The Best Historical Attractions in Rome

Category:  

Bucket List Worthy  

St. Peter's Basilica
The author at St. Peter’s Basilica

By Freya Renders

From Canada, it takes only about 9 hours flight to reach Rome “The Eternal City”. Modern Rome has plenty to offer: culture, shopping, and nightlife, but the history lover shouldn’t pass up a chance to see the ancient side of Rome. Few cities are as rich with history Rome; the city has been a centre of political intrigue and cultural innovation for over 2000 years and has the sorts of attractions that will be sure to captivate the history-loving tourist. 

If you’re traveling to Rome,you will want to visit all of the best historical attractions in Rome.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum
The Colosseum

Also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum is perhaps Rome’s most recognizable landmark. This massive and ancient stadium was built in the 1st century A.D. by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus.

If you think modern stadiums are impressive, you need to see the Colosseum. The typical stadium today is reserved for a particular sport and perhaps the occasional concert. Rome’s principal amphitheater, however, was used to stage dramatic plays, wild game hunts, public executions and bloody gladiator fights. Sometimes drama and blood were combined in historical reenactments, in which groups of gladiators played out famous historical battles. Some people believe that the Colosseum could even be filled with water to play host to mock sea battles, complete with warships and sword-wielding marines.

After its ancient and bloody glory days, the Colosseum was converted into a massive medieval low-rent apartment building. Today, it plays the part of a ruin. This ruin is now one of Rome’s most interesting attractions.

The Colosseum is located in the central Colosseo district of downtown Rome. You’ll need a ticket to access the Colosseum, but waiting lines can be long. If you’re going to be spending at least two days in Rome, consider instead buying a prepaid combination pass for the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine Hill.

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Bascilica
St. Peter’s Bascilica

Rome has gone through many changes in its nearly three thousand year history, but none of these changes have been quite so important as the city’s slow shift from its original Greco-Roman pagan roots to its current role as the center of Roman Catholic Christianity. For eleven centuries, the Catholic Popes ruled Rome and the surrounding central Italian countryside as both religious and worldly princes.

Today, the Church still has its own sovereign territory in the center of the city of Rome.  Vatican City is a must-see for any visitor to Rome, and if you’re visiting the Vatican, you can’t possibly miss St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica is a massive church built in the late Renaissance period. Church tradition records that it sits on the resting place of St. Peter, the apostle who first brought Christianity to Rome and was martyred. Many Popes have since been buried at this site.

The word “impressive” doesn’t begin to do the Basilica justice. The church’s exterior features soaring towers and a beautiful facade complete with statues, and the interior is supported by great columns and arches. The Basilica’s architectural and artistic beauty can be attributed to the men who worked on it – the architect and sculptor Bernini designed much of the church’s exterior and interior, and the famous sculptor and artist Michelangelo also played a large part in its design.

St. Peter’s will probably have special meaning for Catholic visitors, but tourists of every faith and creed should be able to appreciate the beauty and the massive scale of Roman Christianity’s most recognizable church. You can visit St. Peter’s by taking Rome’s metro system to the Ottaviano stop. As with all Church-related attractions, admission to the Basilica is free, but modest dress is required.  It’s a church, after all.

The Forum

Forum Romanum
Forum Romanum

The ancient Forum Romanum was, for centuries, the center of Rome itself. This open-air space was originally a marketplace dating from the 8th century B.C., but it soon grew into an important center of culture and politics as governmental and religious structures were built around it. The Forum lies next to several ruins that date back to the semi-mythical days of the Roman Kingdom, such as the 7th century Temple of Vesta and the 6th century Temple of Saturn. The government buildings of the Roman Kingdom, Republic and Empire, such as the old royal palace and the Senate house, were situated around the Forum as was the Rostra, an open-air platform used for public speeches.

The Forum has played host to some of the most dramatic scenes in world history. It was here, in the Forum, that the dictator Sulla posted his long lists of public enemies to be immediately killed, and here that Mark Antony delivered an oration at Julius Caesar’s funeral that inflamed the people’s anger against his murderer. Sitting in the Forum, you might just be able to picture these events that changed history.

The Forum lies in the heart of Rome and can be accessed by buying a multi-purpose ticket to the Forum, the Colosseum, and the Palatine Hill. The Circo Massimo and Colosseo metro stops will bring you closest to the Forum.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Santa Maria della Vittoria
Santa Maria della Vittoria

St. Peter’s Basilica is Rome’s largest and most monumental church, but it is far from the only one worth visiting. Lovers of art will want to have a look at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small basilica located near the Repubblica Teatro dell’Opera metro stop.

This relatively small church, built in the 17th century, is easy to miss, but don’t pass it by.  Santa Maria della Vittoria houses some excellent pieces of art by several late Renaissance masters. The church’s main draw, however, is a sculpture by Bernini. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is a depiction of the experience of Teresa, a Spanish nun who claimed to have been visited by an angel who pierced her heart with a golden arrow. This experience, as Teresa describes it, was both incredibly painful and joyous.

Bernini’s sculpture beautifully depicts both the joy and the pain of Teresa, who is lying doubled over in emotional shock as an angelic figure holds a golden arrow towards her heart. It is worth making the trip to Santa Maria della Vittoria just to see this breathtaking work of art.

The Pantheon

Pantheon
Pantheon

With all of Rome’s importance as a center of Christianity, it is easy to forget that in its ancient political prime, Rome was instead a center of traditional polytheism. The worship of the Greco-Roman family of gods – Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Apollo, Athena and the rest – was an important part of Roman life that only disappeared gradually as Christianity gained ground in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.

You can still find plenty of evidence of Rome’s polytheist past, though. The Pantheon, a domed church located in Piazza della Rotonda, was originally an important pagan temple.  Initially built by Marcus Agrippa, a Roman general and close friend of the emperor Augustus, the Pantheon was dedicated to the worship of all the gods. The 2nd century emperor Hadrian constructed – after the original structure burned down – the Pantheon’s great dome.

The Pantheon has been a Christian church for 1,400 years, but its pagan origins are still evident from the Latin inscriptions on the outside of the structure that attribute its various stages of building to Agrippa, Hadrian and later rulers of ancient Rome. Visitors will be amazed by the Pantheon’s beautiful, intricately designed interior. This temple-turned-church is made all the more impressive by the oculus, a large hole at the top of the structure’s dome that provides sunlight to the interior.

The Pantheon is free to visit and lies about fifteen minutes from the Piazza Barberini metro stop.

The Baths of Diocletian

Where did ancient Romans go when they wanted to relax?  To the public baths, of course.  The bathhouse was one of the most important parts of social life in Rome. The ancient bathhouse was enjoyed by both genders – although not together – and by citizens of every social class.

While many aristocrats had their own private baths, the middle class and poor of Rome went to publicly built baths and only paid a small fee to enter. Public baths were seen as important civic structures, and several emperors built and dedicated bathhouses in Rome as a part of their city improvement plans.

The best preserved of these baths is the Baths of Diocletian, built and dedicated in A.D. 306 by the long-lived and historically important emperor Diocletian. While you can no longer take an actual bath at the Baths of Diocletian, you can enter the structure and view its ancient facilities. The massive walls of the Baths also house two Renaissance churches and a cloister designed by Michelangelo that hosts many pieces of art.

The Baths are accessible from the Repubblica and Termini stations, and entry is EURO 7.  Ancient history devotees will be happy to pay this small price to see these well-preserved 4th century baths.

The Catacombs

The Via Appia is one of Rome’s oldest roads, a 4th century B.C. path that extends throughout the length of Italy. It also runs parallel to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.

The catacombs of Rome were originally built to bury the dead outside the city, but in Rome’s early Christian period they took on a greater significance. As a religious minority, the Christians of the 1st and 2nd century A.D. were periodically persecuted by their emperors. At times, even holding services was forbidden. As a result, the Christians of Rome moved their activities into the catacombs, where they could conduct their prayers in secret.

Visitors can still find evidence of Christianity’s early period in their ancient graffiti.  Ancient Roman Christians drew symbols such as the Chi Ro and the fish on the walls of the catacombs as a form of communication.  The catacombs themselves are the resting place for many ancient Christians as well as several saints and popes.

The catacombs are situated outside the city of Rome, but they are accessible by bus for those who want to avoid taking a taxi.

 

Related posts:

Comments:

  • I have not had the enjoyment and excitement of enjoying Rome. What absolutely fascinates me about posts like this is I love to do a mental escape and pretend as I’m reading that the pictures are actually from their current era. Especially see the gladiators fighting in the Colosseum
    as the spectators are looking on. So many great suggestions here and this is a fantastic post, Freya Renders! :)

  • So glad to read a feature by Freya – her posts are gems. Perfectly cut resources for travelers at all levels.

  • There are just some things those Italians do well and cannot be replicated anywhere. When it comes to culture, our definition of “over the top”, is their everyday norm.

    There are a lot of unsavory things about Italy, but find something good and its great! The scenery, the shopping, their strange affair with design and architecture, nothing makes sense but it all seems to work out at the end.

  • Lucky enough to have seen them all, but if I had to choose between them all I think I’d opt for Appia Antica as it’s a much quieter location than most in Roma and quite surreal too walking along the same stones laid down over 1500 years ago.

  • The Pantheon is so gorgeous, both in Rome and in Paris, that alone is reason enough to go, but the rest of this list is great too. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *