As many of you probably might have noticed, I focus my articles pretty much on peculiar artistic or historical subjects, however, I did want to write a lighter post that some of you might find helpful, and indeed a light summer reading, if you find yourself in Rome. Here are 10 things you should do, they also cover the main attractions you would want to visit anyway, Coliseum and St. Peter's excluded. But we are not so banal, are we? One last warning, some of these places will offer shade from the sun, but if you're looking for anywhere cool, then you shouldn't visit Rome in the summer. Always bring a bottle of water with you, never throw it away, you can always refill it with the fresh mountain water coming from the city's nasoni (the little fountains). Now, wear a proper hat and enjoy the tour!
Want to see a "newly" discovered, old Roman church that has been covered for over a thousand years by debris and which is entirely decorated with Byzantine frescoes that are world renowned? Make sure to pay a visit to Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum. The church is open this summer for an exhibition. You must make sure not to miss it! There is even one greater gift included in the ticket: the church is in the Roman Forum so you will have free access to most of it. Wander around and discover the wonders of the greatest of ancient civilisations. You will find beautiful ruins of old classical buildings but also some peculiar features, such as the church that has a façade that was previously a Roman temple's! Make sure to visit in the early morning or in the late evening, for better light and when the sun is not too deadly...
Rome is a city built on hills, surely you don't have to see them all (but you should), two of them offer great views on the city but also an escape from the heat, the best ones are the Janiculum and Aventine hills. The first located above the Trastevere hosts two Renaissance churches: Sant'Onofrio and San Pietro in Montorio - the first with beautiful cloisters, frescoes by Antoniazzo Romano and Pintoricchio, the second with works by Antoniazzo Romano, Sebastiano del Piombo, Bernini, Vasari and with the famous Bramante's temple, built on the site of Saint Peter's crucifixion. The hill offers a nice walk, under the shade of pine and oak trees, the view is spectacular, on one side it overlooks the whole city, on the other is the dome of St. Peter's. The Adventine is equally great, it hosts ancient basilicas, among the very first ones in Rome in fact, among them San Saba and Santa Balbina, from whence you could start your walk, the scenery there is amazing, then Santa Sabina, famous for being the best preserved early Christian church in Rome, in its interior and for its 5th century carved door! Nearby there is the famous key-hole with a spectacular view on St. Peter's, you can end your walk at the Giardino degli Aranci, it offers one of the best views on the Eternal City. A little tip: you will need to cross the river to get from one hill to the other, use the ancient Roman bridges of the Tiber Island or the Renaissance Ponte Sisto!
I highly suggest you to opt for this option on 5th August. You could start your journey by visiting the earliest churches of Rome, renowned for their ancient mosaics. The first one would be Santi Cosma e Damiano, right outside the Forum, the church was built in an ancient Roman temple, divided into two storeys during the 17th century because of the Tiber's floodings, you can visit the early Christian crypt and the 6th century mosaics. You could then proceed to Santa Pudenziana to admire the oldest mosaic in Rome, dating back to the 4th century, in fact it isn't even in the early-Christian style but in the late Roman one! After that you could move on to Santa Prassede that hosts both a beautiful 9th century apse mosaic but also a greater treasure, the chapel of San Zeno, with glorious mosaics in the Byzantine style and even the relic of the column on which Jesus was flagellated. Remember to check out, everything in these churches, the mosaics aren't the only things to see! Often the floor, decorated with another form of mosaics called "Cosmati" is equally mind blowing. Now, we will reach the point in which you will realise why you should take this tour on this exact day. 5th August is the feast of the Virgin in Rome, on this special day make sure to visit the oldest standing Papal basilica of Rome: Saint Mary Major, its beautiful early and Medieval mosaics, the Renaissance works by Mino da Fiesole and Piero della Francesca (?), the first crib scene in the world (in the treasury) but first of all say a prayer to Our Lady. According to the legend she appeared in a dream to pope Liberius asking him to build a church dedicated after her, the following morning the miracle happened: it snowed on the exact spot the basilica had to be build, in the middle of the summer! During Vespers, at the Magnificat a snowfall will pour on the high altar, you will never forget it! You can end journey visit by visiting the Victorian Anglican church of St. Paul's within the Walls with lovely Pre-Raphaelite mosaics by Edward Burne-Jones!
As they say in Rome "if you need some air", I highly suggest you to visit the city's beautiful parks: get lost in the vast Villa Doria Pamphilj, walk endlessly in this charming estate, it couldn't just be better: the large trees, the hills, the little ponds and fountains but especially the Versailles-like huge Baroque water games, ending in a large lake populated by swans and beavers. It's only a short walk from the Janiculum hill. Another beautiful park is the Villa Borghese, somehow "smaller" but with plenty of eclectic Neo-Classical works and even Egyptian-like architecture. The beautiful fountains, the trees, the majestic promenades offer a charming escape from the city life. There is also a lovely lake with a temple where you can go on a boat ride, it is a must at sunset! Make sure to end your visit on the Pincio, overlooking the Spanish Steps and the whole city. If you have children, there is an ecologic and animal friendly Zoo, if you have teens take them to the park's world-renowned art gallery! If you don't have any children, visit it anyway.
If you want to escape the city, in favour of a "wilder" option, there is the walk along the Via Appia Antica, you will be able to stroll on the ancient Roman "motorway", along it you will find tombs, ancient houses and will be brought back in time. You can relax and have a picnic in the wild field facing the Cecilia Metella's Mausoleum. It will be like approaching the city in the old days of the Grand-Tour. Talking about Grand-Tour, if you want to experience the life of the great tourists that visited Rome during the 18th and 19th century, visit the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio, the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps or the Goethe House on the Via del Corso! But careful about the ghosts...
I have been quite kind to you until now, Rome is also a city of art, of course our museums are churches and ruins, but we have our fair share of great art galleries too. Surely, you should visit the Borghese Gallery, booking in advance, you will be able to admire ancient sculptures, works by Bernini or Canova and paintings by the great masters, such as Titian or Raphael, all of them in the original location in which the family placed them, some of the ancient ones are unfortunately in the Louvre now. Napoleon and all that... The Corsini Gallery is never really crowded and offers a great collection of art works, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Annibale Carracci are all there. As for any respectable noble Roman family collection the Barberini Gallery hosts a great deal of works too: Caravaggios, Raphael, Filippo Lippi and even one of the most famous portraits of Henry VIII. In the setting of a family palazzo designed by Bernini and Borromini. The great salone has a spectacular fresco celebrating the family by Pietro da Cortona. For a more "familiar" atmosphere there is also the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery, still family owned! This beautiful palazzo hosts some threats, you will be able to see the original Renaissance cloisters, the family chapel, the great Versailles-like corridor with Venetian mirrors, and Memling, Filippo Lippi, Caravaggio and the most famous Velazquez painting in the world. You can end your visit with the Villa Farnesina and its Raphael frescoes, located in a charming and calm area of the Trastevere.
Explore Baroque Rome: whether it'd be the excesses of the Gesù, the optical illusions in the ceiling frescoes at Sant'Ignazio or the Pietro da Cortona and Rubens works at the Chiesa Nuova - covering also the post-Trent Jesuit and Oratorian churches of Rome and the charming tomb of St. Philip Neri. Or the crazy works by Bernini and Borromini in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Sant'Ivo, Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, San Carlino or Sant'Agnese in Agone or their "secular" commissions such as the stair-cases of the Barberini Palace, the Ponte Sant'Angelo (leading to the castle) or the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. Explore any church on your way, you will probably see a Baroque masterpiece in every one! It is here that the Counter-Reformation started after all. It might not be Baroque, but make sure to see the Caravaggios scattered through the city: Sant'Agostino, San Luigi dei Francesi, Santa Maria del Popolo. They are a must-see and it may sound banal, but it is a transcendental experience to see the works of a great master.
If you want to escape ancient ruins or Baroque works there is also the dreamy Renaissance option, the greatest art mankind ever produced, visiting the churches of the Medieval mendicant orders of Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans, take a relaxed stroll through the most central area of Rome, starting with the Franciscan Santa Maria in Aracoeli, near the Capitol Hill, built on the site of Augustus' house, where he received the famous vision. The church hosts the Bufalini Chapel, with the famous Pinturicchio frescoes representing the life of Saint Bernardino. Another chapel on the opposite aisle hosts a fresco of Saint Anthony of Padua by Benozzo Gozzoli, follower of Fra Angelico who decorated the Magi Chapel in Florence. In the counter-façade is also one of the greatest tombs by Andrea Bregno, with fine sculptures of Saints Peter, Paul, Michael and Francis. The ideal Renaissance tomb. Nearby is a tombstone by Donatello. Not too far from that stands the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only remaining church in Rome with Gothic architecture, here is the splendid Carafa Chapel with frescoes by Florentine Filippino Lippi representing the Annunciation and the Assumption of Our Lady and the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In another chapel is the tomb of Fra Angelico himself, the altarpiece is a Madonna and Child by Benozzo Gozzoli. Tombs by Andrea Bregno and Mino da Fiesole, some with the original painted decorations, and Bregno's very tomb, are scattered through the church, find them all! The Annunciation chapel hosts the last works by the only Roman Renaissance artist Antoniazzo Romano, representing the Annunciation and with the good cardinal Torquemada (not the other one) donating alms to poor women that would have had to be prostitutes instead. Another chapel hosts the tomb of another Spanish cardinal with a fresco by a follower of Antoniazzo, Christ with angels. You can continue this tour by visiting the Augustinian Santa Maria del Popolo, famous for the Pintoricchio Della Rovere and Cybo chapels and choir frescoes, representing the life of the Virgin and saints, the Bregno sculptures and finally the Chigi Chapel designed and decorated by Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo. The tour could end with Santa Maria della Pace and Sant'Agostino, that host the only frescoes in a church outside the Vatican City by Raphael: the Sibyls and the prophet Isaiah. Sorry I could not make this any shorter, but you know how much I love the Renaissance! Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Trinità dei Monti also offer a great "Mannerist alternative" to the previous places.
Don't feel like having a plan? Just take a walk in central Rome and chances are you will find something amazing, why don't you take a tour of the city's fountains? You could start with the famous ones such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini, the Fontana del Tritone also by Bernini, the Barcaccia by Bernini, they're all located in the main piazzas. But after you have seen them there are plenty of other ones to see, from the smallest ones, such as the one in Piazza Lancellotti or the one in the Piazza of Sant'Andrea della Valle, that were located in the Piazza Montanara and Piazza Scossacavalli, demolished by Mussolini... A must-see is the Fontana delle Tartarughe, near the Jewish Ghetto, good photos are guaranteed and you will have a refreshing fun!
This is the most important point, you must remember you are in Rome, you have to relax, wherever you are, stop and admire what's around you. Preferably, with a good gelato in your hand, always add panna, don't be a tourist! You might also have a great dish of pasta and don't say it will make you fat! It annoys us, if you will follow a strict Mediterranean diet it won't (supposedly) make you fat! Did I mention the wine? Yes the wine...