Rome’s incredible history means that there are countless things to do and see. Whether your interests are ancient Rome or the Renaissance, archaeology, art or religion; it would take years of living in the city to visit each of its many attractions. If you are short on time or want to hit the top sites first these are the places not to miss:
Undoubtedly the top attraction in Rome is the Colosseum, which received a record 7.5 million visitors in 2019. The icon of ancient Rome, the Colosseum is famous for hosting gladiatorial combat and entertaining the ancient Romans with bloody spectacles for over 400 years. Two thirds of the ancient amphitheatre still exist, the biggest stadium of its kind in ancient times and the largest Roman monument today, the Colosseum is a must see for all ages.
The Sistine Chapel with its famous frescoed ceiling by Michelangelo is another must see when in Rome. The Sistine Chapel is inside the Vatican Museums which is essentially a large extended palace lived in by the popes over the centuries. Its halls and galleries represent the combined collection over centuries of priceless ancient artifacts and statues as well as some of the finest renaissance artwork spanning more than 5,000 years of diverse cultural heritage. The personal apartments of Julius II are also a highlight in the museum, known as the Raphael Rooms after their famous decorator.
This is the heart of ancient Rome and the largest inner-city archaeological site in the world. The Roman Forum was the centre of the ancient city where religious, political and commercial activities took place. For more than a thousand years this was the nerve-centre of the empire. The Palatine Hill above is where the elite and later the emperors lived. For those interested in all things ancient Roman you should not miss these sites, they are dotted with the remains of temples, basilicas, triumphal arches and palaces. The viewing platform on the top of the palatine hill has a breathtaking view of the area. Both of these sites are included in the ticket for the colosseum and are often included in guided tours. Comfortable shoes, water bottles and sunscreen are a must!
Another must see is The Pantheon, with its astounding concrete dome still standing after almost 2,000 years. It is the most complete Roman monument standing today and is a marvel of engineering. As you step inside through the enormous bronze doors, the space magically opens around you and your eyes are drawn up to the gigantic hole in the dome where the sunlight streams through. The Pantheon still exists today because it was converted to a church where regular mass is still held; it also houses members of the royal family and the famous painter Raphael di Sanzio.
Known to locals as ‘Scalinata di Trinita di Monti’ (steps of the French church above), the Spanish Steps are located on Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Square). The steps were built in the early 18th century after the 30 year war. They represent a symbol of friendship between the two communities who had been on opposite sides; French at the top of the hill and Spanish at the bottom. The area was landscaped by creating a sweeping staircase of 136 travertine steps divided into three vertical paths on three levels.
Until recently the steps were a favourite meeting point for locals and tourists alike, sitting on the steps for a break and for a spot of people watching was a popular attraction. Alas today, after the steps were cleaned by the fashion house Bulgari, we are forbidden to linger, for fear of being violently whistled at.
Rome’s most famous fountain is on everyone’s list, if only to throw a coin into the rushing clear waters. It is the largest fountain in Rome, standing 26.3 metres (86 ft) high and 49.15 metres (161.3 ft) wide and certainly one of the most famous fountains worldwide. The Trevi fountain was created by the relatively unknown architect Nicolo Salvi for the pope Clement XII. It officially opened in 1735 and is a celebration of the importance of water to mankind. The fountain takes up the whole facade of the palace behind. At the centre is the god Oceanus on a chariot being pulled by two horses, one rearing violently, one more placid – they represent the changeable nature of the seas.
Today people flock to see it, but also to throw a coin in the fountain thanks to Hollywood. Standing with your back to the fountain you throw the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder and you will be sure to come back to Rome! Be aware, you will have limited time before the guardians with whistles shriek at you to move on!
This long elongated piazza lined with shops and restaurants, is the most enigmatic of Rome’s squares and possibly the most beautiful. This is another great spot for people watching. At the centre of the piazza is the masterpiece fountain of Rome’s favourite architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The fountain of the four rivers shows the four continents of the Catholic world as huge statues, surrounded by allusions to their particular landscape and topped with a huge obelisk. The obelisk truly belongs to the piazza as it was brought to Rome by the emperor Domitian to crown his running track, the Stadio Domiziano. The extraordinary shape of Piazza Navona today is thanks to the ancient athletics stadium that lies beneath the piazza.
For art enthusiasts the Borghese gallery is a must-see, and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful galleries in the world. The gallery is housed in a beautiful suburban villa set in the largest inner city park in Rome known as the Villa Borghese. The beauty of the Borghese is that it is not overwhelmingly large and has only two floors.It is the private art collection of the Borghese family amassed over three hundred years and is packed full of renaissance and Baroque masterpieces alongside ancient greek and Roman sculpture. Unlike other museums and galleries in Rome, the number of visitors is strictly monitored with timed entrance every two hours, which means you can enjoy the experience without having to elbow through the crowds. Guided tours include the highlights of the museum and present the artworks alongside the lives of the artists and their passionate if unscrupulous patron.
The catacombs are a popular attraction slightly away from the main tourist sites. There are five catacomb complexes open to the public out of more than 60 catacombs. Located outside the ancient city walls, they are situated in less chaotic parts of the city; 3 of them are along the Appia Antica surrounded in greenery. The network of underground tunnels are the burial place of Romans and the first christians date to the 2nd century AD. When christianity came to Rome burial practices changed which meant finding another solution for the bodies of the dead. Long underground passages were dug to bury the dead and the crypts and tombs were sometimes decorated. The catacombs of Rome are unique in their importance to the development of Christian art and there are some beautiful early frescoes to be seen. Because they are underground, the catacombs are a constant temperature and can be a great choice on a swelteringly hot day. Tickets included guided tours as you cannot explore alone.
The fortress of the Vatican and the city has witnessed the rise and fall of the city over two thousand years. Originally built by Hadrian as his tomb, its use has changed over time from a mausoleum, a fortress, the treasury, the residence of the popes and a prison. The castle has seven levels to visit including the ancient mausoleum at the very bottom. There is a military museum and the papal apartment to see. Occasionally ‘the Pasetto’ an 800 metre corridor that leads to the Vatican is open. Once the tallest building in Rome, the views from the top of the castle are stunning. During September the castle opens in the evening with free guided tours. (For more information see our blog)