Rome wears many hats: It’s the current capital of Italy, the ancient seat of power of the Roman Empire; it’s the heart of the Catholic church, with the sovereign state of Vatican City inside its protective arms; and it’s an international center of cuisine, fashion and art. Its nickname, “The Eternal City,” gives you an idea of its unwavering popularity through centuries.
But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, don’t expect to see everything this multilayered city has to offer in one port-of-call visit. All cruise ships dock in the port of Civitavecchia, about a two-hour trip to Rome. Excursions, buses and rental cars can take you by road; there is also reliable train service. If you can, add a few days to the beginning or end of your cruise to experience all the sites, smells, tastes and wonders of this incredible city.
The Colosseum amazes, delights and often bewilders, leading many a visitor to question: How can something that was built nearly 2,000 years ago still be standing today? How did the Romans create a structure that could be flooded for naval battles? Where did the wild animals stay until their epic fights against gladiators? And did the gladiators ever really stand a chance? For anyone with even the smallest interest in any of the answers to these and so many more questions, a visit to the Colosseum is a must.
Due to long lines and limited posted information, we think a guided tour, either organized by your cruise line or with The Roman Guy or Select Italy is a must-do; not only will you have an expert on hand to answer questions, but only tour guides have access to the “dungeons” and the top floor of this amazing structure.
The heart of ancient Rome is the multileveled Roman Forum, built during the Roman Empire over the course of 500 B.C. to A.D. 400. As you wander through the ruins and mounds, you’ll pass the eight Ionic columns of the Temple of Saturn, as well as the temple and house of the Vestal Virgins, whose job it was to keep the sacred flame burning. You’ll see the great triumphal Arch of Titus as you make your way up to Palatine Hill with its expansive views of Ancient Rome. It’s a wonderful place to wander and immerse yourself in a time long past. (It’s also another spot where a guide, or a book, helps immensely to put things in perspective.)
Although Rome and the Vatican are synonymous in many people’s minds, Vatican City is an entity unto itself (and something you should give yourself plenty of time to explore). The residence of the Pope is also home to 800 clergy, security and other essential employees, including the regally dressed Swiss Guards. At the heart of the city is St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro), designed by Bernini in the 17th century. It’s a great spot to sit and take in the grand scope of the area and the hustle and bustle of the sovereign state.
Here, too, are the famous Vatican Museums, with abundant Renaissance treasures by Carvaggio, Raphael, Giotto and Fra Angelico (just to name a few). And, of course, the showstopping Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, centering on “The Creation of Adam.”
- Skip the always-lengthy lines for the museums by booking timed tickets in advance.
- The museum is set up in an organized way where you’re directed from one area to another and the Sistine Chapel is one of the last rooms you’ll enter. If you’re really pressed for time, bypass all the other museums and head to the Sistine Chapel first. Stand in the middle of the room and look up…perfection!
To simply call it a church is like calling Rome a small town. St. Peter’s is where the Pope says mass, where Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture of Mary dazzles, and where St. Peter is entombed. Catholics consider it the holiest shrine in the world, but even non-Catholics can’t help but come away awed by the gold, marble, artwork and sheer scope of the magnificent 16th/17th-century church.
While you’re there, don’t miss the bejeweled treasures at the Museo Storico, the 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter and Michelangelo’s dome (beware of the more than 300 steps, even if you take the elevator).
Important Note: Dress with modesty in mind. No shorts, bare shoulders or arms, or skirts above the knee are permitted.
In a way, the Pantheon is the opposite of Vatican City, because it was originally built to honor pagan gods; it was then rebuilt by Hadrian in the second century, and then, finally, consecrated as a Christian church. Today, its remarkably preserved dome and open oculus attract those who worship workmanship and architecture as much as religion. It’s an especially unique experience to be here during a rainstorm when the oculus lets the rainwater fall inside.
Sparkling after its recent 18-month, $2.4 million cleaning and restoration, the Trevi Fountain virtually glows when you catch sight of it the first time. Of course, to see it, you have to navigate the hordes of selfie sticks and wishful coin-tossers, but it’s worth it to sit along the 18th-century fountain with Neptune at its center. Although you can’t actually get your feet wet as they did in the classic film La Dolce Vita , throwing a coin backwards over your left shoulder into the waters is supposed to guarantee your return to regal Rome.
More than just a photo op (although it is a beautiful one), the Spanish Steps are the literal stepping-off point for some of the most luxurious shopping in the city. Expect big names (Louis Vuitton, Gucci), elegant boutiques and chic shops starting at the base of the steps and extending along the Via Condotti. Of course, you could also “shop” for a gelato and enjoy it, along with some of the best people watching anywhere, as you relax on the steps — another favorite Roman pastime.
This baroque square lined with cafes, trattorias and restaurants is Rome’s living room, filled with people enjoying a drink or bite morning, noon and night. Pull up a seat and marvel at the three glorious fountains here, including the Four Rivers by Bernini, watch the street performers and enjoy the oh-so-Roman “dolce far niente,” the joy of doing nothing; in other words, relax and enjoy.
If you’re longing for a way to enjoy nature without cars and noise, retreat to the elegant green pathways of the Villa Borghese Gardens. Families, especially, will enjoy the puppet shows at Pincio Terrace, visiting the animals at the quiet zoo (Biopark), bicycle rentals for exploring the parks paths, and the ample picnic spots (pick up supplies at nearby GiNa PicNic, San Sebastianello 7). Art lovers should reserve timed tickets in advance for the Villa Borghese Galleries (ask your excursions director for help) to see the baroque art, Bernini sculptures, and paintings by Raphael and Titian displayed among the marble and frescoed finery of the Villa.
When you hear the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” that reference once meant specifically the Appian Way (Via Appia Antica), the 2,300-year-old road that all pilgrims journeyed down to reach the Roman Empire. Today, you can hop a quick city bus to see one of the city’s most unusual sights: the catacombs (or underground graves) of Rome’s ancient wealthy families and the first Christians. It’s a fascinating combination of art and antiquity — and a view of Rome you’ll remember long after you’re back on ship.