“Where should I go in Rome?” is a question I’m often asked by friends and acquaintances, and it’s one I actually find fairly difficult to answer because there’s just so much that I would recommend! Therefore I thought I’d aim this post at the first time Rome visitor, so that there is somewhere on this blog that I can point to for a basic overview. Here’s a checklist of the really famous tourist attractions that you really shouldn’t leave Rome without seeing – and some tips on the best times to go.
Don’t worry – even if you don’t go in, it would be difficult to miss Rome’s most famous landmark, which is centrally located and not exactly hidden away. Nothing can prepare you for the vast size of this mighty Roman amphitheatre, and expect it to be seething with tourists. If you do want to go in, the ticket is combined with the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill (priced at €12), so buy your ticket at the Forum Romanum first thing in the morning and you’ll be able to skip the daunting queues and get straight in.
The Palatine Hill
Once the seat of Rome’s emperors, and the origin of our word “palace”, the Palatine Hill is now an extensive archaeological site with commanding views of Rome and plenty of lizards. There are large areas which lack shade, so if you’re visiting in the heat of the summer it’s highly advisable to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat. See above (the Colosseum) for Palatine Hill ticket advice.
The Forum Romanum
The original Roman piazza, the Forum Romanum was the heart of ancient Rome and was where administrative buildings such as law courts and archives were located. The present jumble of ruins is difficult to make sense of, so take a guide book with a good map (I recommend the Blue Guide to Rome or the Eyewitness Guide to Rome). As with the Palatine Hill, there is little if any shade, so visit early in the summer months and/or take a good sun hat! See above for ticket advice.
The mighty Basilica di San Pietro is the largest Christian space in the world, and it’s always heaving with visitors. You have to go through airport-style metal detectors to get in, and if you see a queue stretching round the piazza it’s advisable to come back later in the day, when it’s likely to have died down. Visitors can appreciate the basilica’s vast proportions both from the ground and, providing they’re not scared of heights, from Michelangelo’s famous dome. There are two options for visiting the roof: on foot for €5, or by the lift for €7. However, be warned that if you chose the lift you’ll still have a fair few steps to climb to get up to the cupola for the best views of Rome. The climb is well worth it when you step out of the narrow staircase to enjoy a stunning, 360 degree view of the city.
The Vatican Museums
Home to one of the world’s most important collections of antiquities and art, the Vatican Museums are definitely worthy of a visit. The exhibits seem to go on for miles and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so don’t try and see everything in one go – you won’t manage it! Instead, try and get an overview from a guidebook in advance and decide what you particularly want to see. Many visitors head straight for the celebrated Sistine Chapel, which is right at the end of the tour, so some sections of the museum can be surprisingly quiet. There are usually impressive queues to get into the museums, but lunchtime is often quieter.
The Pantheon is the most complete structure to survive from antiquity. This Roman temple owes its incredible state of preservation to the fact that it was converted to a church, and although the trappings of modern religion have an impact on the atmosphere, it’s nonetheless an extremely impressive space. The hole (or oculus) in its vast dome is open to the elements, so the rain falls to the marble floor. Look out for the tomb of the Renaissance painter Raphael.
The Trevi Fountain
Rome’s most famous fountain – and indeed one of its most famous landmarks – is always swarming with tourists, making it difficult to negotiate the small piazza which it dominates. However, don’t let this put you off: the impact of seeing it for the first time is scarcely diminished by the crowds. Don’t forget to throw in a coin to ensure your return to Rome!
The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps aren’t far from the Trevi Fountain, and make a great end to a day exploring Rome as they’re particularly atmospheric at dusk. If you don’t have the energy to negotiate the huge number of steps, there is a lift in the Metro station just to the left. Definitely try to get to the top, as the views are incredible! If you’re in the mood for some history, pay a visit to the Keats-Shelley House, to the right of the Steps. This was the house in which the poet Keats spent his final days, and his former bedroom offers a view of the Steps which has changed very little since the time of the Grand Tourists.