Like a night’s sky scattered with stars, Rome is a city sprinkled with a vibrant energy that comes in the form of its countless piazzas. These vivacious and dynamic hubs come in all shapes and sizes and are a true microcosm of the Roman spirit; a space to meet, greet and eat as well as take a moment to watch the world go by. For me to people watch in a piazza is to witness la vera vita romana (the real Rome life).
From the touristy treasures to the local’s choice, here is a definitive list of Rome’s top piazzas.
Piazza San Pietro
If you were to use the language of piazzas to define the word impressive, then this is what would spring to mind. The much-celebrated Piazza San Pietro is the piazza for any lover of art and architecture. Serving as the entrance to the spectacle of St Peter’s Basilica, the square is in itself an architectural feat. The embracing curved colonnades are made up of 284 columns and 88 pilasters and are said to symbolize the ‘maternal arms of Mother church’. The mastermind behind this striking square is none other than Baroque favorite, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who outdid himself not just with the colonnades themselves, but also with the 140 statues of the saints that survey their piazza. In the center, you can’t miss the imposing 25-metre high Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome way back in AD 37. Despite the swarming tourists, it would be impossible to come to Rome, and more precisely, the Vatican City and not marvel at the bustling beauty of this historical hub.
A top choice for any fountain chaser, there’s much more to Piazza Navona than the famous water features. Whilst Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumitakes center stage, flanked by Giacomo della Porta’s Fontana del Moro and Fontana del Nettuno, looking beyond this tremendous trio, you’ll see a piazza brimming with artists, performers, musicians, and caricaturists. And the theatrical nature to this piazza is nothing new. Starting out as the Circus Agonalis athletics arena in AD 79, it was later the site of jousting tournaments in the middle ages and then between the 17th and 19thcenturies it hosted mighty water pageants as the nobility re-enacted the ancient battles for an eager audience. Now lined with alfresco caffés perfect for viewing the modern day street spectacles (though beware of the tourist pricing), the piazza is also home to the 17th century Palazzo Pamphili, which today houses the Brazilian Embassy.
This is the piazza with the best view in town. Slightly out of the center, Piazzale Garibaldi is found atop Trastevere’s Gianicolo hill, which in 1870 became a place to honor the freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi after liberation from papal rule. As well as the large statue of Garibaldi on horseback, the terrace also offers a vast panorama of the entire city below. It’s an ultimate spot for a quiet pause, not to mention a great setting to get that perfect Instagram. Get the most out of Piazzale Garibaldi in the sunset hours where you can enjoy a glass of vino and soak up the surrounding cityscape.
Piazza del Popolo
One of Rome’s larger piazzas, the oval shaped Piazza del Popolo was designed in 1818 by Giuseppe Valadier. Overlooked by the verdant Villa Borghese, there is something at every angle of this square to catch your eye. To the North is the 16th century arched Porta del Popolo that marks the antique gateway into Ancient Rome. Once inside this grand entrance, you are faced with yet another commanding Egyptian obelisk, which was originally erected in Circus Maximus before Pope Sixtus had it relocated to this Piazza in 1589. Three main roads lead off from the Piazza del Popolo forming what has come to be known as ‘the Trident’. These streets include Via del Babuino (leading to Piazza di Spagna), Via del Corso (a 1-mile direct route to Piazza Venezia) and Via di Ripetta.
Piazza Santa Maria
This piazza is nestled in the heart of Trastevere and takes its name from its own Basilica Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome. The steps of the fountain provide a rest stop where you can enjoy a gelato after traversing Trastevere’s labyrinth of narrow streets. Being in one of Rome’s gastronomic hotspots, you will be met with a multitude of local bars and restaurants, which spill out into the square and by night, Piazza Santa Maria cranks up the volume as a popular destination for those seeking a good time. At first glance, it’s perhaps not as grand or monumental as the likes of Piazza San Pietro or Piazza Venezia, but without a doubt will provide you with a Roman summer night in all its authenticity.
Piazza di Spagna
Named so for the nearby residence of the Spanish Ambassador to the Vatican, Piazza di Spagna is Rome’s high fashion runway with visitors from all over the world strutting their stuff as they indulge in the copious designer labels that inundate the surrounding cobbled streets. Even more impressive than these esteemed establishments, is the gorgeous piazza itself; home, of course to the renowned Spanish Steps that cascade down from the 16th-century French church of Trinità dei Monti and conclude at Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia. The steps are a favorite among top fashion houses and have often been used as the perfect stage for summer fashion shows. Moreover, as a go to tourist destination, Piazza di Spagna can be enjoyed all year long as during the springtime they are decorated lavishly with pink azaleas whilst over the Christmas period, naturally, a nativity scene takes pride of place.
Piazza della Rotonda
For a trip back to antiquity, nowhere is better than Piazza della Rotonda where one can enjoy a morning coffee or an evening cocktail with the unparalleled view of the great Pantheon, Ancient Rome’s best-preserved monument. Today the Pantheon is a functioning church under the name of Santa Maria Rotonda (hence the name of the square) with Masses being held each Sunday. One truly magical tradition is that of the Pentecost Sunday where thousands of red rose petals rain down from the oculus to symbolize the Holy Spirit coming down to Earth and the blood that Jesus Christ shed for the people. Out in the piazza stands Della Porta’s 1570 Fontana del Pantheon along with the obelisk added in 1711.
Campo de’ Fiori
Made famous by its vibrant and colourful market, bursting with the freshest fruits, vegetables and flowers, Campo de’ Fiori is a lively core of the southern section of the Centro Storico. However, this piazza has not always been home to such exuberance. In the 17th century the scene was much more sinister as it played host to public executions. A reminder of this darker past remains in the form of the foreboding statue of philosopher Giordano Bruno who was burnt alive on this very site in 1600. Thankfully, as time has moved on this authentic marketplace has become ever-more appealing. It’s name Campo de’ Fiori is Italian for ‘field of flowers’ which recalls its much rosier past as a meadow in the Middle Ages.
Piazza della Madonna dei Monti
Little and local, Piazza della Madonna dei Monti is found in the trendy Monti neighborhood just a short walk away from the Colosseum. Along with yet another of Giacomo della Porta’s fountains, a favorite among visitors is the charming restaurant Bottega del Caffè which, in this sun-trap of a piazza, provides a shaded terrace for a light lunch or aperitivo. Continually shape-shifting between the quiet corner and animated hang out, you’re guaranteed to come across a whole cast of characters whilst you take a moment to check your map and enjoy a gelato.
Piazza del Campidoglio
Piazza del Campidoglio is a renaissance frame of an ancient heart. This ancient cuore (heart) comes from the fact that it is located on the Capitoline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome and once the Capitol and sacred site of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus. Since then, in the 16thcentury, the renaissance hero Michelangelo designed the piazza and its surrounding palaces. The centerpiece of this geometric masterpiece is the 2nd century AD bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius or at least a very convincing copy. The original is being kept safe inside the Musei Capitolini that have taken over the sites of the old palaces of Campidoglio. In addition to all of this, the jewel in this piazza’s crown is its exceptional view that stretches right across the Forum and Colosseum.
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