In writing to a friend while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe in 1870, a young graduate of Harvard University named Roger Swaim, lamented his arrival in Rome. He had been to France already and would later continue on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Holy Lands, but not before making a thorough visit of all the conventional sites—the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican—and he was not looking forward to it. “Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands, a mass of brick to investigate [and] excavations to penetrate.” Exhausted and overwhelmed, he felt that he should only “appreciate Rome after getting away,” for it would take time to forget its “filth and discomforts.”
For travelers today, it’s still possible to experience the grittiness of Swain’s Rome, but it’s just as easy to conjure the magnificence of a city built by emperors like Titus and Hadrian, or to bask in the Baroque splendor of art created by the hands of Caravaggio and Bernini. Rome is ever evolving and pulsing with the energy of history and human emotion. It is, after all, the Eternal City, and there is always more than enough to see. Here, though, is a short list that begins to scratch the surface. By the end of your stay, you will want to return time and again to excavate its many layers.
An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:
Climb the Capitoline Hill and gaze out across the ruins of ancient Rome
The city of Rome was built upon seven ancient hills—the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Begin your visit at the Capitoline Hill at a treacherous intersection of streets near Piazza Venezia. To the right of the massive Vittorio Emanuele II monument, variously derided as a “wedding cake” or a “giant typewriter,” climb the cordonata, a set of long sloping steps that lead the Piazza del Campidoglio, where an impressive equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius dominates the space. What you see is a copy of the bronze original, which can be viewed in the adjacent Capitoline Museum, a meandering collection of galleries housed in the Renaissance palaces that surround the square. It’s well worth an entire afternoon’s visit, but for now, continue forward, either to the left or the right of the Palazzo del Senatore, until you reach a terrace overlooking the Roman Forum.
You are standing at the center of Rome and the ruins you see are the remnants of some of the city’s most important civic buildings. Look for the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina and try to imagine their grandeur. Look to the distance then and you can see the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. When the British novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome in the mid-19th century, he stood before the Colosseum and said that to “see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day… is to the see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod.”
LOCATION: To reach the terrace, head to Piazza del Campidoglio, and for entrance to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum continue on and look for Piazzale del Colosseo, along Via dei Fori Imperiali.
HOURS: The Capitoline Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 8:00 PM; the Colosseum and Roman Forum are open in the summer from 8:30 AM-7:15 PM. Click here for hours at other times of year.
COST: Admission is €13 for the Capitoline Museum; a combination ticket to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum costs €12 and can be purchased online to avoid a lengthy queue. Purchasing a RomaPass instead for €34 might be a worthwhile investment, depending on the number of days you have in Rome and the number of museums you plan to see.
TIP: While virtually no one appreciates the aesthetics of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, there is an elevator at the back of the building that will whisk you to the top for a panoramic view of the city for just €7.
Stand beneath the dome of the Pantheon to marvel at a feat of ancient engineering
Built during the reign of Hadrian around 126 AD, the Pantheon is thought to be the best preserved building from ancient Rome. With its elegant pediment and massive Corinthian columns, it may not look like a house of worship, but it is indeed a temple whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning All Gods. It is best known, however, for its coffered dome, which was considered such a feat of engineering, even centuries later, that Filippo Brunelleschi traveled here in an effort to uncover its secrets before starting work on his own massive dome in Florence on the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The circular opening in the center of the dome—an oculus—allows daylight to illuminate the interior.
Afterwards, be sure to sit and linger by the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, or break for an espresso in one of the local cafés. It is a lively square and you are certain to be entertained by something interesting, whether it is a talented street musician, or a curious pair of levitating men in orange robes and turbans.
LOCATION: Piazza della Rotunda
HOURS: Always open
WEBSITE: The Pantheon
Travel along the ancient Appian Way and descend into the catacombs of San Callisto
The Appian Way was one of the most important roads in ancient Rome. Once upon a time, its cobblestone pavement began at the Circus Maximus and continued on past the Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the port city of Brindisi. Beneath the surface, there are scores of underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead, and today, many of these “catacombs” are open for guided tours.
For a pleasant break from the urban intensity of Rome, travel out along the Appian Way to enjoy the open green space and a multitude of worthwhile sites, including the remains of a sophisticated system of aqueducts. Then, on the way back, stop at the Catacombs of San Callisto to explore a massive burial site that once held the bones of half a million Christians, as well as nine popes and numerous martyrs.
GETTING THERE: The catacombs are reachable by public transportation (see this link for details), but the route is time-consuming. Instead, I’d recommend taking the Archeobus, a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that begins its route in central Rome and then travels out along Via Appia Antica with a direct stop at the catacombs of San Callisto. Tickets cost €12 for adults and are valid for 48 hours. A family discount is available.
An organized bike tour is another fun option.
HOURS: The catacombs of San Callisto are open daily (except on Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9:00 AM-12:00 PM and again from 2:00 PM-5:00 PM.
COST: Admission to the catacombs is €8.
TIP: The catacombs of San Callisto extend deep into the ground. It gets chilly down there, so taking a jacket is advisable, even in the summer.
Spy the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica through a not-so-secret keyhole on the Aventine Hill
If you are in the mood for an interesting quest on a lazy afternoon, check your map and make your way to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where guidebooks promise a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica through a tunnel of pruned hedge.
Look for the worn green door that guards the entrance to the garden of Priory of the Knights of Malta. It’s surprisingly easy to spot, because there is often a small crowd of people queuing for the chance to press their eyes and camera lenses against the keyhole. It may be a well-discovered “secret,” but it’s still as delightful as peering into a doll’s house through an old-fashioned shadow box.
LOCATION: Piazza Cavalieri di Malta.
TIP: Taking a photograph through the keyhole is a tough shot because you have to get both the door and the dome in focus simultaneously. Be prepared to try and try again until you get it right, or do as I did and take a picture of each, then join them together using Photoshop.
Stray off the beaten path and explore the narrow lanes of the Jewish Ghetto
Rome may be an intense and noisy city, but stray slightly off the beaten path into an historic neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto—tucked between the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Tiber River near Isola Tiberina—and you will find a maze of narrow alleyways that spill out into small piazzas, each more charming than the last.
If you are in the mood for culture and history, visit the Jewish Museum of Rome at the Great Synagogue, but if not, devote an afternoon to wandering aimlessly about the streets. Eventually, you will stumble upon the Bernini turtles that perch on the basin of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, and the crumbling, remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, as well as host of enticing restaurants, shops, and boutiques.
If you stay for dinner, order a plate of carciofi alla giudia—Jewish-style artichokes, deep-fried to a luscious, golden brown.
LOCATION: The Jewish Museum and synagogue are located on Lungotevere Dè Cenci.
HOURS: The Jewish Museum and synagogue are open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (summer hours are extended to 7:00 PM), and Friday from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM; closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
COST: Admission to the Jewish museum and synagogue costs €11 for adults, €8 for those over age 65, and €4 for students.
TIP: While in the vicinity, considering making a short detour to Largo di Torre Argentina, where there is a sanctuary for abandoned cats. You’ll see dozens of them lounging about on the ancient ruins, and donations to help with their care are gratefully accepted.
It’s mangia time!
Eating in Rome is an elevated art form, best enjoyed slowly with family and friends over a bottle or two of wine. But even if you’re travelling solo, take the time to dine out and dine well. Where else can you sip a cappuccino while reading a book in one of the oldest cafés in Italy—the venerable Antica Caffè Greco, on Via dei Condotti? And where else can you indulge as happily and as cheaply as you can here with a slice of pizza al taglio or a dish of gelato?
You should also embrace all the city has to offer by savoring some traditional dishes. Italian cuisine, after all, is a patchwork of regional specialties and local ingredients. While in Tuscany you can expect to find wild boar and Chianina beef, when in Rome look for veal saltimbocca or a spicy bucatini all’Amatriciana. And if you happen to be there in the early summer, don’t ever pass up the chance to order a plate of fiori di zucca—zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and deep-fried.
One final tip, based on personal experience… If ever you long for the simplicity of cacio e pepe, the Italian answer to macaroni and cheese, be very careful how you say it. The letter “C” can be tricky for foreigners. Quite by accident, I once ordered a very private part of the male anatomy instead. It was an innocent slip of the tongue that sent my waiter into peels of laughter!
TIPS: It may go without saying, but avoid restaurants that post generic photographs of generic food, or those that offer a special menu turistico in English. To gain confidence with Italian vocabulary, consider buying a copy of Eating & Drinking in Italy, by Andy Herbach. He offers basic advice on restaurant etiquette, as well as an indispensable menu translator. In addition to paperback copies, it’s also available for Kindle and iBook readers.
WARNING: Because of a recent city ordinance, eating and drinking is now banned in areas of “particular historic, artistic, architectonic and cultural value” in Rome, which very nearly everywhere. Local police can now impose fines on tourists who violate the rules by snacking on a sandwich near the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps.
WEBSITES: Not sure what to tip? Don’t know the difference between a primi piatti and a secondi piatti? Try this handy primer from Fodor’s. For all you need to know about gelato, see: Your Ultimate Guide to Gelato in Rome. And for tips on how to navigate the confusing world of Italian coffee, check out: How to Drink Coffee… Like an Italian.
Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and more!
As if having the ruins of ancient Rome beneath your feet were not enough, the city’s museums offer a fascinating mix of the elegant, the sublime, and the macabre.
Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire Bernini’s exquisite sculpture of “Apollo and Daphne.” Trek to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see stunning frescoes and mosaics, including a lush painted garden from the Villa of Livia at the National Museum of Rome. Commune with the spirits of two of England’s greatest romantic poets at the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Or, plunge underground to see the skeletons of thousands of Capuchin monks woven into elaborate and ghoulish designs, including a grim reaper holding scales and a scythe made of human vertebrae. The opportunities are endless, bound only by the days in your itinerary and the strength left in your legs.
Here are my personal favorites, in descending order. For hours, locations, and the cost of admission, please refer to each museum’s website, linked below.
- Borghese Gallery (Advance reservations are essential. To book, click here.)
- Capitoline Museums
- National Museum of Rome (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme)
- Capuchin Crypt Museum
- Castel Sant’Angelo
- Keats-Shelley House
- And more… Check the schedules at the Chiostro del Bramante and the Scuderie del Quirinale, both of which offer an array of special exhibitions, which in recent years have included artists such as Bruegel, Caravaggio, and Titian.
TIP: If you plan to visit several museums in Rome, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which costs €34 and provides free admission to the first two museums and reduced admission to each additional museum visited within a three-day period. It also provides unlimited use of the city’s public transportation network.
Gaze upon the face of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel
Getting to the Sistine Chapel is enough to test the patience of a saint.
First, there are the notoriously long lines get in, made worse by the heat of the summer sun. Then, there is the crushing weight of people inside—more than 6 million souls visit each year. In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the chapel itself by bypassing some inestimable treasures along the way, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.
Buckle in and stay for the day.
Take your time and walk in awe through the 16th century Gallery of Maps that render the cities and towns of Italy in exquisite detail. You will see the Raphael Rooms, including his masterpiece, The School of Athens, paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and even an entire room devoted to sculptures of animals.
By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you will be acclimated to the unnatural closeness of the strangers and ready to gaze solely upon Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and (of course) God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, though, you will feel the room pulse with energy and human emotion, and with history, too, for it is here the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.
If time allows, follow the signs and continue on into St. Peter’s Basilica, and if strength remains after a thorough exploration, consider climbing to the top of the dome. Even with an elevator that rises part way, it’s a challenging climb to be sure. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view is unparalleled. Look down upon St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with its sentry of angels, all the way east to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, which towers over the city like an oversized wedding cake.
Rome is glorious and so, too, is Vatican City.
LOCATION: St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Piazza San Pietro. To reach the Vatican Museums, turn right and walk out along the walls to Viale Vaticano. For more detailed directions, click here.
HOURS: The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM. On Sundays, the museum closes at 2:00 PM, except for the last Sunday of every month, when there is also free entrance from 9:00 AM to 12.30 PM. Obviously, expect the lines to be even longer on that day.
COST: Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free; admission to the Vatican Museums costs €16 for adults.
IMPORTANT: Modest dress is required. According to the Vatican website: “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”
TIPS: You can now reserve tickets for the Vatican Museums online. Do it! Or, be prepared to face the consequences—a line of epic proportions that, at times, stretches halfway around the walls of Vatican City. If money is no object, you should know that VIP tours that allow private access off-hours are available.
MORE TIPS: To extend your visit to Vatican City, consider booking a Scavi tour which takes visitors deep into the necropolis to the tomb of St. Peter (€16). Or, above ground, you can request a ticket to a Papal Audience held most Wednesdays (free).
STILL MORE: There are more than 900 churches in Rome. If you have the time and the inclination, continue on with these:
- Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano
- Arcibasilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore
- Basilica di San Clemente
- Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli
- Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva
- Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli
- San Luigi dei Francesi
- Santa Maria della Vittoria
- Santa Maria in Trastevere
Viva l’amore and toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain
If you are forced to wade through a horde of tourists to get anywhere near the Trevi Fountain in Rome—and you will be—you might want to blame Hollywood for making such enchanting movies as La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, and Three Coins in the Fountain.
The fountain is impressive in its own right. Completed in 1762 at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the pool of water is ornamented by a massive wall of travertine and Carrara marble statues representing an aquatic theme. To be honest, though, most people who congregate here have little interest in art and architecture. Most have come with loose change in their pockets and a very specific task in mind.
According to Fodor’s: “Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City. But not everyone knows how to do it the right way: You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.”
I’m a single lady, so the last time I was in Rome I threw an entire handful of coins of every size and denomination, just for good measure!
LOCATION: Follow the crowds to Piazza di Trevi, off Via Del Tritone, near Piazza Barberini.
COST: Free, aside from the coins you throw, which are collected regularly and used by the city to fund local charities.
TIPS: If you feel inspired to reenact another scene from a famous Hollywood movie, you should visit the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, to snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars, so please be careful! ;-)
Still can’t get enough? Try this walking tour of the locations used in Roman Holiday. Or, even better, explore the city on a scooter of your own, just like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Vintage vespa tours are available from Bici & Baci.
WEBSITE: Trevi Fountain
When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and join the evening passeggiata
The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being in Rome with the pulse of human existence all around, it’s easy to understand the meaning, especially at the end of the day when the noise of traffic fades away and the city falls into a romantic reverie. Families flood the streets and take a gentle stroll about in an Italian tradition known as the evening passeggiata.
Join the crowds and enjoy the show. As someone once told me on my very first trip the Eternal City: “Rome by night, she is magic.”
She is, indeed.
SUGGESTED ITINERARY: Here is an interactive map of the route I suggest, starting at the Colosseum and ending by the Spanish Steps. Be warned: the total distance of this walk is roughly 3 miles, but will take you by some of the city’s prettiest squares and monuments, including Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.
Click on the link below that reads “View Larger Map” to see detailed walking directions from site to site.
A Photo Gallery of Rome