Rome, Italy’s capital, is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city with nearly 3,000 years of globally influential art, architecture and culture on display. Ancient ruins such as the Roman Forum and the Colosseum evoke the power of the former Roman Empire. Vatican City, headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, boasts St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, which house masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.
Rome wasn’t built in a day–and you’ll need much more than a day to take in this timeless city. The city is a real-life collage of piazzas, open-air markets, and astonishing historic sites. Toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain, contemplate the Colosseum and the Pantheon, and sample a perfect espresso or gelato before spending an afternoon shopping at the Campo de’Fiori or Via Veneto. Enjoy some of the most memorable meals of your life here, too, from fresh pasta to succulent fried artichokes or a tender oxtail stew.
Hang Out in the Pantheon
The Pantheon in Rome is, hands down, my favorite building in the city. In a city that is simply replete with important historic buildings and monuments, the Pantheon still manages to stand out. Because while the Forum requires a spectacular imagination (or a spectacular guide, or both) and even the Colosseum is a shell of its former self, the Pantheon looks today – inside and out – much the way it has for nearly 2,000 years. Those marble floors you’re walking on? Yeah, people have been walking on them for two thousand years. The building’s been in constant use for two thousand years. Sun (or rain, depending on when you visit) has been streaming through the oculus for… Well, you get my point. If book history leaves you yawning, give real-life history a try. This is the stuff that gives me chills. And incidentally, another reason I suggest the Pantheon before the Forum and Colosseum is so you can see what a Roman building looked like back in the day – which can give you a better feel for what the ruins you’ll check out in #2 and #3 once looked like.
Walk Through History in the Roman Forum
As mentioned above, being in truly historic spaces really gets my blood going, so an easy #2 on my list here is to walk on the cobbled streets of the Roman Forum. If I’m honest, even though I love thinking about all the feet that have walked on those cobblestones (my inner dialogue tends to be, “did Caesar walk on this one? how about this one?“), the Forum still pales in comparison to the Pantheon for me. The ruins are so ruined in most cases that it’s impossible to really see the grandeur of what used to be. Which is why I advise a stop at the Pantheon first, so you have a better idea of what all of these piles of stones used to look like. And be sure to pick up a copy of “Rome: Past & Present,” with its plastic overlays of what the Forum looked like in ancient times, before you go in. A good tour guide helps immensely, too. But even though I prefer the Pantheon, just knowing that the streets of the small area of the Forum were the epicenter of the massive Roman Empire is enough to make me say, “Wow.” (And for a commanding view over the whole Forum, take the Rome from the Sky elevator to the top of the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument next door!)
Circle the Colosseum, Inside & Out
I’ll confess that on my first draft of this list, I actually left Rome’s most famous monument, the Colosseum, off. I know, I know. But hear me out – back when I first visited, the lines were atrocious, the gauntlet of sweaty men dressed in plastic gladiator attire pressuring you to pay for a photo with them was annoying, and the interior of the Colosseum itself was (I thought) kind of disappointing after all the build-up. But the truth is that it’s the largest remaining Roman-era amphitheatre anywhere, and although the inside was used as something of a rock quarry for later building projects (if you think it looks torn apart inside, that’s because it was), it’s still a fascinating look back at one very important (though gruesome) aspect of life in the ancient capital. You’ll be well-served by a good guide (either a book, an audio-guide, or a person) to explain things, and you can avoid the worst of the ticket lines by buying a combo ticket – good for the Forum and the Palatine Hill as well – at one of those other two locations.
Get a Tour of Vatican City
While Vatican City is technically its own independent city-state, no one visits Vatican City on its own without visiting Rome as well. For most travelers, touring the Vatican is one day out of a trip to Rome, and that’s exactly what I suggest when people ask me how much time they should spend in Vatican City – but in addition to allotting a day for the Vatican, I also highly recommend signing on to a good guided tour of the Vatican. This will not only help you navigate the maze of the Vatican Museums (and make sure you don’t miss any of the truly important stuff), a good guide will also help you understand the context of what you’re seeing as well. And whether or not you’re Catholic, a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica is made infinitely more interesting when you know what it is you’re looking at. (Oh, and if you want to see something that most tourists don’t even know about, then check out the secret Vatican Scavi tour!)
Stroll the Trastevere Streets
I’m one of the people for whom Rome remains more overwhelming than enticing, so although there are things about the city that I genuinely love I also need a break from the cityness of it from time to time. My favorite relatively peaceful haven is the Trastevere neighborhood during the day, and I think it’s an area everyone should visit even if they’re not in need of a retreat. The cobbled streets are mostly car-free, the restaurants and cafes serve up some of the cheapest eats you’ll find in Rome (and it’s good, too), the shops aren’t hawking the usual tourist crap, and the piazza in front of the Santa Maria in Trastevere church (which is beautiful) is as charming and delightful as you’d find in any Tuscan hill town. After nightfall, the Trastevere becomes the place to be for young locals and travelers alike, so it loses its “retreat” quality after dark, but it then becomes interesting for many other reasons.
Check Out the Cappuchin Crypt
I’ll admit that a visit to the Cappuchin Crypt, one of my favorite sights in Rome, isn’t going to be up everyone’s alley. It’s not big, so it’s a quick visit, but seeing several small chapels decorated (if one can use so mundane a word for this) with the bones of more than 4,000 Cappuchin monks definitely falls into the “creepy” category for some people. While it used to also fall into the off-the-beaten-path-sights list as well, I think the Cappuchin Crypt has been written about so much now that it’s far more common a stop than it once was. So if it doesn’t sound like it’d be your cup of tea, then you have my permission to amend my #5 suggestion slightly to read “check out something weird in Rome.” Everyone visits the Forum, but not everyone visits the Museum of Purgatory or the Pasta Museum. I’m just saying, make your visit stand out a little bit with something a little quirky on your itinerary. I’ve listed a bunch of weird sights in Rome, but there are more. Many more.
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