I know there’s no such thing as a perfect holiday, but if there ever was one, it was our first trip to Rome.
From the moment our plane began its descent into the airport, I could tell this trip was going to be something special. As luck would have it, we’d been seated on the scenic side of the airplane, so while the pilot slowly eased us back onto the ground, we had a bird’s eye view of everything – the Colosseum, Vatican City, the Pantheon, and every other sight Italy’s capital is known for. (And at sunset, no less!) Seeing Rome for the first time, cast in the golden glow of the setting sun, was nothing short of magical. And that was only the beginning, everything that was to follow only continued to exceed our expectations.
The next four days were a blur of pizzas eaten in famous piazzas, daily walks taken through the pages of history books come to life, sunny afternoons and gelato, perpetually drained camera batteries, hours-long meals shared with old friends, and even a glimpse of the pope. Writing it all out like that makes our entire trip sound like one giant Italian cliche, but if there was ever a place to indulge in cliches, it would be Rome. All of the things that make you roll your eyes and say, ‘Of course you tried eleven different flavors of gelato in one day’ are undeniably, without a doubt essential to the success of your first trip to Rome. You’ll no doubt leave several pounds heavier, but trust me, it’s so worth it.
If this is your first time in Rome, you’re probably wondering what, of the massive list of things to do and see in this beautiful, historic city, is actually worth doing. The short answer is all of it, but unless you’ve got weeks to spare, you’ll probably have to make some choices. For first-timers to the city, and those interested in discovering the centuries of history embedded here, I’d recommend including the following 10 things on your Rome itinerary:
TAKE A TOUR OF THE COLOSSEUM
It’s not a trip to Rome if you haven’t stood in the center of the Colosseum and shouted ‘Are you not entertained?’, right?
Just kidding. Seeing as you can’t actually stand in the middle of the Colosseum anymore, you’ll probably have to reenact your favorite Gladiator scenes somewhere else, but definitely don’t miss seeing the Colosseum. Used for entertainment (most often of the gory, one-of-us-is-going-die-today type), the Colosseum is the largest and most well-preserved amphitheater from the Roman Empire. Seeing this epic piece of history with your own eyes is an absolute must-do in Rome.
The cheapest way to visit is to purchase a standard ticket that will gain you entrance into the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill nearby. If you’ve got the time and are willing to pay a few extra bucks, though, the very best way to visit the Colosseum is on a guided tour. You’ll get to see places standard ticket holders don’t have access to. Plus, nothing quite brings the history made here to life like having someone skilled in the art of story-telling walking you through it. We took the Underground & Third Ring Tour and loved every minute of it.
WALK THROUGH THE RUINS AT THE ROMAN FORUM & PALATINE HILL
Your ticket for the Colosseum also gets you into a few additional sights including the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days, so you don’t have to try to pack all three sights into the same day. (I actually recommend you don’t unless you have to. That would be an exhausting day!)
Tip: If you didn’t purchase your tickets online, queues for tickets are far shorter at the ticket booth at Palatine Hill than at the Colosseum, so buy your tickets there!
Palatine Hill is well-known for being the site of the first settlement in Rome, dating all the way back to the 8th century BC. The Roman Forum is a large plaza beneath the hill which was once the center of daily life in Rome and housed some of the city’s most important buildings and structures. What’s left today are only bits and pieces of what was once a gleaming white, prosperous city, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into early Roman life. For your visit, I suggest either hiring a guide or at the very least printing a written one from the internet so you’ll have an idea of what you’re looking at. Otherwise, you’ll just be walking through lots of famous ruins, which is still cool, but doesn’t provide a lot of context.
EXPLORE THE MASTERPIECES INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
The famous spiral staircase, the papal throne, the Gallery of Maps, the Sistine Chapel. If the opportunity to take in the beauty of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, possibly the most famous work of art ever, doesn’t convince you to visit the Vatican Museums, nothing will.
There are 54 different galleries and several courtyards within the Vatican Museums, each featuring carefully chosen paintings and sculptures collected by centuries of popes. Like the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museums contain more priceless works of art than can be seen in a day, but if you give yourself around three hours, you’ll still be able to see the museums’ most famous bits. Of all the places we visited in Rome, the Vatican Museums were the busiest, so if possible I recommend starting your day here and being in the queue for the museum when it opens at 9am.
TAKE A PEEK INSIDE ST PETER’S BASILICA
Like the Vatican Museums, you’ll find St Peter’s Basilica within the religious city-state of Vatican City. (That there is a small country within the city of Rome itself still sort of blows my mind!)
St Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world, and also the burial site of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles and whom those of the Catholic faith consider to be the first pope. Religious faith aside, St Peter’s is one of the most impressive churches I’ve ever been inside, and after traveling through Europe for three years, I can say I’ve been in a fair few. Entrance into St Peter’s Basilica is free, but if you want to climb the stairs to the top of the basilica’s dome, there is a small fee.
STAND BENEATH THE PANTHEON’S FAMOUS DOME
Thanks to the more modern buildings that now stand beside it, the Pantheon, one of Rome’s most famous former temples, almost looks a little out of place when you turn the corner and see it sitting there in the square with gelato shops and fast food joints just steps away. Even still, once you step inside and gaze upward at the Pantheon’s grand concrete dome, it’s easy to be transported back in time.
Located in the Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon is in surprisingly good condition in comparison to its equally ancient counterparts. No longer a temple, the Pantheon has served as a church since the 7th century. Entrance is free, but the Pantheon is closed to tourists during weekly mass. (However, if you’re interested in attending mass, I believe you will be allowed in, but obviously no pictures are allowed.) I recommend visiting on a sunny day if you want photos with the sunlight streaming in through the circular opening in the dome.
GO FOR A WALK ALONG THE RIVER TIBER
While it is possible to take a leisurely walk through the city, you’ll find far less people and a more peaceful setting along the banks of the Tiber.
If you’re looking to escape the traffic, I recommend walking the Tiber on the wide bike and walking path on the western bank of the river, accessible via steps down to the riverbanks at any of the bridges that cross the river. Besides several bridges, murals, and colorful buildings that line the river, you’ll also be able to spot the dome of St Peter’s from along this route. (This is not the walk to take if you’re landmark spotting, though. If you want a better view of a few of Rome’s landmarks near the Tiber, it’s better to walk the length of the river at street level.) Sunset makes for the most scenic time for a walk, but any time of day would be pleasant, assuming the temperatures haven’t reached scorching levels yet.
SIT ON THE SPANISH STEPS
One of the best places in Rome to rest your legs for a bit and soak up all the Italian atmosphere is the Spanish Steps. Located in the heart of the city, these 135 steps connecting the Piazza di Spagna below with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti above have been attracting artists, filmmakers, and visitors to Rome for almost 300 years now. At least when they aren’t completely blocked off for restoration, anyway, which was the unfortunate case when we visited. The steps have since reopened and are now as gleaming white as the Trinità dei Monti church that rises above them!
TOSS A COIN INTO THE TREVI FOUNTAIN
But make sure you do it the right way!
The Trevi Fountain, the largest fountain in Rome, is probably most well-known for the unique superstition and traditions surrounding it. Supposedly, if you toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, you’ll be destined to return to Rome someday. If you want to take it a step further, you can throw three coins over your shoulder – one ensuring your inevitable return to Rome, another promising you’ll find love, and the third that your love will lead to marriage.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a freaking lot of coins being tossed into a fountain, you’re right. Around €3,000 is collected from the fountain every evening and donated to a non-profit providing food to the homeless in Rome. The area surrounding the Trevi Fountain stays super busy pretty much all day long, but if you visit at early morning or after dark, you’ll be able to toss your coin(s) in the fountain without fear of being flicked in the head by everyone else’s coins.
PEOPLE WATCH IN THE PIAZZAS
The city of Rome is built around its piazzas, aka public squares that aren’t necessarily shaped like squares. These beautiful gathering places found around nearly every corner in the city center often feature famous landmarks and monuments, but they are also perfect spots for doing a little people watching.
Nearly every day we grabbed our lunch to go and found a different piazza to eat it in. Most of the larger piazzas have benches, but edges of fountains work just as well. Since the Spanish Steps were closed off, the piazzas were where we witnessed the sort of things you often only see in a city like Rome – people passionately kissing with little regard for who might be watching, an older man sharing a gelato with his dog (seriously), and tourists taking 35 selfies in the same spot (wait, never mind, that happens pretty much everywhere these days). My favorites were the elegant Piazza Navona (pictured above) and the bustling Piazza del Popolo from above which you can watch a beautiful sunset over the city of Rome.
CATCH A SUNSET FROM PINCIO TERRACE BY VILLA BORGHESE
For the very best (free) view in the city at sunset, head directly to the Pincio Terrace beside Villa Borghese. The terrace sits high above the Piazza del Popolo below and from here you’ll have sweeping views of the historic city center all the way to Vatican City. Watching the sun set behind the dome of St Peter’s while being serenaded with Italian tunes by the buskers that play here every evening will certainly make for a sunset you won’t soon forget.
You can access Pincio Terrace from Villa Borghese or via the steps leading up to it from the piazza below. To secure a spot along the front of the terrace, arrive about an hour before sunset. (This way you can see all the changing sky colors as the sunset gradually deepens before disappearing completely, too!) Since this is a popular spot for tourists, expect to be approached fairly often by people selling different things. Those selling flowers seem to be the most insistent, so for the most relaxing experience, it’s probably easiest just to buy a flower from the first person who asks and then keep it near you so that you get skipped over by the next person who comes around.
WHEN TO VISIT ROME
Rome is one of those places where I feel like the time of year you choose to visit can make or break your trip. Summers can get blistering hot, making walking from place to place and standing outside in full sun (which will be the case at many sights) unbearable. This is also when the city is at its busiest, so besides higher prices you’ll also be battling crowds and queues everywhere you go.
Winter is when Rome is at its least crowded, but at least for me, part of the appeal of an Italian vacation is being able to comfortably sit outside, relax in the sun, and enjoy a meal or treat without shivering through several layers of clothing. While Rome does experience a relatively mild winter, it can still get quite chilly, so unless you’re used to colder temperatures, I recommend visiting in early spring. Crowds are still considerably lighter than they’ll be in the summer, and the weather is pleasant enough to stay out in all day. We visited Rome in February and it seemed to be the perfect sweet spot weather-wise between winter and summer. And except for the Trevi Fountain and Vatican Museums, we didn’t encounter large crowds anywhere during our stay in the city.