Climbing Rome: The Eternal City's Seven Hills

Rome’s seven hills are the stuff of legend and a fun starting point to explore the city.

If you’ve trudged up the Janiculum or Pincian Hills for their panoramic views, visited the Vatican, or gazed up at the observatory on Monte Mario, you’ll know that Rome is made up of many more than seven hills. But the ancient nucleus of the city, settled over a millennium-long period, covered seven specific now-legendary hills. Each one offers its own fascinating history and many sights worth seeing, so lace up your walking shoes and join us for a tour of all seven hills.

House of Augustus, Palatine Hill, Rome
House of Augustus on Palatine Hill (©Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock)

Palatine

This is the hill where it all began. According to legend, twin brothers Romulus and Remus, abandoned at birth, were discovered by a mythical she-wolf who kept them alive until they were adopted by a shepherd. After slaying his twin, Romulus eventually founded his own tribe, supposedly named for him, right here on this hill, and thus Rome began. The earliest settlement was called the Città Quadrata (literally the square city) and was entirely confined to the Palatine Hill. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Rome’s great emperors, who came along a good seven centuries after Romulus, chose to build their own palaces on the same site.

From Augustus’ relatively modest abode to the colossal palaces of Domitian and Septimius Severus, the imperial residences of the Palatine Hill provided the origin of the word “palace” in a number of languages. The hill can be visited with the same ticket you’ll need for the Colosseum, so you’ve really got no excuse not to go. Give yourself at least an hour to thoroughly explore the ruins, from the gloriously frescoed rooms of the Houses of Livia and Augustus, to the sprawling palaces of the Flavian and Severan dynasties (Via di San Gregorio).

Capitoline Museum, Rome
Capitoline Museum (©aaron choi/Shutterstock)

Capitoline

The Capitoline Hill is second only to the Palatine in terms of historical importance. The Capitoline was both the center of religious life in ancient Rome, and the site of its earliest citadel. It was here that Rome’s most sacred place of worship stood, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, completed by King Tarquinius Superbus in the 5th century BC. The hill was also the site of ancient justice. Traitors to the republic were thrown to their deaths off the Tarpeian Rock, a sheer cliff face named for the Roman maiden who betrayed Rome to the Sabine king Titus Tatius.

The primitive ruins of the Temple of Jupiter can be viewed at the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio, 1), famously the oldest public museum in the world. The museum boasts a collection of ancient sculptures including such world-famous pieces as the Spinario, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Dying Gaul, and of course, the Capitoline She-Wolf, official symbol of the city. The museum also contains splendorous Mannerist frescoes depicting scenes from the early history of Rome, and the piazza in front features a dazzling 12-pointed star design, the work of Michelangelo. While on the hill, don’t miss Santa Maria in Aracoeli church, perched atop a precipitous staircase. The other major site on the Capitoline Hill is the early-20th-century Altar of the Fatherland, also known as the Vittoriano. This site hosts numerous temporary exhibitions, and a glass elevator whisks visitors up to the rooftop for one of the best panoramic views of the city (Piazza Venezia).

Aventine

While Romulus was busy furrowing the sacred boundary of his brand-new Città Quadrata, his twin brother Remus was scheming to build a city of his own on the Aventine Hill, just across the Murcia Valley (today the Circus Maximus) from the Palatine. Remus’ plans were foiled when he was killed by his brother. Perhaps as a result, the Aventine became the home of the city’s foreign residents, although today it is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the entire city. The hill boasts numerous unspoiled medieval churches, such as 7th-century San Saba (Piazza Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 20) and 5th-century Santa Sabina (Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, 1).

At the latter, you’ll find a set of ancient marble columns that were “borrowed” from the now-disappeared Temple of Diana that once stood nearby, as well as the miraculously preserved original wooden doors. Look closely at the doors’ upper panels to find the world’s very first representation of the crucifixion of Christ. After visiting the churches, don’t miss two of the best views in Rome. The famous keyhole of the Knights of Malta (Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta) affords a one-of-a-kind view of St. Peter’s to anyone who peeks through it, and the nearby Orange Garden is a lush oasis with a sweeping panorama of the city, the ideal spot for a spring picnic.

Caelian

In ancient times this hill, which rises behind the Colosseum, was a quiet residential area for Rome’s elite. In the Middle Ages, a number of churches began to spring up in the area, and many of them happily remain little changed today. Santo Stefano Rotondo (Via di San Nicola da Tolentino, 13) was built in the 5th century; its circular floor plan, ancient columns, and light shafts from high windows give it a haunting and mysterious feel. Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Piazza Santi Giovanni e Paolo) is another fascinating medieval church. Although it was repeatedly sacked in the early Middle Ages, it nevertheless retains its Romanesque bell tower, columned portico, and original floor plan.

Perhaps even more intriguing are the ancient Roman houses it was built upon. For a nominal fee, visitors can descend to the underground level to explore the frescoed rooms of a number of surprisingly well-preserved domuses. Santa Maria in Domnica (Via della Navicella, 10), with its 9th-century apse mosaics, is another spectacular medieval church that shouldn’t be missed. A perfect way to unwind after a morning of church hopping is a walk in Villa Celimontana (Via della Navicella, 12). This delightful park stunningly combines nature and culture, as numerous ancient artifacts and baroque fountains mingle with Roman pine trees and other luxuriant greenery.

Presidential Palace, Quirinale Hill, Rome
View of the Quirinale Palace (©Angelo Ferraris/Shutterstock)

Quirinale

During Rome’s earliest history, the Quirinal Hill to the northeast of town was the location of the settlements of the Sabine tribes, and the site of a temple to their god Quirinus, hence the hill’s name. Today it hosts the residence of Italy’s head of state, the Quirinal Palace (Piazza del Quirinale), a sumptuous edifice boasting frescoes, tapestries, and architectural details by Maderno, Fontana, and Bernini. Right next door is the Scuderie del Quirinale (Via XXIV Maggio, 16), originally the palace’s stables, but now one of the most prestigious exhibition spaces in town, currently hosting a Matisse show.

Between these two buildings, Piazza del Quirinale boasts an obelisk, massive sculptures of Castor and Pollux with their horses, and a fantastic view of the city. The Quirinal Hills is also home to one of the city’s most magnificent and undiscovered museums, Palazzo Barberini (Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13), with a dizzying collection of works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Holbein, El Greco, Titian, Bronzino, da Cortona, and many more. After your visit, don’t miss two neighboring masterpieces by Rome’s greatest architect-rivals, the churches of Sant’Andrea del Quirinale (Via del Quirinale, 29) by Bernini, and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Via del Quirinale, 23) by Borromini. Another magnificent church absolutely not to be missed, famous for its unusual curving baroque staircase, is Santi Domenico e Sisto (Largo Angelicum, 1).

Esquiline

Along with the Caelian, the Esquiline Hill was another fashionable residential district in ancient Rome. Today it is the city’s international hub, with a higher population of foreign residents—mostly from Asia and Africa—than any other part of the historic center. The neighborhood’s famous market reflects this multiethnic vibe, abounding with produce, spices, meats, condiments, and more, from all over the world. Originally located in Piazza Vittorio, the area’s central square, the market has recently moved indoors at Via Principe Amedeo, 184, but it still provides all the color and flavor that it’s famous for.

This vibrant neighborhood also boasts one of the city’s four most important (and biggest) churches: Santa Maria Maggiore (Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, 42). Despite its somewhat incongruous neo-classical façade, the church retains much of its medieval decoration. This is most spectacularly illustrated by the 5th-century mosaics along the nave and on the triumphal arch, some of which depict the very earliest representations of the Virgin Mary in art.

Piazza della Republica, Viminal Hill, Rome
Piazza della Republica at the summit of the Viminal Hill (©Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock)

Viminal

Of all the seven hills, the Viminal is the one even locals often have a hard time remembering when asked to rattle off the famous list. Perhaps this is because it’s the smallest, just a finger-shaped cusp wedged between the Quirinal and Esquiline. Nevertheless, this little hill is often the first one that visitors see, as it is home to Rome’s central train station, Termini. The hill’s most important site during antiquity was the gargantuan Baths of Diocletian, the largest imperial bath complex the city ever saw. Although much of the site was destroyed, some of the ruins have been incorporated into both the National Roman Museum at the Baths of Diocletian (Viale Enrico de Nicola, 79) and Santa Maria degli Angeli church (Piazza della Repubblica), one of Michelangelo’s very last projects before his death in 1564.

Another branch of the National Roman Museum lives just across the square at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Largo di Villa Peretti, 1). Here you can ogle ancient mosaics, sarcophagi, and sculptures, as well as the breathtaking garden-themed frescoes transported here from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta. End your visit of the Viminal Hill with a stroll around its central square, Piazza della Repubblica, an enormous circular space dominated by the Fountain of the Naiads, an exuberant turn-of-the-century work that was considered scandalous in its day for the wild abandon of the female nudes it features.