Rome Travel Guide
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Rome is the most fascinating city in Italy. You could easily spend a month here and still only scratch the surface. It’s an ancient place packed with the relics of over 2,000 years of inhabitation, yet it’s so much more than an open-air museum: its culture, its food, its people make up a modern, vibrant city that would be worthy of a visit irrespective of its past. As a historic centre, it is special enough; as a contemporary European capital, it is utterly unique.
Once the heart of the mighty Roman Empire, and still the home of the papacy, Rome is made up of layers of history.
There are its ancient Roman features, of course, but beyond these, there’s an almost uninterrupted sequence of monuments – from early Christian basilicas and Romanesque churches to Renaissance palaces and the fountains and churches of the Baroque period, which perhaps more than any other era has determined the look of the city today.
The modern epoch has left its mark too, from the ponderous Neoclassical architecture of the post-Unification period to prestige projects like Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI exhibition space.
These various eras crowd in on one another to an almost overwhelming degree: medieval
churches sit atop ancient basilicas above Roman palaces; houses and apartment blocks incorporate fragments of eroded Roman columns; and roads and piazzas follow the lines of ancient amphitheatres and stadiums.
You won’t enjoy Rome if you spend your time trying to tick off sights.
However, there are some places that it would be a pity to miss, namely the Vatican and its incredible museums, the star attractions of the ancient city – the Forum and Palatine, the Colosseum – and the signature Baroque churches, fountains and art, in particular the works of Borromini and Bernini.
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From the Pantheon to the Vatican, here are the best things to do in Rome.
The Pantheon is easily the most complete ancient structure in Rome and, along with the Colosseum, visually the most impressive.
It was originally a temple that formed part of Marcus Agrippa’s redesign of the Campus Martius in around 27 BC, but was entirely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 125 AD.
It’s a formidable architectural achievement even now, with a diameter precisely equal to its height (43.3m). The oculus – from which shafts of sunlight illuminate the musty interior – is a full 8.7m across.
Most impressively, there are no visible arches or vaults to hold the whole thing up; instead, they’re sunk into the walls.
In its heydey, it would have been richly decorated, the coffered ceiling heavily stuccoed and the niches filled with the statues of gods.
Now, apart from its sheer size, the main points of interest are the tombs of two Italian kings and the tomb of Raphael.
There are remnants of the Roman Empire all over the city, but the most concentrated grouping is the area that stretches southeast from the Capitoline Hill and hosts the Colosseum, Arch of Constantine, Forum and Palatine Hill.
Mussolini ploughed the Via dei Fori Imperiali road through here in the 1930s, with the intention of turning it into one giant archeological park, and this to some extent is what it is.
Although its glories are hard to glimpse now, the five or so acres that make up the Roman Forum have a symbolic allure that make it one of the most compelling sets of ruins anywhere in the world.
Rising above the Forum, the Palatine Hill is supposedly where the city of Rome was founded and is home to some of its most ancient remains.
In a way, it’s a greener, more pleasant site to tour than the Forum.
The Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Spagna) sweep down in a cascade of balustrades and balconies to Piazza di Spagna, whose distinctive boat-shaped Barcaccia fountain is the last work of Bernini’s father.
At their top, the 16th-century, rose-coloured Trinità dei Monti church looks out over Rome.
In the nineteenth century, the steps were the hangout of young hopefuls waiting to be chosen as artists’ models, and nowadays they provide the venue for international posing and flirting late into the summer nights.
The only Spanish thing about them, incidentally, is the fact that they lead down to the Spanish Embassy, which also gave the piazza its name.
Facing directly onto Piazza di Spagna, opposite the fountain, is the house where poet John Keats died in 1821.
It now serves as the Keats-Shelley House, an archive of English-language literary and historical works and a museum of manuscripts and literary memorabilia relating to the Keats circle of the early 19th century.
It’s hard to miss the Fontana di Trevi: a Baroque gush of water over sprawling statues and rocks built onto the backside of a Renaissance palace.
There was once a more modest version around the corner, but in the 16th century Urban VIII decided to upgrade it and employed Bernini, among others, to design an alternative.
Work didn’t begin, however, until 1732, when Niccolò Salvi won a competition to design the fountain, and even then it took 30 years to finish.
Salvi died in the process, his lungs destroyed by the dank waterworks of his construction.
The fountain was restored by the fashion house Fendi in 2015 at a cost of €2.2 million and is now a popular hangout and, of course, the place you come to chuck in a coin if you want to guarantee your return to Rome.
You might remember Anita Ekberg frolicking in it in La Dolce Vita, however, any attempt at re-creating the scene would be met with an immediate reaction by the police.
Some of the areas immediately north of Rome’s city centre are taken up by its most central park, Villa Borghese, which serves as valuable outdoor space for both Romans and tourists as well as hosting some of the city’s best museums.
The wonderful Galleria Borghese was built in the early 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese and turned over to the state in 1902.
Today it’s one of Rome’s great treasure houses of art and should not be missed; be sure to book in advance.
The Villa Borghese’s two other major museums are the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna and the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, which holds the world’s primary collection of Etruscan treasures.
A 10-minute tram journey north of Piazza del Popolo, MAXXI is a museum of 21st-century art and architecture.
Opened to much fanfare in 2010 in a landmark building by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, it’s primarily a venue for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture (though it does have small collections of its own).
The building, a simultaneously jagged and curvy affair, is worth a visit in its own right, with its long, unravelling galleries and a towering lobby encompassing the inevitable café and bookstore.
The Vatican City, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, was established as a sovereign state in 1929 and today has around 1,000 inhabitants.
The Basilica di San Pietro, better known to many as St Peter’s, was built here on the site of St Peter’s tomb. It was worked on by the greatest Italian architects of the 16th and 17th centuries.
On entering, the first thing you see is Michelangelo’s graceful Pietà, completed when he was just 24.
Stretching north, the Renaissance papal palaces are now home to the Vatican Museums.
So much booty from Rome’s history has ended up here, from both classical and later times, and so many of the Renaissance’s finest artists were in the employ of the pope, that it really is quite simply the largest, most compelling museum complex in the world.
There’s no point trying to see everything in one visit, but don’t miss the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
Roman cooking is traditionally dominated by the earthy cuisine of the working classes, with influence from the city’s Jewish population.
You’ll find all sorts of pasta, but spaghetti and the local speciality, bucatini, are the most common. The most famous local pasta dishes are cacio e pepe, alla carbonara, alla gricia and all’amatriciana.
Fish features most frequently as salt cod – baccalà – best eaten Jewish-style, deep-fried.
Offal is also key, and although it has been ousted from many of the more refined restaurants, you’ll still find it at more traditional places.
Look out, too, for roasted milk-fed lamb, grilled lamb chops, and saltimbocca alla Romana, thin slices of veal cooked with a slice of prosciutto and sage on top.
Artichokes are the quintessential Roman vegetable and fiori di zucca – batter-fried stuffed courgette blossom – is another unmissable side dish.
Roman pizza has a thin crust and is best when baked in a wood-fired oven, but you can also find lots of great pizza by the slice.
Northern Lazio is quite a different entity from the region south of the capital. Green and wooded in the centre, with few large towns, its steadily more undulating hills are similar to the landscapes of Tuscany and Umbria further north.
With determination, you can see much of it on day-trips from Rome, made easier if you have a car. Foremost among the area’s attractions is the legacy of the Etruscans.
To the west, some of their most important sites, Cerveteri and Tarquinia, are readily accessible by road or rail.
Alternatively, there’s the town and lake at Bracciano, and pleasant beaches from Tarquinia to Civitavecchia. Viterbo can serve as a base if you’re thinking of a two- or three-day visit, particularly if you’re touring without a car.
It’s close to some fine examples of the region’s Mannerist villas and gardens at Caprarola and Bagnaia and the amazing monster park at Bomarzo.
D.H. Lawrence had pretty much the last word on the plain, low hills stretching north from Rome towards the Tuscan border, describing the landscape as “lifeless looking … as if it had given up its last gasp and was now forever inert.” His Etruscan Places, published in 1932, is one of the best introductions to this pre-Roman civilization and its cities, which, one or two beaches excepted, are the main reasons for venturing out here.
Cerveteri provides the most accessible Etruscan taster from Rome. The settlement here dates back to the tenth century BC. Once known as Caere, it ranked among the top three cities in the twelve-strong Etruscan federation, its wealth derived largely from the mineral-rich Tolfa hills to the northeast – a gentle range that gives the plain a much-needed touch of scenic colour. In its heyday, the town spread over 150 hectares (something like thirty times its present size), controlling territory 50km up the coast. By the third century BC, Caere was under Roman control, leading to the decline of Etruscan culture in the region. The present town is a thirteenth-century creation, dismissed by D.H. Lawrence – and you really can't blame him – as "forlorn beyond words".
The necropolis at Tarquinia is second only to Cerveteri among northern Lazio’s Etruscan sites. Founded in the tenth century BC, the city’s population peaked at around one hundred thousand but the Roman juggernaut triggered its decline six hundred years later and only a warren of graves remains. The town itself is pleasant, its partial walls and crop of medieval towers making it a good place to pass an afternoon after seeing the ruins. Its museum is also the region’s finest outside Rome.
The Lago di Bracciano fills an enormous volcanic crater, a smooth, roughly circular expanse of water that’s popular – but not too popular – with Romans keen to escape the city’s summer heat; its shores are fairly peaceful even on summer Sundays. The best place to swim is from the beach at Lungolago Argenti, a ten-minute walk along Via del Lago from Bracciano Town. You can rent a boat and picnic on the beach – or eat in one of the nearby restaurants.
The smallest of northern Lazio’s lakes is the only one deemed worthy of nature-reserve status. Lago di Vico is a former volcanic crater ringed by mountains, the highest of which, Monte Fogliano, rises to 963m on the western shore. The Via Cimina traverses the summit ridges and is a popular scenic drive, dotted with restaurants, but there’s a quieter road (closed to cars) near the shoreline, and lovely spots to swim from, with small beaches.
The capital of its province, and indeed of northern Lazio as a whole, Viterbo is easily the region’s most historic centre, a medieval town which, during the thirteenth century, was once something of a rival to Rome. It was, for a time, the residence of popes, a succession of whom relocated here after friction in the capital, and today there are some vestiges of its vanquished prestige – a handful of grand palaces and medieval churches, enclosed by an intact set of walls. The town is a well-kept place and refreshingly untouched by much tourist traffic; buses and trains run frequently to Rome and you can comfortably see the town in a day, but it makes the best base for seeing the rest of northern Lazio.
North along the Via Cassia from Viterbo, Lago Di Bolsena is a popular destination, though rarely overcrowded; its western shore is more picturesque and better for camping rough. On the northern shore of the lake, Bolsena is the main focus, a relaxed and likeable place that’s worth a brief stop. The town itself is set back from the water, around the main square, Piazza Matteotti, off which run medieval nooks and alleyways to the deconsecrated thirteenth-century church of San Francesco, which occasionally hosts concerts and exhibitions. The adjacent sixteenth-century portal is the entrance to the medieval borgo, with the well-preserved thirteenth-century Rocca Monaldeschi perched over its western end. Inside the castle is the local museum, with modest displays on underwater archaeology and Villanovan and Etruscan finds, plus stunning views from the ramparts.
East of Piazza Matteotti, the twelfth-century basilica of Santa Cristina conceals a good Romanesque interior behind a wide Renaissance facade added in 1494.
The saying goes that the Italian South begins with the first petrol station below Rome, and certainly, there’s a radically different feel here. Green wooded hills give way to flat marshy land and harsh unyielding mountains that possess a poor, almost desperate, look in places. The resorts here, especially Terracina and Sperlonga, are fine places to take it easy after the rigours of the capital. Ponza, a couple of hours offshore, is truly one of Italy’s undiscovered treasures. Inland, the day-trip towns of the Castelli Romani, the peaceful retreat of Subiaco, and Cassino with its nearby abbey of Montecassino, are all rewarding points to head for.
A further 15km down the coast from San Felice, Terracina is an immediately likeable little town, divided between a tumbledown old quarter high on the hill and a lively newer area by the sea. During classical times, it was an important staging post on the Appian Way, which meets the ocean here; nowadays it’s primarily a seaside resort with good beaches and frequent connections with the other points of interest, including daily ferries and hydrofoils to Ponza. Apart from the scrubby oval of sand fringing the centre, Terracina’s beaches stretch west pretty much indefinitely from the main harbour and are large enough to be uncrowded.
The Lazio coast to the south of Rome is a more attractive proposition than the northern stretches. Its towns have a bit more charm, the water is cleaner, and in the further reaches, beyond the flats of the Pontine Marshes and Monte Circeo, the shoreline begins to pucker into cliffs and coves that hint gently at the glories of Campania – all good either for day-trips and overnight outings from the city or for a pleasingly wayward route to Naples.
Scattered across the sea between Rome and Naples, the Pontine islands are relatively unknown to foreign travellers. Volcanic in origin, only two are inhabited – the small island of Ventotene and its larger neighbour Ponza. The latter bustles with Italian tourists, especially Romans, between mid-June and the end of August, but at any other time, it’s yours for the asking.
The group’s main island, Ponza, is only 8km long and 2km across at its widest point. Ponza Town is a sight to behold: a jumble of pastel-coloured, flat-roofed houses heaped above a pink semicircle of promenade that curls around the harbour. It makes a marvellous place to rest up for a few days, having so far escaped the clutches of designer boutiques and souvenir shops. Although the island lacks specific sights, Ponza is great for aimless wandering; in the early evening, locals parade along the yellow-painted Municipio arcade of shops and cafés. For lazing and swimming, there’s a small, clean cove in the town.
The coast south of Terracina is probably Lazio’s prettiest stretch, the cliff punctured by tiny beaches signposted enticingly from the road. Sperlonga, built high on a rocky promontory, is a fashionable spot for Roman and Neapolitan families, its whitewashed houses, arched alleys and stepped narrow streets almost Moorish in feel. Both the old upper town and modern lower district are almost given over entirely to tourists during summer, but it’s still a pleasant spot, with cars not allowed into the old centre. There are beaches either side of Sperlonga’s headland, and although a lot of space is private, it’s never too difficult to find a decent spot.
Whether you want to be in the centre of the action or prefer somewhere quieter, Rome has a neighbourhood to accommodate you.
These central areas are within walking distance of many of Rome’s key sites, but while there’s plenty of moderately priced accommodation you’ll need to book well in advance to nab cheaper places.
This artsy neighbourhood near the Colosseum is known for great vintage and indie shopping, alfresco coffee spots and lively nightlife.
Located on the west bank of the Tiber River, Trastevere is away from the busy tourist areas but still within walking distance.
The winding cobblestone streets, colourful buildings and flower-filled balconies make it one of Rome’s prettiest neighbourhoods.
It can be noisy at night, particularly in summer, so look for the quieter streets.
Browse the best hotels in Rome.
Rome is a great place to eat. Romans know a good deal about freshness and authenticity and can be demanding when it comes to the quality of the dishes they’re served.
There are lots of good restaurants in the centro storico, and it’s surprisingly easy to find places that are not tourist traps – prices in all but the really swanky restaurants remain pretty uniform throughout the city.
The small streets that surround Campo de’ Fiori square are filled with restaurants, wine bars and cafes while the square itself hosts a produce market.
The area around Via Cavour and Termini is packed with inexpensive places, but you’ll do even better heading to the nearby student area of San Lorenzo, where you can often eat superior food for the same money.
South of the centre, Testaccio is well endowed with good, inexpensive trattorias. The Testaccio Market is a major highlight but the whole neighbourhood is generally great for traditional Roman food.
The best way to get around the centre of Rome is to walk. However, the public transport system is cheap, reliable and as quick as the clogged streets allow.
The atac.roma.it website has information in English and a route planner; and the Muoversi a Roma website (and its free app, Roma Mobilità) have a journey planner that uses real-time data to find the quickest route.
Buses run till around midnight, when a network of nightbuses comes into service, accessing most parts of the city and operating until about 5.30am.
The metro operates from 5.30am to 11.30pm (till 1.30am on Fri and Sat). Its two main lines, A (red) and B (blue), crossing at Termini, only have a few stops in the city centre.
The most useful on metro line A are Ottaviano (for the Vatican), Flaminio (near Piazza del Popolo), Spagna (by the Spanish Steps), Barberini (at Piazza Barberini), Repubblica (at Piazza Repubblica) and San Giovanni (near the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano).
On line B, useful stops include Piramide (near Testaccio); Circo Massimo (by the Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill); Colosseo (by the Colosseum) and Cavour (near the Monti district).
A new line, C, some of which is still under construction, crosses line A at San Giovanni, and – archaeological finds permitting, will have stations at Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum.
The easiest way to get a taxi is to find the nearest taxi rank (fermata dei taxi) – central ones include Termini, Piazza Venezia, Largo Argentina, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Barberini.
Alternatively, you can call a taxi, but bear in mind that this cost more – €3.50 for the call, plus the meter starts ticking the moment the taxi is dispatched to collect you.
Women travelling alone get a 10% discount between 10 pm and 6 am. All taxis carry a rate card in English giving the current tariff.
Renting a bike or scooter is an efficient way of nipping around Rome’s clogged streets. You’ll need to have a full driving licence.
Rome is busy all year round, but generally, the best times to visit are just before or just after the peak summer months: between Easter and June, and September to November.
Christmas is also a special time in Rome, especially if you’re able to wrangle your way into Vatican City on Christmas Day when the atmosphere is rather carnival-like.
Avoid July and August: the summer heat is at its fiercest, the streets are most congested and many Romans will be taking their holidays elsewhere.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
Four or five days are enough to skim the major sights, but you could also spend that amount of time solely exploring Ancient Rome or the Vatican Museums. If you’re a history or art buff you’ll definitely want at least a week.
Rome really is the kind of place you could return to again and again and still not discover it all.
Rome has two airports: Leonardo da Vinci, better known as Fiumicino, which handles the majority of scheduled flights, including easyJet’s; and Ciampino, where you’ll arrive if you’re travelling with Ryanair.
Fiumicino airport is linked to the centre of Rome by a direct train, the Leonardo Express, which takes 32min to get to Termini.
Services begin at 6.23am, leaving every 15–30min until 11.23pm.
From Ciampino airport there are buses roughly every 30min–1hr to Termini and the journey takes 30–45 min.
Alternatively, the cheapest way is Atral’s Ciampino Airlink comprising a bus to Ciampino train station and a train into Termini.
Travelling by train from most places in Italy, or indeed Europe, you arrive at Termini station, centrally placed for all parts of the city and meeting point of the two metro lines and many city bus routes.
Selected routes around Lazio are handled by the Regionali platforms of Termini station (a 5min walk beyond the end of the regular platforms).
The main station for buses from outside the Rome area is Tiburtina; from here, take metro line B to Termini for buses, trains and metro line A.
Coming into the city by car can be confusing and isn’t advisable unless you’re used to driving in Italy and know where you are going to park.
If you are coming from the north on the A1 autostrada take the exit “Roma Nord”; from the south, take the “Roma Est” exit.
Both lead to the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA), which circles the city and is connected with all of its major arteries.
Find out the best ways to get to Italy.