Twenty reasons to visit Rome
One of the quirkiest sights in Rome has one of the least revealing names. Hidden in the Palazzo (or Galleria) Spada is the Borromini Perspective. It looks like an imposing colonnade about 37 metres long that opens off the courtyard. In fact, the gallery is less than nine metres long and the "life-sized" statue at the far end is just 60cm high. The forced-perspective illusion was created by Borromini in 1653 with a rising floor, descending ceiling and reducing columns to prove Cardinal Spada's view of "the misleading image of the world". To maintain the illusion you aren't permitted to enter the colonnade. See galleriaborghese.it/spada/it.
"Made in Italy" as a badge of honour shows how far Italian fashion has come since the 1920s when Roman fashionistas imported everything from Paris. The Via del Corso is the equivalent of London's Oxford Street, lined with international labels and mass-produced fashion. Via dei Condotti and other streets radiating out from Piazza di Spagna offer haute couture. For more funky boutique shopping, try the Monti area, south of Via Nationale.
Even if your knowledge of the Roman Empire is limited to Russell Crowe in Gladiator, this is an imposing structure that could hold 55,000 spectators in its day. You can do a tour that visits the animal (and slave) cages below the original floor of the amphitheatre. Tip: the small lawn and garden provides a welcome foreground to exterior photos of the Colosseum.
The manicured 22-hectare gardens of the Vatican are open to tours and the lawns, flowers and fountains are impressive. Note the Spanish guard on patrol outside the ugly building to the east of St Peter's – Pope Francis refused to move into the Papal Palace declaring, "I'm a priest, not a king", so he has a simple room surrounded by other priests. The radio masts on top of Vatican Hill is where Vatican Radio commenced broadcasting in 1931, with Marconi introducing Pope Pius XI. Two-hour tour, except Wednesday and Sunday. See mv.vatican.va.
If the words Roman Holiday make you think of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rather than pizza and culture, you need to visit this palace. The Gallery where "Princess Ann" was presented at the movie's end is simply more splendid than anything else in a city where magnificence is almost commonplace. The Palazzo is open Saturday mornings from 9am to 1.15pm, entry off via della Pilotta 17, galleriacolonna.it/en/palazzo-colonna/
La Dolce Vita
The heady days of Rome's '60s social life revolved around the Via Veneto and were captured by the Fellini films, 8½ and La Dolce Vita(The Sweet Life). Modern excesses were lovingly framed in Paolo Sorrentino's exquisitely beautiful 2013 film The Great Beauty. An internet search will reveal the sites that star in movies – and the tours to take you there.
Mouth of Truth
It may have originally been a drain cover but, since medieval times, the circular stone face at Santa Maria in Cosmedin has been a testing place. Liars who put their hands in the mouth will lose them. It formed one of the most memorable scenes in Roman Holiday and now there's a line of presumably honest tourists waiting to prove their virtue.
St Peter's & the Pieta
The centre of the Catholic faith, St Peter's is overwhelming. So, too, is St Peter's Square. Photography is freely allowed inside because every rich piece of art is made of stone not light-sensitive paint. Michelangelo contributed the 136.5 metre-high dome – oh, and the Pieta. Bernini designed the baroque canopy over St Peter's tomb. It will be crowded, particularly under this most popular pope, but it's worth exploring in detail. Get there before 9.30am, when guided groups are permitted inside.
Has anyone been to Rome and not been photographed at the Trevi Fountain? Scores of street merchants offer cheap selfie-sticks to ensure the tradition is maintained. From June 2014 to autumn 2015, Salvi's ornate 1762 sculptures are hidden behind scaffolding for an essential renovation (funded by Fendi) but the crowds still arrive. Most throw a coin over their shoulder into the fountain to ensure they return to Rome.
Only Paris has as many must-see sights as Rome – and the Spanish Steps at the eastern end of the Via dei Condotti is certainly on the list. Consequently, the elaborate rococo stairs that were built in 1720 are frequently obscured by tourists, their backpacks and suitcases, and the overflow from the nearby McDonald's.
When in Rome pizza is likely to be on the menu. In the tourist areas it's likely to be overpriced and unimpressive: one pizzeria on the Piazza Barberini proudly displays that it serves "pizza, kebab, sushi" or, effectively, all fast-food groups. A Roman friend recommended Dar Poeta at Vicolo del Bologna 45, a narrow laneway in Trastevere on the south side of the Tiber. It serves excellent pizza made with a slow-rise dough, but if you aren't with locals don't come as a group or you may be banished to the soulless basement. See darpoeta.com
Delis and coffee
Delicatessens and good coffee are welcome features of Rome. For coffee, just look where the Romans have gathered – and avoid the overpriced goldfish-bowl cafes of the Via Veneto. However, for a good deli lunch join the crowds of business people crowded into R Gargani at nearby 15/17 Via Lombardia, garganiroma.com. Alternately, at some time during your time in Rome you will be near the very stylish deli: Salumeria Roscioli at Via dei Giubbonari 21/22, salumeriaroscioli.com.
Like an annoying roundabout in the centre of any town, it seems impossible to travel between any two points in Rome without passing the Victor Emmanuel Monument on Capitoline Hill. Following the lead of the British from the time it was inaugurated in 1911 locals largely dismiss it as the Wedding Cake. That may be because the rest of the Capitoline was designed by Michelangelo and that's a hard act to follow. It's certainly noteworthy and rather pretty, but it's startlingly white.
Rome is built around the seven hills and the River Tiber. The river, its bridges and islands provide a perfect theme for a walk, a run or a cycle. On a sunny day the footpaths (and roads) can be very crowded but the river is at its most atmospheric late at night or at dawn.
It's a uniquely Roman feature that even the manhole covers are worthy of inspection. They are cast with the letters "SPQR" on them – the same ones that were emblazoned on the standards of the Roman legions. It means simple "the senate and people of Rome".
Pantheon & Bernini's elephant
Grey and lumpen, the Pantheon (Temple to All Gods) is one of the most interesting buildings in Rome, not least of all because the large open hole at the top of the dome ensures it's not the place to seek shelter from a storm. It was probably designed as a temple by the Emperor Hadrian in 118 AD and became a church in the 7th century. The foreboding interior is the burial place of many Italian monarchs. In nearby Piazza della Minerva, an obelisk the Romans brought from Egypt is preposterously balanced on a marble elephant sculptured by Bernini.
Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums
It will be crowded and you will be ordered not to take photos but you can't go to Rome and not see the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. Tauck Tours (traveltheworld.com.au/Contact-Us/Brochures/Tauck.html) offers a Rome Event holiday that provides a private after-hours tour followed by dinner in the Vatican.
While Rome is grand, much of the joy lies in the tiny details, like the omnipresent bees in the paintings of the Barbari family and the fountain of Piazza Barbarini. One of the strangest Roman rituals is to walk up tranquil Aventine Hill to the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta where you can look through the keyhole of the ornate wooden doors and see a perfectly framed view of St Peter's dome across the priory gardens.
San Giovanni in Laterano and underground
What is the cathedral of Rome? Nope, it's not St Peter's – that stands on the independent territory of the Vatican. It's San Giovanni in Laterano, founded by the Emperor Constantine and restyled by Borromini in 1646. Even now, only the pope can celebrate mass at the papal altar that stands within. Make sure you visit the Scala Sancta across the road, reputed to be the steps Jesus climbed to see Pontius Pilate. Now for a payment you can enter the Sancta Sanctorum or Holy of Holys and take an underground tour to Marcus Aurelius' home. See biglietteriamusei.vatican.va.
My personal favourite in Rome was also recommended by the Marquis de Sade. The Capuchin crypt under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione at Via Veneto 27 is made up of several small chapels ornately decorated with the bones of some 4000 monks. It's open daily from 9am to 6.30pm. The walls of skulls and the ornate chandeliers of tibia and fibula are beautiful. The motto? "What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you shall be." I shared my first visit with a group of young American Mormons and one fervently declared, "Lord, this is going to be confusing on Judgment Day".
The writer was a guest of Tauck/Travel The World and Emirates Airline.