Last Updated on February 26, 2021 by Jim Ferri
There is no other city like Rome. Anywhere in the world. Anywhere…
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Rome is an enormous layer cake of history, its icing ancient buildings built upon buildings, myriad museums and galleries, fountains and monuments around every corner, and an uncountable number of ristorantes, cafés, gelato shops and coffee bars.
It is chaotic, confusing, and complicated. And that’s only part of its charm, which is why it is one of the top places to visit in Italy.
It is one of the greatest cities in Italy. There is so much to see and do that even long-time visitors face an overwhelming choice of things to do. Hell, I’ve been returning for decades, and I still feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
For the first-time visitor, Rome can be both exciting and overwhelming. To minimize the latter, here is my list of iconic sights first-time visitors may want to experience during a two- or three-day visit. They are not listed in any particular order.
Just keep in mind the old saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” So don’t try to see it in one either.
The Most Popular Thing to Do in Rome: Visit The Colosseum
The Coliseum is so renown it is the symbol of the city. Half sports arena, half circus, in ancient Rome it was capable of holding more than 50,000 spectators. It remains the blueprint for modern stadium construction.
It’s here where the spectacles of ancient Rome reached their peak. In fact, when inaugurated by Emperor Titus it was followed by 100 days of celebratory games.
With the discovery and excavation of the well-preserved hypogeum, the underground area where animals were kept and gladiators prepared, you can now see a part of the Colosseum never before seen.
See the Roman Forum Early in the Day
About 3,000 years ago, this area adjacent to the Colosseum was a swamp used as a cemetery for the village atop the adjacent Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s original seven.
After being drained in the 6th century BC, the area of the Forum 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 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.
See the Pantheon
Built in AD 25, the Pantheon is the best-preserved ancient building in the city, and one of the most beautiful. It began life as a pagan temple and was then converted to a Christian church in the 7th century.
It’s an incredibly beautiful structure renowned for its dome that is as tall as it is wide, within an oculus in its center. Two of Italy’s kings are interred here, as is the Renaissance artist Raphael.
Over the centuries, it has been sacked by the Roman Emperor Constans II (who took its gilded tiles), barbarians, and even Pope Urban VIII, who is said to have melted its bronze panels into cannon for the Castel Sant Angelo.
It’s a good spot to visit mid-day since there are plenty of ristorantes and cafés in the area.
An Incredible Place to See in Rome: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica
120-acre Vatican City is the world’s smallest country. Its small size, however, belies the incredible sightseeing opportunities that 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. Walk about the interior of 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 may want to climb the very narrow staircase inside the cupola for an even more astounding view of the city.
The Top Cultural Site to See in Rome: the Vatican Museum
The Vatican Museum, one of the greatest repositories of art in the world, has numerous collections; each is so important it would befit a separate museum or gallery.
Its treasures include the Raphael Rooms and the museum’s spiral staircase, itself a work of art, although the highlight of its collection is the astounding Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s astounding ceiling fresco. Most people enter the chapel and just stare at the ceiling, totally missing the masterpieces by Roselli, and Botticelli and others, surrounding them.
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.
A Legendary Place to See in Rome: Fountain of Trevi
One of the most famous fountains in the world, the Fountain of 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. Time and tourists have taken a toll on it, and it was closed for some time as the fashion house Fendi financed its refurbishment. It has now reopened to incredible crowds of tourists that flock to it daily.
You’ll often find it less crowded at night when it takes on a different aura. According to legend, toss a coin into it and you’ll ensure your return to Rome.
Visit the Spanish Steps (But Don’t Sit on Them)
Located, thankfully, in a car-free area of Rome, the Spanish Steps connect the Piazza di Spagna 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 it in the early morning before the hordes arrive. Although you’ll likely want to sit on them to take in the entire scene, it’s now illegal and you’ll likely be asked by an official to move.
Relax in the Piazza Navona
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 first-century 30,000-seat stadium where chariot races were held.
What draws many travelers here 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 but it’s still a pleasant place to wander about admiring the architecture and art, including that of scores of artists who peddle their canvases here.
Visit Capitoline Hill
On 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 on the left, once you pass the statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius astride his horse, you’ll find the Palazzo Nuovo, home to many ancient sculptures. Across from it is the Palazzo dei Conservatori with its displays of classical statuary and Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
Walk around to the back of the Palazzo Senatorio, the central building on the Piazza, for a great view of the Forum.
A Most Satisfying Thing to Do in Rome: Walk Around the Neighborhoods
This may seem like a cop-out – listing a “go-and-get-lost” walk around Rome as a top-10 thing to do – but actually it’s not. In fact, it probably should be put at the top of the list.
Above all else you’ll find Rome to be street theater on steroids, both from an architectural and people perspective. Wander through different areas of the city, especially off the main tourist routes, and take a take a table at any outdoor café. Then just sit and watch scene after scene develops all about you.
In the evening go restaurant-roaming. In the many times I’ve visited Rome I’ve always enjoyed my evenings of discovery, wandering down little alleyways and poking my head into different restaurants to discover some gastronomic delight.
A good rule of thumb: if you see nuns having lunch in a restaurant make a note of the address. In Rome who else would know better where to get a good meal on a limited budget?
If you go:
Italian Government Tourist Board
630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1565
New York NY 10111
Tel: (212) 245-4822