By Jim Ferri
There’s no city like Rome. Anywhere.
In fact, there’s no other city in Europe as chaotic, confusing, crowded, and complicated. And that’s only part of its charm.
There are many places to visit in Rome, a beautiful city built on a layer cake of history, with icing of ancient buildings, myriad museums and galleries, and fountains and monuments around every corner. You can add to that an uncountable number of delizioso ristorantes and cafés, gelato shops and coffee bars.
Rome is always at the top of the list of the top places to visit in Italy. For the first-time visitor with much to see, it’s both exciting and overwhelming.
In fact, there is so much to see that even long-time visitors face an overwhelming choice of things to do. I’ve worked there and have returned for decades, and still feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Every time I return to Rome, I discover something new and incredibly enjoyable. I repeatedly return to its iconic sites, often seeing them from a different perspective each time.
If you’re in Italy, here are top places to visit in Rome – in no particular order – which you should experience.
Also included at the end are five unique experiences that will make your visit extra splendido. For example, how to get an insider’s tips on the city when you don’t know anyone. Or where to find that secret spot in St. Peter’s Square to see an optical illusion. And the excellent restaurant in a spectacular setting that’s not terribly expensive.
Just keep in mind “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” so don’t try to see it in one either. Allocate 3-4 days to enjoy all the Roman places that follow. Five days or a week will be even better.
The Colosseum, the Most Famous Roman Place
Half sports arena, half circus, in ancient Rome the Colosseum was capable of holding more than 50,000 spectators. It’s here where spectacles of the empire reached their peak, with its inauguration followed by 100 days of celebratory games.
With the discovery and excavation of the well-preserved hypogeum, the covered area where animals were kept and gladiators prepared, you can now see a part of the Colosseum unseen for centuries.
It is the most famous Roman place since it remains the symbol of Rome. And, moreover, it is still the blueprint for modern stadium construction all over the world.
About 3,000 years ago, this area adjacent to the Colosseum was a swamp used as a cemetery for the village atop the nearby Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s original seven.
The area was gradually built up and became the heart of ancient Rome. It’s where elections were held, triumphal processions took place, speeches were given, and commercial affairs were undertaken. Although today it’s in ruins there’s still a lot to see including the triumphal Arch of Septimus Severus, House of the Vestal Virgins, and the Arch of Titus, the oldest in Rome.
It’s a good idea to buy a map of the area before you enter. And in the summer try to visit in the morning since the mid-day heat can be brutal.
Built in AD 25, the Pantheon is the best-preserved ancient building in the city, and one of the most beautiful places in Rome. It began life as a pagan temple and was then converted to a Christian church in the 7th century.
It’s a beautiful structure renowned for its dome that’s as tall as it is wide, with an oculus in its center. (Almost 2,000 years after being built, it’s still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome).
Over centuries it’s been sacked by a Roman Emperor, barbarians, and even a Pope, who is said to have melted its bronze panels into cannon for the Castel Sant Angelo.
In its beautiful interior, you’ll find the tombs of two of Italy’s kings and the Renaissance artist Raphael, among others.
It’s an excellent place to visit mid-day since there are plenty of ristorantes and cafés in the area.
St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
120-acre Vatican City is the world’s smallest country and one of the most popular places to visit in Rome. Its small size, however, belies the incredible sightseeing opportunities one finds within its walls.
From the vast Bernini-designed St. Peter’s Square to the Michelangelo-designed copula of St. Peter’s Basilica, one can’t help but be amazed, perhaps even overwhelmed, by the beauty of everything you encounter here. In the Basilica and visit the tomb of St. Peter and other Pontiffs, including that Pope John Paul II.
Also, take the elevator to the roof of the Basilica for a dazzling view of the square below. The non-claustrophobic can climb the very narrow staircase inside the dome for an even more astounding view of the city.
The Vatican Museum is one of the greatest repositories of art in the world. It has numerous collections, each is so important it would befit a separate museum or gallery.
Its treasures include the Raphael Rooms and much more, although the highlight of its collection is the astounding Sistine Chapel. Most people enter the chapel and just stare at the Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece, totally missing others by Roselli, and Botticelli and others, surrounding them. Also seek out the museum’s spiral staircase, itself a work of art.
Although the Vatican Museum is adjacent to St. Peter’s, its entrance is on Viale Vaticano. Book a time-specific entry in advance; the length of the line is legendary.
Fountain of Trevi
One of the most popular places to visit in Rome, and one of the most famous fountains in the world, the Trevi is still best known to movie buffs as a location in such classic movies as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita.
Although the original fountain dates from ancient Rome, the present-day fountain was built in the mid-18th century. After time and tourists took its toll, the fashion house Fendi funded its refurbishment a few years ago.
Be forewarned it is one of the most crowded tourist sites in the city. You find it less crowded at night, however, when it takes on a different aura. According to legend, toss a coin into it to ensure your return to Rome.
The Spanish Steps, a Uniquely Roman Place
The Spanish Steps are located, thankfully, in a car-free area of Rome. The steps connect the Piazza with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti and its church at the top of the hill.
Its construction was funded by funds bequeathed by a French diplomat, and it was named after the nearby Spanish Embassy. On its right side is the former home of English poet John Keats, at its base the Baroque Bernini fountain.
Every year during May, many of 135 steps of the hourglass-shaped stairway are covered with pots of azaleas. At other times of the year, they’re covered with tourists. Try to see this place in Rome in the early morning before the hordes arrive.
If you climb to the top, turn left to reach the gardens of the Villa Borghese and the Villa Medicis (see Special Tips for Rome below).
It’s one of the city’s most famous piazzas (and there are many), but the Piazza Navona doesn’t look like other Roman piazzas. That’s because it was built in a long oblong shape when it was constructed atop a 1st-century 30,000-seat stadium where chariot races were held.
What draws many travelers to this place in Rome is its trio of fountains, the most famous being Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Like most other top sights in the city, it’s often crowded with tourists. Wander about and admire the architecture and art, including that of scores of artists who peddle their canvases here.
As you might expect, there is a score of over-priced restaurants on its perimeter. But it’s worth the price of espresso or glass of wine to enjoy the ambiance.
Capitoline Hill, the Piazza del Campidoglio is one of Rome’s most beautiful spots. About this Michelangelo-designed Piazza are the Capitoline Museums, reputed to be the oldest public museums in the world.
Walk up the steps, and once you pass the statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius astride his horse, you’ll find the Palazzo Nuovo on the left, home to many ancient sculptures. Across from it is the Palazzo dei Conservatori with its displays of classical sculpture and Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
Behind the Palazzo Senatorio, the Piazza’s central building, you’ll find a great view of the Forum unknown to most travelers.
Walk Around the Neighborhoods
This may seem like a cop-out – listing a “go-and-get-lost” walk around Rome as a top thing to do – but actually, it’s not. In fact, when listing places to visit in Rome it probably should be at the top of the list.
Above all else, you’ll find Rome to be street theater on steroids, both from an architectural and a people perspective. Wander through different areas of the city, especially off the main tourist routes, and take a table at an outdoor café. Then just sit and watch scene after scene of La Dolce Vita.
Special Tips for Rome:
– How to Experience Insider’s Rome
We’ve all been there: you arrive in a city and wander about seeing sights gleaned online or from a guidebook. Yes, you see the iconic places, but that’s about it. In reality, however, you could see and enjoy so much more.
What really would make a visit to all the top places in Rome a standout, is a Roman friend to show you around. Someone who knows what to see, where (and what) to eat, and then make the tour unique for you. While that’s usually not easy for many of us, it is doable in Rome with a company called Withlocals.
Withlocals’ tours in Rome hook you up with a local guide for unique tours and activities. Interested in a food or history tour of Rome? A Roman bar crawl? Want to make your own Italian sandals? Enjoy a “Pope, Pizza, Prosecco Tour”? And there’s more…
What I like is that you aren’t just put into a tour group. You choose the local of your choice, and the tour is personalized for you. Better yet, prices start around only €20.
– How to Find a Good Restaurant
Rome is a foodie city. And when you’re searching for good places to visit in Rome, restaurants should feature prominently on the list.
In Rome in the evening, go restaurant roaming. In the many times I’ve visited the city I’ve always enjoyed my discoveries of good restaurants. Most are found while wandering down little alleyways and poking my head into different restaurants to discover some gastronomic delight.
If you want to find a good restaurant in Rome, get off the streets near the main tourist sites. And don’t forget about lunch – start looking for ristorantes that appear interesting mid-day.
In many small restaurants, you can go into the kitchen and choose your meat or fish for the meal. And it’s often worthwhile to appeal to a chef’s vanity – ask him/her to make a favorite that’s not on the menu. Numerous times I’ve been amazed at what came out of the kitchen at a very reasonable price.
I also have a rule of thumb: if I see nuns lunching, I make a note of the restaurant. Who else would know better where to get a good meal on a limited budget in Rome?
– A Great Roman Place For Dining: the Villa Medici
At the top of the Spanish Steps turn left and walk along the gardens of the Villa Borghese. It’s one of the largest parks in Rome. You’ll soon come to the Villa Medici (Viale della Trinità dei Monti, 1), home to the French Academy in Rome.
In addition to its beautiful artistic and cultural splendors, the Villa Medici also has an excellent restaurant, the Colbert. The food is excellent, the ambiance exceptional, and the average price of a meal is €30. All this on a hilltop right in central Rome, with beautiful views of the city.
– The Keyhole With the Secret View of St. Peter’s
A distant Italian cousin of mine surprised me after dinner one night by taking me to this special Roman place. It’s on a small street and the exterior of the building quite plain. When we arrived, he pointed to the nondescript door and said, “Look through the keyhole.”
I did and was astonished. There in the distance was a perfect view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, illuminated in the night sky. The sight, I’m told, is just as spectacular in the daytime.
You’ll find this peek-a-boo view of St. Peter’s at the headquarters of the Knights of Malta on Rome’s Aventine Hill. You’ll be looking across a garden where the bushes perfectly frame the famous Basilica.
– How to Find “That Spot” in St. Peter’s Square
Sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed St. Peter’s Square in 1655, placing rows of columns on the square’s periphery. “That Spot” In St. Peter’s Square is where you can see the optical illusion he created with the columns.
Bernini set 284 rows of columns, each four columns deep. Stand on either of two white marble disks marked “Centro del Colonnato” and each row of four columns appears to merge into one. It’s “Bernini’s Illusion.”
The disks are located between the obelisk and the square’s fountains, and closer to the fountains.
If you go:
Italian Government Tourist Board
630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1565
New York NY 10111
Tel: (212) 245-4822