Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Rome adventures!
Rome is brimming with historic ruins, works of art and wonderful museums. Wandering around one of the world’s most delightful cities will lead you to ruined temples in the middle of the road, intricately sculptured fountains on tucked-away squares, and beautiful Baroque churches. The Eternal City is just begging to be explored, but as well as visiting its main attractions there are many unsung sights to discover. Here are some ideas about what to see, and some tips to help you get the most out of your visit.
The Colosseum Area
The Colosseum is Rome’s most famous sight and one not to be missed. This enormous circular half-ruined amphitheater, where gladiatorial battles took place, is almost 2,000 years old, and it sits in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout amongst a sprawling complex of ancient Roman ruins. Queues can be horrendous, and one way to avoid them is to buy a combination ticket from the quieter Palatine entrance across the road which admits you to the Colosseum, the Palatine and Roman Forum, enabling you to skip the queues. You could, alternatively, purchase a Roma Pass to visit the complex for free (see Best Insider Tips below).
The tranquil Palatine Hill is where Rome was first settled, and you will see ruins of villas and houses plus wonderful views of the Forum and the Circus Maximus. The Roman Forum, adjacent to the Palatine, was the ancient center of Roman life. Explore the atmospheric crumbling ruins including the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Saturn and feel the glory of ancient Rome.
One of the many Roman churches worth seeking out is San Clemente, a church of many layers dating between the 2nd century BC and the 15th century AD. Visit the archaeological area and see the ‘lower church’ where a temple and an earlier Christian house of worship was discovered – a visit will give you a quick Roman history lesson!
Around the Historic Center
Trevi Fountain is the most famous fountain in the city and is always crowded – tourists stand with their back to the dazzling Baroque sculptures throwing in coins, and souvenir stalls surround it. The key is to arrive before the tourists and stallholders – alternatively, visit after dark when the fountain is illuminated and casts a golden glow; it’s just as beautiful, and a lot less crowded.
To see one of the best preserved temples of Ancient Rome, visit the Pantheon. This round church is nearly 2,000 years old and is free to enter; it’s famous for its open-air dome, or oculus. If you arrive to the sight of crowds outside, don’t despair – it’s deceptively spacious inside, although if you arrive first thing in the morning (8.30) or last thing at night (7.30) it’s a more relaxed experience. Hire an audio tour to experience its history.
The Spanish Steps make up the widest staircase in Europe, and attract visitors to the city like a magnet. After strolling around the designer stores on Via Condotti below, and paying a visit the Keats museum which pays homage to British poets, take a seat on the sweeping staircase and watch the world go by. One tip – don’t picnic on the steps; it’s not looked upon fondly!
For a city center oasis, head to the Villa Medici gardens above the Spanish Steps on Pincio Hill. The gardens are lined with fountains and sculptures, and from the terrace you can enjoy a great view of the Vatican. The villa is owned by the French Academy in Rome who offer guided tours of the grand house and gardens.
Piazza Navona is one of the most beautiful squares in Rome. This elegant piazza is home to three gorgeous fountains, an ornate church, artists, and pavement cafes. Take a seat and soak it all up, but be aware that if you sit outside a café it can cost twice as much for your cappuccino.
Beyond the Historic Center and Further Afield
Across the Tiber River is the Vatican City, the smallest state in the world and home to St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (with over 1400 rooms including the Sistine Chapel). Admire the enormous basilica (free) with its famous Michelangelo dome, and walk 15 minutes around the walls to the museums, where there will undoubtedly be a crowd of people queuing to buy tickets. To avoid the queues arrive first thing or late afternoon – queues can be 2 hours long in peak season (no joke). However, if you have a Vatican and Roma pass (see below) you can skip the queue. Alternatively, book a guided tour; some companies offer early or late tours, so you could see the works by Raphael and da Vinci without other tourists around. The Museums are free on the last Sunday morning of the month, but it’s a crush due to the multitude of visitors taking advantage of the €15 saving.
Venture outside the city walls to the Catacombs of St Domitilla for some subterranean exploration in the oldest catacombs in Rome. For an atmospheric experience take a tour of the dimly-lit underground tunnels, entering through the 4th century church – expect to see bones, painted tombs, a 2nd century fresco of the Last Supper and a subterranean church. The complex is closed on Tuesdays.
If you fancy a change from ancient monuments, visit MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The galleries encompass two sites – one in northern Rome in the former Peroni brewery, and the other, in the trendy Testaccio district in an ex-slaughterhouse. Both spaces show installations from contemporary Italian artists. It’s worth visiting to experience a different (well- hidden) side of Rome.
Eating and Drinking
Romans love their food – and so do we. With the wonderful pizza, pasta, gelato, and fantastic coffee, foodies will be in culinary heaven. Typical Roman dishes include carciofi alla romana, or braised artichokes with olive oil, mint and garlic, and spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti with egg and pancetta. Tasty pizza slices can be found everywhere (pizza a taglio) and make for a quick snack when on the move – highly recommended.
For good spaghetti just a few steps from the well-trodden tourist route but close to Trevi is Spaghetteria l’Archetto. Bookings aren’t accepted, as you will see from the queue, but it’s worth the wait. When it’s finally your turn you’ll be seated on the ground floor, or in the cosy cellar-like basement, and you’ll then have the difficult choice of deciding which of the hundred-plus sauce combinations you want with your spaghetti. Dishes cost around €8.
If you are around the Piazza Navona area and fancy pushing the boat out, dine in plush Il Convivio Troiani. This family restaurant offers contemporary cuisine based on Italian traditional recipes, all served in elegant surroundings. Choose from the tasting menus or go à la carte. To give you an indication of prices, a main of guinea fowl with mushrooms and black truffle costs €43.
In the Trastevere quarter, across the Tiber, check out Bir & Fud for great pizza and craft beers on tap, all brewed by Italian breweries. Go for the works and order a pizza topped with olives, prosciutto, boiled egg, mushrooms, and the Roman artichoke – you won’t believe how many toppings they can fit on a pizza. Prices vary from around €8 for a margherita to a few more euros for all the toppings, and the delicious beers are €5 for a half pint.
For wonderful gelato, head to Cremeria Monteforte, just steps from the Pantheon on Via della Rotonda, where you will find possibly the best strawberry ice cream in Rome, as well as creamy pistachio and limone flavours (don’t be put off by the queue). Take a seat on the fountain steps in Piazza della Rotunda and soak up the views of the Pantheon. Or grab an ice cream late at night – yes, they will still be open at 11pm.
Best Insider Tips
Best and Worst Times to Visit
The best time to visit Rome is spring or autumn – if you think queues are bad in March or April then you definitely don’t want to be there in the summer. August is scorching in Rome anyway, and it’s when Romans flee the city to cooler climates – so as a consequence much of the city is deserted and many shops are closed. Regarding the best days to visit, if you only have a couple of days in Rome don’t make one of them a Monday – many of the sights are closed.
Best Ways to Reach Central Rome
Both Ciampino and Fiumicino airports have public transport that runs to the center: an airport bus from the former, and buses and trains from the latter. Alternatively, take an official white taxi – it’s a fixed rate between the airport and any hotel within the Aurelian Wall (central Rome) which includes up to four people and luggage – presently this is €30 from Ciampino (and vice-versa) and €40 from Fiumicino. There is, unfortunately, a small number of official drivers who still try to scam tourists; a recent one involved informing passengers that the fixed rate only takes you as far as the walls and then the meter has to go on – this is not the case. Confirm the fixed rate with the driver before entering the cab, but if they still try to charge more, make a point of taking a note of their taxi number and report them.
Best Money (and Time) Saving Tip
It might be worth investing in a Roma Pass which is valid for 3 days, costs €30, and gets you free public transport in central Rome plus free entry to the first two attractions and discounted entry to around 40 others. It’s worth it just to skip the line. It makes sense to choose the most expensive attractions for your first and second visits, such as the combined Colosseum/Palatine/Forum ticket. The Roma Pass doesn’t cover the Vatican Museums – you could purchase the OMNIA Vatican & Roma pass for this. This costs €85 and does pretty much what the Roma Pass does, except you have access to audio guides, itineraries, and an open-topped bus.
If you are short on time, a skip-the-line ticket is well worth the price. And the hop-on, hop-off bus will take you around to all the major sites with minimal walking and a lot of time saved.
Stroll and soak up the beautiful surroundings. The UNESCO-listed historic city center is so compact that many of the sights are very close to each other – join the Italians in their early evening passeggiata, or stroll, and wander (very slowly) around the beautiful streets and squares. Do as the Romans do and enjoy a delicious gelato while you walk. Ahhh, la vita è bella.
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