Rome is the most fascinating city in Italy, which makes it arguably the most fascinating city in the world. An ancient place packed with the relics of over two thousand years of inhabitation, you could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface. Yet it’s so much more than an open-air museum: its culture, its food, its people make up a modern, vibrant city that would be worthy of a visit irrespective of its past. As a historic centre, it is special enough; as a contemporary European capital, it is utterly unique.
The former heart of the mighty Roman Empire, and still the home of the papacy, the city is made up of layers of history. There are Rome’s classical features, most visibly the Colosseum, and the Forum and Palatine Hill; but beyond these there’s an almost uninterrupted sequence of monuments – from early Christian basilicas and Romanesque churches to Renaissance palaces and the fountains and churches of the Baroque period, which perhaps more than any other era has determined the look of the city today. There is the modern epoch, too, from the ponderous Neoclassical architecture of the post-Unification period to prestige projects like Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI exhibition space. And these various eras crowd in on one another to an almost overwhelming degree, with medieval churches atop ancient basilicas above Roman palaces; houses and apartment blocks that incorporate fragments of eroded Roman columns, carvings and inscriptions; roads and piazzas which follow the lines of ancient amphitheatres and stadiums.
You won’t enjoy Rome if you spend your time trying to tick off things to do. However, there are some places that it would be a pity to leave the city without seeing. The Vatican is perhaps the most obvious one, most notably St Peter’s and the amazing stock of loot in the Vatican Museums; and the star attractions of the ancient city are worth a day or two in their own right. There are also the churches, fountains and works of art from the period that can be said to most define Rome, the Baroque, and in particular the works of Borromini and Bernini, whose efforts compete for space and attention throughout the city. Bernini was responsible for the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the city’s most famous square, Piazza Navona, among other things; but arguably his best sculptural work is in the Galleria Borghese, or in various churches, like his statue of St Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. Borromini, his great rival at the time, built the churches of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Sant’Ivo, both buildings intricately squeezed into small sites – Borromini’s trademark. Other great palaces are themselves treasure-troves of great art, like the Doria Pamphilj and Palazzo Barberini; and there are some unmissable museums, like the galleries of the Capitoline, and the main collections of the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo, all of which hold staggering collections of the cream of the city’s ancient art and sculpture. And finally there’s the city itself: stroll through the centro storico in the early morning, through Trastevere at sunset, or gaze down at the roofs and domes from the Janiculum Hill on a clear day, and you’ll quickly realize that there’s no place in Italy like it.
The city centre is divided neatly into distinct blocks. The warren of streets that makes up the centro storico occupies the hook of land on the left bank of the River Tiber, bordered to the east by Via del Corso and to the north and south by water. From here Rome’s central core spreads south and east: down towards Campo de’ Fiori; across Via del Corso to the major shopping streets and alleys around the Spanish Steps; to the major sites of the ancient city to the south; and to the expanse of the Villa Borghese park to the north. The left bank of the river is a little more distanced from the main hum of the city centre, home to the Vatican and St Peter’s, and, to the south of these, Trastevere – even in ancient times a distinct entity from the city proper, although nowadays as much of a focus for tourists as anywhere, especially at night.
Beyond Rome, the region of Lazio inevitably pales in comparison, but there is plenty of things to do there, not least the landscape, which varies from the green hills and lakes of the northern reaches to the drier, more mountainous south. It’s a relatively poor region, its lack of identity the butt of a number of Italian jokes, but it’s the closest you’ll get to the feel of the Italian South without catching the train to Naples. Much of the area can be easily seen on a day-trip from the capital, primarily the ancient sites of Ostia Antica and the various attractions of Tivoli. Further afield, in northern Lazio, the Etruscan sites of Tarquinia and Cerveteri provide the most obvious tourist focus, as does the pleasant provincial town of Viterbo and the gentle beauty of lakes Bracciano, Vico and Bolsena. The south arguably holds Lazio’s most appealing enclaves, not least unpretentious resorts like Terracina and Sperlonga, and the island of Ponza – one of the most alluring spots on the entire western seaboard.