Palazzo Altemps: The Best Rome Museum Not On Your List

Palazzo Altemps, a great museum in Rome

I can completely geek out on museums in Rome. So here’s an embarrassing confession for you: until a few months ago, I’d never been to Palazzo Altemps. And that’s even though, as one of the National Rome Museums, Palazzo Altemps was on the same entry ticket as some of my other favorites — Palazzo Massimo and Crypta Balbi in particular.

I told you. Embarrassing. Even more so when I went in December and realized just how much I’d been missing.

Brief background: Palazzo Altemps is, itself, a stunning 15th-century palace (albeit one with foundations that date back to an ancient Roman house) just around the corner from Piazza Navona. In 1568, a German cardinal with a penchant for ancient sculpture purchased it, and thus the collection was born. Although many objects have since been parceled off to other museums (the Louvre, for one), some extraordinary pieces remain — backdropped by frescoed rooms with painted, wood-beamed ceilings. And did I mention that you might be in these rooms by yourself? (It seems I’m not the only one who left Palazzo Altemps near the bottom of my to-do list).

Like this guy: the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which dates to the 3rd century; it was discovered near the Porta Tiburtina in 1621.

The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps
The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Because in case you missed it: the expressions on the pair in the middle — the Roman soldier, and the barbarian he’s about to slaughter — seem like exquisite portrayals of the kind of emotions that would actually be running through your veins (if there were room for any aside from ongoing expletives, that is).

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How to Spend a Rainy Day in Rome

Rain in Rome day itinerary
Rain in Rome… doesn’t mean all is lost!

‘Tis the season… for rain in Rome. (Ah, November!). And in a city where so many of the sights are outdoors, and so much is meant to be explored on foot, rain can feel like a real deal-breaker.

It’s not.

Sure: There are always the Vatican museums. And if you’re lucky, maybe you booked your Borghese Gallery or Palazzo Valentini tickets for exactly the day the skies opened up.

But let’s go beyond the obvious, shall we? Here’s what I’d call the perfect rainy day in Rome: an itinerary that hits up spots that are cozy, indoors, off-the-beaten-path, interesting — and located in neighborhoods that, while charming, aren’t so cobblestoned-street-picturesque that you’ll be upset to miss the chance to photograph them at their sunny best.

So get your umbrellas ready (and, by the way, one good thing about rain in Rome is that, as soon as it starts, umbrella-sellers pop up all over the city. So it’s okay if you’ve forgotten yours. Just, please, barter the sellers down to 2 or 3 euros for a small one; it’ll fall apart by the end of the day anyway!).

Let’s go! (And don’t miss my post on five reasons not to mind the rain in Rome, in pictures!).

9:30am: Coffee and cornetti at Cafe Barberini

Rain in Rome, have a coffee!
The morning bustle at Cafe Barberini

No matter where you’re staying in Rome, the neighborhood of Testaccio is easy to get to: You can take the metro (get off at Piramide, then walk five minutes) or a number of buses (including the 3 and 75).

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Cleopatra Returns to Rome: New Exhibit at the Chiostro del Bramante

Cleopatra exhibit in Rome, Italy
A sculpture of Cleopatra done in her lifetime, one of the 180 pieces on display at the Cleopatra exhibit in Rome. Photo courtesy of Foto Musei Vaticani.

Cleopatra, history’s most famous (and possibly fascinating) queen, is the insipiration for a new exhibit in Rome: “Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt.”

On at the Chiostro del Bramante until February, the show’s aim is to contextualize Cleopatra’s life and times. It brings together more than 180 pieces from the ancient world, including frescoes, mosaics, jewelry, coins, and, yes, portraits of the major players, including several never-before-publicly-shown portraits of Cleopatra herself.

Read more about the exhibit in my latest article for the BBC.

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An Exhibit of Stolen (and Recovered) Art, for the BBC

Stolen art on display in Rome
Fresco from a Pompeii villa that was looted from Italy, and then returned—and now on display at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

Art looting is a serious problem in Italy. (And elsewhere). Don’t believe me? If you’re in Rome before November 5, check out the Capolavori dell’archeologia exhibit at Castel Sant’Angelo, which gives just a taste of the extent of the problem, thanks to stunning, priceless pieces that were stolen from Italy… and later recovered.

And if you can’t make it there—or want to know what to expect—make sure you check out my story on the exhibit for the BBC.

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Rome’s Best Events in Summer

Tiber festival during summer in Rome
The festival along the Tiber, one of the best summer events in Rome

Great events in Rome happen year-round… but some of my favorites happen to take place during the summer. So when it comes to summer in Rome, don’t worry: It’s not all about figuring out how to skip the lines and survive the heat. It’s also about some great summer events.

Best festivals for nightlife

My favorite: hands-down, the Lungo Il Tevere summer festival. This is when the Tiber River is lined with almost a mile of shops, stalls, bars, and restaurants. And it’s open until 2am. Come mid-June, every in-the-know Roman starts heading there to meet up with friends and have a drink, dance, or even just a stroll.

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Titian Comes to Rome’s Quirinale, And It’s a Show You Won’t Want to Miss

Titian exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale
Titian’s charming Danae, just one of dozens of masterpieces on display now at the Quirinale

The much-anticipated exhibit Tiziano (Titian) opened this week at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale. I have one word: Go! 

 So many retrospectives can’t get their hands on a painter’s best masterpieces, but not this one. There are no fewer than 39 works by Titian—you know, the most famous artist to ever come out of Venice, and the most important Italian artist of the 16th century. And they range from the incredible Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (which has an estimated value of 50 million euro, by the way) to the iconic La Bella to the charming Danae. 

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Three Top Sights in Rome… That Must Be Booked in Advance

At the Borghese, which must be reserved

Want to see Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love"? Then you have to book your spot

For some of the best sights in Rome, you don't need to worry about reservations, or tickets, or a booking. You can waltz right into the Pantheon, explore Rome's lovely small churches, or gawk at Rome's archaeological treasures in the Palazzo Massimo without so much as a booking.

But some of Rome's coolest experiences do need to be planned in advance. How you'll get into the Colosseum or Sistine Chapel without standing in a 3-hour line, for example. (More on that in a future post). And some actually need to be booked.

Yes, you heard me. In the land of la dolce vita and 2-hour lunch breaks, there are tourist sights you can't get into unless you have a reservation.

And here they are.

St. Peter’s tomb

The necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica—which includes what’s thought to be the tomb of St. Peter—makes a super-cool visit for anyone, not just pilgrims. The ancient tombs here are both pagan and Christian, many still with elaborate mosaic decoration; it gives you a great idea of what a 1st-century, above-ground cemetery would have looked like.

But because the archaeological site is delicate, only 250 visitors can enter per day, on tours only, and must book in advance. Note that visitors also must be at least 15 years old.

To book, email scavi@fsp.va or fax +39 0669873017. You also can ask at the Excavations Office when you’re in Rome, but because these tours tend to book out weeks ahead of time, I wouldn't wait until then to do so. Make sure to include the number of participants, names, which language you need, how to contact you, and the period when you’re available to attend.

Borghese Gallery

Borghese Gallery must be booked in advance

The Borghese Gallery, which must be booked in advance

This is my favorite art museum in Rome, and it’s absolutely a must-see. To keep it a pleasant experience, however (and to protect the art), the museum limits the number of people who can be inside at any one time. Entrances are at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm, daily except Monday. Book at least a week in advance in high season.

To book, either go to galleriaborghese.it and click on “Tickets reservations” or call +39 0632810. There is a €1.50 surcharge per ticket for booking online. You also can automatically get a reservation by booking a tour with a reputable tour company.

Palazzo Valentini

Palazzo Valentini
If the Borghese is my favorite art museum, this is my favorite ancient, underground site. (Although that sounds quite specific I can assure you that, in a city chock-full of them, it’s not!). Smack in the center of Rome, not far from the Forum, the 16th-century palazzo sits on top of two opulent, ancient Roman villas. An (enthusiastic! and dramatic!) automated tour takes you through them as—drumroll, please—light shows “recreate” what they would have looked like.

You can book online at palazzovalentini.it (just make sure you pick an English, “inglese,” tour!). Or you can call +39 0632810, or make an appointment in person. However, particularly in high season or if you have limited time, I’d recommend booking this at least a week in advance.

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How Should I Schedule My Sightseeing in Rome?

Not everything’s open every day in Rome. The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel close one day a week; so do lots of favorite restaurants and shops.

So when planning your trip to Rome, it pays to have a basic idea of what day in the week is best for which sight or activity. Here’s help. (In the form of a “rhyme.” Move aside, Shakespeare Keats Dr. Seuss Eddie Mannix).

And here it is… in video form!

Dreaming of the Sistine Chapel? Then don’t go on a Sunday

Vatican museums, closed Sundays

You’ll also be out of luck if you were hoping to see the School of Athens.

The Vatican museums (which include the Sistine Chapel) are open every day but Sunday. On the last Sunday of the month, they are open and free, but it’s not something I recommend if you value your vacation time; the line is often three hours or more (and you can’t book a ticket in advance on the Vatican website). St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily; on Sunday, the Pope appears at 12pm to an audience on the square, and on Wednesday, he has his general audience at 10:30am.

Best time to go to the Vatican: Wednesday morning, as the museums tend to be emptier while the Pope does his audience; otherwise, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays, since Saturday and Monday tend to be crowded with people who would have gone on Sunday.

And stay away from smaller churches—at least if it is midday

Most churches are open daily in Rome. However, many of the more off-the-beaten-path churches also close midday, some for as long as from 12pm to 4pm, so always check. On Sunday, remember that they may be holding Mass and more ceremonies than usual, which can make it more difficult (or forbidden) to walk around to sightsee. 

Best time to go: Morning or evening, except for Sundays (unless you want to see Mass).

On Monday, many museums are a no-go

Palazzo Massimo, closed Mondays

Palazzo Massimo, closed on Mondays

Most of Rome’s best museums close on Mondays, but are open every other day of the week. These include the Borghese GalleryPalazzo BarberiniPalazzo MassimoCrypta BalbiMAXXICastel Sant’Angelo, and the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Best time to go: Tuesday through Friday; weekends tend to be more crowded than weekdays (not that that’s much of a problem at some of these places, like the Crypta Balbi).

While for lots of restaurants, it’s the day of riposo

Many of Rome’s restaurants have one “day of rest,” even though this is no longer government-mandated. This day is typically—but not always—Monday, and sometimes Sunday for lunch and/or dinner as well (particularly for restaurants that are more elegant or upscale; since Sunday is a big pizza night, pizzerias are usually open Sunday). Some restaurants, like popular Da Francesco near Piazza Navona, close Tuesday instead.

Best time to show up without a reservation or calling in advance: Wednesday or Thursday. Popular places tend to have a wait on Friday or Saturday nights, and if you’re heading somewhere on a Monday, you’ll want to call in advance (or look it up) to make sure they’re open. 

There is a catacomb open every day (phew!)

Luckily, no matter what day you’re planning on going, at least one catacomb will be open. Just make sure it’s the right one! The catacombs of St. Sebastian close on SundaySanta Priscilla closes Monday, St. Domitilla closes Tuesday, and St. Callixtus closes Wednesday. They also close on most major holidays and over the lunch hour, so double-check the hours on the websites.

Best time to go to the catacombs: When they’re open—and not on the weekend, which tends to be more crowded.

And the Colosseum and forum are open daily, too

Rome's ancient sights open every day

Rome’s ancient forum

Most of Rome’s most famous ancient sights are open daily, including the Colosseum, forum, Palatine, and Pantheon (although the Pantheon does close slightly earlier on Sundays, at 6pm rather than 7:30pm). The Baths of Caracalla also open daily (but close at 2pm on Mondays).

Best time to go: Anytime—although to avoid lines and crowds at the Colosseum and forum, opt to either be there first thing in the morning (i.e. 8:30am), or later in the day (many people clear out by 3pm).

And shops can be tough on Sunday, unless they’re big and new

Shops in the heart of Rome’s center—particularly on Via del Corso, around Piazza Navona, and near major sights—are open every day. Especially the chains. (But we know how I feel about those). More interesting and better Smaller shops, which don’t have the staff to open daily, tend to close one day a week; for many, this is Sunday. Lots of them stay closed through Monday morning. Many of the smaller stores also close midday, like churches.

Best time to go shopping: Monday through Saturday, outside of lunchtime; to avoid shopping crowds in high-trafficked areas, try not to shop in the evening or on weekends.

 

Want more tips about what to do in the Eternal City? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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Rome with Kids: 8 Ways to Make Sightseeing Fun (Or At Least Less Painful)

Traveling in Rome with children

Want your kid in Rome to look as happy as this one? Then you'll need to do some planning…

Sightseeing with kids in Rome? The bad news: Because of their skew towards art, history, and archaeology, some of Rome's sights can seem less than immediately child-friendly. The good news: There's enough here to keep kids entertained and happy. If you do it right. Truly.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you're sightseeing in Rome with children.

1) Make sure you don't stand in any lines

Kids hate standing in line as much as adults do. They're just (usually) worse at hiding it. So make sure you avoid the lines at the top sights. At the Colosseum, use a RomaPass or get your ticket at the Palatine or Forum entrance; at the Vatican, cough up the extra €4 (yes, per person) and book your Vatican museums tickets in advance

2) Know the limits of thy stroller

Rome by stroller

Okay, these stairs to Santa Maria in Aracoeli might be a little tough with a stroller…

I've said it before: Rome is a city best explored by walking. That might be fine if you have a super-energetic 10-year-old. But traveling with a toddler? You'll definitely want a stroller.

Just bear in mind that Rome is a city of cobblestones and ruins. Translation: Any stroller you bring should have nice, sturdy wheels. It should also be light, because you'll sometimes wind up having to fold it up and carry it—at the Colosseo metro stop, for example (there's no elevator, just stairs), or at your B&B or hotel (many have tiny elevators, or sometimes no elevator at all). 

Also keep in mind that you won't always be able to use your stroller. They're forbidden in St. Peter's Basilica, for example (you can check them before you enter). So it might be a good idea to also bring a backpack child-carrier. 

One thing not to worry about? Getting strollers on and off buses and public transportation. Yes, it can be daunting—but you'd be surprised at just how many strangers will help you with the task.

How to travel with kids in Rome in a stroller

Make sure you have a sturdy stroller for all the cobblestones!

3) Hit up sights children will love

I promise that they exist. Some favorites:

Palazzo Valentini makes ancient Rome come alive in a way I haven't seen in Rome before; because it's very dark, which can scare little ones, it's best for ages six and up.

I haven't done this yet myself, but at Gladiator School, kids (and adults) can try their hand at being gladiators, donning their tunics and duking it out with foam swords. Talk about making history hands-on. Apparently, even toddlers can participate.

Exploring the "hidden" ancient ruins beneath Rome's churches, like at San Nicola in Carcere or the Basilica of San Clemente, turns a church visit into an Indiana Jones-style adventure for older kids.

Underground in Rome with kids

The underground of San Nicola in Carcere

For children who like the creepier side of things, the catacombs are as spooky as they get. You're lucky if you see a bone, though (most were cleaned out by relics-seekers and grave-robbers years ago), so for that, head to the Capuchin Crypts, where the walls and ceilings are decorated with bones and the actual bodies of the deceased on display.

The "Mouth of Truth" is pretty goofy—it's a possibly-ancient marble image of a face that gained worldwide fame after Audrey Hepburn stuck her hand in in Roman Holiday. And there's always a line in high season. But I know I dragged my dad there when I was 13.

These days, Piazza Navona is essentially a breathtaking tourist trap. But the square does buzz with street performers and caricaturists, making it a draw for families. And during Christmas season, it's home to Rome's most famous Christmas market.

5) Find the kid-friendly parts of more "adult" sights 

Like at the Vatican museums. Which—let's be honest—can be tough with kids: There aren't many places to sit, eat, or go to the bathroom, and unless you sprint through the long halls, it's tough to get in and out in less than two hours, minimum.

Given that, one part you don't want to miss? The Egyptian section, which even displays a 3,000-year-old mummy with her hair and toenails still preserved. (Ew!). 

6) But remember that (almost) anything can be made interesting to kids

Seeing art in Rome with kids

Raphael's frescoes in the Chiostro del Bramante

I mean, yes, the finer points of Renaissance art are lost on most 6-year-olds. But there is always some way to bring it down to your child's age level. (This is coming from someone who spent a childhood of being endlessly entertained in art galleries and historical museums. No, I'm not being sarcastic. And it's due to my family, who seriously tried to always make sure I connected, somehow, with what I was looking at. Thanks, Mom!).

Case in point: Old Master paintings. Of saints. In a museum. Not something you'd assume was child-friendly. Right?

But maybe it can be. Maybe you can, say, find an art guide to the museum—a book in the bookstore, or even just the museum brochure—and your 7-year-old can try to find the "matches" of the images in the brochure with the paintings she sees on the wall.

Or maybe you and your 10-year-old can play a game of "name that saint," since artists generally characterized different martyrs and saints in consistent ways (St. Jerome is usually old with a red hat and a lion nearby, St. Peter has the keys, St. Sebastian holds some arrows). Or maybe your 13-year-old will be intrigued by the gory stories of why the martyrs are depicted that way (St. Sebastian has arrows because… he was shot full of arrows during his martyrdrom!). Or maybe, if neither of you know, you can try to figure it out and retell what you think is going on in the painting.

Make anything child friendly in Rome

Make this Pinturicchio painting (in the Borghese Gallery) into a game of "Name That Saint"!

Or maybe you just give your kid a sketchbook and your whole family spends 20 minutes sitting and drawing in front of a painting that catches your eye.

Seriously. You can make almost anything fun. And when all else fails, well, there's always that coloring book/iPhone game you brought along.

7) Think about taking a family-friendly tour

Telling stories about saints and martyrs is a lot easier when you know the stories. Oh, you don't?

That's when a tour guide comes in handy.

A great, enthusiastic tour guide can bring art and sights to life, for both adults and kids. In Rome, one sights where I think that's an especially valuable option is the "ancient city," i.e. the Colosseum Palatine and Forum. After all, there's so much storytelling potential here: The history of these sights is full of blood and gore, treachery and romance, pagan rituals and horrible punishments. And (did I mention?) it's all true!  

How to make the Roman forum child friendly

The forum: a little daunting for parents (and boring for kids) unless you plan it right

But if you don't know the stories yourself, or if you have a dry audioguide, or guidebook, or tour guide, then all of that gets lost. And that's a shame. So no matter what tour company you go with, just make sure their guides get top points for being exciting and enthusiastic.

I promise that after you've had a guide bring the ruins to life, your child will be psyched for the "ancient Rome" unit in school. 

Another tour I've come across that's perfect for kids is Walks of Italy's Rome food tour. Yes, these are the guys I blog for–but they're also the only tour company that offers a Rome food tour that includes not only tons of tastings and a market visit, but a hands-on pizza-making class. Pretty fun, especially for children.

8) Don't discount Rome's parks

In Rome with kids? Head to a park

The kid-friendly Villa Borghese

Rome's parks offer, obviously, green space for kids to run around (or rest) in. And (bonus!) they often sneak in "cultural sites," like ancient ruins or Renaissance villas, too.

If you're near the Colosseum, for example, considering taking a rest or a picnic in the Villa Celimontana, a 16th-century estate turned public park that's strewn with the remnants of ancient temples and palaces, including columns, statues and a temple altar. There's even an ancient Egyptian obelisk inscribed to Ramses II from the 13th century B.C.

Near the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo? Head to the Villa Borghese, Rome's answer to Central Park. It has fantastic museums, but also fountains, a (small) pond where you can rent boats, lots of shade, and the opportunity to rent those funny pedi-cabs you can pedal around the park. In Trastevere, the Villa Pamphili has plenty of space for little ones to run around. 

Farther out, the Appian Way is a park where you can rent bicycles and bike along the 2,300-year-old Roman road, checking out spooky catacombs along the way. And the Park of the Aqueducts is a cool glimpse of how ancient Romans brought water into the city.

 

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