With so many sights, experiences, and things to do in Rome, it’s tricky to identify the best. There are churches full of masterpieces by artists such as Caravaggio and Bernini; fantastical piazzas with glorious fountains; the world’s finest ice-cream, and pasta dishes in charming restaurants. You could spend an eternity exploring here; but no matter how long you’re spending in the city, these are the best things to do in Rome.
Rome’s Aventino hill rises above the Testaccio district, full of ochre-walled buildings and shaded by Rome’s distinctive Mediterranean pine trees. Walk through its shady avenues and you’ll find the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where the walls are decorated with intricate, symbolic carvings. Designed by the architect and artist Piranesi, it also serves as the base for the religious group the Order of Malta. The large bronze doorway is always shut, but has a tiny keyhole; lean down, put your eye to it and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of St Peter’s Basilica, framed by an avenue of trees.
One of the most recognisable landmarks of Rome, the Pantheon is a temple around 2,300 years old. It retains the original Latin inscription across the front of the building, which translates as ‘Built by Marco Agrippa, son of Lucio, consulate for the third time’; it was later rebuilt by Hadrian in around AD 126. The name means ‘all the gods’, as all the Roman deities were worshipped within this incredible building. The two bell towers were added during the Baroque Period, and were loathed by the Romans, who called them ‘donkey’s ears’. Walk inside (it’s free to enter) and emerge into a vast, soaring space, made all the more spectacular as the roof is open to the sky through a nine metre (30-foot) oculus. This entrance was supposed to enhance the connection between humans and the gods; today, during the Catholic festival Pentecost, rose petals are showered through it.
Wander along the banks of the river during summer and you’ll be able to try a sweet treat with a difference. Grattachecca, which literally means “scratchy”, is like a much rougher version of a granita that originates in Rome. The ice is “scratched” by hand, then flavoured with syrup or juice and topped by fresh fruit in a kaleidoscope of different flavours. Ideal for the heat of summer, grattachecca is a beloved Roman sweet, and is a must-try for when you’re in the city.
Villa Borghese is Rome’s most beautiful park, spreading across almost 200 acres (80 hectares) just north of the Spanish Steps. Once the estate of the city’s most powerful family, these grounds were first laid out in the 17th century. Dotted with classical sculptures, its tree-lined avenues offer incredible views over Rome from Pincio Hill. There’s even a lake, and beautiful buildings including the art-filled Galleria Borghese and a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. As it covers such a large area, the best way to see the park is to hire bikes – there are rental places dotted across the park, such as Ascol Bike and Bici Pincio, offering a range of regular, electric and four-person bikes.
This ancient stadium still stands in the centre of Rome, dominating every postcard and itinerary of the city. This is where gladiators fought and wild beasts were unleashed: the fierce, bloody competitions were the reality shows of their day. Roman citizens attended for free and were allocated seats according to their importance – the closer you were to the stage, the more significant a figure you were. It’s only recently that the third tier of the stadium has opened to visitors. This was the lowliest seating, but today, ironically, offers the most amazing views. You must book a guided tour in advance to be able to visit, but it’s well worth the cost to gaze down at the arena and imagine the battles fought in this space.
Rome’s pizza is distinctive, with a paper-thin crust, wood-fired, bubbling and crispy, and laden with toppings. The city is filled with classic pizzerias; look for the places that are permanently packed, with paper tablecloths, delicious fresh pizza slammed down by waiters on a mission, and cheap and cheerful prices. You can’t go wrong with any pizza in Rome, but the absolute best places include Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice) in Testaccio, Da Ivo and Ai Marmi in Trastevere, and Li Rioni near the Colosseum.
Found to the east of the central city, the suburb of Pigneto has a history as a working-class district. With low-rise apartments and a central market street, this is still a neighbourhood with an authentic Roman residential vibe during the day; but the night is when things really come alive. Around 10 years ago, artists and students moved into this inexpensive area, and it morphed into Rome’s most interesting nightlife district. Craft beer shops, such as Birra Più and cocktail bars such as Co.So (Via Braccio da Montone 80) line the streets, and there are a scattering of artsy venues where you can find events such as poetry slams and live jazz.
There are many astounding ancient Roman remains in the city, but to see something a little bit different, head to the National Rome Museum in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Nearby the Termini station, this museum gives a glimpse of the colour which would have decorated the stone ruins. These are roomfuls of ancient Roman imperial interior decoration; one exhibit not to miss are the beautiful paintings from the Villa di Livia which depict a paradisiacal garden, with blue-green walls, naturalistic plants, fruit and birds.
This suburb close to the Colosseum is one of the city’s most charming areas; it’s filled with small boutiques, cosy bars and chic restaurants, with a scattering of hotels and Airbnbs. You could spend a whole day wandering these pretty streets; start with a morning coffee, enjoy a lazy lunch in one of the street-side cafes, and return for evening cocktails as the sun sinks over the skyline. The shops are excellent for browsing; Monti is the best place in Rome for affordable fashion by independent designers, vintage clothing and unique accessories.
The Vatican museums are one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions, and as such they’re frequently packed, especially during the peak summer months. For your best chance to miss the daytime crowds, consider bypassing a daytime visit altogether. From April to October, the Vatican Museums open late on Friday evenings; not only will you skip the queues, but you’ll also get to enjoy the classical concerts performed during these opening evenings, as well as a welcome aperitivo (an evening drink and snack). A Happy Hour ticket will get you early entry at 5.30pm; choose this for the opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel and gaze upon the magnificence of Michelangelo’s extraordinary The Creation of Adam fresco without being jostled out of the way.
Climbing up St Peter’s Basilica’s dome, which was designed by Michelangelo, is an experience in itself – especially if you take the stairs. If you don’t choose to tackle the 231 steps, there’s a lift to the first floor, where you’ll be rewarded by views over the church’s gilded interior. You’ll also be able to gaze down over the Baldachin (canopy) created by Bernini – the artist and architect used bronze melted down from the tiles that used to cover the Pantheon. From here you can then climb another 320 steps up a narrow spiralling staircase to view the panoramas across the piazza and the Vatican City.