Rome: The ageless city

With its imposing skyline of bell towers and cupolas and the ghostly columns and translucent walls of the Coliseum, Rome whispers an invitation to delve through its treasure chest of ancient history to walk the Apian Way, wander through the catacombs and taste the fear of the gladiators. At the same time, Rome beckons visitors to enjoy a sophisticated city with fashionable outdoor cafés along the Via Veneto, whizzing Vespas weaving among taxis and buses crowding the wide avenues, and elegant shops near the Spanish Steps. This is a city vast and diverse in its offerings.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’ll need many days to really appreciate the richness of its heritage. To make the best use of your time, determine what you want to see before you go. If you only have a few days, you may need to decide between the ruins of ancient Rome or the grandeur of St. Peter’s and the Vatican. Each needs several days to fully appreciate the larger-than-life structures.

Walking tours are a great way of seeing the city, especially ancient Rome. Plan at least a full day for strolling, starting at Capitoline Hill where you can look over the Roman Forum, the scene of animasacrifices in ancient times and heated philosophical discussions between Caesar and his cronies. This view is spectacular at night, but Rome is breathtaking after dusk from any height.

Follow Via dei Fori Imperili to the ruins of the Colosseum, probably the most impressive architectural legacy of ancient times. The Colosseum has been refurbished and reinforced over the past several years. Now visitors can safely wander underneath where lions were kept or stand on the spot where gladiators waited their turn at battle in the ring. If you’re still here in the evening, there are a number of restaurants up terraced steps overlooking the Colosseum, haunted by night with golden lights. Try a restaurant called Hostaria Nerone, built on the ruins of the Golden House of Nero at 96 Via Terme di Tito.

Toss coins into the Trevi fountain
You’ll need another day to toss coins into the Trevi Fountain and take in the Pantheon, which is the only building of ancient Rome still intact. If that’s not enough to wear you out, walk from the Pantheon through a maze of winding fascinating streets to the Spanish Steps.

St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City require at least a day to visit, two if you want to see the Vatican Museums. When the Pope is in residence, he gives a public audience Wednesday mornings in the Paul VI Hall of Audiences. You do need a ticket, but it’s free. Tickets are available from the office of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.

The Vatican is the world’s second smallest sovereign state. It seems a very busy, independent city, quite removed from the rest of Rome. Whether you’re religious or not, the experience of standing in St. Peter’s Square protected by the arms of the Doric colonnade and seemingly blessed by the 140 saints along the top rim of the basilica is spell-binding.

The church itself, supposedly built over St. Peter’s tomb, is overpowering, with gilt and marble, a vast nave and the legacies of Michelangelo and Raphael. In contrast is Michelangelo’s Pieta, standing with quiet dignity and modesty in a small nave near the entrance. Before visiting St. Peter’s, remember that dress codes are very strict: no shorts, no minis and no bare shoulders. After being awestruck by the Basilica and its environs, visit the Vatican Treasury, the grottoes with their tombs of popes or climb to Michelangelo’s Dome (an elevator will take you part way) where you can look out over Rome.

The Vatican Museums house some of the world’s most treasured art collections. The other must-see is the Sistine Chapel, with its famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. The ceiling is an amazing accomplishment for a man who considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. A tour of these museums can take up to five hours and if you’ve waited in line for tickets, it’s wise to budget enough time to make the wait worthwhile.

Take time to smell the flowers
After the crowds of Vatican City and the Colosseum, you’ll be ready for a quiet day in Villa Borghese, an elegant park in the heart of Rome. It’s a wonderful respite from the hurly-burly, a great opportunity to observe Romans at play and enjoy the zoo, the Galleria Borghese (which requires reservations so stop by a day or two before your visit or book ahead with, the National Etruscan Museum and the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The elegance of the baroque Piazza Navona is an enchanting way to spend an evening. It’s easy to imagine chariot races from ancient times on the cobbled streets where vendors and street performers now entertain tourists. While the restaurants are pricey, you can stop at many, including the popular Tre Scalini, and simply order pasta or an ice-cream cone. They’ll treat you as well as as they would someone ordering a four-course meal with wine.

If you want to see some of the surrounding countryside, be sure to see Fregene on the sea west of Rome. It’s an inexpensive place to stay and minutes from the airport. Frascati is a lovely hill town where Romans go to drink Frascati wine. If you can’t get to Tuscany on this trip, Frascati is the next best thing.