January 6, 2022
France has many cities that we love, each with its own unique character. And one of the most beautiful is Tours, located in the heart…Read This Post
Everyone has a favorite city. Mine is Rome, probably because it was the first place I lived in Italy, my first exposure to Europe, the placed that formed the backdrop to my coming of age back in my twenties.
Rome doesn’t need a sales pitch. But I am frequently asked what to see in Rome, what are the Rome landmarks not to miss, and what are my favorite places to visit in Rome.
Of course, any list of what to see in Rome will be subjective. Some choices will be on everyone’s list of Rome landmarks (Colosseum, Saint Peter’s, Trevi Fountain), but I’ve included some hidden gems as well in my list of the top 15 sites to see in Rome.
The top of my list of tourist sties in Rome may surprise you, as I’m starting my list of Rome attractions with some of my off-the-beaten-path favorites. As you head down the list you’ll find the more famous things to see in Rome. I recommend you visit them all!
L’Aventino is one of the famed seven hills of Rome, and today is a pristine, residential oasis in the heart of the city. Why do I love it? It is peaceful, green, with amazing views of the city. It might not make a “must see Rome” list for many tourists, but I think it’s a perfect place for a walk, a picnic, or to sit and enjoy a spring day.
On top of the Aventine lies the Basilica of Santa Sabina, which harkens back to the 5th century. Its simple and relatively unadorned style and colonnaded rectangular design make it unique among Rome’s churches, as does its attached orange grove, whose boughs perfectly frame the distant cupola of Saint Peter’s.
Don’t forget to peek through the famed keyhole of the Knights of Malta, which lies in the gate of the garden in Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. If you peer through you’ll see a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s cupola.
If that’s not enough to tempt you, there are two other minor churches, Sant’Anselmo (also a monastery) and Sant’Alessio, as well as the Rome Rose Garden, which overlooks the Circus Maximus.
The Aventine Hill Details:
If you are wondering what to see in Rome Italy but want to see the Rome of the Romans, head to the Trastevere neighborhood. Its winding cobblestone streets, plethora of shops, bars, and cafes, and affordable restaurants make it a favorite of the locals. “Trastevere” literally means “across the Tiber,” as it is located just across the river from the historical center.
Central to the neighborhood is the Piazza di Santa Mara in Trastevere, whose titular 12th-century church is worth seeing, as is the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, which lies to the south.
Rome is full of churches. Many of them are massive, filled will expensive materials and priceless works of art. Many of them are on the list of main tourist sites in Rome (including this one!). But this small gem is perhaps my favorite of Rome’s many attractions.
The Monastero of the Santi Quattro Coronati is the opposite of the gilded, grandiose churches you will find throughout Rome. It a timeless place of reverence. Originating in the the Fifth Century, the complex today features not only a medieval basilica but a small 13-century chapel boasting beautiful frescoes depicting the life of Pope Silvestro and the Emperor Constantine, a Gothic hall lined with frescoes (open only a couple times per month to visitors), and a medieval cloister, which may be my single favorite spot in Rome, a colonnaded square of tranquility in an otherwise hectic world.
Pope Sylvester I was a fourth-century pope who legend says cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy with an anointing of holy water, and that as a result Constantine in a gesture of gratitude walked before the pope’s horse as a papal page. The implications of this – the shift in power from the temporal authority to the church – would be considered a watershed moment for the church. The chapel commemorates the story with a series of beautiful and well-preserved frescos.
Perhaps part of the charm of the Basilica is the experience: the cloister and chapel are overseen by a group of silent and serene Augustinian nuns. If you go at the right time and ring the bell, they will open the door for you, creating an opportunity for calm contemplation and reflection.
While you are in the area, make sure you stop also at the nearby Basilica di San Clemente, a wonderful medieval church built on top of an ancient Roman house, which was in turn built over a pagan temple
Monastero dei Santi Quattro Coronati Details:
One of the four major basilicas of Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore is also the oldest. Its origins go back to the mid-fourth century. And although much of the church is newer, from the eighteenth century, you can still see an impressive array of fifth-century mosaics in the nave and triumphal arch.
Other interesting things that make this a must-see in Rome are
Santa Maria Maggiore details:
Yes, you really do need to visit the Colosseum. Finished in 80 AD and at its zenith able to house between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, making it the largest ancient amphitheater every built. It is where gladiators fought, wild animal hunts were performed, epic battles staged (even sea battles for which the flooded the Colosseum). Its history is gruesome, as the site of executions “ad bestias,” or in which the condemned would literally be torn apart by animals for the amusement of the spectators. Contrary to popular lore, however, most scholars do not think it was the site of a large number of Christian martyrdoms. That honor falls to the nearby Circus Maximus.
Detractors will point out that it is not the best preserved example of an ancient amphitheater, both due to earthquakes and being mined for marble through subsequent centuries. But it is still one of the most iconic sites of Rome and a definitely must-see.
While you are there, you can’t miss the Arch of Constantine. I mean you really can’t miss it, it’s right next to it!
Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine Details:
There are actually several forums (or fora to use the Latin plural) in Rome, but the Roman Forum is the most famous. A rectangular area situated in a small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, was home to many of the most important structures of Ancient Rome, and was the center of ancient Roman life for centuries. Among the famous tourists sites in Rome that lie in the Roman forum are government buildings and monuments including:
The Roman Forum definitely requires either advance research, an audio guide, or a tour to appreciate, but it is still, undoubtedly, a must see in Rome. Most of the buildings are, unsurprisingly, in ruins, and it is difficult to tell one building from the next without the aid of an expert. We can organize a tour of ancient Rome that includes not only the the Roman Forum but also the Colosseum! Just ask us for details.
Roman Forum details:
As one of the national museums of Rome it should be one of the main tourist sites of Rome, but I am always surprised by how few people seem to know of this gem of a museum. The building itself is a lovely fifteenth-century palazzo (built on top of archeological remains), but what really wows visitors is its collection of classical art and statuary.
Seeing pieces such as the famed Ares statue, Aphrodite, Dionysus, or the Ludovisi Gaul in the throes of suicide (pictured), all artfully displayed in beautiful and spacious rooms, is remarkable and at times unsettling. For those interested in classical statuary, it is a must.
Palazzo Altemps Details:
I’ve written elsewhere about how this was never one of my favorite Rome sites until I took my children there. But it is definitely one of the main tourist sites in Rome, and what many consider to be a must see in Rome when it comes to fountains. The fountain is supplied its water from an ancient Roman aqueduct, although the fountain itself was constructed in the Eighteenth Century. It depicts the sea god Oceanus and his Tritons.
It has famously been featured in such films as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” and legend has it if you throw a coin in it you are destined to return to Rome.
Trevi Fountain details:
The Pantheon is my husband’s favorite tourist site in Rome, and it is certainly one of the most amazing of Rome attractions. It was finished around 125 AD and is considered one of the marvels of engineering of the ancient world, in particular its massive 43-meter dome. The 9-meter hole (oculus) in the ceiling is the only light source. It is perfectly proportioned, as tall as it is wide, and is one of the most intact ruins of Ancient Rome. This is because it was converted into a church in 609 AD. The tombs of famous Italians, including the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and the painter Raphael.
The Centro Storico of Rome literally means the “Historical Center,” but it refers to a specific urban zone, and the Pantheon is at the heart of it.
This is one of the major tourist sites in Rome, the Piazza Navona was built on the ancient site of the Stadium of Domitian. It also has one of Rome’s most famous fountains, the Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini, which stands at the heart of the square. It is a great place for Rome sightseeing, people watching, strolling with friends, checking out the art by the local artists selling their wares, or sitting to have a coffee or a drink (although anyplace on the piazza will be decidedly more expensive than those on the side streets).
Piazza Navona details:
Although you might be tempted to cram all of Vatican City and its many Rome attractions into one day of sightseeing, the Vatican Museums warrant their own day. The most famous of the sites is the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the most famous of things to see in Rome. Its ceiling and one wall were frescoed by Michelangelo, and the images depicted are among the most recognizable in the world.
But the Vatican Museums feature other priceless things to see, including Raphael’s Stanze, the Map Room, and the great spiral staircase.
Vatican Museum details:
The center of Catholicism, the Vatican is not just a site for religious pilgrims. Along with the Vatican Museums, the Basilica di San Pietro is one of the top things to see in Rome. It has a distinguished pedigree as well, being the work of such artists as Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Maderno, Bernini, della Porta, and more. Pretty impressive!
There is much to see when visiting the Basilica. The church itself, of course, with its many artistic works, including one of the main Rome attractions, Michelangelo’s Pietà statue. But also of note is the beautiful piazza, designed by Bernini, the tombs of the popes below the basilica in the Vatican Grottoes (not to be confused with the Vatican Necropoli, which is an excavation of where the remains of Saint Peter purported lie), and the climb up the cupola. This last affords amazing views of Rome, and a birds-eye view of some of the features of the basilica.
If you want to see the pope, you can catch a Wednesday audience if he is in residence. The cost is free, although tickets are required. You can also frequently see him on Sundays.
Saint Peter’s Basilica details:
One of the most popular tourist sites in Rome are the Spanish Steps, the famed staircase that leads from Piazza di Spagna at its base up to Trinità del Monte, the church that lies at its top. The 135 steps that are in between the two are a place to sit and see and be seen. There are several famous shopping streets nearby, in particular the Via dei Condotti and the Via del Babuino. This last leads from Piazza di Spagna to Piazza del Popolo.
Piazza del Popolo is a large, neoclassical square to the north of the Spanish Steps. It is home to the minor basilica Santa Maria del Popolo, which features two of my favorite paintings in Rome, both by Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul.
It also has the Flaminio Obelisk, the second oldest Egyptian obelisk in Rome, which was brought to Rome during the reign of Augustus in 10 BC and erected in the Circus Maximus. It was relocated to the piazza in 1589.
Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo details:
This might not be the most famous museum in Rome, but I think it is one of the best Rome attractions for art lovers and those interested in the Baroque period. The Galleria is located in the Villa Borghese gardens, and its two floors of priceless artworks make it one of the top things to see in Rome. It is also a fun museum to visit, both due to its manageable size as well as to the fact that the number of visitors allowed entry is regulated to prevent crowding.
Among the famous works of art to be seen there are:
Galleria Borghese details:
The catacombs are one of the most famous things to see in Rome. There are actually dozens of catacombs, but only 5 of which you can visit. Of these, the most famous are the Catacombs of San Callisto and San Sebastiano. These subterranean burial grounds were used between the second and fifth centuries, predominantly be Christians and Jews, who did not follow the pagan tradition of cremating their dead. Roman law forbid the burial of the dead within the city walls, which is why these sites are all found on the outskirts of town. The trip is worth it, however, as these Rome attractions will allow you to explore the dark, labyrinth-like tunnels, and to seemingly step back hundreds and hundreds of years in the process.
Of course, if you want a real must see in Rome, you should try one of our one-day cooking classes, in which you will see what life and food are like in this ancient city. Most of our cooking classes in Rome include a visit to a local market, which are always among our favorite Rome attractions. You can also pair a cooking class in Rome with a visit of some of the cultural sites that are located nearby.
Rome is a large city full of amazing sites to see, so our Rome traveling tips can come in handy to help you plan. Our list of the best things to see in Rome barely scratches the surface of its many attractions. So it is important to be organized, especially if your time is limited.
How can you maximize your time visiting Rome?
The first Rome traveling tips may sound obvious. Making a list of things you want to see is a no-brainer, but the important part about step one is to prioritize the list. If you don’t get to everything on your list of must sees in Rome, you don’t want the most important one to you to be what was left off! So it you know that during your Rome vacation you simply have to see the Sistine Chapel, or the Catacombs, or the Colosseum, make sure you prioritize those sites.
It’s also important to check the sites on a map and see where you can combine more the one site in a day. You don’t want to have to traipse back and forth because. you didn’t plan well.
And speaking of traipsing: one of my best Rome traveling tips is to purchase a multi-day bus and metro pass that will allow you to hop on and off buses, trams, and metros while exploring the city. Rome is definitely not walkable in its entirety. Just be careful of pickpockets while you are on public transportation, especially if it is very crowded. You can find more information on the passes available here: https://www.rome.net/rome-transport-tickets
Rome traveling tip #3 was to build in free time. This is important for a number of reasons. First, you want to enjoy your time, and if you pack your Rome vacation too full you won’t be able to enjoy any of it. So prioritize (hello travel tip #1) and cut out what you can skip, then leave some free afternoons for lazy explorations or siestas. Also, you may find new things to explore, and you’ll need to have time to do so.
Another important travel tip for visiting Rome is to understand where and when it makes sense to pay an expert. A professional, early entry tour of the Vatican Museums in my opinion is the #1 best way to spend a little extra on your trip and reap huge rewards. Add on Saint Peter’s if you only have one day to spend at Vatican City. I also highly recommend a professional tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. You can contact us for details on the tours we offer in Rome.
And if you have a little extra time in Rome, we can even offer excursions outside the city to local points of interest.
Even before COVID protocols were established, most of the museums and monuments in Rome needed to be booked in advance. Particularly the Vatican Museums, Saint Peter’s, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum required advance purchase of tickets (or better yet, a tour) in order to avoid long lines, long waits, the the risk of not getting entry that day.
Due to COVID protocols, you should check the website of any indoor space that you want to visit, including churches, to see whether timed entry tickets are required.
The public squares (piazzas) do not need to be booked in advance.
Rome is a wonderful place to explore with children. The ruins really spark their imaginations. Some of my favorite things to see in Rome with kids are:
While you’re at the Pantheon, treat them to a gelato at my favorite gelateria in Rome, the Cremeria Monteforte.
There are many free attractions in Rome, including all of the public squares and most of the churches. Some of the churches, like Santa Maria del Popolo mentioned above, the beautiful San Luigi dei Francesi, or the famed San Pietro in Vincoli, also include world-class art work, although you might need a few coins to turn the lights on in particular chapels.
Some of my favorite free sites in Rome are:
In conclusion, if you are looking for things to see in Rome, there is no way to be disappointed. There is an “embarassment of choice” (imbarazzo della scelta) as they say in Italian when it comes to Rome attractions. Whether you are looking for free things to do in Rome or whether you are budgeting for tours, entrance fees, and transportation, our Rome travel tips will help you plan your trip.
By Peg Kern
Don’t forget while you’re off exploring these (and other) sites to stop for a coffee!
Learn more about why we love Rome in our video:
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