There’s an abundance of monuments, museums, gardens, and adorable neighborhoods to visit in Rome. It’s pretty overwhelming, actually, even if you have over a month in the city. So you have to pick and choose. We saw the most famous sites, but also traveled off the beaten path every now and then. Here are my recommendations to get the most out of your time in this ancient, thriving metropolis. I’ve put an asterisk (*) next to my absolute personal favorites.
And don’t worry – I’ll disclose our most-loved spots to eat and drink in the next post 🙂
Sights to see
The Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum)*: this incredibly famous monument is actually worth seeing. It’s one of my favorite ancient buildings on earth. Despite its somewhat gruesome history, it was a huge part of Roman life for several hundred years and deserves attention. Make sure to book a tour (we used Coop Culture and loved our quirky archaeologist guide) so you can see the underground galleries and upper levels.
The Roman Forum*: when you book your Colosseum ticket, you get access to the Forum and Palatine hill as well – so plan to see them all within a couple days. The forum houses some of the most important government, civic, and religious buildings of ancient Rome, and wandering its streets is a awe-inspiring experience.
The Palatine Hill*: the Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, rises up above the Forum and boasts an incredible number of large, Roman structures (along with gardens and a museum). Many wealthy Romans – and a number of Emperors – lived in these massive brick palaces. The views of the city are also stellar. Just allow at least a couple of hours to see everything (it’s bigger than you think).
Trajan’s forum and markets: just across from the Roman Forum, the colonnades and multi-level market halls of Trajan’s early 2nd century CE complex form some of the most impressive Roman ruins in the city. Make sure to check out the lone column carved with scenes of the emperor’s victorious campaigns and triumphal processions.
The Villa and Galleria Borghese*: visiting this lovely, art-filled villa and its gorgeous grounds is one of my favorite things to do in Rome. Bernini’s sculptures fill the villa itself (along with many other beautiful works), and the gardens are the perfect place for strolling. You must make a reservation to visit the gallery, so book ahead; the gardens are free and open to the public. Not to be missed.
The Pantheon: built in the 1st century CE, its name means “all the gods.” This round temple-turned-church provides an unusual and beautiful experience, mostly due to the large, round oculus in the center of the ceiling. It’s currently free to visit, but will start charging visitors in 2018 (a couple euros, I think). Go on a sunny day when the light shines through the oculus and onto the walls/floor. It’s magical.
The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel*: what can I say? The rooms of the museums are themselves works of art (the Map Room is my favorite), and the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceiling will probably floor you. Try to go when it’s less crowded, otherwise be prepared for long lines and packed spaces.
St. Peter’s Basilica*: one of the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) buildings you’ll ever visit. It’s simply huge, and the elaborately beautiful adornments keep your eyes moving constantly. It’s worth climbing all the way up into the top of the dome for the views alone. Entrance to the church is free, but you have to pay to climb the dome’s 400+ steps!
Rome’s Botanical Gardens: at first, we weren’t sure if it’d be worth the price of admission (around 8 euros each). But these gardens are truly lovely, even in the winter time. Green parakeets nested in the palm trees, there was a small but colorful Japanese garden towards the back, and the views of the city are pretty spectacular.
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere: this gorgeous church is one of the oldest in Rome. Its intricately decorated ceiling, mismatched (re-appropriated) columns, and incredible mosaics make it a must-see.
The Spanish Steps: one of my favorite stories from my dad’s 1972 trip around Europe revolves around one of his buddies getting into trouble at the Piazza di Spagna. It always makes me chuckle. This iconic stairway connects one of the fanciest retail avenues in Rome with the large Trinità dei Monti church. Go very early in the morning for the best photo op.
The Trevi Fountain: legend has it that if you wish to return to Rome, you must go to the Trevi Fountain and throw a coin over your shoulder into its waters. The monument itself is always crowded, but its worth a quick visit.
Experiences to enjoy
Walk the Appian Way*: getting down to the Appian Way from the center of Rome is a bit of an adventure, but Rome Toolkit provides a great resource here. Once there, you can wander down the ancient path, visit the Catacombs of Callixtus (or any of the other catacombs along the way), see ancient villas and tombs, and have a nice picnic in a field, among other things.
Take advantage of aperitivo hour*: one of the most magical creations of the Italians is aperitivo hour. Many fabulous bars offer sumptuous buffets for a couple hours in the evening (usually starting around 6:30 or 7pm), and the food is included in the price of your drink. It’s a great way to eat a cheap dinner while imbibing some delicious beverages and people-watching.
Spend a morning in the Mercato Testaccio*: pick up some fresh fruit for the day, buy some new boots, sample the local culinary offerings, and finish your souvenir shopping all in one place.
Attend/arrange a wine tasting: many wine bars offer wine tastings, especially if you arrange ahead. Some are fancier than others – our experience at the wonderful bar Rimessa Roscioli was one of the more elaborate tastings available, I think. But there are so many delicious Italian wines, it can’t hurt to seek out as many as possible!
Go to a concert in a church*: we attended two concerts while in Rome – my eternal favorite, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (check out this one, for exmaple), and the dynamic, impressive, and entertaining Three Tenors. Each was held in a lovely church which only made the experiences more magical.
Climb and explore more of the seven hills: ancient Rome was built around seven hills (the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Palatine, Quirinal, Esquiline, and Viminal), and the modern city incorporates them right into the plan. Each has its own features, personality, and things to see and do (for example the Aventine’s Keyhole, the Palatine’s Roman ruins, the Capitoline’s museums, etc).