“Rome wasn’t built in a day”. So, are four days enough to see and experience this city rich in architecture and culture? Well, no… in four days we could cover only a few important sights, places we knew or had seen pictures of. And we left it at that. We spent more time on sampling Roman food on a tour, meandering aimlessly in the the alleys and piazzas, and enjoying a gelato or two at other times.
Of our four days in Rome, we dedicated one day to The Vatican. The other three days we spent exploring the Roman quintessentials and then a few offbeat places.
Our base was in Monti neighborhood, just a 10 minutes walk to the famed Colosseum or Colosseo. The weekend when we were in Rome, an event called the ‘living light sculpture’ by the German artist Sabine Kacunko took place at the Colosseum. In this event, actual bacterias collected from the surface of the Colosseum, probably as old as the landmark itself, were projected on this iconic structure. During the projection, there was a candle-light procession and an open-air prayer service. This was something unique that we got to experience, and we really liked it.
Other than this night visit, we also toured the Colosseum one late afternoon. I had booked the tickets online on Coopculture, which is a combined ticket for Colosseum, Roman forum, and Palantine hill. Sadly, we ran short of time to venture into the Roman forum.
This amphitheater is an impressive sight during the day and also at night. Do a guided tour, or rent an audio-guide, or just make sure to read all the details to understand about this famous symbol of Rome built in 80 AD.
Arch of Constantine
Just outside the Colosseum is the triumphal Arch of Constantine which was built to commemorate Constantine I’s victory. If you plan to sit around here, be ready to be pestered by the countless selfie-stick sellers!
Altare della Patria and Piazza Venezia
The ‘birthday cake’ building or the Alter of the Fatherland/ Altare della Patria. We were informed by our hosts that when compared to all the ancient structures, this building is very new and not very much liked by the Romans.
It is possible to get to the top of Altare della Patrai for a fee of 7Euros.
Renovation was in full swing at Fontana Trevi (Trevi fountain), so we didn’t even bother taking a pic. But this did not deter the crowd from gathering around one of the most famous fountains in the world and throw coins in the dried water basin.
Palazzo del Quirinale
On our way to a covered-up Fontana Trevi we went up Quirinal hill, the highest of the seven hills of Rome, hoping to get a good view. Not much of a view, instead we saw Palazzo del Quirinale (Quirinal palace) which is one of the current official residences of the Italian President.
Pantheon, Piazza della Rotonda
Around 2000yrs old, Pantheon is one of the best preserved ancient Roman building. Standing in front of this impressive structure left me wondering about the feats of mankind in an age when modern machinery was unavailable.
Famous painter Raphael is buried inside Pantheon.
Largo di Torre Argentina
We visited this square on our host’s suggestion. These are ancient Roman temple ruins dating between the 2nd and 4th century BC, and currently home to our feline friends. Yes, this place is a cat sanctuary and is home to more than 100 homeless cats.
Piazza Navona was the second most crowded piazza after Piazza di Spagna. And there’s a reason for Navona’s popularity. Navona square (A piazza is a square in Italian) is the most beautiful of all the Piazzas. There are three beautiful fountains, with the center one by the famous sculptor Bernini – Fountain of the four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) representing the major rivers of the four continents, Nile for Africa, Ganges for Asia, Danube for Europe and Plata river for the Americas. I couldn’t stop marveling at the wonderfully carved three dimensional stone sculptures.
This is the place buzzing with local artists – caricaturists, graphite/pencil portrait artists, water-color painter; all selling their work and displaying their talent.
Castel Sant’Angelo/Castle of the Holy Angel
A leisurely walk from Piazza Navona towards the Palace of Justice (Palazzo di Giustizia) along the Tiber river (Tevere) and on Ponte Sant’Angelo, we reached Castel Sant’Angelo. Having heard about the sweeping views of Rome and Vatican from the castle, we bought tickets and wandered our way to the top. The ticket also allowed us to see a part of the museum. Most parts of the castle including the fortified corridor which connects the castle to St.Peter’s Basilica is closed to public.
Castel Sant’Angelo is worth a visit, especially for the views. And when you are tired, enjoy a cup of coffee at the cafe on top, looking at the dome of St. Peter’s basilica.
Piazza di Spagna and Trinita dei Monti
For me, piazza di Spagna was just another square, nothing extraordinary. I would recommend to to skip this place if you are juggling between sites; although, it’s a great place to sit, relax, and do some people-watching (According to a new rule passed from Aug 2019, tourists found sitting on Rome’s Spanish steps will face hefty fines). We spent a considerable amount of time resting on these steps watching enthusiastic selfie takers and posers.
Though the church Trinita dei Monti which was undergoing renovation, I did peek inside and walked a section of which was accessible. Compared to other churches I had seen, I didn’t find this to be as grand, but it had some excellent frescoes. So, if you are short of time and juggling between the ‘must-visit places’, you can skip this church too.
Offbeat sights in Rome
Coming to the not-so-famous sights that we visited, the Capuchin Crypt was a freaky one. Here, we saw extraordinary art, all made from human bones—countless bones arranged in different patterns. It was horrifying, wonderfully creative and beautiful, all at the same time. The crypt has bones of more than 4,000 monks and the soil in the crypt was brought from Jerusalem.
As soon as we entered the crypt we were struck by this verse on a placard – “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be”.
The only downside of visiting this place is: you pay 10Euros for entry and photography is not allowed.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore/ Basilica of St. Mary Major
This basilica was at five minutes walking distance from the place we stayed and also our host’s favorite church, so we had to pay a visit. Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary—grand interior with beautiful mosaic artwork. Totally worth checking out.
Temple of Hadrian
We passed by Temple of Hadrian while walking from Trevi fountain towards Pantheon. And looking at the colonnade, I mistook it to be Pantheon only to realize otherwise.
Piazza del Popolo and sunset from Villa Borghese
Staying with locals had so many benefits—we ate where the locals ate, learnt some history about the places we visited and got insider tips on great viewpoints. One such spot was in Villa Borghese overlooking Piazza del Popolo. After trying my hand at being a bubble performer in the square, we hoofed up to Villa Borghese. With a lone musician playing that perfect tune, we watched the sun go down on Roma and the lights of St.Peter’s Basilica brighten at dusk. Except for the occasional interruptions by selfie-stick and flower sellers, this is a beautiful place to spend the evening.
Pyramid of Cestius and Non-Catholic cemetery (Cimitero dei Protestanti)
A food tour brought us to Testaccio, a working-class neighborhood in Rome, away from the tour groups and tourist-oriented restaurants. And as part of the tour we visited a non-catholic cemetery where the famous poets P.B. Shelly and John Keats are buried. Next to the cemetery is a pyramid which was built somewhere around 12BC as a tomb for somebody named Cestius, of whom I have never heard before. But this was a pleasant off-track place.
Giardino deli Aranci (Parco Savello) / Garden of Oranges
Another place we stumbled upon trying to get to Villa del Priorato di Malta (for the keyhole view of Vatican) was Giardino deli Aranci (Parco Savello), also known as the Garden of Oranges. Fantastic views of Rome cityscape and the towering dome of St. Peter’s. With nobody to interrupt, this was our final rendezvous with Roma and Vaticano.
Rome is an open museum… the more time you spend here, the more you see, discover, and learn. But if you have limited time, here’s my suggestion—tour the Coloseum, Pantheon, Capuchin crypt, Trevi fountain, Piazza Navona, and walk around as much as you can.
For that splendid sunset view, go to either Villa Borghese or Parco Savello; both are equally good. And to complete your vacation, do a food tour.
(We spent four days in Rome in the first week of September)
What are you looking forward to seeing in Rome?