A weekend inRome

All roads lead here, it wasn’t built in a day and while in the city you should do as the locals do, which might at first glance appear to be a lot of suicidal driving, sitting in piazzas drinking aperitivi and shopping in expensive boutiques. The Eternal City is so layered with history, sights and legend that it’s unwise to aim to do much more than scratch the surface. With that in mind, here is our guide to the perfect Roman holiday, taken straight from the latest edition of European City Breaks.

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Evening view from the Angelo Bridge looking towards St. Peter's Basilica.

Rome’s Top Five Sights

If you are only in Rome for a weekend you are better off heading straight for the big sights.

Musei Capitolini

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This imposing statue of Castor stands guard atop Capitolini Hill.

Designed in the 16th century by Michelangelo, the piazza del Campidoglio and museums on the Capitoline hill are a brilliantly conceived ensemble.

Michelangelo’s regal Cordonata staircase leads up to the piazza from the via del Teatro di Marcello, just south of piazza Venezia. In placing the stairs on the western side of the piazza, Michelangelo changed its orientation: instead of facing the Forum it faces contemporary Rome. The museums themselves are in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo: two buildings facing the piazza and connected by the Galleria Congiunzione, an underground passage opened as a part of the Millennium celebrations and also allowing access to the Roman Tabularium, the archive of ancient Rome. There are good views from here over the Roman Forum.

The Capitoline Museum in the Palazzo dei Conservatori contains statues, bronzes and other artefacts. In its courtyard are the remnants of the enormous statue of Constantine that once stood in the Forum, including his gigantic foot. The rest of the statue was made of wood and has not survived. The second floor has works of art including a Caravaggio and a Titian. The Palazzo Nuovo contains an impressive collection of ancient marble statuary.

Foro Romano and Palatine

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The ruins of the Palatine hill palace.

Rome was almost certainly first settled on the Palatine hill, overlooking a crossing of the river Tiber. According to legend, it was here that Romulus and

Remus, the founders of the city, were brought up by a she-wolf. Roman emperors built their palaces on the hill, at the bottom of which – in the Forum – commerce, worship and justice took place. Visitors are largely free to wander among the broken columns and it’s not hard to imagine the centre of the Roman Empire as it would have been 2000 years ago. There’s little or no information, however, and a map of the ruins is useful in order to make out what is what. Highlights include the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Arch of Titus. The Casa delle Vestali was home to the Vestal Virgins for a minimum of 30 years of chastity. The Palatine hill has remains of grand palaces including recently opened rooms in the Casa di Augusto, as well as the 16th-century Hortus Farnese, Europe’s oldest botanical gardens.

Colosseo

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The colosseum at night - construction for this icon of Ancient Rome was completed in 80AD.

Rome’s most iconic building, sold in plaster miniature by souvenir sellers all over the city, the Colosseum is an impressive structure. Built from AD 72 to 80, the city’s ancient amphitheatre once seated as many as 70,000 people. Used for gladiatorial combat, 9000 animals are reported to have been killed during its 100-day opening celebrations. Built by Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, it sits on the site of one of Nero’s palaces, the Domus Aurea. A floor has been constructed at the level where the original would have been but you can still see into the underground section where animals and combatants were kept. The remaining marble with which it was once clad was removed during the Renaissance and baroque periods and used to build houses, and to construct St Peter’s. A new museum has interesting exhibitions.


Musei Vaticani

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Ceiling of the Gallery of Maps inside the Vatican Museum.

The Vatican Museums have an extraordinary wealth of art, including the masterpieces of Michelangelo in the Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel), and those of Raphael in the Stanze di Raffaello. Michelangelo famously lay on his back for four years, between 1508 and 1512, to create his astonishing Creation on the ceiling. (Goethe said of it: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”) He returned 23 years later to spend another six years painting the darker Last Judgement on the end wall above the altar. There is a self-portrait in it – Michelangelo paints himself as a flayed skin in the hand of St Bartholomew. Both paintings were subject to a controversial restoration in the 1980s and 1990s which some claim now makes the frescoes too colourful. The Raphael Rooms are only slightly less astounding: four rooms are frescoed with themes of truth and beauty as well as the achievements of popes. The most famous image includes depictions of Leonardo as Plato, Michelangelo as Heraclitus and Raphael as himself. Start early and, especially in high season, be prepared for a long wait to get in. Once inside, colour-coded routes help find a way through the Papal treasure troves. Most head straight for the Sistine Chapel but there is plenty more to see.


Basilica di San Pietro

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St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City is the burial site of the apostle Saint Peter. 

The biggest church in Christendom, St Peter’s can hold 60,000 people. The basilica’s current incarnation was started in 1506. The original plans were drawn up by Bramante but then changed by Raphael, who took over after the original architect’s death. Michelangelo then took charge and changed the plans again and it was largely his Greek cross design and his enormous dome that was finally consecrated in 1626.

Inside, the enormity of the Vatican’s church is emphasized by a line in the floor displaying the lengths of other big churches around the world. Of the many highlights Michelangelo’s Pieta (a depiction of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus on her lap), sculpted from marble when he was only 24 years old, is the most affecting. Regrettably now behind glass, the sculpture loses some, but not all, of its disarmingly human qualities. Another highlight not to be missed is the climb up into the dome and out onto the terrace. From here there are great views down into the Vatican gardens in one direction and, in the other, over the 140 statues of saints on the colonnade to the piazza below. Note that there are 320 steps to climb even if you opt to take the lift up the first stage.

Short on time? Here is our 24 hour snapshot of Rome

Get up early to wander around piazza Navona and the fruit and vegetable market in campo de’ Fiori. Dedicate the rest of the morning to the Forum and the Palatine, ending up in the Colosseum. Then head northwest through the atmospheric streets near the river for lunch. In the afternoon hit St Peter’s, leaving enough time to queue and to climb up into the dome and onto the roof for spectacular views. (Even longer queues mean that trying to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican in one day is probably an inefficient use of your time. If you must see them, get here as early as possible and be prepared to wait.) In the evening return to the campo de’ Fiori, by this time transformed into a chic aperitivi spot. After a prosecco here, head across the river for food in Trastevere, and, if you want to party, head further south to the increasingly fashionable area of Testaccio.

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