One of the best things about Rome is that so many of the magnificent sights in the city are free.
They just live there alongside older things, newer things, rumbling buses, zipping Vespas, Romans, and visitors. You can wander and weave your way across the city, stopping to marvel at ancient, modern, and everything in between.
I am a walking traveler. Unless it’s raining, then I am a complaining and trying to protect my hair traveler.
I decided to write up a walking tour of Rome because I truly think it’s one of the best ways to enjoy the city. I chose the itinerary based on what I think are some sights you definitely shouldn’t miss, especially if it’s your first visit to Rome.
Side note: if it is your first trip to Rome, in addition to the sights covered here, don’t miss the Colosseum and ancient city, and I’d say not to miss the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s either.
Because this is a Luggage and Life post, I’ve given you some food-related tips along the way in case you need a pick-me-up.
Are you ready? Put on your best walking shoes, grab your camera, and let’s go!
Luggage and Life’s Walking tour of Rome
1. Campo de’ Fiori
The first stop on our walking tour of Rome is Campo de’ Fiori, which transforms from a bustling market in the morning and early afternoon to a night-time hotspot. The market sprawls across the center of the square, which is ringed by bars, hence the daily conversion from delicacies to debauchery.
Its name means “field of flowers,” and you can buy your blooms there, along with produce, spices, and a whole host of other items.
The area was developed under Pope Callixtus III, starting in about 1456. One of the unique things about Campo de’ Fiori is that there were never any guidelines set in terms of aesthetic for the piazza, so the non-uniformity of the buildings adds to its unique atmosphere.
Above the white tents and umbrellas of the market, you might notice a statue of a hooded figure looming over the crowds of shoppers and tipplers. Erected in 1889, the statue is of Giordano Bruno, who has been described as a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, and perhaps more interestingly, an occultist and magician. A magician!
Bruno’s story is a sad one, because he was burned at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori in 1600 for heresy. You can read more about him and what he was charged with (mostly science-based stuff that went against the church’s teachings).
I recently learned that Campo de’ Fiori was chosen because it’s the only one of Rome’s monumental piazzas that doesn’t have a church in it! The statue faces defiantly towards the Vatican.
If you face the same way that Giordano Bruno is facing and look at the back left corner of the piazza, you’ll see a door marked “Forno,” which means “oven.”
Feeling snacky? Go in and order some pizza bianca, which is essentially just thick, baked pizza crust with a drizzle of olive oil and a few flakes of salt. You can also get sandwiches and other things there, but the pizza bianca is truly delicious. It’s a mystery as to how something made with so few ingredients can be so good. Maybe Giordano Bruno cast a spell of goodness on Forno as his final act.
If pizza bianca isn’t your thing, head to Antico Forno Roscioli for excellent pizza al Taglio. Craving something sweet? Fatamorgana has some of the best gelato in town! Ready for a glass of wine? Try Il Goccetto or Il Vinaietto.
If you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, there are some great places nearby, but you have to book in advance: Emma Pizzeria, Salumeria Roscioli and Hosteria Grappolo d’Oro are popular spots just off the square.
2. Piazza Navona
Built on the same site as an ancient stadium, Piazza Navona was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose masterpieces dot Rome like black pepper on your cacio e pepe.
If you’ve just crossed over from Campo de’ Fiori, you’ll notice two large buildings on the left. One is the Palazzo Pamphilj, which was once the home of one of Rome’s aristocratic families, and is the current home to the Brazilian embassy. Guided tours are available twice a week at 3:30pm. On Tuesdays the tour is in Italian, and on Thursdays it’s in Portuguese. Booking is mandatory.
The other prominent building on the left-hand side of the piazza is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which you can see in the picture above. Designed by Bernini’s rival, Borromini, the church is a classic example of Roman baroque architecture, which was all about curves, swirls, and theatrics.
Speaking of spectacles, your eyes will most likely be drawn to the large central fountain in front of Sant’Agnese. I love this fountain. I could stare at it for ages (and I usually do, given the opportunity).
It was commissioned by Pope Innocent X, who was a member of the Pamphilj family, so he was basically just trying to set up his folks with a pretty sick front yard.
Built in 1651 and designed by our old friend Gian Lorenzo, the fountain depicts the four rivers that were deemed to be the “great” ones by Renaissance geographers. These included the Nile, representing Africa, the Ganges, representing Asia, the Rio de la Plata, representing the Americas, and the Danube, representing Europe.
Each river is depicted with flora and fauna associated with its region of the world and other related symbols. The Ganges has an oar, because of the river’s navigability. The Nile’s head is covered with a cloth, because at the time, the source of the river was unknown. The Rio de la Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, which represents the riches of the Americas. The Danube is depicted with the coat of arms of the papal family. It’s also facing towards the Vatican, due to it being the river closest to Rome.
An obelisk rises high from the center of the fountain, and is topped with a dove, the symbol of the Pamphilj family. Many of the Egyptian obelisks in Rome were taken from Egypt, however, this one is a Roman copy.
There are some funny legends surrounding the figures in the fountain and the church of Sant’Agnese. Apparently, everyone knew that Borromini and Bernini had a strained relationship, (which you can read about in more detail in this article from Roma Experience).
At one point, the Romans decided that Bernini had designed the fountain to express his disdain for his rival’s church. You can see how the legend formed for yourself:
Look at the Nile figure. It’s reeling backwards with its hands raised. Looks like he might not be enjoying the view so much, huh? Or perhaps he’s indicating that he’s protecting himself from the possibility of Sant’Agnese crumbling, due to its shoddy design? Behind him is the Nile, who is covering his head. Is it because his source is unknown, or because he doesn’t want to have to look at what’s behind him?
Then look up at the facade of Sant’Agnese. You’ll see a statue of her with her hand on her chest. Is she reassuring the crowds that the church was designed soundly?
While these stories are fun and funny, they’re most likely untrue, because the fountain was finished before the church was. Che peccato.
There are two smaller fountains in the piazza too, which you can read about here in this awesome article from History Hiker.
3. San Luigi dei Francesi
When I lived in Rome years ago, you could just walk into San Luigi dei Francesi, and there’d be maybe three or four more people in there. It was quiet and pleasant, and you could spend some solo time gazing at the treasures within.
I thought I’d pop in last week when I was there, and was surprised when I stumbled onto 900 sweaty schoolchildren accompanied by their exhausted teachers, and 348 tour groups following their leader’s flag into the church.
I guess it’s become more well known in recent years. Did Dan Brown write about it? Another one of my favorite churches was full this time around too, because of him. Sheesh!
Anyway, if you’re an art-lover, it’s worth wiggling your way through the sweaty kids and listless teachers, the fanny-pack wearing tourists (no shade, I love fanny packs), and the tour guides who are regurgitating the same information and the same jokes for the squillionth time to check out the Contarelli Chapel.
It is here that we meet Caravaggio, our third important personaggio of the day. Caravaggio was an artistic genius. He painted light, darkness, and shadows in a way that had never been done before. This technique, known as chiaroscuro (lightdark) has been utilized in art for centuries, but some regard Caravaggio as its master.
I once attended an exhibition on Caravaggio, in which the curators had calculated the exact trajectories of natural lighting and candles that he would have used to cast the shadows for his paintings. Light streamed across the room in concentrated beams and illuminated wax figures, like a Caravaggio painting come to life. It was fascinating.
Not unlike Giordano Bruno or the Bernini-Borromini rivalry, Caravaggio was quite the character himself. Born in Milan in 1571, he had his artistic talents recognized at a young age. After working in Rome for several years, he killed someone in a fight and was expelled from the city.
He fled to Malta and was also expelled from there after wounding one of the Knights of Malta in yet another fight. He then went to Siracusa, in Sicily, and from there to Naples, where he was disfigured in, yup, you guessed it, a fight!
There’s some mystery surrounding Caravaggio’s death, and even some speculation that he might have been assassinated by the Knights of Malta. His death occurred just before he was to be pardoned and allowed to return to Rome, and just after he had been sent to prison in a case of mistaken identity. Caravaggio, you old rascal! The original dark artist who had no chill and brawled a lot.
Anyway, despite his colorful life and expulsion from Rome, you can still find pieces of him all over the city, and three of his wonderful works are located in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi.
The Chapel is located in the back left corner of the church, and it contains a triptych which depicts the life of Saint Matthew. Caravaggio painted these works between 1600 and 1602, and they are great examples of his skill with chiaroscuro.
This is the only time when you’ll have to spend some money on this tour, by dropping a few coins into the box in order to illuminate the paintings. It’s worth it, I promise! (And if you’re really broke, just wait around for a minute until someone else comes along and deposits their own coins.)
The church itself has a beautiful interior, with lots of arches and sparkling gold adornments. It’s the national church of France in Italy, hence the name “Saint Louis of the French.”
4. The Pantheon
Here is our first (and only) ancient stop on the tour. The Pantheon is considered to be the best-preserved ancient building in Rome. There was another Pantheon on the site before the one you can see today, but it was destroyed by a fire in 80AD.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned the building of a new one around 118, but unlike many other Roman Emperors, he didn’t put his name on things. For this reason, you can see the name of the commissioner of the first Pantheon carved across the frieze: M. Agrippa.
Sources say that there was an intermediate Pantheon between that of Agrippa and that of Hadrian, which was commissioned by Trajan. Trajan’s Pantheon was also destroyed by a fire, before it was even completed.
The exterior of the Pantheon would have been lavishly decorated with bronze sculptures on the pediment and gold plating on the main doors. Today, if I may be real, she could use a good scrubbing, but she’s still a stunner.
The original Pantheon was dedicated to all the Roman gods, but doesn’t follow the typical layout of a temple. For this reason, the worshipping habits are unknown. Hadrian’s Pantheon was said to be more of a temple to Roman emperors (who were believed to be divine as well).
The dome is the star of the show. It is, to this day, the largest unsupported dome in the world. It’s crazy to think that ancient Romans had the technology to design and erect such a building, but they knew what they were doing! The dome decreases in thickness in order to make it lighter. They also varied the building materials in order to decrease the weight further.
The oculus provides a stream of light which illuminates the interior. It looks small from below, but it’s actually nearly 8 meters across, which is over 25 feet! The oculus was meant to connect the earthly with the divine, the people with the gods, the Earth with the heavens.
After you’ve gotten a crick in your neck from staring up at the oculus, check out the tomb of Raffaelo Sanzio, famous Renaissance artist and namesake of my favorite Ninja Turtle.
Want more info on the Pantheon? Check out this post for 10 interesting facts!
NOTE: When I wrote this post, entrance to the Pantheon was free, but just recently, they introduced a ticketing system that comes with a small fee. Adult tickets (defined as anyone over age 25) cost €5. 18-25 year-olds only have to pay €3, and anyone under 18 is free. Entrance is also free if you’re a resident of Rome, and for everyone on the first Sunday of every month.
Buy your ticket ahead of time here (scroll down for English).
Need a Break? Grab a coffee!
If our walking tour of Rome is tiring you out, take a coffee break! Tazza d’Oro is located just steps from the Pantheon, and it serves up delicious coffee and other treats. If you’re visiting Rome in warm weather, don’t miss their granita di caffè, depicted and described here in a drool-worthy fashion by An American in Rome!
Sant’Eustachio is another one of the city’s best-known coffee shops, and it’s in the area as well.
5. The Trevi Fountain
I heard the Trevi Fountain before I could see it on my first visit to Rome. The sound of the rushing water made my heart pound. I slipped out of a side street and it came into view.
It was more beautiful than I ever thought it could have been. The gleaming white travertine, the massive size, the bright blue sky above, and the sparkling water captivated me.
It was built on the site of a source that had brought water to Rome since ancient times. In 1629, Pope Urban VIII commissioned our old pal Gian Lorenzo Bernini to come up with a redesign of the fountain that was there at the time. The project was started but then abandoned after Pope Urban VIII died. Another pope, Clement XII, revived the renovation years later, this time awarding the commission to a Roman architect named Nicola Salvi. The work incorporated some of Bernini’s design, and was completed in 1762 after Salvi’s death.
Another example of the baroque style, the Trevi Fountain contains depictions of the god of Water, Oceanus. Beside him are Abundance and Salubrity. The papal coat of arms tops the fountain.
Today, the Trevi fountain uses a closed water system, so that the massive amount of water that passes through it is recycled. Visitors from all over the world throw in a coin, which is said to mean that you’ll come back to Rome someday. The coins are collected and donated to charity throughout the year.
I will say this – at peak times in high season, it’s actually not that fun to visit. You have to fight your way through vendors and other tourists. There are guards there who blow whistles at people who are acting like idiots and stepping on the fountain, bathing their arms in it, whatever. It is not relaxing. I’ve included it on my walking tour because you should definitely see it, even if your time is tight. If you’re not on a serious schedule, go super early in the morning, or maybe late in the evening to enjoy it in peace!
I’ve never been, but I’ve heard good things about the pizza at Piccolo Buco.
6. Piazza di Spagna
Piazza di Spagna lies in the middle of Rome’s high-end fashion district, where Via dei Condotti, Via del Babuino, and Via Frattina meet.
The piazza is home to the Spanish Steps, which were built at the beginning of the 18th century, in order to connect the square to Trinità dei Monti, the church that sits above it. The piazza is named for Spain because it’s the seat of the Spanish embassy to the Vatican.
Throughout the year, the steps are decorated in different ways. They’re blanketed with beautiful purple and white azaleas to mark the spring season, and they’re decorated for a major fashion show every July, too.
At the base of the stairs lies another famous fountain, which was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s father, Pietro, but finished by his more famous son. La Fontana della Barcaccia depicts a boat, in reference to a flood that affected the area of Piazza di Spagna in 1598, which meant that the square was only accessible by boat for a time. It is still fed by an aqueduct today!
7. Via Margutta
Via Margutta is a scenic little street that will get you from the Spanish Steps to our next stop, which is Piazza del Popolo. I decided to include it for any of you who might be into photography, because there’s just one cute little corner after another on Via Margutta.
It’s also a great spot to see if you’re a cinephile. There’s a mention of Via Margutta in Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and Federico Fellini lived on Via Margutta too. It has been popular among musicians and artists for ages, and there are still art galleries dotting the street.
8. Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo is located just inside what was Rome’s main city gate during ancient times. It serves as a gathering place for both protests and celebrations, including a New Year’s Eve party every year.
In the center of the square is an Egyptian obelisk which once stood in the Circus Maximus, but was moved to Piazza del Popolo in 1589.
The piazza is home to three churches. One of them, Santa Maria del Popolo, contains two more paintings by the scoundrel Caravaggio. The two other churches, Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto look very similar from the outside, but are said to be very different inside (I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never been in).
9. Passeggiata del Pincio
The last stop on our walking tour of Rome is adjacent to Piazza del Popolo. Unfortunately, it requires climbing a lot of stairs, but the view is worth it. If you’re facing the two churches, take the staircase to your right all the way up to the Piazza del Pincio, and enjoy the view over the square from above. Rest in the shade of a tree, and wander around Villa Borghese if you choose.
That brings us to the end of our walking tour of Rome! Read on if you want some more tips about what to visit in the area, or want to know how to get to your accommodation!
Tips for the area
Villa Borghese is Rome’s main park in the city center. There, you can visit Galleria Borghese, which is my favorite museum in the city. It’s got some amazing works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Booking is required. Do it here.
You can also rent a little boat and take a romantic spin around the Laghetto di Villa Borghese.
Piazza del Popolo has a metro stop (Flaminio), and several buses run through the area if you’re ready to get off your feet for a bit.
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