With its vast archeological treasures, world-renowned art collections and cultural heritage around every corner, it’s no surprise that the best things to do in Rome are some of the very best all across the world. But the Italian capital is also a modern-day treasure that’s continually evolving, offering travellers and locals the opportunity to experience the past while soaking in contemporary culture. Ancient sites serve as the backdrop for summer concerts helmed by top-40 artists while virtual reality experiences help us see history in vivid detail.
Add to this the lure of leafy parks with panoramic terraces, beloved restaurants (yes, that includes a hyperactive gelato industry), a bar scene that makes the most of seasonal produce and a moderate climate that is inviting during any season, and it’ll become far too easy to fall in love with Rome.
It would take a lifetime to see everything in this city, so we’ve put together a manageable list of our favourite sites, along with a few off-the-beaten-path experiences that you really shouldn’t miss.
Only in Rome: Visit the Pasta Museum to learn about the food’s history and browse through works of art made entirely of the stuff.
Best things to do in Rome
It’s impossible to work on a list dedicated to the best things to do in Rome without mentioning the Colosseum right off the bat. The largest amphitheatre ever built, the Colosseum (or “Flavian Amphitheatre”) was built between 70-80 AD and could hold up to 80,000 spectators. It was constructed to host gruesome performances for the public, including gladiator battles, animal hunting, executions and even sea battles, when the arena would be filled with water and ships. Today, you can wander around the underground tunnels, the arena floor and the stands. The 5th level was recently opened to the public and offers an outstanding 360-degree view of the theatre from up high.
Founded by Pope Julius II in the 16th century, the museums house one of the largest and most important art collections in the world and are set across 54 galleries, courtyards and hallways. You’ll find thousands of ancient sculptures, works by Raphael and, of course, Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. If you have time and plan well in advance, book tickets to descend into the Vatican Necropolis, located beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican Gardens filled with fountains, flora and a replica of the Grotto devoted to Our Lady of Lourdes.
Emperor Nero’s extravagant Domus Aurea, or "Golden House," was considered one of the most impressive residences of its time and offers a unique glimpse into subterranean Rome. Built between 64-68 AD as a grand place of entertainment near the Colosseum, it spanned across many of Rome’s ancient hills before it was destroyed by the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. The site is under restoration, but visitors can join guided tours held every Saturday and Sunday. A virtual reality tour is also offered that helps bring the villa’s former glory to life.
Commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th century to house his impressive art collection, Galleria Borghese remains one of the premier museums in Rome. An avid art collector, the Cardinal was one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's early patrons and a huge fan of Caravaggio’s works, so expect to find exceptional works on view inside. Some of the museum's highlights include Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, Paolina Bonaparte by Canova and Boy with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio. The “pleasure palace” was originally built as a suburban villa and it remains immersed in Villa Borghese’s extensive gardens, so be sure to take a stroll around the park after your visit.
A multimedia show that traces the history of Rome from prehistoric times to the modern era, Welcome To Rome provides an excellent overview of the city for children and adults alike – and it will help you understand the importance of what you’re seeing while exploring the Eternal City. The experience begins with a 30-minute immersive film experience (similar to IMAX) followed by a tour of interactive plastic models that recount the history of Rome’s most noteworthy archeological sites. Welcome To Rome is available in 8 languages.
An ancient Roman temple dedicated to "All of the Gods," the Pantheon is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome and continues to inspire visitors to this day. It was built by Emperor Hadrian in 125 AD on the site of a former temple built by Marcus Agrippa and it boasts the largest (unreinforced) dome in the world, measuring 142 feet in diameter. If you’re lucky enough to be in town over Pentecost weekend (which falls on June 9 this year), be sure to attend Sunday Mass when rose petals are dropped from the oculus during the celebration.
Built at the end of the 19th century, the Teatro dell'Opera is a neo-classical opera house that hosts around 200 performances each year, from opera and ballet to contemporary dance. The opera house has recently collaborated with a number of celebrity directors and fashion houses, including Sofia Coppola, Valentino and Dior, to create innovative shows. In the summer months, performances are held al fresco in the evocative Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla), an enormous archeological complex built between 213-216 AD that was home to an open-air pool, saunas, a library, shops and more.
Capitoline Museums are set across three buildings in Piazza del Campidoglio, a trapezoidal piazza designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century and one of the many must-see museums in Rome. Considered the first public museums in the world, they are home to Renaissance marble statues and Roman bronzes such as the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and the Capitoline Wolf, which symbolizes the founding of Rome. The museum also provides an excellent view of the Roman Forum from the Galleria Lapidaria, an underground tunnel that connects the two main buildings.
Although ancient architecture reigns supreme, Rome is being increasingly recognized for its newer structures that have created a vivid juxtaposition between the old and the new. One of the most spectacular examples is the Museo dell’Ara Pacis designed by American architect Richard Meier. The 2,000-year-old altar dedicated to Pax, the goddess of peace, has been enclosed in a monumental glass structure, creating a truly unique display in the city centre. The museum also hosts rotating art exhibitions and a virtual reality tour that includes 3D binoculars.
Rome’s culinary traditions are rooted in the Testaccio neighbourhood, making it an essential stop for gourmands and intrepid diners. The area once housed the largest slaughterhouse in Europe and employees were usually paid in leftover animal parts (affectionately referred to as the “quinto quarto,” or fifth quarter). One of the best places to sample Rome’s diverse cuisine and excellent street food is at the Testaccio Market, a luminous and contemporary building filled with tantalizing stands that serve everything from artichoke sandwiches and tripe stews to freshly-cooked pastas and craft beers.
Fondly referred to as the city of Seven Hills, Rome is known for its scenic vantage points and numerous terraces that give way to stunning views of the city skyline. Located above the Trastevere neighbourhood, Gianicolo isn’t technically one of the fabled hills but it is worth the trek because it’s the highest point in Rome and offers an expansive vista over the Eternal City. The elegant Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a fountain featured in the opening scene of La Grande Bellezza, is located just nearby and its majesty will surely take your breath away.
You can’t help but notice the twisted spire of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza church from most terraces in Rome. Designed by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, this masterpiece of Baroque Roman architecture is one of his finest achievements and lies just a stone’s throw away from Piazza Navona. During the summer months, the church hosts classical music concerts in its courtyard, providing the perfect vantage point to admire the intricate designs of the famous “corkscrew” above.
Castel Sant’Angelo, “The Castle of Angels,” is an eye-catching cylindrical fortification built on the banks of the Tiber River by Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. Originally commissioned as a mausoleum for Hadrian and his family, it was later used as a fortress and castle by the popes. It even includes a secret escape passageway that links the structure to the Vatican City. Today, it is a museum with frescoed rooms, a collection of medieval weaponry and sweeping views of the city of Rome and nearby St. Peter’s Basilica.
Although Rome’s four national museums have been overlooked for years, they are some of the most exciting cultural programming in the Eternal City at the moment, featuring contemporary works, interactive videos and more alongside ancient sculptures. The museums contain important archeological relics discovered in Rome itself and are spread across four locations: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Palazzo Altemps, the Baths of Diocletian and Crypta Balbi. A €12 combination ticket allows entry into all four sights over three days.
This verdant oasis of calm tucked just behind Rome’s towering ancient pyramid has served as the city’s final resting place for non-Catholic foreigners since 1784. Unofficially known as the Protestant Cemetery, this charmingly old-world corner of the city also hosts Buddhists, Russian Orthodox Christians and atheists: a sign points to the grave of Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party. The larger, newer section is much more crowded and slopes up to the crenellations of the Aurelian Wall. If you're visiting, also be sure to look out for notable graves, such as the ones for literary icons John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as Russian artist Karl Bryullov.
It’s worth climbing to the top of the “wedding cake” not only to appreciate the enormity of the structure but also to see the Art Nouveau mosaics in the colonnade and, most importantly, to enjoy the view from the only place where you can see the whole city centre without the panorama being interrupted by the Vittoriano itself. Even more impressive is the view from the very top level of the monument, reached by a glass elevator accessed from behind the structure, by the side of the Aracoeli church. And while it has had a mixed reception from tourists and locals alike, it's one of Rome's must-sees (honestly, it’ll be hard for you to miss it).
Once a state-of-the-art power station, the early 20th-century Centrale Montemartini was chosen in the late 1990s to house part of the collection of the Capitoline Museums. Ancient statues are juxtaposed with vintage machinery in the industrial setting; fauns and Minervas, Bacchus revelers and Apollos are all surprisingly at home against the thermoelectric equipment. Highlights include incredibly detailed mosaics depicting marine themes, a spectacular early fourth-century mosaic depicting a hunting scene and the giant head and foot of a goddess found at Largo Argentina.
Galleria Colonna is not only one of the oldest and largest private palaces in Rome, but also one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Originally built as a fortress for the Colonna family, it was turned into a Baroque residence over time and now hosts a world-class art collection with masterpieces by Carracci, Tintoretto and Guercino. Step inside to discover the Great Hall, an enormous mirrored gallery lined with statues, paintings and chandeliers on-par with the beauty of Versailles. Galleria Colonna is open every Saturday. Be sure to visit Princess Isabelle’s apartment and the secret garden, too.
Step back in time, literally, as you walk (or bike) along one of the oldest roads in the Roman empire: the Appia Antica. This ancient road connected Rome to Brindisi and remains one of the most picturesque areas in the city. The surrounding park is also full of cultural heritage sites, including catacombs and mausoleums that contain the remains of notable figures such as popes, martyrs and nobility. Don’t miss exploring the catacombs of St. Callixtus, the catacombs of Domitilla and the catacombs of Saint Sebastian.
Often referred to as the “square Colosseum,” the iconic Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is an excellent example of the city’s rationalist architecture (that also happens to be an exceedingly Instagrammable destination). Located in the city’s southern EUR district, the palazzo is made of travertine marble that features a number of arched loggias like the Colosseum itself. It is currently the headquarters of Fendi, the luxury Italian fashion house, which hosts free, temporary art exhibits throughout the year that allow visitors to step inside the private building and experience a unique part of Roman history.
Skip the punishing trip to Pompeii during your time in Rome and embark on a day-trip to explore the ancient harbor city of Ostia Antica instead. The extensive archeological ruins are extremely well-preserved and you’ll be able to admire numerous ancient buildings – like restaurants and latrines – magnificent frescoes and many mosaics still intact. In the summer months, contemporary music concerts are held in the ancient Roman theatre, a romantic setting that retains its wonderful acoustic elements to this day.
Rome has two first-class football clubs, AS Roma and SS Lazio. Both play in the city’s Stadio Olimpico, incidentally the largest sports facility in Rome. While only the most courageous visitors may want to attend a Roma-Lazio game (the rambunctious “derby”), a trip to the stadium promises to be a spectacle of flares and chanting and a touch of atmospheric drama a million miles away from the elegant centro storico. If you'd prefer a more low-key experience, you can also catch a rugby game here during the Six Nations Championship tournament held in the late winter months.