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The world’s famous Colosseum was built in 80 AD for the Roman emperors to stage fight to-the-death gladiator battles and hunt and kill wild animals, whilst members of the general public watched the violent spectaculars. Entry was free, although you were seated according to your social rank and wealth. Gladiatorial games were banned in 438 AD; the wild beast hunting continued until 523.
The Colosseum is amazing for its complex and advanced architecture and building technique. Despite being used as a quarry for building materials at various points in history, it is still largely intact. You can see the tiered seating, corridors and the underground rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fate.
Today the Colosseum has set the model for all modern-day stadiums, the only difference being today's teams survive their games.
The popes were among the very first royalty to open their vast art collections to public viewing. Pope Julius II (1443 - 1513) began collecting sculpture during the Renaissance and, ever since, most popes have taken an active interest in art and in commissioning the best artists of their time.
Today you can view the Vatican's incredible collection while touring the so-called 'Vatican Museums', a huge complex of galleries and museums showcasing painting, sculpture, frescoes, tapestries and classical antiquities including Roman, Greek and Egyptian. There are, of course, also collections of religious art, papal portraits and, less obviously, carriages and automobiles.
Any visit to the Vatican should also include the famous Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Rooms. Leave plenty of time for winding your way through the museums and the narrow connecting corridors and staircases.
In Ancient Rome, the Forum was the centre of the Roman Empire. Until the 4th century AD, a thousand years of decisions affecting the future of Europe were made here. When Roman soldiers were out conquering the world in the name of the Emperors, temples, courts, markets, and government buildings were thriving in the Forum.
Located between two of Rome's famous hills, the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, it is now a collection of ruins having spent centuries as a quarry for marble and a cow paddock. The Forum became a very dense collection of buildings in its time but mostly all that remains today is columns, arches, and some scattered marbles so it can be difficult to make sense of it all. Ongoing archaeological work continues, and getting a map or a guide can really bring the bustle of the ancient site to life. You can get a great view over the Forum from the overlooking hills in the Farnese Gardens and from Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio.
Part of its fame is directly related to the papacy: The Sistine Chapel is where cardinals gather to elect a new pope (known as the Papal Conclave).
The primary reason for its fame is pure art: the ceiling fresco painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512. The huge fresco depicts the creation of the world and - despite the often shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in the Sistine Chapel - packs a powerful artistic punch (heightened by a recent renovation here that brought back the true color and depth of the original work).
Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel between 1537 & 1541 to paint the magnificent 'Last Judgment' fresco on the altar wall. Few people leave a Sistine Chapel tour without feeling moved by Michelangelo's work.
The chapel itself is named after Pope Sixtus IV), who renovated an old chapel and commissioned the first artworks here. The chapel contains important works by Renaissance heavyweights such as Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli.
St Peter's Basilica was built between 1506 and 1590, when the dome was finally completed. It is on the site of the tomb of St. Peter; his relics were finally found and authenticated in the middle of the 20th century. Before the current grand basilica, a 4th-century church built by Emperor Constantine stood here.
This is a church like no other. It is huge and full of significant artworks and tombs, including that of Pope John Paul II. One of the most beautiful pieces is the marble Pieta by Michelangelo just inside the door on the right. It is now behind bullet proof glass after being attacked by an art-hating lunatic in 1972.
If you can time your visit with a Mass, you will see the most important hierarchy of the Catholic Church come to worship in their red robes and hats. Climbing to the top of the dome gives a wonderful view over the piazza and Bernini's enclosing colonnade below, and across Rome.
St. Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) is the grand colonnaded area in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. A visually imposing entry to this great church, the semi-circular colonnades on either side designed by the Roman Baroque sculptor Bernini, seem to reach out and enfold you in their arms. Within the colonnade lies the security-check for entry to St. Peter's and, on the other side, the Vatican post office, because the Vatican is its own municipality with its own stamps.
During times such as the death of a pope or election of a new one, and at Easter and Christmas, the piazza is jammed with pilgrims from all over the world.
Raphael's Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) are four interconnected rooms in the Vatican which have frescoes painted by the renowned Renaissance artist Raphael (1483 - 1520). These late Renaissance frescoes are the second-most famous in the Vatican's collection, only behind the fresco adorning the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
Raphael's themes for his frescoes were religion and politics; he often swapped portraits of the incumbent pope for the faces of important figures. Originally commissioned by Pope Julius II in the early 1500s, the frescoes were patronized by Pope Leo X after Julius died in 1513. When Raphael also died in 1520, artists from his studio finished the paintings.
The 'Segnatura' room was the first to be decorated and contains Raphael's most famous painting, The School of Athens. The other rooms are known as 'Constantine', 'Heliodorus' and 'Fire in the Borgo'.
The term “piazza” is often translated as “square,” but when you arrive in Piazza Navona you’ll understand why that doesn’t always work. This oblong-shaped space was once a stadium, where citizens of Ancient Rome would come to watch games and races in the 1st century AD. The stadium may be gone, but the shape of the space remains.
Today, the Piazza Navona is home to a selection of beautiful Baroque churches and fountains, some fabulously expensive outdoor cafes, and (often) vendors selling tourist trinkets. During the holidays, a Christmas market fills much of the piazza.
At the center of the Piazza Navona is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, with an Egyptian obelisk sitting atop the sculpture. There are two other smaller fountains, one at each end of the piazza, both by Giacomo della Porta. The most prominent building lining the piazza is the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, at the center facing one side of Bernini’s fountain.
The Pantheon in Rome is a remarkable building architecturally. Basically a cylinder with the floating dome on top of columns, it is the largest masonry vault ever built. In the center of this dome is a hole bringing in a shaft of light to show the beauty of this building and its relatively simple, open interior. Being inside the Pantheon feels very special.
Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, the temple has been damaged and plundered over time. In 609 AD it became a Christian church dedicated to the Madonna. In the 17th century some of its bronze ceiling was taken and melted down for use in St Peter's Basilica. Important figures such as King Victor Emmanuel II and the artist Raphael are buried in the Pantheon.
If your Mediterranean cruise stops off in Rome, Civitavecchia will be your port of call. Only 80km (50 miles) north-west of Rome, this busy cruise port is geared to ship travel and is your gateway to many historic sights of the Eternal City, where most shore visitors grab the opportunity to take a Rome excursion.
Getting to Rome from Civitavecchia requires about an hour's journey by train. The train station is a 10-minute walk from the port, or a short shuttle ride (alight at the Michelangelo Fort). Trains run half-hourly to Rome’s Termini station, taking around 75 minutes or under an hour if you catch an express. You could also organize a private transfer or shore excursion tour including return transport to Civitavecchia.
The Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous and most beloved sights in Rome. A huge Baroque flurry (85 by 65 feet or 25 by 20 meters) where water spills from rocks under the feet of Neptune, Triton and sea-horses into a large pool, it's always surrounded by coin-tossing tourists. Superstition has it that if you toss a coin into the fountain you will one day return to Rome. It shows how much people love this city that up to $3,500 a day is thrown in! The money is collected at night by the city and distributed to charity.
The Trevi Fountain began as a humble water outlet, the end of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct built in 19 BC to bring water to Roman Baths. The name comes from its location at the junction of three roads ('tre vie'). Around 1735 Pope Clement XII commissioned Niccolo Salvi to design the fountain we still love today.
Whereas most of us know the term “piazza” roughly equates to a public square, we may not immediately think the same thing when we see “campo” - especially if we know that means “field” in Italian. But Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori - literally, “field of flowers” - is a square in the historic center of the city.
The name refers to a time when this was actually a field of flowers, but it also hints at one of the main attractions of the Campo de’ Fiori - the outdoor market. Each morning, the square fills with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, and flowers. It’s a genuine market for Romans to do their shopping, but it’s also a tourist attraction - so the prices have gone up accordingly over the years, driving many Romans to shop elsewhere. The scenery of an outdoor market in a pretty public square, however, is still lovely and worth getting up early.
The Borghese Gallery boasts the most famous art of Baroque Rome. Among the collection are several paintings by Raphael, Titian & Caravaggio. The immense property holds the grand palace where Cardinal Scipione Borghese lived with his famed art collection as well as Rome's most beautiful park, the Borghese Gardens. Here see Bernini's famous statues of Apollo and Daphne, David, the Rape of Proserpine & Canova's reclining nude of Paulina Borghese. Also enjoy stunning views over Piazza del Popolo.
Villa d'Este, in the town of Tivoli east of Rome, is a beautiful garden and palace complex that's listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
The villa was built in 1560 and was the vision of Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (who narrowly failed to become a pope). The villa is famous for its magnificent garden of grottoes, fountains, nymphs and water sculpture. Cardinal d'Este died in 1572. By then the work on the garden and the interior painting of the villa was mostly complete.
Most visitors to Italy have Pompeii on their must-see list, and with good reason. But Pompeii isn’t the only important archaeological site in the area outside of Naples - and some consider the smaller excavation at Herculaneum to be more interesting and a better visitor experience. Luckily, you don’t have to choose - you can visit both easily in a day.
Herculaneum, like Pompeii, was buried by the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Unlike Pompeii, however, Herculaneum was actually more preserved than destroyed by the blast. This means the buildings are better preserved, including many that still have a second storey you can see, giving visitors a more accurate feel for what the city looked like before the eruption. The hot ash that covered Herculaneum and killed the people who couldn’t escape was deep enough that it covered two-storey buildings, sealed frescoes and mosaics on their walls, and even encased food supplies in household kitchens.
Fiumicino International Airport is the largest and busiest in Italy, serving nearly 40 million passengers a year. Situated in Fiumicino just outside of Rome, it is the major airport serving the Rome area. It is also known as Leonardo da Vinci airport, the inventor behind some of the earliest helicopters and aircraft.
Fiumicino airport opened in 1961 to replace the smaller Ciampino airport for most major international flights. Today more than 160 airlines serving 150 destinations depart from the air travel hub. Domestic flights to other parts of Italy do depart from here, though the majority of shorter flights still leave from Ciampino. Terminals were upgraded in the 1990s and 2000s and the airport continues to grow and expand. It serves as the hub for Alitalia, Italy’s biggest airline, and is the eighth busiest airport in Europe.
Vatican City was created in 1929 and run by the Pope (who is the supreme monarch!). The official population is a little over 800 and it covers an area of 110 acres (44 hectares). Within the walls of the city are St Peter's Basilica, St Peter's Square, the Vatican Museums, the residence of the Pope and offices of the Catholic Church. Being a separate state, the Vatican has its own postage stamps, and the official language is Latin (as well as Italian). It has its own bank and the world's only ATM with instructions in Latin! Although it uses the euro, the Vatican does issue its own coins. The economy revolves around tourism, printing, mosaics and manufacturing uniforms (who knew!). There are two forces for law and order; one is the Gendarmerie, who keep order, the other is the Swiss Guard (notable for their crazy yellow, blue and red uniforms) the Pope's personal bodyguard since 1506. All 134 members are indeed from Switzerland.
The Catacombs of the early Christians are underground crypts filled with literally thousands of bones. These morbid wonders date back to the second century, a time when Christianity was considered a cult and whose members were executed as pagans and buried as martyrs. These tours invite you to descend into the Eternal City's subterranean burial chambers, winding catacombs and ancient crypts to discover the dark secrets of imperial and early Christian Rome.
The famous Spanish Steps lead from the Piazza di Spagna up to the Trinita Church. The staircase was constructed between 1723 and 1725 in the Roman Baroque style and is the longest and widest in Europe. The design is an elegant series of ramps with 138 steps in a fan or butterfly wing shape. In May, they are particularly beautiful when the ramps of the staircase are covered in spring flowers.
Architecture aside, what makes the Spanish Steps a favorite spot to hang out is the people watching. It's a place for tourists and locals to sit and enjoy the spectacle of Rome life.
The adjacent Piazza di Spagna is surrounded by wonderful tea rooms and cafes as well as being adjacent to some of the best shopping streets in Rome.
The Piazza Venezia defies many assumptions one might make from the name. It’s an open space, so it can be called a piazza, but it’s really a gigantic intersection and not a public square. And it’s in central Rome, not Venice. The name comes from the nearby Palazzo Venezia, in which ambassadors from the Venetian republic once lived.
The enormous Vittorio Emmanuele Monument faces one side of Piazza Venezia, and the interchange is also at the base of the Capitoline Hill and next to Trajan’s Forum. In short, although this piazza isn’t one in which you’re likely to spend lots of leisure time, you’ll certainly pass through it on your way to and from other major attractions in central Rome.
Those of you taking the bus around Rome will find Piazza Venezia to be a major transportation hub, which is useful for getting around the city. And if you’re ambitious enough to be driving in Rome, you’ll probably pass through the intersection a number of times.
The Capuchin Crypt was once thought of as one of Rome's more offbeat attractions, but it has become increasingly popular and is now on many a must-see list. Underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, there is a series of six small chapels that serve as the burial chambers for Capuchin friars. These are no ordinary graves, however. There were more friars to be buried in the crypt's sacred soil – brought directly from Jerusalem – than there was space, so older graves were dug up and the bones of the dead monks were used to decorate the chapel walls.
Today, visitors can still see the incredibly intricate designs adorning the walls and curved ceilings of the chapels. A sign in the last chapel reminds us that we are just as the occupants of these chapels once were – and we will eventually be just like them, too. It's a slightly macabre stop, not necessarily recommended for children or the squeamish, but it's also not meant to be like a haunted house.
Standing proud behind the Colosseum and steps away from the beginning of the Via Sacra, the imposing triumphal Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roma Senate in 315 AD in honor of Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that took place three years earlier. At 69 feet (21 meters) tall, the ornate monument was carved from a single enormous block of gray and white marble. In typical Classical style, the great central gateway is mirrored by two smaller side arches and supported by eight Corinthian columns. The arch is decorated with reliefs plundered from other long-forgotten memorials that describe feats of bravery by earlier Roman emperors, as well as inscriptions praising the achievements of Constantine.
In Ancient Rome, a “circus” was an oblong arena where events like chariot races, games, and other performances were held. As you might guess, the Circus Maximus was - in a word - huge. It was the Roman Empire’s largest stadium, measuring more than 2,000 feet long by 387 feet wide and capable of holding an audience of 150,000.
First built in the 6th century B.C.E., the Circus Maximus was expanded over the next several centuries (and rebuilt occasionally after fire and flood damaged), until it was rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the early 2nd century AD. In addition to chariot and horse races, the Circus Maximus also held religious ceremonies, and parades.
The last recorded uses of the Circus Maximus are in the 6th century AD, and today there’s very little left of the structures. The site is now a public park, and you can see the overall oblong shape where the Circus used to be, as well as some of the starting gates.
The heart of Roman civilization, which once included some 80 million inhabitants, has now been reduced to a series of important ruins in the center of the city of Rome. It is believed that Rome itself was founded in 753 B.C. by brothers Romulus and Remus, decedents of a Trojan prince. Over just a couple of centuries the city evolved into the most powerful entity on the planet, with over 20 percent of the entire Earth's estimated population under its control at one point.
In its glory, this part of the Roman city was full of intricately built temples and other important buildings made of the world's finest marble and stone. However, in the 15th century, many of the ancient city's temples were scavenged of their materials and used to build a number of churches and other more modern buildings.
Today, Ancient Rome refers to the part of the modern city where the remains of the great empire lay. It is flooded daily by tourists from around the world.