It may be a cliché, but there’s no better advice for visitors to the Eternal City than the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”This is where la dolce vita originated, after all. Of course, after more than 2,000 years in existence, there are enough things to do, see, and explore to keep you busy for years, with decadent pasta and gelato to indulge in, places to shop for everything from handicrafts to haute couture, archeological sites, Baroque churches, villas-turned-museums, and enough art to overload your senses.
Admire Ancient Ruins at the Roman Forum
Entering the huge archeological site of the Roman Forum and strolling through the ruins, you can almost imagine the citizens of Ancient Rome walking the cobblestoned streets in togas and bringing sacrifices to the temples. Of course, it helps to have a guide who can bring the stories to life, or you might mistake Augustus’s house for Livia’s, as there are no signs within the complex indicating what’s what.
The site dates back to around 500 B.C., but was enlarged by Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Domitian, and Trajan. In fact, you’ll see remnants of Imperial Rome extending beyond the limits of the Forum to include Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Titus, and the Circus Maximus, just to name a few.
After visiting the Forum, try your luck with the Bocca della Verità, an ancient stone carving of a bearded man’s face. According to myth, it will bite off the hand of anyone not telling the truth.
Visit the Colosseum
The most internationally recognized symbol of Rome, the Colosseum has a long and bloody history. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. It was the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and is believed to have packed up to 50,000 people inside. Despite centuries of neglect—it was used as a quarry until the eighteenth century—it has remained intact (for the most part).
Transport Yourself to Baroque Rome at Piazza Navona
One of the most popular public spaces in Rome, the magnificent, oval-shaped Piazza Navona is lined with restaurants, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and the Museo di Roma inside the Renaissance Palazzo Braschi. The city’s Baroque art is on full display here. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi features exquisitely carved figures representing the world’s four great rivers, and legend has it that the figure with his arms extended is recoiling in horror from the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini, Bernini’s rival.
The Pantheon – the best preserved monument of Roman antiquity – is remarkably intact for its 2000 years. This is despite the fact that Pope Gregory III removed the gilded bronze roof tiles, and Pope Urban VIII ordered its bronze roof stripped and melted down to cast the canopy over the altar in St. Peter’s and cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo. The Pantheon was rebuilt after damage by fire in AD 80, and the resulting brickwork shows the extraordinarily high technical mastery of Roman builders. Its 43-meter dome, the supreme achievement of Roman interior architecture, hangs suspended without visible supports – these are well hidden inside the walls – and its nine-meter central opening is the building’s only light source. The harmonious effect of the interior is a result of its proportions: the height is the same as the diameter. Although the first Christian emperors forbade using this pagan temple for worship, in 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated it to the Virgin and all the Christian martyrs, and since then, it has become the burial place of Italian kings (Victor Emmanuel II is in the second niche on the right) and other famous Italians, including the painter Raphael.
The Vatican Museums
Among the largest museum complexes in existence, the Vatican Museums contain some of the most significant classical sculptures and Renaissance works of art in the world. The museums contain around 70,000 works of art that were collected by Popes throughout the centuries. They are most famous for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms (containing The School of Athens) and the Map Room.
Erected on the banks of the Tiber River, this cylindrical fortress was built by Roman emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family in the 2nd century AD. Due to its proximity to the Vatican, the tomb was subsequently used by the popes as a fortress and castle. It also includes a secret corridor that connects it to Vatican City and two popes used it as an escape route in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today the structure is a museum that offers a great view onto St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance.
Santa Maria Maggiore
One of Rome’s most majestic churches, Santa Maria Maggiore has stood here since the fourth-century Pope Liberius had a vision of the Virgin directing him to build a church where snow fell the following day. Although it was August, snow did fall on the Esquiline hill the next morning, so here the great basilica was built. Mass has been celebrated here every day since the fifth century. The three aisles of its 86-meter-long interior are separated by 40 columns of marble and four of granite, and the apse added in the 13th century is lined with mosaics of Old and New Testament themes, masterpieces of Rome’s famous mosaic artists.
Circus Maximus, was an ancient stadium for chariot racing constructed in the 6th century. Like the Colosseum, it was used for games and gladiator fights and was one of the city’s most important public spaces. It is strategically located under the Palatine and Aventine hills and today is used for large concerts and events.
Terme di Caracalla
The ancient city of Rome had hundreds of bath structures and the Terme di Caracalla are the most impressive remains that shed light on these important culture spaces. The Baths were built in the 3rd century AD and were the second largest public baths in the city, originally covering 25 hectares (62 acres). Today, the Rome Opera hosts its summer operas and ballets inside the ruins.
Via Appia, or the Appian Way, is one of the most famous and strategically important roads in Ancient Rome. Built by emperor Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BC, it connected Rome to Campania and southern Italy, and was especially useful for transporting military supplies. It’s incredibly well-preserved and visitors can still take a walk through history by walking upon the original stones.
Campo de’ Fiori
Campo de’ Fiori literally translates to “field of flowers” because this piazza used to be a meadow in the Middle Ages. Today, it is a busy marketplace that hosts a daily market and boasts numerous shops and restaurants. The square began to be developed in the 15th century and hosted public executions. One of the most notable figures who was condemned in Campo de’ Fiori was philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt alive for heresy. A statue in the center of the piazza pays tribute to his sacrifice.
More Must-See Destinations in and near Rome
When you have seen the ancient sites, museums and palaces, Vatican City, and the churches of Rome, you’ll want to explore some of the city’s surroundings. The town of Tivoli lies 30 kilometers east of Rome, with Hadrian’s Villa and one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Just beyond is ancient Rome’s port of Ostia. Farther afield, some of the best places to visit in Italy are an easy distance for day trips from Rome. Vibrant Naples is just over an hour by train, and from here, it’s easy to get to both the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, one of the top attractions in Italy. Sorrento, the beautiful Amalfi Coast, and the idyllic island of Capri are all close to Naples, as is the island of Ischia, where you’ll find some of the best beaches in Italy.