The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate. Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.
In Ancient Rome, the Forum was the centre of the Roman Empire. Until the 4th century AD, a thousand years of decisions affecting the future of Europe were made here. When Roman soldiers were out conquering the world in the name of the Emperors, temples, courts, markets, and government buildings were thriving in the Forum.
Located between two of Rome's famous hills, the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it is now a collection of ruins having spent centuries as a quarry for marble and a cow paddock. The Forum became a very dense collection of buildings in its time but mostly all that remains today is columns, arches, and some scattered marbles so it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Ongoing archaeological work continues, and getting a map or a guide can really bring the bustle of the ancient site to life. You can get a great view over the Forum from the overlooking hills in the Farnese Gardens and from Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio.
The Pantheon in Rome is a remarkable building architecturally. Basically a cylinder with the floating dome on top of columns, it is the largest masonry vault ever built. In the center of this dome is a hole bringing in a shaft of light to show the beauty of this building and its relatively simple, open interior. Being inside the Pantheon feels very special.
Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, the temple has been damaged and plundered over time. In 609 AD it became a Christian church dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century some of its bronze ceiling was taken and melted down for use in St Peter's Basilica. Important figures such as King Victor Emmanuel II and the artist Raphael are buried in the Pantheon.
The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.
Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.
The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.
Standing proud behind the Colosseum and steps away from the beginning of the Via Sacra, the imposing triumphal Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roma Senate in 315 AD in honor of Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that took place three years earlier. At 69 feet (21 meters) tall, the ornate monument was carved from a single enormous block of gray and white marble. In typical Classical style, the great central gateway is mirrored by two smaller side arches and supported by eight Corinthian columns. The arch is decorated with reliefs plundered from other long-forgotten memorials that describe feats of bravery by earlier Roman emperors, as well as inscriptions praising the achievements of Constantine.
The Piazza Farnese in the historic center of Rome is named for the huge Palazzo Farnese on one side of it, and is one of the nicest public spaces in this busy city. The Palazzo Farnese was begun in the early 16th century by a cardinal in the Farnese family who would eventually become Pope Paul III in 1534. No expense was spared – in fact, when he became the pope, the size of his still-under-construction palace actually grew. It remains the city's largest Renaissance palace, today serving as the French Embassy, and the dominant building on the eponymous piazza.
Other attractions on the Piazza Farnese include the Chiesa di Santa Brigida, a former house of the Swedish saint that was converted into a church upon her death in the 1370s, and two fountains that look like bathtubs – because they are. Each has as its base a bathtub from the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.
Visitors to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano can see not only the present-day church, but also an older church and even older excavations underneath. Evidence suggests that the oldest building on this site likely dates from at least the 1st century B.C.E. It was the home of a wealthy Roman that was probably destroyed during a fire in 64 C.E., but even that structure is thought to have been built on the foundation of an even older building.
Other lower levels of the church have been excavated to reveal a room used in the 2nd century for worship of the cult of Mithras, as well as a 4th century basilica. The church you see at street level today was begun in the late 11th century and features an ornately decorated interior. A visit to the Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano is a fascinating step back in time.
Piazza di Spagna is one of Rome's best-known meeting places, thanks to a stunning statue, the iconic Fontana della Barcaccia and an attractive square that lies at the foot of the famed Spanish Steps. The landmark's central location grants travelers easy access to top attractions like nearby Trinita dei Monti, Keats-Shelley Memorial House and the Column of the Immaculate Conception.
Piazza di Spagna is also a prime destination for people-watching, thanks to the large number of visitors and locals who gather in the public garden and scenic space to celebrate sunshine when there's warmer weather.
The Capuchin Crypt was once thought of as one of Rome's more offbeat attractions, but it has become increasingly popular and is now on many a must-see list. Underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, there is a series of six small chapels that serve as the burial chambers for Capuchin friars. These are no ordinary graves, however. There were more friars to be buried in the crypt's sacred soil – brought directly from Jerusalem – than there was space, so older graves were dug up and the bones of the dead monks were used to decorate the chapel walls. Today, visitors can still see the incredibly intricate designs adorning the walls and curved ceilings of the chapels. A sign in the last chapel reminds us that we are just as the occupants of these chapels once were – and we will eventually be just like them, too. It's a slightly macabre stop, not necessarily recommended for children or the squeamish, but it's also not meant to be like a haunted house.
The Piazza Venezia defies many assumptions one might make from the name. It’s an open space, so it can be called a piazza, but it’s really a gigantic intersection and not a public square. And it’s in central Rome, not Venice. The name comes from the nearby Palazzo Venezia, in which ambassadors from the Venetian republic once lived.
The enormous Vittorio Emmanuele Monument faces one side of Piazza Venezia, and the interchange is also at the base of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. In short, although this piazza isn’t one in which you’re likely to spend lots of leisure time, you’ll certainly pass through it on your way to and from other major attractions in central Rome.
Those of you taking the bus around Rome will find Piazza Venezia to be a major transportation hub, which is useful for getting around the city. And if you’re ambitious enough to be driving in Rome, you’ll probably pass through the intersection a number of times.
There is a neighborhood in Rome still known by the population that called it home in the 16th century. The Roman Jewish Ghetto, formally established in 1555, was where Jews in Rome were forced to live after that year, although Jews had lived in the city for centuries. The city erected walls around the ghetto, and they were torn down only after the ghetto was officially abolished in 1882.
Despite this unhappy history, this part of Rome is now a relatively popular tourist destination. The former Jewish Ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in Rome - the city’s synagogue is here, and this is where you’ll find restaurants, markets, and butchers serving and selling Kosher food products. In fact, in the spring when artichokes are in season, this is the part of the city where you’ll find Rome’s famous “carciofi alla giudia,” or Jewish-style artichokes.
Portico of Octavia was a large courtyard with many columns originally built in the 2nd century BC. It was rebuilt about 100 years later by Emperor Augustus and dedicated to his sister, Octavia. It once covered an area of almost 445 feet long and almost 380 feet wide, larger than a football field, and it had more than 300 Corinthian columns. The Temple of Juno Regina and the Temple of Jupiter Stator stood in the middle. Today not much remains of the structure compared to what it once was. Visitors can still see five columns and the ruins of the entrance gate.
In the Middle Ages, the ruins of the Portico of Octavia became the site of a fish market. A stone to the right of the portico's great arch still marks the location. Nearby you can find the Teatro Marcello, the Tiber River and Tiber Island, the Temple of Apollo Sosiano, and it's not far from the Roman Forum.
A small and relatively unknown archaeological site of ancient Rome, the Largo di Torre Argentina is a square set around the sunken Area Sacra. The remains of four temples built between the 2nd and 4th centuries BC are some of the oldest ruins in the city. What’s left of the Republican-era structures was only just discovered in the 1920s due to construction in the area. The remains of the Theater of Pompey were also found here, said to be the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination. The four temples are distinguished by letters A, B, C, and D, with temple D being the oldest (it is estimated the columns date back to the 2nd century BC.) They’re off limits to humans — however, the piazza has become somewhat of a cat sanctuary. There are nearly 300 stray cats that stay there, lounging on ancient platforms and strolling among history. The area is maintained by volunteers. Sidewalks surrounding the ruins lead to viewing platforms where visitors are welcome to interact with the cats.
Atop the Quirinal Hill is the Piazza Barberini, one of Rome’s public squares that also serves as a bit of a traffic intersection. The piazza itself is pedestrian-only, making it at least possible to enjoy yet another of Rome’s public spaces, although the cars zipping around it make it slightly less than peaceful.
In the middle of the piazza is the Triton Fountain, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1640s. The piazza itself takes its name from the Palazzo Barberini, former home to a noble Roman family, one of whom eventually became Pope Urban VIII. That palace is now home to the Museum of Ancient Art.
Another fountain by Bernini - the Fountain of Bees - once occupied a corner of the Piazza Barberini, but it was moved to another spot on the nearby Via Vittorio Veneto. One of Rome’s two Metro lines (Line A) has a stop at the Piazza Barberini.
The Appian Way (Via Appia), an important Imperial Roman road dating from the 4th century BC, was built to quickly move supplies and Roman soldiers to strategic points of the Roman Empire. The Appian Way was the first and most important Roman road, stretching from Rome to Brindisi on the southeast coast of Italy.
It was the work of architect Appius Claudius Caecus (hence the road's name). You can still walk the long straight cobblestone road, and along the way are catacombs and churches.
As the Roman Empire began its terminal decline, Rome was the focus of attacks and invasions by barbarians. In the third century AD the Aurelian Wall was built around the city's seven hills for protection. The Aurelian Wall had many gates, one of them being the Porta San Sebastiano (which still stands today). It was once called the Porta Appia because it marks the point where the Appian Way begins.
The Parco degli Acquedotti is one of Rome’s green spaces, and also one with major Ancient Roman structures in it. As the name tells you, a visit to the Parco degli Acquedotti means you get to see a Roman aqueduct - but in this park, you can actually see two.
Located just under five miles from Rome’s city center, the 593-acre Parco degli Acquedotti is criss-crossed by two different aqueducts, both of which were once critical parts of the Ancient Roman infrastructure. The two aqueducts in the park are Aqua Felix and Aqua Claudia. There’s also the ruins of a 2nd century palace in the park.
The Parco degli Acquedotti is largely undeveloped - so much so that livestock can sometimes be found grazing in its fields - but it’s close enough to the city that in nice weather it can be a welcome respite for both Romans and tourists to get away from the hectic city. You can reach the park via the Metro Line A, or by bus to the nearby Piazza Cinecitta.
In Ancient Rome, a “circus” was an oblong arena where events like chariot races, games, and other performances were held. As you might guess, the Circus Maximus was - in a word - huge. It was the Roman Empire’s largest stadium, measuring more than 2,000 feet long by 387 feet wide and capable of holding an audience of 150,000.
First built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Circus Maximus was expanded over the next several centuries (and rebuilt occasionally after fire and flood damaged), until it was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. In addition to chariot and horse races, the Circus Maximus also held religious ceremonies, and parades. The last recorded uses of the Circus Maximus are in the 6th century AD, and today there’s very little left of the structures. The site is now a public park, and you can see the overall oblong shape where the Circus used to be, as well as some of the starting gates.