This is a suggested walking tour of sites that can be easily reached from Piazza del Popolo. A hurried walk could see it done in a long day but it will be much more satisfying to devote at least two days to an appreciative wander. No matter the pace, the tour is full of rewards. The route marked by arrows on the map below can be accessed by choice of starting point by catching a taxi from your hotel. You can also catch the Metro and get out at Spagna Stazione. If you would like to get most of your walking done at the start of the day, begin at the Villa Borghese.
The Villa Borghese is an 80 hectare park on the edge of the old city of Rome. It takes its name from Cardinal Scipione Borghese who developed the area into large formal gardens from 1605. Cardinal Borghese is remembered by history, not just by being the nephew of Pope Paul V (holiness ran in the family!) but as an early patron of the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Today the Villa Borghese houses one of the great Art Collections of Rome, including some of Bernini’s masterpieces (eg. The sublime Apollo and Daphne that has to be seen to be believed!). It also houses paintings from the 16/17th century by masters such as Caravaggio, Bassano and Raphael. If great art is on your to do list in Rome, this is the gallery to visit.
2. Santa Maria Del Popolo
From Galleria Borghese walk through the park down towards Piazza del Popolo and stop for a while at the edge of the park and enjoy the view down over the piazza and away over the Tiber River. Winding your way down the road to the City Gate will find you entering the Piazza where the old Via Flaminia took the Roman armies out to the far edges of the Empire. (You can also enter the square down the steps that take you past the ‘triple-arched nymphaeum’ on the eastern side of the Piazza.) On the left of the gate is one of the plainest exteriors of any church in Rome but one whose interior has brought it great fame. In particular, the Dan Brown novel, Angels and Demons, written in 2000 has brought a lot of visitors to Santa Maria Del Popolo seeking to check out the mysteries of this beautiful building. Like the Borghese Villa up the hill, it contains great works by Bernini and Caravaggio but its worth a visit for so much more than its art. It was even on Martin Luther’s list of places to visit back when he was here in the early 15th century.
3. Piazza del Popolo; the obelisk and fountains
Once you have explored Santa Maria del Popolo, you are probably ready for lunch so head towards the other side of the piazza and find a café to have a break. You will of course have to stop and wonder at the obelisk in the centre of the Piazza; a very foreign icon in the heart of Rome. Why the Emperor Augustus thought it was a good idea to ship a 235 ton obelisk from Egypt to stand in the centre of the Circus Maximus in 10BCE is anybody’s guess. Both the Empire and the obelisk fell over and disappeared from history and another thousand years passed before the monument of Seti I was rediscovered and another Pontifex Maximus, Sixtus V, erected it here in Piazza del Popolo in 1589. This obelisk is one of History’s great survivors.
Of course doing justice to Piazza del Popolo, you would also have to wander back towards the Pincian hill and inspect the Fountain of Neptune. By this time, you realise there is just too much to see in this amazing square so you can decide to keep going towards the lunch café or resolve to return another day or on another trip in order to appreciate all this place has to offer.
4. Piazza del Popolo; The twin churches
The twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1681) and Santa Maria in Montesanto (1679) dominate the opposite side of Piazza del Popolo from where Santa Maria del Popolo is situated. They also define the three main thoroughfares that branch out from this square. The 1750 etching of Piazza del Popolo to the right looks past the obelisk (without lions or fountain!) over towards the twin churches on the other side.
Both churches are worth a visit but the time you spend there will depend on how your walk continues from here. You can take the street to the right (Via del Babuino) which will take you up to the Spanish steps and the street on the right (Via Ripetta) will take you towards the Ara Pacis.
5. The Ara Parcis
Walking approximately three blocks down Via Ripetta from Piazza del Popolo, you will arrive at a small museum dedicated basically to one item (albeit a large one) from Rome’s early history, the ‘Ara Pacis Augustae’ or the “Altar of Augustan Peace”. It is a beautiful monument that was built around 9BCE by a Roman Emperor who was trying to remodel the views of the Roman people after a turbulent period of social disharmony brought about by the assassination of Julius Caesar and the resulting tumult of the wars between the competitors for dominance of Rome’s burgeoning empire. The large altar was meant to celebrate ‘peace’ in Roman society that would be forever associated with Augustus’s rule. The passage of time brings with it its own curious ironies and so the Altar of Peace, built on a flood plain, slowly sank into the mud so that by early modern times it was four metres below ground level and the Palazzos of later Romans had been built over it. (Its original position in relation to the Mausoleum of Augustus is indicated by the image above.) Augustus himself had written about the Altar so modern historians had recognised pieces of the Ara Pacis that had slowly began to reappear from under old buildings built next to the Tiber. By the mid 19th Century, plans had begun to excavate the Ara Pacis and put the pieces back together again.
The story of the attempt to put the Ara Pacis back together again and exhibit it publicly took a curious turn in 1937 when new pieces of the altar were discovered. Benito Mussolini decided there was a striking resemblance between himself and the Divine Augustus. He ordered that an enclosure for the Ara Pacis be built near the Mausoleum of Augustus that would promote Fascist Propaganda, attempting to make the link evident between Mussolini’s accomplishments and those of Augustus. Even after Mussolini’s death in 1945, the Ara Pacis and its political overtones have made such a museum highly controversial for many Italians.
However, tourists unaffected by the political history of Italy over the last 80 years are blessed in that they can come and admire the Ara Pacis for its striking message of gracefull beauty that has returned to speak to the 21st century after being buried underground for almost 1700 years.
6. The Mausoleum of Augustus
(The pictures of the Mausoleum above were taken in 2004 ; the gate was open, and no supervision of the site apparent to stop me entering a place that was closed not long afterwards for fear that officials would have to bury foolish tourists in the Mausoleum of Augustus itself.)
Another two blocks further along from the Ara Pacis museum is the Mausoleum of Augustus which has been a forlorn, fenced off ruin for many years. Whilst Mussolini was very keen to have it restored as part of his propaganda push to make a direct link between his victories and those of Augustus, this didn’t come to fruition.
Augustus built his mausoleum in 28 BCE to ensure his memory would be celebrated for generations to come in his empire. After his death, the mausoleum also hosted the ashes of many other famous individuals such as Livia (his wife), Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder, Nero Julius Caesar, Caligula, Tiberius and Claudius. Its function as a mausoleum lasted until the fifth century when Rome was pillaged and the mausoleum looted by rampaging Visigoths. Ever since, the structure has been put to many uses by Roman families and its basic structure has survived.
It is due to be finally restored and reopened in April 2019 so tourists from that date will be able to appreciate a second monument to the memory of the Roman Emperors on Via Ripetta.
7. The Spanish Steps
I have often though that the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s 1953 romantic masterpiece, Roman Holiday, should be a prerequisite film to watch before visiting Rome. I am sure there are travel entrepreneurs that would also base their tour on the sites visited in Rome by the two stars of the film. If so, one of these sites would have been the next stop on our tour, the Spanish Steps built in 1723-5.
(Bernini’s father’s boat on a ‘quiet’ day…a picture taken from the Spanish Steps)
As can be seen from the map of our tour, you can go directly east from the Mausoleum of Augustus, along Via Condotti, to reach the Spanish Steps. These steps lead up another slope of the Pincian Hill that is one route that will eventually lead you to Villa Borghese. These steps are very popular with both locals and tourists to stop, relax and watch the world go by. If people are not sitting on the steps, they are sitting on, standing round or standing in the famous ‘Fountain of the Long Boat’, generally thought to have been executed by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo. One story claims that the Pope of the time wanted a marble boat built here to commemorate a stranded boat that had been washed to the foot of the steps by a Tiber flood.
After catching your breath on the steps, wander up the top and check out the beautiful Trinità dei Monti church. Turning left at the top of the step will also take you along to the Villa Medici which houses the French Academy in Rome where promising artists are offered scholarships to develop their craft in the perfect surroundings on the Pincian Hill. Ninety minute tours of the villa can be booked ahead of time.
At the top of the stairs, turning left will also find you an entry to the Metro or, if you haven’t yet seen the Villa Borghese, keep going and continue up the slope past the Villa Medici. Turn right into the Villa Borghese park, but before you do, note another obelisk, this time one of Roman origin (commissioned by Hadrian for his Tivoli Villa) that was moved 5 times before settling down on the Pincian Hill with a great view over Rome.