Sunday, February 26, 2017

Travel Tip #50 - Renew friendships

     One thing we've tried to do on our big out-of-state trips is visit friends and family we haven't seen for a while. On our trip to Virginia, we reached out to some friends who we hadn't seen since college. We'd kept in contact through Christmas cards and Facebook, but that isn't the same as actually getting to visit with them in person. They had lived in various parts of the country as well as in Europe for several years before returning to the U.S. and buying a home in Virginia near Washington D.C. They kindly invited us to stay at their home for a few nights while we visited the D.C. area, and showed us where to catch the metrolink so that we didn't have to worry about parking in the city. They also had some great advice on visiting a site we'd never even heard of. Not only were we able to renew our friendship with them, our oldest daughter struck up a friendship with one of their daughters. Also, one of our youngest daughter's favorite activities was chasing fireflies in their backyard.
     Once again, on our recent trip to Texas, I was able to see a high school buddy that I hadn't seen since the summer after we graduated. We had lost track of each other for many years, but reconnected on Facebook. When we visited San Antonio, we made plans to meet him and his family at a restaurant. We had never met each others' families, so it was fun to meet them, catch up on what was going on in our lives, and reminisce about fond memories from our teenage years.
     So, next time you are planning a trip, take a moment to peruse your address book and see if you can reconnect with someone. Not only can you get some good advice regarding places to visit, places to eat, and places to avoid, it can strengthen your friendship and provide some of the best memories once the trip is over.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Spotlight: Virginia - Mount Vernon

Spotlight: In the antebellum south, plantation owners lovingly gave names to their beautiful plantations. Although George Washington is more famous for his roles as general of the Colonial Army and first President of the United States, he was also a plantation owner. His plantation was named Mount Vernon by its previous owner, his brother Lawrence who named it after his commanding officer. The mansion began as a modest one and one-half story farmhouse built in 1735 by Augustine Washington, George's father. It was later inherited by George's half-brother Lawrence. When Lawrence died, ownership of the plantation eventually passed on to George, who began residing there in 1754. Over the next 45 years, George slowly added on the Mansion, supervising each renovation and eventually expanding it to 21 rooms.
      Following Washington's death in 1799, the estate began to deteriorate due to decreased revenues. It was saved from ruin by The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association who acquired and restored the historic buildings. It was designated a National Historic Monument in 1960.

Location: Mount Vernon is located at 3200 Mount Vernon Highway, Mt. Vernon, VA on the shores of the Potomac River, just south of Washington D.C.

Cost: Adults (12+): $20, Seniors (62+): $19, Youth (6-11): $10, Children (0-5): free

Time: Open from 9:00-4:00 (November-March), 9:00-5:00 (April-October); we planned on only staying for 2-3 hours, but ended up staying 6 1/2 hours. You could easily spend a full day here.

Description: After the death of his brother, Lawrence, George took up residence in the Mansion at Mount Vernon. The 21 rooms are painted in vibrant colors and adorned with elegant furnishings from the era. Visitors can walk through the first and second floors and listen to guides who give interesting details about the house and its residents. The distinctive cupola on top of the mansion not only provided a fabulous view of the estate and river, it also served as a natural air conditioning by siphoning hot air out through the open windows. The shaded piazza was also unique for that era, allowing the family to take tea outside on hot summer days.
     Many of the essential household operations took place in the many outbuildings located around the Mansion, including: the Kitchen, the Blacksmith Shop, the Spinning House, the Greenhouse, the Smokehouse, the Stables, and more.

Spinning House

Blacksmith Shop
     Surrounding the Mansion and outbuildings are several fabulous gardens. Some of the gardens were to add beauty to the grounds. Others served different purposes including growing fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. They also allowed Washington to test out the viability of new species of plants in the humid Virginia climate. Visitors can also explore the wooded landscape of the 1/4 mile forest trail.
     Around the property, visitors can see the various animals that Washington raised on his grounds: horses, donkeys, cows, hogs, sheep, turkeys, chickens, mules and oxen.
     Washington was originally buried in the Old Tomb near the Mansion. However, prior to his death, he had chosen a site for the New Tomb to be constructed. Once it was completed, the remains of George, his wife Martha, and other family members were moved to the new site. Near the New Tomb is a Slave Memorial and Burial Ground for the unmarked graves of the many slaves and free blacks that lived, worked, and died at Mount Vernon.

     From April to October, visitors can explore the reconstructed Pioneer Farm where Washington experimented with new agricultural ideas such as crop rotation, fertilizers, plowing practices, etc. You can visit the replica 16-sided Treading Barn and the reconstructed slave cabin and watch workers in period dress perform labors that were common during the late 1700's.

     One of Washington's most successful enterprises was his fishery. Visitors can walk onto the reconstructed wharf where they can access the sightseeing cruise from April to October.
     The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center traces Washington's life through a variety of multimedia presentations that explore his childhood, his adventures on the American frontier, his role in the Revolutionary War, his presidency, and of course his family life at Mount Vernon. The museum displays more than 500 objects that were part of the Washingtons' daily lives.

Photographic proof of the Cherry Tree incident

Washington's sword
     The Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium shows four different movies included in the price of admission: The Winter Patriots, Yorktown: Now or Never, Saving Mount Vernon, and Mount Vernon in Virginia.
     Your general admission ticket also gives you access to the nearby Distillery and Gristmill, both of which are still functioning just as they did at the end of the 18th century.
     The Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant serves classic American dishes common during the late 18th century, and served by waiters in period dress in a colonial setting. There is also a food court with quicker, modern options. We tried the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant and enjoyed it immensely.
our waiter at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - Parking is free. You can also come by rail from Washington DC. Take Metrorail's Yellow Line to Huntington Station. Exit at the lower level of the station (Huntington Avenue) to catch a Fairfax Connector bus to Mount Vernon. Board the Fairfax Connector Bus #101, the Fort Hunt Line, for a 20-minute trip to Mount Vernon's entrance gate.
- Timed tickets to the Mansion tour are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- Daily add-on tours include: the Sightseeing Cruise ($11), National Treasure Tour ($7), Gardens & Groves Tour ($4), the Enslaved People of Mt. Vernon Tour ($4), and the Audio Tour ($6). To engage our daughters more, we did the National Treasure Tour (based on the Hollywood movie) and loved it! It is the only tour that takes you under the mansion to the subterranean cellar.
Cellar door entrance

Ice House entrance

Erika hiding where Ben Gates entered the party
- On the tour we learned that although there is no secret passage in the cellar; there was one from the bottom of the Ice House to the river at the base of the hill. When the script writers learned this, they got so excited, they modified the script to include a secret passage.
- Weekend add-on tours include: Dinner for the Washingtons ($7), Through My Eyes Character Tour ($7), and the All the President's Pups Walking Tour ($7)
- You get a 10% discount on online ticket purchases from the Mt. Vernon website.
- If you come with kids, download the Agent 711 Spy Adventure app which allows them to use their spy skills as they explore the grounds.

Nearby: Piscataway Park, Fort Washington Park, Woodlawn & Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House, Gunston Hall

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Spotlight: Virginia - Historic Yorktown

Spotlight: In the fall of 1781, a combined army of colonial troops, led by General George Washington, and French troops under the command of General Comte de Rochambeau laid siege to British troops under the command of Lord General Charles Cornwallis at the small town of Yorktown. General Cornwallis had led his troops to the Yorktown peninsula in hopes of getting some much needed rest. Meanwhile Gen. Washington and his troops were preparing for a major offensive against New York when word reached him that the French fleet was headed to Virginia. Recognizing the opportunity to catch the British unawares, Washington led every available soldier down to Virginia, where he and his troops penned the British troops in by land while the French fleet prevented their escape by sea. Cornwallis requested help from the British forces in New York, but the fleet sent under the command of Admiral Graves was both outnumbered and outmaneuvered by French Admiral De Grasse. The two day naval battle ended with the British fleeing back to New York. In the meantime, Washington and his troops encircled the 9,000 British troops at Yorktown. For three weeks, the Colonial army, fortified by heavy French cannon, bombarded the British troops. However, British Redoubts #9 and #10 were keeping the cannons out of range of the city. On the moonless night of Oct. 14, the American army attacked Redoubt #10 while tasking the French with taking Redoubt #9. Both attacks succeeded, allowing the Colonial army to move in the heavy artillery. A British counterattack on Oct. 15 succeeded in spiking 6 guns, but failed to break through. Next, Cornwallis attempted to sneak off the peninsula by crossing the river in boats; but they were scattered in a storm. Finally, on Oct. 17, 1781, Lord Cornwallis waved the white flag of surrender. After two days of negotiations, Cornwallis reluctantly signed the surrender documents. Too embarrassed to deliver his sword to General Washington in person, he sent his second-in-command. Rather than accept the proffered offering, Washington sent the man to his second-in-command to accept it. Although the battle didn't officially end the war, it was the last major engagement of the American Revolution, successfully paving the way for the creation of a new country, the United States of America.
Yorktown today
Location: The Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center is located at 1000 Colonial Parkway, Yorktown.

Cost: $7 per adult; 4-site ticket to Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown Victory Center: $37/adult, $25/youth (13-15), and $14/child (6-12) can be purchased in Jamestown.

Time: The Visitor Center is open from 9:00 am - 5:00 pm. Park grounds are closed at sunset. Plan on spending between 2-5 hours exploring the Visitor Center and battlefield.

Description: Yorktown Battlefield is part of Colonial National Historical Park, run by the National Parks Service. The Visitor Center has an orientation film "Siege at Yorktown," a museum with artifacts from the battlefield, and a bookstore, as well as information on tours. On the battlefield, visitors can take a ranger-led tour of the earthworks, fields and historic buildings that played a part in the battle. Other points of interest include:
Replica cannon deck
battlefield dioramas

General Washington's command tent

battlefield artillery
- Cornwallis' Cave - While legend places Cornwallis’ headquarters here, he was actually located in a bunker near Tobacco Road.
- Moore House - Site of negotiations that led to the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
- Nelson House - Restored mansion of Thomas Nelson Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, and commander of the Virginia Militia during the Siege of Yorktown. 
- Poor Potter Archaeological Site - Described as a “poor potter” by Royal Governor William Gooch in 1732, William Rogers actually operated a large-scale pottery in Yorktown from 1720-1745 in violation of English trade laws.
- Yorktown Victory Monument - Commissioned by the Continental Congress in 1781 to commemorate the great victory at Yorktown, this monument was constructed between 1881 and 1884.
Victory Monument
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - The battlefield park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Years Day.
- The ticket to Colonial National Park sold at the Yorktown Visitor Center is only good for designated National Park sites at Yorktown and Jamestown. The 4-site ticket is not sold at Yorktown Visitor Center.

Nearby: Riverwalk Landing Marina, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestown

Monday, February 6, 2017

Spotlight: Virginia - Historic Jamestowne

Spotlight: Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the Americas. It was established on May 14, 1607 as James Fort by the Virginia Company of London. Although the Paspahegh Tribe initially welcomed the settlers and saved the colony from starvation, relations soon deteriorated into warfare. During the "Starving Time" (1609-1610), about 80% of the colonists perished, which led to the temporary abandonment of the settlement. It was quickly resettled after the arrival of a relief fleet on June 10, 1610 - celebrated as the Day of Providence. However, the arrival of the fleet led to renewed conflict between the settlers and the natives. It wasn't until the English captured Chief Wahunsenacawh's daughter, Pocahontas, that a peace treaty was finally signed. Pocahontas eventually married one of the English settlers, John Rolfe, helping solidify the uneasy peace between the settlers and the natives. Unfortunately, Pocahontas became sick on a goodwill trip to England, and died soon after. When her father also passed away, leadership of the tribe fell upon her brother, Chief Opechancanough. For more than two decades, he sought to expel the English from the Powhatan lands. He was eventually captured and killed, leading the the decline and eventual demise of the Powhatan Nation. Jamestown served as the capital of Virginia from 1616-1699, at which time the capital was transferred to Williamsburg.
     Today, Jamestown forms one corner of what is known as the Historical Triangle (together with Williamsburg and Yorktown) and is comprised of two parts. Historic Jamestowne is an archaeological site on the island where the settlement actually existed, and is co-run by the National Parks System as part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Jamestown Settlement is a living history interpretive site operated by the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation.

Location: Historic Jamestowne is located at 1368 Colonial Pkwy on Jamestown Island on the shores of the James River about 50+ miles southeast of Richmond.

Cost: Historic Jamestowne: $14/adult (only $5 for NPS/PV passholders); active military, access pass holders, and children under 15 are free. A 4-site ticket to Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown Victory Center: $37/adult, $25/youth (13-15), and $14/child (6-12).

Time: Historic Jamestowne is open from 8:30 am - 5:00 pm daily.

Description: Historic Jamestowne is principally an ongoing archaeological site. The Visitor Center shows an immersive “theater in the round” orientation film and exhibits galleries highlighting the history of Jamestown Island from prehistoric times to the present, stretching back 15,000 years. A giant map features “The Atlantic World in 1607.” Of the nearly 2 million artifacts uncovered by National Park Service archaeologists working at Jamestown since 1930's, over 1,000 are on display in the Visitor Center. The artifacts and accompanying exhibit texts relate information about the contributions made by the three major cultures that created the Jamestown story: Virginia Indian, European, and African.  This gallery helps tell the story of Jamestown’s growth into James City in the decades after the fort was dismantled.
     The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities conducted archaeology around the old church foundations and reconstructed a church in time for the 300th anniversary of the settlement. The 1907 Memorial Church was designed by Boston architects Edmund Wheelwright and Ralph Adams Cram. The church was modeled after St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield and used bricks from two old buildings in Hampton, VA. Glass panels in the floor allow visitors to see the brick foundations of the 17th-century churches, including the one in which the colonists met in 1619 for the first representative assembly in English North America. The Memorial Church is adjacent to but not directly connected to the 17th-century tower. It was officially dedicated on May 13, 1908.

glassed view of original foundations
     The Voorhees Archaearium Archaeology Museum displays more than 4,000 artifacts from the colony.  Most of the displays focus on the colony's early years - particularly 1607-1624, but at least one display is dedicated to recent discoveries. Visitors learn how these artifacts were uncovered, including archaeological techniques and tools.
     New Towne is the residential area that developed eastward of James Fort. It was the heart of the new colony and grew quickly, eventually becoming known as James Cittie. When the NPS took possession of the area, their archaeological efforts focused on this area. Brick walls mark the original foundations, and visitors can explore the ruins of the Ambler House which still remain centuries later.
     Daily programs include "Archaeology in Action!" (ongoing - periodically during morning and afternoon hours) and the James Fort Education Walking Tour (11:00 am - noon daily & 2:00 - 3:00 on weekends). During the summer, they do a glassblowing exhibition which is absolutely fascinating.
archeologists in action
Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement are two different sites run by two different groups. Tickets to each site are sold separately, but joint tickets are available.
- Historic Jamestowne is closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.
- The glassblowers have a shop where you can buy some of their products. My wife absolutely loves some of the pieces she purchased there.

Nearby: Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield, Yorktown Naval Weapons Station

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Travel tip #49 - Exchanging your dollars for foreign currency (Euros)

     If you are traveling to Europe, you are probably going to need Euros. Why probably? Well, many European countries still use their own form of currency. However, 19 of the 28 countries in the European Union use the Euro as their official currency, including most of the popular tourist destinations: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, 
Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. The EU countries which continue to use their own national currency are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Of course, there are still other countries who don't even belong to the European Union, such as Norway and Switzerland, which also use their national currency.
      Although coin collectors may not appreciate the advantages of a single currency, it does make it easier for travelers. Rather than exchanging your currency every time you enter a new country, you can just continue using Euros. Now you might be thinking, "I've traveled to several countries and have been able to use the U.S. dollar wherever I've gone. If I need cash, I'm sure they'll take them in Europe too." Although there are places in Europe that will take dollars, most of them are professional currency exchange stations, and their primary goal is to make money. They make money by buying your dollars at one rate, and then turning around and selling them to people needing dollars at a different rate. If you bought $100 worth of Euros at one of these places, and then turned around and sold your Euros back for dollars, you'd probably get less than $90 back. That's why most business won't accept dollars or other foreign currency. If they have to exchange it into Euros, they take a significant hit.
     Your next thought might be, "Okay, I'll just use my credit card everywhere I go." Although that will work with most hotels and large purchases, it won't work for small purchases. Since credit card companies are out to make a profit too, many small businesses won't accept credit cards for purchases under a certain amount because the credit card charges will eat up all their profits. Also, many credit cards charge extra fees for foreign transactions, so you might want to look into your card's policy before deciding which one to use when traveling abroad. The same thing goes for debit cards  - some banks will charge a foreign transaction fee while others won't. Make sure you know your bank's policy before you leave.
     So how should you go about exchanging your money without paying exorbitant fees? First off, the best place to purchase Euros or other foreign currency is through your bank. Although banks will make profits off of currency exchanges too, their top priority is to keep you as their customer, since that will benefit them more in the long run. Therefore, their rates are going to be much more reasonable. If your bank has international branches, find out if they'll have conveniently located ATM machines in the cities you'll be visiting, and what the charges will be for using them. If not, you should make an educated guess regarding how much cash you are going to need. If you guess too low, you'll end up exchanging more money at a bad rate. If you guess too high, you're going to have too much left over, which won't do you much good unless you plan on returning soon. Once you've calculated how much you need, purchase the amount from a bank before you go. If your bank doesn't sell foreign currencies, find a nearby one that does. You may need to place the order ahead of time since many banks don't keep a supply of foreign currency on site. So don't wait until the last minute! If you forget to do this until it's too late, there are other options; but some are better than others. Some of the biggest traps are: exchanging your money at airports, hotels or Travelex counters (all of which are notorious for offering lousy rates), using a prepaid debit card (which comes loaded with fees), or withdrawing cash from an out-of-network ATM (for which you will end up paying charges to your bank, the bank that owns the ATM, and foreign transaction fees).
     So, be smart and plan ahead to eliminate this potential stress so that you can enjoy your vacation. After all, you've already saved up your money to pay for it once; you don't want to have to keep paying for it once you return. Happy travels!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Spotlight: Rome - The Vatican (Sistine Chapel & St. Peter's Basilica)

Spotlight: Vatican City is a walled city-state in Rome, ItalyThe independent city-state was created in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy. According to the terms of the treaty, the Holy See has "full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction" over the city-state. The sacerdotal-monarchical state ruled by the Pope - the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. With only 110 acres, and a population of under 900 people, it is officially the smallest country in the world.
     Despite its small size, Vatican City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. In fact, its unique economy is supported by the sale of stamps, souvenirs and entrance fees to its museums. Some of its more famous venues include the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, which contain many of the most famous paintings, murals, and statues in the world.
     The name Vatican comes from the Etruscan word for garden. Agrippina the Elder drained the area and planted her gardens there in the early first century AD. Her son, Emperor Caligula, built a circus in her gardens, referred to as the Circus of Nero, to provide entertainment. When Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Old St. Peter's Basilica was built on the site of former circus. During the Renaissance, the New St. Peter's Basilica was built (1506-1626) on the foundations of the former one, becoming the center piece for the future Papal state.
A fountain in a Vatican courtyard
Location: Despite being a separate country, Vatican City is located completely inside the city of Rome. The public access is through St. Peter's Square, located at the western end of Via della Conciliazione.

Cost: Tour tickets range anywhere form $20-$200, depending on the type of tour you want.

Time: The Vatican Museums are open from 9 am - 6 pm. Plan on spending between 2-6 hours here, depending on your interest in history, religion and art.

Description: The entrance to Vatican City is through St. Peter's Square, located directly in front of St. Peter's Basilica. At the center of the square is an Egyptian obelisk erected in 1586. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the Square between 1656-1667, surrounding the square with Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep, which embrace visitors in "the maternal arms of the Mother Church." The purpose of the Square was to accommodate as many people as possible who wanted to see the Pope give his blessing.
My group from EF Tours

      The Papal Basilica of St. Peter was designed by the famous artists Donato Bromante, Michelangelo and Bernini. It is one of the largest churches in the world, and perhaps the most famous. According to tradition, it is the burial site of St. Peter, considered by Catholics to be the first Pope. It has also become the burial place of many Popes over the centuries. As a result, it is one of the most popular Pilgrimage destinations in the world. The basilica was built in the shape of a cross, with a massive dome dominating the central space which is surrounded by numerous chapels, altars, statues, etc. The most famous statue is Michelangelo's  Pietà  which displays the tender scene of Mary holding the body of her crucified son in her arms. Two curving marble staircases lead down to the underground Chapel of the Confession. Tradition states that this was the site of Peter's confession of faith, which led to his martyrdom.


     The Sistine Chapel is a separate chapel located in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope. The chapel's ceiling is covered in murals painted by Michelangelo over a period of 4 years (1508-1512), and is considered to be one of the greatest works of art in the world. Between 1535-1541, Michelangelo painted the wall behind the altar of the Chapel with his famous mural The Last Judgement. The nude figures in this mural led to the famous "Fig Leaf Campaign" in which many of the paintings and statues within the Vatican were censored by adding fig leaves over private parts. The side walls contain numerous frescoes, depicting the Life of Moses on one side and the Life of Christ on the other, painted by various artists in the late 1400's. Centuries of smoke and air pollution created a thick layer of grime over the revered paintings in the chapel. In 1984, a massive restoration project was implemented to remove the grime. It lasted ten years, and the results were incredible, revealing stunningly vibrant colors underneath. Although it was built primarily as the Pope's personal chapel, today the chapel is the site of the Papal conclave, held whenever a Pope dies in order to choose a new Pope.
Picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling

     The Vatican Museums display the immense art collections gathered by Popes over the centuries. The 11 museums contain approximately 70,000 works of art, 20,000 of which are on display, including statues, busts, masks, paintings, frescoes, sculptures, sarcophagus, maps, a throne, fountains and even bathtubs.

Hercules in the Sala della Rotonda

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - There is no way to see everything. Your best option is to take a tour that will show you the highlights, particularly those that interest you.
- Rather than wait in an extremely long line to purchase tickets, you should purchase them online.
- The last Sunday of the month, the Vatican Museum is open to the public for free. Of course you will have to wait in line for many hours before it opens if you want to get in since it is only open from 9 am - 12:30 pm on that day.
- One of the Vatican gift shops offers the option of having the Pope bless your purchase.
- One of the entrances, the Holy Door, is only opened during jubilees. We happened to be there during a Jubilee year - a special year of Mercy.
- You can't take pictures inside the Sistine Chapel.

Nearby: Castel Sant'Angelo, Corte Supremo di Cassazione, Piazza Navona, Villa Doria Pamphilj

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spotlight: Rome - the Forum

Spotlight: The Roman Forum was the heart of Ancient Rome. It started as a marketplace, but developed into the political, commercial and social center of Roman life. Known as the Forum Magnum, it was the site of  triumphal processions, elections, a venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and even gladiator battles.
     Located in the small valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, the land on which the Forum was built used to be a marshy lake containing water runoff from Rome's seven hills. The lake was drained in ancient times and became a central marketplace for its inhabitants. The Forum's earliest shrines and temples were built along the southeastern edge including the Temple of Saturn, the Regia (the first royal palace), the Temple of Vesta, and the complex of the Vestal Virgins. These were all rebuilt after the rise of Imperial Rome. The northwestern ridge included shrines such as the Umbilicus Urbis and the Shrine of Vulcan. This area eventually developed into the political center of the Forum as new buildings were added piecemeal over the centuries, including the Senate House, government buildings, and tribunals. The sides of the Forum were defined by two large basilicas - the Basilica Aemilia on the north and the Basilica Julia on the south. As Rome grew, adjacent Forums were added to meet the needs of the growing population. The last major addition to the old Forum was the Basilica of Maxentius, built during the reign of Constantine in 312 AD.
Capitoline Hill

Palatine Hill
     After major military victories, the Forum became the gathering place for elaborate military processions known as Triumphs. The victorious general would enter the city via the Triumphal Gate, circumnavigated Palatine Hill, then marched down the Via Sacra into the Forum where he was greeted by ravenous crowds. Upon reaching the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, he and his men would be treated to lavish banquets.
Via Sacra

Triumphal Arch
     The most famous event to occur in the Forum was the funeral of Julius Caesar. After being brutally assassinated in 44 BC by members of the Roman Senate, his general, Marc Antony, gave a stirring funeral oration, which was followed by the public burning of his body.
Julius Caesar's "sepulcher"
Caesar's funeral pyre
     Due to its origins, the ground on which the Forum was built was continually rising over the centuries. Whenever the Tiber flooded, it dumped silt in this lowland area. Runoff from the hills has also continually added sediment to the valley floor. As the ground level rose, residents simply paved over the remnants of earlier buildings creating a stratified city. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the structures in the Forum were damaged or destroyed. Many of the old Roman temples were converted into Christian churches. Other structures were dismantled, and the materials used elsewhere. Gradually, the Forum was abandoned, and debris was allowed to accumulate, covering up the ruins of what had once been the most important gathering place in the world, and turning it into a cow pasture.

Location: The Roman Forum is located along the Via Sacra, and was the heart of city during the days of the Roman Empire. The closest major road is the Via dei Fori Imperiali

Cost: Tickets cost 12 euros from the official site and includes admission to the Colosseum, Palatine, and current exhibitions. Tours from private vendors cost anywhere from $40 - several hundred dollars for VIP service. The cost is 7.50 euros for citizens of the European Union, and free to children under age 18.

Time: The Forum is open from 8:30 am until about 1 hour before sunset. You could spend anywhere from 1-4 hours exploring the ruins depending on your level of interest.

Description: Although interest in the old Forum was sparked during the Renaissance, excavation efforts didn't begin until the 18th century. It wasn't until the 20th century that those excavations blossomed into a large scale effort. Today, the Forum is a sprawl of ruins that are being painstakingly excavated by archaeologists in an attempt to uncover the physical remnants of Rome's glorious past.
     One of the most important excavations is the Complex of the Vestal Virgins. The residence of these honored citizens, the Atrium Vestae, was a three-story 50 room palace located behind the Temple of Vesta. It was rebuilt several times over the course of empire, and was even used for a time as the papal court after the order was disbanded following the compulsory conversion to Christianity. Today, remains of the statues of the Vestals can be seen in the Atrium Vestae.
Temple of Vesta

Atrium Vestae
statues of the Vestals

     Other buildings and monuments in the Forum include: the Tabularium (Records Hall), Mamertine Prison, Septimius Severus Arch, Column of Phocas, the Milliarium Aureum, Basilica Emilia, Biglietteria Foro Romano, Antonius and Faustina Temple, Temple of Divo Romolo, the Antiquarium Forense, Temple of Divo Giulio, Temple of Dioscuri, Chiesa Ortodossa di San Teodoro al Palatino, and the Palantine Museum on Palatine Hill.
Temple of Romulus

Mamertine Prison

Antoninus and Faustina Temple
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - The excavation process is ongoing. Each year a new area is designated for excavation, uncovering new wonders from Rome's epic past.
- Your official ticket to the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine Hill is good for 2 days.
- If you visit the Forum without a guide, a detailed guide book, or an audio tour, you probably won't have any idea what you are looking at besides a bunch of ruins. I strongly recommend doing some research ahead of time and picking a tour that fits your budget and time schedule. The following website has a variety of tours with different prices and times to give you an idea of what's out there.
- The Forum covers a large area with very little shade. Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes and bring plenty of water.
- The ticket booth near the Colosseum has the longest lines. If you purchase your ticket at Palatine Hill, the lines are much shorter. Or you can order them online from the official web site, but there is a processing fee.

Nearby: The Colosseum, Campidoglio, The Altar of the Fatherland, Capitoline Museums, Marcello Theater