Rome is jam packed with so many historical places, that your biggest challenge is going to be fitting it all in. A well planned itinerary will help you get the most out of your time. I would also recommend buying a Skip the Line Pass- although don’t let that fool you, because you will still stand in line. I was there during the off-season and some of the big attractions were still packed. I can’t even imagine what the lines are like in the summer. Here is my list of the best things to do in Rome.
1. The Colosseum
Wow, just wow. Simply turning down the street and having the Colosseum come into view will take your breathe away. I have never been so impressed with a piece of architecture since seeing the Taj Mahal. The inside was a different story.
It is said that over 500,000 people and over a million animals were slaughtered there while 60,000 people cheered. Gladiators used to march in from the far arch to fight to the death. The pulley system in the middle raised exotic animals such as lions, bears or leopards into the ring to add to the excitement. It was a pure massacre. They had a sand floor to absorb the blood. The place has to be haunted. I had an unsettling feeling the whole time I was there.
We purchased “skip the line tickets” so were really confused when we arrived and were told to stand at the end off a line the length of a football field. The line did move quickly and they changed our paper tickets to real tickets. Then we were shuffled to another line to enter the building. This is where the skip the line passes paid off, because the regular entry line literally had hundreds of people in it. You have to go through security, so that takes some time.
I purchased an audio tour inside, which I would recommend so that you have some explanation of what you are looking at. We walked halfway around the ground level and then one flight up. If you want to go to the top level or stand on the platform in the arena, you have to have a private guide booked weeks in advance.
While it was neat to see the inside, I was much more impressed with the outside of the Colosseum and if I went back with my kids, I am not sure that I would go through the effort of getting inside again. If you have limited time in Rome, it is something to consider.
2. Wander the Roman Forum & Climb Palatine Hill
The Roman Forum is just outside of the Colosseum. After learning about the horrors of what happened inside of that arena, we wandered the Forum which was once the center of Roman public life. It was a marketplace, a venue for public speeches, criminal trials and even gladiatorial matches. The Forum is like an outdoor museum. It was incredible to wander the ruins of ancient government buildings.
Once you complete the circuit, be sure to climb the stairs to Palatine Hill, where you can look out over the Colosseum, the Forum and up to the Altar of the Fatherland. The views were amazing and totally worth the effort.
3. Toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain
No trip to Rome is complete without tossing a coin into one of the most famous fountains in the world. This was one of the most impressive sights in Rome. It is absolutely beautiful, but be prepared for crowds. It is really nice to see it at night, when it is completely lit up.
4. The Pantheon
This cylindrical building was once a Roman temple. It was built by the emperor Hadrian and it now used as a church. It is one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings.
The center of the dome has an opening to the sky, making it extra special to see in the rain. You won’t spend much time here, but it is still an impressive sight.
5. Piazza Navona
Rome is littered with piazzas, although none are as beautiful of the Piazza Navona with the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) at its center. Piazzas are considered outdoor living rooms in Italy, where you just sit and have a coffee. There is a great toy store that kids would love visiting called Al Sogno.
6. The Vatican
You could spend a full day at the Vatican alone. Within this independent city-state are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. Arrive as early as possible to avoid the crowds. We purchased skip the line tickets and they certainly were worth it here.
We entered through St. Peter’s Square and toured St. Peter’s Basilica first. Don’t miss the the Michelangelo’s Pietà. This statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of her dead son, Jesus Christ in her lap is very touching. This masterpiece was created in 1498 when the artist was just 23 years old. It is his only signed work, as he became so well known, he never had to sign another piece of his work. The Pietà now sits behind bullet proof glass to keep it safe after people have attacked it.
7. Sistine Chapel
While this is a part of the Vatican, it required a ticket of it’s own. We were led through the Vatican on a 10 minute walk to reach the museums. While the museums are extensive and feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures, we were there to see the Sistine Chapel. As 5 million people visit the chapel each year, you can imagine it is very crowded. As it is a holy place, they ask for silence and no photography is allowed. It is a really impressive work of art and I am glad that we suffered through the crowds.
On the way out, I sought out Peter Wenzel’s painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as his portrayal of animals is just beautiful. We also loved the spiral staircase that led to the exit.
8. Eat Pasta at da Enzo
It took us three tries to get into this tiny little trattoria. Located in Trastevere, it is a beautiful walk across the river. Don’t let the plain appearance of restaurants in Rome fool you. Some of the best food is in the least fancy places. We arrived just as they opened so didn’t have trouble getting a table. I would recommend the deep fried artichoke and the cacio e pepe.
9. Find the Aventine Keyhole
Only add this if you have time to spare, because it is a bit of an adventure. We hiked up to the top of a hill with a monastery perched on top. You will know where the keyhole is when you see the line of people waiting for a turn to peek through. The view looks as if you are peering through a secret garden that perfectly frames St. Peter’s Basilica. In the nearby park, there is a very nice view over the city.
10. Put your hand in the mouth of truth (Bocca della Verità)
Made famous by the movie Roman Holiday, people line up for this old school lie detector test. Legend says that the mouth will bite the hand off of liers. Put your hand inside and find out! As you exit through the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, be sure to see the skull of St. Valentine, because, it’s Rome so these things are just sitting around.
11. Drink coffee at Sant’ Eustachio Il Caffè
This cafe is famed for its home-roasted beans which is blended with water from an ancient aqueduct. It is said to be the best coffee- not just in Italy, but in the entire world. Visiting the cafe is an experience in itself. The Italian way it to do shots of espresso while standing around the bar. There is outdoor seating, but you will pay more for the service.
12. Run up the Spanish Steps
While you are no longer allowed to sit on the Spanish Steps (you will get whistled at if you dare), you can still run the 135 steps to the top and enjoy the scenic view. This area of the city is like the Rodeo Drive of Rome, lined with luxury brands and jewelry stores.
Here is what the view looks like from the top…
13. Eat alllll the gelato
I am used to traveling in Asia, where I tend to lose weight. Not in Italy. I think I gained 10 pounds in 4 days. See that brown waterfall wall? That is all chocolate. Just close your eyes and imagine what that smells like. I couldn’t walk past without grabbing one. Venchi is a chain and you will find them all over the city. They had my favorite gelato.
14. Sip an aperol spritz
This Italian wine-based cocktail is dangerously refreshing. I could drink three in a sitting. We did so much walking and touring, each afternoon we would find an adorable little lounge to plant ourselves in and reboot ourselves with a spritz. When in Rome!
15. Wander. Just wander.
The beauty of Rome is hidden in the alley ways. We had purchased hop on, hop off bus passes and never used them once because we loved wandering the streets so much. Out fitbits said that we clocked almost 10 miles a day! It was incredible to me that there were ancient ruins just sitting around and not even in a museum. I remember asking my taxi driver on the way in what something was on the side of the street and he casual told me that it was a Roman bath built in the year 1. How weird does that sound?!
We fit all these sights in just 4 days. Our itinerary was so jam packed, I was exhausted by the end of it. There was just so much to see and I wanted to see it all!