You Won’t Believe Your Eyes – Rome Then and Now in Photos

August 30, 2012 19 Comments »

Rome Them and Now
1956 Italians entering the Vatican – no metal detectors!

My parents recently did a European trip which included Germany and Italy. They had a great time and enjoyed all of the cities and sites…except Rome. This was really surprising since I find Rome to be one of the coolest cities in Europe.

How could anyone think that Rome – a city with so much history and character – is awful?

Sure, traffic is bad, there’s too much shopping, and it’s crowded…but isn’t that every popular city in Europe? I asked my dad what he didn’t like about Rome and he said it was too crowded. Coming from the man who refused to wait in line at Disneyworld (which meant endless trips on the ‘boring’ rides), this didn’t surprise me.

Rome in 1956

While going through old slides with my father later that week, I realized that it was more than the crowds that soured him about Rome. Amidst all of the family photos of my brother, sister, and I was even older photos of my parent’s wedding and honeymoon. However, I was stunned when I came across the photos of my father in the army. He served in the 11th Airborne in the mid-1950s, luckily missing WWII and the Korean War. He was stationed in Augsburg Germany, but the pictures I found were of his ‘leave’ in Rome in 1956.

Rome Then is Not the Rome I Know Now

I looked at these old grainy images in amazement; this was not the Rome I knew.

This was Rome before air travel became affordable. Before millions of people from all countries and all walks of life could get on a metal ‘bullet’ and fly to Rome for a few hundred dollars. Before a few hundred dollars was considered a ‘cheap ticket’. Before we were bombarded with images of Rome on our televisions sets, computers, and phones.

Before overtourism was even fathomable.

This was my father’s Rome – undiscovered.

Travel and Overtourism

There are a number of reasons why Rome and other popular tourist destinations have changed since 1956. Tourism is the world’s largest and fastest growing industry. It is much more afforable to travel now as average income has increased and transportation costs have decreased. More people have cars and most importantly we have more vacation time than we had back then.

Plus – the typically middle and low income nations are starting to travel more now. Not until only in the last 10 years have you started to see an influx of Asian/Chinese tourists as well as tourists from India. The world is open and everyone wants to explore.

Thanks to Marketing and the rise of social media, we are also being funneled to the ‘popular bucket list’ destinations which doesn’t help.


Want to go to the lesser-known places? Then check out my Ebook Where to Go and When that will keep you away from the crowds.


Rome Then and Now in Photos

The next time I traveled to Rome, I took digital copies of my dad’s photos with me and made a point to go back to the same places he was at and take similar pictures. I wanted to see the changes in history. It was a fun project for me to go back to these spots I knew my dad had been to as a young man. It made me consider how fast time seems to march on, and how we change with it.

Trevi Fountain Then and Now

The name Trevi Fountain literally means “three street fountain”. The fountain sits at the junction of three roads, marking the final point of Aqua Virgo, one of the earliest aqueducts in Rome.

It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome these days. I’m amazed at how quiet it looked in my dad’s picture – as opposed to the chaos in my picture. In 1956, it looks like a beautiful quiet place to sit and reflect, enjoy lunch, and meet a friend.

Today people push through to get a picture and throw coins in the famous fountain. Coin throwing became popular thanks to the 1954 movie, Three Coins in the Fountain . An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain now each day!

Rome Them and Now
An empty Trevi Fountain in 1956
Rome Them and Now
Tourists now take up every square inch of Trevi Fountain 2012

The Colosseum Then and Now

The Colosseum was no exception either. It was completely empty when my dad roamed around it without waiting in line or even seeing other people. In contrast, I don’t think I was ever able to take a photo without people in it at the Colosseum.  

The Colosseum is the largest ancient amphitheater ever built, and is still the largest standing amphitheatre in the world today. It was completed in 80 AD. It’s an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome and was listed as one of the New7Wonders of the World. It is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions. Be prepared to wait in line for a while for a ticket to get in these days.

Rome Them and Now
Colosseum in 1956
Rome Them and Now
Colosseum 2012

My niece and I even tried to recreate the photo of my father there – three generations of Otts at the Colosseum.

The Vatican Then and Now Photos

Vatican City is an independent city-state and enclave located within Rome – and also one of the most popular stops for visitors. As you can see from my dad’s picture below, there were no lines at the Vatican and certainly no metal detectors – you could just walk in.

However when I went to visit with my niece it was a different story – metal detectors, lines, security, and many tours all running through this popular Rome stop.

The Vatican sees over 5 million visitors a year! Therefore, it’s not surprising that tourism is one of the principal sources of revenue in the economy of Vatican City.

Rome Them and Now
Vatican 1956 – people just walked in through the front door!
Rome Them and Now
Vatican 2012 – people in line for security screening

Arch of Constantine Photos Then and Now

The Arch of Constantine is located along the Via Triumphalis in Rome, and it is situated between the Colosseum and the Temple of Venus. When I look at my dad’s picture below I’m amazed that there is absolutely no one around this area at all. I don’t see one person. I don’t think you would ever find that in Rome now…even at 2AM! It also looks like it’s in need of some repairs, but the current day picture looks about the same as far as the monument goes.

Rome Them and Now
Arch of Constantine 1956 – no fencing and no people
Rome Them and Now
Arch of Constantine 2012

Piazza della Republica Then and Now Photos

This is a large and busy roundabout near the central train station. There is always lots of traffic and pedestrians around in current times. The beautiful fountain, is always worth seeing. Fontana delle Naiadi was constructed between 1870 and 1888 and decorated with four lion sculptures. In 1901 the lions were replaced by the statues of four nude water nymphs!

I love examining these two pictures and noticing that the building behind the fountain is exactly the same…with a new coat of paint it appears.

Rome Them and Now
Piazza della Republica 1956
Rome Them and Now
Piazza della Republica Now

Spanish Steps Then and Now Photos

The Spanish Steps are considered the widest and longest staircase of Europe, welcoming millions of tourists and Romans who visit at all times of the day. The steps connect the Piazza di Spagna to the gothic Trinità dei Monti church.

It’s a very popular place for pictures today and it’s hard to even see the steps at all in my current day picture!

Rome Them and Now
Spanish Steps 1956 – practically empty
Rome Them and Now
Spanish Steps – always filled with people now

Piazza Venezia Then and Now Photos

Piazza Venezia is a central hub of Rome, Italy, in which several roads intersect. The big beautiful building in the pictures is Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I love seeing the old cars in my dad’s picture. You can see that it is now a big roundabout with a green space in the middle.

Rome Them and Now
Old cars parked outside of Piazza Venezia
Rome Them and Now
More green space and less cable cars wires – Piazza Venezia

Pyramid of Cestius Rome Then and Now

I was so surprised to see this picture of my dad’s. It’s the Pyramid of Cestius found in the Campo Cestio Pretestant cemetery. The cemetery in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome and quite honestly – it’s not a huge tourist stop. In fact I didn’t come across it until my 5th trip to Rome! I’m not exactly sure why my dad went there, but he found a hidden gem – and it’s still sort of a hidden gem today!

The pyramid was built about 18–12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a magistrate and member of one of the four great religious corporations in Rome. The tomb had been sealed when it was built, with no exterior entrance. Until the end of restoration work in 2015, it was not possible for visitors to access the interior, except by special permission. However, in May 2015, the pyramid opened to the public every second and fourth Saturday each month. Visitors must arrange their visit in advance.

I actually loved this the Campo Cestio cemetery so much that I wrote about the gravesites there and my favorite cemetery angel.

Rome Them and Now
Pyramid of Cestius 1956
Rome Them and Now
Pyramid of Cestius view from the cemetery 2012

Tiber River Flows Through Rome Then and Now

As you walk around Rome, you are bound to come across the Tiber River. The Tiber provided a reliable source of fresh water to ancient Rome. Romans used this water to irrigate their farms, as well as to provide drinking water for humans and animals.

Now it’s a nice respite from the many buildings and the home to many beautiful bridges.

Rome Them and Now
Tiber River 1956
Rome Them and Now
The Tiber River looks a little more inviting today

Is Rome Better or Worse?

No wonder why my father didn’t enjoy Rome. The Rome he saw was not the one he remembered. It had changed drastically.

Looking at these pictures of the then and now made me realize just how much tourism has changed the world.

It had changed drastically. You can check the Rome neighborhood guide to explore today’s Rome even more.

The question is – has it changed for the better or worse?


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