Rome is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world, receiving between seven and ten million tourists a year! It’s easy to see why: you’ve got an irresistible combination of great weather, fantastic food, ancient history, rustic charm and endearing culture. It’s not difficult to find things to do in Rome – there are dozens of monuments, museums and churches to choose between and a quick Google search of ‘What to see in Rome’ brings up a whopping 285 million hits!
There are also lots of ‘hidden gems’ and well-kept secrets that the locals know about. In this post, I will share some of my favourite places to go or take visitors, along with cultural / historic attractions which are sometimes overlooked. Many of the museums and sights have an entrance fee so I will also include some free or low-budget options in case you’ve spent a large chunk of your sightseeing budget on amazing pizza and countless scoops of gelato! It happens! I will also give suggestions on how to manage your time effectively to avoid excessive queuing (whenever possible).
Let’s start with the most well-known sights!
Did you know that the Vatican is the world’s smallest country? It is a tiny independent state, one-eighth the size of Central Park in New York. The Vatican – ruled by the Pope – issues its own stamps, license plates and passports. There’s even a Vatican flag and national anthem! For more fascinating facts, check out this article.
There’s lots to see and do within the Vatican City, so I suggest giving yourself at least half a day to explore. Expect large crowds and long queues: thousands of people visit the Vatican every day. Do yourself a favour; pre-book a timeslot here and skip the queues! If you pre-book a ticket, make sure to print it before coming to Rome (or at your hotel/hostel). Electronic versions on your phone or tablet are not accepted.
The Vatican museum stretches for 3.5 miles (yes, really!) and showcases the immense art collection, including sculptures, statues, mosaics and Renaissance artwork. A must-see is The Sistine Chapel. Michaelangelo’s ceiling artwork is breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly detailed. Your neck will ache from gazing upwards, open-mouthed and mesmerised.
Note: Photographs are not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel room. This is strictly enforced with grumpy security guards barking “No photos! No cameras!” every few minutes. They have been known to confiscate cameras and demand photographs be deleted so don’t try and be sneaky!
For one of the best views across Rome, take the 551 stairs to the Dome’s viewing platform. There is a lift which will take you part of the way, but some stairs are unavoidable. It costs an additional €6 to go to this viewing platform (on top of your Vatican ticket price), €8 for the stairs & lift option and you can only pay in cash (no credit or debit cards).
St Peter’s Basilica is next to the Vatican Museums. You can queue up separately to enter the Basilica, if you haven’t got time for the museums. The interior is just stunning! It’s free entry and there is a strict dress code (the same as the Vatican museum). No shorts, vest tops, strappy tops or mini-skirts. Your knees and shoulders must be covered so I recommend wearing trousers or bringing leggings, a scarf or cardigan to slip on.
- Send your postcards through the Vatican’s postal system. They use Swiss Post and it’s much quicker and more reliable than the Italian post.
- Take advantage of discounts! Children between the ages of 6 – 18 only pay €8, and children under 6 can enter for free!
The Colosseum/Roman Forum
The Colosseum is just awe-inspiring. Constructed between 70-80 AD, it has withstood so much and is seeped in history. If you have time to go inside, you should buy a combined ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill; an adult’s ticket costs €12 (€7.50 for concessions) and grants entry over two consecutive days. Some people are eligible for free entry to the Colosseum & Roman Forum. Visit this website for more information and remember to bring whatever identification or paperwork you need to get your discount.
To really understand the amphitheatre’s history, do a guided tour or download Rick Steves’ excellent audio guide (for free!). Rick Steves also has a free audio guide for the Roman Forum & Palatine Hill; two fantastic areas to walk around, looking at ancient ruins like the Arch of Titus. The former was the main centre of government, which ruled the Western world for hundreds of years. The latter sits 40 metres above the Forum and offers a great view of the surrounding area.
As of November 1st 2017 (and for the first time in 40 years!), the two highest tiers of the Colosseum are open to the public. It will cost an additional €9 to take the guided tour of the 4th and 5th floors.
The Pantheon was built between 119-128AD by Emperor Hadrian and is a whopping 1850 years old! It is supported by sixteen columns – transported from Egypt – and has a oculus (similar to a skylight) which allows light to flood in. The floors are covered in beautiful mosaics and tiles, and the walls lined with frescos and statues. Raphael’s tomb rests in there, besides his long-suffering fiancée They were engaged for eight years but he refused to wed her – apparently he was the ultimate casanova who couldn’t resist le donne!
It is an active place of worship, so be respectful in terms of noise. Photography is allowed (without flash) and it is currently free to enter – however there are discussions about charging an entrance fee from 2018 onwards.
Museums & Art Galleries
If you want to visit any museums (and take advantage of their airconditioning during the summer months!) I recommend the following:
- Capitoline Museum
- Galleria Borghese
- National Roman Museum
- Castel Sant’Angelo
- Equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II
- Baths of Diocletian
- Centrale Montemartini
- Museo Nazionale Romano della Crypta Balbi
- Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
- MACRO Testaccio
- Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele (the big monument in Piazza Venezia).
- St. Clement Basilica
- Giovanni Barracco Museum – a free exhibit of ancient art between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona
- Caravaggio’s artwork – fans of the brilliant, pioneering artist can view his work in several museums & galleries around the city. This website includes a useful list of where you can find them.
Top tip! On the first Sunday of every month, all state-run museums and art galleries are free entry. Some ask for evidence of residency in Rome, but most let in locals and visitors alike. The Colosseum, The Vatican museums, Roman Forum and Borghese Gallery are always jampacked on these days so it is a great opportunity to explore a lesser-known site for free.
Places of worship
Along with the Pantheon, there are hundreds of buildings with religious significance round the Eternal City. Almost all of them are free entry and have the same clothing restrictions as the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica (i.e. make sure your shoulders and knees are covered). Regardless of your personal beliefs, the following are well worth a visit. I love to sit down and soak up the ambience, enjoying the stunning interiors, stained glass windows and countless statues and sculptures.
- Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
- Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore
- Basilica di Santa Prassede
- Sant’Andrea della Valle
- Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.
- Chiesa di San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane
- Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Jewish synagogue).
- Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
- Lateranense Palace
- Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli
- Chiesa del Gesù
- Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis,
- Villa di Massenzio,
- Catacombe di San Callisto
- San Pietro in Vincoli
- Catacombe di San Sebastiano
- Istituto Salesiano S.Tarcisio
Rome has one of the most beautiful fountains in the world, the most famous being the Trevi fountain. Piazza di Trevi becomes incredbly crowded and congested, so I strongly recommend visiting at sunrise, early morning or late at night. Are you a hopeless romantic…. or a tad superstitious? Legend has it that throwing a coin over your left shoulder (using your right hand) into the fountain means you will return to Rome one day. Two coins over your left shoulder ensures a romance with a Roman, and three coins means you’ll marry said Roman!
These fountains are also worth seeing:
- Fontana delle Tartarughe (The Turtle Fountain)
- Piazza della Repubblica
- The four fountains on Via delle Quattro Fontane
- Fontana delle Rane (Fountain of the Frogs)
- Fontana dell’Acqua Paola
Rome has dozens of piazzas which are often decorated with elaborate fountains or eye-catching statues. They are great spots for people-watching or resting your tired feet. However I wouldn’t suggest eating or drinking in the restaurants, cafes or bars that surround the piazzas. These eateries are really geared towards tourists, with overpriced, uninspired menus. Try exploring the side streets that come off the main piazzas, looking for a lively restaurant full of locals.
- Piazza Navona is my favourite. Check out the stunning fountain Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers) designed by Bernini in the 1600s.
- Piazza della Madonna – the best spot for people-watching and mingling with local Romans over evening drinks.
- Piazza Trilussa
- Campo de Fiori
- Piazza Venezia
- Piazza del Popolo
- Piazza della Repubblica
- Piazza del Campidoglio
Outdoor (free!) spaces
There are lots of lovely parks in Rome, such as Villa Borghese, Villa Doria Pamphili, Villa Ada Savoia and Parco della Caffarella. Parco de Acquedotti is my personal favourite; it contains parts of some ancient, imposing aqueducts which brought fresh water from the mountains to the city (Aqua Felix and Aqua Claudia). The park has a peaceful, rustic feeling, despite being 8km from the city centre. Perfect for a picnic and bike-riding – you might even spot some wandering sheep!
The Spanish Steps is a very international, outdoor landmark; named after the Spanish, built by the Italians, paid for by the French – and designer Italian brand Bulgari who donated €1.5 million towards its restoration! The steps are regularly cleaned and fines are given out to people eating or drinking on them. As with the Trevi fountain, the best time to visit is either early morning or around sunset.
Here are some other ideas:
- Bridges: The bridges that zigzag across the Tiber river are very photogenic, especially Ponte Sant’Angelo.
- Appia Antica: Rent a bike or walk along this 2000-year old round. There are lots of landmarks along the road, including catacombs, churches and ancient ruins.
- Circo Massimo: Let your mind wander and imagine how electrifying the atmosphere must have been during the chariot races, events and games hosted there.
- Giardino degli Aranci – A hidden gem in the city and the best spot to watch sunsets. While you’re there, visit the secret keyhole for a special view of the Vatican. The keyhole creates an optical illusion, making the Vatican’s dome appears really close.
- Rome’s rose garden (close to Giardino degli Aranci)
- Find the hidden Arco degli Acetari; a medieval courtyard in the city centre.
- Largo Argentina – the site where Julius Caesar was murdered. There is a cat sanctuary inside the pit of Largo Argentina. If you visit, please donate some money to support the charity and its furry friends!
- Check out Rome’s fantastic street art scene! The Eternal City may not be the most obvious place for experimental, evocative street art and murals, but the city has a lot to offer! Neighbourhoods Ostiense, Pigneto and San Lorenzo have some great artwork by local artists, and Tor Marancia is an absolute must-see.
- The Quartiere Coppede – this quirky, artistic neighbourhood is well worth a visit. The dramatic, bold miss-mash of architectural styles were created by Gino Coppedè, between 1913-1927.
- The Elephant and Obelisk statue designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
- Teatro Marcello
- The Jewish Ghetto
Along with the incredible view from the Vatican’s Dome, you can also look over Rome’s cityscape from the following viewpoints.
My personal favourite is Aventine Hill, as it’s nestled within a park full of orange trees and attracts a cool crowd, who watch the sunset every evening, whilst sipping vino and catching up with friends.
- The Baths of Caracalla – These ruins are really worth a visit! After you’ve finished exploring, you can also sit and sunbathe on the grounds. There is a small entrance fee.
- Piramide di Caio Cestio (a real pyramid in Rome!)
- The Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome – there are some well-known people buried there, including British poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (€3 donation recommended)
- Domus Aurea – Book a guided tour of this fascinating archaeological restoration site.
- Castel Sant’Angelo – a fortress constructed in year 135, with lots of rooms to explore and great views of the city from across the Tiber.
- Trajan’s Market – a large, multi-level network of ancient ruins, where Emperor Trajan’s administrative offices and a bustling market once stood.
- The Trastevere film festival – it runs for two months in the summer, and it’s free!
- Bioparco – the city zoo!
Personally I would skip the Mouth of Truth – I don’t get the hype and there’s always a long, slow-moving queue.
Food & Drink
You can read my extensive list of places to eat and drink in Rome here. I’ve divided the recommendations into categories: Lunch, dinner, cafes, bars and gelaterias. As a general rule, don’t eat within eyesight of a major tourist attraction (e.g. the Colosseum or the Trevi fountain) or order from a “tourist menu”.
My favourite neighbourhoods for food, drinks and people-watching are Testaccio & Monti. Trastevere is very popular too, especially in the evenings, when locals hang out, chatting outside bars until the early hours of the morning.
Via del Corso is the Oxford Street of Rome; there are dozens of shops including Zara, H&M, Mango, Gap, Nike and Foot Locker. You may prefer the shops in Trastevere, where you can buy clothes, jewellery, artwork, homework and accessories. There are also street stalls where haggling is possible (even expected!). Alternatively, Monti has some lovely boutiques and vintage stores.
On Sundays, there is an extensive flea/street market on Porta Portese. It gets very crowded though, watch out for pickpockets and be ready to haggle!
Things I didn’t try
Despite living in Rome for almost two years, there are some places I didn’t get round to visiting. These have been recommended to me – let me know what you think of them!
- Capuchin Crypt
- Catacombe di Priscilla
- Cinecittà – Rome’s famous film & TV studio!
- Villa Farnesina
- Scooteroma – have a guided tour on a vespa!
- La Piccola Londra – a street that looks like it belongs in London rather than in Rome.
- A food tour, organised by such companies as Secret Food Tours Rome, The Roman Food Tour or Eating Italy.
I hope this post has given you LOTS of ideas! If you need any more, check out this great article by ‘An American in Rome’.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow