How To Explore Rome's History in the Centro Storico

© Max d’Orsogna / Culture Trip
Photo of Emma Law
Hub Writer16 December 2019

Rome is a city thousands of years in the making, and its intertwined layers of history can best be seen in the jumble of architectural styles on display in and around the historic centre. Get to know the Eternal City’s past through exploring these fascinating sites.

The Spanish Steps are one of Rome’s most recognisable landmarks | © Max d'Orsogna / Culture Trip

The mythological story of Romulus and Remus dates the founding of Rome back to 753 BC, but there is evidence of human settlement even earlier, making Rome one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. The transformation from small, pastoral settlement to buzzing metropolis has taken thousands of years and encompassed many different historical eras along the way – from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the artistic Renaissance period. Today, evidence of the city’s history is on display for all to see – if you know what to look for, that is. Here’s where you can spot the most important moments from Rome’s past.

National Etruscan Museum

Museum
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Villa Giulia outdoor etruscan Style in Rome Italy
The Etruscan influence on Rome can be found in the museum at Villa Giulia | © Andrea Izzotti / Alamy Stock Photo

Before the Romans came the Etruscans, an ancient civilisation based principally in Tuscany. The Etruscans had a heavy influence on early Roman society and, at one point, even ruled over their neighbours. In 509 BC, the Romans defeated the last Etruscan king, Tarquin, and the Republic was born. The Etruscans were eventually assimilated into Roman society, but elements of their culture – such as temple architecture and the worshipping of multiple gods – had a lasting impact. The National Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia houses artefacts from this era, including the terracotta Sarcophagus of the Spouses.

Roman Forum

Archaeological site, Ruins, Historical Landmark
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Originally swampy marshland, the Roman Forum was drained in the 7th century BC by the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewage systems. The first kings of Rome conducted political affairs at the site, but it was during the Republican period that it really developed into a bustling commercial, cultural, religious and political centre. Many of the structures that can be seen today were added at a later date, but the Temple of Saturn, which housed the city’s gold and silver reserves, and the Temple of Castor and Pollux were both built in Republican times.

Largo di Torre Argentina

Ruins
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Roman ruins in the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome, Italy
These ruins were rediscovered in the 1920s | © Jason Knott / Alamy Stock Photo

The death of Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March 44 BC, was one of the most pivotal moments of the Roman Republic. Caesar’s assassination at the hands of conspiring senators precipitated a civil war, which, in turn, lead to the formation of the imperial system – otherwise known as the Roman Empire. The site of the assassination, the Theatre of Pompey, was eventually abandoned and enveloped by new buildings – but in the 1920s, a small section was rediscovered during excavations of Largo Argentina, along with four Republican-era pagan temples.

Colosseum

Archaeological site
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Gladiator fights and mock battles once drew in monumental crowds in the Colosseum | © Alessandro Iovino / Culture Trip

One of the best-preserved ancient monuments and the most recognisable symbol of Rome, the Colosseum was built between AD 70-80 and could hold up to 80,000 bloodthirsty spectators. Constructed during a period of relative peace that later became known as Pax Romana, the amphitheatre and the brutal gladiatorial spectacles it hosted were seen as a means of keeping the Roman populace appeased. Today, the marble façade of the Colosseum has long since been plundered, but the structure, with its imposing arches and impressive scale, remains as remarkable as ever.

Pantheon

Building, Church
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In the 1st century BC, the Romans began using concrete in the construction of vaults, arches and domes. By the time the Pantheon was built in AD 125, they’d really perfected the technique – which involved using volcanic ash to form a quick-curing and exceptionally strong cement – and its roof is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome to this day. An impressive feat of engineering, the Pantheon is incredibly well-preserved thanks to its continuous use throughout history. Originally a pagan temple, it was converted into a Christian church in the 7th century.

Trajan Forum

Ruins, Museum
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Trajan forum, Rome, Italy
Visitors to the Trajan forum can admire the ruins and visit the museum | © MARKA / Alamy Stock Photo

The Empire reached its peak under the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD) with England, Africa and Mesopotamia (now present-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) all under Roman rule. As power grew, building projects became increasingly ambitious, and Trajan developed a new forum to reflect Rome’s thriving new status. The vast portico-lined piazza included a monumental victory column and was surrounded by markets and administrative offices. Today, visitors can see the ruins from street level on Via dei Fori Imperiali and gain a deeper understanding of its history by visiting the Imperial Forum Museum.

Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Church, Building
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Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Italy.
Some of Rome's most magnificent Byzantine art can be found inside this basilica | © Nattee Chalermtiragool / Alamy Stock Photo
With the decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) began to exert a growing influence. Byzantine art came to the fore, and intricate mosaics were used to decorate early Christian churches. Many churches were remodelled during the Renaissance, but Santa Maria Maggiore, not far from Termini station, still boasts some of the most exquisite examples of Byzantine art. The mosaics in the nave date from the 5th century and feature scenes from the Old Testament.

St. Peter's Basilica

Church
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St. Peter's Basilica, Rome - Italy.
St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican is a great example of Renaissance architecture | © Roland Nagy / Alamy Stock Photo
Though the city stagnated during the Middle Ages, it recovered spectacularly during the Renaissance as artists came to study classical art and work under the patronage of popes. Rome boasts a number of Renaissance buildings, but St Peter’s Basilica, across the river from the historic centre, is considered the finest thanks to the long list of master artists who worked on its design. Bramante drew up the original plans, which were modified by Raphael and Antonio da Sangallo, and Michelangelo later added the soaring dome and his famous Pietà sculpture.

Piazza Navona

Church
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Piazza Navona's fountain was created by master sculptor Bernini | © Gabriele Sciotto / Culture Trip
Baroque aesthetics really took off in 17th-century Rome, with Piazza Navona seen as the city’s showstopping example from that period. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is the square’s dramatic centrepiece and sits opposite the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, which was designed by Francesco Borromini. The pair were the leading artistic figures of the time and fierce rivals. Local legend has it one of the fountain’s statues shield its eyes in response to the terrible sight of Borromini’s church, though the arrangement is just a coincidence – Bernini actually finished the fountain before the church was built.

Antico Caffè Greco

Bar, Coffee Shop, Italian, $$$
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In the 17th and 18th centuries, Rome was considered an essential destination for well-to-do Europeans on the Grand Tour. The area around the Spanish Steps was so popular with travellers, it became known as the English Quarter (Romantic poet John Keats even had a house there) and Grand Tourists would meet at the Antico Caffè Greco on Via dei Condotti. Stendhal, Goethe, Byron and Casanova are among the café’s famous patrons.

Il Vittoriano

Building
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Il Vittoriano, Rome
This Neoclassical structure celebrates the first king of Italy | © Angus Matheson / Alamy Stock Photo

While 19th-century architecture in other Italian cities – namely Milan, Naples and Turin – is epitomised by lofty, glass-and-iron-roofed shopping galleries, this trend never quite made it to Rome. Instead, the Eternal City’s turn-of-the-century icon is the colossal Vittoriano that dominates Piazza Venezia. Also known as the Altar of the Fatherland, the monument celebrates the first king of a unified Italy and is a Neoclassical interpretation of classical Roman architecture.

Museum of the Ara Pacis

Museum
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a beautiful shot of the outside building of the museum of the Ara Pacis, museo dell'Ara Pacis, Rome, Italy, Richard Meier
The contemporary Museum of the Ara Pacis stands out in Rome's historic centre | © photoarkive / Alamy Stock Photo

Unveiled in 2006, the Ara Pacis Museum was the first architectural project to be built in Rome’s centro storico since the Fascist era. Designed by American architect Richard Meier, the contemporary steel and glass structure sits in stark contrast to its historic surroundings – though the travertine decoration and triumphal style allude to the grandeur of ancient Rome. The museum houses the 2,000-year-old Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, which was commissioned to celebrate Emperor Augustus’ return to Rome after conquests in Spain and Gaul.

These recommendations were updated on December 16, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.