Once the centre of a modern, forward-thinking empire, today Rome is a living museum, full of culture and historic importance. Whilst still contemporary in many ways, it is famous the world over for its lessons in history.
A republic city for 2000 years, Rome has been the setting for many plays, films, books and much more. It is through William Wyler’s film 'Roman Holiday' that our love for the city started and it’s true to say that the backdrop to this Hollywood masterpiece didn’t disappoint.
If it’s famous sights and a touch of romance that you’re looking for in a city break, then Rome won’t let you down! For the photographer, there is an abundance of opportunities to be found, whether your eye is for the historic shot or a more modernistic approach. With streets full of Italian fashion houses to make your bank balance weep, the shoppers amongst you may need to put in the overtime once you return home!
We travelled to Rome via a cruise excursion which took us from our port in Civitavecchia, 44 miles away, during the hottest week for 10 years in Italy. It wasn’t the easiest day, with temperatures that week hitting 51°c, but we had lots planned and wanted to try and see as many sights as possible. Granted some were only a passing glance and a selfie to document our presence, but if you want to see a lot of Rome in a little time, then planning a route as we did is the best way forward.
If you’ve only got a short time here, you’ll only get to see a fraction of the sights. In fact, given a week, you’d probably still struggle! However, our highlights and handy tips should help you to get the most out of your city break.
One of the most famous buildings the world over, the Colosseum still looms largely over the Rome skyline despite its age and decrepit state. It has stood the test of time (2000 years) and still attracts over 4 million tourists per year. However, it could be said that a certain amount of luck comes with its survival story. Having been ransacked for its Travertine stone over the years, bored at for its high iron content (note the hundreds of bore holes punctuating its walls) and surviving floods, earthquakes and other acts of God, the drama of its history is as exciting as the battles that took place inside it.
In its heyday, it seated 50,000 people ranging from lowly citizens (seated in the top tier) to members of the senate and city officials (much closer to the action on the lower tier). A maze of lifts built underneath its 83 by 48 metre arena, transported animals, victims and gladiators from the cages and tunnels below to the stage of epic battles of strength and bravery. The built up wall around the edge of the arena allowed the combat zone to be flooded so that mock sea battles could also take place.
Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian and completed later by his sons, Domitian and Titus. It was 545 metres in circumference, with 3 storeys of arches that reached a height of 48 metres and had 80 further arches as its means of entrance. There are constant restoration projects taking place here, which isn’t surprising given its condition and the importance to our understanding of Roman society, leisure and political climate during these times.
When entering the Colosseum, a tour guide adds some perspective and context to what you are seeing. It was definitely something we were glad to make the most of as the overwhelming size of the place almost restricts you from taking in the finer details. Having smaller details pointed out and common myths addressed helped to make the stories of those who frequented here more real rather than the Russell Crowe fantasy that has become popular belief.
You’ll need at least an hour inside, and if you’re not participating in an organised tour, a further few hours for queuing during peak times and national holidays. To avoid the queues there are several time saving ways to speed up the entry process. We paid for a guided tour at a reasonable price which allowed us immediate access; the estimated queuing time was 3 hours when we visited in the peak of summer. After seeing the thousands of queuing tourists and being on the verge of heat stroke, we arranged our tour with a tour operator selling tickets on the street outside the site. Do be careful though as not all of these vendors are genuine and, as in many tourist cities, scammers are always looking for an easy target.
You can also buy your entry tickets in advance via the Palatine Hill ticket office which will also gain you access to the Forum. The queue is usually much shorter than the main Colosseum ticket office and if you time your arrival for later in the day much of the hustle and bustle has died down. Online tickets are also available to pre-purchase if you have a planned schedule or itinerary and are able to select your time slot in advance.
Even with limited knowledge of its history or purpose, it is impossible to ignore The Forum’s importance and grandeur. Although mostly ruins now, the site stretches over an area of 250 meters by 170 meters (approximately five Wembley pitches!). A detailed map or tour guide are essential if you wish to get the most from it and a bit of background reading will help put buildings into context – something we really should have done before our visit!
We gained entry to The Forum as part of a paid tour of the Colosseum but decided to wander around the ruins at our own pace and take refuge in the shade of the magnificent columns and temples. A huge hub of buildings and temples, The Forum was the political epicentre for not only Rome, but the entire Roman Empire and beyond. With market halls, places of worship, areas of social gathering, monuments and government buildings, this really was the beating heart of civilisation. The Forum has become a blueprint for settlement designs that has stood the test of time. Today it is difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the complex, with several areas crumbling or no longer standing. Having said that, it is astonishing to see how many buildings are still relatively intact, especially considering their age and the many trials and tribulations they have faced. There are a vast amount of landmarks and noteworthy historical sites within this famous area. In fact, far too many to discuss in length and do justice to without writing a huge dossier of history.
After years of restoration and being hidden by scaffolding, the Trevi Fountain has re-emerged as magnificent as ever. The expanses of white Travertine stone shine once more, showing Ocean in all his glory. Finished in 1762, the fountain is located on an ancient water source which formed part of the aqueduct system, one of the many inventions pioneered by the resourceful Romans. Baroque in design, it was begun by Nicolo Salvi, who died before seeing his masterpiece finished, and completed by Giuseppe Pannini.
The backdrop to the fountain is the Palazzo Poli, a palace once belonging to the Conti family, known for its lavish parties of the 1800’s frequented by royalty and the aristocracy. Underneath the triumphal arch is the god Ocean, often mistaken for Neptune although similar in many ways, and flanked either side by Abundance, holding the horn of plenty to the left and Health with a cup and laurel wreath on the right. The horses, one calm and one restless, represent the two states of water; tranquil and violent. The statues at the top of the fountain are symbolic of the effects of rain; Abundance of Fruits, Fertility of Crops, Products of Autumn and Joy of Prairies and Gardens. If you have a sharp eye, then you may also be able to spot some of the 30 different species of plants and flowers adorning the fountain.
When travelling down back alleys and side streets, the last thing you expect to see is something of this magnitude. Whilst its name - meaning Three Street Fountain - suggests its location, it is still amazing to see such a looming monument in such a small space (26.3 metres high and 49.15 metres wide). Full of tourists most of the time, make your way down to the fountain itself to throw in your 3 coins (right hand over left shoulder if you want to follow convention) and make your wish! Your money will join the €3000 per day tossed in by tourists which makes its way to the local poverty fighting charity Caritas. Make sure you don’t climb on the stonework itself, otherwise you’ll get a sharp whistle of scorn from the Polizia on guard there!
The Spanish Steps begin with a 17th century fountain and rise, somewhat majestically up in 3 tiers, to 135 steps of selfie-opportunties. Once at the top, you’ve got a choice of visiting the Trinità dei Monti church, part of the reason this landmark exists, or taking in the breath-taking views of the seven hills (especially at sunset).
The steps were built in 1723, in order to link the Spanish Embassy to the Trinità dei Monti church, by Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi. The idea of creating a walk way up the steep incline to the church had been debated for many years. The solution was, of course, to hold a design competition to finally put an end to years of wrangling.
The fountain at the bottom of the steps tells the story of a folk legend. It is believed that a fishing boat ended up at this spot in 1598 after being carried by flood water from the River Tiber. The depiction of a half sunken boat was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and was designed by Pietro Bernini. For literary fans, the steps are beside the home of John Keats, which is on the corner to the right as you begin to ascend. As he lay on his deathbed he was said to have found the sound of the fountain soothing.
Looming above the already impressive façade, is the church itself, the Trinità dei Monti. With its two towers dominating the skyline, this 15th century church has stood here long before the area became so popular. It was built with two clocks, one to show the Italian time and one to show the French time; the towers were built in the style of the French Gothic Cathedrals of the time. The church itself is smaller than expected to say that so much has been built here and not as impressive as other churches in such a religious city. However, to fully experience the whole story, a quick visit inside is essential while you are here.
Another point of interest is the 2nd century Roman-copy of an Egyptian Obelisk nestled between the steps and the church. Originally built in Egypt 3500 years ago, it was then copied by the Romans and housed in the Garden’s of Sallust across the city. In 1789 it was relocated here by the request of Pope Pius VI. Although a handy way to get up a hill, the Spanish Steps are a truly beautiful piece of architecture. Not only is it one of Rome’s most popular gathering places (including for Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday), it is also the widest and longest staircase in the whole of Europe.
Opposite the Spanish Steps is Babington’s Tea Rooms, serving English tea for more than 100 years. Italian's are famed for their love of coffee. But if like us you’re obssessed with a decent brew, you are missing the tastes of home, or are just simply parched from all the climbing, why not take a well earned rest here?
When counting the steps of Spanish Steps, make sure not to include the first step, as this is part of the draining system and often mistakenly included! Get counting the 135 steps up. It'll be easier on the way back down but you may need to slalom all of the selfie takers that will make this task somewhat more difficult!
After watching the famous scene in ‘Roman Holiday’ we couldn’t wait to see (and test out) The Mouth of Truth. However, after some online and text book research, we were surprised to find that there was very little information out there about this landmark. With a little more digging it turns out that there is good reason.
The origins of the frieze seem to be unknown, with some claiming it to be part of a fountain, others a dedication to a Roman God or the draining system for the blood of slaughtered cattle to name but a few! Historians can’t seem to back any of these theories up with evidence but for us this makes it all the more intriguing. The ancient stone mask, made from Pavonazzo marble has a diameter of 1.75m and weighs about 1300kg. When standing before the Mouth of Truth you get a real sense of its sheer size and the aura it gives off has a mystical quality about it.
Having found so little about its history, we were surprised when we arrived at the Santa Maria Church to find a substantial queue. Whilst waiting for 30-40 minutes in the blistering 48⁰c heat, we questioned whether the experience would really be worth it. Granted, we were only allowed time to take 1 photograph each and had to pay €2 for the privilege but it’s a hidden part of Rome’s history with a fun and exciting story behind it!
Over the years the face has been used to test the dishonest as part of their court trials; call it the lie detector of the middle ages if you will. There are even reports of a swordsman positioned behind the stone ready to relieve the deceitful of their hand should it be required. Even in modern day Rome, parents threaten their children to tell the truth or face the face itself!
After visiting the stone, your path takes you through the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin itself. You’ll need to be dressed appropriately, but covers and wraps can be borrowed if needed. Whilst another small Catholic church, it is a perfect example of a medieval Italian place of worship and has many interesting features. It was founded during the 6th century on the remains of the Temple of Hercules Pompeianus. It also homes the skull of St Valentine himself in its dimly lit interiors - although you’ll have to travel to Dublin to see the rest of him.
The Crypt is shaped like a small basilica and was constructed in the 8th century to house many religious relics. Next to the church's porch you should be able to see the 12th century bell tower or the 11th century frescoes. The view for us however, was spoilt by scaffolding on the day we visited, so hopefully you will be luckier than us!
Italy is renowed for its fresh pasta, bread, tomatoes, pizza, gelato and wine, so there'll be plenty for you to enjoy during your visit. Most restaurant meals with wine will cost around €25 per person, but in some tourist hot spots you can expect to double that. You will have plenty of choices for quick eats like pizza, paninis and light snacks and these will cost around €7 per person. Rome has many fantastic restaurants, serving great food at reasonable prices, but it equally has just as many poor ones serving overpriced, poor quality food to unknowing visitors, so do your research first. Remember to always look for busy places full of locals - there's usually a reason why they frequent those restauraunts!
Some areas in Italy have banned the coperto service charge, including Lazio where Rome is located, but this and other charges still routinely appear on menus, so be careful if you're on a tight budget. Charged per person, you can avoid paying an exorbitant coperto by checking restaurant menus before entering. If there is no menu posted outside, ask the host for one before being seated. The coperto is typically listed in tiny print either at the very top or bottom of the menu. They're usually pretty crafty at concealing it, so keep your eyes peeled!
It is customary to charge for bread in Rome, and most restauraunts will bring you a basket out before ordering your meal. If you don't want bread, you need to specifically tell them when they serve it, otherwise they will add it to your bill, even if you don't eat it.
Rome is a city that runs on an excess of caffeine. Brought up from childhood on drops of dark Robusta roasts, Romans tend to demand coffee that is bitter, scalding hot, and made in a hurry. As a visitor, we would recommend you order your coffee directly at the bar to avoid paying a service charge for being served at a table, which often doubles your bill. When you enter a cafe, locate the cashier and place your order, then take your receipt to the bar to collect your beverage of choice. Italians don’t linger over coffee and an espresso only takes a minute to drink, so it’s easy and enjoyable to drink standing up.
If like us you enjoy a traditional English tea, your choices in Rome are quite limited. Italians just don't have the knack of making tea, and you won't find it served in many restaurants or cafes in the city. One choice is Babington’s Tea Rooms at the foot of the Spanish Steps, serving elegant afternoon teas, light lunches, snacks, aperitifs and salads, but you'll be paying a premium with double digit figures for each teapot.
With a meal ask specifically for tap water, otherwise you will automatically get expensive bottled water added to your bill. Moreover, you can refill your bottles of water at any of the drinking fountains throughout Rome. The water is fine to drink, and you’ll feel like a local as you drink from their ancient city monuments. If you enjoy wine, make the most of this during your visit to Rome, as some bottles of wine are as cheap as soft drinks!
And that about rounds up our magical day in Rome. Our visit was certainly a busy one and our legs were feeling it the next day. Thankfully we had a sea day to recover on our cruise itinerary and made full use of the lifts rather than navigating the stairs! How would we summarise the magnificence of Rome? In three words: historic, fascinating and hot! We hope you’ve enjoyed an insight into our experience in Rome and that this guide helps you to plan your perfect visit!
Need further inspiration for your future travels? Are your plans leading you further across Italy? Have a read of more of our adventures by exploring our other blogs or check out our social media pages for photos and handy tips. Have you already been to Rome? We’d love to hear back from you and share your own experiences. Follow us on social media, drop us photos, edits or updates or maybe you’ve found something new and exciting that we should be aware of?
Happy travelling and ciao for now!
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