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  • Joanne Herd

A First-Timer's Guide: The 12 Best Things to do in Rome

Updated December 6, 2023

Welcome to Rome, the heart of Italy's rich history and vibrant culture. If you're planning a trip to Rome, especially if it's your first trip to Rome, this guide is your go-to resource for the best things to do in the Eternal City.

Any trip to Italy is about more than just sightseeing; it's an immersive experience.


Rome offers a blend of historical landmarks, culinary delights, and hidden gems waiting to be explored. From the Colosseum's grandeur to the local charm of Trastevere, there's something for every traveler.


What sets Rome apart? It's the stories behind the sites, the flavors of seasonal fruits and vegetables from local markets, and the daily life that unfolds in its bustling piazzas. The best things to do in Rome are often in these small details.


But you can’t miss a few must-see sights!


So embark on your Roman journey with confidence. This guide is meant to help ensure that your trip to Rome is memorable, enjoyable, and filled with the essence of what makes Italy travel truly special.


Rome awaits, and it's time to explore!


Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I may get a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no cost to you.


The Colosseum

The Colosseum in Rome under a blue sky with feathery clouds, a must-see landmark and one of the best things to do in Rome.
The Colosseum, the most visited site in Rome

The Colosseum tops the list of the best things to do in Rome for a reason. It’s not just a must-see, it’s a must-experience.


Travel tip: If you take a tour and it doesn’t say that entrance to the Colosseum is included, you’ll only see it from the outside. If you want to go inside (and you do, trust me!) entrance to the Colosseum needs to be listed in the tour description.


My first time visiting Rome we didn’t go inside. My second trip, we still didn’t go inside. It took until my third trip to finally see it from the inside, and it was worth the wait!


Built nearly 2,000 years ago, the Colosseum is a symbol of ancient Roman engineering and gladiatorial combat. Imagine the roar of the crowd as gladiators fought for their lives, emperors watched with keen eyes, and the fate of men was decided with a mere thumb's gesture.



But more than just gladiator fights happened in the Colosseum. Dramatic performances were held there, as well as animal hunts, public executions, and battle reenactments. It's been a top Rome attraction since it was built!


The Colosseum's architecture is as grand as its history. With its massive elliptical structure, it could hold more than 50,000 spectators. The intricate system of underground passages, known as the hypogeum, orchestrated the spectacles above. It's not just a building; it's a testament to human ingenuity.

The Colosseum in Rome silhouetted and beautifully lit up at night against a black sky, showcasing one of the best things to do in Rome.
The Colosseum as you'll see it on a night tour

A trip to Rome wouldn't be complete without stepping into this iconic arena. But here's a tip: avoid the gladiator-like battle with crowds by visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Spring and autumn offer pleasant weather and thinner crowds, making them ideal times for Italy travel.


Consider booking a guided tour to delve deeper into the Colosseum's secrets, or simply wander with an audio guide, letting history unfold at your pace.


I took an after-dark Colosseum and Roman Forum tour, and it was perfect. There are a few companies that do after-dark tours, so you won’t have the place completely to yourself, but there are so many fewer people that it can feel like you’re the only group there.


The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum at sunrise. The sky is slightly pink as it gets light, and a warm light is starting to touch the ruined columns and grass surrounding them.
The Roman Forum at sunrise

If the Colosseum was the stage of ancient Rome, then the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum in Latin) and Palatine Hill are the backstage, where the real drama unfolded.


These sites are essential stops on any trip to Rome, offering a glimpse into the daily life, politics, and myths of a civilization that shaped the world.


The Roman Forum was the heart of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire, bustling with orators, politicians, and citizens. It was where speeches were given, ceremonies were held, and history was made.


Today, the key ruins and structures in the Forum, such as the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Saturn, stand as silent witnesses to a time when Rome was the center of power and culture.


Adjacent to the Forum, Palatine Hill holds a special place in Rome's mythological landscape. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, were raised by a she-wolf, Lupa, in a cave on this very hill. It's the birthplace of a city that would conquer continents.


When you walk through the Roman Forum you’re walking through a living museum. Wander through the ruins, imagine the grandeur that once was, and don't miss the views of the city from the hilltop. It's a panorama that captures the essence of Rome, where the ancient and the modern coexist in harmonious chaos.


The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill remind us that the best things to do in Rome aren't just about seeing sites but understanding the stories behind them. Whether you're a history buff or looking to enrich your Italy travel experience, these ancient grounds offer a timeless connection to human aspiration and creativity.


Since the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are close to the Colosseum, many guided tours visit all three, which can help you understand the significance of the entire site.


Also nearby you can find the Circus Maximus and Capitoline Hill, which are worth visiting if you have time.


The Pantheon

An early morning view of the Pantheon. The piazza is empty, with a fountain in the foreground and the columns and closed doors of the Pantheon behind.
An early morning view of the Pantheon

The Pantheon is not just one of the best-preserved monuments of ancient Rome; it's a masterclass in engineering that still leaves architects scratching their heads.


The Pantheon's history is as rich as its design. Built around 25 BC and reconstructed by Emperor Hadrian around 125 AD, it was a temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome. Later, it took on a second life as a Christian church. Talk about a career change!


Step inside, and you'll be greeted by the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. It was the largest dome in the world for over 1,300 years until it was surpassed by the Florence Cathedral in 1436.


The interior is a harmonious blend of art, religion, and mathematics, with the oculus, a 30-foot hole in the center, serving as the only source of natural light.


Inside the Pantheon you’ll find a variety of tombs and monuments, the most important being the tombs of Raphael, the great Renaissance artist, and Victor Emmanuel II, who unified Italy and became the first King of Italy in 1861.


Once you've marveled at the Pantheon's grandeur, don't rush off. The surrounding neighborhood is a charming maze of narrow streets, cafes, and boutiques. It's Rome at its most authentic, where locals sip espresso, artists find inspiration, and travelers discover hidden gems.


Trevi Fountain

A photo of Trevi Fountain. The main statue stands in a niche at the top, with the aqua waters pooling at his feet.
Trevi Fountain - how many coins will you throw in?

When it comes to the best things to do in Rome, the Trevi Fountain doesn’t just make a splash. It's a full-on wave of artistry, tradition, and romance. This iconic fountain is a symbol of Rome's artistic heritage and a must-visit on any trip to Rome.


Built in the 18th century and designed by Nicola Salvi, the Trevi Fountain is a masterpiece of Baroque art. The central figure, Oceanus, guides a shell-shaped chariot pulled by sea horses, while Tritons guide them. Every curve, splash, and sculpture tells a story, and it's all set against the backdrop of the Palazzo Poli.


Legend has it that tossing a coin over your left shoulder into the fountain ensures a return to Rome. Two coins? A new romance. Three coins? Marriage. The coins are collected regularly and donated to charity, so the coin tossing is doing good in more ways than one.


If you’d like to visit four of Rome’s main sites in one tour, I recommend this Rome walking tour that takes you to Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and Spanish Steps in one evening. Plus you’ll make a stop for gelato!


The Vatican Museums

A spiral staircase in the Vatican Museums. The slope is gradual and the stairs wide, with small risers so horses could walk up and down them.
One of the beautiful staircases in the Vatican Museums

If Rome is an open-air museum, then the Vatican Museums are a treasure chest. Located in the heart of Vatican City, these museums are a must-see on any trip to Rome, and not just for the art enthusiasts.


With a collection that contains over 70,000 paintings and sculptures in dozens of galleries, you’ll need multiple days if you want to see it all.


The Vatican Museums house some of the world's most renowned artworks. From the ancient sculptures of the Pio-Clementino Museum to the beautifully frescoed maps in the Gallery of Maps, it's a visual feast that spans centuries.


And let's not forget the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo's ceiling is the star of the show!

Planning a visit to the Vatican Museums is one of the best things to do in Rome, but requires a bit of strategy. The lines can be as epic as the art, so booking a ticket online in advance is a wise move.

Consider a guided Vatican Museum tour if you want to dive deep into the history and significance of the collection. And don't forget to wear comfortable shoes; the Vatican Museums are generous with art but not with seating.

You can also book early entry tours, which take you through the highlights of the museums before they open to the general public. One of the most interesting and exclusive Vatican Museum tours is with the Vatican Key Master, who will take you through the museums as he opens them for the day. Once your tour is over you’ll have the rest of the day to explore on your own.


The Sistine Chapel

A photo of Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In the center is the creation of Adam, with the other scenes surrounding it.
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes

While it’s part of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel deserves a spot of its own on any list of the best things to do in Rome.

The Sistine Chapel's ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is a visual symphony that tells the story of creation, humanity, and divine connection. It's not just art; it's a spiritual dialogue that speaks across centuries. Whether you're an art aficionado or a casual observer, the sheer scale, beauty, and complexity of the work are awe-inspiring.

Visiting this iconic site requires a bit of decorum. Photography is a no-no, and silence is golden. It's a place of worship, after all, as well as the place where popes are elected and the future of the Catholic Church is determined.

Dress modestly, and take your time to absorb the details. Your Instagram feed can wait; Michelangelo's genius cannot.

And here's a bonus: The Sistine Chapel serves as a gateway to St. Peter's Basilica. It's an Italy travel two-for-one deaI!


St. Peter's Basilica

A view across the Tiber River to St. Peter's Basilica. The river is in the foreground, with an old stone bridge with three arches crossing it.
A view across the Tiber River to St. Peter's Basilica

When it comes to architectural grandeur, it’s hard to surpass St. Peter’s Basilica, or in Italian the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano.

As one of the best things to do in Rome, a visit to this iconic church is more than a sightseeing stop; it's a journey into the heart of Christianity and a marvel of artistic achievement.

Designed by a dream team of architects including Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini, it's a symphony of domes, columns, and marbles that dazzles the eye and stirs the soul. Whether you're admiring the bronze baldachin (the canopy over the high altar) or gazing at Michelangelo's Pietà, the Basilica is a feast for the senses.

Now, about that dome. If you're up for a climb, heading to the top is a must-do on your trip to Rome. It's a bit of a workout, but the panorama of the Eternal City from the top is a reward worth every step.

When you’re in the Basilica you’ll notice the beautiful paintings on the walls, in vivid colors as fresh as the day they were made.

That’s because they’re not paintings at all! They’re actually mosaics, made of thousands of pieces of glass and stone.


You can visit on your own, but to really understand the highlights of this gigantic building I recommend taking a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica.

If you’re looking for a unique way to experience St. Peter’s Basilica, take a tour of the Scavi, the excavations underneath the Vatican. These tours need to be booked well in advance, since only 250 people per day are allowed to enter.

If you’d like to see the Scavi, or Necropolis, you’ll need to contact the Scavi excavations office directly. I can help my clients with these tour arrangements, if you're interested in becoming a client contact me to schedule a consultation call.


St. Peter's Square

A view of the Piazza San Pietro from the top of St. Peter's Basilica. The arched colonnades stretch into the distance. A line of statues can be seen across the edge of the roofline, and the huge obelisk in the Piazza is in the center of the photo. You can see people walking across the piazza far below.
Piazza San Pietro from the dome of St. Peter's

Designed by the masterful Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, St. Peter's Square, or the Piazza San Pietro, is a lesson in geometry that doesn't require a math degree to appreciate.


The colossal colonnades, shaped like embracing arms, create a sense of welcome that transcends mere architecture. It's a space that invites reflection, celebration, and, of course, a bit of people-watching.


Throughout history, St. Peter's Square has been a stage for events and gatherings that resonate far beyond Rome. From Papal blessings to concerts, it's where the world meets the Eternal City.


Whether you're there for a spiritual occasion or just to soak in the ambiance, the Piazza has a way of making a trip to Rome feel like a rendezvous with history.

And speaking of ambiance, don't rush through the Square. Take a moment to find the "center of the universe" (it's marked by a stone, not a sign), where the columns align in perfect symmetry.


Villa Borghese and the Galleria Borghese

A fall view of the lake at the Borghese Gardens. A small temple can be seen on the opposite shore, with its four columns reflected in the lake. The trees around it are starting to turn yellow and orange.
A fall view of the lake at the Borghese Gardens

If you're planning a trip to Rome and have a penchant for the finer things in life, the Villa Borghese and the Galleria Borghese should be on your "best things to do in Rome" list. And trust me, it's not just for the art aficionados; it's for anyone who appreciates beauty in all its forms.

The Borghese Gallery is a treasure chest of artistic gems. From Bernini's sensuous sculptures to Caravaggio's dramatic paintings, it's a visual feast that doesn't overwhelm but invites you to linger and admire.

Pro tip: booking tickets in advance is not just a suggestion; it's a necessity. Galleria Borghese is exclusive, not in a snobbish way, but in a "we value quality time with art" way. So, plan ahead to secure your spot. Or take a guided tour of the Borghese Gallery and learn the history behind the most significant pieces in the collection directly from an art historian.

Once you've had your fill of artistic brilliance, step outside into the gardens of the Villa Borghese. Whether you're rowing a boat on the lake or just strolling through the manicured paths, Villa Borghese offers a tranquil respite from the bustling city. Plus you can get one of the best views of Rome from the Pincio Terrace.


The Spanish Steps

A view of the Spanish Steps early in the morning. The sky is just starting to get light. No one is around. A fountain stands in the foreground, with the steps and church behind.
The Spanish Steps in the early hours of the morning

The Spanish Steps, or Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti as they're officially known, are where history meets high fashion. This iconic staircase is more than just a photo opportunity; it's a merging of the city's vibrant past and present.


At the bottom you'll find the Piazza di Spagna, with its fountain by Bernini, and at the top it's crowned by the beautiful church of Trinità dei Monti.


Built in the 18th century, the Spanish Steps were never meant to be a mere staircase. They were a grand statement of cooperation between the French, who owned the church at the top, and the Spanish, whose embassy was at the bottom. In between was a wooded hill, where the connecting staircase was built.


Since the steps were completed they’ve been a place for people to gather, socialize, and, of course, show off a bit. Today, they remain a lively hub where tourists and locals alike come to bask in the Roman ambiance.


Whether you're inclined to indulge in a bit of retail therapy or gastronomic delight, the area around the Spanish Steps is your playground. From luxury boutiques to charming cafes, it's where Rome dresses to impress.

If you’d like to do some shopping you’ll find famous Italian brands like Gucci, Versace, Fendi, Prada, Armani, and Valentino close by. Plus, some of my favorite hotels in Rome can be found in this area.


Piazza Navona

The sky is turning pink and purple at sunset over the Piazza Navona. The beautiful Baroque buildings line the piazza, and you can see the huge obelisk on top of Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center of the piazza. People are walking through, and sitting in cafes enjoying an aperitivo or dinner
Sunset in the Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is a stage where Rome's rich Baroque architecture, famous fountains, and vibrant street life come together in a delightful spectacle. If you're planning a trip to Rome, this piazza is a place to experience.

Let's talk about the Baroque flair first. With its grand palazzos and ornate churches, Piazza Navona is a showcase of Baroque style. It's elegant, it's extravagant, and it's oh-so-Roman.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by the legendary Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is the star of the Piazza’s fountain show. It's not just a fountain; it's a story in stone, with each of the four river gods representing a different continent.

And let's not forget the other fountains, the Fountain of Neptune and the Fontana del Moro, each with its own charm and grace, which serve to balance the overall composition of the Piazza.

But Piazza Navona is not just about architecture and fountains; it's about life. Street artists sketching portraits, performers entertaining crowds, cafes serving delectable gelato – it's a slice of Roman life.

Visiting Piazza Navona is one of the best things to do in Rome, not just for the sights but for the experience. It's where you can admire a Bernini masterpiece, enjoy an alfresco dinner, and maybe even get your portrait sketched by a local artist. It's a celebration of Rome's artistic and cultural spirit.


Trastevere

A quiet street in Trastevere, with just a couple of people walking through. There's a small cafe with a few tables that people are sitting at. A couple of bicycles are at the side of the street. The sun comes in at an angle, leaving the street shadowed but illuminating the ochre and gold hues of the buildings.
A quiet street in Trastevere

One of Rome’s most beautiful neighborhoods nestled on the west bank of the Tiber River, Trastevere is a delightful maze of narrow streets, ivy-clad buildings, and a charm that's distinctly Roman.


If you're on a trip to Rome, missing Trastevere would be like having pasta without the sauce – unthinkable!

Trastevere feels like a village within the city. It's where you'll find cobblestone streets, medieval houses, and a rich sense of history. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its stunning mosaics dating from the 12th century, is a testament to the area's deep-rooted connection to Rome's past.

Hungry? Trastevere won't disappoint. This is where you'll find some of the best restaurants in Rome, serving everything from traditional Roman fare to innovative culinary delights.


Whether it's a family-run trattoria or a chic modern eatery, the food here is a love letter to Italian cuisine. It's also one of the best places for a Rome food tour.


If you love gardens you’ll want to visit Rome’s Botanical Gardens, located in Trastevere between Gianicolo hill and Villa Farnesina. In the gardens and greenhouses you’ll find thousands of varieties of plants, from cacti to orchids, spread over almost 30 acres.


The bottom line: The best things to do in Rome


From the grandeur of the Colosseum to the intimate charm of Trastevere, we've journeyed through the best things to do in Rome. But let's be honest, this is just the tip of the Rome iceberg.


There's so much more to see, from the Castel Sant'angelo to the ruins of Ostia Antica, more churches and museums than you could visit in a lifetime, and plenty of fascinating day trips from Rome as well.


But a trip to Rome isn’t just about ticking boxes on a tourist checklist; it's about immersing yourself in a city that's as alive with history as it is with contemporary culture.


It's about savoring a gelato by the Trevi Fountain, getting lost in the art of the Vatican Museums, and feeling the pulse of the city in Piazza Navona.


So, pack your bags, brush up on your Italian (or at least your hand gestures 🤌), and get ready for the Italy travel experience of a lifetime. Rome is calling, and it's time to answer with a resounding "Sì!"


Whether you're a history buff, a food lover, or simply an admirer of beautiful things, Rome has something for you. So go on, explore further, dig deeper, and fall in love with the Eternal City. After all, when in Rome…


Want more Italy travel inspiration? Check out our Italy destination page!

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