Rome. It’s hard to debate if there’s another city that has left a greater impact on the modern Western world than Rome. The city’s history spans over two and a half thousand years (but was inhabited much earlier than that), making it one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe.
Rome was the capital of Roman Empire, a major center of the Italian Renaissance, and is regarded as one of the birthplaces of Western civilization. It also encloses Vatican City, which is why it is often described as a capital of two states.
With over two millennia of rich cultural, social and political history, visiting Rome can be very overwhelming – this list of things to do and see can be endless. People have often asked me how much time they’d need to see everything in Rome, thinking three days or even a week would be enough. To be honest, I was there for six weeks and still didn’t cover everything I wanted to.
If you don’t have a substantial amount of time, the best thing you can do is create a list of things you can’t miss with a few additional options if you’re able to squeeze them in. Here are some of the best things to do in Rome, definite must-sees!
The Vatican & The Sistine Chapel
St. Peter’s Basilica is incredible: the artwork, the details, the sheer size and grandiosity, the history… definitely something you’ll want to see at least once in your lifetime. It’s worth climbing to the top of the dome if you can – you’ll have some of the best views of the city.
The Vatican Museums and The Sistine Chapel are a must. You may not be able to see as much awe-inspiring artwork in one place anywhere else in the world (except maybe the Louvre).
A tip: be sure you’re appropriately dressed. Remember, despite the fact that St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most touristy places in the world, it’s still a religious site. No shorts or exposed shoulders is allowed. For more tips about Italy, see What Not to Do in Italy.
Once the tallest building in Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo is a short walk from the Vatican and was primarily used as a fortress and castle by the popes. Completed in 139 AD, it’s one of the most picturesque locations in the city… especially if you’re facing it from the St. Angelo Bridge.
Probably the most popular tourist attraction in the city. Even though it’s tough to see it without a hoard of tourists (going at night is best for less crowds), you could stare at it for hours. It really is as amazing as they say it is. The Trevi Fountain was completed in the mid-1700s and features Neptune, the god of the sea, in perfected baroque design.
Roman tales say that throwing a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder means that you’ll return to Rome again someday, fall in love with a beautiful Roman and eventually marry him/her. Well, sorry to say from experience that it’s not true, but still fun to partake in the tradition anyway!
The Colosseum & Arch of Constantine
The Colosseum is probably the world’s most famous ancient stadium, once showcasing gory gladiator fights for up to 50,000 spectators. Completed in 80 AD, it’s considered an engineering marvel.
While visiting the Colosseum, you’ll see the Arch of Constantine close by. It was built by the Roman senate in 312 AD to commemorate Constantine’s victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge.
I loved hanging out in Piazza della Rotunda, which is where the Pantheon is located. It’s a great spot for pizza, gelato and coffee and is centrally located within the city, making it easy to walk to other attractions like the Trevi Fountain or Campo de’ Fiore (the Roman Forum isn’t too far, either).
The Pantheon was built in 120 AD, making it one of the oldest churches in the world. It’s impressively perfectly proportioned and well preserved, and is also the final resting place of legendary artist Raphael.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum doesn’t get as much attention as the Colosseum, the Pantheon or the Trevi Fountain, but it should still be on your list of top things to see. The Forum is the site of many of Ancient Rome’s most important government structures and was the political center of the empire.
Think about it – people like Julius Caesar, Constantine, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Nero, Caligula, Titus, Augustus, and Marcus Aurelius all did business here… craaaaazy. One of the best parts? It’s free.
Campo de’ Fiori
Campo de’ Fiore is two things in one: a bustling farmer’s market during the day where you can buy fruits and vegetables, flowers, pastas, nuts and other fresh goods, and at night it turns into a vibrant nightlife/bar scene in the evening. It’s pretty awesome.
Piazza Navona is one of the city’s most popular squares and is filled with artists, a perfect place to have dinner, people watch, and have some gelato or cappuccini. There are some great monuments and sculptures here as well by famous artists Bernini and Borromini.
The Roman catacombs are so freakishly interesting. Burying the dead within city walls was prohibited as early as the 5th Century, so there are literally hundreds of thousands of people buried in tunnels under the city (some go as deep as 60 feet!).
Visiting the catacombs is spooky but going through the labryinth of underground pathways, with skulls and bones neatly stacked everywhere, is quite the experience. See this article to find out which ones you can visit!
The Spanish Steps
This is where you’ll want to go if you’re looking to do some high end shopping. Armani, Valentino, Prada and Gucci, among others, are store fronts.
The steps themselves are picturesque, especially in the springtime when they’re surrounded by flowers, but many tourists seem to think there’s more to see here and are disappointed. The Spanish Steps are a place to hang out, socialize, take photos and soak in Roman life.
Not every worthy place to visit needs to have something incredible to see; sometimes it’s about appreciating the moment and living in the experience.
To no surprise, Rome has some of the most impressive and marvelous churches in Europe. Here are a few you should consider:
- Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
- Santa Maria della Vittoria (pictured above)
- Church of Sant’Ignazio Di Loyola
- Basilica di San Clemente
- Santa Maria in Trastevere
Galleria Borghese is a beautiful villa and art museum, a Roman favorite. It houses some of the most famous works of art by Italian artists: Canova’s Venus Victrix, Bernini’s David and Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit and David and Goliath.
A Tip: tickets need to be purchased in advance and it’s closed on Mondays.
Palatine Hill is one of the most ancient sections of Rome. It is the site where the city’s very first inhabitants built their houses and later became a residential area for nobility. It’s actually a really pretty walk near the Roman Forum and your ticket to the Colosseum gets you in to the Palatine Hill ruins as well.
The neighborhood of Trestevere is considered the “real Rome.” It isn’t as littered with tourists and doesn’t have any of the famous Roman ruins, but here you’ll have a genuine look at what Roman life is like today. It’s a little bit further south of the city and has great restaurants (that are cheaper than you’ll find in the city center), a big nightlife scene, and a more personable chance to interact with the locals.
Did I miss anything you think should be on the list? Let me know in the comments below!