Rome has captured imaginations for thousands of years so it’s no wonder it’s known as the ‘Eternal City’. For some it might transport you back in time and imagine rubbing shoulders with toga wearing Romans. For others Rome is a foodies delight and the tastes of gelato, pizza and pasta make the mouth water at just the thought. Maybe the art and sculptures conjure up the romantic side of Rome, strolling through the Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain. With all of these treats and more, there is something for everyone in beautiful Rome!
I’ve now visited Rome twice, my first visit was back in April 2012 on an art and history tour with my school (I studied science only, go figure). The second visit was in February 2019 to visit friends that has moved there (yes, I’m jealous) and although I’ve been to all of the sights on this list on both visits, each time has felt completely different. And not just because of the glorious sun of 2012 vs the non stop rain on my more recent trip (can you tell the weather was shocking from the photos?!). There’s so much to see and do in Rome so make sure you have enough time to enjoy it all properly as well as to eat plenty of gelato, pizza and pasta!
1. The Colosseum
Surely, as one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Colosseum is Rome’s most famous location. I can still remember the feeling of being completely awestruck when I first saw this colossal amphitheater 7 years ago, amazed at this ancient structure surrounded by 21st century life carrying on as normal. Entering into the Colosseum, where the ancient Romans enjoyed gruesome entertainment is a must and on the first Sunday of every month, entry is free (as well as to the Roman Forum, below). Regardless of when you visit the queue is likely to be long, even on the free Sunday you need a ticket. You may find it quicker to buy your ticket for the Colosseum at the Roman Forum or Palatine Hill as the ticket can be used to visit all three sites!
2. The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum was the centre of everyday life for the Ancient Romans. Although you can view quite a lot of it from the road it is certainly worth buying a ticket to go in (especially if you’re planning on going into the Colosseum as well). As you wind your way through the ruins of what were some of the most important buildings of Ancient Rome, it is easy to be transported back in time and imagine yourself walking among them. In February I learnt what it might be like as a Roman in the rain albeit with boots and an anorak instead of sandals and a toga!!
One of the friends I visited in Rome gave me a mini tour of the fallen structures we were seeing which was really helpful to understand more about the forum. I would recommend either taking info with you, checking it out on your phone as you walk round or getting a guided tour to fully appreciate the importance of this site.
Top Tip: Regardless of whether you’re planning to head into the Forum or not, the best place to get a great view is from the Capitoline Hill!
3. The Vatican Museums
A visit to Rome is not complete without a trip to Vatican City, a country within a city and residence of the pope. The first of the two big attractions in Vatican City is The Vatican Museums, an impressive collection of art situated through many rooms. The exquisite Sistine Chapel is the heart of The Vatican Museums and by itself is a reason to visit but you will also see the famous spiral staircase, the Map Room and The School of Athens by Raphael.
The queues to get in are long so make sure to prebook and skip that line (trust me you’ll feel smug walking by) however, once you get to the entrance you will still have to queue to get through security. Personally, I found the museum to be pretty overwhelming, both in terms of size and the number of people – it was very (very) busy. But entering the Sistine Chapel makes it worth it. Both times, the atmosphere here has been quite stifling, (the guards shout at people taking photos and talking to stop) but if you can ignore it then take your time to ponder and revel in Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
Top Tip: look out for the yellow postboxes around Vatican City which can be used to send a postcard home from the world’s smallest country!
4. St Peter’s Basilica
The second place to visit in Vatican City is St Peter’s Basilica. This stunning renaissance church was completed in 1626 and is set in the equally beautiful St Peter’s Square.
It’s free to visit the basilica but I would absolutely suggest you pay to climb up the Dome (2 Euros extras will take you part of the way up by elevator and then climb to the very top). Part of your climb will take you inside the dome to see the exquisitely decorated interior and then on up to the top where you can admire the view out across St Peter’s square.
In February we got lucky and arrived just as they opened the square and church up for visiting after Sunday Mass which led to very speedy queuing. From the top of the Dome we could see the queue snaking round to the back of the square. Good timing!
5. Piazza Navona
The streets of central Rome are a warren to explore, opening out into elegant piazzas and none is better known than the Piazza Navona. It’s full of gorgeous marble fountains and statues, surrounded by brightly coloured buildings and the perfect location take a well earned break from roaming the streets around it!
The Piazza is dominated by Sant’Agnese in Agone church and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) which stands outside. Two smaller fountains sit at each of the far ends of the piazza.
Top Tip: regardless of the time of year you visit, a trip to Rome (or Italy for that matter) is never complete without a generous helping of fresh gelato! Just a few minutes walk West from the North end of Piazza Navona you’ll find Gelateria del Teatro – the truffle flavour was divine and tasted literally like rich chocolate truffles in gelato form…
6. Trevi Fountain
Quite possibly the most famous fountain in the world, you can hear the flowing water and chorus of voices before you round the corner and catch sight of the Trevi Fountain. Despite its incredible size (its 85 feet high and 65 feet wide!!) be prepared to jostle for a photo, each of the five times I’ve visited the fountain it’s been swamped by tourists!
Legend says that if you throw a coin into the fountain you are destined to return to Rome one day. So. What are you waiting for?!
7. The Spanish Steps
This unusual staircase was built in the 1720s to join the beautiful church at the top, Trinita dei Monti, with the Spanish Square at the bottom. It’s a classic location to visit in Rome, make sure you walk all the way up to the top then have a rest on the steps and enjoy some people watching. For a clear shot like the one above, visit as early as possible!
Watch out for the street sellers around here, they can have some quite ‘strong’ tactics to sell their goods; if they hand you a rose or put a friendship bracelet on your wrist they’ll expect you to pay for it!
8. Castel Sant’Angelo
This unusual looking building has an unusual history to fit it. It was initially built around AD 135 as the Roman emperor Hadrian’s tomb and became a fortified castle over 1000 years later for the popes. In fact, there is a passage that connects the Vatican to the castle in case the pope ever needed to escape – it’s been used twice for this very purpose!
The castle is now home to a museum (although I must admit I sped through this to get to the top) but it is the panoramic views of Rome that are the real reason to visit! Similarly to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, Castel Sant”Angelo is free to visit on the first Sunday of the month!
9. Galleria Borghese and the Pincio Terrace
The Galleria Borghese is home to a vast collection of sculptures and paintings which are set in ornately decorated rooms. I really enjoyed wandering from room to room to soak it up without the crowds of the Vatican Museums (there’s a limit to the number of people that can visit at one time). I was lucky enough to get my hands on a last minute ticket when I turned up on the day in February but it’s best to book ahead to make sure you get in!
When I visited Rome 7 years ago with my school I remember being marched through the gardens to get to the Galleria ready for our time slot so be sure to give yourself time to actually explore these gardens! They’re a welcome slice of parkland in Rome which doesn’t have much green spaces to relax in, in the centre.
You must make a stop off at the Pincio Terrace before you leave the Borghese gardens for a view across Piazza de Popolo (see number 12 for a photo!) and the rooftops of Rome. Find it at the South West of the Borghese gardens.
10. The Pantheon
Another stunning (and free!) place to visit in central Rome is the Pantheon. It was built two thousand years ago by Hadrian as a temple and features its famous domed roof with no cover at the very centre. This lets the light spill enchantingly into one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome.
Top Tip: It’s pretty hungry work exploring the streets of Rome so grab a slice of pizza to-go from the numerous street cafes throughout the back streets of central Rome.
11. Monumento Nazionale
The National Monument (also called the Altar of the Fatherland) can be easily spotted on Rome’s horizon due to its flat topped structure amidst the domes and spires. Many people are not big fans of this building, earning it the not so affectionate nickname, The Wedding Cake Building. No matter what you think of its design, the views from the top are incredible. You can spy the Colosseum and the Pantheon as well as the Roman Forum!
12. Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo is another great people watching piazza in Rome (it literally translates as the People’s Square). During the Roman Empire it was the main entrance into Rome. In the centre is an Egyptian obelisk and to the North is the unassuming Santa Maria del Popolo church which houses paintings by Caravaggio that you can see for free!
For a stunning view down onto the piazza, make sure to visit the Pincio Terrace (see number 9 above).
So when are you booking your flights to the Eternal City?!