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Walk through history in Rome

April 18, 2013
The Colosseum in Rome

Expat Rick Zullo outlines a self-paced morning walk through history in Rome  

The city of Rome itself is arguably the world’s greatest museum. Within the open-air confines of the Aurelian Walls are some of the most important historic relics and artistic gems that humanity has ever produced—nowhere else on Earth can you see so much in such a concentrated space. One of the great joys of visiting Rome is that you temporarily share this same space with history, much of which has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.

So save yourself the cost of a museum ticket today and just go for a walk through history in Rome. Here’s my suggestion for a memorable morning that you can enjoy at your own pace:

The Coloseum

Start from the area across the street from the metro stop (B-line, Colosseo) where you’ll see men dressed up in gladiator costumes offering to take a picture with you (for a small fee, of course). Walk clockwise around the ancient arena, technically referred to as the Flavian Amphitheater. It was completed in the year 80 A.D., and while much of the outer structure still stands today, the marble veneer has been completely removed—stolen or scavenged—over the centuries. You can see large holes where the iron bindings used to attach the marble to the façade. The Coliseum could hold 50,000 spectators, about the size of our modern stadiums. The entertainment varied; everything from gladiatorial contests to naval battles to exotic animal hunts for the delight of the cheering masses.

As you move around the circumference, peak through the metal gratings to view the interior from various spots. Much of what can be seen from the inside can also be seen from the outside, including the hypogeum or underground tunnels. If you care to cross the busy Piazza del Colosseo toward the line of restaurants at the corner of Via Labicana, you can view the excavated remains of the Gladiator’s training school. The real gladiators, that is, not the ones posing for your photos.

The Arch of Constantine

When you eventually reach the side opposite from the metro stop, you’ll see the Arch of Constantine. This was an important point along the triumphal route when the Roman armies marched through the ancient city, taking their victory lap after their latest conquest. Continue on until you reach the street again—which is Via dei Fori Imperiali—and turn left. After just 100 yards or so, look at the brick wall to your left. Here you’ll see a series of large maps chronicling the extent of the Roman Republic (later, the Roman Empire) at different times throughout its history.

The Forums

A little further down and you’ll be passing the Forums on your left. This was the “downtown” area of ancient Rome where all the government, commerce, and public affairs took place. Among the highlights visible from here are the Temple of Vesta (7th century BC) and the Arch of Titus (1st century AD)—which underscores the immense span of time for which the Romans ruled and for which this area was literally the epicenter of western civilization. Yes folks, that’s 800 years. Across the street to your right and behind the statue of Emperor Trajan is the massive Trajan’s Market (also 1st century), considered by many to be the world’s first shopping mall.

The Vittoriano

Keep going down Via dei Fori Imperiali until you see the side of the enormous, white marble Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (Italy’s last king). This is called the Vittoriano, or more derisively, the “Wedding Cake.”  But just before you actually reach the building, take a quick left. You’ll notice a steep set of stone stairs squeezed in between the Vittoriano and the Forums that you’ve just passed. Walk all the way up and you’ll find yourself in the Piazza del Campidolglio on top of the Capitol Hill; a square designed by Michelangelo in 1536. At the top of the stairs is a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, the symbol of Rome. (This statue is an exact replica; the original is in the adjacent Capitoline Museum.)

Vittoriano, called the Wedding Cake

Vittoriano (Photo credit: Rick Zullo)

The view from here is great, but if you really want to see it all you’ll have to pay seven euros to take the elevator to the top of the “Wedding Cake.” From this vantage point you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of Ancient Rome and one of the best photo spots in the entire city. Otherwise, climb down the grand staircase in front of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius and turn right. Now you’re on the other side of the Vittoriano. At street level is the entrance to the Museum of Emigration—the history of the Italians who left their homeland in search of a better life abroad.  Go have a peek inside; it’s free and worth a quick look.

When in Rome

Well, you’ve had quite a walk and now it’s time to rest up and feast like a Roman. Located just across the square between the spiraling Trajan’s Column and the church of Santa Maria di Loreto is a little enoteca, Enoteca Provincia Romana di Palazzo Valentini, that is sponsored by the province of Rome (closed Sundays).  It features local products from the region including meats, cheeses, and wines.

Buon appetito!


Rick Zullo is an American expat living in Rome. Born in Chicago and raised in Florida, he came to the Caput Mundi in 2010 and forgot to go back. When he’s not exploring his adoptive hometown or writing for his blog, he spends his time teaching the world English, one Roman at a time. Visit him at: http://rickzullo.com/

Author Rick Zullo, an American expat living in Rome

Author Rick Zullo

  • Reply
    Brette
    April 18, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    This is a nice tour. We pretty much did this when in Rome, but we went into the Coloseum and Forum with a guide (the lines to get into the Colosseum are gigantic, so get a skip the line tour)

  • Reply
    Georgia
    April 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I have been to Rome twice and agree that it is important to have a guide for the first visit to the Coloseum. Returning to “The Eternal City” and simply walking around and inhaling all the architecture, history, art (not to mention the food) is the perfect day, week, or more!!

    Looking forward to your next topic about Rome, Rick.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    That’s great advice, Brette. You are absolutely right–if you just show up and want to get in, good luck! A private tour with a guide is the way to go if you plan ahead and don’t mind the cost. In fact, going inside without a guide can be a bit disappointing. For the full impact, you really need someone to explain the history and point out exactly what you’re looking at. Ciao!

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks Georgia! Yes, I think a first time travel should see “the sites,” because they’re amazing and unique in the world. But my favorite part about Rome is just walking around, enjoying the atmosphere, and appreciating all the little “accidental discoveries” in this city. Ciao, a presto!

  • Reply
    Kerry Dexter
    April 19, 2013 at 8:24 am

    a fine reminder of the possibilities of a walk through history in a great city — only thing I’d add is when you do this, take your time and let the history speak to you. that’ll be different for each person. thanks for this concise guide, Rick.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 19, 2013 at 11:34 am

    I agree Kerry, it’s important not to rush–you need to experience it at a natural pace. On the one hand you don’t want to “miss” anything, but I think that trying to see it all can be your worse enemy. Ciao e grazie!

  • Reply
    ruth pennebaker
    April 19, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    My husband and I were just there and were mesmerized by the sights. We kept wondering about the magnificent structures’ effects are on present-day Romans — what it’s like to be confronted daily with the glories of your civilization’s past.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 19, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Hi Ruth! Well, I can only speak from an expat point of view–I’m amazed every day by the omnipresence of the ancient world in this modern city. However, it’s been my experience that many (most) life-long Romans don’t really take notice of it all, having been habituated to it as if it were the most “normal” thing (which for them it is). Ask them the name of some incredible fountain or statue and most likely they won’t have any idea. But I guess that’s the same all over. When I lived three blocks from the beach in Florida I almost never appreciated it…and yet many Romans tell me how lucky I was to have lived in such a place. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. Sometimes it better to be a foreigner. Ciao!

  • Reply
    Vera Marie Badertscher
    April 20, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Good run down of the high points.
    We accidentally hit the Forum/Coloseum area on a Sunday when all traffic is closed off Via Imperiale. It was wonderfully relaxing just to wander along with other sightseers (including lots of Italians).
    Anyone interested in more detail on archaeology of Rome (and other places) can check out the archaeology-travel.com website. (I’m not affiliated, just a fan).

  • Reply
    Donna Hull
    April 22, 2013 at 2:36 am

    A great walking tour in Rome. It makes me want to go back.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 22, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks for all the great comments everybody! And Donna, when you’re ready to come back, Rome will still be here waiting for you–they don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing!

  • Reply
    MyKidsEatSquid
    April 23, 2013 at 3:04 am

    I went to Rome over 20 years ago and I still remember how surreal it seemed–ancient ruin next to a modern building, etc. Just an amazing place to explore.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

    That’s something that I never get used to–these ancient building shouldn’t even be there still. And yet, there they are, butted up against a hotel or gelateria or something. Always amazing, no matter how many times you see it.

  • Reply
    Living Large
    April 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    What a lovely tour, I’ve always wanted to see Rome!

  • Reply
    Sheryl
    April 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Love Rome. What amazed me was walking on a “regular” neighborhood street and glancing up to see ancient ruins all around. Awe-inspiring for sure.

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Come now–it’s the perfect season to enjoy a stroll through ancient Rome!

  • Reply
    Rick
    April 25, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    So true, Sheryl, I see it everyday and I NEVER get used to it (thank God).

  • Reply
    noel
    May 20, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    What an enjoyable tour. Rome is such a wonderful walk friendly city, so much to see and do in every neighborhood especially with ruins and architectural wonders everywhere.

  • Reply
    Rick
    May 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Noel, a lifetime wouldn’t be long enough…

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