The Eternal City’s ancient monuments and galleries, which for centuries have been a major draw on the international tourism map, are looking more magnificent than ever after an extensive programme of restoration: streets and squares have been repaved, historic buildings illuminated at night and fountains cleaned. Alongside the facelift, contemporary stars of the architectural firmament – including Richard Meyer, Zaha Hadid and Odile Decq – are contributing to the changing face of 21st-century Rome. No city in the world is as beautiful as Rome, and few as glamorous.
To the uninitiated, Romans give the impression that looking gorgeous and spending as much time as possible on their telefonni is the be-all and end-all of their existence, but they are also feverishly attached to their city. Thankfully, despite being a busy, chaotic labyrinth of ancient and new streets, central Rome is actually fairly easy to navigate. To give you some very basic perspective: the winding Tiber divides Rome from north to south, with most historical attractions on the east bank. Via del Corso borders the elaborate, square-filled old town (centro storico), with piazza Venezia at its southern end. The Capitoline and Palatine hills, seat of Ancient Rome, rise above it, while the Villa Borghese dominates the street’s northern end. The Vatican sits on the west bank, as does the charming, bustling Trastevere area.
Rome’s most impressive ancient ruins, the Forum and the Colosseum (for both 06 3996 7700), are both nestled snugly between the Capitoline and Palatine hills. Little is left of the Forum’s humble piazza-turned-imperial epicentre, just floor layouts and the odd scattered column and carved chunk of marble. Yet, so imposing are these remnants that it’s possible to imagine the grandeur of the place where Caesars ruled. Next to the Forum and the fourth-century Arch of Constantine stands the famed broken walls of the 1,975-year-old Colosseum (06 700 5469). Gleaming after recent renovations, the amphitheatre is once again hosting performances, though not gladiatorial ones; today it hosts huge musical events and theatre. Behind it lie the grassy remains of the Circo Massimo, long ago the site of Roman chariot races.
Capitoline Hill, or Campidoglio, overlooks it all. Best reached via the steps rising from via del Teatro di Marcello, with its breathtaking centrepiece, piazza del Campidoglio. The piazza was originally designed by Michelangelo, and took more than a century to complete. On opposite sides of the piazza, the grand Palazzo Nuovo and the Palazzo dei Conservatori together make up the Capitoline Museums (06 6710 2071, www.museicapitolini.org). Initiated in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV, these rank among the world’s oldest public museums and house excellent sculpture and Renaissance art.
On the brow of the hill, the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (06 679 8155) marks the spot where the lavish temple of Juno once stood, flanked by temples to her fellow gods, Jupiter and Minerva. Obscuring these sites from street level is the hulking form of the Vittoriano monument (06 6991 718). Built at the turn of the 19th century, this monstrosity overlooks the transport hub of piazza Venezia, whose grand palace, the Renaissance Palazzo Venezia (06 6999 4318), was used by Mussolini as his headquarters.
Last but not least is the Pantheon (06 6830 0230). Built by Hadrian as a temple to the 12 classical deities, this is one of Ancient Rome’s best-preserved remains. It towers over the piazza della Rotonda between focal piazza Navona and via del Corso in the heart of the centro storico.
The Quirinale & Tridente
Bordering the northern section of via del Corso (which, incidentally, was first paved using funds raised by Pope Paul II’s tax on prostitutes) are the beautiful sight-laden districts of the Quirinale and the Tridente. Another of Ancient Rome’s hills, the Quirinale is now most famous for its romance magnet, the Trevi Fountain. Nicolò Salvi’s wonderfully overblown rococo creation is best known as the scene of Anita Ekberg’s late-night dip in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the city’s principal architect in the 17th century, was originally asked to design the fountain, but Salvi eventually took over the project. Bernini’s baroque fountains – in particular the one in piazza Navona – characterise much of downtown Rome. The elaborate Fontana del Tritone, in piazza Barberini, and the exquisitely detailed door to the Palazzo del Quirinale, where the President of the Republic now resides, are both particularly fine examples of his work.
For a shady break from sightseeing, follow the winding via Veneto from piazza Barberini to the lush Villa Borghese. This vast park (complete with a boating lake) once belonged to the Borghese family and houses two unmissable art treasures: the gorgeous Galleria Borghese (piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, 06 32810, www.galleriaborghese.it; booking essential), with its Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio paintings, and Italy’s national collection of modern art at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (viale delle Belle Arti 131, 06 322 981, www.gnam.arti. beniculturali.it), with works by Cézanne and Kandinsky. On the eastern edge of the park are two particularly fine squares: the piazza di Spagna and the piazza del Popolo. Famed for its impressive Spanish Steps, forever crowded with young locals and tourists of all ages, piazza di Spagna was once a beacon to Rome’s 18th-century grand tourists, and was a favourite haunt of Keats and Shelley. Young Keats died in a house on the square in 1821; today it’s the Keats-Shelley Memorial House (No.26, 06 678 4235, www.keats-shelley-house.org), and you’ll find it crammed with minutiae of the poets’ lives.
The piazza del Popolo, where condemned criminals were once tortured at carnival time, contains the church of Santa Maria del Popolo (06 361 0836). Built in 1472, its grounds are said to be haunted; according to lore, Nero’s mistress secretly buried the hated Emperor’s body here, which left him a bit restless. Apart from Nero’s ghost, it is noted for works by Raphael, Caravaggio and Pinturicchio.
This tiny, independent city was founded in AD 90, when the first monument was built on what was believed to be the site of St Peter’s martyrdom. In the fourth century the emperor Constantine built a basilica over the tomb. And then, after a series of invasions, Pope Leo IV encircled the area with an imposing 12-metre wall, which expanded over the centuries to surround more land. Confined behind the wall after the Italian Unification of 1870, and acting as an independent state since 1929, the Vatican (06 6988 1662) leads a separate existence from the rest of Rome. Because of that, its main sights can, and do, observe a strict dress code – you will not be allowed in if you wear clothing that bares your legs or shoulders. Credit cards aren’t accepted, though the Vatican is a duty-free zone. Once inside, the first stop has to be St Peter’s Basilica (06 6988 1662). The dome, when completed in 1590 to Michelangelo’s detailed specifications, was the largest brick construction ever built. Visitors ascend via a cramped lift and then many stairs. At the top there are fabulous views of the Vatican Gardens, Bernini’s piazza and the city beyond. Below the dome, Bernini’s curlicued bronze canopy triumphs over the altar.
Under the chapels, one containing Michelangelo’s Piet� , are the tombs of recent popes, including John Paul II. Further down, the Necropolis is where many believe St Peter is buried (visits by prior arrangement only; phone 06 6988 5318 for booking details). The Vatican Museums (06 6988 3333, www.vatican.va) are so huge that there are four colour-coded itineraries to choose from.
The basilica end of the route has the Sistine Chapel, containing Michelangelo’s frescoes of the Creation and the Last Judgement, and luscious Renaissance works by Botticelli, Rosselli and Signorelli.
• Tourist information: via Parigi 5 (06 488 991, www.romaturismo.it).