Roma. The Eternal City. It also happens to be one of my favorite destinations. It’s a magical place where history, culture, food, fashion, and religion collide. I’ve been to Rome on four separate occasions and returning for a fifth visit this summer. As a native Newyorker, there is a sense of familiarity in the hustle and bustle of the Italian capital. But there’s so much more to Rome than just its seemingly hectic pace. Read on for some ideas on what to see and do while visiting this fantastic city.
The Lay of the Land
Despite being a capital city, the main city center of Rome is relatively small and mostly walkable. Most visitors of the city would concentrate their time in the area that is bordered by the following:
- Termini Station to the east
- The Vatican to the west
- Villa Borghese to the north
- Palatine Hill to the south
Of course, there are things to do outside of these “walls” but the majority of sights are located within this sector.
What To See
You can totally visit the major sights on your own, or opt to join a tour with a professional guide instead. I’ve done it both ways and they each have their merits. Undecided on which one to go for? Consider whether you’ll want someone to provide historical context and answer any questions you may have, or if you’d be satisfied with, at most, a recorded audio guide and visit at your own pace. If you’re going at it solo, I highly recommend downloading the Rick Steves Audio Europe app. It’s a free app that works without internet connection and contains some great information for first-time visitors, including guides of major sights and walks around town.
1) Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
Who hasn’t heard of the gladiator fights said to have taken place in the Colosseum? So it’s no surprise that the Colosseum is one of, if not the most, popular attractions in Rome – with the long queues to prove it. The ticket to the famous amphitheater also includes admission to the Roman Forum – once the central hub of Ancient Rome – and the Palatine Hill. Note that tickets are valid for 2 consecutive days, so you can always return the following day to complete your visit. If you want to avoid waiting in long queues, here are your options:
- Buy your tickets in advance on the official website, currently at €12 (+€2 online reservation fee)
- Enter via the Palatine Hill first which will undoubtedly have reduced wait time
- Sign-up for a guided tour of the sights. On one of my visits, we went with the VIP Underground Tour offered by Walks of Italy and it was money well spent. You’re able to visit the third tier, arena floor, and underground level – all of which are not accessible with a regular admission ticket. The tour concludes with a visit to the Roman Forum & Palatine Hill, all with a very knowledgeable and friendly guide.
2) St. Peter’s Basilica & Vatican Museums
Even if you’re not a religious person, a visit to Vatican City is certainly worth the trip across the Tiber River. Admission to the Basilica is free but requires that you pass through metal detectors to enter, often resulting in long queues. If you’re interested to see the Sistine Chapel – with Michelangelo’s famed frescos – you’ll need to buy tickets to the Vatican Museums. Tickets will cost you €21 online with skip-the-line privileges at the official website.
Once you’ve meandered around the museums and garden (or followed the Rick Steves audio guide), you’ll end up at the Sistine Chapel. There’s an entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica from the chapel, which means you won’t have to stand on another line to get in. I highly recommend getting to the Vatican early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Allow for at least 3 hours here.
3) Piazza Navona
This public plaza is home to Bernini’s famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Here you’ll find many artists showing off their work – available for sale if something catches your eye – so if you’re looking for something to take home as a souvenir it’s worth a stroll. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, albeit pricey ones, if hunger catches up with you after a morning full of sightseeing. This is a great plaza to just relax, catch your breath, and people watch.
This former Ancient Roman temple, now a Christian church, is free to enter. Its claim to fame is its unreinforced concrete dome with an open oculus which provides the only source of light. If you come here on a rainy day, you will surely see rain coming down inside via the oculus. Inside you’ll find the tomb of the great Italian Renaissance painter Raphael.
5) Trevi Fountain
No trip to Rome would be complete without visiting the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). This beautiful Baroque fountain was made famous in Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. Legend has it that you are to throw three coins into the fountain for luck, from your right hand, and over your left shoulder. The first coin is for love, the second for money, and the third so that you return to Rome. Certainly, come see this lovely piece of art during the day to admire it in all its glory. But make it a point to return at night, when the fountain is lit up and it looks absolutely enchanting.
6) Campo de’ Fiori
Once the main stage for public executions, this public plaza now houses a daily market by day where you can check out fresh fruits & veggies. At night, this is a popular meet-up spot for young locals and tourists alike, and many restaurants set up tables outside. I do caution you to be careful at night and be mindful of your surroundings. Drunk tourists and soccer enthusiasts have been known to cause trouble.
I say the best way to see the city is to use your own two feet. Rome is a very walkable city, with little surprises around every corner. That being said… if you get tired, there’s a great network of buses that serve the city. Admittedly, the metro system in Rome is seriously lacking with literally two lines that cross at Termini station to make a giant X across the city.
The public transportation system is run by ATAC. A single ticket for bus, metro, tram, and trains inside the municipality of Rome is €1.50 and is valid for 100 minutes, including transfers. If you will be in Rome for an extended period of time, you can look into buying an eRoma Tourist Card. You can load it up with one of the following tourist tickets and top up if needed. The tourist card can be bought online and either collected in person upon arrival or shipped to your home address.
- 24-hours for €7
- 48-hours for €12.50
- 72-hours for €18
- 7-days (called CIS) for €24
Keep in mind that the tourist card doesn’t include transportation to/from the airport. One of the most cost-effective ways to get to the city center from the airport is the Leonardo Express train which takes you from Fiumicino airport to Termini station. The ride costs €14 one-way and takes about 30-minutes. Alternatively, you can go to the taxi stand which will currently cost you €48 flat-fare for up to 4 persons, including luggage. Rather than grabbing a taxi, I’ve pre-arranged private car service pickup with Zelit Limousine with meet & greet service for €45 for up to 3 persons, including luggage. The driver meets you outside of baggage claim holding a sign with your name, and you pay the driver in cash at the end of the trip.
Where To Stay
There are many options for places to stay in the city. I’ve had a fantastic stay at the IQ Hotel Roma. It’s a modern hotel with quirky amenities like vending machines that sell small bottles of wine and beer, and a rooftop terrace with a foosball table. The rooms are basic, yet modern and comfortably appointed. I recommend that you take a look for your next visit.
If you’re going with a large group, or just want some extra space, another good option for you may be to look at AirBnB.com or Homeaway.com vacation apartment rentals. They can also be a cost-effective way to stay in the city center. On my last visit, I decided to rent a cute 1-bedroom apartment just around the corner from Campo de’ Fiori. It’s a great way to feel a little bit like a local, even if only for a few days.
What To Eat
You’re in Italy! What can I say? You have to try the pizza, pasta, and gelato… oh my! Be sure to stop by a local cafe and try a cappuccino and cornetti for breakfast. I had some of the best cannoli at the Dagnino Bakery at a small shopping arcade called Galleria Estrada near Piazza della Repubblica. And as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Here are some of my favorite restaurants:
Other Fun Things To Do
Once you’ve hit the top tourist sights, you may be interested in some more immersive and off-the-beaten-path things to do. One of my favorite companies I’ve booked interesting tours and fun activities with is Walks of Italy.
On my last trip, I took their amazing tour Rome As A Local: Hidden Gems & Ancient Wonders. We started with a fantastic walking tour through a part of the city I hadn’t yet seen in my previous visits, the Jewish Ghetto. We then jumped in a van that took us to the outskirts of the city and dropped us off for a nice stroll down the ancient Appian Way (Via Appia Antica). On this walk, we visited the amazing Park of the Aqueducts where some of the original stone structures that brought water into the city have been beautifully preserved. Our last stop was Janiculum Hill which provides gorgeous unobstructed, panoramic views of the Eternal City.
And if you’ve wondered how they make those delicious pasta dishes, I highly recommend taking the Pasta-Making Class: Cook, Dine & Drink Wine with a Local Chef! This was literally the most fun I’ve had. We met some great local chefs who showed us how to make some delicious authentic Roman pasta dishes. Appetizers and prosecco were served while learned and cooked. Once all the pasta was made, we all sat down to eat our lovely meal together. Check out this video of my experience!
I could go on forever. Rome is a city that will pull you back time and again. There’s so much to do that it’s almost impossible for me to write it all down. Don’t forget to just take some time to relax and people watch. Enjoy what the Italians call “dolce far niente” — the sweetness of doing nothing. Partake in the Italian custom of the passeggiata, a leisurely stroll at dusk through the main piazza and pedestrian zones of the city center.
Have you been to Rome? Comment below and let me know what were your favorite places.