Are you planning a visit to Piazza Navona but unsure what to see? Then, you’ve come to the right place. This article details 12 things you should check out while near the Piazza Navona + restaurant recommendations!
Pro Planning Tip: Consider bookmarking this article into a “Rome” folder in your browser since they may come in handy during your visit. This way you can circle back to it while planning. Also, check out our Best Rome Tours so you can see the Eternal City right.
12 Things to See in and Around the Piazza Navona
When you are finished exploring all the incredible sites in and near Piazza Navona definitely check out our guides to other attractions by clicking any of the below icons.
1. Four River Fountain by Bernini
The Four River Fountain is considered one of Gianlorenzo Bernini’s greatest fountains which you can see even in a photo.
The fountain features a massive obelisk (Roman copy) supported by a central rock structure featuring four river gods. The rivers are meant to show the Vatican’s dominance over the expanding world which was a common theme in Papal commissioned art.
The fountain portrays the following rivers:
- Nile (Africa)
- Danube (Europe)
- Ganges (Asia)
- Río de la Plata (Americas)
In Baroque fashion, the statue uses symbolism to help onlookers identify each river god. They come in the form of plants and animals as well as blatant symbols. The Rio de la Plata features coins that symbolize the riches that were brought back from the Americas to the Vatican.
The Danube sits closest to the papal crest since it is the closest to the Vatican. A cloth sits on the head of the Nile God since the source was unknown at the time. The Ganges carries a long oar which signifies how easy it is to navigate.
The fountain was commissioned by Pope Innocent X who was of the Pamphilj house and very wealthy. He was the first and only Pamphilj Pope and likely commissioned the fountain since their palace was situated in Piazza Navona. While the fountain did not earn them another papacy, their crest now flies high above Piazza Navona for all to see. I assume it also didn’t hurt their real estate values!
Legends & Myths
The relationship between Bernini and Borromini was litigious at the very least and this statue proves that. Bernini is one of the greatest of all time out shadowed Borromini who was in his league, but not as great as Bernini. This rivalry caused rumors and rumors turn into stories which eventually turn into facts.
The feud ran thick and in the mid 17th century they found themselves working in the same piazza which many believed was not by chance. Baroque artists very much appreciate hidden meaning and symbolism so Bernini added a hidden touch.
The river god of Rio de la Plata falls backward in his seat (rock) and puts his hand up as to say, “the architect is so bad I must brace myself in case it falls.”
Great story, but unfortunately, this is almost definitely a myth. Bernini and Borromini were not working in the square at the same time. Bernini’s Four River Fountain was completed a year before they started work on the church.
2. Fontana del Moro
Like many things in Piazza Navona, this fountain also has a dramatic past. The original fountain was designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1575. It was simply a dolphin with four Tritons. 8 years later, the statue of the Moor (African) was placed in the center wrestling a dolphin.
This may also be considered Neptune as he is often seen accompanied by a dolphin but it would be awkward to have two fountains dedicated to Neptune in the Piazza. Regardless, in 1874 all the original statues were moved to Galleria Borghese and replaced with replicas.
Looking for a bite to eat? Check out our annually updated list of the best places to eat near the Piazza Navona in Rome!
3. Fountain of Neptune
Giacomo della Porta was also involved in the construction and design of this fountain’s basin. Both the Fountain of Neptune and Fontana del Moro are designed over a pinkish color basin made of marble. All three fountains are fed water via the Aqua Virgo aqueduct which also powers the Trevi Fountain.
The fountain features an obvious depiction of Neptune in a rather intense squabble with an octopus. Spoiler alert, he wins. The statues of Neptune, Nereids, and his horse/fish led chariot were not added until the 19th century. The purpose was to obviously balance out the piazza as there is a central fountain and now two dearly decorated fountains on either end.
While the Four River Fountain is definitely more impressive, I like a good God vs Octopus fight so I am calling this one my favorite.
4. The Church of Saint Agnes in Agony
This is arguably the centerpiece of the Piazza but many would say Bernini’s fountain takes that title. The 17th-century Baroque church was completed by father and son Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi with the help of Francesco Borromini. The facade of the church would be considered a Baroque masterpiece due to how unique and innovative it is. The Chuch of Saint Agnes in Agony is arguably one of the most beautiful church facades in Rome after Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Construction began in 1652 and was riddled with dramatics caused by Borromini. Borromini had a bit of an inferiority complex after being passed over 20 years earlier during the construction of Palazzo Barberini. The project was handed to Bernini instead of him when Carlo Maderno died and it had a long-lasting effect on his legacy.
One could speculate that the design using two bell towers was either an ode to Bernini or a slap in his face. Bernini’s greatest failure was when he added two bell-towers to the Saint Peter’s Basilica which had to be taken down due to issues with structural integrity.
Borromini may have chosen this design to prove to Bernini he could accomplish more than him. Possible baggage he’d carried with him since Palazzo Barberini. Bernini’s Four River Fountain laid before this structure so it was a good reason to try and out shadow Bernini.
Regardless, Borromini gave up on the project in 1657 and it was handed back to Carlo Rainaldi and son. They made some modifications but the current form would bear much resemblance to the original designs. The concave facade leading into the door of the church would become widely adopted in Northern European churches.
On the interior, you’ll find the remains of St. Agnes, the namesake of the church. She was brutally tortured for her beliefs by the Romans. Agnes was 13 when she was martyred – dragged through the streets nude to a brothel. Legend has it she couldn’t be raped. Anyone who touched her was blinded. They tried to burn her to death, but according to legend, the wood would not burn. Finally, a Roman officer took out his sword and beheaded her. Her skull is located in the church as a relic.
Like many Christian martyrs in Roman times, she was from a wealthy noble family which drew enough attention to put her in the spotlight. A large majority of Christian martyrs were from high-ranking families which created a statement.
Romans didn’t both with non-pagan religions too much as it went against their way of building an empire. That said high ranking officials often met the sword when they did not pledge allegiance to Rome in the form of worshipping Roman gods.
5. Piazza Navona from Above
€€€€ | Upscale Rooftop Drinks | Piazza Navona
One of my favorite places to unwind after a long day in Rome is Terrazzo Borromini. It is one of the most impressive rooftop views in Rome and that is why they charge 25€ for a drink and visitors happily pay it.
The food is good and you’ll get incredible service, but your bill will reflect the experience. This is why it is a great place for a proposal or a special anniversary trip.
You can also go for drinks only which will make the experience less costly.
6. The Stadium of Domitian
Stadium of Domitian
When you first enter Piazza Navona, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the Piazza has a long Circus Maximus-like form. This is because the piazza is formed over the remains of the Stadium of Domitian.
Domitian was part of the Flavian Dynasty who had 3 emperors following Nero in the 1st century AD; Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. While Vespasian built the Colosseum, Domitian built up or rebuilt much of Rome including about fifty-some structures including his Stadium.
It was completed sometime around 86 AD and unfortunately not for chariot rides. It was used for Greek-style nude athletic events. At times, gladiatorial events were held here when the Colosseum was unusable. The building was not as sizable as the Colosseum but still managed to seat 30k spectators on two tiers of seating.
The modern-day piazza mimics the design of the former stadium. Curved on the North end and flat on the South end. It is said that the houses and apartments are all built on the foundation for the stadium. That would make sense as the Romans built things to last. Two-thousand-year-old Roman roads are flatter and straighter than the sidewalks in my town.
Not much of the structure remains today, but you can see some remains of lower seating in Piazza di Tor Sanguigna 12a. You have to exit the Via Agonale on the North/curved end of the Piazza and turn left. You can’t miss it.
7. Bramante Cloister (Chiostro del Bramante)
Chiostro del Bramante may or may not be in any of your guide books – it is more of a local favorite. It is a 16th-century structure commissioned by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa and designed by Donato Bramante.
It is practically attached to the Church of S. M. della Pace which is also beautiful and shares a similar design. You can pop into the Chiostro and look around. It has a two-story courtyard with beautiful collonades. There is a music hall and theatre inside but also a cool bookstore and cafe. If you are looking for a secret place to get a coffee or drink in Rome – right in the thick of things but far from crowds – this is your spot!
8. Church of Santa Maria della Pace
This church was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (Sistine Chapel) in 1482. The current church sits on the foundation of a more ancient church of Sant’Andrea de Aquarizariis. The original artist is unknown, but the building was restored by famed architect Pietro di Cortona.
The church is the centerpiece of this tiny piazza which takes its name; Piazza della Pace (Square of Peace). The facade is really stunning and unique to Rome. The porch comes off in a semi-circle fashion giving it a theatrical look and feel. This is likely why there is a theatre in the adjacent Chiostro del Bramante.
While the facade and Bramante Cloister is almost definitely the highlight, inside you’ll find a wealth of artwork without spending a dime on admission – thank you patrons of the church! The Chigi Chapel (inside) is home to the Sibyls Receiving Angelic Instruction by Raphael.
Address: Arco della Pace 5 | Hours: Daily 10 am – 8/9 pm
9. Church of Saint Agostino
The Church of Saint Agostino appears unassuming from the exterior but offers a world of beauty on the interior. Rome is truly unique since you can see so much artwork from famous masters without spending a dime (not including airfare). The church was first built in 1483 utilizing materials taken from the Colosseum which was common practice in these times. On the inside, it is filled with some of Rome’s most impressive and free to view famous artwork.
- Madonna di Loreto by Caravaggio can be found in the Cavaletti Chapel which is the first to the left inside the church. When first unveiled, the painting drew laughter and surprise. It was laughed at because Caravaggio depicted the Virgin Mary, the purest of pure, barefoot, and generally dirty. Caravaggio lived in the world of underlings, prostitutes, beggars, and thieves which showed in his artwork.
- Saints, Augustine, John the Evangelist, and Jerome by Guercino – Guercino is one of those incredible artists that most have never heard of – a real treat.
- Prophet Isaiah by Raphael – How else can you see Raphael for free other than in Rome?
- Sainte Anne & Virgin with Child by Andrea Sansovino
- Madonna del Parto by Jacopo Sansovino
Address: Via dell Scrofa, 80
10. Biblioteca Angelica
The Biblioteca Angelica was founded in 1604 and is the oldest library in Europe. It belonged to the Augustinian monastery who made it into a public library in 1609 to benefit the people of Rome. The library holds over 180,000 manuscripts that document the Reformation and Counter-Reformation which is why it is so important.
Address: Piazza di S Agostino, 8
Hours: M – F 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
11. Palazzo Altemps
Address: Piazza di Sant’Apollinare, 46
Entrance Cost: 7€ + cost of the exhibition if one exists (normally 3€ extra)
There are a three reasons Palazzo Altemps is so great. The museum is always empty which makes for a relaxing visit and there are mostly statues inside which I appreciate over paintings. Finally, it has a beautiful cloister which is impressive.
Two of the most impressive statues inside Palazzo Altemps are the Galata Ludovisi and the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus. The Ludovisi Gaul comes with an amazing story that you can read about in our article the “Top Things to See in Palazzo Altemps in Rome.“
The second great statue in Palazzo Altemps is the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus and is one of the top relief sculptures left over from Roman times. The sarcophagus is an arrangement of hundreds of small figures grappling with one another in a passionate and violent battle.
This, like most museums in Rome, is a private collection that was eventually handed over to the state. This would either be by gifting it or lack of heirs. Other items of importance include:
- Throne with the Birth of Venus
- Ludovisi Dionysus
- Throne of the Ludovisi
- Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus
- The Suicidal Gaul
- The Courtyard
You’ll undoubtedly gain by taking a tour of this particular museum but also could make a list of the top things to see and do some phone research. The Suicidal Gaul is my favorite ancient statue in Rome due to its craftsman ship and twisted romantic story.
If you exit on the southwest end of Piazza Navona you’ll see Piazza di Pasquino which is the home and namesake to Il Pasquino. Freedom of speech was not always possible in Rome when the Catholic church was in power.
Since it was found, it has served as a message board for protestors looking for freedom of speech. The name Pasquino comes from the word pasquinade which means to satirical delivered publicly in a public place. Basically, making fun of someone publicly.
Ancient Roman Times
The statue has lived many lives since its birth in the 2nd century. The statue was likely to have been used to decorate Domitian’s Stadium before it found its current home.
Renaissance & Modern Times
Il Pasquillino was dressed up as a pagan in the middle ages during the feast of Saint Mark. It was also used to spread satyrical messages in a time where it was not difficult to be burnt at the stake.
In our world, it’s a tourist attraction due to its long legacy and use in Roman history. It is also used by radical leftists to spread messages. It is now against the law to post messages on the statue for preservation but a message board has been placed next to the statue to maintain tradition.
If you’re doing a walking tour of Rome then your next stop should be The Trevi Fountain