The Spanish Steps ★★★

The Spanish Steps, The Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy (Photo by Martin Furtschegger)
The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti—by whatever name you call it, this is one of Rome's prime outdoor living rooms, an elegant gathering place for locals and tourists alike

The graceful off-center curves of the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti (a.k.a. the Spanish Steps; see sidebar below to the right) rising from the hourglass Piazza di Spagna are covered with bright azaleas in spring, a life-sized nativity scene in winter, and teem with visitors, Roman teens, poseurs, Italians meeting for the passeggiata, and tour groups year-round.

The steps were built in 1723–25 by Francesco De Sanctis, not on behalf of the Spanish, but for the French as a grand entrée to their twin-towered church of Trinità dei Monti at the top, behind the 13.9m (45-foot) Sallustiano Obelisk—which was actually crafted in the Impeiral era by Roman stonemasons, who copied onto it random hieroglyphics from other, genuinely Egyptian obelisks (in the process carving some of them upside down).

At the foot of the steps burbles the beloved Barcaccia ("Ugly Boat") fountain, a sinking and leaking marble boat sculpted by a teenage Bernini along with his father, Pietro Bernini.

Other sights on and around the Spanish Steps

What's in a name?

One of the most famous and visited sights in all of Rome is the Stairs of Trinity of the Mountains. Never heard of it? That's because you know them as "The Spanish Steps," a reference to the fact that they rise from the Piazza di Spagna ("Spanish Square"), whereas Italians call the stairs after the place to which they lead: up to the church of Trinità dei Monti. So, why is the square below called Piazza di Spagna in the first place? The Spanish Ambassador to the Vatican lives here.
Piazza di Spagna has long been the Anglo-American center of Rome; the British Consul used to have his office here, and the brick Anglican church lies just a few blocks down Via del Babuino. 

Flanking the steps are British 19th-century bastions of Babington's Tea Rooms (genteel and pricey; and, at no. 26, the pink house where Romantic poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25.

This Keats-Shelley Memorial House is now a small museum to the phenomenon of 19th-century literary greats who liked to bum around Italy—Byron, Shelley, the Brownings, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Goethe, James Joyce, and particularly "Giovanni Keats," including some of his letters and a sketch of him on his deathbed by roomie Joseph Severn (tel. 06-678-4235;; adm). As an interesting side note, you can rent a small apartment in this building for anywhere form three nights to six months. 

Shopping around the Spanish Steps

Requiem for AMEX

To the right of the steps was, until recently, the American Express office of Rome. For decades the local AMEX office was the center of the American's universe in any European city—the second thing you had to find after your arrival in town (after your hotel). Until ATMs spread in the 1990s, visiting an American Express office every week, or even every few days, was a ritual engaged in by all ex-pats and American travelers in Europe. You needed to exchange traveler's checks, they operated the best travel agency, and you could pick up poste restante mail for free—I received my absentee vote in the 1996 elections thanks to the Amex office in Florence. Another old American connection here: In 1985, crowds thronged the piazza to protest the opening of Italy's first McDonald's next-door to the Amex office. (As a teenage ex-pat living in Rome, I showed up excited to get my first burger fix in more than a year; it was awful.) Both old bastions of Americaness have since been replaced by a Valentino megastore.
Leading out from the bottom of the steps is the überfashionable Via dei Condotti, the centerpiece for Rome's toniest fashion boutique shopping scene which fills the streets radiating from Piazza di Spagna. 

Generally speaking, the streets to the north of Piazza di Spagna toward Piazza del Popolo specialize in art and antiques, while the streets to the west and south focus more on clothing, leather, and jewelry, with names like Gucci, Valentino, Benetton, Ferragamo, Bulgari, and Buccellati.

This neighborhood is also the traditional area for English language bookstores in Rome, including the Anglo-American, at Via delle Vite 102 (tel. 06-679-5222).

(Sadly, several other English bookshops have closed down in recent years, including the one two doors up from the Steps where I voraciously bought paperbacks when I was an adolescent and teen—and, since the bulk of the books were printed in England, which is why I still have an annoying tendency to spell things British-style.)

Photo gallery
  • The Spanish Steps, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo by Martin Furtschegger)
  • La Barcaccia and the Piazza di Spagna, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo by Dorli Photography)
  • La Barcaccia (1527–29), a baroque fountain by Pietro Bernini and his teenaged son (who would go on to enormous fame) Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo by Carlomorino)
  • Piazza di Spagna: La barcaccia and the Scalinata di Trinitá dei Monti, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo by Rublo214)
  • L
  • The Keats-Shelley House, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The library inside the Keats-Shelley Museum, The Spanish Steps, Italy (Photo Giovanni dall
  • Inside the Keats-Shelley Museum: The room in which John Keats died on February 23rd 1821. The furniture is not the original one, since it was burned after Keats
  • John Keats
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How long do the Spanish Steps take?

For some people the Spanish Steps are something to look at, go "ooh!", snap a photograph, and move on.

Others insist that, since it is a staircase, it must be climbed; that'll take maybe 20 minutes up and down.

Still others enjoy the easygoing vibe and sit on the steps for a while (though, sadly, authorities no longer allow you to picnic here—even to lick an ice cream cone).

If you take time to soak it all in, visiting the Keats House and everything, figure on at least an hour.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).