The original Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa (~25 BC), a successful Roman general who also helped developed the aquaducts. While facade of the building bears his name, the original Pantheon was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt twice. It was finished during Emperor Hadrian’s reign (126 BC). To this day, the Pantheon remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and has inspired many subsequent structures including Bruneschelli’s Dome in Florence (1436).
Admission is free. A long line can form during peak season that will wrap around the fountain and obelisk. The line moves fast, as there is not too much to see within the building besides admiring the architectural feat of the dome itself and several statues. Raphael’s tomb is here.
River to Ruins
If you have extra time, I recommend walking along the River Tiber. You’ll be able to see Tiber Island which was the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Aesculapius, ancient Greek god of healing, and now a hospital to boot on the island. If you plan on walking to the Colosseum and Roman Forums, this is a small detour to make.
After passing by Tiber Island, veer northeast to catch a glimpse of Teatro Marcello (13 BC). The ancient Romans used it as a theater, but later years and following the fall of the Roman empire led the structure to be used as a fortress. The Orsini, an Italian noble family, built their palazzo above the ruins in the 18th century. You can see from the photograph below that half of the ruins have sunken into the ground. The Palazzo Orsini palace was reportedly up for sale for 41.8 million.
Built in 80 AD, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre every built. While it is most well known for gladiator battles, the Colosseum at one point held mock sea battles by flooding the arena!
The Colosseum is located right next to the Forum, doing both can take approximately half a day. Restoration of the Colosseum is being backed by luxury shoe brand Tod’s, you can read about their progress here. The Colosseum name is thought to be taken from a large bronze statue of Emperor Nero nearby (think Statue of Liberty height) which no longer exists.
I fell in love with this fountain after watching Three Coins in the Fountain, but many movies have featured this fountain. The design of the fountain was a contest erected by Pope Clement XII. The winner was originally Alessandro Galilei (a Florentine), but the public were upset that a Florentine would be designing their Roman fountain, and thus Nicola Salvi was declared the winner. Oceanus, Titan god of the sea, is featured alongside Abundance and Salubrity.
The Borghese Villa was built in the early 1600s by Cardinal Scipione Borghese as a countryside home close to Rome. Much of the art displayed here was collected by Scipione Borghese. He was a patron for Gianlorenzo Bernini, and helped Bernini establish himself as an artist early in his career. Famous works in the gallery include Apollo and Daphne (Bernini), Rape of Proserpine (Bernini), Boy with a Basket of Fruit (Caravaggio), Young Sick Bacchus (Caravaggio), and Venus Victrix (Canova).
Adjacent to the Villa was a Vivarium which reportedly held different types of birds including ostriches, peacocks, swans, and cranes (John Evelyn). There is a serene park which is nice to walk around in, with a few sculptures scattered throughout. Please note that the Villa is closed on Mondays and requires a timed ticket to enter.
I think your experience of going the Rome depends entirely on the ease of your journey, the plane ride, trying to find your hotel, how many tourists are occupying the city, and the choice of restaurants you choose to visit. Rome seems to incite very strong feelings in visitors.
The first time I visited Rome was in December. It was bitterly cold, and the streets were quiet with a lull of tourists. We had the museums to ourselves. Lines were mostly brief, although there were large enclaves of tourists at the Colosseum and Vatican city, as expected.
The second time I visited was in May where the weather was pleasant and you could step out onto the cobblestone streets wearing a floral sundress. The good weather attracted hoardes of visitors, and one could barely move through small shops, cafes, and certain streets. Rome suddenly felt like an ancient theme park.
The perfect place for people watching. This public space is surrounded by Palazza Pamphilj, Fountain of the Four Rivers, and two smaller fountains: Moor Fountain and Fountain of Neptune. Fun fact: The piazza was routinely flooded every week in August starting in the 1600s until 1865 for entertainment. Read more about the history of the fountains and plaza here.
While the Colosseum is possibly the most iconic structure of Rome, the Roman Forums was the heart of ancient Rome. You can see the ruins of several ancient temples, government offices, and public plaza. Not all of the structures are well preserved, I recommend reading up beforehand or using Rick Steve’s free audio tour during your visit. The grounds are large and one could spend hours strolling through the ruins. In peak season, buy your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in two lines (one to buy ticket and the other waiting to show your ticket at the gate). I recommend checking closing times as the Forums may not admit visitors 1 hour prior to close.
There are three seemingly similar arches located in close proximity to each other (Arch of Septimius Severus, Constantine, and Titus).
Arch of Titus (82 AD): Erected by Emperor Domitian to commemorate his older brother (Titus)’s death. Titus was known for his many military victories, including the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Jewish-Roman war. Panels of the arch show scenes during the sack with spoils of war taken from the Temple in Jerusalem (golden menorah). It is located on Via Sacra, and near one of the exit/entrances of the Roman Forum.
Arch of Septimius Severus (203 AD): Located within the Roman Forum. Built to commemorate victory of Emperor Severus and his two sons Caracalla and Geta against the Parthians (in modern Iran). After Severus passed, both sons became emperor, until Caracalla murdered Geta in 212 AD. The inscription on the top of the Arch originally was dedicated to Severus and both his sons. After Geta’s death, his name was erased from the monument (damnatio memoriae). For a more detailed description of each reliefs, visit here.
Arch of Constantine (315 AD): Located between the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Built to commemorate victory of Constantine I at the Battle of Milvian Bridge against Maxentius. Before the battle, Constantine had a vision that if he painted the sign of Chi-Rho (first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek) on the shields, he would win. Constantine’s win allowed him to be the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire and signified a victory by divine intervention.
For those who need to relax a different way, the Spanish Steps is a stylish neighborhood filled with high end shops. It is located in close proximity to the Villa Borghese and could be tackled in the same day.
The Spanish Steps (1725) was designed based on a competition to create a path between the church Trinità dei Monti and the Piazza di Spagna. (The steps are named “Spanish” because of a nearby Spanish Embassy).
This group of museums surrounds a plaza designed by Michelangelo. It houses many ancient and famous sculptures. If you are short on time, I recommend browsing through their most famous pieces to see if you are interested. Another reason to visit? The view of the Roman Forum from the Tabularium gallery is beautiful, especially at night. If you do not like sculptures and/or history, then this may be something to skip.
My personal favorite in the Capitoline Museum is the Oceanus statue (“Marforio”) in the courtyard. Built in 1st century CE, it was originally located near the Arch of Septimius Severus. It is one of the talking statues of Rome. (Talking statue = a statue where people can express anonymous political views when they are otherwise afraid to speak out publicly). The statue was moved several times before ending up in the museum. The cost of moving the statue was so high that the Pope increased the tax on wine to fund the move. This talking statue “Marforio” subsequently complained to another talking statue (Pasquino) that Romans had to abstain from wine in order for him to sit on top of a fountain.