We’ve all heard the saying. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But what exactly do the Romans do?
If the saying refers to the Romans of ancient times, then you probably won’t find modern Rome is particularly receptive to your attempt to seize the city by use of military muscle!
On the other hand, if it refers to modern Romans, the people of Rome are busy going about their day to day lives. They already know about the wonder and beauty of their city – they see it all the time.
Most people interpret the phrase to mean seeking out the local experience, but our interpretation is that it means not to leave without having experienced the heart and soul of the city. And while a case can be made for ‘living as a local’, if we’re being really honest, there’s no escaping that Rome is a touristy city.
So, in embracing the saying ‘when in Rome’, we have listed some of the biggest attractions in the city; five icons that you can’t return home having missed. These attractions are so central to Rome’s identity that they are often solely attributed as being the beating heart of the city.
When in Rome … Iconic Attractions You Absolutely Should Not Miss
St Peter’s Basilica
You don’t have to be Catholic to be blown away by the sheer beauty of St Peter’s Basilica. Nor do you have to be Catholic to get inside it and take a look around, and so we wholeheartedly recommend that you do.
If you ever doubted the wealth and the power of the Catholic church, those doubts will evaporate the moment you set eyes on this awe-inspiring building. The great Michelangelo himself was involved in the design and construction of St. Peter’s Basilica (battling against ill health to see the job through), and his personal touch is evident in the design of the building’s dome.
St. Peter’s Square in general is a sight to behold, but the Basilica is its crowning glory. Decorated with statues of Christ, his apostles, and various other Biblical figures, it’s easy to see how many people consider visiting the Basilica to be a spiritual experience.
Make sure you get inside during daylight hours – the building’s windows were designed to capture the sun at specific points during the day, and thereby highlight some of the architectural detail.
We’ll call it now – it’s touristy as all hell, with fake gladiators posing for selfies walking around, but you truly haven’t visited Rome without a trip to the Colosseum.
The call of Colosseum would once have been a mighty roar that could have been heard right across the center of Rome. Historians believe that when it was packed, up to 80,000 people would attend to see gladiators do battle with wild animals and each other for the entertainment of the crowd.
Nearly 2,000 years on (it was constructed between 70 – 80 A.D.) and not only does the building still stand, but it has well and truly cemented itself as an icon in modern pop culture. It continues to be a symbol of the city of Rome in the 21st century.
To stand in the Colosseum is to share the same space and breathe the same air as many Roman Emperors of the past. Its true history is gruesome and bloody, but that doesn’t detract from the sheer majesty of the arena.
It’s very close to both a metro station and a train station, so you have no excuse not to get here.
The Sistine Chapel
We might be cheating a little here by suggesting two attractions which are connected to the Vatican City, but we would be doing the Sistine Chapel a great disservice if we didn’t allow it to have its own entry.
This is one of the greatest art installations in the world, and it’s been virtually untouched since it underwent significant restoration work during the 1400s.
As with the Basilica, the personal touch of Michelangelo is everywhere here – it’s believed that he saw it as the greatest work of his life, and based on the quality of the frescoes its hard to disagree with him.
As with the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel is steeped in history. Almost every Pope was selected within these beautiful walls. Your natural instinct will be to look up – the ceiling artwork is known everywhere around the world – but make sure you also look down and all around.
Art is everywhere.
Image: BriYYZ / CC BY-SA 2.0 / via Flickr
If you spent your whole time in Rome looking at high art and culture, your experience of the city would be incomplete. That’s why you should step away from it all for a moment and pay Trastavere a visit.
This is the most ‘authentic’ part of Rome; a neighborhood that showcases a way of life than has barely changed for centuries. The houses in Trastevere are ancient, and yet people still live in them.
It’s a living, breathing community – one in which many people work in manual roles, and will have goods to sell to you. If you’re not in the mood for bartering, just dive into one of Trastevere’s many restaurants, and bars – nowhere in Rome (and possibly all of Italy) will you experience a truer picture of Italian food and drink than here.
If you can cope with it, the neighborhood really comes alive at night. With its cobbled streets and crumbling archways, it can feel a little like you’re walking through a living museum – but there’s nothing dead about the lifestyle in Trastevere!
The Trevi Fountain
If you’re visiting Rome during the summer, it’s bound to feel a little warm. Why not cool down by the most incredible fountain you’ll ever see?
(Please note that we said by and not in it. Swimming in the Trevi Fountain will probably get you arrested).
The Trevi Fountain was a labor of love for sculptor Nicola Salvi, who completed his work in 1762. As with much of the iconography of old Rome, it has religious connotations.
The fountain is Salvi’s tribute to Oceanus, a Roman god, who rides right through the middle of the fountain on his chariot. Legend has it that tossing a coin into the fountain brings you good luck. Legend also has it that your best way of receiving a lucky blessing is to face away from the fountain, and toss the coin backward over your shoulder.
You’ll have to pick your moment to try it, though – the fountain is generally very busy, and so tossing a coin might have the awkward and unintended effect of hitting another tourist in the face! Perhaps it’s better just to stand facing it, and take in the intricacies of Salvi’s artwork.
Just keep half an eye out so you’re not hit by someone else’s lucky coin!