Written by Matthew McCafferty
October 31, 2022
One of the great privileges of living and studying in Rome is the opportunity to explore a city famed the world over for its art, history, music, food, and culture. Another fact is that, when people from home visit us in Rome, we are invariably asked: “Any recommendations???” When I was growing up, whenever we took a family holiday, there would appear in the house shortly before our departure date a new book – Eyewitness Top 10 Guide to [insert destination]. The books were always in the same vein; divided into subheadings like Art and Culture, Food and Drink, ‘Places of Interest’ etc. with the ‘Top 10’ places in the area for each of these categories. With all this in mind, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for anyone with a trip to Rome coming up. But since attention spans have shortened in recent years (and as I write this the deadline for this article is fast approaching!) I thought I’d go with a ‘Top 5’ of Art, Music, and Culture in Rome.
Rome is chalk-full of art galleries, and if you’re a connoisseur you could easily spend days trawling the various exhibitions which litter the city. However, if you’re more like me and just like to look at pretty pictures every now and then, the Galleria Borghese is where to start. The Borghese were one of the most influential families in Rome and the art gallery is in their historic ‘palazzo’ which sits within the park which carries their name, the Villa Borghese. The park itself is worth a visit, with acres of greenery not far from the heart of the city. We could be here all day highlighting the contents of the gallery, so I’ll just mention two renowned collections you can see there. Firstly, there is a room dedicated to the work of the famous Renaissance painter Caravaggio. But the highlight is undoubtedly a number of statues by Bernini, whose work can be found in various places throughout Rome. They are truly remarkable… and that’s coming from someone from Bathgate, so I’ve seen my fair share of remarkable things!!
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
If the Galleria Borghese is one that would appear on most shortlists of things to do in Rome, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is perhaps slightly less well known. It is the historic home of another of Rome’s famous noble families which now functions as a museum/art gallery. Located right in the heart of the city, along Rome’s main thoroughfare – the Via del Corso – it has only recently re-opened after some fairly lengthy renovations. Even if you’re not really into art or in-your-face, over-the-top, good old-fashioned aristocratic grandeur, the Doria Pamphilj is still worth a visit, even if only for the fantastic audio guide! It’s narrated by a current descendant of the family who grew up in the palazzo in the ‘80s. Hearing him talk of roller-blading along prized and ancient terracotta floors is something of a clash of cultures!
Capitoline Hill and the Roman Forum
If history is your thing, Rome just isn’t for you I’m afraid…
No, there’s more history in this city than you could shake a ‘bastone’ at. Surely one of Rome’s most famous landmarks is the Roman Forum, the beating heart of Ancient Rome. Unfortunately, it’s unsurprisingly tourist central, and the Forum is busy and not inexpensive. However, if you’re willing to climb a few stairs, the Capitoline Hill is the place to go for a fantastic view of this quintessential Roman landmark. Atop the hill, there’s a museum on the Piazza del Campidoglio, rather unimaginatively called ‘The Capitoline Museums.’ It’s quite big, and to be honest the never-ending displays of marble busts begin to be a bit too much – once you’ve seen one Roman general immortalised in stone, you’ve seen them all. But near the end of the displays, the museum includes the ruins of an Ancient Roman temple, and from there the view of the Forum spreads out magnificently below you. If you fancy the view, but can’t hack the museum, there’s a path from the Piazza del Campidoglio which leads round the back of the museum. You get the same view of the Forum from there… and for free!!!!
There had to be at least one church on the list!!! The Basilica of San Clemente is one of the most fascinating in Rome as it has three levels, the oldest and lowest of which dates back to the first century AD. As Christianity moved from the fringes of Roman society to eventually become the religion of the Empire, so the Basilica grew architecturally. Happily, it is possible to explore the history of the church and the lower levels are open to both individual and guided tours. The ‘modern’ church (only in Rome could a church built in 1100 be described as ‘modern’) is famous for its apse mosaic. There is also an Irish connection to this church – in 1667, Pope Urban VIII gave the basilica as a residence to Irish Dominicans and they have been there ever since. Much of the discoveries of the ancient levels of the church were carried out by the Irish Dominicans who lived there in the 1950s.
Parco della Musica
This one’s more of an evening pursuit. The Parco della Musica, which is situated in the north of the city in the old Olympic Village, is home to the ‘Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia’ – Rome’s symphonic orchestra and one of the world’s oldest musical institutions. From late October to early June, the orchestra performs concerts almost every weekend, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Grab something to eat and drink in the nearby and trendy Ponte Milvio district, mosey down to the auditorium for an evening of musical delights, and you can pretend that you’re “aw cul’yured”…
If history is your thing, then a visit to Ostia Antica on the coast 40 mins from Rome is well worth a visit too. It was once the main port for Rome and was abandoned over the years. But unlike Rome was not developed upon, meaning that it is easier to get a true historical perspective on what a Roman town would have been like. St Augustine’s mother famously died in Ostia too, so is perhaps a good place to go and read a few excerpts from his Confessions, maybe in the Amphitheatre. But in Rome itself, my goodness, it’s the sort of place you could spend a month in and not see it all!