Rome is a bucket list destination for many travelers. The Eternal City offers so much to see and do that no single list of “25 things to do in Rome” can capture every wonderful experience you can enjoy here. But if you are in Rome for a limited time (we spent almost four full days here), my list offers a great compilation to start you off on an exploration of the city. So read on to discover the 25 best things to do in Rome on your first visit!
Rome is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its allure begins with the drama surrounding its founding. Romulus and Remus, babes abandoned and suckled by a she-wolf, were eventually brought up by a shepherd. The brothers grew up to be strong leaders. As adults, they reportedly disagreed on where to found the Roman Empire. Romulus killed his brother, founded Rome on Palatine Hill, and became the first king of the city that is named after him.
Over the centuries, numerous stunning structures were erected in Rome. From the spectacular monuments of ancient Rome to the churches and palaces of Baroque Rome, you will find a treasure trove here if you love history, art, architecture and culture. But Rome is a fun place to visit even if you are not an avid history or art buff, with fabulous food, wonderful wine, endless people watching opportunities, outdoor activities, and great shopping options.
25 BEST THINGS TO DO IN ROME
Although my list includes things you absolutely must do on your first visit, I would happily do all of them on a repeat visit as well. The monuments of Rome are classic, many large in scale, and come with copious historical backgrounds. So even at your second or third visit, you’ll find plenty more to appreciate at the classic attractions, while making time for new discoveries. So here is my list of the 25 best things to do in Rome:
#1 Get Your Fill of Fabulous Art
If you are an admirer of the Baroque sculptor Bernini, head to the Galleria Borghese to view some of his seminal works. You’ll see his famous Apollo and Daphne, the Rape of Proserpine, and David here. The Galleria Borghese contains works by many other greats such as Titian, Raphael, Rubens, and Caravaggio.
You must have advance reservations to enter, and you must show up on time for your reserved two-hour slot. We booked online, several weeks ahead of our visit. Or you can opt for a guided tour. The Galleria Borghese participates in the Roma Pass program.
This collection is stunning, and you must definitely add it to your list of things to do in Rome if you love art and art history.
#2 Climb the Cupola of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican City
If you love panoramic views, you must put this difficult but rewarding climb on your list of the best things to do in Rome on your first visit. Once you get to the top, all of Rome is literally at your feet! Don’t forget your camera or smartphone when you make this climb, and check heavy bags in at the desk downstairs.
From the viewing gallery at the top of Michelangelo’s dome, you get fabulous views of St. Peter’s Square below, the gardens of the Vatican, the Vatican Museums, the rooftops of Rome, and the River Tiber.
The climb isn’t easy, even with an elevator that takes you part of the way, depositing you on a terrace from where you can get an up-close look at the exterior of the dome. Then you climb stairs to get to the balcony in the interior of the dome. From the balcony, you get great views of the floor of the Basilica below, the main altarpiece, and the frescoes on the interior ceiling of the dome.
Then it’s up a narrow staircase of steep steps to the top, where you can draw in great gulps of air and stare awestruck at the views. Trust me, once you reach the top, you’ll not begrudge the leg-busting climb!
#3 Visit the Temple to All Gods
The Pantheon is one of the coolest structures you’ll see anywhere on the planet. Built over 2,000 years ago, it still stands solid, and continues to function as an active church. How remarkable is that?
The massive dome of the Pantheon is the largest unsupported dome in the world. It is larger than the dome of St. Peter’s! And you won’t see any windows anywhere in this building. The only light streams in from the oculus, the hole at the very top of the ceiling.
You’ll be awe struck by the vastness of the interior. Here you’ll see the tomb of the Renaissance artist Raphael, as well as Italian royalty and poets. The ceiling originally had a lot of bronze in it, but Pope Urban VIII had it all melted, changing its look forever.
The stunning portico with its Marcus Agrippa inscription is supported by sixteen huge Corinthian columns, brought here all the way from Egypt. Don’t miss the beautiful Fountain of the Pantheon outside.
#4 Pose for a photo on the Spanish Steps
If you’ve wondered why the famous steps of Rome are called the Spanish Steps, it’s because they were built to connect the Spanish Embassy and the Piazza di Spagna below with the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. “Meet me at the Spanish Steps!” has been a refrain in Rome since when the steps were built. They are such a convenient and popular spot to meet and be seen!
There are 135 steps, and they look gorgeous as they fan out against the backdrop of the church. Your first visit to Rome won’t feel complete unless you’ve sat a while on the steps, chatting with your travel companions. So it’s definitely an item to add to your list of the best things to do in Rome! Be warned though: you can’t picnic on the steps.
If you want photos with fewer people in them, your best chance is early in the day. The only time we saw the steps even remotely free of people was really early in the morning.
#5 Eat gelato at the best gelaterias in Rome!
No matter where you are in Rome, chances are you’ll find a great gelateria near you. In our four days in Rome, we probably sampled the offerings at twelve gelato shops!
For the most decadent gelato you’ll ever eat, you’ll have a walk a little ways from the historic center to Come il Latte. With a name meaning “like milk,” this gelateria serves up creamy goodness in every scoop. Not only are the flavors delicious, you get white or dark chocolate swirled around in your cone before the gelato is scooped in. And you can opt to top off your gelato with fresh whipped cream and a crisp cookie. The result is a sweet treat you won’t forget in a hurry.
Other gelaterias I loved? Fatamorgana, near the Piazza del Popolo. Gelateria dei Gracchi, near the Vatican. Origini, near the Pantheon. And Gelateria I Caruso, just around the corner from Come il Latte.
#6 Marvel at the interior of the Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
There are several beautiful churches you must include in your list of the best things to do in Rome, and one of the most impressive is the Cathedral-Church of St. John Lateran.
The exterior is deceptive: once you enter, you will be blown away by the ornate gilded beauty of the ceilings, the art on the walls, and the sheer opulence of the interior.
Note the large statues of the twelve Apostles: Judas was replaced by St. Paul. The statues were the work of multiple sculptors of Baroque Rome, and they are a striking feature of the church.
Make sure your shoulders and knees are covered when you visit, or you might be turned away. This is true for all the churches in Rome.
#7 See Michelangelo’s Moses at the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli
The famous statue of Moses is reason enough to visit this gem of a church. You’ll be able to appreciate the maestro’s work without, for the most part, having to deal with crowds of tourists jockeying for selfies. When we visited, there were just a handful of devotees worshiping in the church. Donate the modest fee to have the sculpture illuminated so you can take in the details.
The church itself is beautiful. You can see the chains of St. Peter under the main altar. The lovely coffered ceiling has at its center the The Miracle of the Chains fresco. It shows Pope Alexander healing the goiter of St. Balbina by touching her neck with the chains that once bound St. Peter.
And the walk from the center through the “real” neighborhoods of Rome to get to this church is wonderful.
#8 Enjoy a stroll in the Piazza Navona
In the evenings, it can seem like all of Roma is congregated at this famous piazza. It is a wonderful place to stroll at night, people watching and enjoying the lit fountains. Piazza Navona was historically the venue for parades and shows in Rome, and today it’s no less a source of entertainment.
Architecturally, you’ll see the best of Baroque Rome on display here, with contributions from the two major architects of the time, Bernini and Borromini. Occupying pride of place in the center is Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers.
The Fountain of Neptune and the Fountain of the Moor are on either side. The church that dominates the square is Sant’Agnese in Agone. Borromini, Bernini’s bitter rival and major competitor for commissions in Rome, is credited with much of the design of the church.
Although the stunning architecture is a bonus, you will experience Piazza Navona at its best by just being there, soaking in Rome. You will definitely want to include an evening here on your list of the best things to do in Rome!
#9 Sample treats at the morning market at Campo de’ Fiori
Campo de’ Fiori translates of Field of Flowers: the area got its name because apparently this spot was a meadow in the Middle Ages. Whether that’s true or not, the Campo de’ Fiori is definitely one of the places you go to get fresh flowers in today’s Rome.
A daily fresh produce and foods market has been held in this square all the way since 1869! A much better use of the square than the previous one: it was a spot for many public executions. Today you can get not just fresh veggies, fruit, and flowers, but also meats and fish, truffles, oils and vinegars, cheeses, fresh pastas, fresh squeezed juice, and prepared treats and souvenirs geared toward tourists.
Stroll around and take in the sights and sounds of a morning market and sample some treats. We enjoyed some fresh bread, cheese, and olive oil from the market.
#10 Be awed by the Basilica di San Pietro
Visiting the Papal Basilica di San Pietro, the stunning Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City, should be at the top of your list of things to do in Rome. The sheer scale of the largest church in the world will leave you awe struck. So large is St. Peter’s Square that the hundreds of people you see milling around feel like ants. The interior is enormous as well.
Walk around the interior on the marble floor of the church, admiring the beautiful colors and gilding, the architectural elements, and the sculptures and reliefs. Take a few minutes to pay homage to the master sculptor Michelangelo as you gaze in awe at his Pietà, poetry in Carrara marble. Be entranced by the huge bronze canopy over the main altar by Bernini. And gaze up to admire the interior of Michelangelo’s dome.
If you have the time, return to see the dome lit up at night. It is a sight that will stay with you for a long time.
#11 Gawk at the Colosseum
The Colosseum definitely ranks up there as a bucket-list item to check off when you visit Rome. I know I waited with bated breath for my first look at it in person! Every time you pass by the Colosseum, you cannot help but be taken aback at what it must have taken to construct the huge structure all those years ago.
The Colosseum played host to an average of 65,000 spectators when events were held here. Used for everything from gladiator contests to executions and theater in the ancient to early medieval times, the structure was later relegated to more mundane uses such as housing. Sadly, a lot of the stone from the Colosseum was stolen, and earthquakes damaged it as well, leaving the well-known partial structure we recognize today.
You should opt for the underground tour if you can, to learn about the history, and visit the lower levels. You’ll get to skip the inevitable long line as well.
#12 Try cacio e pepe, Rome’s famous pasta dish
Every part of Italy has a definitive pasta dish, and in Rome, one of the four signature pastas is cacio e pepe, which translates to simply cheese and pepper. The dish is supremely simple and has just three ingredients: tonnarelli, a long pasta made in the Lazio and Abruzzo regions of Italy, pecorino, a sheep’s milk hard cheese, and pungent aromatic fresh cracked black pepper.
When cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of pasta water coating the noodles, the dish is sublime. Where should you try cacio e pepe in Roma? Here are some of my favorite places:
Pigneto Quarantuno is a 10-minute taxi ride from the historic center, and you will love the creamy traditional rendering of this iconic dish. Hostaria Romana is a 20-minute walk from the Colosseum, and serves lots of classic dishes, including a delicious version of cacio e pepe. Da Felice in Testaccio offers drama with taste: your server tosses the dish in your presence, combining the ingredients into the perfect plate of pasta for you.
Other than cacio e pepe, if you visit in the spring, you must try the famous carciofi alla giudia, fried artichokes, and fiori di zucca fritti, fried zucchini blossoms, plain or sometimes stuffed with cheese.
#13 Throw that coin into the Fontana di Trevi!
You’ll be impressed by the size of the Trevi Fountain when you see it in person. It is huge: the largest fountain in a city full of large fountains. The statues in the famous fountain are made of Carrara marble. You see bearded Ocean in the center, sitting in his chariot pulled by two horses. On either side are statues of Abundance and Health.
Your only chance of appreciating Trevi Fountain in any semblance of quiet is very early in the morning. At most other times of the day, it is beyond elbow room only, as tourists wielding selfie sticks jam the area. So sacrifice some early morning zzzs and make your way at daybreak to get your fill of the Fontana di Trevi. You should pass by again at night to see it lit up.
Don’t forget to throw a coin into the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder to ensure your return to the Eternal City!
#14 Visit the Musei Vaticani, despite the crowds!
You will have to resign yourself to having to wade through huge crowds to see the gorgeous ceilings and world-class art at the Vatican Museums. Definitely reserve a spot on an early access tour so that you deal with fewer people at least when trying to absorb the scale and beauty of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. No photos are allowed, so you can focus on just viewing it.
There are way too many museums in the complex to appreciate in one visit, so after the Sistine Chapel, you will get to see the highlights if you are part of a guided tour.
If you visit on your own, do not miss the Raphael exhibits. The beautiful frescoes in the four rooms, which include the famous School of Athens, will take your breath away.
Make sure to look up as you progress through the complex: the ceilings are spectacular. And when you exit look for the Vatican guards in their colorful costumes.
#15 Wander around the Roman Forum…
You will love walking around the ruins of the Roman Forum. This was the heart of the city for hundreds of years, serving as the stage for meetings, processions, public trials, and contests. You can feel history all around you, more so perhaps than any other part of this history-filled city.
Did you know that Marc Antony’s famous speech on Julius Caesar’s death was delivered here at the Forum? In the year 44 BC! Here also the public burning of Caesar’s body took place. By the eighth century, the Forum was already falling apart, its glory days gone forever.
Do not miss what’s left of the impressive Temple of Saturn…only eight columns remain, but you can get a sense for how impressive the early temple must have been when whole.
#16 …And climb Palatine Hill for wonderful views
Palatine Hill towers over the Roman Forum. It is one of the seven hills upon which Rome was built, and you will definitely want to include climbing to the top of Palatine Hill in your list of things to do in Rome. Here’s where the she-wolf is supposed to have come upon Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.
The higher points on the hill offer gorgeous views on both sides. From one side you look down on Circus Maximus and across at Aventine Hill. From the other, you get a bird’s eye view of the ruins of the Forum as well as views over the city, clear across to St. Peter’s dome in the distance. You can see the Colosseum from here as well, and Capitoline Hill.
Planted with lots of olives, other trees, roses and other flower bushes, Palatine Hill is a lovely green space in the historical center. I loved the time we spent here!
#17 Explore the lovely Piazza del Popolo
Anchoring one end of the Via Corso, the main street through Rome’s historical center, Piazza del Popolo deserves a spot on your list of the best things to do in Rome. View the tall slender Flaminio Obelisk in the center of the plaza. Admire the twin domes of the Santa Maria di Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli churches. Watch street performers ply their art. People watch.
If you have the time, climb the steps at the edge of the piazza to the Pincio overlook for great views of the square. Or walk around the square and view the fountains up close.
Don’t miss two beautiful works by Caravaggio in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo: the Conversion of St. Paul, and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. The rest of this basilica is beautiful as well.
#18 Browse the designer shops at Via Condotti
If you love to shop, head to Via Condotti at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. This is the most famous shopping street in Rome, on par with Fifth Avenue in New York City or Bond Street in London. Boasting stores of top Italian labels such as Gucci, Prada, and Bulgari, Via Condotti will enthrall you, whether you are actively shopping or just browsing.
If you visit Rome during the holidays, you will find Via Condotti sparkling even more, with holiday lights everywhere, and shoppers out enjoying the special time of year.
For more Italian brands, scout the streets on either side of Via Condotti: Via Borgognona and Via delle Carrozze. Here you will find labels such as Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Bruno Cucinelli.
#19 Experience Trastevere in the evening!
Visit Trastevere, one of Rome’s most iconic neighborhoods, in the evening, when it comes alive. It is lively and bustling, with street performers at every corner, and soft light making the warm yellows and oranges of the walls glow. You will love getting lost in Trastevere’s charming streets. Don’t miss viewing the gorgeous church of Santa Maria, beautifully lit up.
If you love photography, you should also visit during the day to capture the lovely streets and warm colors of the houses. It is a quiet place during the day, and you can do lunch and a photo walk.
Trastevere is on the other side of the River Tiber from the historic center, so it’s convenient to visit on the day you tour St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums. Of course, you can also choose to base yourself in Trastevere for a true Rome neighborhood experience!
#20 Take the lift to the top at Monumento de Vittorio Emanuele II
You will pass by this huge white monument several times during your time in Rome, because it is so centrally located. Anchoring the incredibly busy Piazza Venezia, where crossing the street is an adventure unto itself, the monument is somewhat controversial. Locals sometimes refer to it derisively as “the wedding cake.”
But there is no dissent on one thing: that the views from the top of the monument are simply breathtaking. Take the lift to the top. There’s a fee, but well worth it.
I actually thought the monument looked lovely at twilight, with the setting sun mellowing the brilliant white marble. Walk to the island in the middle of the piazza to get good photos of the building.
#21 Experience Via del Corso at night
The Via del Corso, from which you access many of the attractions in the historic center, is a historic road. It connects the Piazza del Popolo and the northern entrance to the city with the Piazza Venezia in the south. Lined with stores, cafes, and restaurants on both sides, Via del Corso is incredibly crowded all through the day. On this road, you can literally hear the heart of Rome beating.
Walk the street in the evening, like the locals taking their passegiatta. Enjoy the free entertainment all around you. Apart from people watching, you can stop to see sidewalk artists creating their works on the pavement, and street performers doing their acts. Window shop, or stop for a drink at one of the sidewalk cafes. You can pick up souvenirs here as well.
#22 Take in the views from Gianicolo Hill at sunset
You can walk up to the top of the Colle del Gianicolo, or zip up to the top on a Vespa, or take a taxi. Any way you go, you will love the gorgeous views from the top. You get a panoramic view of the city from one spot and of St. Peter’s Basilica from another.
This hill, also known as Janiculum, is across the Tiber, and not one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. It is very near the Vatican and Trastevere. Here you will see a statue of Garibaldi on horseback, as well as busts of various other Italian heroes.
Coming up here at sunset is truly special. You will get beautiful photos, and the memory of the city bathed in the glow of the setting sun is one you will cherish forever. I always love to get a bird’s eye view of the city on my last evening from a quiet place, and Gianicolo is one of the best spots in Rome for this last view of the city.
#23 Get up close to noteworthy nuggets
History and art are everywhere in Rome. As you walk to and from major monuments, take the time to appreciate smaller yet no less interesting works.
Stop to view the impressive Column of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza Colonna. You will find the detail on the relief amazing. Even more interesting, the column is actually hollow, and people would climb to the top in times past! Just thinking about that gives me an attack of claustrophobia.
Or walk across to Trajan’s Forum to gaze up at the equally impressive Trajan’s Column. It has the story of Trajan’s wars running up the column in a spiral. Or pop over to the Piazza Mattei, just a two-minute walk from the Piazza Venezia, to view the Turtle Fountain. Bernini inserted the four turtles in place of the dolphins envisioned by the original creator of the fountain, more than 100 years after the fountain was created! Or look for the Aventine Keyhole, for the perfect cameo of St. Peter’s Dome!
Near the Pantheon, you will find the Elephant and Obelisk statue designed by Bernini, in the Piazza della Minerva. The obelisk was actually excavated in the cloister of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva that presides over the square. A lovely little bit of history, and one of the many smaller treasures of Rome!
#24 Walk the Ponte Sant’Angelo at night
Many of Rome’s stunning monuments take on an added luster when you see them lit at night. But my favorite night walk memory from Rome is viewing the lit dome of the Basilica di San Pietro from the Ponte Sant’Angelo. When I think about our visit to the Eternal City, that’s the first image that comes to mind.
You’ll find the bridge itself stunning. It’s made of travertine marble! Stop to admire each of the ten angel statues that adorns the bridge, all designed by Bernini. Two of the angels were sculpted by Bernini and his son, although the ones on the bridge are copies. You can see the originals at the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. Each of the angels is shown holding something: a column, a cross, a crown of thorns, and so on.
Castel Sant’Angelo looks gorgeous lit up as well, glowing gold against the night sky. Although you will find the bridge quieter at night than by day, you will still see lots of people enjoying the walk.
#25 Walk the ancient Appian Way
Walking part of the via Appia Antica, one of the world’s oldest highways, should definitely be on your list of the best things to do in Rome. This important road connected Rome with many of its distant settlements, leading all the way to Brindisi in Puglia. The first ten miles of the road in Rome are now a park, auto free on Sundays.
You can take the bus to see the Appian Way: bus 118 travels a good section of the Appian Way and stops at the Colosseum on all days except Sundays, when you can take it from the Circus Maximus stop. It runs about every 20 minutes. You can also take a taxi, but on the way back, negotiate a fare before you step into the vehicle. You can also opt for a guided tour.
Getting around in Rome
Expect to be on your feet a lot. The historic center of Rome is eminently walkable, and walking in Rome provides on-the-go entertainment as well. Plus, it’s a great way to work off all those calories from the delicious pasta and wine meals and gelato crawls.
But of course, you may not want to walk all day, and not all the best sights can be reached conveniently on foot. Your best option for public transport is the bus system. Buses run 24 hours a day and cover the entire city. Arm yourself with a city map that has bus routes listed. You can buy single use tickets or passes that are good for 1, 3 or 7 days. The Roma 48- or 72-hour Pass offers free bus, metro, and tram rides. You can also use taxis, which tend to be plentiful in tourist hotspots. You have to walk to the taxi stand and get into the first one in the line.
When to visit Rome
Like other large cities and tourist venues in Italy, Rome can get uncomfortably crowded in the summer months. So the best months to visit are April and October, when the weather is pleasant and the crowds less. The winter months aren’t too bad from a weather perspective although you will need layers and a warm coat.
Where to stay in Rome
We stayed in a fabulous luxury apartment just off the Via del Corso near the Spanish steps. I found it on VRBO. You can find beautiful apartments in Rome and they make a good option, with more space and the opportunity to cook a meal with fresh local ingredients if you so choose.
If you prefer a hotel, you have a huge list of luxury options to choose from. Located at the top of the Spanish Steps, the Hotel Hassler offers spectacular views, contemporary rooms, and a Michelin-starred restaurant. The Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria offers stunning views as well. La Pergola, Rome’s only restaurant boasting three Michelin stars, is located in the Cavalieri. The First Luxury Art Hotel specializes in supreme comfort with contemporary styling.
Where to next?
If you are going north, visit the beautiful hill town of Orvieto in Umbria. Or go straight to the medieval Tuscan hill town of Siena, making it your base to explore the charming Val d’Orcia as well. Or head to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance.
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