Great Walks: Ancient Rome
There are few outings more exhilarating than a walk through the neighborhoods of ancient Rome. In this city of relics, visitors stroll avenues where emperors once roamed and Christianity first flourished. Follow our free Rome walking tour to take in some of the best things to see in Rome, Italy.
The historic center of Rome (Centro Storico di Roma) is an astonishing mix of antiquity and modern life. On every block, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces exist alongside family-run trattorias, bars, and boutiques. The city is a pulsating tangle of ancient ruins, breathtaking cathedrals, cobbled squares, and thriving markets.
And, there is no better way to see ancient Rome than by foot.
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THINGS TO SEE IN ROME
Our Neighborhoods of Ancient Rome walking tour begins at the Spanish Steps and take in many of Centro Storico’s most interesting and atmospheric sites including the Trevi Fountain, Hadrian’s Temple, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, Sant’Angelo Bridge, Campo di Fiori, and the Jewish Ghetto.
Length: The 5km walk can be completed in either direction.
Best Time of Day to Walk: The best time to walk in Rome is early evening when the heat has abated, the crowd has thinned, and the sky is a million changing shades of color. Or, if you plan to visit museums or churches walk during the daylight hours on Monday – Saturday.
GPS: Rome is full of alleys. If you get off track, GPS the addresses we have provided for the next location. The historic center is quite compact and well-signed. However, if you prefer to relax, there are a number of guided walking tours that cover the area described in this blog post.
Hours on the Trail: Google Maps times the walk at 1 hour, but you will stop frequently. Plan for 4-6 hours.
Safety: Rome’s historic center is generally pedestrian friendly. There is a noticeable police-presence, and many English speakers in this part of Rome. Always be aware of your own personal safety. Keep valuables out of sight and secured close to the body.
Dress: Conservatively. If you plan to visit churches keep knees and shoulders covered, and no flip flops.
ROME WALKING TOUR
The Spanish Steps and Piazza di Spagna (Address: Piazza di Spagna, Rome)
The Spanish Steps (Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti) were built in the 1700s to connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti Church at the top of the hill. There are 135 steps arranged in three terraces (in a nod to the Holy Trinity). Climb the stairs to see the Egyptian obelisk, exceptional city views, and the Trinita dei Monti Church.
The Romantic poet John Keats lived by the steps in the 1800s. He and a group of wealthy English friends helped to make the area famous. Today, although visitors may no longer sit on the steps, the area remains a popular place to gather for the gelato, shopping, peoplewatching, and climbing the stairs for the outstanding vistas.
The Piazza di Spagna (Square of Spain) sits at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. It is one of the most visited squares in Rome. The piazza’s name comes from the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican that sits on the square. Several high-end shopping streets flank the plaza including the Via Condotti.
A number of famous monuments and landmarks reside around the square including the Trinita dei Monti, Keats-Shelley Museum, and the Column of the Immaculate Conception. The Fontana dell Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat) draws crowds every day to enjoy a drink of water.
Trevi Fountain (Address: Trevi Square, Rome)
From the Spanish Steps follow the map (or the crowds) to Rome’s Trevi Fountain. The Trevi is an outdoor fountain with intricate Baroque-style artwork (designed by Nicola Salvi). The source of the fountain is a Roman aqueduct; the last in continuous use from ancient times until today.
There are three main statues sculpted on the fountain – Oceanus, Abundance, and Health. Oceanus is driven in a chariot by two seahorses. On a clear day, the fountain’s white marble and turquoise water against the blue sky is truly stunning. At night, the fountain is lit (and maybe even more beautiful).
The Trevi has been featured in many movies. Legend (and Hollywood) has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain you will return to Rome.
Visitors are sometimes surprised that such a large fountain was placed in a small square. The area around the fountain has many tourist shops and is often packed with visitors. It may take a while to make your way to the fountain. Hold on to your valuables and press forward. The fountain is spectacular, and well worth the effort.
The Temple of Hadrian (Address: Piazza di Pietra, Rome)
The next stop on the walk is the Temple of Hadrian. The ancient Roman structure was built in homage to the Emperor Hadrian by his adopted son. The temple has served many purposes since its completion around 145 AD. Today, eleven of the temple’s original columns remain.
Inside of the temple there is an office for Rome’s Chamber of Commerce and a “Hadianeum” attraction. The 22-minute video describes a journey through time. The piazza outside of the temple is a popular location for musicians and street vendors.
Pantheon (Address: Piazza della Rotonda, Rome)
A few blocks later, you will spill out of an alley and approach one of the oldest and most recognizable buildings in the world, Rome’s Pantheon.
The original temple was completed around 128 AD. It is theorized that the Emperor Hadrian was attempting to merge Greek and Roman building styles in the Pantheon’s construction. This is reflected architecturally as well as in the building’s Greek name, pan (all) and theos (god).
In 609 AD, the temple was converted into a Catholic church. Thus, the building was spared from being stripped of its stone and precious metals (as was the fate of so many other Roman structures). The Pantheon is one of the last remaining buildings from ancient Rome that is completely intact.
There is an 8.7-meter opening in the dome of the Pantheon. Scholars speculate that Hadrian planned the “oculus” to allow worshippers be closer to the heavens. Birds are often spotted in the dome, and when it rains the geometric marble floor gets wet.
The Pantheon is a working church full of chapels, King’s tombs, and alters where brides from wealthy families are still wed. When services are not in session the church is usually open between 9am and 7pm. Admission to the Pantheon is free. On days when the church is expected to be crowded, tickets to visit can be reserved online.
Piazza Navona (Address: Piazza Navona, Rome)
A short walk from the Pantheon is the magnificent Piazza Navona. Since 86 AD, Piazza Navona has been one of Rome’s most loved gathering spaces and the site of countless games, chariot races, jousts, and festivals.
Piazza Navona was built as a stadium (Circus Agonalis) for athletic competitions. Years later when the Roman Empire fell, houses replaced the stadium’s bleachers. Remnants of the original stadium have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and can be toured for a fee at the Stadium of Domitian.
In the 17th century, Pope Innocent commissioned the construction of several churches and palaces around the piazza as well as La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of Four Rivers). The famous fountain was sculpted by Bernini. It depicts four statues representing the Donau, Ganges, Nile, and Rio de la Plato rivers.
Several museums and churches surrounding the piazza are open to the public. The best part of square, though, is soaking up the glorious atmosphere. People flock to the Piazza Navona for the many cafes, restaurants, shops, street performers, and painters that are found there.
Castel Sant’ Angelo (Address: Lungotevere Castello, 50, Rome)
Walk from Piazza Navona to the Ponte Umberto (bridge) and cross the River Tiber. On the right side of the Tiber, stands the Mausoleum of Hadrian (aka Castel Sant’Angelo). The towering cylindrical structure was originally built by the Emperor Hadrian as a final resting place for he and his family.
Over the years, Castel Sant’Angleo has been reinvented as a fortress, papal palace, and prison. Today, the Castel is a 5-story museum. There are stone ramps, Renaissance papal apartments, dungeons, and torture chambers to explore. On the top floors there are terraces with amazing city views. Also, onsite is the Passetto di Borgo. The “passetto” is a walled walkway that runs from the Castel to Saint Peter’s Basilica (available by guided tour only).
Ponte Sant’Angelo (Address: Sant’Angelo Bridge, Rome)
From the Castel Sant’Angelo, wander slowly across the magnificent Ponte Sant’Angelo. A bridge connecting the Castel to the city center has stood in this spot since ancient Roman-times.
Sant’Angelo Bridge in its current form reaches back to the 17th century when Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini to transform the bridge, and a series of angels were added. As you walk across the bridge, examine each of the ten angels that adorn it.
Campo di Fiori (Address: Campo di Fiori, Rome)
Leaving the Tiber’s riverbank, trek inland to the southern section of Centro Storico. You will pass a series of narrow lanes, tiny squares, and vine-wrapped churches on your way to the unassuming and thoroughly charming neighborhood of Campo di Fiori.
Campo di Fiori’s main square was built upon a flowery field (Fiori) in the 15th century. Since that time, a market has been held in the piazza every Monday through Saturday. Centuries-old wooden stalls protect the fruits, vegetables, spices, and other goods from the elements.
In the center of the square there is a statue of Giordano Bruno; a philosopher who perished in the square in 1600. He, and many others accused of being heretics, were burned at the stake in this spot. Strangely, this is the only piazza in Rome that is not anchored by a church.
After wandering the neighborhood, pause in Campo di Fiori to walk the stalls. Purchase a snack, and watch the world go by.
Jewish Ghetto - Rome (Address: Via del Portico d'Ottavia, Rome)
From Campo di Fiori it is about a 9-minute walk to Portico di Octavio, and the heart of the Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. The ghetto is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. It was established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, who decreed that all Jews must live within the walls of the district.
Over the years, residents of the Jewish Ghetto experienced great hardship including floods, overcrowding, and epidemics. During World War II, over 1,000 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, and few returned.
Today, the Jewish Ghetto – Rome is a lovely neighborhood of kosher shops and restaurants specializing in Jewish and Middle-Eastern cuisine. Walk the streets winding off of Via del Portico d’Ottavia to take in the area’s synagogues and museums. At the edge of the Jewish Ghetto there are wonderful (and often uncrowded) Roman ruins to explore; look for Octavia’s Portico temple complex.
Hope you enjoy walking the magnificent neighborhoods of ancient Rome. A presto (see you soon), Laura and Randy
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