Roma… la città eterna… a city filled with history, with fashion, with romance, and with food… oh, so much delicious food. Rome is truly a delight for the senses!
The thing to know about Rome is that it is essentially an open-air museum, and walking around the city, you encounter tons of history, monuments, statues, and fountains that will keep you wondering what is around every corner. It also means that many things to do in Rome are free! This means traveling here, you can get by on a shoestring budget or go all out if that’s more your style. Rome has so much to offer, and you will never run out of things to do and see! I’ve collected a few of my must-sees in the eternal city for you.
First on this list is, of course, the Colosseum – that’s Colosseo in Italian – and for good reason. The Coliseum is rich in history, architecture, and beauty. Be forewarned: the construction and history of the Colosseum is sordid. Commissioned by Emperor Vespasian around 70 CE, enslaved Jewish people began to build the incredible marble ampitheatre. When it opened in 80 CE, it was called Amphitheatrum Flavium: the Flavian Ampitheater. Its 80 arched entryways allowed its 50,000 spectators to enter and exit the ampitheater in under 10 minutes time, which is much faster than I’ve ever exited an arena! Let’s take a walk through the Colosseum in the time of the gladiatorial fights…
We began our tour of the Colosseum in its underground, coming through the gate where they would usher in large animals and some enslaved people for combat. We weaved our way through the underground hallways, where we saw rooms where they kept the smaller animals, the sewer system, and the areas carved out of the rock for elevator poles. These were used as a pulley system to bring gladiators up through the arena floor, much like how a rockstar will appear on stage at a concert! These gladiatorial fights were very much meant to be entertainment; the crowds would bet on their favorite gladiators and come to see animals from as far away as Africa and the Middle East!
The Colosseum was truly a gathering place for the Roman people, and while the ampitheater has been damaged over time, with pieces of marble stolen for use in the construction of other famous places around Rome (more on that later), the Colosseum remains a beautiful architectural piece of history for us to enjoy today!
If you would like to tour the Colosseum’s underground (which has recently opened up so that you can walk all the way across), stand on the Arena floor, and explore the historical ruins, consider booking this tour ahead of time. We learned so much on this tour, and we absolutely loved it!
Right next to the Colosseum, you can walk even backwards in time at the Roman Forum, or Foro Romano in Italian. The history of this place begins with the founding of Rome, with the story of the Twins and the She-Wolf. Legend has it that twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, were found and suckled by a She-Wolf on the Tiber River, which runs through Rome. In their adulthood, Romulus and Remus had a fight about where to build a new city, with Romulus preferring Palatine Hill and Remus liking Aventine Hill better. Romulus killed his twin brother, and thus, in 753 BCE, founded the city of Rome.
The Roman Forum is set on Palatine Hill, where Romulus once founded his city. Here, you can walk on roads that are thousands of years old, uncovered through archaeological digs in the area. You can also view the Curia, the Senate house, several temples and basilicas, and the House of the Vestal Virgins. The Roman Forum is expansive, and we highly recommend a guided tour to learn about the spectacular ruins you are looking at. We spent over two hours in the Roman Forum and just scratched the surface of its history. We learned about the rise and fall of the Empire, what it was like for people of varying classes and backgrounds in the Roman Empire, and more.
If you want a good view of the Roman Forum without paying for the entry ticket, there are several viewing spots overlooking the Forum on Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Travel Tip: Our favorite spot overlooking the Forum was at the Belvedere di Via Monte Tarpeo, which is tucked around a corner in the Campidoglio (The Capitol).
Fontana di Trevi
Can you go to Rome without tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain? It turns out you can be so excited to see it that you completely forget until it’s too late… Oops! The Trevi Fountain is absolutely breathtaking, and while it is crowded for most of the day, it is absolutely worth a stop. Fed by acqueducts built in 19 BCE, this masterpiece was built in the 1700s using travertine and carrera marble to depict the Roman god Oceanus and it is one of the greatest Baroque-style fountains in existence.
The common belief is that if you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you’re guaranteed a return to Rome? However, it’s important to note that you’re supposed to throw the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder for this to work! The lore also says that if you toss two coins, you will find love, and to toss three coins into the fountain is to wish to marry there. As the Romans say, In bocca al lupo!
This is the Italian way to say “Good luck.” It translates to “In the mouth of the wolf.” If an Italian ever wishes you luck in this way, respond, “Crepi!” which translates to “May it die!” Your response seals the good luck!
Next on our tour of the Eternal City is the spectacular Piazza Navona. This large, magnificent square is a sight to behold. Boasting three fountains, with the central fountain designed by famous Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, there is much beauty to be found in this massive public space.
Personally, we loved taking some time to sit near the fountains as we ate our afternoon gelato. There is a wonderful gelateria just off of Piazza Navona called GROM, which has seasonal flavors that come out of the wonderful silver gelato bins that are one of the signs of a good gelateria. Personally, I love stracciatella (chocolate chip), fior di latte, and cioccolato extranoir (dark chocolate). Which flavor will you choose?
The Pantheon, a former Roman temple to all gods, is one of the most wonderful pieces of architecture in Rome, and one of the best preserved Roman buildings. After the original burned down, Emperor Hadrian commissioned the current building to be rebuilt in the same location as the original, and its dome has provided inspiration for many others of its kind all over the world. Two places that have been inspired by the Pantheon are the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as the Pantheon in Paris.
More recently, it has been used as a Catholic church, and is the resting place for famous Italians such as King Vittorio Emanuele II, the painter Raphael, and more. While it is still used for mass on Sundays and other religious events, it is mostly visited by tourists hoping to view the interior, which is quite beautiful!
Just north of the hustle and bustle of the busy historical center, you will find a slice of paradise at Villa Borghese. It is one of the largest green spaces in Rome, where you will find small lakes, temples, a museum/art gallery, and even Rome’s zoo. There is so much to see and explore within the Villa Borghese, but we’ll focus on the parco and museo.
This park is lush, green, and so beautiful. The most picturesque spot was overlooking the lake, where you can rent boats to row under the Temple of Asclepius. Whether you’re rowing or watching, the views are lovely. I highly suggest bringing a picnic lunch, finding a spot and settling in for a while before meandering through the park to the museum.
At the Borghese Gallery and Museum, you will discover art that will make your jaw drop to the floor. Truly, the works there are spectacular! While there are paintings and sculptures by Italian artists aplenty, including Raphael, Caravaggio, and Canova, the pieces that stood out most to me were created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He took slabs of marble and turned them into some of the most incredibly detailed sculptures I have ever seen! My favorite was Apollo and Daphne, which depicts the scene in their story in which the nypmh Daphne turns herself into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s desperate pleas for affection. The details in her hands and feet, which are mid-transformation, were truly incredible.
Other stunning pieces featured in the galleria are Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina and David, Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte, Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing and Boy with a Basket of Fruit, and Raphael’s Lady with a Unicorn. There is so much more to see within the walls of these galleries, and if you’re interested in Baroque art, it is certainly worth a visit!
If you’re interested in visiting all that this museum has to offer, grab your tickets here.
Piazza di Spagna + Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti
Another spectacular piazza in Rome is the Piazza di Spagna, which highlights include the Spanish Steps and the Bernini-designed Fontana della Barcaccia. This area of Rome was a favorite for ex-pats, including the Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Blythe Shelley. Keats came to Rome in the hopes of escaping his consumption (tuberculosis), but unfortunately passed at the young age of 25, and is buried across the city in the Cimiterio Acattolico, the non-Catholic Cemetery. He is buried near Shelley, who died only a year later, and this home where they stayed is dedicated to their lives and poetry.
The Spanish Steps, which connect Piazza di Spagna below to the church Trinità dei Monti above, are famous in their own right. The 135 steps were featured in Roman Holiday, and Audrey Hepburn herself once sat on these steps, eating what I can only presume is amazing gelato. While you can’t sit on the steps these days (it’s against the law, and you will likely have to pay a steep fine), you can walk up and down the marble steps as much as you would like to!
Do you remember when I told you that other parts of Rome were creating using the marble nicked from the Colosseum? Well, here it is! Some of the marble used to build this magnificent staircase came from a local “quarry”: the Colosseum itself!
While technically the Vatican City isn’t in Rome – it’s an entirely separate country, actually – it is certainly worth a stop during your time in the eternal city.
Being a center of religious pilgrimage, the Vatican City can get crowded. I highly, highly recommend an early morning tour of the Musei Vaticani, but the early wake up call is worth it when you have the opportunity to view the Sistine Chapel before the general public is allowed entrance.
The Musei Vaticani is one of the largest museums in the world, and it’s rather like a maze to get around, so we found that having a tour guide was incredibly helpful in getting around the museum. We also were able to gain exclusive entry to certain parts of the museum, viewing art and mosaics that are only accessible to certain guides. We were able to see some mosaics that had been transferred from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, and they were magnificent!
One piece of art that is particularly important to the Musei Vaticani is Laocoön and His Sons. It was sculpted in the Greek Hellenistic Period, around 200 BCE. This ancient Greek sculpture provided inspiration for Renaissance artists, like Michaelangelo: painter of the Sistine Chapel himself! For this reason, Laocoön and His Sons is considered to be one of the most important pieces of art on display at the museums.
We were able to see some of the museum’s contemporary art on our way into the Sistine Chapel, including some pieces by Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalì, Vincent Van Gogh, and more. There are more thatn 70,000 pieces of art within the museum, so plan to spend at least a few hours touring the grounds.
After touring the museums and being stunned by the Sistine Chapel, head over to St. Peter’s Basilica, where you will see more stunning sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Michaelangelo’s Pietà, and take in the beauty of the basilica. Look up and around at the beautiful art on the walls. While these look like paintings, they are actually incredibly detailed mosaics. Italy is known for their ceramics and marble, and St. Peter’s Basilica is possibly the most extravagant example of what can be done with both!
To gain a closer look at the mosaics above, and to gain incredible views of Rome, head up to the Cupola and the dome of the Basilica! There is a charge to head up – bring euros, as it makes the line go faster. You have two options: take an elevator part of the way up for €10, or walk up all 551 stairs to the top for €8. Taking the stairs can be a lot, but if you take your time, it’s well worth it! Just look at the views over Piazza San Pietro. Magnifico!
These are my Rome Must Sees, but this has barely scratched the surface of all that Rome has to offer. There is so much more to explore and discover in Rome; there is a treasure around every corner. Interested in exploring beyond Rome? Check out these posts:
Happy travels, darlings!
Disclaimer: I have scattered some GetYourGuide affiliate links throughout this post. If you book a tour through these links, I will make a small commission. I only ever link tours that I have experienced and loved!