Coming off the Autostrada at Roma Nord or Roma Sud, you know by the convergence of heavily trafficked routes that you’re entering a grand nexus: All roads lead to Rome.
And then the interminable suburbs, the railroad crossings, the intersections—no wonder they call it the Eternal City. As you forge on, features that match your expectations begin to appear: a bridge with heroic statues along its parapets; a towering slab of marble decorated with allegorical figures in extravagant poses; a piazza and an obelisk under an umbrella of pine trees. Then you spot what looks like a multistory parking lot. With a gasp, you realize it’s the Colosseum.
You’ve arrived. You’re in the city’s heart. You step down from your excursion bus onto the broad girdle of tarmac that encircles the great stone arena of the Roman emperors, and scurry out of the way of the passing Fiats—the motorists behind the wheels seem to display the panache of so many Ben-Hurs. The excitement of arriving here jolts the senses and sharpens expectations.
The timeless city to which all roads lead, Mamma Roma, enthralls visitors today as she has since time immemorial. More than Florence, more than Venice, this is Italy’s treasure storehouse. Here the ancient Romans made us heirs-in-law to what we call Western Civilization; where centuries later Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel;
where Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque nymphs and naiads still dance in their marble fountains; and where, at Cinecittà Studios, Fellini filmed La Dolce Vita and 8½. Today the city remains a veritable Grand Canyon of culture. Ancient Rome rubs shoulders with the medieval, the modern runs into the Renaissance, and the result is like nothing so much as an open-air museum.
But always remember: Quando a Roma vai, fai come vedrai (“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”). Don’t feel intimidated by the press of art and culture. Instead, contemplate the grandeur from a table at a sun-drenched café on Piazza della Rotonda; let Rome’s colorful life flow around you without feeling guilty because you haven’t seen everything. It can’t be done, anyway. There’s just so much here that you’ll have to come back again, so be sure to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain.
Most everyone begins by discovering the grandeur that was Rome: the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon. Then many move on to the Vatican, the closest thing to heaven on Earth for some.
The historical pageant continues with the 1,001 splendors of the Baroque era: glittering palaces, jewel-studded churches, and Caravaggio masterpieces. Arrive refreshed—with the help of a shot of espresso—at the foot of the Spanish Steps, where the picturesque world of the classic Grand Tour (peopled by such spirits as John Keats and Tosca) awaits you.
Thankfully, Rome provides delightful ways to catch your historic breath along the way: a walk through the cobblestone valleys of Trastevere or an hour stolen alongside a splashing Bernini fountain.
Keep in mind that an uncharted ramble through the heart of the old city can be just as satisfying as the contemplation of a chapel or a trek through marbled museum corridors. No matter which aspect of Rome you end up enjoying the most, a visit to the Eternal City will live up to its name in memory.