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As Italy’s ancient capital sleeps—relatively speaking—I head out for an early morning jaunt through history. From the wedding-cake monstrosity that is the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, I amble past the Roman Forum, noting such amazing ancient monuments as Trajan’s Column and the classical columns marking the former temples of Saturn and Vesta.

My attention is drawn straight ahead, to the multitiered Colosseum, looking stately and massive just as if 2000 years hadn’t passed since Vespasian built it for gladiatorial combat and other leisurely pursuits. I run up close and touch the marble, feeling a tangible connection to the age of emperors.

Nearby a modern-day gladiator takes a quiet moment with an espresso before a hectic day of hamming it up for tourist photo ops. I cross the street and head back up Via dei Fori Imperiali, turning into the neighborhoods. Whiffing the arresting scent of freshly baked brioche, I nod buongiorno to impeccably dressed, high-heeled women and briefcase-toting men (all accoutrements fashioned from the finest Italian leather, no doubt).

The coins that are tossed into Trevi Fountain are used to help locals in need.  (Photograph by caribb, Flickr)

Coins that are tossed into Trevi Fountain are used to help locals in need. (Photograph by caribb, Flickr)

At the corner of Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale, I encounter four water-spewing statues from the Late Renaissance, the Quattro Fontane, lording over the intersection. I stop to catch my breath at Piazza del Quirinale, only for it to be taken away by the glistening dome of St. Peter’s Basilica atop Vatican Hill in the distance.

I turn down the square’s western edge, into a maze of medieval, cobbled lanes, ending at Trevi Fountain. Here, I share a serene moment beside one of Nicola Salvi’s greatest works with a couple of street cleaners—and kick myself for not bringing along a coin to toss.

Run Stats

Mileage: 3.1 miles, roundtrip (loop)

Best time: Early morning to beat the crowds; Trevi Fountain will be nearly impossible to approach any other time of day.

Start and End: Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Piazza Venezia

The Route 

  • From Victor Emmanuel II Monument, head down Via dei Fori Imperiali, toward the Colosseum
  • At the Colosseum, cross the street and head back up Via dei Fori Imperiali
  • Turn right on Via Cavour, then left on Via dell’Esquilino, which becomes Via Agostino Depretis then Via delle Quattro Fontane
  • At the Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains), turn left on Via del Quirinale to Piazza del Quirinale
  • On the other side of the square, go right, following Via della Dataria down the hill
  • Turn right on Via dei Lucchesi
  • Return to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument on Via delle Muratte and Via del Corso

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor of National Geographic Travel Books.