Things to Do in Rome: Classic Rome Attractions
They say that all roads lead to Rome. Well, we finally made it to the Eternal City, so it must be true. In our case, we traveled the long way around through Asia and South America literally taking every road known to man to get here. And to celebrate our victory, we spent one glorious month exploring Rome’s amazing architectural and artistic treasures as well as delving into the city’s exciting culinary world.
We quickly realized that Rome is positively overwhelming. The number of churches, Roman temples, gelaterias, street markets, fountains, villas, galleries, museums, and piazzas made our heads spin. There were so many amazing things to do in Rome, we could have spent years here exploring and never seen it all. For that reason, it’s even more crucial to plan your itinerary beforehand to get the most out of your visit. If you are still wondering what things to do in Rome, we will be highlighting some of our favorite Rome attractions both on and off the well-trodden Roman path. To begin, let’s start with the classic Rome attractions!
Things to Do in Rome: Explore the City’s Ancient Heart
Ancient Rome was a vast thriving metropolis unparalleled in the ancient world. At its peak, it became the first urban center in history to house a population of over a million people. (Unbelievably, that feat would not be repeated until London reached one million inhabitants in the 19th century.) The largest surviving area of ruins, and by far the most photographed, is the vast stretch that runs from the Colosseum past Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and Trajan’s Market to Trajan’s Column. As we needed some help interpreting the area’s rich history and wanted to skip the long entry lines to one of the most popular Rome attractions, we joined the VIP Caesar’s Palace Tour with Walks of Italy.
Our expert guide Ferdinando, a trained archaeologist with a Ph.D. specializing in Roman pottery, lead us through the highlights of the area. As we walked through the arched corridors of the Colosseum, he recreated an ancient world far more complex than those old Technicolor films ever envisioned. A world where gladiatorial battles were political tools used to keep slaves in their place, where a giant nude statue of Nero outraged the masses with its audacity. As we moved on to the Roman Forum, Ferdinando brought the era to life, reconstructing temples and, indeed, entire cultures in our minds. Spectacular!
We especially enjoyed the extraordinary chance to enter the first-century BC House of Augustus Caesar and the neighboring House of Livia (his wife), which – after many years of excavations – were only recently opened to the public. Ferdinando led us through a series of amazingly preserved two-thousand-year-old arched halls and chambers, some of which were still decorated with colorful frescoes and elaborate floor mosaics. One woman on our tour said she enjoyed the palaces and their paintings more than Pompeii due to the uncrowded sense of discovery. Remember that the number of visitors to the houses of Augustus and Livia are strictly limited and that you can only visit with a guide, so make sure you book in advance.
Things to Do in Rome: Behold St. Peter’s Basilica
Clearly, if you’ve come all the way to Rome, you have to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, one of the four major papal basilicas. It’s probably one of the most revered Rome attractions and one of THE things to do in Rome. Whether you are a devout Catholic or a devout art lover, the church’s amazing collection of religious works and historical treasures will blow your mind.
Wander through the enormous basilica and position yourself on the red disk near the entrance. You are standing in the very spot where Charlemagne was crowned emperor. Walk to your right and discover Michelangelo’s beautiful marble Pietà, one of the world’s most famous statues. In the central nave, gaze up at Bernini’s mammoth baldachin made with bronze stolen from the Pantheon. Descend into the Vatican Grottoes and explore the papal tombs. And don’t forget to climb up to the top of the dome for some epic views over St. Peter’s Square and Rome beyond.
Opening hours for St. Peter’s Basilica are 7 AM to 7 PM (except October through April when St. Peter’s closes at 6 PM). While entry to St. Peter’s is free, you will still have to stand in line to go through airport-style security. Be aware that there is an entry fee for climbing the dome. Dress modestly – no shorts, miniskirts, or bare shoulders. Once inside, you can spend as much time as you like.
Things to Do in Rome: Lose Yourself in the Backstreets
A labyrinth of cobbled roads, courtyards, passages and piazzas shapes Rome’s historic center. We spent four weeks wandering the UNESCO-recognized tangle of alleyways which hides an endless number of Rome attractions, and we could have easily spent another four weeks soaking up the local culture. While it’s tempting to race through the narrow roads ticking off those famous sites – the Spanish Steps… the Trevi Fountain… Piazza Navona… – these streets are meant to be savored.
Sit back and watch the sun set behind the Pantheon, the greatest surviving memory of ancient Rome, as a street musician plays “Another Brick in the Wall” on his electric guitar. Set off down an arcaded side street and see what you discover, walk into random churches full of treasures. Eye the kitschy pope paraphernalia in the store windows. Anybody want to buy a pope-sicle? How about a calendar of the Vatican’s hottest priests? The devil is in the details and so is the essence of Rome.
Things to Do in Rome: Attend a Papal Audience
Is any visit to Rome complete without seeing the pope? (Actually, for a lot of people, the answer might be yes.) Well, whether it’s out of devotion or simply morbid curiosity, a papal audience is definitely worth the effort. Despite Pope Francis’ rock-star status, it’s actually much easier than you might think.
As long as the pope is in Rome, papal audiences take place on Wednesday mornings at 10:30. To get a seat (theoretically), you need to obtain a free ticket available from the Vatican guards the day before the audience. In reality, audiences are pure chaos and finding an actual seat is not guaranteed unless you arrive very early. To be honest, seats are completely useless anyway because once the pope arrives everybody jumps up to see him, so sitting isn’t really an option no matter how loud the ninety-year-old ladies scream and wail.
The spectacle is quite a treat as “Papa Francisco” zooms through the crowds in his popemobil kissing babies and blessing ecstatic “fans.” But watch out, the devout can get mean as they jostle and joust to catch a glimpse of his holiness. During our audience there was some angry pushing and shoving going on. If you are too short, you can still watch the pontiff on several large screens strategically positioned around the square. The mood dies down a bit once the pope launches into his sermon, which is repeated in several languages.
If you can’t make it to a papal audience on Wednesdays, you can also catch a glimpse of the pope as he delivers the Angelus from his balcony on Sundays at noon. Read more on the papal audiences and the Angelus here.
Things to Do in Rome: Visit a Few of the Best Markets
If you are out and about looking for quirky souvenirs, specialty foods or simply photographic opportunities, there are some great markets you shouldn’t miss. One of Rome’s oldest, and our personal favorite, is the open-air market at Piazza Campo de’Fiori in the Centro Storico. Once the site of public executions, the only things strung up these days are delicious Italian salamis. Stroll through the market stalls and enjoy the colorful medley of flowers, moka pots, and anything edible. The market is every day but Sunday.
On weekends, you can also head to the Porta Portese Sunday flea market in Trastevere for the ultimate junk-fest. Remember, the early bird catches the worm, or in this case, the coolest glass vase etched with the image of Pope John Paul II. We also liked the Saturday/Sunday Campagna Amica Market near Circus Maximus. It’s the “real Italian food market” where farmers from the Lazio region hawk their locally produced cheeses, breads, olives, wines, meats, beers, veggies… and the list goes on. The best part, you can try free samples of almost everything. Make sure to put this on your list of things to do in Rome!
Things to Do in Rome: Remember the Ladies of the Evening
While this particular recommendation may not be one of the classic Rome attractions… yet, it should be. Without a doubt, our greatest discovery of things to do in Rome was the AMAZING Courtesans Tour with Storytelling Rome. The brainchild of the brilliant historian Massimo, who doubles as the tour guide, the Courtesans Tour embarks on a journey through the streets of Rome as seen through the eyes of the famous (or infamous) courtesans and prostitutes who shaped the city’s artistic and political landscape. In some ways, this just might be one of the best-conceived and most truly unique tours we have ever taken. Massimo has developed a historical tour that should draw in every demographic group from radical feminists to drunken English school boys and leave them totally satisfied.
Without giving away too much, as you move through the streets of Rome, Massimo reveals the lives of seven remarkable women who shaped and shook the Renaissance thorough their affairs with influential cardinals, popes and artists. Massimo’s stories are both well researched and gripping; he is an excellent story teller. What’s more, the history behind these courtesans and prostitutes are in fact the history of womankind during historical epochs in which sex was literally the only option for survival and influence. We cannot recommend this tour enough. One of our favorite Rome attractions!
Bizarrely, Massimo has been unable to market Rome’s most unique tour through larger tour companies because they are fearful that the content might be objectionable. Hogwash! In our opinion, this is just another example of mainstream companies downplaying and dismissing the roles of women in history. Go and take this tour to teach them a lesson (and to find out which popes where under the spell of these women). Check out all of Massimo’s tours on Storytelling Rome.
Things to Do in Rome: See the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
Rome is overflowing with world-class museums. Having said that, it’s not very hard to figure out which one you should visit first. Simply put, the Vatican Museums house one of the greatest collections of artistic treasures on the planet. It’s amazing what you can collect when you are god’s right-hand-man, isn’t it?
Sculptural highlights include famous works such as Laocoön, Augustus of Prima Porta and the Belvedere Torso. Don’t miss the amazing gilded bronze statue of Hercules and the incredible collection of animals in the Sala degli Animali. The Pinacoteca Vaticana also houses an important collection of paintings by big names like Giotto, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Veronese and Leonardo da Vinci. And one of our personal highlights was the extraordinary Etruscan collection, which is like a museum within a museum.
But even if you have no interest in art, the over-the-top grandeur of the Vatican Museums itself should thrill even the most jaded traveler. From the Gallery of Maps to the Raphael Rooms to the stunning Borgia Apartments, it just seems to get more and more spectacular. Of course, the piece de resistance is the Sistine Chapel and its famous frescoes. Get there early if you want some elbow room.
Unfortunately, the Vatican Museums are one of the top Rome attractions. They are, perhaps, the most seriously overwhelmed institution on the planet. Lines are long and the museum is packed even on off-season winter days. You can pre-book entry tickets online on the official Vatican Museums website. To skip the lines, many local tour operators and online booking sites such as Viator offer skip-the-line tours, early entry tickets or night tours, which is great. Having said that, you will probably end up in a line at some point.
Things to Do in Rome: Walk across the Vatican
Have you ever thought about walking across an entire country? Well, this is your chance. The Vatican, less than a kilometer across, is the smallest country in the world and that goal is relatively easy to achieve by taking a walking tour of the Vatican gardens. The tour is much more than a chance to snap a few shots of palms from Easter Island and olive trees from Jerusalem, it’s an opportunity to sneak a peak at the inner sanctum of the world’s most secretive walled kingdom.
There are many things to discover. Catholics and history buffs will relish the chance to walk in the footsteps of the popes, both current and past. Highlights include stretches of the Vatican’s medieval walls, a reproduction of the grotto at Lourdes, a radio station set up by Marconi himself, a solitary tower where JFK and Jackie O slept and the opportunity to ask your guide as many questions about the Vatican as you want. One word of advice: Book your Vatican Gardens Tour on the official Vatican Museums website as early as possible; they can be booked out weeks in advance, especially in peak season.
Rome Attractions: Wander through Ostia Antica
While the tourist hordes in Rome engage in near-gladiatorial battles to tick off the major Rome attractions, there’s one wonderfully neglected historic treasure just a short train ride outside the city where visitors can immerse themselves in ancient awesomeness: Ostia Antica. The Roman port city, established in the 4th-century BC, housed 50,000 people during its heyday. For some inexplicable reason, it’s off the tourist radar despite being one of the most impressive Rome attractions.
The sprawling ancient city boasts grand marble baths with integrated heating systems, remnants of colorful frescoes, multi-story apartment buildings, intact communal latrines, an amphitheater and many surprisingly well-preserved black-and-white floor mosaics (the most famous in the Terme di Nettuno). Certain locations are so well preserved that they recall entire street scenes.
One of the coolest things we discovered was a totally intact bar including the counter where Roman citizens once drowned their sorrows. We even tracked down the remains of one of the oldest synagogues in the world. There are no signs leading there, so you’ll have to ask around to find it.
Things to Do in Rome: Eat Anything and Everything
As they say, when in Rome, eat as Romans do. (Isn’t that what they say?) If you get the chance to sit down for a family dinner, you’ll be shocked to see how many courses these people can put away! So to be polite, you’ll need to learn to stuff your face like a local.
Due to circumstances beyond our self-control, we were forced to eat everything from zucchini-flower pizza to crisp-shelled ricotta-filled cannoli to home-made pasta topped with muscles. Yum! Every time we hit a store, we loaded up on pecorino cheese, fragrant mortadella and marinated olives. And the gelato!!! We literally had gelato every day. In fact, we ate our way through Rome, enjoying the local cuisine in as many different ways as we could. We loved it so much, we wrote a separate mouth-watering article about it. Check out our Roman Food Guide if you want to find out how to spice up your Rome food-venture.
Plan Your Trip to Rome
When to Go – Rome is an amazing place, no matter what time of year. From October to April, however, tourist crowds clear out a bit and hotel rates tend to drop.
Accommodation – Rome has lots of accommodation, but during European summer vacation, make sure to book ahead. We recommend searching for great deals on HotelsCombined.com, a site which finds the best deals for you across numerous top hotel booking sites, including booking.com and agoda.
If you plan to stay for more than a few nights, it’s cheaper and more comfortable to stay in an Airbnb apartment (which we did). If you haven’t used Airbnb before and you click through this link here, you get a credit toward your first stay. The amount varies, but it’s usually between $25 and $35. Not too bad.
Tours – Rome can be positively overwhelming, and navigating the city’s labyrinth of sightseeing hot spots can be challenging. For this reason, Rome is one of those places where visitors definitely benefit from taking a tour or two. During our month there, we joined several fantastic food and walking tours to take advantage of their insider knowledge and expert guides.
We can highly recommend Storytelling Rome Tours for their insightful, off-the-beaten-path tours; Walks of Italy and City Wonders for their quality tours in and around Rome; Eating Italy Food Tours for their authentic Italian food tours. Also, make sure to check out Viator, which offers a huge selection of Rome tours from skip-the-line, early-access and VIP tours to Tiber River cruises to exclusive private tours.
Guidebooks – We always travel with Lonely Planet guides. They are great for historical and cultural information, maps, walking tours, highlights, and itineraries. For Rome, you have several options, from more specific to more general. You can use the Lonely Planet Rome, the Lonely Planet Italy, or the Lonely Planet Europe if you are planning to travel to other European countries. If you prefer a more visual guidebook, we recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Rome.