That saying is definitely true. Not only was it not built in a day, but there’s no possible way to explore Rome in a day!
When I first looked on hotels.com for a place to stay in Rome, a million places popped up and I had no idea where to stay. Now that I have been there, I have a better idea of what’s where and what transportation is like.
Old Rome is obviously what people think of when they think of Rome. It’s where the Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, luxurious shopping, and many other typically Roman places are. It’s also the most expensive place to stay. Old Rome is exactly that: ancient Rome. You feel the well-preserved history when you walk through the streets. To keep the city as it was, they haven’t even built subways in this part of Rome, so car, foot, or bus is the best method of transportation. Old Rome is the most desirable tourist spot because just about everything is within walking distance.
The Modern Center is just like it sounds, more modern with subway lines, skyscrapers, office buildings, and fast food restaurants. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still Rome so it still has that ancient feel to it, but a modern ancient feel. You can still find amazing sculptures and statues, old churches, and other things in this section.
The Colosseo area is exactly what you just thought when you read “Colosseo”: it’s the Colosseum. The Colosseum is a massive restored gaming arena which used to house tens of thousands of people, so it’s obviously the landmark for this part of the city. Next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill; this area used to be the gathering place of all the Roman people. This is a very historic area not far from Old Rome.
The Vatican is actually an independent state, so people think it’s part of Rome when it is actually completely separate. It’s a walled city with no hotels or housing of any kind for tourists, although you can stay just outside the walls. Vatican City is a very religious city run by the church instead of the Italian government.
Trastevere is across the Tiber river from Old Rome, and while I didn’t make it to this section of Rome, our Airbnb host told us it’s a wonderful place with old walkways and an ancient feel. It has many nice restaurants to enjoy a drink or dinner at sunset. It also was the home of the Jewish and Syrian immigrants by the time of the Republic in 509 BC and was the center of the Jewish community until the end of the Middle Ages.
Termini Station is Rome’s biggest rail station and almost a city in itself. Thousands of people come and go from here every day. It’s a cheaper option but there isn’t much nearby to see. However, you can catch buses, trams, subways, and taxis all from Termini Station. It’s a good location to stay if you’re on a budget but want cheap transportation with a lot of options.
The Colosseum is obviously one of Rome’s most famous sights. It’s an elliptical ampitheater, the largest amphitheater in the world in fact. It was built in marble, concrete, and other stone but has been renovated with brick. Any part you see with brick is not original. The Colosseum held 60,000-80,000 people and was free to enter to keep the people entertained and keep the ruling parties in good standing with the people. However, because of the large desire to see the entertainment, tickets had to be reserved, and your class depended on where you sat. The highest social class or visiting dignitaries would be given the lowest seats, while the poorest sat at the very top (I wonder if they called them the nosebleed sections back then?) There were private quarters and a private entrance for the emperor that were closed to everyone and guarded. The emperor’s quarters had marble pillars and water. The original columns of the top floors are still in tact, and the stairs are still original as well. The Colosseum used to be covered in the famous Roman arches, but over time the arches disintegrated. The lower parts of the arches were restored with bricks, but the arches were never restored, so you have to use your imagination to picture full arches over the seating and walkways. It must have been amazing! The Colosseum was originally built with Italian marble, found closer to Florence. In parts of the present-day Colosseum, you can still see traces of the old marble floor and walls. Imagine the largest white marble amphitheater in the world…
There were 70 different classes of fighters, all trained in one specific weapon. Usually, fighters of different weapon classes would fight to make a more entertaining game. The fighters were slaves; war prisoners became slaves, and the strongest of the war prisoner slaves became gladiators. There was a special entrance for the gladiators that lead up from the dungeons. Below the arena were a gallery of labyrinths, which you can still see today (these are original). The labyrinths were used for service structures and were never seen because the arena covered them. The arena has been partly rebuilt to help our imaginations create the scene we would have seen 2000 years ago. Animals, gladiators, and slaves were all kept in the dungeons, 4 floors under the stage. The dungeons also held water, and it was possible to flood the arena for mock naval battles!
The gladiator games went on for four centuries, and there was almost always killing. There was also public execution in the Colosseum. It is a building of violence. However, popular gladiators could win back their freedom if they won the support of the public by winning a lot of games. Many committed suicide. Sometimes, there games where there was no killing. A good fighter cost money to buy, keep him well fed, and train, so masters didn’t always want to lose a good fighter and they wouldn’t always be killed in a fight. Maybe 10 out of 60 or 70 games ended in both lives being spared.
The games were abolished at the end of the 4th century AD when Christianity came to Rome. The building started to be used as a quarry. (Does this gladiator story sound a bit like the Hunger Games to anyone else?)
The Roman Forum is located next to the Colosseum. Forum literally means public place outdoors. The Roman Forum is a large, outdoor, rectangular area surrounded by the ruins of important buildings and houses of the day. It was the center of Roman public life. There were elections, public speeches, trials, and other commercial affairs. The Senate and the Republican government both began here. You can find the ruins of the Roman Senate, government offices, tribunals, temples, memorials, statues, and houses of the richest people here.
The most central of the Seven Hills of Rome is Palatine Hill, located in the Forum. In mythology, the Palatine Hill was the location of the cave where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf Lupa. A shepherd and his wife found and raised the children. When they were older, their great-uncle seized the throne from their grandfather, so they killed him and decided to build a new city on the banks of the Tiber River. However, in an argument Romulus killed his twin brother Remus, and thus Rome got its name from Romulus. Another legend that occurred on Palatine Hill was Hercules’s defeat of Cacus after the monster had stolen some cattle. Hercules struck Cacus with his club so hard that it formed a cleft in the southeastern corner of the hill.
The Pantheon is the old house of the gods built by Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 125 AD. In 609 it was converted to a Christian church, and in 1870 it was turned into a memorial chapel to the kings of Italy. The tombs of Vittorio Emanuelle II, Umberto I, Margherita of Savoy, and Renaissance artist Raphael can be found here. At the top of the Pantheon is a 9-meter oculus that lets in a slanting ray of sunlight; if it’s raining, the rainwater disappears into the floor’s 22 nearly-invisible holes. After 2000 years, the Pantheon is the world’s largest unenforced concrete dome and one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings. Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons was also filmed here.
You’re walking along the streets of Old Rome and suddenly you come out of two narrow corridors into a massive plaza with life and action everywhere! This is the Piazza Navona. The Piazza Navona is a city square built in the 1st century AD. The Piazza is filled with works of Bernini and Borromini: The Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini, Fountain of Neptune by Porta, and Fountain of the Moor by Porta and Bernini, and the church Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini and others. The Piazza Navona is as much a meeting place today for Rome’s inhabitants as it was in ancient times. Today, there are open air cafes (but avoid these tourist traps and walk a few streets in!), seasonal fairs, festivals, painters, caricaturists, fortune-tellers, acrobats, jugglers, and many other people who make this piazza a great place for people watching. This was also a location in Dan Brown’s book Angels & Demons, representing water. Eat, Pray, Love and Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn also had scenes filmed here.
Unfortunately, Trevi Fountain was under renovation during my visit so my photo doesn’t show the beautiful fountain in all it’s glory, yet there was still a long line to go through the construction to see the fountain close up. The Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous in the world. Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita had scenes filmed here.
The Spanish Steps are a popular hangout for Romans and tourists! The monumental stairway of 135 steps leads from the piazza below to the church at the top. The stairs were built to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy and the church at the top of the stairs to the Holy See in the piazza below. They were designed by an unknown artist at the time who won the opportunity by winning a competition in 1717. The Talented Mr. Ripley and Roman Holiday had scenes filmed here.
Piazza del Popolo
Literally, the square of the people. Inside you can find famous churches, monuments, sculptures, fountains, and marble memoirs of historic events in Rome. The city’s northern entrance was through the Aurelian Walls, known as the Porta del Popolo. Before the age of railroads, this was a travelers first view of Rome. The square was also a place of public execution until the 1800s. The Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Mirasanto are twin churches located in the square designed by Bernini among others. On the north side of the Piazza del Popolo is Santa Maria del Popolo, containing several works by Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, and many others. On the left hand side of the nave in the Santa Maria del Popolo is the Chigi Chapel, created by Raphael with the ceiling mosaics and sculptures having been created by Bernini. The Chigi Chapel appears in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons when Robert Langdon is looking for “Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole”; the demon’s hole is literally an open hole in the ceiling, also known as an oculus. This represents earth in the book.
Santa Maria della Vittoria
The Santa Maria della Vittoria is an old, beautiful church in Modern Rome, but holds an important Bernini sculpture inside: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Unfortunately it was under restoration but it was still impressive to see it in person, and as it is not on many tourist brochures, no one else was here to see it. The white marble sculpture represents an episode from the life of St. Teresa. An angel carrying a fire-tipped spear pierces her through the heart repeatedly, sending her into a state of spiritual rapture. St. Teresa collapses from the angel, overcome with the feeling of God’s love. This church and sculpture appeared in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, representing fire.
Castle Sant’Angelo and Pasetto
Once the tallest building in Rome, the Castle Sant’Angelo is the tomb site for Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century; it was commissioned by the emperor himself to be the mausoleum of himself and his family. It was later used as a fortress, castle, and residence by the popes. The Passetto is the secret underground passageway connecting it to the Vatican. Today, the castle is a museum. The Castle Sant’Angelo was a secret ancient illuminati lair because it was so close to the Vatican, they’d never think to look for the brotherhood there. According to our Airbnb host, the top of this castle is a beautiful place to catch the sunset, however because it’s a museum you have to pay to go up, so I opted to admire its beauty from below. This building was this place was last stop on Robert Langdon’s Path of Illumination in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons before fleeing through the Passetto into the Vatican.
The Piazza Venezia is located between the Colosseum and Old Rome. The square is at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. Many roads converge at this beautiful white monument, so it’s hard to pass it by when you’re in Rome!
Where To Eat, As Recommended By A Local
Our Airbnb host was wonderful enough to help us avoid the tourist traps and eat authentic, decently priced Italian food. I can vouch first-hand for the following places:
Da Tonino: The best meal we had in Italy. There will most likely be a line and you can’t make a reservation…but it’s worth the wait. It’s a small place that cooks true Italian food and offers more than just pasta. Of course, we got pasta and meatballs along with a traditional meat and cheese appetizer, and everything was delicious. The dishes were very well priced and we were satisfied when we left!
Navona Notte: Located only a block from the Piazza Navona. Don’t get sucked in by the expensive tourist traps in the square, Navona Notte is a gem! Specializing in pizza and pasta (what Italian restaurants don’t), you can order à la carte or choose one of their pre-planned meals. James and I opted for the pre-planned meals: pizza/garlic bread, an appetizer of muscles (a good amount to share!), an appetizer of a bean soup to share, and 2 plates of pasta for 25€. Pretty good deal! We also bought a liter of wine for 10€. The pizza looked delicious but we opted for the pasta, which was amazing. This is a wonderful hidden jewel in the heart of the city that I highly recommend! Excellent value.
Antica Birreria Peroni: Located close to the Trevi Fountain, this restaurant had decent prices, although the portions were very small. The food was delicious, but we left hungry. It’s a good stop if you’re in that area because it’s authentic Italian food and not a tourist trap, but don’t go there starving or you will leave hungry!
G Fassi: Doesn’t sound like a name for a gelateria, but this is one of the best (and oldest) gelaterias in Rome! I believe our Airbnb host said 100 years old. There is a line at all hours, and it’s worth the wait. Wonderful, authentic, Italian gelato is the best way to end your night, and the best gelato and best prices will be at G Fassi, near Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II!
Special Events In Rome
Rome during Easter is a very special time. The religious Vatican celebrates many holidays leading up to Easter. On Good Friday, the Colosseum closes at 2pm and the city starts setting up for the Stations of the Cross, lead by the Pope himself. Hundreds of thousands of people gather at the Colosseum to hear the Pope speak. This year, he spoke about those who are dying for Christ today, and the sufferings of innocent victims, such as children who are abused or enslaved.
Easter services are held in Vatican City at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope’s personal place of worship. Visit my Vatican City blog for more on this!
On A Last Note – Transportation
Taxis are useless in Rome. The traffic is very bad around Old Rome and a taxi will overcharge when it’s faster to walk. If walking is too far, opt for a bus. You may be told to buy a bus ticket in advance because you can’t buy one from the bus driver. In fact, the bus driver doesn’t even look at you as you get on, and it seems no one actually buys bus tickets. For 3 days, James and I didn’t buy a single bus ticket and no one said a word to us. This also works for the trams. A bus ticket is the same as a tram ticket, and the same situation applies. No one asks for a ticket, no one else scans a ticket. It seems public transportation in Rome is inadvertently free! If you do find yourself getting caught or needing to pay, bus/tram tickets are 1.50€ for one ride, 6€ for a day, or 16.50€ for 3 days.
* Update: I met someone who studied abroad in Rome and clarified this for me. The inspectors check buses and trams sporadically, not all the time. However, if you get caught without a validated ticket, it’s 100 euros.
Subways do cost money, no getting around it. There are turnstiles to get to the subway, but tickets are only 1.50€. Subways don’t run through Old Rome so make sure a subway is what you really want: they’re best for getting to the Vatican or the Colosseum. However, everything in Rome is walkable on a nice day if you’re in good shape!