“[W]hen we have left Rome … we are astonished by the discovery … that our heartstrings have mysteriously attached themselves to the Eternal City, and are drawing us [back] again, as if it were … more intimately our home, than even the spot where we were born.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorn, 1860
Maybe the Hawthorne quote seems a little heady, but, man, is it true! If you’ve been to Rome, you know what he means. If you haven’t, you should start planning your trip now.
No matter how the dollar is doing in Europe, you can embark on grand adventures without paying a dime. That’s right – just click your heels together and say, “There’s no place like Rome. There’s no place like Rome. There’s no place… “ Okay, so maybe you do have to pay for the flight to Rome. (Tip: To get last minute travel deals, check out travel agencies’ social media sites.) But, once you’re in Rome, free sites abound. And you don’t have to take city transportation to get to where you’re going. Although there’s no yellow brick road to follow, getting lost on foot as you wander through Rome’s cobblestoned streets is the best way to experience the city.
So, put on your walking shoes, and grab your water bottle. In one day, we’re going to three free sites, which exude the historical significance, mythical grandeur, and sumptuous gelato for which people come to Rome.
1. Roman Forum (Forum)
Archeological excavations have revealed layers of history that tell the story of people who walked the pathways of the Forum centuries ago. Originally a marketplace, the Forum evolved into the center of Roman public life. All major commerce, political and judicial events once took place here. Thus, many of the most important structures from Roman antiquity are in the Forum. Among these ancient ruins are temples of worship, seats of government and monuments to ancient heroes. Prior to the construction of the Colosseum, the Forum also hosted gladiatorial battles.
Here, you can walk the on the same road where Julius Caesar’s chariot ran. You will stand where Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s beloved, gave Caesar’s famous funeral oration. And you can look upon the Senate House, where a precursor to modern democracy was born. When you are inside the Forum, you can’t help but feel the pathos of the Ancient Rome Empire in its rise to glory and, among the ruins, its eventual decline. The haunting remains of the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Titus and the House of Vestal Virgins conjure up stories of ancient sacrifices, great public processions and mythical tales that still form part of Western culture.
Now, if you can tear yourself away from visions of the Vestal Virgins, you might get out your smartphone and Google the shortest route to the Pantheon. And then, get walkin’ because it’s about a mile and a half. Stopping by any site along the way is highly encouraged. One warning: there is something amazing to see around every corner, at every piazza (public square) and down every narrow street. If you don’t watch the time, it will take you all day to get your original destination.
The Pantheon, like the Forum and so many other sites around Rome, represents an historical evolution over the centuries. The Pantheon dates back to the 27 A.D. It was built by Marcus Agrippa, whose name is inscribed on the portico. Agrippa’s Pantheon was apparently dedicated to the seven gods of the seven planets (a pagan temple). It was twice destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Between 118-125 A.D. , the Emperor Hadrian finished constructing the third Pantheon. Debate exists as to whether the earlier structures were of a similar monumental shape and magnitude as Pantheon now stands. One point is certain, however, the Pantheon is the most well preserved Ancient Roman structures.
In the seventh century, the Pantheon, a pagan temple, officially morphed into a Catholic Church, with its consecration as such in 609 A.D. This transformation reflected the changes in political power, spreading of Christendom, and desire to preserve ancient Roman buildings. To this day, it remains a Catholic Church.
Regardless of religious convictions, everyone is welcome to experience the Pantheon. Walking through the front portico, this downright massive structure with its rows 40-foot Corinthian columns, made of heavy Egyptian granite, feels both impressive and intimidating. Once through the entrance, you meet with a breathtaking interior. Natural light shines through only one opening in the coffered, hemispherical dome (the oculus). It remains a mystery how this ancient structure could support the weight of its domed top. As artist Michelangelo put it, the Pantheon appears to be of “angelic and inhuman design.”
If you can pull yourself away from the ethereal interior of the Pantheon, it’s only a short hike to our next destination. In a half mile, you’ll find something no less impressive and a bit more trendy. According to U.S. News, the Trevi Fountain is ranked the number one tourist destination in Rome.
1. Trevi Fountain
Arguably the most beautiful fountain in Rome, the Trevi Fountain too has ties to the first century B.C. The Trevi Fountain is located at the end of the Aqua Virgo, an ancient aqueduct constructed in 19 BC by Agrippa. This aqueduct still brings water 21 kilometers away from Rome to supply the fountains in the historic city center with water. (Can you believe that a than 2000-year-old aqueduct still works?)
The elaborately designed baroque fountain is built into the side of Palazzo Poli. And it absolutely dominates Trevi square, where it is situated. At 85 feet high and 65 feet wide, it is the largest fountain in Rome. Each part of the fountain, each sculpture and section, either allegorically or literally commemorates an historical event or represents a moral or mythical tale.
But not everyone comes to the Trevi Fountain to fuss over Neptune or whatever else is depicted there. Most tourists come to participate in another mythical story, which requires tossing coins into the fountain. Two legends actually inform the ritual of throwing coins into the fountain. One says that if you throw a coin from your right hand backwards over left shoulder, you will return to Rome. The second legend inspires people to throw three coins into the fountain. The first coin guarantees a return to Rome, the second coin means you will fall in love in Rome, and the third coin will lead you down the aisle with the spouse of your dreams. You might have seen the 1954 American film inspired by the latter legend: Three Coins in A Fountain.
If you find yourself tired of myths and figure that flipping coins into the fountain may be a bad investment, just walk to Piazza Navona (.5 miles), where the locals hang out. Then, as the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”: sit and savor a lemon and raspberry gelato, enjoy a glass of vino or sip on a café’ latte and talk with your friends. I bet you’ll find yourself saying that you’ll never forget this trip— because there is truly no place like Rome.
“… the best things in life are free.” As the saying goes, the best museum is the city itself.