There’s no place like Rome! Really though, Rome is one of those cities you hear about all your life and when you get there it just takes your breath away. As the capitol of Italy, the city is home to 2.6 million people. Filled with more than just Italians, the city is SATURATED in rich history. For heaven’s sake it has been around for over two and a half thousand years and for 90% of that time was the largest and richest city in the world.
It’s hard to even put Rome into words. The history behind the city is simply fascinating, even if you aren’t a history buff. There is so much life on every corner of Rome. Now, for some people the thought of learning the history behind a new city can be a total bore. And I get it! But, in Rome, there is so much around you to take in. The history alone can captivate you from start to finish, but the details in Rome are what really made it special for me.
Every cobblestone road has a story to tell – the vines growing up the cracking building walls have SEEN some stuff. Ya know? With so much history soaking in every corner of the Eternal City, here are some of the historical highlights of Rome you have to see.
Historical Highlights of Rome
St. Peter’s Basilica
Now, before we start talking about St. Peter’s Basilica, I have to tell you that it’s not in Rome. Not technically. It’s actually located in Vatican City, which is it’s own COUNTRY. Also, as another disclaimer, I am not religious. Like, at all. But even I could thoroughly enjoy one of the largest churches in the world. St. Peter’s Basilica has been a Catholic Church since the Roman Empire under Constantine The Great (shout out to history class for letting that name be familiar!).
Even if you aren’t super familiar with St. Peter’s Basilica, you definitely know what it looks like. It’s always present in skyline views of Rome and is one of the finest Renaissance buildings around today. The interior of the building is marvelous – made out of marble and adorned with sculptures, ancient relics and timeless art everywhere you turn.
Pieta by Michelangelo
If you can’t make it inside St. Peter’s Basilica, it’s still worth a trip to Vatican City to St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro) to see the exterior, visit the shops and see the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center (it looks similar to the Washington Monument, but smaller and with a cross on top). This obelisk is legend to be the one in which Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was crucified on.
If you were considering skipping some of the more touristy destinations in Rome, I would STILL make sure the Colosseum is on your list. It’s a landmark like no other and, if anything, takes you back to your middle school history class learning about the gladiator fights. Construction on the massive amphitheater began in 72 AD after a massive fire swept through the city a few years prior and the Romans really needed a pick-me-up. The Colosseum became a place where the city could come together for entertainment.
Around 50,000 – 80,000 spectators could fit in the Colosseum, and it’s estimated that there were about 65,000 who would come to watch competitions here such as gladiator fights, mock sea-battles, drama plays and more. In the medieval era, it stopped being used for entertainment purposes and was used for religious and community purposes.
Just outside of the Colosseum is a massive, beautiful arch built in 351 AD to celebrate the victory of Constantine over Maxentius. It’s currently Rome’s largest triumphal arch. Interestingly, the arch sits on the route the new emperors would take during a victory march after they conquered a city.
This was one of my favorite places in Rome! The open city square was surrounded by beautiful buildings with gorgeous fountains in the center. This area is known for its Baroque Roman architecture. It was built on top of what used to be the Stadium of Domitian – which was a gift to the Roman people after another fire in 79 AD. Stadium Domitian was Rome’s first venue dedicated for athletic competitions. This was paved over to make way for Piazza Navona, which takes the same shape as the stadium. There are some remnants of Stadium Domitian around Piazza Navona, but without knowing this history you could just simply walk right by.
While there are three beautiful fountains in Piazza Navona, the most famous fountain is located smack-dab in the middle called Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of Four Rivers). It was built by the Pope as a PR move to please the Romans, allowing them a place for entertainment and to bring home their water. The statues that make up the fountain shows the four Gods of the largest rivers in the four continents where the papal had spread of the time – The Nile of Africa, the Ganges in Egypt, the Danube in Europe, and the Rio de la Plata in the Americas. There was also an Egyptian obelisk erected in the center to honor the papal and highlight its strength.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain. It’s been in a ton of movies like my favorites Eat, Pray, Love and the classic Lizzie McGuire Movie. This fountain is the biggest Baroque fountain in all of Rome. Rumor has it if you throw in a coin you’ll return to Rome, if you throw in two you’ll fall in love, and if you throw in three you’ll marry a Roman. The fountain was originally an aqueduct until 1730 when there was a contest held to redesign it. It was refurbished again in 1998 and underwent a large restoration in 2014-2105.
It honestly surprised me how cool I thought the Pantheon was. It was completed by Hadrian (someone who was brought up on our tour A LOT – you might want to read up on him) in approximately 126 AD to honor the pagan Gods of Rome. This building was used all throughout history which explains why it is one of the most well-preserved buildings in the world. The center of the Pantheon is a large dome – one of the world’s biggest unreinforced concrete domes.
One of the most interesting things about the Pantheon is that there is a hole in the center of the dome. This casts a sunspot along the walls which actually tells time like a sundial. At twelve o’clock noon, the sun spot is at the entrance of the building. When it’s raining outside, the Pantheon doesn’t close, instead the center is just blocked off and people can walk around the sides, while the rain water pours in and drains down the middle.
Museums aren’t for everyone and I totally understand that. Some people find it dull to walk through halls of art that, at some point, all start to look the same. The Vatican Museum is not just a building where a bunch of art and statues hang, it highlights the rich history of Rome and the importance of the papal throughout time. The numerous popes who reside in the Vatican have built up their collection of historical art and relics. There are more than a few notable works of art in the Vatican Museum, but my two favorite things to see where the Bramante Staircase and the Sistine Chapel.
The Bramante Staircase is one of two famous staircases in the Vatican Museum. The first was built in the 1500s by Donato Bramante. It was designed specifically so people and animals could ascend and descend without interruption of steps. Atop the Bramante Staircase is the most spectacular view of Rome. Not everyone has access to this view, but through Trafalgar, we were able to get special passes and soak up the incredible view.
I’m sure you’ve seen photos of the iconic Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums (you’ve definitely seen memes). But have you considered the history behind the outrageous art? The chapel itself was restored by Pope Sixtus IV in 1477, but Michelangelo began redesigning the ceiling of the chapel in 1508. This has come to be one of his most famed works, but Michelangelo was actually reluctant to take on the work – he was a sculptor not a painter. The pope at the time left him with no choice (how do you say no to the pope?). He negotiated by doing “whatever he pleased” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The famous ceiling depicts the scenes from the 9 Books of Genesis. This work is divine no doubt, but I especially loved Michelangelo’s wall painting, which he came back to do later in 1536 called The Last Judgement. There are several hidden meanings in Michelangelo’s wall painting, such as his self portrait and depicting a cardinals he didn’t get along with as being dragged into hell with his genitals being eaten by a snake. (Now, that’s a power move)
What is on your Rome bucket list?
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