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Rome - Main Sights

The Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon, Vatican City…

In the two other sections of our pages on Rome – we have set out to tell you some of the History of Rome and also talk about the Building and Architecture of Rome too. If you read these two other sections, hopefully it will help you understand more about the City of Rome, Vatican City and all that you will see in coming to Rome – one of the world's Great Cities.

Transport –

The Tiber River runs through the centre of Rome, with a number of Bridges crossing over the Tiber River and Vatican City on the eastern side of the River and the old Roman city on the western side, with the city itself spread out in all directions from there. The Ponte Umberto I bridge is closest to the Vatican, and you can get great views from the Bridge or from the River area near it.

There is a ring road around the inner city for cars (GRA – Grande Raccordo Anulare), with Highways to other parts of Italy running off it, but the best way to see the main sights of the City is to use the Metro which also connects the main International Airport (Fiumicino – Leonardo da Vinci) with the Centre of Rome. There is a second International Airport called Ciampino – where some charter flights land. It is connected to the City Centre by bus.

The Metro ( M )– has two main lines – A (Red Line) and B (Blue Line) and the MAIN TRAIN STATION for both the Metro and the Italia Rail Fast Trains is the Central Station - Stazione Termini. This station is about 30 minutes from the Fiumicino Airport.

Fast trains to other cities in Italy and Europe depart from the Stazione Termini too. Buses and Hop on-Hop off buses also leave from here too.

You can buy a 1 day up to a week Pass for the Metro, Buses and Trams. You will see vending machines at Metro stations and can buy a pass at many of the magazine/tobacconist shops that sell them too.

Taxis are available off ranks and run on a Meter Rate. If travelling as a couple with lots of luggage sometimes it can be worthwhile taking a Taxi direct to your hotel.

You could also hire a Rental Car at the Airport or in the City. It is worth doing this if you looking to head out of Rome, but if staying in the centre of Rome, it is better to rely on the Metro, bus tours and walking to get around.

It is also possible to hire a Vespa motor scooter too, but be aware of the dangers of traffic in Rome.

The easiest way to get around is by buying a ticket for a Hop on-Hop off Bus that will give you a commentary on what you are seeing and stop at all of the main tourist attractions.

Rome also changes from day to night, and some of the buildings look even more spectacular at night than they do in the daytime.

NOTE: You can book flights, Hotels, trains and Rental Cars on this website.

There are thousands of hotel choices, and if travelling in Peak Season, it is worth booking early. If you are staying close to the Stazione Termini, it makes it easy for carrying luggage, but equally if you are near a Metro or other Train Station this also makes it easy enough to access your hotel and also use the transport. The closer you are to the main places you want to see, the more time you'll have seeing them.

Areas to Stay:  For convenience and lots of choices – stay close to Stazione Termini or near a Metro station, such as Metro Cavour; for character - stay in the Rione Monti District. For Luxury - stay near Villa Borghese and Via Veneto; if mainly interested in seeing the Vatican – stay in the Prati district. The further away from the main city sights, the more time you will spend on a bus or in a Taxi.

STAYING SAFE –

Rome is a big city with a population just short of 3 million people and if you add in the tourist numbers it goes well over the 3 million.

Your main risk here is being robbed by pickpockets – so keep close to your luggage and keep your wallet in your front pocket not your back pocket  if you are wearing trousers or shorts and keep your bag to your front too.

It is pretty easy for a thief on a Vespa to snatch a handbag and keep going or grab your bag as the crowd crushes in on you.

The danger points are crowds – particularly a 'crush' of people getting onto a bus, train, Metro or in a market. Also be aware of the con tricks – begging for money with a sob story, the woman with a sick baby…  There are no doubt genuine stories too, but it is hard to distinguish the true ones to the others. Like many good salesmen, their first objective is to get you to stop and engage you in conversation.

Some of the thieves work in pairs – one to distract you or the crowd, the other to grab your bag. They have some good tricks too – a few coins dropped near you to distract you and other tricks.

It is better to use your Hotel Safe for your passport and valuables (always photocopy your Passport and keep the copy separate, just in-case you lose it.)

In Rome – you will also walk a lot, so try not to troop around with lots of things to carry or flashing your jewellery or expensive camera. Like at an airport you will also go through security checks too at some of the biggest museums and places to see, so the less you carry the faster you will go through any checks.

Overall stay alert and don't make yourself a target of thieves, but also don't feel paranoid that you are about to be robbed wherever you are.  Rome is much the same as other big cities and relatively safe.

WHAT TO SEE

The four big places to see in Rome are the Roman Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon and the Vatican – and you need time to see each of these to really appreciate them. Naturally these four locations also attract the biggest number of Tourists too, so pick what you hope will be the day and time when there are less tourists and queues.

To get the best sequence of history and how the story of Rome unfolds, I think it is best to see the Roman Forum (Foro Romano) first.  Not absolutely necessary, but maybe it helps.

The Roman Forum – was the very heart of Rome and dates back to the 7th Century BC. The English word 'Forum' originated here, with its meaning – A place where people come together to discuss, put forward and debate their views and ideas, often for a political purpose.

The word 'Rostrum' meaning the podium on which orators speak also dates back to the Forum.

While the Emperor, Consuls and Senators formulated and made the laws that governed Rome, the Forum was where the people met to put forward their Political views.

Today the Forum is a whole complex of ruins – so you need to imagine how it would have looked when it was the centre of Rome.  Here you can still see the Grand Arch of Septimius Severus, the Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rostrum, the old Temple of Vesta, Arch of Titus, House of the Vestal Virgins and basilicas. Also here you can wander and take in the atmosphere, knowing that you are right here in what was the heart of Rome and Roman Civilisation.

The Palatine Hill (one of the 7 hills of Rome) and Palatino are to the south side of the Forum. This is where Emperor Flavia and Emperor Augustana once lived around the first Century AD. The best way to learn and see more here is to visit the Palatine Museum. From the top of the Palatine Hill you can get a panoramic view over the rooftops of Rome.

The Capitoline Hill Museums – that date back to 1475 are to the north-west side of the Forum. These Museum Galleries are the oldest in the world – the Palazzo Nuovo , Palazzo dei Conservatori , Palazzo Caffarelli –Clementino – a whole group of Gallery Museums  where you will see statues, sculptures, frescoes, Roman Coins, portraits and paintings dating back centuries, including the sculpture of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the She-Wolf.  To get an idea of the vastness of the Collection – see www.museicapitolini.org

There are a number of Museums in Rome and the Vatican – all with vast collections, so you need to be selective as to how many you have the time and the inclination to visit.  

The Colosseum – is located east of the Forum and while much of the Colosseum has been destroyed over the centuries, with other buildings using stone from the Colosseum stadium arena when it was abandoned. There is still a massive amount of the Colosseum left to give you a real feel for what it was like when first opened by Emperor Titus in 80AD.

The Colosseum was built in Travertine stone blocks with marble seating inside with the massive arena shaped as an oval 190 metres long by 155 metres wide (620 feet x 513 feet) and it stands 48 metres high, with 3 levels of Arches. The ground level arches are made up of Doric Columns, the first level of Ionic Columns and the top level uses Corinthian Columns.  Inside the Colosseum the inner piers used Tufa Volcanic Rock in their construction, while 240 tall masts were placed around the perimeter of the Arena in Corbels to hold them up above the top level of the Stadium – the masts used to suspend a giant awning across the top of the arena to protect the spectators from the heat of the sun. 

There was seating here for 50,000 spectators who could look down on the central arena to see Gladiators fighting other Gladiators or wild animals that were brought to the Arena to fight or to witness a public execution.  These days, the Arena is mainly used for visiting Tourists to see the Arena, but sometimes big name music events are held here, a far cry from the days of the Gladiators, though you still might see one or two of them here when you visit.

The Pantheon - This Temple on the Piazza della Rotunda was built between 118 and 125AD by Emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian's Wall fame) and later became a Church in the 609 AD.  The Pantheon is modelled on the Parthenon in Athens and was also copied in Paris where they also built a building also known as the Pantheon which is a Mausoleum. (See Paris section of this website).

While the Forum and the Colosseum lay partly in ruins, the Pantheon is still largely complete and a marvellous building to see.

Twelve massive grey granite Corinthian Columns from Egypt mark its entranceway to a porch area with a pediment above them, each column being almost 12 metres (39 feet) high and 1.5 metres in diameter (5 feet) across. Huge Bronze doors open from the porch area into the Rotunda, which is the most interesting architectural feature of the Pantheon.

If you look down you see the great colours and geometric shapes in the marble floor.

Look up and you see the Rotunda (Round shaped room) around you -  43.3 metres (142 Feet) in diameter, with all sides of the room alternating between columns, the portico, niches with sculptures with a high altar located within an apse (a semi-circular dome shape). Above the columns there is a pediment that runs around the room, with more decorative friezes, frescos and decoration leading to the vast coffered ceiling above you with an oculus (open circle) at its top.

There is a lot to take in here, in the place where the famous Renaissance Painter, Rafael (1483-1520) "the Prince of Painters" is buried.

While the walls and floor are magnificent, it is the coffered ceiling and the control of light and the overall ambience that make the Pantheon so special. The dome that forms the ceiling high above you is made of concrete, which varies in thickness from over 6 metres (21 feet) at the sides to around 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) near the oculus. This is one of the most incredible engineering feats from the ancient world, and when you consider that the dome used no re-enforcement in its construction and has stood here for close to 2000 years, withstanding all that has happened over that time-span, it is even more impressive. 

The Oculus provides both light and air to the interior of the Rotunda, and an eye to the sky and heavens above.

If you can, try and see the Pantheon in the day but also at night when it is lit up. It is very impressive both inside and outside. The most amazing time is also if it is raining, when water comes down through the Oculus.

The Pantheon is still used as a Church too with services on Sunday. The absolute best time to come here however is on Pentecost Sunday (7 weeks after Easter Sunday) when as part of the service red rose petals are dropped through the Oculus to signify the blessing of the Holy Spirit. 

If you can't make it at that time, settle instead for a coffee in the Piazza and just soak up the atmosphere of Rome.  

The Vatican – Città del Vaticano   (See Rome History section on this website to read more.)

The Vatican is the MUST SEE independent City State inside Rome that is home to the Pope, Cardinals and the Roman Catholic Church.  While the buildings here date back centuries, it was only in 1929 that under the Lateran Treaty with the Italian State that the Vatican gained its complete independence from Italy. (See History of Rome section on this website)

There are around 500 to 600 people who live permanently as residents in the Vatican, mostly being Clergy, some diplomatic staff and the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

Most of the people who work in the Vatican live in Rome itself, with only about 30 of the people living in the Vatican being women. There are of course many visitors, including Roman Catholic clergy from around the world that stay in the Vatican during their visits here.

The Swiss Pontifical Guards Army (Helvetian Soldiers) in their distinctive uniforms have been the Vatican's guards since January 22nd, 1506, blessed at the time by Pope Julius II. There are two versions of their uniforms – the one that they wear day-to-day and another one for ceremonial purposes. The normal uniform of the Guards is a long blue doublet jacket with a blue beret worn on the head, but the most recognized uniform used on formal ceremonial occasions is the dark blue and yellow striped pantaloons tucked into stockings, with the guards wearing a cockade helmet plume of ostrich feathers as part of the uniform.  The guards also carry a pikes (a long spiked hook) and swords.

Back in the 1400's the tall Swiss soldiers were considered the best in the world and they were often recruited as mercenary fighters by different warring parties, including the French and Spanish due to their fighting skills and heroics shown in battles.

As the Vatican's Guard force, they have over the centuries committed to protecting the Pope and the Vatican at all costs, during the Siege of Rome in 1527 and even in World War II and they continue to play that role today. They are the Vatican's Army, not to be confused with the Gendarmerie Police, with the Italian Police having control and patrolling St Peter's Square.

From an Architectural design point of view, one of the most underrated yet powerful design elements is the use of 'space' and you can see this in gardens, buildings,  sculptures, art, even music  and other artistic expressions. A single tree on a hilltop will have more visual impact than a whole forest, and a significant building within an open plaza or at the end of a boulevard rather than being crowded in by other buildings will equally have far greater impact due to the space around it. Most Catholic churches around the world for example are located on the highest position, usually a hill or ridge overlooking the village or town where they are located.

The 'space' adds the drama and power to what you are seeing and no-where is this more apparent than here in St Peter's Square – the vast open space, though crowded with people, of St Pater's Square with the single Egyptian obelisk as its centre point with the arc of colonnades encircling the Square on each side, and St Peter's Basilica directly in front.

If you go to the Obelisk in the centre of the Square and look back you see the Via della Coniliazione (Roadway) that leads directly to the Tiber River where the Ponte Sant'Angelo bridge is located and then if you look the other way right in front of you is St Peter's Basilica, while to your right and left there are the arc circle of Doric Colonnades with the statues of Saints lining the top plinth of the Colonnades looking down upon the people in the Square.

The Square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) a sculptor, architect, painter, city planner, playwright, actor and 'genius' best known for his  bronze and marble sculptures and fountains in Rome championing the Baroque style of Architecture.

He designed the Piazza San Pietro (St Peter's Square) built between 1656 and 1667 with Bernini also designing many of the interior sections of the Basilica itself too. His most celebrated works are the Chapel of the Sacrament, Cathedra  Petri ( St Peter's Throne chair), and the 'Balacchino' high altar, with its four brass columns and detailed olive leaves, bees and brass canopy, like a crown above them, the whole structure located under the great Dome of the Basilica.

Symbolically, the circle of Colonnades and statues of Saints represent a circle of arms and Saints embracing the people within the square, drawing them to the 'Mother Church',  St Peter's Basilica – the central heart of the Catholic Church and to God and the heavens above.

There are two fountains in St Peter's Square – one designed by another great Italian architect, Domenico Fontana and built in 1586 and the other identical one by Bernini in 1675 – as a way of balancing the symmetry of the design that he had created. If you look to the roofline above the Colonnades – directly in line with the fountains, you will see the Coat of Arms of Chigi –- centred on 6 cone like hills with a star on top. This is the Italian Chigi Family coat of arms. Pope Nicholas VII was the patron of Bernini and was from the Chigi family, and as a mark of respect for his patronage, Bernini created these two sculptures using the Chigi Coat of Arms. That coat of arms is also on top of the Egyptian Obelisk below the cross too.

The Obelisk is an ancient Egyptian Red Granite column/obelisk that once stood in a Roman Forum built in Alexandria which was demolished in 37AD with the obelisk then moved to Rome. It was erected where it is now located in 1586, taking over a year to place it in position, given its massive weight and importance. At that time this whole area was the Roman Circus of Nero – used for Chariot racing but also for Crucifixions.

To raise the column into position it is said to have taken 900 men and 140 horses pulling on ropes to haul it into position.

It was also here in the Circus of Nero that St Peter is said to have been crucified in 64AD and later buried, his tomb located under the High Altar in the Basilica.

This red granite Obelisk is 25.5 metres in length, with the full height of the obelisk to the top of the Cross at the top being 41 metres.  The Latin inscription at its base reads "Christus Vincit. Christus Regnat. Christus Imperat"   that in English means "Christ Conquers. Christ Reigns. Christ Commands".

When you look down at your feet in the Square, you will also see that you are walking on cobblestones, and from the central Obelisk there are the spoke lines of Travertine stone radiating outwards to a circle of travertine lines in front of the colonnades around the square.

St Peter's Square certainly creates a grand entranceway to St Peter's Basilica with its grand façade of columns and line of Sculptures, representing Christ, John the Baptist and 11 Apostles standing atop the Portico entrance hall that leads into the main Basilica where the central Cupola roof and lantern top can be seen above you. Ideally try to see St Peter's Basilica in the daytime, but also at night when the lights create a special ambience. 

St Peter's Basilica is the second Basilica to be built here – the first built around 349AD and the one that you now see here built between 1506 and 1626 by a succession of designers, architects and artisans working for a succession of Popes over the 120 years of its construction.

When you look at the Basilica – it was constructed in three parts – the Grand façade, Entrance Hall that you see in front of you from St Peter's Square with its massive Corinthian Columns and windows above them with doorways opening to a Central Nave that leads on the Central Dome area.  All are magnificent and inspiring to see.

The oldest part of St Peter's Basilica is the Dome Section, first conceived and designed in the shape of a Greek cross (the cross pieces of equal length) with a Dome in the centre of the cross, and four massive pillars to support the dome above them. This was the design of Donato Bramante (1444-1514) with the foundation stone laid in 1506. After Bramante's death, the design was then added to by a succession of architects including the great artist, Rafael (1483-1520), with one side of the cross being extended so that it formed a more Christian Cross (the Crucifix or Latin Cross) shape. The design and engineering was then again added to by Michelangelo (1475-1564) who started work on the design in 1547, and is given most credit for the engineering and design. Following the death of Michelangelo, the design and the work continued to slowly progress, with the Dome finally completed in 1590. At this time the old Basilica was still in existence, but it was demolished in 1606, by which time another architect designer, Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) was appointed. Maderno then further extended Michelangelo's Christian Cross shape to create the Nave (Narthex) with its great vaulted ceiling leading to the Central Dome and also the Façade with its vaulted ceiling too, with all this work including the interior design and decorative work completed between 1605 and 1615.

If you look at the Façade you will see a row of windows above the columns, and it is from the window in the centre that on special occasions that the Pope addresses the crowds of people in St Peter's Square. 

As much as the exterior of St Peter's Basilica is impressive, it is the interior that is even more so. It is here that St Peter is buried and his tomb located along with over 100 others including Popes, Emperors and even 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' – Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), his brother, Henry Stuart (1725-1807) and  his father,  James Stuart (1688-1766) son of King James II – the last of the Stuart Kings in England, Scotland and Wales. See Scotland section on this website.

No matter where you look, be that down at your feet, where you walk, all around you or above you – the paintings, sculptures, mosaics, the dome, ceilings, inscriptions, sounds, lighting, High Altar, the serenity…. St Peter's Basilica may well be the most impressive building you will see anywhere in the world. Massive in scale and grandeur and a masterpiece of its creators and benefactors – every last detail has a story to tell. It is a truly beautiful and inspirational building.

If you can and are feeling energetic you can also climb 320 stairs to the top of the Basilica near the Dome to look out over Rome.

The Sistine Chapel (Capella Sistina) is on the right side of St Peter's Basilica. It was designed by Baccio Pontelli (c.1450-1492) and built between 1473 and 1481 and while it looks like a fairly plain looking building on the outside, it was modelled on 'King Solomon's Temple' the Holy Temple built on Mt Zion in Jerusalem in 953BC by King Solomon (990BC-931BC) (Jedidah), the King of Israel and Son of David. The plainness comes from the fact that 'idolatry' (the worship of false idols) was forbidden under the laws of Abraham.

King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem was ultimately destroyed in 587BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II (605BC- 562BC) in the siege of Jerusalem. The measurements of the Temple in Cubits (1 cubit is the distance from the tip of a middle finger to the elbow joint) were however recorded in the Old Testament and the Sistine Chapel designed and built to these same measurements, as a rectangular shaped building on 3 levels, the building roughly 40 metres long by 13 metres wide (approximately 90 cubits x 30 Cubits).  

There is a basement level and a third storey, but it is the middle level where the Sistine Chapel is located with six large arched windows along the long sides and two arched windows at each end.

What people come to see is the Vaulted Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564). It took him four years to complete the paintings – from 1508 to 1512, and his works are recognized as the most significant paintings in the world. The top of the vaulted ceiling is some 20.7 metres (68 feet or 45 Cubits) above the floor level, so ideally if you can, bring some binoculars so that you can look at some of the details in the paintings up close. It is truly incredible. Equally, his painting of 'The Last Judgement' behind the Altar is another show of his genius. It took 6 years to complete and was painted by him between 1535 and 1541.

If you can get high enough to see it you will find on the roof of the Sistine Chapel a small chimney. This chimney is used to release smoke at the time of choosing a new Pope – black smoke to say no decision has been made and white smoke to signify that a new Pope has been chosen.

In many ways the Vatican is the storeroom for some of the world's greatest history, artwork and treasures, and when you see St Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and then visit the Vatican Museums with their many rooms and gallery areas, as well as the Vatican Library with its vast collection of books dating back centuries, you gain a glimpse into the whole history of the world and the Vatican. There are of course many more buildings and no doubt many treasures that will never be shown in public, but even so, what you are seeing here is truly amazing. It is the accumulation of wealth, power, knowledge, wisdom built up over more than 2000 years of history.

The Vatican City is surrounded in most parts by a long stone wall, separating it from the City of Rome and behind St Peter's Basilica there are the Vatican Gardens covering an area of 22 hectares (54   acres).  These gardens with their wide pathways, lawns and gardens provide a more relaxed view of the Vatican. This is also where you will find the Fountain of the Eagle, Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, the Monument to Saint Peter, the Church of St Stephen of the Abyssinians and the Ethiopian College that provides training to African Priests. In most cases you need to take a tour to see the gardens, and in recent times they have a Bus that will take you around too.

There is no doubt that you need a full day and ideally more to see the Vatican and all that is here, and the more times you visit, the more that you will see. 

Of course there is much more to see in Rome than these most famous locations but we hope that what we have written here will help you understand and enjoy more of what you are seeing.

Happy exploring!

Geoff Stuart

www.Flightshotelsinfo.com

Happy Traveller

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