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Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

One of the most (if not the most) recognizable monuments in Italy is the Colosseum in Rome, so it’s not surprising that there’s a long line at the entrance almost year-round. That’s why, if you’re taking a guided tour of the arena, you want one that comes with skip-the-line access.

But just seeing the Colosseum on its own doesn’t give you a complete picture of life in ancient Rome. To get that, you need to also see the Palatine Hill and the Forum – and you need a guide with the knowledge to rebuild the ruins in your imagination. You get the whole package with a Skip the Line Walking Tour of Ancient Rome and the Colosseum.

Our guide for the day, Alessia, began the tour with a walk up the Palatine Hill, the most important of Rome’s ancient seven hills. It sits just to one side of the Forum, and is where legend says the city was founded. It’s where the wealthy of ancient Rome had their private residences, and because of this it’s where we get the word “palace.” It’s central to the geography of ancient Rome, being the central hill, and to the mythology and history of the Roman Empire.

So it’s the perfect place to start.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Alessia led us through the ruins of an imperial palace, and as we walked she pointed to the tunnels nearby. They were clearly man-made, with arched ceilings made of stone, and without context might have looked like passages from one part of the Palatine Hill to another. But they were more than just convenient.

“It’s hot today, even in March,” said Alessia. “Rome is always hot, and it was even in ancient times. These tunnels were built so the nobility could go for walks during the summer months without being exposed to too much sun.”

Aqueducts above for bringing in water, and tunnels below for shaded summer strolls. Oh, those clever Romans.

There’s a garden atop the Palatine, among the ruins, and a terrace with the best view over the Forum that you’ll find anywhere in Rome. It’s not hard to imagine the upper classes enjoying their palaces, their gardens, and this amazing view – though at the time, of course, they wouldn’t have been looking at ruins.

Alessia led us deeper into the Palatine Hill to what remained of the throne room dating from the 1st century CE, with a semicircular indentation in one wall still standing. This, she said, is the kind of building that served as the model for Christian churches, with the semicircular wall behind the main position of power (the throne) leading to the apse of a church behind the altar. The structure was recognizable to people of the time as one of authority.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Walking back down the hill, Alessia led us to what is believed to be the oldest part of the Forum – a small area with grass growing in odd patterns that archaeologists think was part of an ancient cemetery for children, dating back to before the 6th century BCE. She described different buildings of the Forum, and added that the word “forum” itself meant “square.” This particular square, however, didn’t need a name or any descriptor. It was the most important square, so it was simply called “Forum,” just as it is today.

The highlight of the walk through the Forum was the recently-opened church of Santa Maria Antiqua. It dates from the 5th century CE, making it the oldest Christian structure in the Forum, and the inside walls have some remarkable frescoes from the 6th-8th centuries. The church was just opened to the public in 2016 after more than 35 years of restoration work, and it is still sometimes closed for further excavations and restoration, so getting to see the frescoes was truly a delight.

We continued through the Forum, pausing to see where the Temple of Julius Caesar once stood (where people still leave flowers), and then made our way to the final stop on the tour – the famous Colosseum.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Ancient Romans who went to the Colosseum for games got their tickets for free, but of course today they cost money – and, as mentioned earlier, there are nearly always lines at the ticket windows of the Colosseum. With Alessia, we marched right past those and inside the first walls of the arena. There, she handed us over to Laura (there are very strict rules that only allow certain guides to lead tours inside the Colosseum).

Laura led us out onto the partially-reconstructed floor of the Colosseum, covering one end of the oval. We learned about what the ancient Romans called the building (it wasn’t “Colosseum”), how it only took eight years to build the whole thing, how almost all of the marble covering the surfaces we see today was either burned to make cement or used for other structures, and how there was once a retractable cloth roof that could be raised to cover the heads of the spectators.

We had chosen the upgraded tour option, so next we descended a flight of stairs to walk through part of the network of chambers underneath the Colosseum floor. These once held animals waiting to be raised into the arena on pulley-operated lifts (there’s a reconstructed lift visible from the arena floor). While in this lowest level, you can also see water sources – these were once used to fill the Colosseum for water games in its earliest years.

From the lowest level, Laura then led us to the uppermost level of the Colosseum by a series of steep staircases (the last one behind a locked gate). The views from the top tier are fantastic, looking down into the Colosseum itself and out over the city.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour concluded after heading back to the main level of the Colosseum, where we had not one but two tour guides to thank.

This tour includes a lot of history, and without a background studying ancient Rome or archaeology it’s likely that not all of it will stick. I was taking notes furiously the entire time and I still didn’t capture a fraction of what I was learning. Still, I’d recommend taking a guided tour of these incredible monuments over visiting on your own, partly for the access to places you wouldn’t see without a guide – and partly because with a good guide you’ll feel smarter afterward.

- Jessica Spiegel

Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour from Viator Rome

5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Rome is never really a quiet city. It’s the busy Italian capital, and gets constant tourist attention on top of that. But Rome in the winter can be a refreshing alternative for visitors who don’t love big crowds – and who don’t mind cold weather.

Here are just a few reasons why you’d want to visit Rome in the winter months.

Smaller Crowds

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

No, Rome never empties of tourists entirely. In the winter, however, you’re far more likely to find there’s no line outside the Vatican Museums, allowing you to walk right in without buying a ticket in advance, and plenty of elbow room in the Sistine Chapel when you get to the end of your tour. The piazzas, churches, galleries, and restaurants aren’t as full, either, all of which gives you more time to enjoy Rome’s beauty in relative peace and quiet.

Lower Prices

Visitors to Rome in the winter months get to take advantage of what are typically lower prices on things like airfare, accommodation, and even sometimes tour prices. Prices often spike around holidays or winter festivals, such as Christmas, but you’re still likely to get a better deal if you travel to Rome in the winter than in the summer.

Christmas Markets

German-style Christmas markets are cropping up in lots of other European countries recently, and in Rome there’s a big one in Piazza Navona each year. There are others around the city, too, many of which have more authentically Italian goodies. Christmas markets in Rome can be festive places to pick up a unique souvenir or sample a local seasonal treat or two. These markets usually run from late November through Epiphany on January 6th.

Holiday Events

Rome, like plenty of cities around the world, gets festive around the holiday season with special events. There are often concerts in performance theaters as well as churches throughout the city, and New Year’s Eve especially is a night for fireworks. Check with the tourist information office when you get into town to find out what special holiday events are going on in Rome when you’re there, as the calendar for these changes each year.

Winter Sales Season

In Italy there are two official sales seasons when all retailers put “discount” signs on their goods. One is in the summer, and the other is in the winter. The winter sales period usually begins in early January and lasts for 5-6 weeks – each region can set their own dates. These dates change annually, but if you’re in Rome in January or early February chances are good you’ll see sale signs in every window.

- Jessica Spiegel

5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter from Viator Rome

Baroque Roman Evening: Concert in a Church

The dome of Sant'Agnese in Agone in Rome's skyline

The dome of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome’s skyline

There are many churches and palazzos to visit in Rome. In most of them, you’ll walk through to admire artwork or to see a relic. In some, however, you can enjoy the spectacular acoustics by attending a concert in a Roman church.

There are two places in Rome in particular that regularly host evenings of Baroque music. The Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is a Baroque masterpiece of architecture, built in the 17th century and opening onto Piazza Navona. The Baroque interior of the church is the ideal setting for Baroque concerts, which take place inside the church. You’ll get a one-hour tour of the church before settling in to hear a performance of Baroque music. You can even add a 3-course dinner as part of your evening out.

Another location for Baroque concerts is the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, home to a wonderful collection of art and also – still – the private residence of the prominent Doria Pamphilj family. The family has been collecting art for hundreds of years, and much of it is on display. An evening at the palazzo includes a one-hour tour of the incredible art collection (focusing on the Baroque masters, including Caravaggio) and a Baroque musical performance.

Experiencing a concert of period music in a place built when that music was modern is an excellent way to time travel during your visit to Rome.

- Jessica Spiegel

Baroque Roman Evening: Concert in a Church from Viator Rome

Special Events for Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter's Square

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square

Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy is largely in 2016, but some of the key events take place in late 2015. Not only that, while the Jubilee Year takes place over a total of 348 days, there isn’t a major event taking place every single day during that time. Here’s an overview of the major jubilee year events, so you can better plan your Rome visit.

Learn more about the Jubilee Year – what it is, and what to expect

Jubilee of Mercy Events in 2015

  • December 8th – The holy door of St. Peter’s Basilica is opened by Pope Francis after a morning Mass, marking the official start to the Jubilee Year. A cathedral’s holy door is only open during a Jubilee Year.
  • December 13th – The holy doors of Rome’s Archbasilica of St. John and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls are both opened. Cathedrals elsewhere in the world will also open their holy doors on this date, too.
  • December 27th – Jubilee for the Family, in St. Peter’s Square.
Many papal audiences will be held in St. Peter's Square during Jubilee 2016

Many papal audiences will be held in St. Peter’s Square during Jubilee 2016

Jubilee of Mercy Events in 2016

  • January 1st – The holy door of Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major is opened on a “World Day for Peace.”
  • January 19th – Jubilee gathering for people who work at pilgrimage parishes and shrines around the world, in the Paolo VI Hall.
  • January 30th – Some papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • February 13th – Jubilee for prayer groups dedicated to Padre Pio, in St. Peter’s Square.
  • February 20th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • March 4th – “24 Hours for the Lord,” prayer services in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • March 12th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • March 20th – Palm Sunday, also the Diocesan Day for Youth.
  • April 1st – Jubilee for people “Devoted to the Spirituality of Divine Mercy,” in St. Peter’s Square and several churches in Rome.
  • April 9th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • April 23rd – Jubilee for Boys & Girls, meaning children ages 13-16 who have been confirmed. Several churches in Rome and Vatican City will be set up for confessions.
  • April 30th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • May 5th – Pope Francis will lead a prayer “vigil to dry the tears,” in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • May 14th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • June 10th – Jubilee for people who are sick or disabled, in St. Peter’s Square.
  • June 18th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • June 30th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • July 26th – Jubilee for Youth, on World Youth Day. The official site of World Youth Day in 2016 is Krakow, Poland.
  • September 10th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • October 1st – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • October 22nd – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • November 1st – Holy Mass for the faithful departed, at the Flaminio Cemetery.
  • November 6th – Jubilee for prisoners, in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • November 12th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • November 13th – The holy doors of the Basilicas in Rome and around the world will be closed.
  • November 20th – Pope Francis will close the holy door of St. Peter’s Basilica, marking the end of the Jubilee Year.

- Jessica Spiegel

Special Events for Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy from Viator Rome

Breweries & Pubs in Rome

Enjoy Italian craft beer in Rome

Enjoy Italian craft beer in Rome

When most people think of Italian beverages, wine comes to mind – but not beer. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Italian craft beer scene is alive and kicking, nowhere more so than Rome.

There are craft breweries in Rome and throughout Italy, so whether you’re someone who doesn’t care for wine at all or who just wants to try other locally-produced drinks in addition to wine, Rome can deliver lots of options. Here are a few places to visit in the capital where you can try some of Italy’s best beers.

  • Open Baladin – The Baladin brewery has a Rome outpost with more than 100 Italian beers on the menu (and not just their own). This gives you a chance to try beer from all over the country, including lots of local craft beers on tap.
  • Birra Più – In the Pigneto neighborhood behind Termini Station, Birra Più has both Italian craft beers and an international selection.
  • Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà – The name means “what the hell are you doing here,” but the Trastevere bar is perfectly welcoming. There are Italian craft beers and some from elsewhere, but the selection is carefully curated.
  • Brasserie 4:20 – This pub features an extensive array of beers on tap, as well as an impressive list of bottled beers, too. In addition to the many Italian beers, there are also a number from Belgium, and the rooftop terrace is open year-round.
  • Bir & Fud – This is another Trastevere spot, and here the beer list is entirely Italian. The food gets mixed reviews.
  • Blind Pig – This pub’s theme is American prohibition, and there’s an impressive (and relatively inexpensive) beer selection from Europe and the U.S. as well as an interesting menu of burgers.
  • No.Au – Not far from Piazza Navona, No.Au isn’t a typical boisterous pub, but it’s got a good selection of Italian beer and serves organic food.

Dig deeper into the Roman food scene with a food tour of Rome

- Jessica Spiegel

Breweries & Pubs in Rome from Viator Rome

Great Street Art in Rome

There’s a big difference between simple tagging with spray paint and genuine street art. Rome has both, but in recent years the bona fide street art has moved more into the spotlight on the world stage. There’s even a big section on Rome’s official tourism website now detailing neighborhoods to visit to see some of the city’s best street art. Here’s a look at some of the best places in Rome to see street art.


"The Swimmer" in Ostiense, above a fish shop

“The Swimmer” in Ostiense, above a fish shop. Creative commons photo by Bruno via Flickr.

The Ostiense neighborhood is in the southern part of Rome, and includes the Pyramid of Cestius and the Roma Ostiense train station. Some of the artists whose work you can see on the sides of buildings, bridges, and overpasses are Sten+Lex, Blu, Kid Acne, JB Rock, and Gaia, among others. Both the Outdoor Urban Art Festival and 999 Contemporary are responsible for sparking renewed interest in the area, inviting both Italian and international street artists to leave their marks.


The Trastevere neighborhood is on the opposite side of the river from the historic center of Rome, just to the south of Vatican City. It’s one of the places tourists typically visit anyway, and for this reason it’s more crowded and less industrial – which doesn’t suit most street artists. There aren’t as many murals in Trastevere as in other parts of the city, but they do exist. Look for works by Diamond, Omino71, and Mr. Klevra on a tour of Trastevere.


Two watchers in Pigneto

Two watchers in Pigneto. Creative commons photo by Davide Costanzo via Flickr.

The Pigneto neighborhood is roughly to the east of the Colosseum, fanning out behind Termini station. It’s a primarily industrial area full of street art, some of which is by artists who not only live in Rome but in the Pigneto area itself. Here, you’ll find works by Alice Pasquini, Sten+Lex, Invader, Alt97, Uno, and Hopnn.

Tor Marancia

Painted building in Tor Marancia

Painted building in Tor Marancia. Creative commons photo by (Waiting for) Godot via Flickr.

Tor Marancia is a housing project that’s become a tourist attraction thanks entirely to the enormous street art murals on the sides of the apartment buildings. The Big City Life project brought 20 international artists to the site in early 2015, and the end result is 11 buildings with unique pieces of artwork. The site is south of Rome’s city center on Via di Tor Marancia, and you can see art by Seth, Domenico Romeo, Lek & Sowat, Mr. Klevra, Jaz, Jericho, Gaia, Diamond, and more.

San Basilio

The San Basilio neighborhood is northeast of central Rome, and – like the Big City Life project in Tor Marancia – the SANBA project in San Basilio brings artists in to encourage urban renewal. Neighborhood residents contribute ideas to some of the designs, which adorn schools, apartment buildings, and other public structures. You’ll see work by Hitnes, Liquen, and Agostino Iacurci.

Clearly, not all of Rome’s art is inside museums, but there are also plenty of great art tours in Rome covering the world-class galleries in the city.

- Jessica Spiegel

Great Street Art in Rome from Viator Rome

Staying Cool in Summer with Rome’s Drinking Fountains

Using a "nasone" in Rome

Using a “nasone” in Rome

There are ornamental fountains throughout the city of Rome, some of which are on the must-see lists of most visitors. There are also more utilitarian fountains that are easy to miss – these are Rome’s “nasoni,” or public drinking fountains.

In ancient times, Romans built aqueducts to carry water to the people of the city. Today, Rome’s residents have access to water from their tap and also while they’re out and about in the city, thanks to the roughly 2,500 public drinking fountains in Rome. They are technically called “fontanelle,” but most people know them as “nasoni,” for their large nose-shaped spigots.

The first nasone appeared in 1874, and most were installed in the 1920s. The water is cold and delicious and completely safe to drink. Anyone is welcome to refill a water bottle or grab a quick sip on a hot summer day, and some nasoni even have a pail at the bottom to collect water for panting pups. The water is recycled, so it’s not wasted.

There’s a map of nasoni in Rome, as well as a mobile app to help you find the fountain nearest you. And if you watch the locals, you’ll see that plugging up the bottom of the spout with your finger makes the water come through a hole at the top, making it easier to take a drink.

Join a walking tour of Rome’s squares and fountains or a Segway tour of Rome’s squares and fountains

- Jessica Spiegel

Staying Cool in Summer with Rome’s Drinking Fountains from Viator Rome

Rome’s Most Famous Cafes

Espresso shots at a cafe in Rome

Espresso shots at a cafe in Rome

Coffee is an art form in Italy, and each city has its go-to coffee bars. In Rome, there are cafes on nearly every street serving excellent espresso, but not every Roman coffee bar is famous.

Here are four of Rome’s most famous coffee bars – three of which you’ll visit on this espresso and gelato walking tour in Rome.

Tazza d’Oro

Tazza d'Oro cafe in Rome

Tazza d’Oro cafe in Rome

Opened in 1946, Antigua Tazza d’Oro has long been one of the most popular and well-known coffee bars in Rome. It’s a few steps from the Pantheon, and their coffee is so beloved that they ship it all over the world. This is the kind of cafe where you’re drinking your coffee in a few quick sips standing at the bar, but during the summer the best-seller is the granita di caffé – basically a rich coffee slushy with whipped cream on top.

Antico Caffé Greco

In a city as old as Rome, even the coffee can be historic. Antico Caffé Greco is Rome’s oldest bar (and one of Europe’s oldest), open since 1760 and located on the chic Via dei Condotti. Previous patrons have included Byron, Goethe, Stendhal, Keats, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Casanova. It retains lots of Old World charm, as you might expect, with plenty of art on the stately walls and small marble-topped tables throughout.

Sant’Eustachio il Caffé

Sant'Eustachio cafe in Rome

Sant’Eustachio cafe in Rome

Another famous cafe near the Pantheon is Sant’Eustachio il Caffé. It opened in 1938, and is often noted in travel guides as one of the places to get coffee in the Eternal City. The combination of Roman regulars and tourists in this tiny bar can make Sant’Eustachio awfully crowded, but most people swear the quality of the coffee makes the wait worth it. They’re particularly known for their “Gran Caffé,” an espresso with an especially thick crema on top.


Bar Rosati opened in 1923, and the decor basically hasn’t changed since then. The bar is located on the Piazza del Popolo (near the much larger Canova), and they’re known for their pastries and sandwiches as much as their coffee. You can take your coffee in a few quick sips standing at the bar like the locals do, or pay a little extra to sit at an outdoor table and do some quality people-watching.

- Jessica Spiegel

Rome’s Most Famous Cafes from Viator Rome

Cats Among the Ruins: Rome’s Cat Sanctuary

Largo di Torre Argentina excavation in the center of Rome

Largo di Torre Argentina excavation in the center of Rome

Two things that you’ll see often when you visit Rome are ancient ruins and stray cats. In one particular place, however, the two come together in an unexpected way.

In the historic center of Rome, not far from the Piazza Navona and Tiber River, is a partially excavated square just below modern-day street level. It’s called the Largo di Torre Argentina, and the ruins include four temples dating back to the 3rd century B.C.E. It’s also what many experts believe is the location of Julius Caesar’s assassination.

Visitors to the Torre Argentina site may be equally struck by the large numbers of cats that call the ruins home as they are by the ruins themselves. Since the early 1990s, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary has grown from a (technically illegal) cat shelter in a cavern under the city streets into an official organization that feeds and cares for hundreds of Rome’s stray cats. The no-kill shelter also works to spay/neuter any feral cats they can find in Rome, as well as find strays permanent homes.

When you tour the Largo di Torre Argentina site, you can visit the cat sanctuary (open from 12-6pm daily) to make a donation, buy something from the CatShop, or even adopt a cat.

- Jessica Spiegel

Cats Among the Ruins: Rome’s Cat Sanctuary from Viator Rome

Pope Francis Declares 2016 a Jubilee Year

Pope Francis among the crowds in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Pope Francis among the crowds in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis recently announced that 2016 will be what’s known as a Holy Year, commonly called a “Jubilee Year.” The pope has declared it the Holy Year of Mercy, focusing on his favorite theme of compassion.

Jubilee Years have been called by the church every 25-50 years, starting in the year 1300. Historically, these were to be special periods of complete forgiveness of sins – in the Bible, it’s when slaves were to be set free and debts absolved. Today, a Jubilee Year is a time for the faithful to seek “Jubilee Indulgences” (which include visiting all four papal basilicas in Rome, entering through the “holy door”) and, more generally, an opportunity for the church to promote a particular theme (such as Pope Francis’ selected theme of “mercy”).

The Holy Year of Mercy will begin on December 8, 2015 with a ceremonial opening of the holy doors on Rome’s four papal basilicas – St. Peter’s in Vatican City, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul’s Outside the Wall – which are only opened during Jubilee Years. Walking through all four of the holy doors is said to absolve a believer of all sins. The closing of the holy doors marks the end of the Jubilee Year – in this case, the end of the Holy Year of Mercy will be November 20, 2016.

If you’re visiting Rome and Vatican City during the Jubilee Year, you’ll see bigger crowds than normal – both pilgrims and tourists – and things like getting tickets to a papal audience or touring the Vatican will require more advance planning than usual. You’d be smart to book your accommodation as soon as possible, too.

- Jessica Spiegel

Pope Francis Declares 2016 a Jubilee Year from Viator Rome