If you are like me, you will have a curiosity and an urge to explore all the corners of the earth simply because they exist. What better way to do it than on foot. Rome is the perfect city for exploring in this manner. It’s the kind of city where you can’t go more than a few steps before stumbling on something interesting. The following are places I discovered and thoroughly enjoyed while walking around on my Rome vacation. I have endeavoured to batch them together regionally so that, with say, half a day, you can adequately complete each walk.
One of my favourite places in the Eternal City is the Piazza Navona. This traffic-free and compact square is a gem. You can sit down at one of the cafes which surround it and, over a cappuccino or latte, “drink” it all in. By the way, watch a local go into a café and order an espresso. They will down it in less time than it took to order it. To my mind, it’s obviously used as a pick me up, not something to savour. Also as far as I know, cappuccinos are rarely drunk by Romans after 10am but don’t let that put you off ordering your preferred beverage. You don’t always have to do what the Romans do. Back to the Piazza Navona. The first thing you will notice are the 3 attractive fountains all complete with statuesque sculptures of historic or imaginary figures. One fountain was designed by the famous sculptor, Bernini, called the Fontana dei Quattro Fium, which represents 4 major world-renowned rivers. Looking along the sides of the square, you can’t help but notice the ornate Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone (translates as St. Agnes in Agony) and the baroque and imposing Palazzo Pamphili. When you have finished your cappuccino, you might want to have your portrait painted by one of the street artists in the square or if not, watch someone else evolve on a canvas.
From the Piazza Navona, if you exit west, you will find yourself in a maze of charming and narrow streets full of restaurants, more cafes, and small, for the most part, quality shops selling everything from clothes, shoes, pastries, and souvenirs. You might want to try a visit to the nearby Palazzo Braschi which houses the Museum of Rome and covers the city’s history from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. Heading east of the square you will inevitably stumble across the Pantheon building, formerly a church, now a monument. It dates back to the 1st Century AD and is more impressive outside than inside.
Exit the south end of the Piazza and you will find yourself in the delightful Campo dei Fiori (translates as Field of Flowers). A historic square, it is now a lively place with its almost daily open-air vegetable and flower markets.
Another walk starts from the extensively large Piazza Venezia, dominated by the mega size Victor Emmanuel II Monument made of white marble. Be careful while looking up at this imposing edifice as the traffic passing under the monument is pretty chaotic. Surrounding the Piazza Venezia are three palaces. These are the Palazzo Venezia, a former papal residence and also used by Mussolini where he made speeches from the balcony, the Palazzo Generali, now a museum of various items such as Renaissance paintings, ceramics and sculptures, and the Palazzo Bonaparte, once the home of Napoleon’s mother.
Climb the steps of the monument and go around the back. This will lead you to the Piazza del Campidoglio, a very beautiful square designed by Michelangelo. You are now on top of one of the Seven Hills of Rome, the Capitoline Hill, where you will be rewarded with a fabulous view of the Forum and the Colosseum from the balcony. Walk back down to the Piazza Venezia and then head south down the road to the Colosseum itself. This edifice is still very impressive even though a part of it has either collapsed or been taken away. You can easily imagine the days of the gladiators as they fought the lions used in the spectacles from the Roman era. Nowadays, you will only see a large variety of stray cats sunning themselves on the columns of the Colosseum. On your way to the Colosseum, you will pass by the Forum, a landscape filled with a collection of Roman ruins consisting of temples, triumphal arches, and many other remains.
If you are a shopper or even if you are not, a stroll starting at the southern end of the Via del Corso will entertain you. This extensive street which is straight as a die is 1.5 kilometres/1 mile in length and is where the locals shop. You will find everything from designer boutiques to department stores as well as cafes and restaurants. As you near the top end of the Via del Corso, you will notice a few streets to the east which cater to the more affluent shopper. One of these is the Via Condotti where by all means window shop, as this, to the best of my knowledge, has some of the most expensive merchandise in Rome offering almost every designer store you can think of.
When you eventually arrive at the end of the Via del Corso, you will now be in the Piazza del Popolo. Look around this charming and attractive square for pedestrians only. It contains two architecturally interesting churches and two ornate fountains. Bang in the middle of the square is a tall Egyptian obelisk known as the Oblisco, the oldest and second tallest in the city and dating back to 10 BC.
If you enjoy a walk in the park, then head to Rome’s best known and probably most beautiful park, the Villa Borghese. I suggest starting your walk at the Piazza Barberini and proceed north along the famed Via Veneto – the setting for the famous classic movie directed by Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita. Nowadays, it contains a number of high-end hotels, restaurants and cafes, and the imposing American Embassy building.
The top end of the Via Veneto brings you to the gates of the Villa Borghese. Anytime I have entered the park, I have immediately experienced a calmer atmosphere than exists in the rest of the city. The Villa Borghese is a well laid out and manicured park but not in the least lacking in beauty or character. It is extensive enough to spend quite a bit of time in. It is Rome’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park. You will find colourful flower beds and a lake in the middle of the park where you can rent a rowing boat. There is a small island which sits in the middle of the lake and which contains the monument, the Temple of Aesculapius. At one end of the park is the grandiose building, the Galleria Borghese, an art gallery containing a large number of major masterpieces by celebrated painters.
As you exit the park to the west, you will find yourself looking down on the aforementioned Piazza del Popolo. I suggest from the park, to complete your walk, you go down the Via Sistina to the Spanish Steps. This elaborate delightful staircase with 135 steps is where both the locals and tourists congregate, in the first place to meet their friend and in the second case, to rest their weary legs. There is a beautiful fountain in the Palazzo di Spagna, and at the top, the centuries old Trinita del Monti Church.
Cross over the Tiber, an attractive river which meanders its way through Rome, and you will find a neighbourhood called Trastevere, which literally translates as “Beyond the Tiber.” This happens to be one of my all-time favourite places in Rome, one of the reasons being it has an ambience and charm all of its own. This former working-class neighbourhood with its medieval architecture has, in the daytime, a distinctive relaxed air about it away from the hustle and bustle of central Rome. However, it is still a lively neighbourhood popular with locals, students, and visitors alike. You will encounter a maze of narrow cobblestoned streets and laneways all leading off the impressive central square, the Piazza di Santa Maria. It is here you will find a number of outdoor cafes and restaurants surrounding the perimeter of the square. On one side is one of the oldest churches in the city, the Santa Maria Basilica which is lit up at night. Inside are a number of frescoes – some dating back to the 12th century.
Do meander down the side streets. You will find more restaurants and cafes as well as small boutique shops selling fashionable clothes, interesting books, paintings, and much more. If you happen to be here on a Sunday morning, take advantage of the busy and active Porta Portese Flea Market, where you can buy from the hundreds of stalls everything from rare books to old paintings.
You can visit another interesting church, the Santa Cecilia Basilica, which dates back to the 5th century. The interior is very ornate and contains a number of religious sculptures. Other places to explore are the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) which has over 7000 plants and some interesting architecture, including the Scalineta delle Undici Fontane (Staircase of 11 Fountains) and the Palazzo Corsini, a 15th Century villa, part of the Orto Botanico.
By night, Trastevere really comes to life and is a great place to have dinner at one of the more than 300 restaurants – you are spoiled for choice. You can sit at a sidewalk café or bar and enjoy watching the parade of people also enjoying Trastevere by night.
That concludes my suggestions for walks on a Rome vacation. I am not suggesting you ignore such wonderful venues as St. Peters or the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel – they should not be missed on your tours of Italy. However, if you want to get to really know the Eternal City, why not get out your best comfortable walking shoes.