Exploring Rome’s great bridges: a cultural and culinary walking tour

Debra Thimmesch | 12/07/2019
Ponte Sant'Angelo
The bridge to castle Saint Angelo, Ponte Sant'Angelo

The ancient Romans left their mark on the world in any number of ways. In particular, their skill as engineers gave us some truly remarkable bridges. When you’re visiting Rome, dedicate a day to touring the variety of bridges built through the ages that connect the eastern side of the city across the iconic Tiber river to the western side, Trastevere, which means “across the Tiber” (Tevere in Italian). 

We recommend beginning your tour of the pontes (bridges) of Rome in the southern part of the city, then wandering your way back and forth to the north, stopping along the way to see the sights and sample some of the Italian capital’s tastiest fare.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Our Bridges of Rome tour begins just north of the Circus Maximus. Take a bus or the Metro to the Circus Maximus and then make your way through the early morning bustle to one of two cozy cafes — Art Café Mart-in (55 via dei Cerchi) or Bar dei Cerchi (49 via dei Cerchi) — where you can enjoy a traditional Roman breakfast. Romans don’t eat heavy breakfasts, although if they’re up really early, they may indulge in a second breakfast mid-morning. Breakfast is called prima colazione in Italian and usually consists of hot coffee with milk, caffè latte or espresso. You might eat a maritozzo, a sweet bun, a cookie, or a bit of toothy bread called fette biscottate. Also favored is the cornetto, which is shaped like a croissant but usually sweeter. Order your cornetto semplice (plain) or filled with crema (cream) or marmellata (jam).

After you’ve fortified yourself, head west on via dei Cerchi toward the Tiber. Turn left at the busy street, via Luigi Petroselli and walk a few minutes to the little church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. There, on the porch of the church, you’ll find the famous Bocca della Veritá, the Mouth of Truth, made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday. Admission is free; stand in line to place your hand into the marble mouth (bocca) of the Titan sea god Oceanus. 

Across the road (please cross at the intersection as the road is almost always busy) visit the generally overlooked but important Temple of Portunus, also known as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis (Manly Fortune). This extremely well-preserved temple was built in the third or fourth century BCE and then rebuilt again around 100 BCE. It was originally dedicated to Portunus, the god of livestock and granaries but also keys and doors. Consider this stop your official entrance to the day’s tour, as next you’ll be walking around the corner past the circular Forum Boarium, site of the ancient Roman cattle market and the very first gladiatorial event in 264 BCE. 

Cross Lungotevere Aventino, the street running parallel to the Tiber, to the Ponte Palatino and the Ponte Rotte. The Ponte Palatino gets its name from one of Rome’s seven famous hills, the Palatine, which slopes down toward the Tiber. It links the Forum Boarium to the Piazza Castellani on the other side. It’s called the English bridge, as the traffic flows on the left-hand side rather than on the right as is customary. 

From the Ponte Palatino, look northward to discover the Ponte Rotto (Broken Bridge), or what’s left of it anyway. The bridge, which was constructed between 1886 and 1890, replaced the partially destroyed 2,200-year-old Pons Aemilius bridge. Once a three-arch bridge, a 1598 flood ripped away one of its arches. For a long while, the bridge was used as a pier for fishing. Then in 1853 Pope Pius IX ordered the construction of an iron footbridge, which weakened the structure further. Eventually a second arch was destroyed in 1887 to accommodate the construction of the pedestrian bridge. The ruins of the old bridge form a magical monument in the middle of the Tiber.

Your next stop on the Bridges of Rome tour is the Ponte Cestius. Walk to the northwest along the curving west bank of the Tiber to find a pretty little stone bridge that takes you to Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina), the lone island in the portion of the river that winds through Rome. 

Traditionally associated with healing, Tiber Island was once the home of an ancient Temple and a hospital. It’s a nice place to rest and take in views from both sides of the river. The Ponte Cestius was originally constructed in the first century BCE and then partially dismantled and reconstructed through the ages. It has the feel of a village bridge. 

Be sure to visit the Basilica of St. Bartholomew (San Bartolomeo), a pretty church built over the ancient temple containing relics of the apostle Saint Bartholomew. The church, which has been reconstructed in portions over time, was first dedicated in 998. Near the entrance to the Ponte Fabricio, the pedestrian bridge connecting Tiber Island to the east bank of the river, you’ll pass the charming Torre Caetani (Caetani Tower). The structure once belonged to the Pierleoni family who fortified the island. Before that, two different popes hid out in the tower during periods of unrest in the 11th century. Most of the castle that once stood there is gone; but the tower, which housed a convent, remains.

You now find yourself at the entrance to the Ponte Fabricio, which is the oldest bridge in Rome. It was originally constructed from wood by Lucius Fabricius, the Roman officer who oversaw street construction and maintenance in the first century CE. Fabricius seems to have held himself in rather high regard, as his name appears on the bridge in four different places. Later, it was rebuilt using local tufa stone, brick and travertine. 

The bridge was once called the Ponte Quattro Capi (Four Heads Bridge) because of the carved heads, two four-headed herms (from Greek times, two-faced or two-headed pillars that marked property boundaries) at the entrance from the city. 

Stroll along the east bank of the Tiber for a few minutes until you arrive at the Ponte Garibaldi, which will let you cross back to the west bank into Trastevere, traversing the tip of the Tiber Island as you go. This bridge is fairly new, at least in the context of the ancient city in which it was built. During the last quarter of the 19th century, an architect named Angelo Vescovali was commissioned to construct the bridge, which is dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general, nationalist, and famous republican who helped unite the Kingdom of Italy.

Once you cross the Garibaldi Bridge, you’ll be back in Trastevere and most likely ready for lunch. For an upscale lunch, we suggest Ai Bozzi at 107 Piazza Giuditta Tavani Arquati. It’s a short walk from the Trastevere end of the Ponte Garibaldi. You may want to make a reservation beforehand to secure a table. If you’re up for a walk through Trastevere, we recommend going a bit further to the Grazia & Graziella, one of our favorite neighborhood spots. It’s a bit trendy but you’ll find plenty of appealing items on the menu and the ambiance is delightful. After you’ve had lunch, you should explore the exquisite Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and the charming Piazza di Santa Maria in which it is situated. 

Roam through this neighborhood of boutiques, microbreweries, old-fashioned cafes, restaurants and colorful homes to the Ponte Sisto. This bridge was commissioned by Pope Sixtus VI, the same pontiff who had the Sistine Chapel built. According to local lore, the funding for a major restoration of the bridge was essentially paid for by the prostitutes of Rome, who were forced to pay taxes to the Curia, the official governing body of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Next you can either catch a taxi or keep walking north. You’ll pass the Ponte Giuseppe Mazzini, the Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta, and the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II before you get to the next bridge on our tour, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which is probably Rome’s most famous bridge. Also a pedestrian bridge, it may be bustling with tourists and vendors. Navigate around them toward the magnificent drum-shaped Castel Sant’Angelo on the other side.

At one time, annoying vendors would have been the least of your concerns. Centuries ago, executed prisoners’ bodies were displayed at the fortress. In 1535, Pope Clement VII had statues of the saints Paul and Peter placed at the entrance to the bridge. Shortly afterwards, more statues were added to this beautiful bridge, including angels designed by the Baroque sculptor Bernini. We encourage you to take in the views around the Castel Sant’Angelo or, better still, to venture inside for a tour. Just a short walk northeast of the mighty fortress is a small and delightful resting place, the Chiosco delle bancarelle Bibliobar, where you can enjoy coffee and dessert. 

We recommend bicycling or taking a taxi to the final bridge on our Bridges of Rome tour: the Ponte Milvio in the northern Flaminio rione. This is the lovers’ bridge, where you’re likely to see padlocks representing the eternal love of the couples who attached them. Originally built in 110 BCE and restored in the early 19th century, the Milvian Bridge was strategically and economically crucial to the empire as a trade crossing and also a conduit that could be closed off if the center of the city was under threat. The Ponte Milvio gained great renown as the site for the 312 CE battle between the Emperors Maxentius and Constantine, who were fighting for ultimate control of the empire (Constantine won). 

Across the Ponte Milvio, on the northern side of the Tiber, you’ll find a variety of restaurants, bars, and cafes where you can end your day taking in views of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.