Italy’s capital is a fascinating city that offers a wide range of tourist attractions. From ancient ruins to world-class galleries and lively piazzas, fall in love with Rome and all its beauty with Culture Trip’s list of the 20 best must-visit attractions.
The most famous sight in all of Rome is its ancient gladiatorial arena, the Colosseum. Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the 2,000-year-old structure once held up to 50,000 spectators. As the site of epic gladiator battles, roaring crowds and jeering emperors, the historic atmosphere of Rome’s bloody arena is palpable; no trip to the capital would be complete without visiting it to discover what life might have been like in ancient Rome.
Trajan’s Markets is a remarkable complex of ancient stores, administrative offices and alleyways that dates back to around AD 110. While historians debate whether or not it was actually a market, there’s no doubting that the covered area was the model for today’s shopping malls. Constructed by Emperor Trajan, one of Rome’s most industrious rulers, the complex’s ancient alleyways and multi-level offices give visitors a chance to step into the everyday life of ancient Romans. This tour also grants access to the on-site Imperial Forum Museum.
Once the centre of public life in ancient Rome, the Roman Forum is an impressive set of ruins and among the most important archaeological areas in the world. Dating back to the seventh century BC, the site is filled with crumbling remains of Roman temples and government buildings. Most important among the ruins are the Temple of Caesar, the Arch of Titus and the Sacred Way, the road down which the Roman Centurions would march when returning home from battle.
If you know only one thing about Emperor Nero, know this: the man was famed for incredible acts of self-indulgence. Domus Aurea is his golden imperial estate, a testament to his gaudy reputation and what was the most aesthetically overwhelming buildings at the time. Now an active archaeological site, digital re-creations of what the ruins would have looked like in its heyday (think intricate mosaics, resplendent artificial lakes and colourful frescoes) allow visitors to catch a glimpse into the mind of the opulent Emperor Nero.
No trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to St Peter’s Basilica, Italy’s largest and most important church. Consecrated in 1626 after over 100 years of construction, the basilica is among the holiest sites for the Christian faith, and a grand example of Renaissance architecture. Inside is the burial site of Saint Peter of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, and celebrated artworks such as Michelangelo’s Pietà as well as the remarkable dome, which is the tallest in the world to this day.
It could take years to fully explore the Vatican Museums, among the largest museum complexes in the world. Containing celebrated and significant classical sculptures, Renaissance art and ancient artefacts, the entire collection numbers over 70,000 pieces. Collected by the various popes throughout the centuries, must-see works include Michelangelo’s famous frescoes inside the Sistine Chapel (including The Creation of Adam on the ceiling), the Raphael Rooms and the Gallery of Maps. Skip the long lines that snake their way around the Vatican walls and head straight through the entrance with this tour.
Constructed by Emperor Hadrian in the second century as a mausoleum for himself and his family, the Castel Sant’Angelo is an instantly recognisable fortress on the banks of the Tiber River. In the sixth century, it was used as a castle by Pope Gregory the Great and provided a secure refuge to a number of different popes over the centuries in times of strife; there’s even a secret tunnel that connects the fortress directly to the Vatican. Visitors are treated to the building’s rich history through exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and Medieval weapons.
In a city of ancient ruins, the Pantheon is the best preserved out of all of them. The temple – believed to be over 2,000 years old – was originally dedicated to the pagan gods. Guided tours reveal how the building has been an intrinsic part of Rome since its consecration as a church in the seventh century, inspiring Italy’s master Renaissance painters, including Raphael (the artist chose the Pantheon as his final resting place). Most impressive, however, is the soaring concrete dome inside, the world’s largest and crowning architectural achievement of the ancient Romans.
Home of chariot racing in the sixth century, Circo Massimo once held up to 250,000 spectators and was among the most important public spaces in Rome. On top of the races, it also hosted classic gladiator battles in front of the roaring crowds. Today, the city still holds large outdoor concerts in the space, which lies at the base of the Palatine and Aventine Hills, both of which provide panoramic views over the ancient city. This small-group tour also visits Terme di Caracalla before heading to the stadium.
In a city where there were hundreds of public bath complexes, Terme di Caracalla is among the most important and impressive that remain. Constructed in the third century, the original bath complex covered up to 25 hectares (62 acres), the second largest in the whole of Rome. Today, the central bathhouse makes up most of the remains; the Rome Opera even hosts impressive musical and ballet performances inside the ruins.
After the Vatican Museums, the Galleria Borghese contains the most famous collection of art in Rome. Once the private collection of the noble (and immensely wealthy) Borghese family, it passed into the hands of the Italian government at the beginning of the 20th century and has since been counted among the greatest art museums in the world. There are countless highlights to see, but the most impressive works are Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing, Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. The gallery is on the grounds of Villa Borghese.
A 16th-century villa located in Trastevere, Villa Farnesina was built for the banker Agostino Chigi and is among the finest buildings in Rome from the Italian Renaissance period. The interior dazzles visitors with its beautiful frescoes from the Italian masters Raphael, Sebastian del Piombo and Peruzzi. After exploring the impressive villa, the guided tour, which is led by an art historian, delves into the surrounding Trastevere, among the city’s most charming neighbourhoods and a favourite spot for noble Roman families to build their summer villas.
Dating back to 1471, the Capitoline Museums are the oldest public museums in the world. The collection contains Italy’s finest ancient sculptures, bronze statues and busts, all of which were amassed by Pope Sixtus IV during the 15th century. There is also a gallery displaying an impressive collection of Medieval and Renaissance art. Small-group tours put the entire complex into context as they explain how Michelangelo came to design the entire area.
The Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) is a large marble sculpture built in the year 9 BC during the reign of Emperor Augustus. As Rome’s first emperor, Augustus led its transition from a republic to an empire after the assassination of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, ushering in one of the longest eras of relative peace in Roman history. The altar is now housed inside the Ara Pacis Museum, a contemporary glass building (the only one built in Rome’s historic centre since World War II) designed by American architect Richard Meier.
Showcasing Rome in all of its splendour and glory, the Piazza Navona is an enormous open-air square with Baroque fountains, street artists and a healthy dose of gawking tourists. The impressive Sant’Agnese in Agone Baroque church dominates one side of the piazza, while in the centre is Bernini’s famous Fountain of Four Rivers. But there’s a treasure buried beneath this busy spot. Delve underneath to find the Stadium of Domitian, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and athletics venue for ancient Rome, where athletes competed in running, gymnastics and other sports and slaves battled as gladiators.
Connecting Piazza di Spagna with the impressive Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti, the Spanish Steps is among the busiest tourist hotspots in Rome. Financed by a French diplomat to connect the church to the piazza, the steps were constructed in 1725 and became a popular spot for English travellers on their Grand Tours in the late-18th century. That popularity endures, and today, the steps are among the best locations in Rome from which to people-watch.
Another of Rome’s most important squares, the Piazza Venezia lies in the heart of the city, with important historical buildings, museums and art galleries surrounding it. At its centre is the eye-catching Vittoriano Memorial, honouring Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a united Italy. Most impressive of the buildings is the Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini would famously make his speeches from the balcony of the Globe Room to roaring crowds below. The palazzo is now a museum dedicated to Renaissance art, ancient bronze statues and Medieval weaponry.
For those looking to experience everyday Roman life, visiting Campo de’ Fiori is a must. During the day, this piazza hosts one of the most popular markets in the city, where residents go to stock up on fresh produce from the surrounding countryside. Developed during the 15th century, Campo de’ Fiori translates to ‘field of flowers’, referencing the time before development when it was simply a field where public executions took place. One of those who was executed was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, a statue of whom now stands in the centre of the square.
Among Rome’s most majestic piazzas, the Piazza del Popolo is almost perfectly symmetrical. With fountains on either side, twin churches at its southern base and an Egyptian obelisk rising from the centre, it’s incredibly photogenic – especially as you climb the steps to the Pincio Terrace, where the views of the square and surrounding cityscape are some of the most coveted in Rome. Its size makes it a popular spot for concerts on balmy summer evenings.
An impressive example of Baroque architecture, the Trevi Fountain is among the most famous fountains in the world. Made from white travertine stone, it contains sculptures of many different fabled figures and wild horses. You can easily combine a visit to this fountain with many others around central Rome on this relaxing walking city tour. However, don’t forget to toss a coin into the water before you leave; this ensures that you’ll return to Rome in the future.