Rome wasn't built in a day and it will definitely take longer than 24 hours to explore all of the beauty the city has to offer. Guideposts followed in the footsteps of Morgan Freeman—who visited the city while filming his National Geographic series, Story of God—and we discovered there's more to Rome than just good food.
From the Coliseum to the Vatican, hidden libraries and ancient temples, here are some cultural and religious sites you have to see when you book your next trip to Italy.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the most recognizable sight in Rome’s skyline and for good reason. With its grand dome and Renaissance-style features, the church is the centerpiece of the Vatican City. If you go underground you’ll find many of the Catholic Church’s past Popes interred beneath the Basilica but that’s not the only reason you should pay attention to where you walk. The floor of St. Peter's marks the sizes of the 15 largest churches in the world – in other words, they can all fit inside the Roman building.
This is a view from the back entrance into the Vatican. Only workers and special guests go through these gates as Pope Francis’ living quarters are just off to the right.
You can’t think Rome without the Coliseum coming to mind. The oval amphitheater in the heart of the city and east of the Roman Forum is one of the most famous heritage sites on earth. Built of concrete and sand in 72 AD, the Coliseum has survived earthquakes, fires and wars which have all contributed to its partially damaged faced.
The Coliseum was mostly used for entertainment purposes. Gladiator matches were fought here and though the original floor of the theater is gone, what’s underneath remains. The hypogeum – the series of tunnels and cages underneath the Coliseum – is where gladiators and animals were kept before their contests began.
St. Peter’s Square is another popular tourist destination. After you’ve walked the halls of the Vatican Museum and taken in the magnificent beauty of Michelangelo’s ceiling artwork – he painted it standing up, not lying down contrary to popular belief – you might find yourself here where thousands of people gather to hear addresses from the Pope. The square’s central tower is actually an Egyptian obelisk. It was placed there by Emperor Caligula in 37 AD when the square was used as a circus – a place for chariot races and other forms of entertainment.
It was once believed that the gilded ball on top of the obelisk held the remains of Julius Caesar.
The Pantheon is a building commissioned by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD and converted into a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV. Originally dedicated as a temple to the gods, the Pantheon is one of the most well-preserved pieces of architecture from Ancient Roman times. It serves as the final resting place for two Italian kings as well as famous Italian painter and architect, Raphael.
Tempio Maggiore di Roma or The Great Synagogue of Rome is the largest synagogue in the city. It was constructed after the unification of Italy in 1870 after the ghetto where the Jews were ordered to live by the Catholic Church was destroyed and Jews were granted Roman citizenship for the first time.
Beautiful architecture can be found anywhere in Rome, but the inside of Tempio Maggiore is a sight you have to see. Its eclectic style was made to grab attention. After suffering for hundreds of years, the Jewish community wanted their newly-constructed synagogue – it was built in 1901 after the ghetto’s remaining synagogues were demolished during unification – to be a celebration of their hard-earned freedom.
A stolpersteine or “stumbling stone” in the Jewish ghetto. These commemorative plates are located in front of the last place of residence of victims of the Holocaust. Each plaque is detailed with the victim’s first and last name, date of birth, date and place of deportation and date of death in a Nazi extermination camp. There are currently almost 200 stumbling stones installed in nine districts throughout the city.
The Biblioteca Casanatense is a hidden gem in Rome. Nestled on a side street, this library houses 400,000 volumes of some of the oldest texts and manuscripts in the world. Morgan Freeman came here while filming his National Geographic series The Story of God to examine 12th century Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament.
Ponte dei Quattro Capi also known as “Bridge of the Four Heads” is the oldest bridge in Rome, connecting the former Jewish ghetto to Tiber Island. On each side of the bridge is a four-headed figure and legend has it that those heads represent the architects commissioned to build the bridge by Pope Sixtus V. The architects apparently had a few too many disagreements during construction prompting the Pope to have them beheaded but later recognized for their work by having their portraits placed there. Before you walk over the bridge, rub one of the four heads and you’re supposed to have good luck.
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or The Fountain of the Four Rivers can be found in the Piazza Navona. It was commissioned for Pope Innocent X in 1651. The fountain depicts the four river gods which serve to represent the four continents ruled by the Papacy during that time: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing the Americas.
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