We spent more days in Rome than any other city we visited on our Italian vacation. Three full days, four nights, plus half days on the way in and out. We packed our first two days in Rome with the big deals – the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Forum, a bunch of basilicas – so our last day was open. We wanted to get off the tourist track a little bit, so we embarked on a Roman walking tour, loosely based on a walk recommended by Fodor’s.
CROSSING THE TIBER: A ROMAN WALKING TOUR
START: AT THE PANTHEON
Built almost 2,000 years ago, the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Pantheon started as a Roman temple and was completed by the emperor Hadrian around 126 AD. In the 7th century it became a church, dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. It’s one of the best-preserved ancient Roman structures in the world, largely because of continuous use over the millennia.
In person, it’s magnificent.
Visiting the Pantheon was tops on Roman to-do list. We visited twice, in fact. First in the afternoon then again to kick off our Roman walking tour around 9 a.m. I’d highly recommend a morning visit, since everything in Rome tends to be busier in the afternoon.
Entry is free. Open to visitors Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
STOP TWO: THE BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA SOPRA MINERVA
Outside the church, don’t miss Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk sculpture, located in the Piazza della Minerva. The obelisk belonged to the temple dedicated to Isis, and dates back to the 6th century B.C.
Admission is free. Open Monday-Friday, 7:50 a.m. – 7 p.m., Saturdays 7:50 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. – 7 p.m., and Sundays 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.
STOP THREE: FONTANA delle TARTARUGHE at PIAZZA MATTEI
Head south down Via Del Cestari until you come to Piazza Mattei with the Fountain of the Turtles. According to historians, the fountain was built between 1580 and 1588, but the turtles were added later, in 1658 or 1659. That said, there’s a popular legend that claims that Duke Muzio Mattei lost everything to gambling, but had the fountain built overnight in order to impress the father of the woman he wanted to marry. According to legend, it worked and the father gave his blessing.
Le Tartarughe Eat & Drink overlooks the piazza here, so we stopped for a breakfast snack and a cappuccino. I almost never drink coffee at home, but in Italy, I couldn’t help it. It’s so good and so much better than what I can get at home.
STOP FOUR: PORTICUS OCTAVIAE & the THEATER OF MARCELLUS
Follow Via della Reginella down to Via Portico d’Ottavia, to see the Portico d’Ottavia, in the center of the Roman Ghetto. Built by Augustus near 27 BC, this portico enclosed the temples of Jupiter and Juno. The portico burned in both 80 AD and 203 AD, and was restored both times. In 442 AD, an earthquake destroyed two of the columns, and an archway was put in their place, which is still there today.
After the portico, follow the walkway alongside it to the Theater of Marcellus, an ancient open-air theater, that was completed under Augustus in 12 BC.
I loved this area so much. It was mostly empty, the ruins are beautiful and well-preserved, the panels along the walkway explain the history of the structures and it’s free to walk around. It was also just really fucking cool to be wandering around and then to suddenly stumble upon these 2,000 year old relics from ancient Rome.
STOP FIVE: the TIBER RIVER & ISOLA TIBERINA
STOP SIX: SAN BENEDETTO a PISCINCULA
Head down Piazza della Gensola to Piazza in Piscinula for San Benedetto, the smallest church in Rome. According to legend, this is where Saint Benedict stayed when he came to Rome to study as a young man, around 500 AD. After all the massive basilicas we’d been to in previous days, this felt very, very different. The church itself is simple, but charming and worth a quick peek.
Entry is free. Open daily 8 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
STOP SEVEN: SANTA CECILIA IN TRASTEVERE
Follow Via dei Salumi to Via dei Vascellari into Piazza di Santa Cecilia, to reach this church, my favorite in Rome. I don’t even know how many churches we visited, but this one was such a pleasant surprise, and so beautiful. The first church on this site was built over the ruins of martyred Saint Cecilia’s home, in the 3rd Century, and the current church dates to 822.
The main church and its facade, built in 1725, are beautiful, for sure, but the real treasure is what’s underneath.
To enter the crypt, go through the gift shop to your left as you enter the church. It includes the ruins of two ancient Roman houses, with original mosaic floors, and part of a tannery. There’s also some remnants of a shrine to the goddess Minerva and a crypt built in 1899 to hold the tombs of Cecilia and a few others.
I think the surprising beauty down there is why I liked this church so much. You’re walking through these ancient homes, trying to imagine what it all would have been like and testing your Italian skills while reading the signs, and then there’s this magnificent underground church that’s so pretty it made me forget to breathe for a few seconds.
FINAL STOP: GELATO, OBVIOUSLY
I’m pretty sure it’s the law that you have to eat gelato at least once every day when you’re a tourist in Italy. It’s damn delicious – I go for mango every time – it’s also cheap and easy and, SERIOUSLY, really delicious.
Of all the things we did in Rome, this walk ended up being one of my favorites. It was away from the busiest parts of the city and showed us different neighborhoods, like the Roman Ghetto and Trastevere. It was also our most relaxed day in Rome. We started early, but otherwise, we weren’t on a timeline, we didn’t have tickets to anything, we just wandered, on foot, and we came away with a better feeling of Rome than if we’d just stuck to the major sites.
As busy as Rome was, I really liked it. There’s so much to see there, so much history around each and every corner. There’s good food, good wine, good gelato.
Next time, I want to pick a neighborhood and just be for a week or so, eating and living more like a local.