24 Hours: Rome
Italy's capital city may not have been built in a day, but can it be experienced in just one?
We’ve all heard the legend. Romulus and Remus, twins born to their god father (Mars) and vestal virgin mother, were seized from their home by a jealous great-uncle, floated down the Tiber River and eventually rescued by a (surprisingly kindhearted) she-wolf. Upon reaching adulthood, the twins set out to build a city but — after disagreeing over the site itself — Romulus killed Remus and established his own eponymous city, Roma.
It’s a fanciful story, one that’s recounted time and again even today. But truth be told, the founding of Rome was a much slower process, arising from pastoral settlements on Palatine Hill (the site of the future Roman Forum) around the eighth century B.C. Those original settlements evolved into the capital of the Roman Kingdom, later the Roman Republic and finally the famed Roman Empire.
One of the greatest things about Rome is that strolling through the city inevitably means stumbling upon vestiges from every era of this ancient past. Here, the “usual” tourist attractions simply can’t be skipped; the intermixing of 2,000-year-old remains and Renaissance masterpieces within a lively modern capital is sure to humble and inspire.
Start your day as the Romans do, standing bar-side at any café for a quick shot of espresso. Better yet, make it a double — there’s much ground to cover on the day’s itinerary. Pair it with a cornetto, a sweet croissant, for the full Italian experience.
Then, make your way to the ancient area of the city — home to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. The Metro system runs smoothly (save for the occasional unexpected strike), but consider walking, given all there is to see. Start at the Colosseum.
As the Roman Empire’s largest amphitheater, the Colosseum is breathtaking not only for its size (and the remarkable engineering and architectural feats it represents), but also because of the gory spectacles it hosted. In ancient days, 50,000 spectators gathered to watch gladiators battle exotic animals and each other. Tours of the interior reveal an intricate system of underground rooms, trapdoors and elevators, whereby props and caged animals were lifted to the stage.
From there, wander over to the Roman Forum, where you can see remains of the Curia Julia (where the Republic’s senate once met) and the Temple of Julius Caesar (where fresh flowers are placed to this day), among other spectacular ruins. Soak in the history and be humbled by the vast ingenuity of the ancient Romans.
Head north along Via dei Fori Imperiali and lunch at Taverna Romana, a tucked-away restaurant serving traditional Roman fare. Try the spaghetti alla carbonara (spaghetti cooked in a Roman sauce of eggs and pancetta) or the homemade strozzapreti (a long, hand-rolled pasta) with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes. Molto bene.
Continue meandering northeast toward the Tiber River, hitting such quick must-sees as (clockwise, in this order) Piazza Navona — where Baroque–style fountains, created by rival sculptors Bernini and Borromini, seem to carry the artists’ duel into modern day — the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.
Although gelato abounds in Rome, stop by Il Gelato di San Crispino for an extra-special experience. With innovative flavors like cinnamon-ginger, honey and whiskey, in addition to staples like nocciola (hazelnut) and stracciatella (vanilla strewn with chocolate flecks), San Crispino’s gelato creations are for the true gourmand.
Stroll east to the Tiber and cross the Ponte Sant’Angelo to Castel Sant’Angelo, built by Emperor Hadrian as a family mausoleum. Later used by the popes as a castle, with a fortified corridor connecting the building to the Vatican, the formidable structure is now open to the public. There’s no longer much to see on the inside, but climbing to the top allows for panoramic views.
Marvel at the grandeur of Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Basilica. The immense, almost 700-foot-long (roughly 215-meter-long) church houses Michelangelo’s Pietà, Bernini’s baldacchino and — according to tradition — the site where Saint Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church, was martyred. Afterward, check out St. Peter’s Square out front, where outstretched “arms” of columns embrace you and saintly sculptures look down from above.
Rest your now-weary feet and dine at La Veranda, a quiet restaurant just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. Take a table outside, if possible, on the enchanting garden terrace, feasting on innovative Italian cuisine such as ravioli filled with Mortadella sausage and Sicilian pistachios. If outside is not an option, the interior — with fading frescoes covering the walls and ceiling — is equally serene, and the extensive wine list is full of enticing options.
If you’re up for another walk, retrace your steps for an entirely different (and illuminated) experience. The glowing monuments remind you that even though you haven’t completely conquered Rome, you’ve charted a great path.
Ethiopian Airlines flies daily from Addis Ababa to Rome's Fiumicino Airport.