Everyone plans to spend at least one day of their vacation in the heart of Ancient Rome. You’ll wander the Colosseum, hop over the stones of the Roman Forum, and gaze down into the depths of the Imperial Forum. Having done that, if you’re the average tourist, you figure you can check Ancient Rome off the list.
If you’re an archaeology buff, or have even once or twice watched Indiana Jones thinking you want to don the fedora, uncheck Ancient Rome — because there’s a lot more to see.
As its nickname clearly implies, the Eternal City has bits and pieces of its ancient self littered on just about every other corner, often smack dab in the midst of a modern thoroughfare, next to a Renaissance building. There’s no better area of the city to see explore than Central Rome (anything North of the Forum and South of the Spanish Step’s shopping district). Walking the area surrounding the Pantheon you could easily wander across Hadrian’s temple, the face of which perfectly blends with the later buildings that flank it, or a gigantic marble foot left over from some ancient statue which is now the home base for Rome’s roaming cats.
In addition to the Pantheon itself this neighborhood also houses a gem of Roman archaeology, the Palazzo Altemps, part of the National Museum of Rome (Museo Nazionale Romano). Rome’s major archaeological works are dispersed among 4 historical buildings, making the collection a little more manageable for tourists. Each of the four sites is thematically designed, the Palazzo Altemps specifically being designed to showcase the collection of Cardinal Altemps and the Mattei and Ludovisi families. If you’re interested in sculpture this is the place for you, where you’ll walk among the gods in marble form and a few mortals of near divine stature.
If Roman urban planning and architecture is more your style, visit the Cripta Balbi a second part of the Museo Nazionale that displays a collection of finds from various city digs. Here you’ll find displays on the Campus Martius and Theatre of Balbus from the Early Empire period. A large part of this museum is also dedicated to finds from Medieval Roman buildings.
The rest of the Museo Nazionale can be found in the other side of Central Rome, near the train station. You can take a longish walk over to the Piazza del Repubblica or better yet take a cab and save your strength for your scholastic pursuits. For a very comprehensive study of the Roman artifacts, head first to the Palazzo Massimo, considered the most important of the Museo Nazionale venues. Here you’ll find faces you recognize in portrait sculpture of the Caesars, Odyssey-inspired narrative paintings and depictions of gods aplenty.
The Roman Forum and the Colosseum
Next head across the street to the Baths of Diocletian, where you’ll see not only the largest baths built but also a collection of epigraphy (artifacts and stele with inscriptions). Oh, and you’ll see how later Romans decided to build a church smack dab in the midst of the Bath’s tepidarium (not exactly a warm embrace of ancient history).
Sooner or later, your travel companions might manage to drag you away from the gluttony of artifact exploration, but do try to sneak away for at least one more glorious ancient masterwork — the Ara Pacis. Located on the Tiber river a few blocks away from the Spanish steps, Augustus Caesar’s Altar of Peace has been reopened to the public. This stunning compendium of Roman Augustan propaganda techniques is now housed within an ultra-modern building designed by Richard Meier. It’s elegance and utter simplicity will make you sigh with pleasure, the perfect way to end your archaeological expedition.