This area has always been a contrasting mix of the highest and the lowest, from the most extravagant luxury to the toughest work-a-day world. In ancient times, the emperor’s lavish palaces were built on the Palatine, but they weren’t far from the docks, where roustabouts heaved the tons of goods that were imported to the wealthy city from around the world. There are three hills in the zone: the Palatine and the Aventine are two of the original seven, but Monte Testaccio is entirely man-made. Legend has it that the Aventine was where Remus formed a populist settlement, to rival his twin brother Romulus’s dictatorial encampment . Over the centuries it has been an area inhabited by poor workers and religious institutions. Today, it has returned to being an enclave of greenery and smart dwellings, studded with hidden art treasures and some of the world’s finest ancient monuments and priceless archaeological finds.

Class Divisions and Power Struggles

The ceaseless struggle between the governing and the working classes is typified by the history of this area. Romulus on the Palatine versus Remus on the Aventine gave rise to patricians and plebeians respectively. The contrast still exists, between wealthy Aventine and down-to-earth Testaccio.

Carry a bottle of water with you, which you can refill at little fountains around the area

Take a torch (flashlight) and binoculars when visiting churches to see the architectural details close up


  1. Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

    Once the heart of the Roman empire, this mass of ruins is an eerie landscape that seems gripped by the ghosts of an ancient civilization .

  2. Colosseum and Imperial Fora

    These monuments memorialize Imperial supremacy. The Forum of Trajan was declared a Wonder of the World by contemporaries; the only remnant is Trajan’s Column, considered to represent Roman sculptural art at its peak. The Colosseum embodies the Romans’ passion for brutal entertainment .

  3. Musei Capitolini

    Notwithstanding their great beauty, the original motivation for these museums was purely political. When the popes started the first museum here in 1471, it laid claim to Rome’s hopes for civic autonomy – the Palazzo dei Conservatori was the seat of hated papal counsellors, who ran the city by “advising” the Senators. Today the museums are home to a spectacular collection of art .

  4. Santa Sabina

    This church was built over the Temple of Juno Regina in about 425 to honour a martyred Roman matron. In 1936–8 it was restored almost to its original condition, while retaining 9th-century additions such as the Cosmatesque work and the bell tower. Twenty-four perfectly matched Corinthian columns are surmounted by arcades with marble friezes and light filters through the selenite window panes. The doors are 5th-century carved cypress, with 18 panels of biblical scenes, including the earliest known Crucifixion – strangely without any crosses.

    • Piazza Pietro d’Illiria 1

    • Open 6:30am–1pm, 3:30–7pm daily

    • Free

    • DA

    Santa Sabina
  5. Baths of Caracalla

    Inaugurated in 217 and used until 546, when invading Goths destroyed the aqueducts. Up to 2,000 people at a time could use these luxurious thermae. In general, Roman baths included social centres, art galleries, libraries, brothels and palestrae (exercise areas). Bathing involved taking a sweat bath, a steam bath, a cool-down, then a cold plunge. The Farnese family’s ancient sculpture collection was found here, including Hercules, a signed Greek original. Today, ruins of individual rooms can be seen.

    • Via delle Terme di Caracalla 52

    • Open 9am–2pm Mon, 9am–1 hr before sunset Tue–Sun

    • Adm

    • DA

    Capital, Baths of Caracalla

    Gymnasia, Baths of Caracalla
  6. Piazza of the Knights of Malta

    Everyone comes here for the famous bronze keyhole view of St Peter’s Basilica, ideally framed by an arbour of perfect trees . However, it’s also worth a look for the piazza’s wonderful 18th-century decoration by Giambattista Piranesi, otherwise renowned for his powerful engravings of fantasy-antiquity scenes. To honour the ancient order of crusading knights (founded in 1080), the architect chose to adorn the walls with dwarf obelisks and trophy armour, in the ancient style. Originally based on the island of Rhodes, then Malta, the knights are now centred in Rome.

  7. San Saba

    Originally a 7th-century oratory for Palestinian monks fleeing their homeland, the present church is a 10th-century renovation, with many additions. The portico of the beautiful 15th-century loggia houses a wealth of archaeological fragments. Greek style in floorplan, with three apses, the interior decoration is mostly Cosmatesque. The greatest oddity is a 13th-century fresco showing St Nicholas about to toss a bag of gold to three naked girls lying on a bed, thus saving them from prostitution.

    • Piazza Gian Lorenzo Bernini 20

    • Open 8am–noon, 4–7pm Mon–Sat, 9:30am–1pm, 4–7:30pm Sun

    • Free

    Portico carving, San Saba
  8. Pyramid of Caius Cestius

    This 12 BC edifice remains a truly imposing monument to the wealthy Tribune of the People for whom it was built. It stands 36 m (118 ft) high and took 330 days to erect, according to an inscription carved into its stones. Unlike Egyptian originals, however, it was built of brick then covered with marble, which was the typically pragmatic, Roman way of doing things.

    • Piazzale Ostiense

    Pyramid of Caius Cestius
  9. San Teodoro

    At the foot of the Palatine, this small, circular, 6th-century church is one of Rome’s hidden treasures. St Theodore was martyred on this spot, and his church was built into the ruins of a great horrea (grain warehouse) that stood here. The apse mosaic showing Christ seated upon an orb is original, but the Florentine cupola (1454) and other treatments are mostly 15th-century restorations ordered by Pope Nicholas V. The courtyard was designed by Carlo Fontana in 1705.

    • Via di San Teodoro

  10. Protestant Cemetery

    Also called the Acattolica (Non-Catholic) Cemetery, people of many faiths have been sepulchred here since 1738. The most famous denizens are the English poets Keats and Shelley . Until 1870, crosses and references to salvation were forbidden.

    • Via Caio Cestio 6

    • Open 9am–4:30pm Tue–Sat, 9am–1pm Sun

    • Donation

    Keats’ tombstone
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