Overview

Rome seems to have its own gravitational pull, attracting not only millions of tourists each year, but also the most creative artists and thinkers of every era. All that surrounds a visitor in Rome—the stunning art and architecture, the terrible traffic, the grandeur of scale and the lively (almost hyper-animated) citizens—guarantees an unforgettable trip.

Known as "The Eternal City," Rome is a supreme palimpsest. The ruins of pagan temples have become the foundations of Christian churches, ancient theaters have been made into medieval family fortresses, and Corinthian columns support new walls. The ages are layered, one atop the other, but the flow of Roman life is ever forward, with a respect for its glorious past.

Rome wasn't built in a day, so don't expect to see it in one. The historic center alone could absorb a week: the Michelangelo-designed Campidoglio, the Pantheon, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, as well as the nearby Colosseum and Baths of Caracalla. The basilicas take a little longer because they are spread throughout the city.

If it's Rome's views you're after, climb up into the dome of St. Peter's or admire the panorama from the top of the Spanish Steps (better yet, from the Pincio Gardens above it) at sunset. Or survey the Forum at night from the Capitoline. Bustling, beautiful Rome, sprawling among its seven hills, is fascinating for both its ancient and its modern wonders.

Of course, not everyone immediately loves Rome: Some dislike the city's untidiness and seeming disorganization. But give la citta eterna a chance to charm, or else risk missing something magnificent.

Geography

For urban planners and traffic managers, Rome is a headache. Streets originally designed for horses now have to accommodate SUVs. Fortunately, visitors need only focus on navigating the city, not solving its traffic problems.

The city's historic center is the Centro Storico—it's on the left bank (east side) of the Tiber River (called the Tevere in Italian), and home to the original seven hills. The ancient political, spiritual and commercial heart of this area is the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) and the adjacent Foro Romano (Roman Forum). Nearby are the most important monuments of ancient Rome, including Trajan's Markets, the Imperial Forum, the Colosseum and the Arches of Constantine, Septimus Severus and Titus. To the south are Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus and, a bit farther, the Baths of Caracalla, the Appian Way and the Christian catacombs.

The city's main piazzas are also helpful for orientation. Piazza Venezia and the adjoining Piazza Campidoglio are just northwest of the Roman Forum, and Piazza Navona is still farther northwest. Piazza del Popolo is on the western edge of Villa Borghese, a large park northeast of the Centro Storico. Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps are just south of Piazza del Popolo. Connecting Via del Popolo and Piazza Venezia is Via del Corso, one of the city's main streets.

On the right (west) bank of the Tiber, west of the Centro Storico, is Vatican City. To the south of the Vatican are Villa Doria Pamphili and Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill). The medieval neighborhood of Trastevere (literally, "across the Tiber") is between the Gianicolo and the river, nestled in the westward bend of the river across from Isola Tiberina, an island in the Tiber. On the east side of Tiberina is the old Jewish ghetto, which contains one of the largest synagogues in Europe, along with some of the best restaurants serving traditional Roman fare.

History

Rome is nicknamed The Eternal City not merely for surviving almost 3,000 years, but also for retaining political, religious and artistic significance throughout that time. Legend has it that Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC, but archaeologists have found evidence of a much earlier Etruscan settlement. Fact and myth are difficult to untangle, but it's clear that Rome was already the major power in Latium by the time of the Republic's foundation in 509 BC. By the first century AD, Rome was dominating the Mediterranean through military conquest, cunning diplomacy and innovative political organization.

During the period of the late Republic, Julius Caesar and other generals extended the boundaries and glory of Rome, while simultaneously destroying its principles of government. The Roman Empire followed, remaining a heavyweight power for hundreds of years. Initially, literature flourished, with great emerging writers such as Cicero, Virgil, Catullus and Ovid. As the arts bloomed, however, the political structure crumbled. Squabbles and coups—as well as increased debauchery—eventually led to the Empire's division and fall.

In the first century AD, the apostles Peter and Paul arrived in Rome to proselytize, but they were martyred, along with hundreds of other Christians. Persecutions continued, on and off, until the Emperor Constantine legalized the faith in 312. The first Christian emperor also gave the Catholic Church temporal powers, beginning the papal state, which continued until the end of the 19th century (with occasional periods of foreign occupation). Papal coffers funded the projects of Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini, the University of Rome and much of the city's infrastructure—as well as the infamous inquisitions, beginning in the 12th century.

Benito Mussolini descended on Rome in 1922 and formed the world's first fascist government. When World War II broke out, the nation allied itself with Nazi Germany, but the Partigiani (Resistance) soon convinced most Italians to support the Allies. Rome's open-city status spared it from the destruction of bombing but did little to stop the massacres and pillaging by the Germans.

U.S. troops liberated Rome on 4 June 1944, yet the city and country were destitute. The 1950s economic boom revived both, triggering the dolce vita era of glamour. The capital steadily grew in cultural and political power. The city had a makeover for the Vatican's 2000 jubilee and now has a revitalized urban plan, improved infrastructure and massive restoration projects under way. Rome continues to bloom with art, architecture, culture, tourism and fine living.

Sightseeing

Rome is a great open-air museum with a high concentration of monuments, churches and artwork, enmeshed in a modern city with a lot of fast cars, mopeds and people strolling around in very stylish shoes. Even the smallest courtyard hidden in the narrowest street may hold a tiny, wonderful detail—a decorated sidewalk or a stray column, fresco or fountain. To get the most out of your visit, you'll need to walk (but we recommend wearing comfortable shoes). Before setting off, stop by one of the information kiosks that dispense maps, brochures and advice in several languages.

Start in the historic heart of the city, called the Centro Storico. That's where you'll find the Imperial Forums, including the Roman Forum, Trajan's Column and Markets, and the Palatine Hill. Nearby are the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Then detour a bit to visit the palaces around Piazza del Campidoglio, which contain the Capitoline Museums.

On another day, explore the area between the Forums and Piazza del Popolo: You'll pass the facades of noble palaces and churches and stroll through elegant squares. Along the way, be sure to turn off the Via del Corso to visit the Pantheon to the west and the Trevi Fountain to the east. Once you reach Piazza del Popolo, take time to enjoy the green expanse of the Pincio Gardens. The nearby Villa Borghese is home not only to umbrella pines but also to three world-class museums: Galleria Borghese, Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna and Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia.

World-famous examples of Christian and pre-Christian art and architecture are contained in St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. The medieval district of Trastevere, across the river from the oldest part of Rome, has one of the oldest churches in Christendom, Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. But it's also a great place to stroll, dine or shop, especially at night, when the bohemian streets come alive. Back across the river, on the left bank, the Jewish Ghetto is another medieval area full of ambience. If time permits, you can also visit the Catacombs of San Sebastiano or San Callisto or, invariably, one more church.

Be forewarned: Hours of admission for museums and historic sites sometimes change without notice. To save yourself stress, call to check times or reserve a time slot for something that is important to you. Booking at the Vatican Museums can save hours in waiting time, and reservations are compulsory at the Galleria Borghese. As a rule, most churches are open in the morning, close around 12:30 pm for lunch and reopen at 3:30 pm. Keep these guidelines in mind and you'll avoid the dreaded chiuso (closed) sign. To enter churches, women must have their shoulders covered and men must have their knees covered.

One way to make planning easier is to use a ticket broker that specializes in booking museums and historic sites. Pierreci books visits to museums and guided tours to landmarks in the city (http://www.coopculture.it). Ticketone books tickets to museums and landmarks, as well (phone 892-101 Monday-Friday 8 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-5:30 pm, costing one euro per minute on a landline, more on a cell phone; http://www.tosc.it). Whether you book by phone or online, get a confirmation number for your reservation and take it with you. Be aware that you will be charged a booking fee, but it's worth it for the convenience.

The city of Rome has a wide selection of passes that offer discounts on admission to many of the most popular historic sites, museums and galleries. The Roma Pass is the most popular option: 36 euros gets you free admission to two sites (including the Colosseum, with the added benefit of getting to skip the long line), three-day public transportation passes and reduced rates at subsequent sites. A 48-hour pass costs 28 euros. Purchase passes at tourist offices, most participating museums and galleries, or online. http://www.romapass.it.

Nightlife

Fellini's La Dolce Vita depicted a lifestyle of savoring the city's sidewalk cafes and nightclubs—a portrayal that's still accurate today. A typical Roman evening begins with a late dinner, followed by the passeggiata (a stroll). This involves strolling through the piazzas of the city and stopping for coffee, gelato or a drink at a local pub or enoteca (wine bar). Nightclubs remain virtually empty until about 1 am. The majority of bars close at 2 am, with nightclubs shuttering around 4 am. However, this only means they stop entry. People already inside are permitted to stay until dawn, or even longer.

Nightspots are present throughout the city. The Centro Storico offers a wide range of bars, primarily filled with tourists (the Campo dei Fiori is especially popular). Trastevere is the spot for locals and students, with literally hundreds of bars and restaurants, dozens of movie theaters and a few nightclubs—all in an accessible, pedestrian-friendly area. Most clubs are in remote corners of the city. The Testaccio area near the Piramide metro stop is one exception. Late-night restaurants and bars flank some of the best dance spots. Don't dally on the streets at night at the risk of being pickpocketed.

The city's live-music scene gets hopping late, with everything from South American rhythms to jazz.

Dining

Each region of Italy boasts its own distinctive cuisine, and because Rome has become home to Italians from all over the country, the city's native, rustic cuisine has been influenced by many different sources. For a true taste of the indigenous cucina povera (food of the poor people), be sure to sample the food at a number of humble trattorias, not just the upscale restaurants. Classic dishes include spaghetti carbonara, bucatini all'amatriciana (straw-shaped noodles in a tomato and bacon sauce), l'abbacchio (roast lamb), carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichokes) and the most Roman of all: trippa (tripe).

Tuscan and Sicilian restaurants usually provide more elegant meals and refined dining. Begin with an antipasto of marinated vegetables, seafood, bruschetta or a selection of meats. Prosciutto crudo is often served with melon or figs in the summer. The first course is almost always a pasta dish, such as penne all'arrabbiata (quills with a chili-tomato sauce), linguine con vongole veraci (linguine with clam sauce) or pasta e fagioli (short pasta cooked in a thick bean soup). For a second (main) course, try rombo (turbot), spigola (sea bass) or straccetti con basilico e parmigiano (thin-sliced beef topped with fresh rocket lettuce and Parmesan cheese).

Italian meals typically run five courses from antipasti to dolce (dessert), followed by coffee and a digestivo. Visitors are under no obligation to order all of them. However, two courses is the polite minimum at a busy establishment. Given the leisurely pace of dining, you've "bought the table for the evening"—don't abuse such hospitality by ordering only a salad. Light eaters should try fancier places for lunch—or retreat to a cafe, cafeteria (tavola calda), pizzeria or slice shop (pizza al taglio). The latter also can provide a great snack on the go; while you're there, sample the suppli (deep-fried rice balls with tomato sauce and a molten mozzarella core). Be aware that sitting at a tavola calda will increase the price of your meal; order your lunch portare via (to take away).

The region's most famous wines are the dry whites—Vini dei Castelli (Frascati, Genzano, Marino and Velletri). To accompany meat dishes, choose a full-bodied dry red from the regions of Tuscany or Piemonte, or one of the reds from up-and-coming wine regions such as Sicily or Umbria. Romans typically order a carafe of house wine (vino della casa) usually from the countryside near Rome in the case of whites and from the adjacent region of Abruzzo for reds—selections are usually decent and reasonably priced. Be forewarned, however: The liter unit is 25% larger than a typical bottle—and public drunkenness is frowned upon (half- and quarter-liters are also available).

The main local beers are Peroni, Moretti and Nastro Azurro, which are well-made lagers on the lighter side—fans of heavier beers will have to opt for an import. Order acqua naturale (flat water) or frizzante (sparkling) with each meal. Other nonalcoholic treats include fresh-squeezed juice (spremuta) and lemonade (limonata).

Italian coffee is ubiquitous—and unmissable. Even those who normally dislike espresso may appreciate the smooth genuine version. Baristi brew dozens of variations of the simple shot (order un caffe and not un espresso in Rome). At more casual establishments, pay at the register (la cassa), and then present the receipt (lo scontrino) at the counter, with a small coin (0.10 or 0.20 euros) on top as a tip. Table service can increase the price—by as much as 500% in a tourist hot spot. Also note that locals drink cappuccino only for breakfast—never in the evening or after meals. Gelato, the heavenly Italian ice cream, is appropriate any time of the day or night.

Modern life has trimmed the traditional five meals a day. Italians aren't generally big on breakfast (usually cappuccino with a sugar-glazed croissant or a cream-filled pastry), but brunch is popular. Lunch, around 1 pm, can consist of one course or several (restaurants close 3-7 pm, so don't wait). Dinner can be either a leisurely affair with several courses or just pizza and beer.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a three-course dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 30 euros; $$ = 30 euros-45 euros; $$$ = 46 euros-75 euros; and $$$$ = more than 75 euros.

Tax is almost always included in the price of meals. The bill (conto) may feature pane e coperto (bread and a cover charge) or servizio (service). Tip 5% atop the coperto or 10% otherwise (Italians offer less, but tourists are expected to be gracious).

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