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St. Peter's Square, initially designed under the direction of Pope Alexander VII, leads visitors to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.

Photograph by Getty Images

A Guide to the Holy City of Rome, Italy

The rich spiritual and religious history of Rome and the Vatican adds an extra dimension to a visit to Italy, where ancient sites and thriving communities continue to draw modern-day visitors.

Rome, the Eternal City, is home to Vatican City, the 109-acre city-state run by the Catholic Church and the seat of Roman Catholicism. At St. Peter’s Basilica—or St. Peter’s Square if the attending faithful outnumber the 15,000-person capacity of the Basilica—the pope celebrates Mass. St. Peter’s Basilica is soaring, more than 40 stories tall, with a dome designed by Michelangelo. St. Peter the Apostle’s tomb lies under the altar.

Nearby in Rome is the Pantheon, a massive structure that was originally designed as a pagan temple by Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 125. One of Rome’s best preserved ancient buildings, it has been used continuously as a Christian church since the seventh century. The Colosseum, the symbolic, not-to-be-missed Roman landmark built in the first century A.D., was not only the site of gladiatorial fights but also where Christian martyrs were put to death.

When to Go: June and July are high season but also hot. Christian holidays like Easter or Christmas are busy, with many events.

Where to Stay: From Deko Rome, located in a historic, early 20th-century building, you can stroll Via Veneto, the avenue made famous in Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita, just steps away. The Palazzo Manfredi is a small boutique hotel with a perfect view of the Colosseum from the restaurant on the top-floor terrace.

Cultural Tips: Visitors can climb (or take an elevator for an extra fee) to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica for a view of Rome. The Pantheon is still in use as a Catholic church, with Mass celebrated on Sundays and holy days, and it’s open to the public.

What to Read Before You Go: Mary Beard, a well-known English scholar and professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, recently published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. The book, which takes its name from the acronym for a Latin phrase that means “the senate and people of Rome,” is an extensive examination of the Roman Empire.