Map: The Heart of Rome

This tour starts at Vatican City—a sovereign city-state that is the world headquarters of the Catholic Church—and ends at Piazza Venezia.

To find your way to the Vatican (www.vatican.va), just look for the dome of (1) St. Peter's Basilica. Mother church of the Catholic faith, St. Peter's was largely designed by Michelangelo, including the enormous dome. Highlights within the basilica include the baroque altar baldachin designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which stands over the traditional tomb of St. Peter; and Michelangelo's first and most famous sculpture of the "Pietà," a marble masterpiece of Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary, after his crucifixion. Acclaimed for its classical harmony and composition, the statue was damaged in 1972 when a man claiming to be Jesus attacked it with a hammer. It has been displayed behind protective glass since.

The adjoining (2) Vatican Museums (Viale Vaticano) showcase one of the world's great art collections with 2,500-year-old Etruscan vases sharing gallery space with ancient Greek masterpieces—including the famous "Laocoön and his Sons" and "Apollo Belvedere"—and works by everyone from Raphael to Leonardo da Vinci, Marc Chagall, and Auguste Rodin. The crown jewel is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, where every surface seems decorated with the artist's frescoed scenes from the Bible.

The oval space fronting the Basilica, (3) Piazza San Pietro, is a baroque masterwork. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 1600s to enable the greatest number of people to see the Pope when he gives his blessing from the basilica or from the Papal apartment, it features two semi-circular colonnades. The 284 columns and 88 pillars represent, according to Bernini, the "gathering of Christianity." In the piazza's center you'll notice an Egyptian obelisk. Dating to the Ramses II dynasty, it was brought to Rome by the pillaging Roman emperor Caligula in 37 A.D. A fun thing to do: Stand near the central obelisk (look for a stone that marks the exact spot), and gaze at the colonnade. You'll see each row of four columns line up perfectly to look like a single column.

From Piazza San Pietro, proceed down the broad avenue across from the Basilica, Via della Conciliazione (commissioned by Mussolini to add grandeur to the site), to (4) Castel Sant'Angelo (Lungotevere Castello 50), a round-walled, battlemented structure that today serves as a museum. Commissioned as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D., it was completed in 139 A.D after Hadrian had already died (his body was eventually entombed here). Within a hundred years the building was transformed into a fortress to help protect Rome from Germanic invaders. It got its current name in the sixth century—a time when a plague was devastating Rome—after Pope Gregory the Great had a vision of an angel hovering over the structure, sheathing its sword. The vision was interpreted as heralding the end of the plague, and a statue of Archangel Michael, the rescuing angel, was placed on top of the structure (the present bronze statue dates to 1752). In 1277 the fortress was connected to the Vatican Palace with a covered walkway and became a refuge of choice for successive Popes. It also harbored special prisoners, including the acclaimed goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, who was accused (apparently falsely) of embezzling pontifical gems. Exhibits in the museum today include weaponry and artifacts related to the building's long, colorful history.

Cross the pedestrian (5) Bridge of Sant'Angelo, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Traveled by pilgrims to St. Peter's, it was later used to publicly exhibit bodies of executed prisoners. The 17th-century angels decorating the span were designed by Bernini.

At the end of the bridge, bear left onto Via di Panico, then take your second left onto Via dei Coronari. A medieval-baroque feeling infuses this street that once teemed with rosary makers catering to Christian pilgrims. Today it is a top destination for antiques in Rome, boasting some of the most prestigious shops. In May, the street is the site of a major antiques fair.

Follow Via dei Coronari for numerous blocks, then turn right onto tiny Vicolo di Febo. Follow it through a piazza called Largo di Febo, then take a left just past the ivy-fronted Hotel Raphael onto short Via dei Lorenesi. This leads you straight to another Roman showpiece: (6) Piazza Navona, Rome's unofficial living room.

This elliptical square was built by the Romans as a chariot-racing stadium. Site of the city market for centuries, it is decorated with three fountains. By far the most famous is the central fountain: Bernini's 17th-century Fountain of the Four Rivers, considered a baroque masterpiece. An allegory, the fountain represents the four great rivers of the four continents known at that time: the Danube in Europe, the Nile in Africa, the Rio de la Plata in South America, and the Ganges in Asia. Keep an eye out for identifying details, such as racial features, animals, and plants.

The two flanking fountains are both by 16th-century sculptor Giacomo della Porta, though one, the Fountain of the Moor, was modified by Bernini; he added the central figure, which is riding a porpoise. The other notable landmark here, facing the central fountain, is the 17th-century (7) Church of Saint Agnes (Sant'Agnese) in Agony. Built on the spot where Agnes, a Roman girl who converted to Christianity, was supposedly stripped naked in public—only to have her hair miraculously grow and cover her body—the church is in part the work of baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Legend has it that Bernini, who considered Borromini a competitor, found the facade so ugly that his statue of the Nile, the river god facing the church, covers his face in horror.

Pause at the (8) Bar Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28), to the right of the church. A local institution, for decades it has served one of the city's must-have treats: the famous "tartufo al cioccolato," a little bomb of chocolate-truffle ice cream that has become an integral part of any visit to Piazza Navona (you can induldge in a tartufo by ordering it at the restaurant, or by buying one at the restaurant's small ice-cream shop next door—a better value).

From Bar Tre Scalini, head straight across Piazza Navona and take the small unnamed road toward the (9) Pantheon (Piazza della Rotunda), our next stop. You'll quickly reach Corso del Rinascimento, where you'll jog slightly left onto Via del Salvatore. Follow Via del Salvatore across Via della Dogana Vecchia, and continue straight onto Via Giustiniani. In minutes you'll come into Piazza della Rotonda. (Because this is old Rome, the small streets don't conform to a linear grid. Feel free to ask someone to point you toward the Pantheon, and keep an eye out for the broad dome of this Roman masterpiece.)

Once you arrive at Piazza della Rotonda, you can't miss the magnificent hunk of Roman architecture that is the Pantheon.

The present structure dates to A.D. 125, though it stands on the site of an earlier temple that was damaged by fire. Commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian and dedicated to the pan-theon—Greek for all the gods (pan: all, theon: gods)—the temple remains the largest and best-preserved monument from Roman times. An exceptionally accomplished piece of Roman engineering—attributed by some to Emperor Hadrian, by others to the master architect Apollodorus of Damascus—the Pantheon is essentially its dome, representing the heavens where the gods lived, on supporting walls. This was the largest concrete dome in the world until the 20th century. The miracle of the place is how the massive concrete dome is supported. To keep it from pushing the supporting walls out, the architects and builders devised some ingenious solutions. They made the supporting walls 19 feet thick to create a solid base, and incorporated a series of arches inside the concrete to add structural strength. To reduce the weight of the dome, they mixed lighter materials—including hollow amphorae—into the dome's concrete. They also designed the dome's interior as a series of recessed panels, which lessened the amount of concrete needed. But the central innovation was the oculus, the 30-foot-wide hole in the top of the dome. Latin for "eye," the oculus eliminated the heavy stress of concrete at the dome's center. It also provided both a real, and symbolic source of light (and, yes, rain) into the Pantheon.

The supporting walls are adorned with statuary, ceremonial decorations, and the tombs of illustrious people, including the painter Raphael and the two 19th-century kings of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II and his son Umberto I. Today the Pantheon is a Catholic church open to the public, and occasionally hosts baptisms and weddings.

Exiting the Pantheon, bear right onto Via del Seminario, then turn right and proceed to Piazza Sant'Ignazio.  Pause here to take in the unusual rococo buildings that face the (10) 17th-century Church of Sant’Ignazio; the curving rococo facades have caused the piazza to be likened to a stage set. Pop into the church to check out the illusional 17th-century ceiling frescoes by Jesuit priest and artist Andrea Pozzo, which, though flat, appear to have depth.

Backtrack a few steps to small Piazza di San Macuto and head down Via di Sant’Ignazio. Notice the (11) Biblioteca Casanatense (Via S. Ignazio 52), on the right. Built by the Dominican order in the late 1600s, it was intended as a library for public use and today houses a remarkable collection of 400,000 books, ancient manuscripts, and other literary works. The magnificent upstairs salone—reading room—which is open to the public, is attributed to the famous Roman architect Carlo Fontana.

Continue to the end of the block, where you will enter the rectangular (12) Piazza del Collegio Romano. The imposing cream-colored palazzo here is the Collegio Romano, built to house Jesuit classrooms and offices. It became a noted center for the study of astronomy, where mathematicians worked with Galileo Galilei. Today the palazzo houses one of Rome's most prestigious public high schools, as well as the national Ministry of Culture.  Across from it is the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (Piazza del Collegio Romano 2), a small treasury of works by notable artists—Caravaggio, Raphael, Velasquez—collected over the centuries by two historically prominent Italian families, the Pamphilj and the Doria.

Walk to the far end of the piazza and continue onto Via Lata, which runs into Via del Corso. Turn right onto Via del Corso. Spread out before you is Piazza Venezia, one of the busiest traffic squares in the city, and the huge white-marble (13) Altar of the Fatherland (also known as the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II), which commemorates the 19th-century unification of Italy. This frothy white monument has earned various nicknames, including "wedding cake" and "typewriter."

Walk into Piazza Venezia, with care—motorbikes, cars, and buses often fly through here trying to beat the traffic. To your right when you're facing the Altar of the Fatherland is (14) Palazzo Venezia.  Built in 1455 as a private residence for a cardinal, it became a papal palace. The Pope allowed ambassadors from the Republic of Venice—at the time a sovereign state—to use part of the space, giving it its current name. In the 1930s it became the formal office of dictator Benito Mussolini, who was always partial to imperial settings. It was from the central palace balcony that Il Duce gave his addresses to the people of Rome.

Take a quick walk up the stairs of the "wedding cake." You'll get a good view of Rome, and a peek at what lies behind—and may have inspired—the Altar of the Fatherland: Rome's historic center, including the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio) and the Roman Forum.

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