Rome, the Eternal City, is traditionally thought to have been founded by the mythical twins Romulus and Remus, in 753 BC. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe with a history spanning more than two and a half thousand years, through which Rome was transformed from a small village into the center of a vast empire. Since the 1st century A.D., it has been considered the seat of the Papacy. Famous artists and architects such as Bernini and Raphael called Rome their home and contributed significantly to its Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
The city’s historic city center is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The palaces, millennium old churches, opulent monuments and museums are among the most visited tourist attractions receiving millions of visitors a year.
There are more than 900 churches in Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica is a Late Renaissance church located within Vatican City. Designed by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, it is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and one of the largest churches in the world. One thing to keep in mind is that churches in Rome deny admission to people who are dressed inappropriately. St. Peter’s in particular is known for rejecting tourists for uncovered knees, shoulders, etc. Generally, tourists won’t be told until right before they enter the church, therefore make certain that you are dressed conservatively so that the time you spend standing in a long security line will not be a total loss.
Where the Basilica now stands was once a chariot racing stadium, built during the time of Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Nero was the first Emperor who began persecuting Christians in Rome. Under his rule, many Christians were imprisoned and put to death in the newly completed stadium.
In general, Rome’s main attractions are free but the Italian government has also designated one week a year known as “Settimana dei Beni Culturali” where admission to all publicly owned landmarks and historical sites are free. Settimana dei Beni Culturali occurs in mid-May.
Much of the attraction of Rome is in just wandering around the old city. The Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheater located in the center of Rome. Built of concrete and stone, it is the largest amphitheater in the world and a testament to the brilliance of Roman engineering and architecture. The construction of the Coliseum was financed by war booty from the Jewish War waged by Emperor Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. It is estimated that the structure was once able to hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators who came to view gladiatorial contests, mock battles, animal hunts, executions, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era and was later reused as housing, workshops, a fortress and a Christian shrine. Large sections of the Roman Coliseum as it now stands are not ancient at all, but the result of a restoration in the 19th century. Only one third of the original amphitheater remains intact. Its original marble facing, the statues decorating the arches and the lavish decoration of the interior did not survive.
Of course, one cannot immerse oneself in the culture of a particular region without partaking in the local gastronomy. Roman cuisine has evolved through centuries and periods of social, cultural, and political changes. Today, it is based on seasonal ingredients prepared simply and includes vegetables such as peas, artichokes and fava beans, meat, and cheeses. Further, days of the week are often assigned to certain foods, such as gnocchi on Thursday, baccalà on Fridays, and trippa for Saturdays.
Visiting Rome one finds a contemporary metropolis which reflects the many periods of its long history. The best times of the year to visit are April, May, and late September through October. Traveling too late or too early in the year can also be risky because the opening hours for many attractions are shorter, and some are closed completely. If you can plan to stay as long as a week, you certainly will not run out of things to do. But if your time is limited, allow at least four days to see all of Rome’s major attractions.
Photo Credits: Shoichi Ogiwara, Templeton, California