Belvedere Torso occupies center stage: this is a fragment of a 1st-century BC statue, probably of Hercules, all rippling muscles and classical dignity, much admired by Michelangelo. The lovely Neoclassical room of the Rotonda has an ancient mosaic pavement and a huge porphyry basin from Nero’s palace.

Rivaling the Sistine Chapel for artistic interest—and for the number of visitors—are the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). Pope Julius II moved into this suite in 1507, four years after his election. Reluctant to continue living in the Borgia apartments downstairs, with their memories of his ill-famed predecessor Alexander VI, he called in Raphael to decorate his new quarters. When people talk about the Italian High Renaissance—thought to be the very pinnacle of Western art—it’s probably Raphael’s frescoes they’re thinking about.

The Stanza della Segnatura, the first to be frescoed, was painted almost entirely by Raphael himself (his assistants painted much of the other rooms). The theme of the room, which may broadly be said to be “enlightenment,” reflects the fact that this was meant to be Julius’s private library. Instead, it was used mainly as a room for signing documents, hence “segnatura” (signature). Theology triumphs in the fresco known as the Disputa, or Debate on the Holy Sacrament, on the wall in front of you as you enter. Opposite, the School of Athens glorifies philosophy in its greatest exponents. Plato (likely a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci), in the center, debates a point with Aristotle. The pensive, gloomy figure on the stairs is thought to be modeled after Michelangelo, who was painting the Sistine ceiling at the same time Raphael was working here.

Downstairs are the Borgia apartments, where some of the Vatican’s most fascinating historic figures are depicted on elaborately painted ceilings. Pinturicchio designed the frescoes at the end of the 15th century, though the paintings were greatly retouched in later centuries. It’s generally believed that Cesare Borgia murdered his sister Lucrezia’s husband, Alphonse of Aragon, in the Room of the Sibyl. In the Room of the Saints, Pinturicchio painted his self-portrait in the figure to the left of the possible portrait of the architect Antonio da Sangallo. (His profession is made clear by the fact that he holds a T-square.)

Equally celebrated are the works on view in the Pinacoteca (Picture Gallery). These often world-famous paintings, almost exclusively of religious subjects, are arranged in chronological order, beginning with works of the 12th and 13th centuries. Room II has a marvelous Giotto triptych, painted on both sides, which formerly stood on the high altar in the old St. Peter’s. In Room III you’ll see paintings of Madonna by the Florentine 15th-century painters Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. Room VIII contains some of Raphael’s greatest creations, including the exceptional Transfiguration, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the Foligno Madonna, as well as the tapestries that Raphael designed to hang in the Sistine Chapel. The next room contains Leonardo’s beautiful (though unfinished) St. Jerome and a Bellini Pietà. A highlight for many is Caravaggio’s gigantic Deposition, in Room XII. In the courtyard outside the Pinacoteca you can admire a beautiful view of the dome of St. Peter’s, as well as the reliefs from the base of the now-destroyed column of Antoninus Pius.

The best way to avoid long lines into the museums, which can be a three-hour wait in the high season, is to arrive between noon and 2, when lines will be very short or even nonexistent, except Sunday when admissions close at 12:30. Even better is to schedule your visit during the Wednesday Papal Mass, held in the piazza of St. Peter’s or at Aula Paolo Sesto, usually 10:30 am. Also consider booking your ticket in advance online (; there is a €4 surcharge.

For those interested in guided visits to the Vatican Museums, tours start at €32, including entrance tickets, and can also be booked online. Other offerings include a regular two-hour guided tour of the Vatican gardens and the semi-regular Friday night openings, allowing visitors to the museums until 11 pm; call or check online to confirm.

Ushers at the entrance of St. Peter’s and sometimes the Vatican Museums will bar entry to people with bare knees or bare shoulders.


With advance notice, you can take a 1¼-hour guided tour in English of the Vatican Necropolis, under the Basilica di San Pietro, which gives a rare glimpse of Early Christian Roman burial customs and a closer look at the tomb of St. Peter. Apply by fax or email at least two months in advance, specifying the number of people in the group (all must be age 15 or older), preferred language, preferred time, available dates, and your contact information in Rome.


Mostly enclosed within high walls that recall the papacy’s stormy history, the Vatican opens the spectacular arms of Bernini’s colonnade to embrace the world only at St. Peter’s Square, scene of the pope’s public appearances. One of Bernini’s most spectacular masterpieces, the elliptical Piazza di San Pietro was completed in 1667 after only 11 years’ work and holds about 100,000 people. Surrounded by a pair of quadruple colonnades, it is gloriously studded with 140 statues of saints and martyrs. At the piazza’s center, the 85-foot-high Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome by Caligula in AD 37 and moved here in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. The Vatican post offices can be found on both sides of St. Peter’s Square and inside the Vatican Museums complex and are open to the public. The main information office is just left of the basilica as you face it.


The Gianicolo is famous for its panoramic views of the city, a noontime cannon shot, and statues of Giuseppe and Anita Garibaldi (the guiding spirit behind the unification of Italy in the 19th century, and his long-suffering wife). The view, with the foothills of the Appennini in the background, is especially breathtaking at dusk. It’s also a great view for dome-spotting, from the Pantheon to the myriad of city churches. It all looks very peaceful and pastel from up here.


It’s easy to overlook this tiny island in the Tiber. Don’t. In terms of history and sheer loveliness, the charming Isola Tiberina—shaped like a boat about to set sail—gets high marks.

Cross onto the island via Ponte Fabricio, constructed in 62 BC, Rome’s oldest remaining bridge; on the north side of the island crumbles the romantic ruin of the Ponte Rotto (Broken Bridge), which dates back to 179 BC. Descend the steps to the lovely river embankment to see the island’s claim to fame: a Roman relief of the intertwined-snakes symbol of Aesculapius, the great god of healing. In 291 BC, a temple to Aesculapius was erected on the island. A ship had been sent to Epidaurus in Greece, heart of the cult of Aesculapius, to obtain a statue of the god. As the ship sailed back up the Tiber, a great serpent was seen escaping from it and swimming to the island—a sign that a temple to Aesculapius should be built here. In Imperial times, Romans sheathed the entire island with marble to make it look like Aesculapius’s ship, replete with a towering obelisk as a mast. Amazingly, a fragment of the ancient sculpted ship’s prow still exists. You can marvel at it on the downstream end of the embankment.

Today, medicine still reigns here. The island is home to the hospital of Fatebenefratelli (literally, “Do good, brothers”). Nearby is San Bartolomeo, built at the end of the 10th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and restored in the 18th century. Sometimes called the world’s most beautiful movie theater, the open-air Cinema d’Isola di Tiberina operates from mid-June to early September as part of Rome’s big summer festival, Estate Romana. The 450-seat Arena unfolds its silver screen against the backdrop of the ancient Ponte Fabricio, while the 50-seat CineLab is set against Ponte Garibaldi facing Trastevere. Screenings usually start at 9:30 pm; admission is €6 for the Arena, €5 CineLab.


One of Trastevere’s most historic and time-burnished squares, this piazza takes its name from ancient Roman baths on the site (piscina means “pool”). It’s said that the tiny church of San Benedetto on the piazza was built on the home of Roman nobles in which St. Benedict lived in the 5th century. Opposite is the medieval Casa dei Mattei (House of the Mattei), where the rich and powerful Mattei family lived until the 16th century, when, after a series of murders on the premises, colorful legend has it that they were forced to move out of the district, crossing the river to build their magnificent palace close to the Jewish Ghetto.


At the very heart of the Trastevere rione (district) lies this beautiful piazza, with its elegant raised fountain and sidewalk caffè. The centerpiece is the 12th-century church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, first consecrated in the 4th century. Across countless generations, this piazza has seen the comings and goings of tourists and travelers, intellectuals and artists, who lounge on the steps of the fountain or eat lunch at an outdoor table at Sabatini’s. At night, it’s the center of Trastevere’s action, with street festivals, musicians, and gamboling dogs vying for attention from the throngs of people taking the evening air.


In a quiet part of Trastevere, south of Viale di Trastevere, this church’s dedication refers to the fact that St. Francis of Assisi stayed nearby during a visit to Rome. The medieval church was rebuilt in the 17th century and houses one of Bernini’s last works, a statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. This is perhaps Bernini’s most hallucinatory sculpture, a dramatically lighted figure ecstatic at the prospect of entering heaven as she expires on her deathbed. The cell in which Saint Francis is said to have stayed (Il Santuario di San Francesco) is often visitable. Fans of Giorgio de Chirico can ask to visit his tomb in a chapel that contains three paintings by the 20th-century metaphysical painter.


Built by order of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1481 near the spot where medieval tradition believed St. Peter was crucified (the crucifixion site at the Vatican is much more probable), this church is a handsome and dignified edifice. It contains a number of well-known works, including, in the first chapel on the right, the Flagellation painted by the Venetian Sebastiano del Piombo from a design by Michelangelo, and St. Francis in Ecstasy, in the next-to-last chapel on the left, in which Bernini made one of his earliest experiments with concealed lighting effects.

The most famous work here, though, is the circular Tempietto (Little Temple) in the monastery cloister next door. This small sober building (it holds only 10 people and is a church in its own right) marks the spot where Peter was thought to have been crucified. Designed by Bramante (the first architect of the “new” St. Peter’s Basilica) in 1502, it represents one of the earliest and most successful attempts to create an entirely classical building. The Tempietto is reachable via the Royal Spanish Academy next door.


This basilica commemorates the aristocratic St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. One of ancient Rome’s most celebrated Early Christian martyrs, she was most likely put to a supernaturally long death by the Emperor Diocletian just before the year AD 300. After an abortive attempt to suffocate her in the baths of her own house (a favorite means of quietly disposing of aristocrats in Roman days), she was brought before the executioner. But not even three blows of the executioner’s sword could dispatch the young girl. She lingered for several days, converting others to the Christian cause, before finally dying. In 1595, her body was exhumed—it was said to look as fresh as if she still breathed—and the heart-wrenching sculpture by eyewitness Stefano Maderno that lies below the main altar was, the sculptor insisted, exactly how she looked. Time your visit to enter the cloistered convent to see what remains of Pietro Cavallini’s Last Judgment, dating to 1293. It’s the only major fresco in existence known to have been painted by Cavallini, a contemporary of Giotto. To visit the frescoes, ring the bell of the convent to the left of the church entrance.


A brooding example of Baroque style, the palace (once home to Queen Christina of Sweden) is across the road from the Villa Farnesina and houses part of the 16th- and 17th-century sections of the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Among the star paintings in this manageably-sized collection are Rubens’s St. Sebastian and Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist. Stop in if only to climb the 17th-century stone staircase, itself a drama of architectural shadows and sculptural voids. Behind, but separate from, the palazzo is the University of Rome’s Orto Botanico, home to 3,500 species of plants, with various greenhouses around a stairway/fountain with 11 jets.


Originally built during the 4th century and rebuilt in the 12th century, this is one of Rome’s oldest and grandest churches. It is also the earliest foundation of any Roman church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. With a nave framed by a processional of two rows of gigantic columns (22 in total) taken from the ancient Baths of Caracalla, and an apse studded with gilded mosaics, the interior conjures the splendor of ancient Rome better than any other in the city. Overhead is Domenichino’s gilded ceiling (1617). The 18th-century portico draws attention to the facade’s 800-year-old mosaics, which represent the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. They enhance the whole piazza, especially at night, when the church front and bell tower are illuminated. The church’s most important mosaics, Pietro Cavallini’s six panels of the Life of the Virgin, cover the semicircular apse. Note the building labeled “Taberna Meritoria” just under the figure of the Virgin in the Nativity scene, with a stream of oil flowing from it; it recalls the legend that a fountain of oil appeared on this spot, prophesying the birth of Christ. Off the piazza’s northern side is a street called Via delle Fonte dell’Olio in honor of this miracle.


Money was no object to the extravagant Agostino Chigi, a banker from Siena who financed many papal projects. His munificence is evident in this elegant villa, built for him about 1511. He was especially proud of the decorative frescoes in the airy loggias, now glassed in to protect them. When Raphael could steal a little time from his work on the Vatican Stanze, he came over to execute some of the frescoes himself, notably a luminous Triumph of Galatea. In his villa, Agostino entertained the popes and princes of 16th-century Rome. He delighted in impressing his guests at alfresco suppers held in riverside pavilions by having his servants clear the table by casting the precious silver and gold dinnerware into the Tiber. (His extravagance was not quite so boundless as he wished to make it appear, however: nets were unfurled a foot or two beneath the water’s surface to catch the valuable ware.)

In the magnificent Loggia of Psyche on the ground floor, Giulio Romano and others worked from Raphael’s designs. Raphael’s lovely Galatea is in the adjacent room. On the floor above you can see the trompe-l’oeil effects in the aptly named Hall of Perspectives by Peruzzi. Agostino Chigi’s bedroom, next door, was frescoed by Il Sodoma with scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, notably the Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne, which is considered to be the artist’s best work. The palace also houses the Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, a treasure trove of old prints and drawings. When the Tiber embankments were built in 1879, the remains of a classical villa were discovered under the Farnesina gardens, and their decorations are now in the Museo Nazionale Romano’s collections in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.


It took 10 years and cost some €150 million, but for art lovers, Italy’s first national museum devoted to contemporary art and architecture was worth it. The building alone impresses, as it should: the design, by the late Anglo-Iraqi star-achitect Zaha Hadid, triumphed over 272 other contest entries. The building plays with lots of natural light, curving and angular lines, and big open spaces, all meant to question the division between “within” and “without” (think glass ceilings and steel staircases that twist through the air). The MAXXI hosts temporary exhibitions of art, architecture, film, and more. The permanent collection, exhibited on a rotating basis, boasts more than 350 works from artists including Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, and Gerhard Richter.