Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rome: A short stay guide for the busy professional

Rome is, no question, my favorite city in the world. My friends know it and so I am frequently asked where to go if you have a few days.

Here's my list, biased by my love of the ancient and the baroque, but if it is your first time in Rome you'll get a broad, and deep experience in a few days if you visit these sites. They are listed in priority order if you are short of time.

And remember - wear comfortable shoes!

1. Villa Borghese Gallery
Extraordinary collection of art and sculpture established in the early 1600s by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Best collection of Bernini statues in the world plus several milestone Caravaggio paintings.
Note: The museum limits the number of people admitted at any one time so buy tickets on line 2 weeks before you leave at and get the audio tour when you go in - it's very good. Be sure to go upstairs too, the Titians are upstairs.

2. Colosseum and the Forum and the Palantine
They are next to each other and in half a day you can get a strong sense of ancient Rome. There is a new tour of the colosseum which just opened which takes you up to the third floor and down into the hypogeum.
You can buy tickets at the same site (above). For the Forum and the Palentine (the area above the forum where the palaces were) get the audio tour. It's worth the 2-3 hours to walk around and absorb the deep history of the site.

3. Vatican Museum
Whether you approve of the Catholic Church's accumulation of wealth over the last 2,000 years or not, the Vatican collection is not to be missed - including ancient Greek statues, the map corridor (look up), the Raphael rooms and the exquisite Sistine chapel.
You can buy tickets at the same site or go very early and wait in line. The audio tour is a bit preachy for my taste so read your guidebook or pick up the small paperback book in the museum.

4. Castel St Angelo & St Peters Basillica
Both by the Vatican. St Peters is glorious and took over 100 years to build, Castel St Angelo is really interesting view into an old castle used as a prison and a refuge for the Papacy for a thousand years, and it was originally Hadrians tomb. Good audio tour for Castel St Angelo. Climbing to the top of the cupola of St Peters is hard work but worth it for the view. Don't climb it if you are claustrophobic.

5. The Pantheon
2000 year old Roman temple. Beautiful and fantastic engineering - the science to build a dome like that was lost for 1500 years and reverse engineered when Brunelleschi was trying to build the cupola in Florence!

6. Piazza Navona
Fun (expensive) cafes, street performers, lovely Bernini fountains
7. Caravaggio paintings in Santa Lucia de Francesi.
Three paintings of St Matthew. Very famous and very beautiful. If you have time go to Santa Maria Di Poppolo too - has two amazing Caravaggio paintings in it.
Caravaggio changed the course of western art between 1590 and 1605. He was the first to paint religious subjects in profane modern settings but more importantly he invented a style of strong characters in dramatic poses lit from a single point of light against dark backgrounds to increase the sense of drama - called chiaroscuro - and changed painting forever.

8. Take a half day tour to Tivoli.
There is a bus tour for half a day, or hire a driver for a whole day. Goes to Hadrians Villa and Villa D'Este. Villa D'Este has to be seen to be believed! Cardinal D'Este was Lucretia Borgia's son, extermely wealthy even for those times and he built a palace with a hillside of hundreds of beautiful fountains. He diverted a river to create it!

9. Spanish steps
At the end of Via Condotti which is the fashion district. Gelato from the cafe to the left of Via Condotti if you are looking at it from the steps (the chocolate is fantastic). Sit on the steps and people watch. Watch your wallet in any crowded area in Rome!

10. St Clemente
A church from 1200, built on top of a church built in 400, built on top of old roman streets and a Mithraen temple from 50. You can take steps down to each of the four layers which have been excavated. Weird and wonderful.

11. Caracalla baths
Built in 300 could bathe 3000 people at a time. Absolutely enormous, even as a ruin. Beautiful place to walk around and absorb atmosphere.

12. More museums...
The Capitoline Museum has a magnificent collection of statues and art. The Museum of Rome by the train station has amazing whole rooms preserved from the palaces from Caesars time, like Livia's dining room, and gorgeous mosaics. The Palazzo Barberini has a lovely art collection and gives you a sense of how the rich lived in the 1600s. Palazzo Doria Pamphlii has so many paintings they are hung three high up the walls. More Carevaggio paintings here.

13. Aqueducts and the Wall
Be sure to look out for them. You'll see them as you wander around. Rome was fed by aqueducts more than 150 miles long and protected by a huge wall. Both times Rome was sacked ( in 400 and again in 1527 ) it was to try and break the political power of the city over the rest of the world and both times they destroyed the aqueducts to siege the city. If you are really nerdy like me go to the Museum of the Wall at Porto Sebastiano.

Ninos - wonderful traditional Roman food - Via Borgognona, may need a reservation - and they definitely frown if you get too loud...
Life- fun, inexpensive and delicious on Via de la Vita
Giggetto at Porto Octavia - in the old Jewish district. Has the best carciofi (artichokes) and eggplant Parmesan in Rome.
Don't eat on Via Veneto - it's a rip off to trap tourists. Get off the main streets and look for little cafes.

Most museums are closed on Mondays so that is a good day to see churches and ruins. Most churches are closed for a long lunch. Always check opening times in your guidebook before setting out. It's a walking city and can be hard to get a cab so take really, really comfortable walking shoes. The metro is quite safe too.

Have a marvelous time!

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