With this guide you and your cohort will spend your day marching on historic and intriguing sites across Rome using Obelisks as the impressive markers that they are strategically placed to be. More than simply finding out about their fascinating stories and those of the many sights along the way, you will also with every turn be unraveling the layered eternal city neighborhood by neighborhood. Bring your walking shoes and prepare to be rewarded with the best food, gelato, and celebratory drinks the city has to offer. Even the seasoned Rome traveler will get a whole new perspective, coaxing order from an oft-chaotic cityscape.
By following the 13 Obelisks, some Egyptian, some Roman made, you’ll be spending the day on foot retracing history and stopping to enjoy all that the city has to offer.
You are starting at the Piazza del Popolo at the top of the city center, with obelisk Flaminio.
Now, time for a little background. After conquering Sicily in 241 BC in the First Punic War against Carthage, the Romans started coming into contact with the Egyptians. The two Empires would never fight in a full scale war but their stories would become unforgettably intertwined. In 49 BC Julius Caesar’s friend-turned civil war enemy, Pompey, fled to Egypt’s Capital Alexandria for refuge. Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII presented Pompey’s head to Caesar upon his arrival as a gift. An outraged Caesar backed the Pharaoh’s sister Cleopatra with his soldiers and placed her on the throne. The two fell in love, as did the two kingdoms. With the exception of Greece no other civilization had a deeper influence over the Romans, and the Egyptian gods took up starring roles in the Roman pantheon. Augustus made sure the official iconography of the Roman Emperor admitted an exception so that the Emperor could be portrayed as an Egyptian Pharaoh to prove the continuity between the pharaohs and the emperors. Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra and conquered Egypt in 30 BC, bringing from Heliopolis to Rome obelisks dedicated to the Pharaohs Rameses II and Psammetichus II. Over the next several centuries other Obelisks were to follow and were supplemented by some carved by the Romans themselves. Thirteen in all can still be seen in Rome today.
Flaminio was erected in the Circus Maximus with its sister (which you’ll see later in Piazza di Montecitorio) by Emperor Augustus. Created 3200 years ago for Pharoah Rameses II, It fell during the wars between the Byzantines and the Goths for the control of Rome in the VIth century AD. Once found, Flaminio moved to this spot in the 16th century, and the lions were added in 1818. There is a spot you can sit between two lions and stare down three of Rome’s Major streets laid out before you (il Tridente di Roma). To your rear are Bernini’s city gate and the ancient Via Flaminia. Next to the gate is the Santa Maria del Popolo containing some of the finest Caravaggio’s. To its right is a ramp leading to the next leg of your journey, up a switchback road.
Wind your way up the Pincian hill, enjoying the perfect view from the Napolean designed piazza above Piazza del Popolo, and head to where Pinciano stands in the Piazza Bucarest. It marked the grave of the Emperor Hadrian’s partner Antinous, a handsome youth who drowned in the Nile while saving Emperor Hadrian's life (or as some say, a human sacrifice) and soon deified in the Latin West and Greek East. It was brought to Italy, remade, and eventually erected here in 1822.
Retrace what was known as the ritziest walking stretch in town as you head southeast on Viale della Trinita dei Monti passing Villa Medici on your left and running into Sallustiano at the top of the Spanish Steps. It is a 2nd-century copy of the Flaminio, and was erected in 1789.
Keep to the left walking on Via Sistina for several long blocks and you will pass Barberini’s Triton Fountain (Piazza Barberini). Keep going as Via Sistina has now turned into Via delle Quattro Fontane and will lead you straight to Esquiline in front of Santa Maria Maggiore. If you want to make sure you see all thirteen obelisks during this walk, make a detour left on Via del Viminale (3 blocks before you reach Esquiline) and you will find Dogali (brought from Heliopolis by Domitian) across from the Baths of Diocletian. Once you reach Esquiline you will walk down Via Merulana on the other side of Santa Maria Maggiore. Via Merulana will be your best friend if you are undertaking this tour on a hot day, as it’s long expanse is tree lined and heavily shaded. It is almost a mile down Via Merulana and there are several great places to stop for lunch. I Buoni Amici (Via Aleardo Aleardi 4) is the best and about a block from then end. If you are ready to eat sooner, try Ristorante Pizzeria da Michele (Via Merulana 237) or Pizzeria La Cuccuma (Via Merulana 221) after about 4-5 blocks.
Lateranense next to massive Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano is the city’s oldest obelisk, the last one brought from Egypt, and the tallest standing in the world at 140ft. Crafted for Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Tuthmosis IV in 15th Century BC, it was summoned to Rome in 357 AD by Emperor Constantius for use in Circus Maximus. Lateranense toppled during an earthquake, found in 1587 in tree pieces and stationed here to replace the Marcus Aurelius statue, now at the Capitoline Hill. Both have been recently restored. Lateranense also has the best-preserved hieroglyphs.
Make your way down Via dell’Amba Aradam, turning right on Via della Navicella to Villa Celimontana and diminutive Matteiano. It is located in one of the most enchanting parks around, tucked behind the Coloseum. It is a mile to the next Obelisk, but you will now be walking up Via Claudia to walk around the Coloseum and the heart of ancient Rome. On the opposite side of the Coloseum is Via degli Annibaldi, which turns into Via dei Serpenti and then Via della Consulta curving left and leading right to the Piazza del Quirinale. On the way, stop off at Fatamorgana (Piazza degli Zingari 5) for their much loved gelato and Ai Tre Scalini (Via Panisperna 251) maybe the best bar in Rome for standing outside the doors with a group and your well deserved glasses of wine.
Like its sibling Esquiline, Quirinale was erected at the entrance to Augustus’ tomb, later fell in pieces and was covered in that often-flooded area. It was found again in 1781 in three pieces and erected here at Piazza del Quirinale in 1786, under Pope Pius VI. At its base is the Castor and Pollux fountain. These twins were Zeus’s sons, long revered in Rome after intervening in a decisive battle. Behind is the Quirinale Palace, the home of Italian presidents and former summer residence for Popes.
You will now make your way down hill past the always-stunning Trevi Fountain, and nearby treasure San Crispino Gelato (Via della Panetteria, 42) and west several blocks towards the Piazza Montecitorio to find Solare. Made for Psamtik I in the 6th century BC, it was found in Heliopolis by Emperor Augustus. The special ship used to transport it was kept on public display upon its arrival. Solare was lost for centuries and rediscovered in the 18th Century. It is now a working sun-dial when combined with lines in the surrounding pavement. If your are ready for some food, Salotto 42 (Piazza di Pietra 42) and Antonio al Pantheon (Via dei Pastini, 12) are both great choices.
From here it is a short jaunt southwest to the Pantheon, guarded by Macuteo. This delicate Obelisk was positioned in the Temple of Isis (some remains can be viewed in an alleyway nearby) after Domitian brought it from Egypt. In 1711 Pope Clement XI placed it here at the center of Giacomo della Porta's fountain, complete with water-squirting dolphins.
Just behind the Pantheon stands Minerveo in the Piazza di Minerva.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s elephant carries Minerveo with pride. It made the trip to Rome alongside Macuteo to be used in the Temple of Isis. At some point it toppled and was resurrected in 1665. Be sure to step inside the Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva to gaze at the starry blue ceiling above.
Now head west up Via di Santa Chiara to seek Agonalis in the center of overwhelming Piazza Navona. On the way is the best Espresso in town at Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe. Agonalis rises from the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers. The hieroglyphics record the emperor's devotion to the goddess Serapis. You can still see her horned portrait. Ristorant Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28) Etabli (Vicolo delle Vacche 9) and Bar Del Fico (Piazza del Fico 26) are great for drinks and Da Francesco (Piazza del Fico 29) for dinner.
When you are ready to end your Obelisk hunt, walk west across the Tiber and into the outstretched arms of St. Peter’s Square where you can’t miss Vaticano. Erected in Alexandria by the Romans themselves for Augustus in the first Century BC, Vaticano was moved to Rome by Caligula who placed it in the Circus he had built which was later named after Emperor Nero. This obelisk never fell and during the Middle Ages they said this was due to Nero’s alleged sorcery. It used to be crowned by a now lost bronze globe, which was said to hold the ashes of Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius. Vaticano was the first obelisk to be re-erected in modern times as the first element of this awe-inspiring piazza. Legend has it that in 1586, Pope Sixtus V ordered the massive crowd of spectators to remain silent under threat of execution as a small army of men lifted it. The ropes were on the verge of snapping from the enormous weight, and a sailor of Genoa risked his life, screaming, "Water on the ropes!" and thus saved the obelisk from crashing into pieces. The grateful Pope Sixtus V ordered that henceforth all the Vatican's Palm Sunday fronds would be purchased in Bordighera near Genoa, and they still are today.