Rome. The Eternal City. Walk its cobblestone streets, and you’ll be marching over layers of history stretching back over 3,000 years. From the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, medieval Rome to Renaissance Rome, this city has been at the center of the world’s stage for millennia.
This is one of the reasons why I love visiting Rome: it’s an unrivaled historical capital.
But beyond the city’s wellspring of historical treasures, there are also many incredible things to see and do here. Feasting on the city’s delicious cuisine in intimate local restaurants, lounging away the day with an espresso or glass of wine in one of the many charming squares, admiring the Baroque and Renaissance-era architecture side-by-side with ancient Roman ruins. This is a city built for slow travel.
Having been visiting Rome for over a decade, I’ve had plenty of time to explore this sprawling metropolis and see its iconic sights. In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite things to do in Rome so you can have an immersive, authentic experience in Italy’s beloved capital.
Know Before You Go
When to Go – Rome is famous all year round; however, the summers are jam-packed. Too busy, in fact (and too hot). Temperatures average around 27°C (81°F), but in August, temperatures soar above 32°C (89°F). If you’re visiting in the summer, start your days early to beat the heat and the crowds.
If possible, visit during the shoulder season instead (April-May/late September-October). Rome is slightly less hectic, and the temperatures during these months are much less abrasive, usually hovering around 18°C (64°F). This is my favorite time to visit.
Where to Stay – Rome is a massive city of almost 5 million people. With so many neighborhoods and attractions, it’s essential to pick an area to stay in that suits your itinerary (and your budget), so you aren’t spending all day in transit (the traffic moves at a crawl here). Once you know where to stay in Rome, you can start planning your days, so you aren’t overwhelmed by the heat, the crowds, or the traffic.
The 10 Best Things to See and Do in Rome
1. Visit Vatican City
The smallest country in the world (it’s just 0.2 square miles), you won’t need to show your passport when you stroll into Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square), one of the world’s most stunning squares. You could easily spend a couple of days here exploring this micro-nation where the Pope — Papa Francesco, as he’s known to the Italians — is the head of state.
Don’t miss the Basilica of St. Peter, the largest church on the planet, the dome designed by Michelangelo. You’ll also find Michelangelo’s sculpture “Pietà” here. It’s one of the most striking sculptures of the Renaissance and depicts the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ.
The other must-see is the Vatican Museums, the city’s public museums home to the Sistine Chapel, one of the great art wonders of the world (also by Michelangelo). Pro-tip: everyone gets here super early to wait in a long line to get in. Go after lunch instead when there is no line. You’ll only have a few hours to see everything, but you won’t waste hours standing in line. Admission is 17 EUR.
One other unique thing to do in Vatican City is to go underground. Sign up for a tour of the Scavi, the underground necropolis on which the Vatican is built. The 90-minute tour takes visitors through the ancient gravesite, culminating in a visit to see the bones of St. Peter, who was crucified on this spot. Admission is 13 EUR.
2. Get Lost in the Centro Storico
The Centro Storico, or the historical center of Rome, is immense. The medieval street plan (or lack thereof) created a labyrinth of twisting, turning, and narrow lanes. Wandering around in this area is an excellent way to get a feel for the city and stumble upon some world-famous sites; the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo can all be found here.
Some of the highlights worth seeking out are:
First-time visitors to Rome shouldn’t miss the Colosseum. Built-in the 1st century, this Wonder of the World could hold 50,000-80,000 people when it was in use (it was used for gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, dramatic plays, executions, and more). Tickets cost 16 EUR (22 EUR if you want to visit the arena floor) and include admission to the Forum and Palatine Hill.
For a more detailed experience, take a skip-the-line tour by taking Walks. They’re my go-to tour company as their guides are experts and their tours are always fun and informative.
First-time visitors will also want to see the iconic Trevi Fountain. A Baroque fountain built in the 18th century was connected to the aqueduct that supplied Rome with water from the surrounding countryside. While it’s worth seeing up close, be aware that it is always crowded (especially at night when couples come for a romantic picture). Try to visit before breakfast when the crowds are thinner (the earlier, the better). Tradition says that if you throw a coin over your left shoulder into the fountain, you’ll find your way back to Rome (the money thrown into the fountain is donated to charity).
Another must-see highlight, the Mausoleum of Hadrian (popularly known as Castel Sant’Angelo, or “Castle of the Holy Angel”), was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) as a resting place for him and his family. It was later used as a fort by the Popes, and today it is a famous museum. Many people learned from the popular The Da Vinci Code book that a “secret” passageway leads from the castle to the Vatican. Pope Clement VII used this emergency passageway twice, including in 1527 when Rome was sacked. Admission to the castle is 14 EUR. Don’t miss the fantastic views over the city from the Terrace of the Angel while you’re here.
The Forum & Palatine Hill
The Roman Forum was the heart of public life in ancient Rome, home to markets, elections, executions, gladiatorial matches, and more. It was the place where the empire administered its territory. Today, the area is filled with ancient ruins — most of which have crumbled. There are still several buildings and standing columns you can admire, many of which are almost 3,000 years old!
Nearby, you’ll find Palatine Hill. One of the seven hills of Rome is the part of the city where the Roman aristocracy lived during the Roman Republic. It was later annexed for a palace by Emperor Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Today, like the forum, it’s an open-air museum filled with ruins.
Admission to both Palatine Hill and the Forum is 16 EUR.
3. Eat Your Way Through the City
One of the great joys of travel is trying new foods. That’s doubly true if you’re trying new foods in Rome. Italian cuisine is one of the world’s most popular, and dining is a no-rush affair here. Meals are meant to be enjoyed with good conversation and even better wine, making eating out an activity in its own right.
Here are a few of my favorite places to eat in Rome:
Armando al Pantheon: As the name suggests, this traditional Roman restaurant is just steps away from one of ancient Rome’s most incredible relics. The Gargioli family has been serving high-quality takes on Roman cuisine for half a century. If you want to know how a satisfied Roman eats, eat here.
Da Enzo al 29: The secret is out about this lovely trattoria in Trastevere. It was mostly locals about a decade ago, but now you may have to share a table with fellow tourists. That said, this place is still great. The carbonara is incredible.
Flavio al Velavevodeto: Located in Testaccio (the neighborhood that birthed modern Roman cuisine), Flavio is an excellent place to try classic hearty, and adventurous Roman dishes like rigatoni con la pajata (veal intestines with the mother’s milk still inside) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew). If you’re an adventurous foodie, this place is a must.
Pizzarium: If you’re near the Vatican Museums and hungry, hit up this pizza-by-the-slice spot. It’s legendary.
For a food tour around the city, check out Devour Tours. They have a few different options (including a pizza-making tour), and their small-group food tours are perfect for foodies who want to try new foods while also learning about the history and culture behind each dish.
4. Take a Walking Tour
I love taking walking tours. It’s one of the first things I do in a new city because they’re an excellent way to learn about a destination. If you’re on a budget, check out Rome’s Ultimate Free Walking Tour or New Rome Free Tours. Their tours cover all the highlights and can introduce you to the city on a budget. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end!
If you’re looking for a paid guided tour that goes above and beyond, check out Walks of Italy. They offer one of the best walking tours in Rome. Walks have expert guides and can get you behind the scenes at the city’s best attractions. They’re my favorite walking tour company and a must for travelers seeking a more profound, in-depth experience.
5. Explore the Catacombs and the Appian Way
Just outside the old city walls is the Appian Way, the most storied of all Roman roads. The Appian way stretched from Rome to the town of Brindisi, the tip of the “heel” of Italy, allowing vital trade and commerce to connect the country during the Roman Republic. Located a few kilometers from downtown, visiting the Appian Way feels like you’re on a day trip outside the city because it’s surrounded by tranquil nature. It’s also incredible to walk down the road; it’s paved by basalt cobblestones, and you can still see ruts in the street from Roman chariots.
Another reason to come here is to explore the catacombs. Christian catacombs are sprinkled throughout the Roman periphery, some of which have not yet been unearthed. Still, the underground necropolises that are open to the public are here. The catacomb of San Callisto is 19 kilometers (12 miles) of narrow passages flanked by the graves of early Christians. Admission to the catacombs is 8 EUR.
6. Admire the Churches
Rome is awash in beautiful churches — more than 900 in the city! The interiors are often like museums, boasting priceless art and intriguing historical objects. For example, the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (on Piazza del Popolo) works by Bernini, Caravaggio, and Bramante, among others.
In San Francesco a Ripa in the Trastevere neighborhood, you can see a dramatic Bernini funerary sculpture titled “Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.” At the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, you can admire a few Michelangelo sculptures, including his statue of Moses, which was commissioned by Pope Julius II for his tomb in 1505.
And in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, you can see the objects that St. Helena brought back after a fourth-century journey to the Holy Land: a piece of the True Cross, the finger of the doubting St. Thomas, nails from Jesus’ crucifix, and a couple of thorns from Jesus’ crown.
7. Linger in Rome’s Great Public Squares
There are gorgeous squares all over Europe. Prague’s Old Town Square, Brussels’ Grand Place du Bruxelles, Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, and Piazza del Campo in Siena, to name a few. Rome also boasts a handful of beautiful plazas: Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona (with its Bernini-designed fountains), Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Della Rotunda, and Piazza Farnese with its incredible Michelangelo-designed Renaissance palace (home to the French embassy today).
Grab some gelato (or some wine), park yourself in one of these gorgeous squares, and watch the day go by. The Romans do it. You should too.
8. Take a Cooking Class
You can’t learn about a culture without knowing about its cuisine. One of the best ways to do that is to take a hands-on cooking class. Not only will you learn new skills and gain insights into the culture, but you’ll come home with an incredible souvenir: the ability to create mouth-watering Italian food.
Cooking Classes in Rome offers in-depth cooking classes that last 5 hours, where you’ll learn to make an entire four-course meal. You’ll have not only fun but also learn a lot. The classes cost 95 EUR.
9. Explore Rome’s Fascist-Era Neighborhood, EUR
In the southern part of the city, EUR or Esposizione Universale Roma (“Universal Exposition Rome”) was built in the 1930s by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for the 1942 World’s Fair. The expo never happened because of World War II. Still, it’s a fascinating place to walk around and marvel at the architecture, which evokes ancient Rome in a very 20th-century way (kind of like a stripped-down Neoclassicism). EUR is home to many cool nightclubs if you’re there at night.
Getting there is pretty easy, too: take the Metro line B to EUR Palasport. From Termini Station, it takes about 20 minutes.
10. Take a Day Trip
There’s a lot to see in Rome. But there’s also a lot to see in the Roman countryside, dotted with medieval hill towns and historical sites. If you’ve visited all the major sites in the city, consider taking a day trip. You’ll see another side of life in the countryside and get to escape the crowds and traffic.
Here are a few great day trips from Rome:
Located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Rome, Calcata is a charming and stunning medieval hill town. In the 1960s, the original residents abandoned the place for a newly built nearby town, fearing the cliffs on which Calcata sits were crumbling. That’s when hippies and artists discovered it, fixed up the village, and moved in.
Today, Calcata is made up of those aging hippies and artists. The village is crammed with art galleries and rustic restaurants. It’s also on the weird relics map, as it was once home to the Santissimo Prepuzio, or Holy Foreskin (the purported foreskin of Christ) until it disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the 1980s.
Driving is the best way to get to Calcata. Still, you can also take a COTRAL bus from Rome’s outer Saxa Rubra bus station (which is accessible by light rail from Piazza del Popolo).
The ruins of the ancient Roman port of Ostia Antica are well worth a visit. About 2,000 years ago, this place was a bustling commercial center and home to 60,000 people. Now you can wander the ruins of the docks, apartments, mansions, baths, and warehouses. The 2nd-century theater is well preserved and is still used for performances and events.
Getting it is easy: take the Metro line B to the Pyramide station. From there, take the Roma Lido light rail train to Ostia Antica. The journey from Termini station takes about 55 minutes. Plan at least a half-day for this trip.
During the steamy summer months, Roman emperors used to flee the city for this hilltop oasis. Tivoli is a fun place to spend the day. It’s also home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Hadrian’s Villa, which was the summer home of Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Villa d’Este, a 16th-century Renaissance villa that’s home to Renaissance and Baroque art and lovely gardens and fountains.
To get there: it’s a 60-minute train ride from Termini Station.
You could spend a lifetime in Rome and never see it all. With ancient historic sites, towering ruins, incredible food, and world-class art, there’s a lot to see here, no matter your interests or budget. Just don’t rush your visit. Accept you’ll never see it all, go slow (the Italians do), and focus on the sights you want to see. Rome, like a good Italian wine, is a city to savor.
About the Author
Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, and the travel memoir, Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and countless other publications. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Austin.