Rome—the Eternal City. A place where emperors walked, chariots raced, Popes sought influence and command. Rome is a city of cathedrals, monuments, fortune, and glory. A place where magnificent structures and high-modernism blend together. Trend-setting fashion graces display windows in the shadow of ancient ruins. The Italian capital has long captivated the imagination. Artists and poets flock here, pilgrims journey from faraway lands. The attraction of Rome is irresistible. In this travel guide we’ve distilled the best the city has to offer. We look at those places you absolutely must-see in order to be able to say you’ve truly been to Rome. From the Trevi Fountain to Villa Borghese, Castel Sant'Angelo to Palatine Hill, these are the top-10 best things to do in Rome for 2019.
Table of Contents
2. Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
9. Vatican City: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
10. Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
Arguably the symbol of Rome, the great Colosseum is intimately bound to the city. It is the largest amphitheater ever constructed. When opened in 70 CE, it must have astounded all who saw it. The colosseum was the location for spectacular entertainment shows held to amuse the Roman public. Gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, the recreation of great military battles, all of these were held in the Colosseum. Today, it is one of Rome’s most popular attractions and an absolute must-see. Wander around the outside and appreciate the Colosseum’s scale. Take a look at the neighboring Arch of Constantine, a 21 meter tall ancient victory arch. Pay attention to the architectural details present at the Colosseum such as the three-tiered construction, the impressive support arches, and the use of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Entrance to the ruins requires a ticket and it’s best to plan ahead a bit in order to avoid the crowds. Try to link up with a guided tour where you can learn more about the Colosseum’s history and preservation. When you venture inside, take note of the sophisticated underground levels which housed animals and other elaborate set decorations used during performances. Each year on Good Friday, the Catholic community leads a procession beginning at the Colosseum to commemorate the “Stations of the Cross.” Given no visit to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Colosseum, it takes the top spot on our list of the top-10 best things to do in Rome.
2. Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
After exploring the Colosseum, make for the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The Forum is one of the most ancient parts of Rome, the literal center of the Roman Empire. When it was said “all roads lead to Rome,” this meant to the Forum. For centuries this is where the empire conducted its day-to-day proceedings. Exploring is best done with the aid of a tour guide who can provide details as to what the various structures would have looked like in their prime. Modern buildings were constructed over the centuries and have become integral to the contemporary site. Be sure to note of the Temple of Saturn, which was one of the most significant locations in the entire Roman Empire and a place of great religious importance. Constructed in the 6th century BCE, it is among the oldest ruins along with the Temple of Vesta, which dates to the 7th century BCE. Behind the Temple of Vesta is where the Houses of the Vestal Virgins stood. The Virgins were servants of Vesta, whose work was considered essential to the health of Rome itself. Make a point to ascend Palatine Hill, which offers a great vantage point from which to view the Forum as well as the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. We’re sure you’ll agree these are among the most significant places in the entire city and definitely one of the best things to do in Rome.
Constructed in the early 2nd century CE, the Pantheon is an ancient Roman temple that now functions as a Catholic Church. It’s a significant attraction not least because it happens to be one of Rome’s best preserved ancient ruins. Built in a cylindrical shape, the Pantheon has a portico entrance with impressive Corinthian columns made from granite. Admire the exterior and snap some pictures with the Fountain of the Pantheon, originally sculpted in 1575 and modified a few times over the following centuries. Enter the temple and marvel at the grand ceiling with its central oculus. At certain times of day and with the right conditions, shafts of sunlight descend from the oculus, illuminating the spacious interior with a radiant glow. As the oculus was never covered, rain water would naturally enter and pool on the floor below, necessitating construction of an innovative drainage system. Over time, the Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church and various alternations and enhancements were made to accommodate church functions. Find the tomb of the Renaissance painter and architect Raphael. He was buried in the Pantheon in an elaborate and well-attended funeral ceremony. After exploring, visit one of the cafes outside on the Piazza della Rotonda. Enjoy a gelato or perhaps a pizza in the shade of ancient history. It’s a great way to experience modern-day Rome.
4. Trevi Fountain
If you navigate east from the Pantheon along the narrow streets you’ll come upon the legendary Trevi Fountain. Rome’s largest baroque fountain, it is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Oft featured in popular culture, belief has it that tossing three coins into the fountain will reward you with a return to Rome, a new romance, and a marriage. Today, it is estimated passersby throw on the order to US$3,200 into the Trevi Fountain each day! Set behind the fountain is Palazzo Poli, whose monumental façade serves as an incredible backdrop. Allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate the design and atmosphere around the Trevi Fountain. Depending on the time and day and the season, the numbers of visitors can be excessive. Should you encounter large crowds, make a point to circle back around after exploring the neighboring streets and businesses. The magnificent Altar of the Fatherland is a little over half a kilometer south from the Trevi Fountain and well-worth a visit. If you can, visit the fountain after dark when artificial illumination creates a stunning visual spectacle. As one the city’s most recognizable landmarks, tossing three coins into the Trevi Fountain is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Rome.
5. The Spanish Steps
Just over 500 meters due north from Trevi Fountain are the famed Spanish Steps. A monumental staircase completed in 1725, the stairs ascend between the lower Piazza di Spagna and the upper Piazza Trinità dei Monti. The Trinità dei Monti, a Catholic Church with lovely twin spires, makes for a wonderful background in photographs taken from the steps. Depending on when you visit, you might observe different decorations adoring the stairs. During Christmas there is usually a prominent manger display. In springtime azaleas line the stairs to commemorate the founding of Rome. American audiences of a certain age will recognize the Spanish Steps from the 1953 film classic Roman Holiday staring Audury Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Younger generations may remember scenes with Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley where the Spanish Steps also featured prominently. One of Rome’s most-recognizable landmarks, climbing the Spanish Steps is something of a ritual. Their design and simple elegance have made them popular with a variety of artists who come in search of inspiration. Explore the small museum nearby dedicated to the memory of English poet John Keats and peruse the works from English Romantic poets on display. For us, a climb up the Spanish Steps is one of the top-10 best things to do in Rome.
6. Piazza del Popolo
Northwest from the Spanish Steps along the via del Babuino is Piazza del Popolo. If you ask Rome’s residents what they consider the town square, a great many would mention Piazza del Popolo. The nearby Porta del Popolo marked the limits of the ancient city, so the Piazza del Popolo was basically the first thing visitors saw when arriving from northern points in the Empire. The Piazza is dominated by its large open space and Egyptian obelisk from the ancient city of Heliopolis. Circumnavigate the plaza and explore around. Take pictures with the two fountains and find a good opportunity to photography the twin churches located on the plaza’s southern edge. On the northern side is the basilica Santa Maria del Popolo. Head inside and find the two incredible paintings by Caravaggio and also marvel at the basilica’s Renaissance decoration. Climb the steps to the Terrazza del Pincio where the terrace affords excellent views back down across the plaza. At sunset you can look out across the city and see the beautiful dome at Saint Peter’s in the distance. Use the opportunity to reflect on the glories of Rome and its wondrous history. From the Terrazza del Pincio you can easily explore into Villa Borghese. All of this makes a visit to the Piazza del Popolo one of the top-10 best things to do in Rome.
7. Villa Borghese
Central Park is to New York City what Villa Borghese is to Rome. This massive urban green space is often called the city’s lungs. Here you can escape the scooter armies, incessant traffic, and mild claustrophobia found in the narrow alleyways. You can reach Villa Borghese from Piazza del Popolo by ascending to the Terrazza del Pincio. Admire the view for a moment then continue into the gardens. Villa Borghese is designed in a lovely English manner-style. Manicured lawns, hedges, and walking paths predominate. Take your time and enjoy the leisurely pace. Villa Borghese is where locals come to relax…so when in Rome. Venture into the Galleria Borghese, which houses a large portion of the famed Borghese Collection. Exquisite sculptures are displayed alongside paintings from old masters including Caravaggio and Raphael. Find the Temple of Asclepius where you can get a beautiful lakeside view. Nearby and just outside the park is the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art with its world-famous collection that includes work by Canova, Modigliani, and Van Gogh. Reward yourself with a visit to the tranquil Villa Borghese and enjoy this great Roman experience. It is certainly the place to come and collect your thoughts before continuing your adventures. A visit to Villa Borghese is one of the top-10 best things to do in Rome.
8. Castel Sant'Angelo
Along a bend in the River Tiber is the imposing Castel Sant'Angelo, a towering building dating to the 2nd century CE. Initially built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Castel Sant'Angelo served as a fortress for a succession of popes. Today you can explore the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo, a fascinating collection of paintings, sculptures, military memorabilia, and medieval firearms. The best experience is to arrive at Castel Sant’Angelo by crossing the St. Angelo Bridge. From here you can see the towering structure rise up before you and the bridge’s iconic arch design is itself well worth a look. Castel Sant'Angelo comprises five levels reached by a spiral ramp. Visit the chamber of ashes and see former prison cells that housed a number of historical figures over the centuries. The middle levels contain a former Papal residence preserved in its original renaissance style. On the upper level is a large terrace where you can snap some truly amazing photos of the city skyline. Look for the Passetto di Borgo, a 13th century direct link to the Vatican used by Pope Clement VII in 1527 to escape danger during a siege of Rome. With its iconic status and historic importance, a visit to Castel Sant'Angelo ranks among the top-10 best things to do in Rome.
9. Vatican City: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
Geography buffs might quibble that Vatican City isn’t technically in Rome. It’s true the Vatican is sovereign territory with its own laws and under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, not the Italian government. This is being needlessly pedantic, however, as contemporary visitors to Rome can cross seamlessly into the Vatican. Stand in St. Peter's Square and admire the grandeur and magnificence of St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world. The enormous dome was designed by Michelangelo and the basilica’s architecture is widely regarded as the greatest of its age. Go inside where you can truly appreciate the scale. The central alter is surrounded by the stunning Baroque baldachin designed by Bernini. The baldachin sits below the dome at the intersection of the transepts. Standing here you can appreciate St. Peter’s as the greatest church in all Christendom. After touring the basilica, head for the Vatican Museums. Explore an incredible collection of artwork and artifacts collected through the centuries. Be sure to see the Bramante Staircases. The original was built in 1505 with the modern version designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. Unquestionably, the highlight of the Vatican Museum tour is the Sistine Chapel. No words can adequacy describe the ceiling and enormous frescos painted by Michelangelo. Suffice to say these are considered among the greatest works of art in human history. What more need be said before concluding a visit to Vatican City is one of the best things to do in Rome?
Tips: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica will be closed to guided tours and tourists from Mar 10.
10. Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
It comes as a surprise to many that while St. Peter’s Basilica is the world’s largest church, it is not the main cathedral in Rome. That distinction belongs to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. Cathedral Church for the Diocese of Rome, Saint John Lateran is the oldest and highest ranking of the four major basilicas in the Catholic faith. As such it is consider the seat of the Roman Pontiff, aka the Pope. Located outside Vatican City, the archbasilica and adjoining structures have extraterritorial status from Italy and belong the Holy See. Make your way to the plaza in front of the basilica where a long approach provides ample opportunity to get some great photos. On the northern grounds near the Lateran Palace is the Lateran Obelisk, the largest standing obelisk in the world. Inside the basilica you can explore the many statues and exquisite designs by Francesco Borromini. Past the high alter and located in the apse is the papal cathedra, or the papal throne. Note the use of Cosmatesque style and admire the throne itself. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran holds immense significance and not only for Catholics. In a city filled with magnificent cathedrals, Saint John Lateran stands out. For this reason, we’ve included visiting the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran on our list of the top-1o best things to do in Rome.
It’s impossible to condense Rome’s many treasures into a single list of 10 things to do. Visitors to the Eternal City can spend days wandering around these attractions and still barely scratch the surface. This is in part what makes Rome such as captivating travel destination. Come discover the beauty and wonder on offer in the Italian capital. You will have no shortage of things to do and places to explore. For many, simply walking in the footsteps of history is enough to send chills down your spine. We can’t speak highly enough about this truly marvelous city. Experience the top-10 best things in Rome for yourself and have the adventure of a lifetime.