Rome Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Rome, also known as the Eternal City, is one of the largest most popular cities in the world. Famous for its plethora of gorgeous churches and exquisite ancient archeological sites, the Italian capital is a true playground for history buffs. With almost 3 million residents, Rome is also one of the most populous cities in Europe.
Rome Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Rome has a very long and tumultuous history which began more than two and a half thousands of years ago. The evidence of this incredible history can be seen to this day on the streets of the city. As a capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, the Eternal City is also known as the Capital of the World, and the birthplace of western civilization.

This Italian city is a deeply religious one, mostly due to the fact that right in its heart lays the Vatican City. Though it is an independent state on its own, the Vatican is right in the middle of Rome, and it is one of the main reasons for which tourists spend their vacation here. In fact, some of the most important art works in the world are hidden in the galleries of the Apostolic Palace, just waiting to be discovered.

However, Rome is chuck full of amazing art galleries, museums and churches, all boasting amazing works of arts created by artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bernini or Bramante.

Tourists who want to discover a new facet of the city should simply wonder around the winding alley of Trastevere district where, small cobbled streets lead to unexpected places. If you are interested in shopping or just people watching, then a passeggiata along Via del Corso or through the breathtaking Piazza Navona is exactly what you will enjoy the most. Some of the best restaurants, shops and gelato stands are right here. Not to mention amazing landmarks like Fontana di Trevi or the Pantheon are just a stone’s throw away.

History buffs will definitely be in heaven in Rome. Some of the oldest buildings on the face of the earth can be found in this city, including the impressive Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Walk on the steps of the ancient Romans and spend time in the spots where some of the most important moments in world history took place.

In the end, you can indulge in a different kind of history. Whether you are a film buff or not, Cinecitta will most likely entice your imagination with sets from many important films in cinema history.

All in all, Rome is a true adventure for any type of tourists. With amazing churches, romantic ruins and opulent monuments, Rome has a wide variety of attractions and an amazing cultural heritage which has influenced some of the most important civilizations in history.

1. Piazza Navona

The best place to take in the spirit of Rome is in Piazza Navona. No matter the weather, a few moments on a bench in this amazing plaza are a must. Indulge in some gelato and people watching in order to find out what “dolce far niente” really means.

After that it’s time to actually explore the plaza. Built on the site of a 1st century AD stadium, Piazza Navona follows rigorously the open space of this stadium. This square has been an important gathering place since the 15th century when the city market was moved here. During those years, the family palace of Pope Innocet X, Palazzo Pamphil was facing Piazza Navona, and because of that most buildings around the square were renovated, and became some of the most beautiful Baroque architecture examples in the city.

A popular spot in the square is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or The Fountain of the Four Rivers. Out of the three fountains that are located in the square, this one is by far the most beautiful. Built in 1651 by famous Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, this fountain was created as a favor for Pope Innocent X.

This breathtaking work of art features the four largest rivers on the four known continents at that time – the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges and Rio de la Plata. These four rivers are personified by four large figures, one of which representing the Nile has a veil over its face. The covered face signifies the fact that, at that time, the source of the Nile was unknown. The four statues stand around a large basin, decorated with plants and small animals. Right in the middle of the basin there’s a large column – the Obelisk of Domitian, which was brought in Piazza Navona in pieces from the Circus of Maxentius.

There are two other impressive fountains in the square, which should not be missed. Fontana del Nettuno, built during the 16th century, is dedicated to the sea god, while on the other end of the piazza lies Fontana del Moro. This masterpiece was created by Giacomo della Porta, also during the 16th century. Later, Bernini added a statue of a Moor wrestling with a dolphin.

Since the actual square was built on the open space of the ancient stadium, on the site where the spectators used to stay were erected several buildings. The most interesting one is the church of Sant’Agnese, on the western side of the square. Dedicated to the Roman martyr St. Agnes, legend says that the church lies on the exact spot where she was about to be exposed to the people, when her hair suddenly and miraculously grew long in order to cover her naked body.

No more than three architects, including Francesco Borromini, worked at this basilica which was erected right next to Palazzo Pamphili. The interior is almost circular, and the model of this little church was followed when building many churches during the Baroque and Rococo eras, not only in Italy, but in many other countries across Europe.

There are several other palaces lining Piazza Navona all of which feature the same beautiful Baroque architecture, including Palazzo Braschi, which today houses Museo din Roma, and Palazzo Torres Massimo Lancellotti.

Another interesting feature of this gorgeous square is the statue of Pasquine, known as the ancient speaking statue. Built at the beginning of the 14th century, Romans used to leave lampoons attached to the statue.

Piazza Navona witnessed many important moments throughout history. After the city market was moved in the nearby Campo di Fiore, the square became an important entertainment venue. Festivals, concerts and theatrical events took place here since the 17th century, while, on weekends, the prestigious Pamphili family used to host elaborate celebrations for the enjoyment of locals. Today, Piazza Navona is one of the most visited spots in Rome and though it has become a favorite among tourists, it still maintains its Old Italian charm, only with more shops and cafes.

2. The Colosseum

One of the most important landmarks and a true symbol of Rome and even the entire country of Italy, the Colosseum is also the largest amphitheater in the world. Known also as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum’s massive structure has endured for almost two millennia.

Commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, the amphitheater was finished a decade later, under the rule of his successor Titus. Both emperors belonged to the Flavian dynasty hence the name. However the name Colosseum comes from the colossal statue of Nero which used to lie on the site where the amphitheater was built, near Nero’s Domus Aurea.

The exquisite structure was a model for hundreds of thousands of other stadiums and amphitheaters around the world, including those which were built in modern times.

When it was completed, the Colosseum was capable of seating more than 50,000 spectators. It was over 150 feet high, over 600 feet long and measured about 512 feet in width. For hundreds of years the Colosseum hosted games, gladiator contests, executions, reenactments of famous battles and theater productions. Underneath the arena there were changing rooms for the gladiators and cages for animals, which most of them were brought from Africa and the Middle East. During animal hunts, brave Romans would fight beasts like elephants, lions, rhinoceros, bears, tigers, panthers, crocodiles, giraffes and even ostriches.

The last gladiator fights in the Colosseum were mentioned in 435 while animal hunts continued until 523. During the medieval times, the massive building was changed several times, and the Frangipani family even transformed it into a fortified castle. Most of the interior was stripped of stoned which was used in building other palaces and villas. Throughout the years, the Colosseum was used as different facilities, and, during many years, the building was neglected. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Colosseum regained its former glory and quickly became one of the most visited landmarks in the world.

Though this impressive building suffered many fires, earthquakes and even from neglect, it still endured the times and today it maintains its status of one of the most impressive buildings in the world.

3. Via del Corso

The best way to explore the Eternal City is by taking a stroll through Via del Corso. Though today is not the largest avenue in Rome, when it was built in ancient times, it was one of the most important in the city. The straight, one mile, avenue runs from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia, right in the heart of the city. Some of the most important building and squares in Rome line this beautiful street, while landmarks like Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon or Piazza Minerva are just a stone’s throw away from Via del Corso.

If you don’t have a lot of time to explore Rome, then you should definitely focus on this avenue in order to get an idea of Rome’s atmosphere. Start your journey in Piazza del Popolo, one of the largest squares in the city. Right next to the northern gate of the Aurelian Walls, this was a place for public executions. In fact, the last one took place in 1826. Make sure you admire the beautiful fountains in the square including the Fontana dell’Obelisco and Fontana del Nettuno.

There are several churches alongside Vice del Corso, starting with Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Mircaoli, two Baroque churches which frame Piazza del Popolo. Make certain that you stop by at least a few of them, like Gesu e Maria or San Marcello al Corso.

Another spot that should not be missed on Via del Corso is Piazza Colonna with its striking ancient column of Marc Aurelius. Tourists can rest in this beautiful square while doing some people watching. In fact, Via del Corso is the place to be every evening, particularly during weekends. Locals love to take their passeggiata on this gorgeous avenue, while, during the day, the plethora of shops and boutiques attract fashion addicts.

Not too far from Via del Corso, on its eastern side, the ancient Pantheon is another popular symbol of Rome. This outstandingly preserved architectural achievement of the Roman Empire is still considered an architectural wonder. Commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and finished in 14 AD, the Pantheon was rebuilt a little over a century later by Emperor Hadrian.

The most famous feature of this impressive building is the open ceiling. Two thousand years later, its impressive large dome still remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. At the time, architects still hadn’t figured out how to finish a dome. In fact, the first dome to be completed belonged to the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, in the heart of Florence. However, the Pantheon’s precise proportions are still a wonder for modern architects.

Nonetheless, this impressive 142 feet wide oculus gives the entire building an ethereal atmosphere, particularly when it rains or snow. The Pantheon is also one of the few Ancient Roman buildings that were continuously used. At the beginning, the Pantheon was dedicated to all Roman gods, but, during the 7th century, this impressive building was transformed into a church dedicated to St. Mary and today Masses are still celebrated in this venue. This is also the final resting place for several kings including Vittorio Emanuele II and Uberto I, but also for the famous Renaissance Italian painter Raphael.

Behind the Pantheon, Piazza della Minerva is also a must see place in Rome. Here, the only Gothic church in Rome houses the whimsical marble elephant by Bernini. The church was built on the site of a temple dedicated to Minerva. One of the most interesting features of this church is Michelangelo’s statue Risen Christ located right in front of the altar.

On the other side of Via del Corso, another landmark attracts thousands of visitors every day. Fontana di Trevi has been a popular spot for tourists for centuries. Over 160 feet wide, this fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, and one of the most well-known in the world. Built in 1762 against the wall of the palace of the Duke of Poli, the fountain depicts Neptune, the god of the ocean, alongside horses, tritons and seashells. A very popular superstition surrounds this fountain. It is said that if you throw a coin into the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder, you will one day return to Rome. It is estimated that about 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain every day.

Fontana di Trevi gained worldwide recognition when it was used as a backdrop in a scene in one of the most famous movies of all time – La Dolce Vita. In Federico Fellini’s popular movie, actress Anita Ekberg dances in the fountain as Marcello Mastroianni looks on.

4. The Roman Forum

Rome is filled with ancient buildings and archeological sites. In fact, part of Rome’s charm comes from the fact that visitors can walk around buildings as old as time. But the hotspot of the ancient Rome is the Roman Forum. Not too far from the Colosseum, the ancient ruins of the Forum are a great sight for any visitor, even though the actual complex of buildings was much more impressive during its glory years.

Tucked away between the Capitoline and the Palatine Hills, the Roman Forum was the political hotspot of the ancient Rome. The actual forum was a rectangular plaza surrounded by government buildings. This was the main venue for criminal trials, public speeches and even gladiator fights. Though it used to be the most famous meeting place in the world, today is mostly architectural fragments and remains of some of the most impressive ancient buildings.

Some of the earliest temples and shrines in Ancient Rome’s history were located next to the forum, not to mention the ancient royal residence. The area soon expanded as more public buildings and smaller forums were built around it. The Roman Forum soon became the most important religious and political center on the continent and it kept its glory for over a thousand years. The last building erected here, in 312 AD, was the Basilica of Maxentius.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, some of the buildings were turned into Christian churches. By the 8th century, the forum was already starting to collapse and only ten centuries later the first excavations in the area begun. However, throughout all this time artists still found inspiration among the ruins while curious travelers from all over the continent came to see the last remains of Ancient Rome’s golden age. The archeological excavations continued to this day and while the site became one of the most important sites in the world.

Among the most important buildings and sites in the Roman Forum are the Temple of Saturn or the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The Temple of Saturn is dedicated to the god of Saturn. The only standing part of the temple is the impressive portico which has become a symbol of the entire Forum. The actual temple, which was built in 497 BC, was destroyed several times, and the portico remaining today was actually the third version of this building.

The only remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux are three columns and a part of the entablature. The temple was dedicated to Castor and Pollux the twins of Zeus and Leda. Legend says that they helped the Roman Republic’s army during the war against the last king of Rome. Afterwards, on the spot where the temple was built they twins were seen feeding their horses.

The meeting place of the Roman Senate was the Curia, which is also one of the best preserved edifices in the Roman Forum. Rebuilt several times after it was destroyed by fires, the Curia was transformed into a church and the venue is still used today for special exhibits.

5. Vatican City

Though technically Vatican City is an entire state, it is located right in the middle of Rome. This is the smallest internationally recognized state in the world with a little over 840 citizens and 110 acres. Vatican City is also an ecclesiastic state which is ruled by the Bishop of Rome which is the Pope.

The actual state has several cultural landmarks including the St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and, of course, the famous Sistine Chapel. Usually, tourists who spend their vacation in Rome, set aside a couple of days to explore the Vatican as well.

This tiny state is home to some of the most prestigious masterpieces in the world and most of them are housed in the Vatican Museums. Pope Julius II was the one who started the vast collection now housed in these museums, during the 16th century, gathering many ancient works of art and commissioning painting to some of the most talented artists of the day.

The museum complex features 54 galleries in total and the most famous one is the Sistine Chapel. There are several extensive exhibits housed in this massive building, including a collection of modern religious art and several sculpture museums. Some of the best treasures of the Vatican Museums are kept in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, including da Vinci’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness, the Stefaneschi Triptych by Giotto and the Entombment by Caravaggio.

Among the most beautiful galleries of the museums are Raphael Rooms which are covered in the artist’s most well-known masterpieces, the Gallery of Maps which features topographical maps of the entire Italy, painted on the walls of the room, and, of course, the most famous spot in Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel.

This is one of the largest rooms in the Apostolic Palace and it was named after Pope Sixtus IV, who restored this chapel to its former glory during the 15th century. All the chapel’s walls are covered in exquisite frescoes created by the most famous Renaissance artists including Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. However, the most intriguing fresco is Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting the creation located on the ceiling of the chapel. The intricate fresco literary attracts thousands of eyes every day, as the Vatican museums are one of the most visited museums in the world with more than 5 million visitors a year.

Another important landmark in Vatican City is St. Peter’s Basilica, the most important church in the Catholic world. The basilica, which is also one of the largest churches in the world, was designed by several architects, including Michelangelo, Bramante and Bernini. This beautiful Renaissance architectural example boasts a gorgeous façade with porticos, pillars and balconies. The central balcony is the place from where the Pope pronounces the blessing urbi et orbi on certain holidays and beatifications.

Though St. Peter’s Basilica is truly enormous, the only way to really comprehend its impressive features is by exploring its interior. The building is over 150 feet high and it can accommodate more than 60,000 people. The interior is opulently decorated with sculptures, marble and relief. The most important masterpiece housed in St. Peter’s is Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Just outside the church the impressive St. Peter’s Square is the setting where hundreds of thousands of Catholics gather during holiday and religious processions. Designed by Bernini during the 17th century, the enormous square features several sculptures and two fountains, while right in the center; visitors can admire an 87 feet high Egyptian Obelisk.

After so much history and art, tourists usually spend a few hours in the Vatican’s Gardens. These gardens cover more than a half of the entire state and they were designed during the Renaissance and Baroque area. The gardens feature several orchards and vineyards, but also many sculptures, fountains and churches.

6. Galleria Borghese

Rome is famous not only for its plethora of ancient buildings and beautiful churches, but also for its impressive museums, particularly its art galleries. One of the most beautiful art galleries in the city is Galleria Borghese, not only because of its impressive number of masterpieces, but also for the building’s gorgeous architecture. Erected at the beginning of the 17th century, outside of Rome’s center, this villa was one of the most beautiful palaces in the city.

The Borghese family was one of the most prestigious in Rome during those times, and it even produced a pope – Pope Paul V. His nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese was the one who begun collecting art works, sculptures and antiques, most of which became part of the museum collection. Throughout the years, Vila Borghese was a true landmark in the Eternal City and it was remodeled several times. At the beginning of the 20th century, the building was sold to the Italian government and turned it into a museum, featuring the art works gathered by the Borghese family.

The Galleria Borghese features 20 rooms with dozens of masterpieces created by artists like Raphael, Bernini, Rubens and Titian.

The beautiful gardens around the villa are a touristic attraction in their own right and one of the largest public parks in the city. The gardens encompass not only Vila Borghese, but also Vila Medici, Villa Giulia and several other museums, including a zoological one. If you have time, make sure you rent a rowing boat for a more interesting experience.

7. Castel Sant’Angelo

One of the most striking buildings in Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo or the Mausoleum of Hadrian is also one of the most visited buildings in the city. Originally built as a final resting place for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family in 138 AD, the cylindrical palace is now a museum.

Throughout the years the palace was used by several popes, and, at the end of the 13th century, a covered passageway was built linking the palace to the Vatican. During times of danger, the pope was able to flee the Vatican and find refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo which was fortified. Unfortunately, the building was destroyed several times, and the contents of Hadrian’s tomb and the original decorations were lost.

According to local legend, the name of the palace was changed from the Mausoleum of Hadrian into Castel Sant’Angelo after the Archangel Michael appeared over the mausoleum announcing the end of the plague, in 590.

Famous prisoners were also held within the walls of the castle, and many executions took place here, while the castle was used as a prison.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the 58 rooms of the castle were turned into a museum featuring an extensive collection of weaponry and decorated with exquisite murals. However, one of the main attractions of the castle, apart from the striking exterior, is the amazing views towards the Vatican and over the Sant’Angelo Bridge.

8. The Spanish Steps

One of the most peculiar touristic attractions in the Eternal City is actually a set of steps, which connect Piazza Trinita dei Monti and Piazza di Spagna. Inaugurated in 1725, the 135 steps monumental stairway was built with the help of a French diplomat, in order to connect the Bourbon Spanish Embassy with the Holy See, located at the bottom of the stairs in Palazzo Monaldeschi.

The steps are beautifully decorated with fleurs-de-lis as homage to the French diplomat who paid for this landmark.

Today the steps are a popular meeting point and a great pace to admire a different view over the city. During the summer, in the evenings, hundreds of people simply rest on these steps enjoying the bustling city around them.

At the bottom of the stairs, a boat shaped fountain named the Barcaccia, or the Fountain of the ugly Boat, is one of the most popular features in Piazza di Spagna. The fountain’s design was inspired by a very large flood. When the water level of the Tiber raised so much that several boats ended up in the square.

Above the staircase, the French church of Trinità dei Monti is one of the most photographed buildings in Rome alongside the steps. The church was consecrated in 1585 by Pope Sxitus V. Today, visitors can still admire parts of its original Gothic arches and paintings by one of Michelangelo’s pupils.

One of the buildings lining Piazza din Spagna used to be the home of famous English writer John Keats. After he died here in 1821, the house was turned into a museum.

Right in front of the steps, Via Condotti is one of the largest and more fashionable in Rome. The avenue leads towards Via del Corso and it is lined with some of the most luxurious shops in the city. What is more, the famous Cafe Greco is also located on this street. This venue was preferred meeting place for personalities like Gogol, Wagner, Listz, Goethe, Schopenhauer and Berlioz.

9. Trastevere

Those who want to discover the true atmosphere of Rome should take a stroll through the Trastevere district on the western bank of the Tiber. The narrow cobbled stone streets are the perfect place to get lost and discovered amazing spots along the way.

One of the most beautiful piazzas in Rome can be found in this district. Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is the perfect spot for people watching and relaxing. The square is mostly popular among young people and it is lined with great cafes and restaurants.

Right next to the square, lays one of the oldest churches in Rome – Santa Maria in Trastevere. The interior of this exquisite church features dozens of mismatched columns brought here from several ancient Roman buildings. The church also features beautiful mosaics dating back to the 13th century.

This neighborhood has many beautiful buildings just waiting to be discovered, including Casa della Fornarina, named after Raphael’s mistress, and Villa Farnesina, which used to belong to the influential Farnesina family.

Right in the middle of the Tiber, Isola Tiberina is more of a charming little Italian village, then part of an important district in Italy’s largest city. The island is only 885 feet long and 200 feet wide, and it houses an important hospital and a synagogue. However, the best way to admire Isola Tiberina is from the nearby Garibaldi Bridge.

Trastevere also boasts a gorgeous botanical garden with 3,500 species of plants, and another famous Catholic landmark – the Tempietto. Built on the original spot of Saint Peter’s martyrdom, this commemorative tomb was built by Bramante and is one of the most striking examples of Renaissance architecture.

10. Cinecitta

Movie buffs should not miss the opportunity to visit one of the most unique touristic attractions in Rome – Cinecitta. This large cinema studio located in the south-eastern part of Rome is the center of the Italian cinema. After Hollywood, this is the most important place in cinema’s history.

Rome was the background of some of the most famous movies not only in the Italian cinema but also in the American one, so, it’s no wonder that the city has built such a prestigious film studio.

Cinecitta was established by Benito Mussolini in 1937 as an effort to revive the Italian film industry. Though at the beginning one of the studio’s main purposes was propaganda for the fascists, since then Cinecitta has become a legitimate film studio. Among the first movies made there is the 1937 Scipio Africanus which featured a massive battle scene in which thousands of people were involved and even several elephants.

During the World War II, the studio was bombed by the Western Allies and it was used as a refugee camp for a couple of years. After the war, Cinecitta regained its former glory, particularly during the 50’s when several massive American productions were shot on these premises, including the 1959 Ben-Hur. During this time, the name of the famous Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini became associated with Cinecitta, as he shot most of his award winning films at the studio. One of the most famous movies of all times shot at Cinecitta and on the streets of Rome is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The studios can be visited by curious tourists who can still explore part of the sets of some of the most popular film productions in the world.

Today Cinecitta is still a prolific film studio, but since 2014 it also features an amusement park. Cinecitta World is located right next to the studios and it was designed by an Oscar winning production designer. This beautiful theme park is dedicated to the enchanting world of cinema and it features 20 attractions, eight film sets and four theaters. Film buffs should definitely not miss this amusement park where they can literally feel like they’ve stepped into the silver screen.