There are many gorgeous squares in Rome. One of my favorites is the airy, massive Piazza del Popolo. Not only this is a place of public gatherings, but it literally is an open air museums (like many other places in Rome, to be fair) with three churches, an obelisk, fountains and much more to see.
Chances are you will walk by Piazza del Popolo at some point during your trip to Rome, especially if you plan on visiting Borghese Gallery and Borghese Gardens, since one of the access points is the staircase that starts in Piazza del Popolo. Besides, this is a very central square minutes walk from the Spanish Steps.
If you are curious to find out more about Piazza del Popolo, continue reading. I will share its history, some fun facts and tips for visiting.
For more squares, make sure to read my post The Most Impressive Piazzas In Rome.
Interesting Facts About Piazza Del Popolo, Rome
How did Piazza del Popolo get its name?
Piazza del Popolo literally means “People’s Square” in Italian, a name that makes sense for a large, communal space in a bustling capital city. However, the name actually comes from a part of the piazza itself, namely the Santa Maria del Popolo Church, which lies at the northeast corner of the square.
Some believe that the church takes its name from the poplar trees which used to grow on the ancient Tomb of Nero once situated nearby.
The history of Piazza del Popolo
The ancient history of Piazza del Popolo doesn’t begin with a piazza at all, but rather with a gateway: the Porta Flaminia, to be exact. This ancient entrance to Rome cannot be seen in its original state; the gate we see today dates back to 1475.
It’s the more recent centuries that have given the square the appearance you see today. Notably, it was Pope Sixtus V who set out to develop the area that was to become the Piazza del Popolo at the end of the 16th century.
Over the coming centuries, the original, unusual trapezoidal shape of the piazza was to be greatly altered. More recently, it was architect Giuseppe Valadier who designed the layout of the piazza in a neoclassical style between 1811 and 1822.
He set about demolishing buildings, getting rid of fountains, and replacing the original layout of the square almost entirely, building residential palazzi, too.
However, the ancient Egyptian Obelisk of Ramses II (brought to Rome in 10 BC), which was erected here in 1589, remained, as did the churches surrounding the square. In fact, Valadier and his urbanist designs – featuring curving walls, staircases and new trees planted – provided a backdrop for the square’s twin churches, and the Santa Maria del Popolo, to take center stage.
In the 20th century, the gracefully curving piazza became choked with the city’s traffic, and was often used to park cars. Thankfully the square was restored and a pedestrian zone was enacted in the 1990s.
Where is Piazza del Popolo?
You can find Piazza del Popolo to the west of Pincian Hill, with which the piazza almost seamlessly blends. From here you can make your way quite easily to the Villa Borghese, while the piazza also marks the start of the Via Flaminia.
How to get to Piazza del Popolo
Thanks to its central location, there are a number of different ways you can reach Piazza del Popolo. There are several bus stops located nearby; for one thing, there’s Babuino/Fontanella and, even closer – as in pretty much in the square itself – Piazza del Popolo (both bus number 119).
The nearest tram stop is Flaminio (tram number 2). From here it’s a few minutes walk to the piazza. In terms of trains, there’s the metro stop Flaminio, too, as well as a regional railway station of the same name with trains to Viterbo.
Finally, the square is about 10 minutes walk from Spagna metro station.
Make sure to read my posts How To Use Rome Metro and A Guide To Public Transport In Rome.
Guided tours that go to Piazza del Popolo
Some of the most interesting walking tours of Rome go to the city’s squares and fountains – including Piazza del Popolo. So, if you are keen on discovering more about this stunning square, you may want go consider joining a guided tour. The best one is a 7:00 pm tour that departs daily from Piazza del Popolo itself.
You can book your guided tour of Piazza del Popolo and other squares in Rome here.
Main Attractions In Piazza Del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo Obelisk
In the very center of the Piazza del Popolo is a monument that has stood here since the 16th century, but also which indicates the very long history of Rome. The obelisk, in fact, is much older than even Rome itself.
It was originally created in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, on the orders of Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled during the 19th Dynasty of Egypt. The granite was taken from Aswan and was intended to be erected in the Temple of Re in Heliopolis. After the death of Seti I in 1279 BC, his son – Ramses II – completed the obelisk and erected it.
The obelisk made its way to Rome on the orders of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, in 10 BC, along with a string of other ancient obelisks (totalling 13 over the years). The obelisk was left to ruin until it was rediscovered, broken into three parts, in 1587. It was re-erected in the Piazza del Popolo in 1589 under the orders of Pope Sixtus V.
Seti I’s inscription can still be seen on the side of the shaft – a boasting inscription that claims that the former pharaoh would “fill Heliopolis with obelisks”. It’s an impressive sight; the obelisk stands today at some 24 meters (78.7 feet) tall, making it one of the tallest in Rome (but only the second-oldest).
Make sure to read my post The Many Obelisks Of Rome.
Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo
The church that gives Piazza del Popolo its name sits in the northeastern corner of the square. Its location, next to the Porta del Popolo, made it one of the first churches that many travelers and pilgrims to Rome would have visited.
It was originally built in 1099 in a Romanesque style, on the site of the Tomb of Nero, on the orders of Pope Paschal II. Over the centuries, the church has undergone numerous additions and changes by many architects.
In the 17th century, the church was completely redesigned by sculptor and architect superstar, Bernini. Inside, the church plays host to a collection of excellent artworks by some notable names in art. These include Caravaggio, Raphael, Donato Bramante and Bernini himself.
Check out my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Rome.
Porta del Popolo
One particularly must-see attraction in the Piazza del Popolo is the Porta del Popolo. Located to the north of the piazza, the Porta del Popolo was built in 1475, and was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV on the site of the more ancient Porta Flaminia.
This gateway was remodeled in the 16th century by architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio. The design was inspired by the 1st century Arch of Titus. Later, Bernini redesigned the inner facade of the church for Pope Alexander VII; the design was unveiled on the arrival of the Queen of Sweden in December 1655. You can see this occasion commemorated on an inscription on the inside of the arch, as well as the coat of arms of the Pope’s family.
An increase in traffic in the 19th century led to two additional archways being added in 1887.
The Twin Churches (Chiese Gemelle), Chiesa di Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli
The Twin Churches or Chiese Gemelle of Piazza del Popolo sit either side of the Via del Corso that extends from the square. The two churches provide an almost mirror image and an attractive backdrop to the piazza.
The Santa Maria dei Miracoli was finished in 1681; its twin, the Santa Maria in Montesanto, was completed in 1675. They’re both by the same architect, Carlo Reinaldi, though Bernini also worked on the plans for the churches. However, though they look the same at first glance, there are some small differences to each one that means they’re not exactly symmetrical.
If you look for a while, you’ll see that they’re not quite the same. Plus, the interiors of both churches are also quite different.
Piazza del Popolo fountains
There are a total of three fountains in the grand Piazza del Popolo. One of the most notable is the Fountain of the Lions (Fontana dei Leoni; also known as the Fontana dell’Obelisco), which can be found at the center of the square.
It consists of four lions that sit atop four small, stepped plinths, with water spurting from their mouths. Added in 1823, the lions feature the coat of arms of Pope Leo XII, who was newly elected at the time.
Under the Pincio Terrace is the Fountain of the Goddess Rome (Fontana della Dea Roma). Also completed in 1823, this watery addition was designed by Valadier as part of his grand plan for the square. Carved out of white marble, the sculptural group is intended to personify the city, with the Goddess Rome at the center. It underwent major restoration in the 1990s.
And on the other side of the square is the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno). Created by Giovanni Ceccarini, this fountain was also part of Valadier’s redevelopment project. It features the god Neptune among other mythological figures. The fountains are all fed by the terminus of the (then) newly built Acqua Vergine Nuova aqueduct.
Head over to my post The Prettiest Fountains In Rome.
Overlooking the piazza itself is the Pincio Terrace, with stairs leading up to it from the square. It provides an elegant vista over the neoclassical square and the rest of the city. In fact, the Pincio Terrace is a great spot for sunset, with the skyline of the city on a backdrop of oranges and reds.
Leonardo da Vinci Museum
This is the ideal place to go in Rome if you want to learn more about Leonardo da Vinci, and his life as a sculptor, artist, scientist and engineer. The museum is particularly interesting, as it has actually created many of Da Vinci’s inventions – including working machines – based on his sketches and designs. There is also a room featuring many of his famous paintings.