Rome is ruins, tourists and sleazy romance. It has amazing views, pizza slices and you really must go. This ultimate guide tells you why.
Rome had a million inhabitants already in antiquity. This is where Caesar was killed, Cicero held his speeches and Augustus built his monuments.
Here is my personal top ten for Rome, focusing classical antiquity.
1. Circus Maximus
Your historical visit to Rome starts with an early morning stroll at the amazing Circus Maximus, easily reached by excellent roman subway.
Looming over the ancient racing stadium, site of a thousand years of lavish games with gladiators and exotic beasts, of religious processions and chariot races, and possibly where the devastating AD 64 fire of Rome began, are the ruins of the Imperial palaces on Palatine hill. You should know that it’s from the name of this hill that the word “palace” actually derives.
Circus maximus is the best place to start since it gives you an instant idea of the scale and complexity of the historical remains of this very special city. It differs from most other Roman sites in that you are free to enter, exit and stroll around as you like.
2. Imperial palaces on Palatine hill
From Circus Maximus it’s a short walk to the Palatine. To get there pass east of the hill up to the arch of Constantine, the largest triumphal arch in Rome spanning what used to be the via triumphalis – a way for triumphs entering the city.
At the arch you turn to enter the via sacra, main street of ancient Rome leading through its centre. Previously for triumphs and religious festivals, it is now the main tourist track. If you possess a Roma pass, easily obtained at tourist spots and worth it’s cost, you skip the line at the checkpoint here, enter the centre of ancient Rome and soon turn left, walking up the northern slope of Palatine hill.
There is much to see on the Palatine, including the houses of Augustus and (possibly) his empress Livia, temples, a circus and – most important – the ruins of a series of imperial palaces which you can now walk through. I am most impressed with the view into the reception chamber of the Flavian emperors and their water gardens.
The Palatine offers a breath-taking view to the north, of the Forum Romanum and the Colosseum and that is the reason to go here first.
3. Forum Romanum
The centre of ancient Rome and its empire for a thousand years, an area of magnificent buildings and monuments and the site of numerous events of great historical impact such as the murder of Julius Caesar and the speeches of Cicero, the forum deserves a guide of its own. You could easily spend days here, going through its many sites.
You don’t miss the senate house and the triumphal arch of Titus, for the rest there is no right or wrong.
The Colosseum is a wonder of the world, an awesome architectural feat and an ancient slaughterhouse for men and beasts alike. Gladiatorial fights to the death, regular executions and all sorts of crazy shows took place here. You will no doubt find it colossal, irritating for its discomfortable, crowded walking-paths and a feast for the historical eye.
5. Trajan’s Column
You have already seen this column if you ever visited the V&A in London since they keep a plaster copy on display. The original was completed in AD 113 and stands in the remains of Trajan’s forum just to the north of Forum Romanum. It is a victory column over the emperor’s victory over the Dacians. The interesting thing is that it’s covered in remarkably detailed images telling the story of the wars. These images have a wealth of information on contemporary dresses, equipment and the like, making it a treasure for historians and archaeologists.
6. Capitoline Museums
As traditional as you will ever find a row of museums, the Capitoline ones gets away with attracting visitors anyway through the renowned ancient masterpieces they keep on display. See the sculpture galleries and avoid the rest. Works such as The she-wolf of Rome, The dying Gaul, the pieces of the colossal statue of Constantine and the truly queer statue of cupid and psyche are just some of the world-famous things here.
After nearly 1900 years, the incredible dome of the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Looking up at the oculus, the round hole in the dome letting in daylight, it is hard not to be struck by awe. It’s a beautiful temple whose architecture have served as model for other buildings worldwide.
8. Castel Sant’Angelo
The central tower of the Castel is actually the immense tomb of emperor Hadrian having later been reconstructed as a castle. While all previously mentioned sites are in the area around Forum Romanum, the Castel lies a refreshing walk to the north, on the other side of river Tiber. There’s a good café at the top with great views. On your way out of the tower you will walk the exact steps of the funerary procession which put the emperor to rest here in AD 139.
9. The Appian Way
A main road out of Rome to the south, the famous Appian Way was also a great necropolis, strewn with funeral monuments on both sides. To get here you transport yourself south-east from the Forum Romanum area to the Appia Antica regional park. Here you may walk the ancient highway and see some of the remarkable funerary monuments. Walk north, into the city and pass the great San Sebastiano gate in the second century walls of the city.
10. Vatican Museums
Disturbing from a museum professional point of view due to its poorly organized people flow leading to ques and crowding, this is still the 5th most visited museum in the world due to their incomparable stash of amazing world-class art. You might want to pop in to the Sistine chapel, but the collection of rightly famous sculptures from antiquity is what you really must see. Marvel here at the Laocoon group, the Augustus of Prima Porta and many more.
These ten historical spots are my classical antiquity favourites in Rome. You will find others, disagree on my choices and please do, knock yourself out, but just get there.