Things to do in Rome
Among other important places to go and to see in Rome you absolutely must visit Rome’s best-preserved ancient monument. This revolutionary building is one of the great masterpieces of Western architecture. Its design and record-breaking dome have been inspiring visitors for centuries, and it remains a thrilling sight
Where to go – Visit Pantheon
A striking 2000-year-old temple, now church, the Pantheon is Rome’s best-preserved ancient monument and one of the most influential buildings in the Western world. Built by Hadrian over Marcus Agrippa’s earlier temple, it has stood since AD 120, and although its greying, pockmarked exterior might look its age, inside it’s a different story, and it remains a unique and exhilarating experience to pass through its vast bronze doors and gaze up at the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built.
Showing signs of wear, the monumental entrance portico is made up of 16 13m-high columns supporting a pediment. Little remains of the original decor but holes indicate where marble-veneer panels were once placed. The two 20tonne bronze doors are 16th-century restorations of the originals.
For centuries the inscription under the pediment led historians to believe that the current temple was Marcus Agrippa’s original. The wording suggests so, reading: ‘M.AGRIPPA.L.F.COS.TERTIUM.FECIT’ or ‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this’. However, 19th-century excavations revealed traces of an earlier temple and scholars realized that Hadrian had simply kept Agrippa’s original inscription.
With light streaming in through the oculus (the hole in the centre of the dome), the marble-clad interior seems vast. Opposite the entrance is the main altar, while to the left are the tombs of artist Raphael, King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. On the opposite side of the rotunda is the tomb of King Vittorio Emanuele II.
The Pantheon’s dome, considered the Romans’ most important architectural achievement, is the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. Its harmonious appearance is due to a precisely calibrated symmetry – the diameter is exactly equal to the building’s interior height of 43.3m. Light (and rain) enters through the 8.7m-diameter oculus, which serves to absorb and redistribute the dome’s huge tensile forces.
What to See in Rome – St. Peter’s Basilica
When we talk about things to see in Rome we must mention the most important church in the Catholic world. St Peter’s is Rome’s largest and most spectacular basilica. Behind the grandiose facade, priceless artworks litter its lavish marble-clad interior.
Few churches can hold a candle to St Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro), one of the world’s largest, richest and most spectacular cathedrals. The current church, the world’s second largest (after the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast), was built over the original 4th-century basilica and completed in 1626 after 150 years’ construction. It contains some brilliant works of art, including three celebrated masterpieces: Michelangelo’s Pietà, his breathtaking dome, and Bernini’s baldachin (canopy) over the papal altar.
Completed in 1612, Carlo Maderno’s immense facade features eight 27mhigh columns and 13 statues representing Christ, St John the Baptist, and the 11 apostles. The central balcony, the Loggia della Benedizione, is where the pope stands to deliver his Christmas and Easter blessing. In the grand atrium, the Porta Santa (Holy Door) is opened only in Jubilee Years.
At the beginning of the right aisle, Michelangelo’s hauntingly beautiful Pietà sits in its own chapel behind a panel of bullet-proof glass. Sculpted when the artist was a little-known 25-year-old (in 1499), it’s the only work he ever signed – his signature is etched into the sash across the Madonna’s breast.
Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento
Next to the Cappella di San Sebastiano, home of Pope John Paul II’s tomb, the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento is a small, sumptuously decorated baroque chapel. The iron grille was designed by Borromini, the gilt bronze ciborium over the altar is by Bernini, and the altarpiece is by Pietro da Cortona.
Dominating the centre of the basilica is Bernini’s 29m-high baldachin. Supported by four spiral columns and made with bronze taken from the Pantheon, it stands over the papal altar, also known as the Altar of the Confession. In front, Carlo Maderno’s Confessione stands over the site where St Peter was originally buried.
Above the baldachin, Michelangelo’s dome soars to a height of 119m. Based
on Brunelleschi’s cupola in Florence, it’s supported by four stone piers named after the saints whose statues adorn their Bernini-designed niches – Longinus, Helena, Veronica and Andrew. To climb the dome head to the entrance to the right of the basilica.
Statue of St Peter
At the base of the Pier of St Longinus is a much-loved bronze statue of St Peter, whose right foot has been worn down by centuries of caresses. It is believed to be a 13th-century work by Arnolfo di Cambio. On the Feast Day of St Peter and St Paul (29 June), the statue is dressed in papal robes.
Cattedra di San Pietro
Dominating the tribune behind the papal altar is Bernini’s extraordinary Cattedra di San Pietro (Chair of St Peter). A vast gilded bronze throne held aloft by four 5m-high saints, it’s centred on a wooden seat that was once thought to have been St Peter’s but in fact dates to the 9th century.
Monument to Alexander VII
To the left of the baldachin is one of the basilica’s most dramatic works, the monument to Alexander VII. Featuring a billowing marble drape held aloft by a creepy bronze skeleton with an hourglass in its hand, this was Bernini’s last work in the basilica, completed in 1678.
One of the few monuments in the basilica not commemorating a pope, Antonio Canova’s vaguely erotic white marble tablet is dedicated to the last three members of the Stuart clan – James Francis Edward Stuart and his two sons, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Henry – the pretenders to the English throne who died in exile in Rome.
Museo Storico Artistico
The Museo Storico Artistico showcases the basilica’s sacred relics and priceless artifacts. Highlights include a tabernacle by Donatello; the Colonna Santa, a 4th-century Byzantine column from the earlier church; and the 6th-century Crux vaticana (Vatican Cross), a gift from the emperor Justinian II.
Extending beneath the basilica, the Vatican Grottoes contain the tombs and sarcophagi of numerous popes, as well as several columns from the original 4th-century basilica. The entrance is in the Pier of St Andrew.
Tomb of St Peter
Excavations beneath the basilica have uncovered part of the original church and what archaeologists believe is the Tomb of St Peter. The excavations can only be visited by guided tour.
Absolutely Must See in Rome – Villa Borghese
Rome’s central park harbors a host of attractions, including the superb Museo e Galleria Borghese, whose priceless collection includes the best of Bernini’s baroque sculpture and works by Caravaggio, Canova, Raphael and Titian.
Villa Borghese, Rome’s best-known park, is a lush, landscaped oasis of green. The ideal spot to recharge your batteries, it was once the estate of a powerful 17th-century cardinal and today covers about 80 hectares of wooded glades, gardens and grassy banks. Among its myriad attractions are several excellent museums, including the peerless Museo e Galleria Borghese, the landscaped Giardino del Lago, and Piazza di Siena, a dusty arena used for Rome’s top equestrian event in May.
Museo e Galleria Borghese
One of Rome’s best museums, the Museo e Galleria Borghese is another must see location in Rome. It harbors what’s often referred to as the ‘queen of all private art collections’. This spectacular treasure trove of Renaissance and baroque art, amassed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese and housed in his lavishly decorated 17th-century villa, includes paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian, and a series of sensational mythical sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Masterpieces abound, but look out for Bernini’s Ratto di Proserpina (Rape of Proserpina) and Canova’s Venere vincitrice (Venus Victrix). To limit numbers, visitors are admitted at two-hourly intervals, so you’ll need to pre-book your ticket and get an entry time.
Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia
Pope Julius III’s 16th-century villa provides the charming setting for the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia home to Italy’s finest collection of Etruscan treasures. Among its prized exhibits are the 6th-century-BC Sarcofago degli Sposi (Sarcophagus of the Betrothed); a polychrome terracotta statue of Apollo; and the Euphronios Krater, a celebrated Greek vase.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Housed in a vast belle époque palace, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea is an unsung gem of a museum. Its superlative collection includes works by a roll-call of important 19th- and 20th-century artists, including Canova, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Giacometti and Henry Moore.
Museo Carlo Bilotti
Charmingly ensconced in the Orangery of Villa Borghese, the Museo Carlo Bilotti houses the art collection of billionaire Carlo Bilotti. The main focus are 18 works by Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) but also of note is a Warhol portrait of Bilotti’s wife and daughter.
Auditorium Parco della Musica
To the north of Villa Borghese, the Renzo Piano–designed Auditorium Parco della Musica is Rome’s flagship cultural center and concert venue. Its three concert halls offer superb acoustics, and, together with a 3000-seat open-air arena, stage everything from classical-music concerts to jazz gigs, public lectures, and film screenings.
Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI)
When you are in Rome you must see it’s flagship contemporary art museum, the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo aka MAXXI. Housed in a Zaha Hadid–converted former barracks, it has a small permanent collection and hosts temporary exhibitions and installations.