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Roman Holiday
With a history spanning nearly 3,000 years, Rome is the former caput mundi—or capital of the world—and one of the cradles of Western civilization. You could pass a lifetime there and never see it all. No wonder it’s called the Eternal City. By Eliot Stein
Comments () | Published March 22, 2010
With so many remnants of its glorious past, Rome may seem overwhelming. Sure, you could spend weeks walking ancient roads, worshiping at Renaissance shrines, or admiring Baroque palaces, but to call the Italian capital an open-air museum is to belie a city that’s synonymous with style. Whether hopping on a Vespa to buzz around, enjoying gelato in a piazza, or dropping some euros on a designer handbag, you’ll find that Rome’s history is matched by its modern glamour.

April is a good time to visit: Tables at trattorias spill into the street, the city opens its museums for free in honor of its birthday (April 21), and the Pope heads a procession around the Colosseum on Good Friday before leading thousands of pilgrims in prayer outside St. Peter’s on Easter. Plus, this year, another draw: a major Caravaggio exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale (scuderiequirinale.it) honors the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Assuming your Roman holiday can’t last an eternity, here are some of our favorite things to see and do.
Seeing the Ancient City
The area just east of Capitoline Hill is the heart of the Roman Empire and home to three of the city’s most evocative treasures—conveniently within a walkable loop and accessible with a joint ticket (pierreci.it).

The Roman Forum is a labyrinth of awe-inspiring temples, tombs, palaces, and, yes, brothels dating from the fifth century bc. After ducking into the homes of vestal virgins and marveling at a maze of arches, climb the Palatine Hill for views of the Forum below. Don’t descend without walking through the courtyards, gardens, and fountains of the Imperial Palace. Threading the Arches of Titus and Constantine, you’ll arrive at Rome’s most popular attraction: the Colosseum. This amphitheater held more than 50,000 spectators, could be flooded to recreate sea battles, and saw the killing of a million animals and half a million people. For the best views of its interior, head to the second level by the museum. To avoid long lines at the Colosseum, purchase tickets at the Forum or Palatine Hill.

The Colosseum may be Rome’s most-trafficked building, but the Pantheon, built around 120 ad as a pagan temple, is its best preserved. Michelangelo was convinced it was the work of angels. More than a dozen columns soar to support a portico, shielding a pair of original bronze doors and revealing a 43-meter dome pierced by a 9-meter oculus, allowing sunlight to rotate around its interior. For the thinnest crowds, arrive when the building opens—though if you’re in town during the summer solstice, step inside at noon when the sunlight reaches the floor to bathe visitors in a heavenly experience.

Stamp your passport to the world’s smallest state, Vatican City, by following a sea of pilgrims toward the 284 columns and 140 statues of Piazza San Pietro. You’ll have time for plenty of Hail Marys as you stand in line to enter the world’s most famous church, the Basilica di San Pietro—a riot of marble, mosaics, and gold. Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Pietà on the right as you enter, and prepare for goose bumps as you descend into the Vatican Grottoes, containing the tombs of dozens of popes—including John Paul II and St. Peter. For a breathtaking city view, go to the top of Michelangelo’s dome.

Adjacent to the church are the Vatican Museums (vatican.va), one of the largest and richest collection of art in the world, with more than 1,400 rooms spread over four miles. While there isn’t much you’ll want to miss, the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of mankind on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel attract the largest crowds.

With miles of walking paths, a small zoo, and a lake where visitors can paddle rowboats, Villa Borghese is a leafy place to rest. The park highlight is indoors: Borghese Gallery (galleriaborghese.it.). Feast on works by Titian, Caravaggio, and Raphael before marveling at the museum’s crowning jewels: the statues David and Apollo and Daphne, whose marble contours appear to be sculpted into sensuous silk sheets by Bernini’s chisel.

Trying to work your way through throngs of tourists to reach the Trevi Fountain may seem hard. The key is to visit this splashing Baroque monument late at night—just as Marcello Mastroianni did in La Dolce Vita—when underwater spotlights make the pool appear tantalizingly green and the piazza is less busy. Just don’t splash around in the fountain, as Anita Ekberg did, or whistle-blowing carabinieri will fine you.

Get a crash course in Roman culture by taking a free tour of its most famous sites. The knowledgeable and entertaining guides at Rome Free Tour (romefreetour.com) offer daily walks through the city’s cobblestone core, working only for tips.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/22/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles