This 125 AD temple, now a church, is a spectacular example of Roman architectural and engineering prowess. Dedicated to the classical gods, the Pantheon is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Adding to its splendour, there’s a gigantic hole in the top that helps reduce the dome’s weight while letting in the sun, rain and once a year a shower of rose pedals for the feast of Pentecost.
About your tour
To fully enjoy this open-air museum, an Italy with Us guide is essential. No stuffy lectures or dubious urban legends, your own expert in Roman history will keep you engaged and entertained.
The Pantheon gets this visit off on the right foot. Marvel at the world’s best-preserved Roman-era building. Completed around 125 AD, this former temple is dedicated to all the gods. Step inside the massive bronze doors and gaze up at the dramatic dome with a hole in its centre. This architectural and engineering masterpiece was protected from medieval pilfering thanks to its conversion into a church in 608 AD.
Hidden below your feet is another example of Roman ingenuity: the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. The renovated version of the original 19 BC aqueduct still supplies much of Rome’s centre with water, even the fountain facing the Pantheon. Water – a sign of ancient power – is a theme that flows through this tour as you pass by many dramatic fountains, the sites of ancient Roman bathhouses and the city’s ubiquitous drinking fountains, called nasoni (big noses) due to their curved shape. Take a sip of this pure water, just what’s needed to keep you on the go.
Navigate the cobblestone streets, the bane of stiletto-wearers but much preferred over the mud which was the norm until the 18th century. Gaze up at the ancient corner shrines attached to many palaces. Called madonnelle, nearly all depict the Madonna, or Mary.
When you reach Piazza Navona, peer underground at the first-century AD ruins of Domitian’s stadium over which the piazza was built. At its centre, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain reigns, a baroque beauty. His fierce rival, Francesco Borromini, designed the equally impressive Sant’Agnese in Agone church that faces the piazza.
Wander from this rioni, or neighbourhood, into another while admiring the innumerable churches. Each has a story, from Saint Andrea della Valle where the first act in the opera Tosca took place, to Santa Maria della Pace, the home of incredible Raphael frescoes.
Dig a coin out of your pocket for you’ll soon be at the Trevi Fountain. Legend has it that throwing a coin in the exuberant fountain ensures that you’ll return to Rome. No matter what you’ll be awe-struck by this 18th-century masterpiece that seems to burst from a mansion’s wall. In the centre, Oceanus, the god of the sea, rides the waves. Flanking him are bas-relief scenes showing the discovery of water and planning of the aqueduct.
Just a few more steps and you’re in Piazza di Spagna named for the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. Yet this is the world’s meeting place. Tourists people-watch while seated on the Spanish Steps (actually paid for by a French diplomat) that lead up to the French church Trinità dei Monti. The British poet John Keats lived in a home at the base of the steps which is now a museum. All this and, of course, water. The small Barcaccia fountain portrays a half-sunken ship inspired by a legend. In 1598, a small boat supposedly washed ashore here during a terrible flood. Water, water everywhere.
Top tour highlights
In the first century AD, athletic competitions took place here in Domitian’s stadium. Today buskers and artists keep things hopping in the piazza built on top of the still visible ruins. The action centres around the Four Rivers fountain, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque gem featuring personifications of the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate rivers.
The sea god Oceanus catches a wave aboard a shell-shaped chariot in this extravagant, baroque fountain that seems to cascade out of the side of a 17th-century mansion. As tradition dictates, visitors toss a coin into the fountain to ensure that they’ll return to Rome. In La Dolce Vita, the sultry star Anita Ekberg took a dip in this fountain in one of cinema’s most seductive scenes.
Find a spot on the sun-dappled steps and watch the world go by. While the piazza bears the name of the nearby Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, the staircase was actually paid for by a French diplomat. The French church, Trinità dei Monti, is perched at the top of the steps. At the bottom, the Barcaccia (“ugly boat”) fountain allows tourists and locals alike to sip the fresh water from a Roman aqueduct.