Rome, Roma, the Eternal City. Whatever you call it, there’s no denying that Italy’s capital city, Rome, is one of the most beautiful and fascinating cultural cities in the world. With a complex history that dates back thousands of years, there’s an almost endless supply of ancient ruins, incredible architecture, world-renowned landmarks, and fascinating museums to explore. The city also has lots of great shopping and a fantastic food scene. When I first visited, I felt like someone had rounded up all of the famous things I’d ever seen in movies and and read about in books and dumped them all in the same few square miles. That’s Rome for you. Prepare to be impressed.
Here’s my guide to the best things to do in Rome, including the top sights as well as insider tips, and hotel and restaurant recommendations. At the end, I’ve included a map of all the sights listed in this article.
1. Explore the Colosseum
No list of things to do in Rome is complete without mention of the Colosseum. Founded between 70-80 AD, Rome’s Colosseum (also called the Flavian Amphitheatre) is the largest amphitheatre ever built. The mighty structure could once hold up to 50,000 spectators in its prime. It is a true symbol of the power of ancient Rome.
The Colosseum was active for over 500 years. During this time, it hosted gladiator fights, public executions, battle recreations and exotic animal shows.
Despite the damage caused by storms, earthquakes, vandalism, and even bombings over the years, the Colosseum remains one of Rome’s greatest tourist attractions. It has undergone major restoration to keep this important Rome landmark open to the public. You can wander through the amphitheatre’s underground tunnels, walk around the arena floor, and climb up into the stands.
Tips for visiting the Colosseum
- Arrive early in the morning (before 8:30am when it opens) or late afternoon to avoid the biggest lines and crowds.
- Buy tickets in advance online or take a guided tour for ‘skip-the-line’ entry.
- Consider getting the Roma pass which has skip-the-line admission as well as use of the city’s public transport.
- Many people choose to buy the combined ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, as all three landmarks are linked.
- Buying your combined ticket at the Roman Forum or Palatine Hill can dramatically cut down the queue time if you haven’t booked in advance. This is what I did and I had my ticket in minutes, not hours.
2. Visit The Roman Forum
Located in the heart of the city, the Forum was once the social and political centre of ancient Rome. Also known as Forum Romanum, it was the location of many of the city’s most important political buildings, temples, and monuments.
The Forum is also where most of the ancient city’s religious, political and social activities took place. These activities included elections, criminal trials, religious ceremonies, gladiator fights, and social gatherings.
Many excavations have taken place over the years to unearth this important piece of Roman history. And today you can visit the archaeological site to see the ancient ruins and architectural remains that have been discovered there.
You can explore the Forum on your own by purchasing an entrance ticket. But to really understand what you’re seeing, a guided tour with a knowledgeable local historian is the way to go.
3. Take a Stroll Around Palatine Hill
Palatine Hill is the most central of the seven hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. According to myth, it was the place where the city was founded by Romulus and Remus. It was also the most desirable place to live in ancient Rome amongst the upper class, including many Roman Emporers.
On a visit to Palatine Hill, you can explore the ruins of hundreds of grand villas and splendid palaces that once belonged to Rome’s high society. Don’t miss the House of Augustus, the home of the first Roman Emperor, or the Domus Flavia, the grand palace of Emperor Domitian. You can also visit Museo Palatino, which houses many of the archaeological finds discovered on Palatine Hill.
Covered in ancient ruins, lush greenery, and wildflowers, Palatine Hill is one of the most peaceful parts of Rome. It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds of the city centre and stretch your legs for a while. The hill also has some great panoramic views over the city and the Roman Forum.
Tip for getting around Rome: While the Metro is very easy to use, it’s below ground and Rome is one of those cities where even getting from A to B is a delight. Instead, take the Hop On Hop Off Sightseeing Bus.
4. Visit The Vatican & The Sistine Chapel
Surrounded entirely by the city of Rome, the Vatican (or ‘the Holy See‘) is the smallest country in the world. The tiny independent city-state is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and is ruled by the pope. While only the pope, priests, nuns, members of the Swiss Guard, and some dignitaries can live inside the Vatican, anyone can visit for the day from Rome. The state is home to some of Rome’s most visited attractions.
The Vatican can be a bit confusing given its a city rather than a sight in itself. If you have limited time, here are the top places to visit in the Vatican:
The Vatican Museums
Set across 54 galleries, the Vatican Museums house one of the largest and most important art collections in the world.
The Sistine Chapel
You’ve almost certainly heard of the Sistine Chapel but if not, it’s the large chapel in the Apostolic Palace which is famous for its amazing Renaissance frescoes and ceiling painted by Michelangelo. The Sistine chapel is located within the Vatican Museum and you have to trail through several rooms to get to it. It’s not a stand-alone sight and it can take 30 minutes to reach it from the museum entrance depending on crowds.
St Peter’s Basilica & St Peter’s Square
The grand Renaissance style church at the heart of the Vatican and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy. It’s also one of the most iconic sights in Rome, featuring in almost every panorama you see of the city. St Peter’s Square is the large piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican Necropolis
An ancient burial ground underneath St Peter’s Basilica which is believed to house the tomb of St. Peter, chief of Jesus’s apostles.
Tips for visiting The Vatican
- It’s recommended to buy tickets online in advance. If you want to take a guided tour (recommended), book this one.
- Without a tour, go either during or after lunch – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. This will avoid the ticket line and will mean the museums are less crowded.
- If you just want to see the Sistine chapel, aim for last entrance at 4 pm. This is what I did and it was plenty of time, since the chapel closes at 6 p.m.
- The museum opening hours are extended to 10:30 p.m at the weekend in summer so consider an early dinner before an evening visit. Last entry is 8:30 p.m.
5. Climb The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are a large set of steps in central Rome that connect the Piazza di Spagna at the bottom and Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top. What makes a set of steps one of the top things to do in Rome? Well, there are a few things.
The Spanish Steps date back to the early 1700s when they were gifted by a French diplomat by the name of Étienne Gueffier. A common misconception is that the stairs were gifted by Spain. But the name Spanish Steps actually comes from the Spanish Embassy, which was located on Piazza di Spagna (or ‘Spanish Square’) at their base.
The magnificent 138-step stone staircase is the widest of its kind in Europe. The imposing stairs are the centrepiece of the upscale Tridente neighbourhood and are surrounded by many more of Rome’s most famous attractions. Ever since their inception, the steps have been a prime meeting spot in the city. They’ve also been featured in many movies, TV shows, photoshoots and more.
At the bottom of the stairs lies the beautiful Baroque fountain ‘Fontana della Barcaccia’. Around halfway up is the Casina Rossa, or Keats-Shelley House. The house is the former residence of English poet John Keats and is now a museum dedicated to English romantic poetry. At the top of the staircase is the unmissable Trinità dei Monti church, home to many of Rome’s most prized masterpieces.
Tips for visiting the Spanish steps
- The three main sites in the historic centre are the Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain and the Pantheon (both below). I recommend visiting them together. Once you’ve arrived at the Spanish Steps, it’s a 10 minute walk to the Trevi Fountain and a further 10-15 minutes’ walk on to the Pantheon.
- The Spanish steps are well connected by public transport – take metro A ‘Spagna’.
- While the steps were once a popular place to sit for a rest and to people watch, it is now illegal to sit or lay down on them. If you do, you can end up with a hefty fine. This is to help preserve the historic monument.
6. Throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain
Perhaps the most famous fountain in all of Europe, if not the world, The Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) is another must-see in Rome. The stunning 18th-century Baroque fountain depicts Neptune, God of the Sea, on his chariot being pulled by two winged horses and tritons. Either side of him is Abundance and Wealth.
The Trevi Fountain’s continued fame comes from its appearances in many iconic movies, including the likes of Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita.
Many people also visit the fountain to throw in coins. According to legend, if you throw one coin into the fountain, you will return to Rome one day. If you throw two coins into the fountain, you will find your one true love in Rome. And if you throw in three, you’ll get married in Rome. For your wish to come true, you must turn away from the fountain, shut your eyes, and throw the coin over your left shoulder.
Even if you’re not superstitious, the majority of the money collected from the fountain goes to supporting local charities. So you may as well try your luck.
7. Step Inside the Pantheon
The Pantheon is an ancient temple dedicated to “all the gods”, and is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. It was built by Emperor Hadrian in 125 AD.
The temple is equally impressive from the outside and the inside. The imposing columned facade has inspired many other structures over the years.
Once inside, look up to see the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, with a unique oculus (aka an opening in the dome) that lets in light and was built to allow visitors to be in direct contact with the heavens. Look down, too – the floor is original so you’re literally walking in the footsteps of ancient Romans. You’ll also find the tombs of many Italian kings and even the famous painter Raphael at the Pantheon.
The Pantheon doesn’t have an entry fee, making it one of the best free things to do in Rome. You can purchase an audio guide once inside to learn more about the building’s history.
Tip: if you’re looking for a good cafe near the Pantheon, head to Tazza D’Oro
8. Shop on the Via del Corso
Via del Corso is the most famous shopping street in Rome. The popular street sits at an impressive 1.5 km in length and runs from Piazza Venezia in the south to Piazza del Popolo in the north.
Via del Corso is home to a wide variety of local and international stores, with big-name brands such as Zara, H&M, and Sephora. There are also countless cafes, restaurants, bars, and gelaterias lining the street. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon perusing the shops – especially during sale season.
For more luxury shopping, turn off Via del Corso and on to Via dei Condotti. Via dei Condotti leads from Via del Corso to the bottom of the Spanish Steps. It’s packed with high-end designer brands, including Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci, and Rolex. I have to admit to a rare occasion where I felt face first into a Furla handbag and wasn’t able to let that soft leather go. Over the counter my credit card went. No regrets. Even if these stores are a little out of your budget, Via dei Condotti is still a captivating street to wander along and enjoy a spot of window shopping.
9. Wander around Villa Borghese and its Gardens
Villa Borghese was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th-century to house his impressive art collection. Today, the Villa is one of the finest museums in Rome, with pieces by some of the most established Italian artists and sculptors, including Bernini, Caravaggio, and Canova.
The Villa’s extensive gardens are also now one of the city’s most beautiful public parks. So once you’ve finished wandering around the remarkable art collection, head outside for a peaceful stroll around the garden’s lush greenery. Keep an eye out for the lake, temples, statues, and many fountains that embellish the large park.
10. Visit Castel Sant’Angelo
Castle Sant’Angelo, or the ‘The Castle of Angels’, is a grand fortress and castle built by Roman Emperor Hadrian around 139 AD. He intended to use it as a mausoleum for himself and his family.
You can visit the castle (advance tickets here), which is now a museum, and admire its beautifully decorated rooms and classical Renaissance frescoes. Many of the apartments were once used by past popes. There’s also a collection of medieval weaponry and a terrace with breathtaking views across Rome and the Vatican.
11. Stroll across Sant’Angelo bridge
Sant’Angelo sits on the bank of the River Tiber and can be reached via the Sant’Angelo bridge, or ‘Bridge of Angels’. The striking bridge is another top Rome attraction it’s own right. It is decorated with 10 statues representing angels, all designed by prominent Roman sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Did you know? There is a fortified tunnel that connects Castel Sant’Angelo with the Vatican City so that the pope can escape in the event of any danger.
12. Stand in Piazza Navona
After a while it can feel like Rome is one grand piazza after another but Piazza Navona is worth a special mention because it was built on top of a 1 A.D. stadium, the Stadium of Domitian. Today, you’ll find a wide public square, designed to reflect the original stadium space. The entire piazza is a prime example of the grandeur of Rome with opulence dripping off every street corner, fancy fountains galore and marble-clad everything.
Dining suggestion near Piazza Navona: If you’re looking to treat yourself, book at table at the rooftop restaurant at five-star Bio Hotel Raphael. This impressive hotel, from the exclusive Relais & Chateaux brand, has a stunning terrace as well as an impressive menu. Yes, it’s all organic vegetarian and vegan restaurant but the tasting menu is to die for. If you want the good food sources to continue through breakfast, book a room. Otherwise, just go and see it – the face of the hotel is swathed in a tumble of greenery making it look like a fairytale castle.
13. Spot the Egyptian Obelisks
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Rome is that its home to 13 ancient obelisks, dotted around the city. That’s the largest number in any city around the world, including in Egypt. While five of them are Roman obelisks, a staggering eight of them are ancient Egyptian obelisks that were transported to Rome by the Romans from Egypt, probably via the Nile, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Rome. Yep, that’s the Romans for you. See my Rome Map below to find them in the city.
14. Stare up at The Column of Marcus Aurelius
Located in Piazza Colonna, the Marcus Aurelius Column is a 97 ft (nearly 30 metre) high column that was erected in honour of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. There is some dispute as to the age of the column but there is no disputing that it’s very old, having been erected somewhere between 193 and 176 A.D. Pay particular attention to the impressively detailed carvings that circle the column. There third column apparently depicts a story about a miracle where the emperor’s troops were saved by a storm.
Perhaps the most interesting point is that the man on top of the column is not Marcus Aurelius. He was replaced by St Paul when Rome was converted to Christianity. You were once able to go inside the column but to do that today, you’d need a time machine to take you back to the 1600s. If you’re going, can I come for the ride? Please?
15. Eat Roman Cuisine in Trastavere
Italy is a country known for its world-class cuisine. So it should be no surprise that one of the best things to do when in Rome is to eat. But did you know that Rome is the birthplace of some of Italy’s most famous dishes?
Carbonara, the well-known Italian pasta made with eggs, hard cheese, cured pork, and black pepper, has its origins in Rome. Other favoured pasta dishes from the Eternal City include the deliciously simple Cacio e Pepe, which means ‘pasta with cheese and pepper’, and Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, made with cured pork jowl, white wine, crushed tomatoes, onions, chilli pepper, and hard cheese.
During my second trip to Rome, I skipped the tourist attractions and headed straight to Trastavere, a part of Rome that feels like a leafy suburb but is only a short distance away, south of the river. It’s a brilliant place to explore Roman cuisine and I had one meal where lunch extended to dinner via a couple of carafes of wine.
If you’re looking for some iconic places to eat and drink in Rome, try:
- Campo de’ Fiori – famous for serving traditional Roman food.
- Trattoria Monti – perfect for traditional Italian food where the pasta is fresh, the feel is authentic and the locals come in droves. Just a 10-minute stroll from the Colosseum.
- Sant’Eustachio il caffe one of the oldest cafes in Rome, near the Panthenon.
- Nonna Vincenza – while this Italian pastry shop may focus on Sicilian recipes, it’s still a must-eat cafe in Rome. Try the cannoli or the casseta Siciliana.
- La Proscutteria – great for a quick plate of ham and cheese or sandwiches while sightseeing, close to the Trevi Fountain.
- Grano, Frutta e Farina – although Naples is the birthplace of pizza, it’s pretty ubiquitous in Italy and here’s you’ll find some of the best pizza in Rome. But save some space for dessert…
- Pompi – another non-local dish to recommend but with no apologies because this is hands-down the best Tiramisu in Rome, next to the Spanish Steps, on the same street as the pizzeria above. If you want to try the original Tiramisu, you have to go to Treviso. Sorry.
Local tip: the water fountains around the city are pumping out drinkable water. It’s some of the freshest you’ll find in Rome, so pack a refillable water bottle.
Check out more delicious dishes from Rome. Or book a Rome Food Tour.
16. Get panoramic views at Hotel Fontana
Hotel Fontana is the only hotel facing the Trevi Fountain, making it one of the best places to stay in Rome. However, you don’t need to stay in the hotel to enjoy the splendid location. With a Rooftop Lounge, stop by for afternoon tea, a pre-dinner aperitif or post-dinner drinks and you can enjoy the location for the cost of an Aperol Spritz. From this prime vantage point, sit back and take in the rooftops of Rome as well as many of the city’s most significant monuments. If you do want to stay at the hotel, you can book here.
17. See the sun rise from Gianicolo Hill
This will require a little early morning stamina and perhaps a picnic of coffee and pastries to experience it at its best.
The walk to Gianicolo Hill takes about 35 minutes from the Spanish Steps and promises one of the best places to see the sunrise in Rome. As day breaks over the Duomo of St Peter’s Basilica and the Eternal City is bathed in light, you’ll feel very smug that you made the effort.
18. See the sights of Rome at night
It hard to envisage Rome as the beating heart of the grand Empire it once was with thousands of gelato licking tourists stood next to you. But a hefty meal and snifter of grappa sends most visitors to their pillow by midnight. When they zig, you should zag because Rome at night is dazzling.
Resist your bed until after midnight and that quiet moment you’ve been searching for is yours. Seeing the Trevi Fountain backlit with a golden glow or the nearly-empty Spanish steps, or the drama of the Colosseum, gives Rome a romantic feel (even if you’re travelling alone). You can take a guided night tour if you prefer. This, in my view, is when Rome is at its finest. It’s exactly the same in Venice. Give me the night and the rest of the tourists can have the day.
Map of things to do in Rome
Click here to view this map of Rome in Google maps.
That’s my guide to the best things to do in Rome, Italy. Got any comments or questions, let me know below.
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