Just across the Tiber from the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo lies the true heart of Rome, the Centro Storico, or “historic center,” the triangular wedge of land that bulges into a bend of the river. Although the area lay outside the Roman city, it came into its own during the Renaissance, and today its streets and alleys are crammed with piazzas, elegant churches, and lavish fountains, all buzzing with scooters and people. It’s a wonderful area in which to wander and get lost.
Rome’s most famous square, Piazza Navona ★★★, is a gorgeous baroque gem, lined with cafes and restaurants and often crammed with tourists, street artists, and pigeons. Its long, oval shape follows the contours of the old ruined Roman Stadium of Domitian, where chariot races once took place, made over in the mid-17th century by Pope Innocent X. The twin-towered facade of 17th-century Sant’Agnese in Agone lies on the piazza’s western side, while the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) ★★★ opposite is one of three great fountains in the square, this one a typically exuberant creation by Bernini, topped with an Egyptian obelisk. The four stone personifications below symbolize the world’s greatest rivers: the Ganges, Danube, de la Plata, and Nile. It’s fun to try to figure out which is which. (Hint: The figure with the shroud on its head is the Nile, so represented because the river’s source was unknown at the time.) At the south end is Bernini’s Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) and the 19th-century Fontana di Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune).
Art lovers should make the short walk from the piazza to Santa Maria della Pace ★★ on Arco della Pace, a 15th-century church given the usual baroque makeover by Pietro da Cortona in the 1660s. The real gems are inside, beginning with Raphael’s “Four Sibyls” ★★ fresco, above the arch of the Capella Chigi, and the Chiostro del Bramante (Bramante cloister) ★, built between 1500 and 1504 and the Renaissance master’s first work in the city. The church is normally open on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday 9am to noon, while the cloister opens daily 10am to 8pm (to 9pm Sat and Sun). Admission to the church and cloister is free.
Tip: Waiters from Piazza Navona’s many overpriced restaurants lie in wait, hoping to woo passing tourists. Buyer beware: While the setting is unmatchable, you’ll have a far better meal on any of the side streets off the piazza.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.