In a city so filled with icons of antiquity and the Christian faith, it’s hard to know where to go first. Of course, your own interests will govern your choices, but there are certain sites that are almost obligatory landmarks of Italy and of all Europe, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
Rome is so big that it can overwhelm, so even the most devoted sightseer should take some time to kick back and enjoy la dolce vita in a park or sidewalk café. You’ll be able to choose the best places to visit with this handy list of the top attractions in Rome.
The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine
As the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the silhouette of the Flavian Amphitheatre is to Rome. The largest structure left to us by Roman antiquity, the Colosseum still provides the model for sports arenas – present day football stadium design is clearly based on this oval Roman plan.
The building was begun by Vespasian in AD 72, and after his son Titus enlarged it by adding the fourth story, it was inaugurated in the year AD 80 with a series of splendid games. The Colosseum was large enough for theatrical performances, festivals, circuses, or games, which the Imperial Court and high officials watched from the lowest level, aristocratic Roman families on the second, the populace on the third and fourth.
Beside the Colosseum stands the almost equally familiar Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch erected by the Senate to honor the emperor as “liberator of the city and bringer of peace” after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Lines are long and move slowly, so you can save time by joining the Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Half-Day Walking Tour and have a knowledgeable guide, as well.
The Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world, with an area of less than half a square kilometer, most of it enclosed by the Vatican walls. Inside are the Vatican palace and gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square, an area ruled by the Pope, supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. This compact space offers a lot of things to see, between its museums and the great basilica itself.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica is Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pieta, along with statuary and altars by Bernini and others. The unquestioned highlight of the Vatican museums is the Sistine Chapel, whose magnificent frescoed ceiling is Michelangelo’s most famous work.
In the Vatican Palace are the Raphael Rooms; the Borgia Apartments; the Vatican Library, and a number of museums that include the Picture Gallery, Museum of Secular Art, Etruscan Museum, and others. The collections you can see in these cover everything from papal coaches to 20th-century art reflecting religious themes.
Ticket lines for the Vatican’s top attractions are incredibly long, and you can spend several hours waiting in line. To save time, purchase a Skip the Line: Vatican Museums with St. Peter’s, Sistine Chapel, and Small-Group Upgrade tour in advance. This three-hour tour allows you to bypass the long lines and walk straight into the museums with a knowledgeable guide. Headsets are provided, and you can choose from several different departure times or upgrade to an evening or small-group tour.
The Pantheon – the best-preserved monument of Roman antiquity – is remarkably intact for its 2000 years. This is despite the fact that Pope Gregory III removed the gilded bronze roof tiles, and Pope Urban VIII ordered its bronze roof stripped and melted down to cast the canopy over the altar in St. Peter’s and cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Pantheon was rebuilt after damage by fire in AD 80, and the resulting brickwork shows the extraordinarily high technical mastery of Roman builders. Its 43-meter dome, the supreme achievement of Roman interior architecture, hangs suspended without visible supports – these are well hidden inside the walls – and its nine-meter central opening is the building’s only light source.
The harmonious effect of the interior is a result of its proportions: the height is the same as the diameter. Although the first Christian emperors forbade using this pagan temple for worship, in 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated it to the Virgin and all the Christian martyrs, and since then, it has become the burial place of Italian kings (Victor Emmanuel II is in the second niche on the right) and other famous Italians, including the painter Raphael.
Walking through the forum, now in the middle of a throbbing modern city, is like stepping back two millennia into the heart of ancient Rome. Although what survives of this center of Roman life and government shows only a small fraction of its original splendor, the standing and fallen columns, its triumphal arches, and remains of its walls still impress, especially when you consider that for centuries, the history of the Forum was the history of the Roman Empire and of the Western world.
Roman political and religious life was centered here, along with the courts, markets, and meeting places. After the seventh century, the buildings fell into ruin, and churches and fortresses were built amid the ancient remains. Its stones were quarried for other buildings and it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that systematic excavations brought the ancient buildings to light from under a 10-meter layer of earth and rubble.
Highlights not to miss are the Temple of Antoninus Pius, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Septimus Severus, the Curia, the Temple of Vesta, and the Arch of Titus.
One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, this 17th-century masterpiece has been immortalized in films until it is almost a required visit. Throwing a coin (not three) into the Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi) is a tradition that is supposed to assure your return to Rome.
Rome’s largest fountain, Fontana di Trevi is supplied by an aqueduct originally constructed by Agrippa, the great art patron of the first century BC, to bring water to his baths. The fountain was created for Pope Clement XII between 1732 and 1751 by Nicolò Salvi, and built against the rear wall of the palace of the Dukes of Poli.
It depicts the sea god Oceanus (Neptune), with horses, tritons, and shells. The water swirls around the figures and the artificial rocks, and collects in a large basin, always filled with coins.
The Spanish Steps
Take a look at a Rome tourist map, and you’ll see one area so filled with things to do that it’s hard to read the street names. This is the Centro Storico, the historic center of Rome, with so many art-filled churches, resplendent palaces, and lively squares that you could spend your whole vacation strolling its ancient streets and lanes.
Spend some time just to absorb the neighborhood’s atmosphere instead of going from one of its must-see sights to the next. Along with Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, stop in less well-known churches, such as Santa Maria del Popolo, where you’ll find works by Bernini and Caravaggio.
Pause at the Spanish Steps, the flight of irregular stairs and landings that lead up to the French church of Trinità dei Monti. The stairs take their name from Piazza di Spagna, the plaza at their base and one of Rome’s most typical squares. The stairs have been a favorite haunt of tourists, where they can sit and enjoy a gelato in the summer or warm their hands around cones of hot roasted chestnuts in the winter.
The boat-shaped fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps is known as the Barcaccia and was created by Pietro Bernini, father of the great Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Via Condotti, leading southwest from Piazza di Spagna, is Rome’s most fashionable shopping street, where the Caffè Greco is famous for the artists, writers, and musicians who have frequented it.
Santa Maria Maggiore
One of Rome’s most majestic churches, Santa Maria Maggiore has stood here since the fourth-century Pope Liberius had a vision of the Virgin directing him to build a church where snow fell the following day. Although it was August, snow did fall on the Esquiline hill the next morning, so here the great basilica was built.
Mass has been celebrated here every day since the fifth century. The three aisles of its 86-meter-long interior are separated by 40 columns of marble and four of granite, and the apse added in the 13th century is lined with mosaics of Old and New Testament themes, masterpieces of Rome’s famous mosaic artists.
Rome’s oldest mosaics, as old as the fourth century, decorate the upper walls, and the floor is inlaid with colored stone in the style of the expert 12th-century artisans of the Lake Como region. The first gold to reach Italy from the Americas shines on the coffered ceiling. Two popes are buried here; it’s one of Rome’s four papal basilicas, an important place of pilgrimage.
One of Rome’s most characteristic Baroque squares, Piazza Navona still has the outline of the Roman stadium built here by Emperor Domitian. It was still used for festivals and horse races during the Middle Ages, and was rebuilt in the Baroque style by Borromini, who also designed the magnificent series of palaces and the church of Sant’Agnese, on its west side.
Its facade, campanile, and dome highlight the way Baroque architecture weaves convex and concave surfaces, gables, windows, columns, and piers into a unified design. In the crypt of Sant’Agnese are Alessandro Algardi’s 1653 The Miracle of St. Agnes and the remains of a Roman mosaic floor. Sant’Agnese provided a model for Baroque and Rococo churches in Italy and elsewhere.
Although Borromini designed the square and its surrounding facades, it was his archrival, Bernini, who created its centerpiece, the beautiful Baroque fountain, Fontana dei Fiumi. The spirited fountain represents the four rivers then thought to be the largest on each of the known continents, with figures personifying the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata around the large basin, each accompanied by plants and animals of their respective regions.
The Stadium of Domitian on Palatine Hill
Strategically set 50 meters above the Tiber, the Palatine Hill shows evidence of Rome’s earliest settlement: rock-cuttings found in front of the Temple of Cybele show human activity as long ago as the ninth century BC. Later, this was the site chosen by the emperors and great aristocratic families for their palaces.
The Farnese Gardens were laid out on the hill in the 16th century for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a pleasure park of terraces, pavilions, lawns, flowerbeds, trees, and fountains designed as a kind of stage-setting for social gatherings.
Highlights of the Palatine Hill are the House of Livia (Augustus’ wife), the semi-subterranean Cryptoporticus, Domus Flavia, Domus Augustana, and most imposing of all, the Baths of Septimius Severus. The Palatine Hill is a lovely place to explore, combining a park with magnificent and impressive ruins of ancient Rome.
Borghese Gallery and Gardens
One of Rome’s largest parks, the Borghese Gardens contain a number of attractions that include two museums, the most prominent of which is the Villa Borghese. Built as a party villa and to house the Borghese art collection, the gallery contains paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and reliefs, most from the 15th to the 18th century, and include works by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, and Rubens.
Elsewhere in the park, Villa Giulia was built as a summer residence for the 16th-century Pope Julius III and houses the Etruscan Museum. More villas are from the world exposition that was held in Rome in 1911.
The park is an English-style landscape garden, with walking paths and ponds where you can rent row boats. You can also rent bikes or a surrey to explore the park. There is a good zoo, Bioparco di Roma, with naturalized enclosures and a miniature trail connecting its various sections. A number of its attractions will appeal to children, including playgrounds, weekend pony rides, and occasional puppet shows.