Capitoline Hill, or Piazza del Campidoglio in Italian, is one of my favorite places to visit in Rome.
Yet I find many visitors don't know much about it or why they should see it.
Whether you want some of the best views in Rome, you want to visit one of the best museums in the Eternal City, or you're just looking to just understand 3000 years of Roman History, the Capitoline Hill is the place to be!
On this page we'll go over:
The sense of history on Capitoline Hill is palpable.
Despite being one of Rome's seven hills, and probably its smallest, this location packs a monumental punch.
Located in Rione Campitelli and perfectly situated to view icons like the Colosseum and ancient ruins of the Roman Forum from above, it serves as an excellent tourist attraction.
However, it also holds unexpected surprises for visitors who decide to explore further!
Capitoline Hill was once just what it sounds like, the place that Ancient Romans identified as their Capitol.
In antiquity, there once stood the most important of all Roman temples, the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter - the best and greatest god), called Tempio di Giove in Italian.
Today you can still see parts of this temple.
Ceramics dating to the Bronze Age (around 1300 BCE) have been found on Capitoline Hill, as well as evidence of extensive metalworking.
This shows that people lived on the hill long before the city of Rome was founded.
The Capitoline Hill was originally two hills: the Arx and the Capitolium, separated by a small valley.
The first king of Rome, Romulus, used this valley to welcome people from nearby towns (hence the word 'asylum').
The strategic position of the hill with very steep sides made it a natural fortress for the city, protecting its inhabitants from attacks.
For ancient Romans, Capitoline Hill was the center of religion and politics of a burgeoning society.
The most important temples in the city included the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the Temple of Juno Moneta (in fact, the word 'money' derives from the temple’s name - it was once the mint!), and the Temple of Minerva.
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Yes, Michelangelo Buonarroti designed the version of Capitoline Hill you see today.
From the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century through the Middle Ages, Capitoline Hill had become an unruly jumble of buildings sitting at varied angles and on different elevations, each surrounded by dirt and weeds.
In 1536, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was planning a visit to the Eternal City.
Pope Paul III (Farnese) was mortified by the dilapidated state of the Capitoline Hill.
He called upon 61-year-old Michelangelo, who was at the height of his fame, to tackle the project.
One very important change Michelangelo made right off the bat was to change the orientation of the square from overlooking the Roman Forum (the past) to facing Saint Peter's Basilica and central Rome (the present and future.)
At the time, there were a couple of buildings more or less in the center of the hill: Palazzo Senatorio (Palace of the Senate) and Palazzo dei Conservatori.
They stood at angles to one another.
Michelangelo wanted the Piazza del Campidoglio to have symmetry so he proposed a third building that would somewhat mirror the Palazzo dei Conservatori: the Palazzo Nuovo (New Palace.)
He redesigned the façades of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and of the Palazzo del Senatorio to match the new facade he'd designed for the Palazzo Nuovo, so they would be in harmony with the rest of the square.
Michelangelo's design included the ramp that leads to the Piazza del Campidoglio, called the Rampa della Cordonata.
While Michelangelo designed this ramp, it was actually completed by Giacomo della Porta after Michelangelo's death.
And that gorgeous floor pattern you see beneath your feet?
That was also Michelangelo's design, although it was not actually implemented on the hill until Mussolini commissioned it in 1940.
The word "square" is a bit misleading since the shape is something of a trapezoid, but this was the only way the symmetry could work, given the uneven ground and the pre-existing buildings there.
When you reach the top of the hill and take in the views of Rome around you, you may be wondering what the different buildings around you are for.
The building you see in the middle of the square is the Palazzo del Senatorio (Senate Palace) which today houses Rome's city municipality, i.e. the Mayor's office.
It was built in the 13th century on top of the Tabularium, a state records office constructed in 78 BCE that once housed archives during the Roman Empire.
The Tabularium has been in use since 1144, making it the oldest city council in the world!
While you cannot visit the Mayor's office or other parts of the Palazzo del Senatorio, you can visit the Tabularium as part of the Capitoline Museums.
It is the underground connection between the two museum buildings on either side of the Piazza del Campidoglio.
If you don't visit the museums, you can still see the Tabularium as it sits underneath the Palazzo del Senatorio by heading to the back terrace of Piazza del Campidoglio (either side) and looking back.
On the ground floor at the front of the Palazzo del Senatorio, there is a double flight of stairs designed by Michelangelo.
On either side of this staircase heading up to the second floor, two 1st-century river-god sculptures represent the Nile (left) and the Tiber (right).
River god statues in antiquity always showed a reclining bearded man holding a cornucopia (water brings life), along with other symbols that depicted the specific river.
In this case, the Roman river god, representing the Tiber, shows a she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, and the Nile river god shows a sphynx.
In the center of the staircase, the goddess of Rome, represented by Minerva, is made of the highly prestigious porphyry marble.
This stone was quarried from Ancient Egypt and was reserved for use in Rome only for the most important and prominent pieces.
These two palaces face each other, even if at an angle.
Although they look similar, the Palazzo dei Conservatori was built in 1400 while Palazzo Nuovo was built by Michelangelo specifically to mirror Palazzo dei Conservatori and create symmetry.
Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo del Senatorio were renovated by Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta to match the design Michelangelo had created for the Palazzo Nuovo.
In 1471, the della Rovere Pope, the same pope who has the Sistine Chapel named for him, started collecting various classical sculptures and other pieces of art, housing it inside the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Once the Palazzo Nuovo was completed in the 17th century, it was used to house more of the collection.
In 1734 these buildings were opened to the public as the Capitoline Museums.
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Easy to miss when walking up the stairs, take a moment to admire the many statues on the hill.
The central statue of Piazza del Campidoglio is a replica of an equestrian statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned from 161-180 CE.
This is the only Roman equestrian statue that has survived from antiquity.
Most ancient Roman bronze statues were destroyed in the Middle Ages, as they were considered pagan, and the bronze was needed for other uses.
This statue was mistaken for Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, and so it was saved, luckily for us!
The impressive statue in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio is a copy made by laser technology in 1981.
The original equestrian statue was moved inside the Capitoline Museums at the same time to protect and preserve it.
The ancient statue was originally located either in the Roman Forum or in Piazza Colonna, but it was Michelangelo who had it moved here in 1538 as part of his restoration project, designing the pedestal of the statue at the same time.
At the top of the ramp are the statues of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux).
Castor is on the left and Pollux on the right.
They are always seen together and always with horses, and they are harbingers of war, but they are also seen as protectors of the city of Rome.
At the bottom of the ramp you'll find two Egyptian basalt lion fountains.
They were relocated here from the ancient temple dedicated to Serapis and Isis near the basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.
As you go up the ramp, there is a statue of Cola di Rienzi about halfway up on the left.
He was an important political figure in Rome in the 14th century, advocating for the abolition of papal power and the unification of Italy, and proclaimed himself the "Tribune of the Roman people."
Over the years he held power, fell out of power, and held it again.
In 1354, at the age of 41, he had fallen far out of favor and was murdered by an angry mob right on this spot, which is why the statue is in such a strange location.
Visiting Capitoline Hill and the Piazza del Campidoglio is free, but the Capitoline Museums have an admission fee.
A visit here is well worth it as there is a lot to see and do that remains free.
Visiting the Caffarelli Terrace is also free and you can enjoy more views over Rome and towards the Vatican from there.
The two buildings next to Capitoline Hill, the Altar to the Fatherland and the basilica Ara Coeli are also free to visit.
The Altar of the Fatherland, also known as the Vittoriano or Wedding Cake building, has some sections that require a fee to enter but most of the monument can be visited without a charge.
Take a look at my page here for lots more information!
The basilica of Ara Coeli is a very old church, located on the site of an ancient Roman temple and housing the relics of Empress Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine.
The church opening hours can vary so do check in advance if you wish to visit to make sure it will be open.
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If it's your first visit to Rome and you don't have much time, the Capitoline Museums are often overlooked.
There are so many big-hitter attractions in Rome like the Colosseum, Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, that something inevitably has to be missed.
However, if it's your second (or third or fourth!) visit to Rome, or if you are a particular fan of classical art works, then they are absolutely worth visiting and paying the entrance fee for!
If you want to have a comprehensive understanding of the history of Rome (and have high energy levels!), I highly recommend combining a half day guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum with a half day tour of the Capitoline collection.
After the Vatican Museums, I believe the Capitoline collection is the most important in Rome because it preserves and depicts the history of the Eternal City.
You'll find treasures spanning centuries, starting from before the founding of Rome in 753 BCE, as well as a constantly changing schedule of exhibitions.
The Capitoline Museums are the oldest collection in Rome.
In fact, they are the oldest museum in the world!
The buildings and collection were first opened to the public in 1734 under Pope Clement XII.
However, the history of the collection can be traced back to 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome and they were placed on Capitoline Hill.
Sculptures, paintings, sarcophagi, bronzes, relics, you name it... you will find it here.
It is the perfect place to discover and understand Rome's history and impact on the world.
You can see some amazing artifacts and art, including the original bronze she-wolf (Lupa), the Capitoline Venus, the original bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, and the Dying Gaul, as well as a paintings gallery with works by Caravaggio, Domenichino, Rubens, and many others.
I would plan on spending at least 2 hours here to really enjoy the collection.
It is one of the largest public collections on display in Rome.
You can hire an audio guide to accompany you and bring the collection to life.
Alternatively, you can join a guided tour to get a deeper understanding of Rome and the history and culture of this city.
Capitoline Hill is truly in the heart of the ancient city.
Just at the foot of Capitoline Hill, you can visit the Mamertine Prison, the site where Saints Peter and Paul were supposedly held before they were killed.
The giant white monument next to Capitoline Hill, the monument to Victor Emmanuel II, is worth a visit.
This is the location of the Altar of the Fatherland mentioned above.
It's free but you can also pay to take the elevator to the roof for some of the best views in Rome.
That ticket will then get you into the nearby Palazzo Venezia museum which faces Piazza Venezia, one of the most iconic squares in Rome.
The huge sites from Ancient Rome, the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill are about 15 minutes away by foot.
And about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction you can visit the Galleria Doria Pamphlij, a small but superb art museum with works by Caravaggio, Bernini, Domenichino, and more.
If you are standing in Piazza Venezia, face the big white monument (otherwise known as the Wedding Cake), and walk around it to the right-hand side.
You will come to a steep staircase next to a ramp.
This is the start of your walk up to Capitoline Hill.
You can also get to Capitoline Hill from the other four sides, but this is the easiest and most obvious way.
Many buses go to or past Piazza Venezia, so if you are not nearby and don't feel like walking, you can take a city bus and the Hop-On/Hop-Off buses also stop close by.
The nearest Metro station is the Colosseo stop, around 15-20 minutes walk away.
If you're up on Capitoline Hill and feeling peckish, the quickest, closest place to grab a bite is in the café of the Capitoline Museums.
You don't need a ticket to eat in the cafe, as you can climb up the back stairs to the Terrazza Caffarelli to access the café (and clean public bathrooms).
The least expensive way to eat is standing at the bar or getting your food at the bar and taking it, cafeteria style, to a table in the small dining area.
However, you will miss out on the views with this option.
You can sit down in the restaurant which has lovely views, but you will pay a price for that.
If you're looking for something a bit more substantial, the area immediately near to Capitoline Hill does not offer the best food options in Rome!
I'd recommend heading to the Jewish Quarter or Campo dei Fiori, or over to Monti for lots of choices.
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