The Old City
Right now, travelers have an opportunity to witness a unique moment in Rome’s evolution, an openness to change perhaps not this widespread since the forties, when the city began rebuilding after World War II. Seeing the city’s older sites first will help a visitor grasp the current changes and provide a window into the city’s long legacy of creative reinvention. Begin with the Colosseum and the Forum, and then move on to the Vatican for a lesson in Rome’s transformation from the heart of the Roman Empire to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Continue on to the Pantheon, which began as a looming Roman temple devoted to classical gods, only to be transformed in the seventh century into one of early Christianity’s most important churches. That daring transition makes contemporary ideas like housing a modern art gallery in a 14th-century monastery seem much less far-out.
After seeing the linchpins of Rome’s history, check out a couple of the more intimate museums, among Italy’s best. The Borghese Gallery (Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5; 39-06-8548577, www.galleriaborghese.it) in the Villa Borghese is an absolute must-see, with one of the world’s most beautiful statuary collections, including the Bernini masterpieces Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Proserpina. It’s hard to find better examples of a true genius creating a sense of movement in unwieldy marble. But buy a ticket ahead of time as visitors plan tours months in advance. Less well-known and an insider favorite is the Doria Pamphilj Gallery (Via del Corso 305; 39-06-6797323, www.doriapamphilj.it), a museum housed in a 16th-century palazzo still owned by the same noble family who built it and filled the ornate rooms with their treasures. The painting collection includes seminal works by Velázquez and Titian, and the incredibly preserved palace calls to mind other private museums, like New York City’s Frick Collection and Pennsylvania’s Barnes Foundation, with their manageable surveys of art that still very much have the feel of the families that created them.
One could build a whole itinerary just around Rome’s churches. Instead, visit the handful that not only illustrate the city’s architectural diversity but also house some of its best art. Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo 12; 39-06-3610836, www.santamariadelpopolo.it), right in Piazza del Popolo, is home to two amazing Caravaggios: The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. Near the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente (Via Labicana 95; 39/06-7740021, www.basilicasanclemente.com) offers a breathtaking display of history – with its imperial Roman, early Christian, and medieval sections all still visible. The Basilica of St. Peter’s in Chains, also near the Colosseum, is worth seeing if only for Michelangelo’s imposing Moses statue. And Santa Maria in Trastevere (Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere; 39/06-5814802; www.santamariatrastevere.it), one of the city’s oldest places of worship, has spectacular medieval mosaics and looks onto one of Rome’s most beautiful piazzas.