This walk begins at the Flaminio metro station. (Find out how to use the Rome Metro.) Coming out of the main station exit in Piazzale Flaminio, turn left and cross the road through the distinctive arches of the Porta del Popolo, placed into the still-visible Roman Aurelian Walls by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1655 on behalf of Pope Pius IV to celebrate the arrival in Rome of the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden following her conversion to Catholicism.
Just to the left of the arch is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which dates back to 1099, in the back chapel of which you can view two original Caravaggio paintings in their original setting for free (though it will cost one euro to turn the lights on!).
Admire the piazza and its San Pietrini (‘little St Peters’, the local word for Rome’s many cobblestones). In the center of the piazza is an Egyptian obelisk by Pharaoh Seti I, which was already nearly two thousand years old when it was brought to Rome by Augustus in 10BC! It used to be the centerpiece of the Circus Maximus, and lay beneath the ground until it was moved here in 1589. The fountains and lions that surround it were created in 1818.
Behind the obelisk you will see the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto, finished around 1680 in competition between Bernini and Carlo Rainaldi. These similar (though not duplicate) churches are the meeting point of Rome’s three great baroque thoroughfares, including the famous Via del Corso, which we will arrive at later in this walk.
We are now going to go up the hill that overlooks the piazza. Head towards the hill and you’ll see a winding path (Viale Gabriele d’Anunzio). It’s kind of steep but is only about a five minute stroll. And it’s well worth the hike: at the top is a balcony called the Pincio, that overlooks Rome in its entirety. From here you can see the roofs of the city, the hundreds of churches, the imposing dome of St Peter’s. Also worth noting to our left is the flatter and less flamboyant dome of the Pantheon (though no less impressive, given its age), and the big white ‘Wedding Cake’ of the Altare della Patria in Piazza Venezia, almost the exact center-point of the city, a fantastic landmark for visitors, but rather despised by modern-day Romans.
Behind the terrace is the beautiful 19th century Villa Borghese gardens that surround the Galleria Borghese, a museum that houses some of the greatest artworks in the city. If you have a spare half an hour there are beautiful arcadian vistas here, including an ornamental lake, though a visit to the gallery does require booking ahead.
After admiring the view from the terrace, take the small extension of the Viale Gabriele d’Anunzio that leads away from the Pincio along the side of the hill. A gentle five-minute walk will bring you to the top of the famous Spanish Steps, by yet another Egyptian obelisk (this one a Roman fake) and the church of Trinità dei Monti.
The church is administered by the French state, and the steps were actually commissioned by the French Ambassador in 1723. They gained their English name from British travelers because they end below in Piazza di Spagna, which is really pas juste (not fair) to the French! Walk down the steps and admire the fountain of a boat at the bottom. The Fontana della Barcaccia was built by Bernini’s father Pietro in 1627 and commemorates a fishing boat left behind in the piazza after one of Rome’s many floods. It is sunken into the ground because at the time it relied on gravity from Rome’s ancient aqueducts, and if it were above ground level the fountain would not flow. If you’re carrying a water bottle, there’s a specially designed ledge here for you to fill up with fresh, clean drinking water.
Proceeding left from the steps, on the left-hand corner is the apartment in which the Romantic poet Keats stayed and died in 1821, now converted into the Keats and Shelly Museum. A plaque on the wall from the people of Rome marks his passing. After a hundred yards or so we come to the Colonna dell’Immacolata (Column of the Immaculate Conception), which was erected in 1857 to celebrate the Catholic church’s adoption of that dogma. It’s made from an ancient Roman column found in the ground nearby, and every December 8 a fire truck is used to place a wreath on the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the column, sometimes by the Pope!
Directly beyond the column you will see a big building. This is the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide (Palace of the Propagation of the Faith – the word ‘propaganda’ doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Italian), owned by the Vatican and used as its foreign office. Take the Via di Propaganda to the right of the palazzo, and admire the Bernini façade, built where nobody can see it in its entirety, as a result of Pope Innocent X getting involved in the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini.
Passing the ‘Propaganda Store’ on your right, bear right into the Via di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte and then go down the alleyway to the left called Via del Nazareno. Cross over Via del Tritone and then take the street that angles off to the right, Via della Stamperia. After about 100 yards you will come to a piazza, and then realize you are at the right-hand side of the most magnificent fountain ever made: the deservedly world-famous Fontana di Trevi.
The Trevi Fountain was decades in development, and its construction outlasted the deaths of both its commissioning pope and its original designer. It was originally sketched by Bernini, but his designs were discarded and the full design was won by Nicola Michetti in yet another competition in 1730. However it was not completed until 1762 by Giuseppe Pannini, ten years after Michetti’s death.
The fountain celebrates Rome’s control of water, featuring the ancient god Triton despite its papal legacy, who is borne along by his hippocamps. In one of the alcoves you will see the depiction of an ancient legend where a peasant girl showed thirsty Roman soldiers where to find a spring. Look out for the vase on the right-hand side of the fountain wall – it was put there to cover up a barber’s shop when he stubbornly refused to take down his sign! And remember, according to legend if you face away from the fountain and throw a coin into the water over your left shoulder, it means you will return to Rome one day (throwing a second coin is meant to ensure you will find love in the city, and a third means you will marry a Roman. This author has thrown two coins into the fountain on two different occasions, which is why he now lives in Rome!).
Admire the fountain in all its glory, and note that the entire façade of the building behind it is actually part of the fountain, before walking to the left-hand side of the fountain and heading off down Via dei Crociferi until you reach the busy Via del Corso. Cross it, and to your right you will see a piazza with a tall column standing in it. Piazza Collona bears the column of Marcus Aurelius, which has stood in the same place for 1,800 years. It celebrates a military victory, but the inscription has been lost so it is not known which one. Like all original Roman columns in the city, the Roman statue on the top has been replaced with that of an apostle – in this case St Paul.
The Piazza itself is surrounded by three magnificent palaces, notably the Palazzo Chigi, now the residence of the prime minister, and the Palazzo Wedekind, which has an original, perfectly-preserved Roman colonnade supporting its façade. Taking the alleyway on the far left-hand corner of the piazza (Via dei Bergamaschi) just a few seconds’ walk brings us to Piazza di Pietra (Stone Square), which reveals the spectacular 50-foot tall columns of the Temple of Hadrian, still in place but incorporating a newer building within – now a bank.
Heading onto the only lane out of this piazza (Via dei Pastini), stroll for another two or three minutes and you will arrive at Piazza della Rotonda. There you will see an original Egyptian obelisk from the temple of Ra at Heliopolis, and to to your left you will see the single most perfectly preserved monument of ancient Rome: the vast and beautiful Pantheon.
The Pantheon was originally built by the statesman Marcus Vispanius Agrippa between 27 and 14AD. It burned down and was rebuilt by Hadrian in 126AD, though he honoured the building’s original builder with an inscription on the portico. This is the version that still stands, and it has its original roof in place – still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. It is now a church and is free to enter during the day when there is no mass proceeding.
Indeed it was its early adoption by the Christian church (7th century AD) that allowed its almost perfect preservation, while most other monuments were ransacked for materials. The Pantheon’s interior is thus the only place in Rome where you can see the original Roman marble in place, and admire its beauty and the precision of its construction. The portico also held onto its bronze Roman roof until the 16th century, when the metal was stripped off and melted down turned into the giant altarpiece in St Peter’s Basilica. Notable additions to the interior of the temple are the tombs of Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of Italy, and of the artist Raphael.
The outside of the Pantheon today shows its original Roman brick construction, but try to envision the entire building covered in gleaming marble as it once was, with beaten bronze covering the roof. As with many other buildings (including the Temple of Hadrian we saw earlier), the holes in the portico are where the original marble was pulled off during the middle ages to get at the iron nails holding it on, in order to make weapons.
Heading away from the Pantheon on Salita dei Crescenzi, take the first left onto Via di Sant’Eustachio. At the bottom of this short lane you will be in the Piazza Sant’Eustachio where you will find Sant’Eustachio il Caffe, which has (reputedly) the best coffee in Rome. After having a strong, short sweet refreshment, leave the piazza on Via degli Staderari past the piazza’s baroque fountain, turn left onto the larger Corso del Rinascimento, then take the first right-hand alleyway (Via dei Canestrari) to our magnificent final destination.
The first time you see Piazza Navona it takes your breath away. It is the largest baroque piazza in Rome, built on the site of the horse-racing Stadium of Domitian, and preserving its exact shape and dimensions.
It was beautifully transformed from a rowdy marketplace into one of the most important baroque spaces on earth by Pope Innocent X, who commissioned both Borromini and Bernini to design for the space.
In the centre of the piazza is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini, which represents the greatest river in each of the four known continents at the time it was built: the Danube, the Ganges, the Rio de la Plata, and the Nile. It is topped by another Roman-fake Egyptian obelisk.
To its left is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built by Borromini. Legend has it that the god on the fountain who represents Africa was built by Bernini shielding his eyes from the ‘horrible’ church built by his rival – but sadly this is not true, since the church was built afterwards, and is not horrible in any way.
Our short tour is now at its end. Drink in the artistic atmosphere of this greatest of piazzas, but be careful if eating or drinking here: the extortionate rents mean that the prices charged for food and drink can be astronomical if you sit down. Better perhaps to stroll out of the north of the piazza into the maze of alleyways nearby, and find a small family-run trattoria to eat some genuine home cooking at a decent price.
Benevenuti a Roma: welcome to Rome!
Key to Rome piazza and fountain walk destinations
1. The Pincio Terrace
An incredible view over Rome’s rooftops and domes.
2. The Spanish Steps
Actually the ‘Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti’, this incredible sweep of 18th century steps leads down to the elegant Piazza di Spagna, past the apartment used by Keats in his final days.
3. Palace of the Propagation of the Faith
The Palazzo di Propaganda Fide – even now part of the Vatican City, was begun by Bernini and finished by Borromini in the 17th century.
4. Trevi Fountain
More than a hundred years in the making, the most famous fountain in the world – using classical imagery to commemorate the discovery of a freshwater spring – even incorporates the entire side of the palace on which it’s built.
5. Piazza Colonna
Now surrounded by four stunning baroque palaces, including the Palazzo Chigi, currently the Prime Minister’s residence, the Column of Marcus Aurelius has stood commemorating his military campaigns for nearly 2,000 years.
6. Hadrian’s Temple
Eleven 50-foot columns of the original 145AD temple to the deified Emperor Hadrian still stand in the Piazza Pietra (‘stone square’), incorporated into a later palazzo – now a modern bank!
7. The Pantheon
One of the most stunning sights in Rome, the Pantheon (temple to all Roman gods) is one of the few Roman structures that is still almost perfectly intact. Consecrated as a Christian church early on, it is one of the few places where original Roman marble can still be seen. Destroyed twice in its early life, the poured-concrete dome has nevertheless survived since it was restored in the second century AD.
8. Piazza Navona
The finale to this whistle-stop tour is Rome’s most magnificent baroque piazza. Built on the vast site of the Stadium of Domitian, its centerpiece is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, next to Borromini’s church of Sant’Agnese in Agone.