It may be a cliché, but there’s no better advice for visitors to the Eternal City than the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
This is where la dolce vita originated, after all. Of course, after more than 2,000 years in existence, there are enough things to do, see, and explore to keep you busy for years, with decadent pasta and gelato to indulge in, places to shop for everything from handicrafts to haute couture, archeological sites, Baroque churches, villas-turned-museums, and enough art to overload your senses. Whether you’ve never visited Rome or return often, here are 32 things you absolutely must do.
Related: The Best Hotels in Rome
Admire Ancient Ruins at the Roman Forum
Entering the huge archeological site of the Roman Forum and strolling through the ruins, you can almost imagine the citizens of Ancient Rome walking the cobblestoned streets in togas and bringing sacrifices to the temples. Of course, it helps to have a guide who can bring the stories to life, or you might mistake Augustus’s house for Livia’s, as there are no signs within the complex indicating what’s what.
The site dates back to around 500 B.C., but was enlarged by Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Domitian, and Trajan. In fact, you’ll see remnants of Imperial Rome extending beyond the limits of the Forum to include Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Titus, and the Circus Maximus, just to name a few.
After visiting the Forum, try your luck with the Bocca della Verità, an ancient stone carving of a bearded man’s face. According to myth, it will bite off the hand of anyone not telling the truth.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Visit the Colosseum
The most internationally recognized symbol of Rome, the Colosseum has a long and bloody history. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. It was the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and is believed to have packed up to 50,000 people inside. Despite centuries of neglect—it was used as a quarry until the eighteenth century—it has remained intact (for the most part).
Today nearly 4 million people visit annually. Buy your tickets in advance or be prepared to wait in a very long line. A combined ticket for the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill grants access to all three sites and lets you skip the line at the Colosseum.
Related: The Best Hotels Near the Colosseum
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Gaze at the Architectural Marvel That is the Pantheon
Though the name refers to a temple for all the gods, the Pantheon is actually the burial place of Rome’s kings and other prominent figures, including Raphael. The temple was built between 118 and 128 A.D. on the site of an older temple. A feat of architectural ingenuity, it was the world’s largest dome until the modern era, has been called the world’s only architecturally perfect building, and is the best-preserved monument of Imperial Rome. Walk inside and look up—the oculus in the dome is open to the sky, letting sunlight filter in.
Transport Yourself to Baroque Rome at Piazza Navona
One of the most popular public spaces in Rome, the magnificent, oval-shaped Piazza Navona is lined with restaurants, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and the Museo di Roma inside the Renaissance Palazzo Braschi. The city’s Baroque art is on full display here. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi features exquisitely carved figures representing the world’s four great rivers, and legend has it that the figure with his arms extended is recoiling in horror from the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini, Bernini’s rival.
Wander down the small street next to the church and make your way toward Via della Pace, one of the city’s most picturesque streets. At the end stands the church of Santa Maria della Pace, its white portico gleaming in the sun. Make time to stop for lunch or dinner at Ristorante Santa Lucia, where you can enjoy fresh salads, pasta, and other Roman specialties on the charming terrace surrounded by greenery.
Pay Your Respects to the Vatican and Its Museums
You could easily spend a whole day exploring the area around the Vatican. (Related: Read Our Vatican Travel Guide) Start at the Piazza di San Pietro, which Bernini designed to look like arms extended in an embrace. Besides St. Peter’s Basilica, the absolute must-see is the Vatican Museums, which contain Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Other highlights in the 1,400-room palace include the Raphael Rooms, old master paintings, and antique sculptures.
Just south of Vatican City stands Castel Sant’Angelo, where popes sought solace during sieges. Climb to the top for splendid views of Vatican City and the Tiber. At its base you can see the Ponte Sant’Angelo with Bernini’s exquisitely carved marble angels.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Visit St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica may be a pilgrimage site for Catholics, but even non-believers can appreciate the church’s architectural majesty. The original dates back to 349 A.D., when Constantine had a basilica built over the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope. That church was razed to make way for the current one, the world’s largest church at 18,000 square yards, which has been standing on this spot since 1626. Inside you’ll find Bernini’s masterful altarpiece—the great bronze baldacchino—and Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Climb the Spanish Steps
Fascinating in its contradictions, the Piazza di Spagna is both democratic and home to the city’s fanciest boutiques on Via dei Condotti, Rome’s legendary shopping street. (Related: Read Our Piazza di Spagna Travel Guide) Climb the famous steps leading to the Trinità dei Monti church to admire the piazza and Bernini’s ship-shaped fountain from above. If you’re feeling ambitious, climb to the Villa Medici for stunning views of the Centro Storico. Off to the side of the steps, you’ll find the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, one of Rome’s best under-the-radar museums.
Related: The Best Boutique Hotels in Rome
Trastevere means “across the Tiber,” and once you cross the river, you’ll notice the difference. (Related: Read Our Trastavere Travel Guide) The vibe is hip and bohemian, and you’ll find plenty of boutiques selling jewelry, perfumes, and handicrafts in a neighborhood where you can stroll aimlessly through the cobblestoned streets flanked by ochre buildings and stumble upon amazing discoveries.
At night, Trastevere buzzes with people hanging out and drinking at the bars that line the streets. It’s easy to wander around and find one that appeals to you, but a good place to start is Freni e Frizioni, which serves a great aperitivo and cocktails with fresh fruit.
Throw a Coin in the Trevi Fountain
Any trip to Rome would be incomplete without a visit to the Trevi Fountain. Nicola Salvi’s awe-inspiring Baroque masterpiece features a marble statue of Neptune at the center, surrounded by tritons. Legend has it that anyone who throws a coin in the fountain will return to Rome.
Unfortunately, the gorgeous fountain tends to be overrun by tourists vying for that perfect selfie angle and street hawkers selling cheap souvenirs. Visit early in the morning or late at night, when the crowds disperse. You might just experience a magical moment like in La Dolce Vita when Marcello Mastroianni wades into the fountain after Anita Ekberg.
Admire Masterpieces in Galleria Borghese and Stroll Through Villa Borghese
Nowhere in Rome—or dare we say, the world—will you find such a magnificent collection of Baroque art. The villa itself is a masterpiece, commissioned by seventeenth-century Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his treasures, including Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister as Venus Victrix, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s self portrait as Bacchus. Tickets must be reserved in advance for slotted times.
After perusing the villa’s galleries, take a leisurely stroll through the idyllic Villa Borghese park, where orange trees and flowers bloom. Meander south toward Piazza del Popolo. You can take rowboat out on the lake, visit the zoo, see a play at a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or stop by two museums on the park’s edge: the Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Get Lost in the Centro Storico
One of Rome’s great joys is losing yourself in the narrow cobblestone streets that make up Centro Storico. Starting at Piazza del Popolo, three main roads form a trident leading toward Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. Branching off are countless streets and alleyways where you’ll find churches with Baroque art, boutiques selling everything from carved wooden figurines to precious jewelry, private courtyards where the wealthiest Romans live, enticing gelaterias, cafés, and restaurants. Take your time and do as the Romans do—this is what la dolce vita is all about.
Shop Until You Drop at the Galleria Alberto Sordi
Take a mid-afternoon break and have coffee at the Illy kiosk at the Galleria Alberto Sordi. The galleria, which dates to 1922 and features stained-glass skylights and mosaic floors, is one of Europe’s most gorgeous places to shop. Check out stores like La Rinascente (Italy’s Macy’s), Zara, Massimo Dutti, and the Italian mega bookstore La Feltrinelli. For designer boutiques, walk along Via Condotti and the surrounding streets. For vintage and Italian heritage brands, stroll through the Campo Marzio.
Drink Espresso at Tazza d'Oro and Caffè Sant'Eustachio
When in Rome, you must drink espresso. Drip coffee and Starbucks don’t exist here. It’s not uncommon for Romans to drink three or more espressos a day, and there are some unspoken rules if you don’t want to look like a tourist when ordering. First, cappuccinos are only drunk at breakfast. After that, order un caffè(a shot of espresso) or un caffè macchiato (a shot of espresso with a dollop of steamed milk). If you ask for a latte, you’ll simply get milk. In the hotter months, ask for un caffè freddo (cold espresso sweetened with loads of sugar) or crema di caffè (the Roman equivalent of a frappuccino).
Take an Early Evening Break for Aperitivo at the Stravinskij Bar
After work, Romans love to meet for aperitivo, the Italian happy hour. Any bar worth its salt offers snacks, though these range from peanuts and potato chips to elaborate buffets of the finest finger food you’ve ever eaten. An Aperol Spritz is the classic Roman aperitivo, but Fragolino—a sweet sparkling wine that tastes like strawberries—comes in at a close second. The Stravinskij Bar at the Hotel de Russie—beloved for its lush courtyard garden and top-notch service—might just have the city’s most extensive cocktail list. Have a seat in the hotel’s beautiful secret garden and try the Stravinskij Spritz, which comes with olives, almonds, and potato chips.
Shop at the Market at Campo de’ Fiori
Shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables at the mercato is a way of life for many Romans. Lots of neighborhoods have their own markets, and the produce tends to be very high quality—perfect for preparing salads and sandwiches for a picnic. Even if you’re just visiting, you can immerse yourself in the local culture by shopping at the market. The one at Campo de’ Fiori bustles with vendors every morning except Sunday and is one of the city’s most popular.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Eat All the Gelato at Giolitti
Rome has no shortage of excellent gelaterias, and many Romans are steadfastly loyal to their favorite. Giolitti, a few blocks from the Pantheon, is the city’s best old-school gelateria. It’s been around since 1900 and serves dozens of flavors in a rainbow of hues. If you’re getting yours to go—and it’s less expensive if you do—line up at the cashier and pay before ordering. A small cone gets you two flavors plus whipped cream. Other favorites include the Gelateria del Teatro, which makes artisanal gelato using pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont, and other top-quality ingredients, and Fatamorgana, which uses all natural ingredients to make creative flavors like blueberry cheesecake.
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See Modern Art at MAXXI
With so much amazing ancient and Baroque art, it’s easy to forget that Rome has some wonderful modern art museums too. MACRO is great, but MAXXI (Museum of 21st Century Art) is arguably the best place to see modern and contemporary art. The building itself is a huge draw—designed by Zaha Hadid, it’s all glass, big open spaces, and staircases that seem to float in the air. Currently on view is a retrospective of Olivo Barbieri, one of Italy’s most important contemporary photographers.
Ascend Gianicolo for Panoramic Views
Rome was built on seven hills, and while Gianicolo (or Janiculum) isn’t technically one of them, it is the highest vantage point from which to see the city. Roman lovers gather here at dusk (it’s an infamous makeout spot), and street vendors may try to sell you glowing tchotchkes. But ignore all that and focus on the panoramic vistas. From up here, you can see all the most important monuments: the Spanish Steps, Palazzo Venezia, and beyond. The long and winding road can be quite a hike to the top, so it’s better to go by car or Vespa if you can.
Sample Fried Artichokes in the Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto, full of distinct charms, forms a small area between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Venezia. From the Renaissance until the nineteenth century, its gates were locked after sunset. Today it still feels distinct from other neighborhoods because of its concentration of Jewish restaurants, shops, and bakeries. Ristorante Piperno is one of the oldest and best places to get carciofi alla giudia (Jewish artichokes), which are fried whole and absolutely delicious. Also try the fiori di zucca (fried stuffed zucchini flowers).
Indulge in La Cucina Romana
Italian cuisine is very regional, and though you might see dishes like ragù alla bolognese (the typical meat sauce that hails from Bologna) on restaurant menus, stick to Roman dishes. Traditionally dubbed la cucina povera, Roman specialties tend to be simple, with a few ingredients prepared using tried-and-true methods.
Typical appetizers include fried artichokes, fried salt cod filets, and plenty of cheese and salumi. The most classic Roman pastas are bucatini all’amatriciana, a spicy tomato sauce with peperoncino, guanciale (pig’s cheek), and pecorino romano; spaghetti alla carbonara, a creamy sauce made with raw egg yolk, black pepper, guanciale, and pecorino romano; and tagliatelle cacio e pepe, a winning combination of pecorino romano and black pepper.
To try these dishes in a typical no frills Roman trattoria, head to La Carbonara in Monti. For fine dining with avant-garde takes on Rome’s traditional dishes, go to the Michelin-starred Ristorante All’Oro.
Related: What to Eat in Rome
Find the Secret Keyhole in the Aventino
If you want to impress your fellow travelers, find the nondescript door to the Priory of the Knights of Malta up on the Aventine Hill, just past the orange grove. Peep through the keyhole and you’ll spy a perfect view of Saint Peter’s Basilica across the city. No one knows if it was designed that way or if it was just a lucky coincidence, but the centuries-old building is truly majestic. Before entering the hands of the Knights of Malta, it was a fortified palace belonging to Alberico II, who ruled Rome from 932-954, a Benedictine monastery, and home to the Knights of Templar.
Find Caravaggio’s Greatest Paintings in Churches
Stumble into just about any church and you’re likely to see some impressive art and architecture. There are a few, however, with altars by Caravaggio and other Renaissance and Baroque masters that will leave you awestruck.
On Piazza del Popolo, the church of Santa Maria del Popolo holds two of Caravaggio’s masterpieces: the Crucifixion of Saint Peterand the Conversion of Saint Paul. Raphael, Bernini, and Pinturicchio also contributed to its splendid interiors. Near Piazza Navona, the smaller, unassuming church of San Luigi dei Francesidisplays three of Caravaggio’s greatest works: the Calling of St. Matthew, Matthew and the Angel, and Matthew’s Martyrdom.
Experience the Nightlife in Testaccio
As shown in films like La Dolce Vita and the more recent La Grande Bellezza, Romans know how to party. After dark, the city becomes a playground for bacchanalia. In Fellini’s day, Via Veneto was the place to go, but nowadays the epicenter of nightlife is farther south in Testaccio. Formerly a working class neighborhood and home to the city’s largest butchery, Testaccio is now filled from end to end with a profusion of bars and nightclubs, and the party doesn’t stop until dawn. A word to the wise: Be careful in your choice of footwear. The cobblestone streets are a dire enemy of stilettos.
Take a Day Trip to the Sea in Ostia Antica
It seems like all the locals have a house by the sea, and when the sweltering heat of summer sets in, it’s easy to understand why. Rome isn’t directly on the Mediterranean, but you don’t have to go far to find great beaches. If you have an extra day to escape the city, a trip out to one of the seaside towns surrounding Rome is absolutely worth it.
Popular spots among the locals include Ostia Antica (you’ll pass by Roman aqueducts on the train ride there), Fregene, and Cerveteri. Farther south, about halfway to Naples, there’s the whitewashed, unblemished town of Sperlonga—the perfect place for some R&R after all that partying in Testaccio.
Zip Around the City on a Vespa
Want to see Rome the way the locals do? Hop on the back of a Vespa driven by one of Scooteroma’s awesome guides. Founded by American expat Annie Ojile, the company offers a variety of tours, including a classic tour, a cinema lover’s tour, and a street art tour of under-the-radar neighborhoods Ostiense, Quadraro, and Pigneto, but they can also customize tours based on your interests and time constraints. Most of the guides are born and raised in Rome and treat you more like a friend who’s visiting from out of town than a tourist.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Explore the Up-and-Coming Neighborhood of Pigneto
Filmmaker, poet and novelist Pier Paolo Pasolini depicted the lives of working-class Romans in movies like Accattone, which was filmed on the streets of Pigneto—where he lived—in 1961. It’s still somewhat gritty, but the neighborhood is coming of age, with hip bars like Spirito—a speakeasy hidden behind a sandwich shop—and restaurants like Primo al Pigneto. Stroll down via del Pigneto and via Fanfulla da Lodi, which are full of street art and lined with vintage shops, bars, and restaurants. And be sure to visit Pasolini’s old haunt, Necci dal 1924, where locals sit outside for an al fresco aperitivo or a light meal. Luckily, the neighborhood has become much more accessible since Metro line C was completed.
Tour Rome’s Hidden Treasures With Imago Artis
A city with over 2,000 years of history is bound to have some secrets that don’t appear in any guidebooks. If you want to dig deeper, enlist the help of Imago Artis, a luxury tour operator run by charismatic locals Fulvio de Bonis and Pietro Migliori. They can get access to exclusive sites, like a museum of ancient ruins in the basement of a private home, a noble residence tucked away in the city center with panoramic views of Rome’s terra cotta rooftops, a hard-to-find chapel with incredible Renaissance frescoes, and even the incredible gardens of the Knights of Malta, which are normally off limits to the public. Whether it’s your first trip to Rome or your hundredth, they’ll be able to surprise you by revealing some aspect of the city you’ve never experienced before.
Sip Craft Cocktails at Chorus Café and Caffe Propaganda
Rome may not have as many cocktail bars as New York or London, but fans of shaken and stirred drinks will find plenty of excellent watering holes in the Eternal City. Start at the Stravinskij Bar in the luxurious Hotel de Russie, where many of the city’s best bartenders got their start. Choose a drink from the extensive list of classics and originals and soak up the atmosphere in the secret garden. Then head to Chorus Café, where Massimo d’Addezio (an alum of the Stravinskij Bar) shakes up creative cocktails in a beautiful marble-walled space near the Vatican. The Japanese restaurant Zuma is popular among stylish locals, who flock there for Asian-inspired cocktails on the rooftop terrace atop Palazzo Fendi. And don’t miss Caffè Propaganda, where expert bartenders experiment with unusual flavor combinations in a French-inspired bistro near the Coliseum.
Check Into Luxurious Hotels Like the Hotel de Russie and Hotel Eden
Rome’s most luxurious hotels ooze Italian style, with gorgeous accommodations, excellent restaurants and bars, and relaxing spas. The Hotel de Russie is perfect for travelers who appreciate flawless service, a renowned restaurant and bar, and modern design in a perfect location on the bustling Piazza del Popolo. Once Fellini’s haunt, the Hotel Eden has emerged from a top-to-bottom renovation and was reborn with plush rooms and suites, a glamorous lobby bar decked out in marble and frescos, two rooftop restaurants (one for fine dining and the other more casual), a lounge, and spa. Everyone who’s anyone has stayed at Hotel Hassler, a grand dame perched atop the Spanish Steps that’s a favorite of royalty and celebrities with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Palazzo Dama—housed in a restored aristocratic villa—sports a cool, eclectic design and has a Peruvian restaurant and the only pool right in the city center. Hotel Vilòn is tucked away in the 16th-century house annexed to Palazzo Borghese, with a gorgeous design featuring the photographs of renowned Florentine photographer Massimo Listri.
Related: The Best Luxury Hotels in Rome
Sample the Best Pizza at Bonci Pizzarium and Pizzeria ai Marmi
It may seem like there’s a pizzeria on every corner, but it’s worth seeking out the very best. Gabriele Bonci has made a name for himself with his popular Bonci Pizzarium, a tiny pizza al taglio spot where you order slices topped with mozzarella, prosciutto, zucchini, and other delicacies to go. Want to sit and relax with an individual pie? Line up for a table at Pizzeria ai Marmi in Trastevere, which looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s and only serves thin-crust Roman pies fresh out of a wood-fired oven and a selection of antipasti like supplì. Emma is a modern restaurant by the family behind renowned bakery Roscioli with a full menu, but it’s best known for its delicious pizzas. Hotel Eden’s casual restaurant, Il Giardino, serves deliciously light pizzas made with four types of flour and organic ingredients.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rome Travel Guide
Find Rome’s Cinematic History Around Via Margutta
Strolling through Rome’s cobblestoned streets can sometimes feel like being in a movie, but there are a few places with an especially cinematic history. While Via Veneto—featured in La Dolce Vita—has lost much of its charm, there are plenty of other spots worth finding. One of the most picturesque is Via Margutta, where legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini lived with his wife, the actress Giulietta Masina. You can still see the plaque on his building on the northern end of the street. He often worked at Bar Canova on Piazza del Popolo, where he had his own office in the back. Many of his drawings still hang on the walls. Gregory Peck’s character in Roman Holiday lived on Via Margutta too. Keep walking and soon enough you’ll come to Piazza di Spagna, which was featured in Roman Holiday and The Talented Mr. Ripley to name just two.
Related: There’s a Surprisingly Affordable Hotel on the Via Veneto. Find out which one in our guide to The Best Budget Hotels in Rome.
Ogle Ancient Sculptures Inside a Former Power Plant at Centrale Montemartini
If you’ve visited the Vatican Museums and the Capitoline Museums, you might think you’ve seen your fill of ancient sculptures. Think again. The Centrale Montemartini in Ostiense displays the overflow of ancient sculptures from the Capitoline Museum’s collection in Rome’s first power plant. The machinery has remained intact, forming a striking backdrop for the marble masterpieces. Nowhere else does the idea of ‘gods and machines’ come to life quite so vividly. The best part? You’re likely to have the place to yourself, meaning you can commune with the art free of the typical tourist crowds.