Standing under the 60-foot-high columns of the ancient Roman Forum, it's not hard to imagine senators and magistrates wandering around in striped tunics and purple-bordered togas. You can almost hear the trumpets announcing the triumphant return of armies from conquests in Gaul, Egypt and Galacia.
Legions of people from faraway places still pass through the Roman gates, but now they're mainly tourists -- close to 10 million a year at last count. And instead of trumpets, you'll hear the putt-putts of motorscooters zipping in and out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Between the tourists and the 3 million people who live here, this is a hustling, bustling town. That aside, most visitors agree that a stay in the Eternal City can be one of the most exciting experiences on the planet.
It's tough deciding what to see first. The Vatican City? The Colosseum? The Forum? The Pantheon? The Circus Maximus? The Trevi Fountain? Capitoline Hill? The Spanish Steps?
One way to take it all (or most of it) in is on group tours aboard buses stopping at the hot spots. "Over a few days," says veteran guide Angela Bosco, "visitors can sample 2,700 years of history... they'll see everything from the palaces of mad emperors to the stunning frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to today's playgrounds of la dolce vita (the sweet life)."
You can sign up for tours of the city at your hotel or before you leave home through your travel agent or on online sites.
Among typical half-day outings, one takes you to the Forum, the Colosseum and the Basilica of St. Paul. Another goes to the Pantheon, the Basilica of St. Peter, Navona Square and the Trevi Fountain. Tour buses or vans pick you up and drop you off at your hotel or at nearby gathering places.
A tip: For tours of the Vatican, you can pay a little extra for a special ticket that lets you go to the head of the horrendous lines of people waiting to get in.
If you'd like to set your own pace, another way to see the sights is to take a day-long trip around Rome on double-decker buses that stop at 17 major sites. For a flat fare, you can hop off and on the buses at any of the stops as often as you like.
Besides the Vatican and other religious sites, one of the city's most popular draws is the Trevi Fountain, made famous by the coin-tossing scene in the 1954 movie Three Coins in the Fountain. The fountain is shown several times during the film with hardly anyone around.
Today, it's hard to even get within tossing distance of the fountain. You'll find it jammed with thousands of tourists, day and night. It's also a favorite haunt of pickpockets. Tip: As a safeguard, men carry their wallets in their front pockets, while women keep an extra-tight grip on their purses. "Fanny packs" are a no-no in crowds.
Still another tough decision is picking places to eat as you wander along blocks packed with outside restaurants. Tip: You're welcome to browse through the restaurants' menus, usually posted at the entrance. Don't let the long names of Italian dishes throw you; look close, and chances are you'll find English translations somewhere on the menu.
One last tip: Planning to bring your electric shaver, hair dryer or other plug-in devices? If so, you'll need a "Type B" outlet adapter (the one with two round prongs). Your hotel might have one available for you to borrow, but don't count on it. Your best bet is buy one before you leave home.
Staying there: Some 100 tourist-class hotels are scattered around the city, including many offering winter discounts through March 14. The upscale Bettoja Hotels group (www.bettojahotels.it), for example, is offering a 50% savings at its four properties in Rome, the Hotel Mediterraneo, the Massimo D'Azeglio, the Atlantico and the Hotel Nord, all said to be within walking distance of the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and other major attractions.
More info: Visit the Italian Government Tourist Board at www.italiantourism.com.
Photo credits: All images by Bob Schulman