Feel like a film star in Rome


Rome seems to have a special effect on people. Once it made emperors feel like gods; now it makes tourists feel like film stars. Thread your way down the Spanish Steps or throw a coin in the Trevi fountain and your “inner actor” comes alive. Maybe it’s because – if all the world’s a stage – Rome has the world’s best stage sets. You don’t have to ferret out its dramatic backdrops either.They come to you.

On your way to dinner, you may glimpse the Coliseum, lighted and looming against the night sky. Lunch on the Piazza Navona and a Bernini fountain keeps you company. Stop for a cappuccino on the Piazza della Rotunda where the solemn Pantheon watches over all. Even after many visits, you may discover, simply by turning a corner, some new wonder waiting in the wings. They don’t give Oscars for ‘best Roman scenery’, but if they did, most visitors would have their own nominations.These would be mine:

Best Monument: The Coliseum

It took its name from the 120-foot high bronze statue of Nero that once stood before it. In this arena, the Roman populace enjoyed the antique version of today’s snuff films and wildlife safaris. Now, a large crucifix triumphs over the amphitheatre where Christian martyrs once met their death. In a tradition that started in 1999, the Coliseum’s lights – normally white – glow gold for 48 hours when, somewhere in the world, a death sentence is commuted or a country abolishes the death penalty.

Though you will still queue for the security check, it saves time to buy your entry ticket online at

Best Ruin: The Roman Forum

The centre of the Roman Republic in the first century AD, the Roman Forum had become mere grazing land when Napoleon ordered its excavation.Today, the ruined arches and temples can look like so much sophisticated rubble if you don’t know the Temple of Saturn from the house of the Vestal Virgins. (Or so it has seemed to me,
on several past visits.) This time though, it took shape under the sun, its stony streets filled with orators, worshipers, and victorious legions.The difference was having a guide.

The forum is open daily from 9am to one hour before sunset; admission is free. Organise a private guide to bring the stones to life: In a two-hour tour, you can visit both the Coliseum and the Roman Forum.

Best Temple: The Pantheon

Arguably, Rome’s most revered relic of the ancient world. Begun in the reign of Augustus, reconstructed under Hadrian in the first century AD, it was the first pagan temple to be consecrated as a Catholic Church. Mass is celebrated at a gilt and velvet altar strangely out of keeping with the serene pale stonework of the interior of what is now Santa Maria ad Martyres. Hadrian’s original bronze doors were restored in 1560 – but the glory of the Pantheon is its dome, slightly larger than that of St Peter’s Basilica. Outside, on the Piazza della Rotonda, is an obelisk from Egypt and a McDonalds from America.

The Pantheon is open from Monday to Saturday from 8:30-19:30 and Sunday from 09:00- 18:00.

Best church: Santa Maria Maggiore

With more than 200 historic churches in Rome, it’s hard to choose just one. But Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the city’s four Patriarchal basilicas, is distinguished by having two miracles related to it. According to legend, the Blessed Virgin herself, in 352 AD, directed the church be built on this spot.A miraculous fall of snow outlined the shape required. (On the 5th of August, white flower petals drift down like snow from the dome in memory of this event.) And in the basilica’s flamboyant Pauline Chapel is an icon of the Madonna and Child, said to have been painted by angels. On a more terrestrial note, the coffered
ceiling glints with the first gold brought back from the New World by Columbus.

The basilica is open daily from 07:00-19:00.

Best Fountain: Fontana di Trevi

The only things that outnumber Rome’s churches are Rome’s fountains; there are 280 of them.The most famous is the fountain of Trevi. Begun by Salvi in 1732 and finished by Pannini, the fountain was, at last,
inaugurated in 1762. Every tourist feels an obligation to toss a coin into its basin, to ensure a return to Rome. Attendants scoop out about €4,000 each night and divide it among Rome’s charities.The inevitable, jostling crowds ensure good pickings for pickpockets, so if a coin is all you wish to leave here, take care.

Best Piazza: Piazza Navona

A huge oval piazza, built as a stadium for athletic games in the first century AD, today it is lined with restaurants and cafes, animated by jugglers and street artists. It is the trendy place to see and be seen and even proper celebrities have their photos taken here.There are three fountains in the Piazza Navona, but the central one – Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers – is the star attraction.

I have a few nominations for best short subjects, too:

Best Small Museum: The Keats-Shelley Museum

In the house to the left as you descend the Spanish Steps, is a remarkable and personal glimpse into the short, sad Roman sojourn of Keats. Keats was a guest in this house from September 1820 until his death from consumption in February 1821. It is full of books, drawings, and letters and includes memorabilia of Shelley, who also died young in Italy, with a book of Keats’ poems in his pocket.

Open Monday-Friday 09:00-18:00, and Saturday 11:00-18:00.

Best New Museum: Museum of Ara Pacis

This category has only one entry as it is the only modern museum to have been built in Rome since Mussolini’s day. It’s the Ara Pacis, designed by Richard Meier and opened in 2006. It was built to shelter the Altar to Peace (paradoxically, a sacrificial altar) that was erected beside the River Tiber over 2,000 years ago. Eventually inundated by the inexorably rising river, the altar was forgotten until bits of it were rediscovered in the 1500s. Effective work to excavate the altar began only in 1903. In 1937, the Italian government decided to finish the excavation by the end of the year, and to house it in a pavilion. It was inaugurated by Mussolini in 1938 and survived World War II. Meier’s modern glass pavilion barely survived the controversy its design aroused.

Open Tuesday to Sunday 9:00 to 19:00.
The ticket office closes an hour in advance.

Best tour in Italian: Roman houses beneath the Church of Ss Giovanni e Paolo

A sequence of some 20 rooms, some richly decorated, was reopened to the public in 2002 after extensive restoration. Tradition records that this was the dwelling of two brothers, John and Paul, who served as officers in the Roman army. Both were martyred by the Emporer Julian in about 362 after they refused to serve for him because they believed he had betrayed his Christian faith.An archaeologist guides a special evening tour, which is enlivened by occasional interludes by an actor who performs prose excerpts from Juvenal and Martial.

Booking essential.
For details, visit:

The house is also open for visits without a guide daily – except Tuesday and Wednesday – from 10:00-13:00 and from 16:00-18:00.

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