Nicely located between Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere and easy to reach on a simple walk along the River Tiber, Rome’s Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina, in Italian) is an interesting place to explore. Most tourists on a trip to Rome end up there randomly during their explorations and, curious, make their way to the island. They soon discover a place that is packed with history and unique sites where it is easy to spend a few hours away from the crowds that are so typical in Rome.
Curious to find out more about the lovely Isola Tiberina? Read this post, and I will share its history and main attractions, and share some tips to plan your visit.
Why Visit Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina)?
Isola Tiberina, or simply Tiber Island as it’s known in English, is something of a rarity. It’s the only river island located in the part of the River Tiber that flows through Rome. Situated in a curve in the river, it’s found to the south of Teatro Marcello and to the north of Trastevere.
Chances are that during your travels around some of the ancient sites of Rome, you’ll be paying a visit to Isola Tiberina anyway.
Visiting this island, you’ll be able to soak up part of Rome’s very ancient history before you even get to it. That’s all down to its old bridges. I’m talking really old. In fact, the Ponte Fabricio – which leads from the north bank of the Tiber to the Tiber Island – dates back to 62 BC. And it’s still standing!
It’s not only a rare part of the river that isn’t seen anywhere else in Rome, but it also forms the backdrop to part of Rome’s two-thousand-plus-year-old history.
The History Of The Tiber Island
As a naturally formed landmark, Tiber Island has been part of the history of Rome before Rome even existed. And the island has actually been connected to the city by bridges since antiquity.
Originally, its name was Insula Inter Duos Pontes or Island Between the Two Bridges. Those two bridges are the Ponte Fabricio, which I mentioned above, and the Ponte Cestio, which connects the island Trastevere in the south.
Myths and legends surrounding the island are abundant. In fact, even the origin of this famous slice of land is steeped in mystery. One tale goes that, after the tyrant Tarquinius Superbus was deposed in 510 BC, his body was thrown into the rushing waters of the River Tiber by the furious citizens of Rome. His body was then said to sink to the bottom, where all of the dirt and silt of the river built up around it, until the island was eventually formed.
But even before Christianity reached Rome, the island was often avoided by locals because of the spooky stories attached to it. It was left as a place to isolate (very bad) criminals or people with contagious illnesses.
However, this all changed when the Temple of Aesculapius was built in the 3rd century BC. This was constructed after a devastating plague swept across Rome in 239 BC (according to accounts at the time). The Roman Senate was told to build a temple on the island after consulting Sybil, one of a group of oracles. Aesculapius was the Roman god of healing, and the island was chosen for the location of the temple due to its separation from the city.
To build the temple the delegates of the Senate procured a snake (a symbol from the Rod of Asclepius, the original Greek deity) from another temple. They put it on a boat, where it wound itself around the boat’s mast; this was seen as a good sign, as it resembled the Rod of Ascelpius. As the boat neared the island, the snake slithered off and onto Tiber Island – a good sign, apparently.
It is believed that the island was modeled into the shape of a ship, to honor this legend. In the 1st century AD, travertine was added to the banks of the island in order to more permanently shape the island into a boat shape. Even an obelisk was added to the middle, symbolizing the vessel’s mast. Eventually walls were constructed around the island, further making a resemblance to a Roman ship.
Hundreds of years later, in 998, a basilica was built on top of the ruined temple by Emperor Otto III. Much later the obelisk was removed and replaced with a column, and then in the 19th century, it was replaced with a spire. The island was also decorated with statues of saints.
Tiber Island is still thought of as a place of healing. In fact, in the 16th century a hospital was built and is still in operation to this day as the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. During the Holocaust, members of Rome’s Jewish community were sheltered here after the head of the hospital, Dr Borromeo, diagnosed them with an invented (and “highly contagious”) disease.
What To See On Tiber Island / Isola Tiberina
There are two main historic bridges of Tiber Island that are definitely worth knowing about. First up is the Ponte Fabricio or Pons Fabricius in Latin. This is the oldest Roman bridge in the city and incredibly remains in its original condition after more than 2,000 years.
The Ponte Fabricio spans the Tiber from the Campus Martius to the east side of Tiber Island. It was originally constructed in order to replace an earlier bridge (made of wood) that was previously destroyed by fire. It was commissioned by Lucius Fabricius, thus giving the bridge its name, who was the curator of roads in Rome at the time and a member of the Fabricia family.
It’s constructed of bricks, Roman cement and travertine, with tuff (a rock formed by volcanic ash) in the middle.
An inscription on the bridge reads:
“Lucius Fabricius, son of Gaius, superintendent of the roads, took care and likewise approved that it be built.”
The bridge leading from the east side of Tiber Island to Trastevere is called Ponte Cestio, or Pons Cestius. The original bridge was built in the 1st century BC, after Pons Fabricius. Sadly, however, only a small portion of the original bridge remains. It’s been constructed and rebuilt numerous times over the years, and was extended – as well as almost entirely rebuilt – in the 19th century.
Also unlike the Pons Fabricius, the builder of the Pons Cestius remains unknown. Though some believe it to be the same Cestius who commissioned the Pyramid of Cestius, Caius Cestius, or at least someone related to him.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Bridges In Rome.
The Bridge of the Four Heads
There are some legends surrounding Ponte Fabricio – also called Ponte Quattrocapi in Italian. When it was restored in 1580 on the orders of Pope Sixtus V, he hired a number of different architects to oversee the project – four, in fact. But, unable to see eye to eye, the men ended up disagreeing so much that they were punished by the Vatican, and were beheaded on the bridge. Pope Sixtus V had something of a reputation for this, but this is probably an untrue legend.
The four heads actually involve two marble pillars, each topped with a bust of the two-faced Roman god Janus, one at either end of the bridge. They were moved here in the 14th century from the nearby Church of St Gregory.
Torre della Pulzella
This tower is situated at the end of the Ponte Fabricio as it reaches Tiber Island. Though officially called the Torre dei Caetani, named after the family who owned it from the 14th century, originally built as a fortification to protect the island, the medieval structure is better known as Torre della Pulzella or Tower of the Maid. This is because there is a carving of a young female’s head that appears in the brickwork.
It is said that the face belongs to a young noblewoman who was locked in the tower in 1350 after refusing to marry her aristocratic suitor. But in reality, the sculpture is Roman.
The Tiber River
You can’t visit the island without soaking up the River Tiber itself. If you’re spending time walking around the island, make sure to take in the scenery. It’s a special location to see the river, with particularly good views from the bridges; and great views of the bridges crossing the river from the island itself. Over the centuries, many people would have stood on this slice of land and looked out across the water.
Basilica of San Bartolomeo Apostolo
The Basilica of San Bartolomeo Apostolo is situated where the Temple of Aesculapius once stood. Built by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, this religious structure was built in the 10th century and dedicated to Otto’s friend, the missionary and (later) saint, Adalbert of Prague.
Later, Pope Paschal II renovated the basilica in the 12th century, and the relics of Saint Bartholomew the Apostle were enshrined here. Damaged by flooding in 1557, the basilica was reconstructed with a Baroque facade, with further restorations down the line. However, the interior of the church still preserves part of its ancient past, with original Roman columns and two lion-carved supports that date to the time of the first renovation.
Read my post The Nicest Churches In Rome.
The Infamous Column
Known in Italian as the Colonna Infame, this column stands at the original point where the obelisk – representing the ship’s “mast” – would have stood. That’s all well and good, but why “infamous”? Well, that’s because the column was used as a form of bulletin board on the 25th August each year.
The names of bandits, people with questionable morality, and those who questioned the Church were posted here; this was so that everybody knew that they were not allowed to take part in Church events such as mass and communion.
The original infamous column was destroyed in the 1800s, and the one you see today is more of a monument to the past erected by Pope Pius IX in 1869.
Tiber Island Hospital
Officially the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, this medical facility situated on the western side of the Tiber Island, pays homage to the island’s long association with healing. It was originally opened in 1585, but the origins go much further back due to the presence of the Temple of Aesculapius, a god of healing and medicine.
More recently, the hospital was famed for its involvement in sheltering members of Rome’s Jewish community during World War II. Dr Giovanni Borromeo invented a disease called “Syndrome K” and diagnosed those seeking refuge with it in order to protect them from persecution.
Other Things To Do On The Isola Tiberina
Attend the Isola del Cinema
In the summertime, Isola Tiberina becomes Isola del Cinema or “Movie Island”. Between July and September, this festival showcases new releases, independent movies and old classics in this historic setting in the middle of the Tiber. Catching a film here means enjoying a flick while sitting among directors, actors and other industry professionals. It is an international film festival, after all.
Read my post The Best Events And Festivals In Rome.
Enjoy a meal
You may be surprised to learn that Tiber Island is a popular place for dinner – particularly in the summer months. In particular, you should try Trattoria Sora Lella – a veritable Rome institution that sums up the spirit of the city. Located just off the Ponte Fabricio, this eatery has been going strong since 1940 and is named after the original owner; she was both an actress and a cook. It’s now owned by her son.
Check out my post The Best Restaurants In Rome.
Practical Info For Visiting Tiber Island
When to visit
Isola Tiberina can be visited at any time of day and night without any restrictions to access. Of course, some of the establishments on the island may not be open all the time, but you can wander on and off the island at any time of day. It’s not a museum: just part of the city. I am a fan of the Tiber Island just before sunset. The light at that time of day gives it a special aura!
Should you get a guided tour?
While not necessary by any means, a guided tour will certainly heighten the experience for visitors wanting more insight into the storied history of the island. Many walking tours of Rome will include a visit to Tiber Island.
If you need a tour that includes hotel pick-up, click here.
How to get to the Isola Tiberina
You can walk to Tiber Island from both the north bank (near the Jewish Ghetto) and the south bank (Trastevere). Tram line 8 stops by Arenula/Min. Giustizia on one side, and Belli in Trastevere. It’s easy to catch a bus to Largo Torre di Argentina and simply walk from there – it will take you around 10 minutes.