When in Rome . . . do all that you can. The question of what to do in Rome will depend on how much time you have and whether it’s your first visit. For instance, with only a day or two, you will want to visit the usual suspects. But what if you have more time, or if you have already been to Rome more than once? You may want to explore beyond the most famous sites. World Oyster will guide you through both.
Best Art Museum: Borghese Gallery
Most Impressive Ruins: The Colosseum
Best Free Site: The Trevi Foundation and surrounding area
Best Small Museum: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj Galleria
If you fly in from the United States or Canada, chances are that you will arrive in the morning before you can check into your hotel. Plan to leave your bags at the hotel and venture out, but keep in mind that Rome can be hot. And you probably didn’t get much sleep on the flight over. Dressing in layers for the flight – so you can peel them off once on the ground – and keeping your first day’s activities light will help.
Iconic Tourist Sites
If you have never before visited Rome, the following places fall under the must-see category. Everyone will ask if you saw them. Plan carefully because some of these require advance ticket purchase. Others, like the Trevi Fountain, are free and require only fifteen minutes or so. You can walk right up to them at a moment’s notice.
Whether you have to pay for admission or not, all attract huge numbers of tourists.
Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
The Trevi Fountain features prominently in several films and therefore is one of Rome’s most iconic sites, even to those who know little about Rome. Located at the intersection of three roads (tre vie), it marks the end of one of ancient Rome’s aqueducts.
Visitors turn their backs to the fountain and, using their right hand, toss a coin over their left shoulder into the pool. The superstition “ensures” that someday you will return to Rome. The city collects the coins to fund charities for the needy.
When I first visited the Trevi Fountain this year, workers had emptied it to clean it or to remove all the coins for charity – or both. If this happens to you, don’t worry. They don’t keep it dry for long, maybe only a couple of hours. Although it can be a pain to return, plan on it. It’s worth seeing the running fountain and the clear water in front of the elaborate building.
For a diversion, pop into the shops lining the narrow streets that lead to the Trevi Fountain. Pizzerias and gelaterie can be found everywhere.
The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps, like the Trevi Fountain, can be visited on a whim and in a matter of minutes, unless you choose to walk up the 135 steps. The name comes from its connection to a former Spanish Embassy at the top.
When I visited Rome at the end of June, temperatures rose to above 100 degree F, and few people dotted the Spanish Steps. But when I returned in September, with temperatures in the mid-70s, the Piazza di Spagna front of them teemed with tourists. (Few people actually climb the 135 steps, so you can get some space if you go up.) I don’t know whether it was the weather or the easing of pandemic restrictions; however, the difference shocked me. Expect crowds – and celebrate if they aren’t there.
The Colosseum is imposing on the outside, but you must go inside to get the full impact. Although you can buy tickets on the spot, I highly recommend that you order online in advance for timed admission. You can purchase access to the arena floor (the platform on the left above), the Forum, and the Palatine Hill, plus other special sites. Figuring out where those special sites are, how to access them, and what their hours are can be difficult. Don’t make the mistake I did. Research all that before you leave home because on-site assistance is minimal.
The Vatican and the Sistine Chapel
Catholic or not, you should carve out the time to visit the Vatican Museums and the attached Sistine Chapel. Although technically neither is in Rome – they belong to the Vatican City State – the city of Rome surrounds the buildings.
Because of the location, you will probably have to take the metro to get there. It’s super-easy, though. You can even tap your credit card at the turnstile instead of purchasing individual train tickets. If stopped by an official, all you need to do is show your credit card to prove that you’ve paid.
You can no longer purchase entry tickets onsite at the Vatican and must either book a tour or reserve your timed entry online. I chose a small group tour so that I could learn more about the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s, and the Sistine Chapel. Just because you book a tour, however, don’t expect to have a private one. Even with timed entries, tourists mob every inch of the interior.
Of course you can explore on your own, but our guide instructed us about several things that I would never have otherwise known. You also get priority entry.
Photographs and video are forbidden in the Sistine Chapel. Please honor the rules by putting your phone away and maintaining respectful silence.
Don’t forget to visit the famous St. Peter’s Basilica within Vatican City. Admission is free, and you don’t need tickets. Because our tour included St. Peter’s, we learned more than we would have just walking inside. That said, the experience of wandering around and soaking up the grandeur may be enough for most people.
Ancient Rome and Its Ruins
Roman ruins in the city go beyond the Colosseum. Most, but certainly not all, ruins can be found at the Forum and on the Palatine Hill. If you don’t have the time to wander around those sites, some of it can be viewed from street level, looking down and without paying an entry fee. Still, I highly recommend exploring these sites by walking through them at ground level. You get a much better feeling of Rome as an ancient city.
If you buy a Colosseum ticket online, most likely you’ll have access to other ancient sites. Again, do your research before you leave home. Some tickets are good only for 24 hours while others last two days – and it’s not always clear which is which. I’m not even sure you could return to one of the non-Colosseum sites after having already been inside. Some people in front of me were turned away trying to do that, although I don’t know what type of tickets they held. Plan everything carefully.
The Forum and the Palatine Hill
You enter both the Forum and the Palatine Hill sites from the same entrance, using the same ticket.
How much time you need to explore the Roman Forum depends on the kind of tourist you are. One online site recommended a hour to explore the Forum and 30 minutes for the Palatine Hill, but we needed much more time than that. We like to see everything we can and read the signs. Because we wanted to eat lunch before our afternoon Colosseum admission, we ended up having to cut short our exploration.
If you want to do everything, including the special access sites inside, then allot three to four hours to do both. If you just want to get the flavor of it, then 90 minutes should be enough.
Also known as Hadrian’s Tomb, Castel Sant’Angelo has undergone changes over the 1,900 or so years of its history. Started by the Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for him and his family, subsequent Roman emperors, popes, and the military occupied it and built pieces up and tore others down as it suited them. The castle contains dungeons and opulent rooms alike.
Like so many of the ancient sites, it pays to explore to the fullest, by poking around corners, looking up, and taking any hallway or staircase that isn’t blocked. If you can find your way to the top, you will be rewarded with magnificent views of Rome and the Vatican. (See the lead photo at the top of this blog.) There, you will also get close to the famous sculpture of Saint Michael sheathing his sword to indicate the end of the Plague.
Don’t miss the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the bridge leading to Castel Sant’Angelo over the Tiber River, and its Bernini sculptures.
Museums, Big and Small
If you love museums, you’ve come to the right city. Rome has both world-class museums and smaller, but also impressive, ones. On my last two trips, I discovered places I hadn’t known about before.
Borghese Gallery and Museum (Galleria Borghese)
If you only go to one art museum while in Rome – and I include the Vatican Museum – go to the Borghese. The art collection is outstanding, and the former palace that houses it is incredible. Tickets go fast, especially during peak visiting season, so plan carefully and order online. Each ticket allows you two hours inside the palace. While most visitors exit well before that, art lovers will need every minute. You get a color-coded sticker to wear so that security knows when you’ve expended your allotted time.
Inside, you’ll see many works by Bernini, Titian (Tiziano), Caravaggio, Rubens, Rafael, Lotto, Bellini, and other Old Masters. It also contains excellent example of ancient art, including mosaic floors and almost-intact Roman busts.
In every room of this palace, you need to look up as well as all around you. This smaller, lesser-known museum has amazing frescoes adorning the ceilings. You will find artwork by Raphael, Caravaggio, and Holbein, as well as ab impressive marble spiral staircase.
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj Galleria
Another art museum located inside a palace, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj Galleria can be adequately explored in 90 minutes or so. You will find works by Titian (Tiziano), Raphael, Caravaggio, Correggio, and Velazquez, among others. The private apartments that house the collection are works of art themselves. Built in the 16th Century, the palace was originally owned by the wealthy Pamphilj family, to which Pope Innocent X belonged, and passed to the art-loving Doria family. Some of the private apartments are still occupied by Dorias.
Other Things to Do in Rome
I can’t begin to list all the other sites to visit and things to do, but, if you have the time, consider adding Capitoline Hill, the Pantheon, and any of the churches and basilicas dotting the city. Sip an espresso in a caffe. Eat pizza for lunch. Grab a gelato for an afternoon snack. Order wine with dinner. Just strolling through the narrow streets and ducking into shops takes you back in time.
Rome’s strength lies in its ancient history more than it does in the present day. It’s an old city teeming with tourists, and that poses certain issues with logistics. If you don’t reserve your tickets in advance, you can find yourself either waiting in huge lines or not not visiting the sites you had hoped. Certain sites, such as the Colosseum are especially popular, but others, like the Forum and the Palatine Hill, offer amazing ruins without quite as many tourists.
Rome is a great city for foodies, art lovers, and history buffs. If you, like me, are all three, then you can spend a week here and still not tire of it.