Rome’s ancient roots uncoil throughout the city, flaunting icons like the Colosseum and Pantheon and priceless masterpieces by Bernini and Michelangelo.

With a lively artisan culture, breathtaking basilicas, and a food scene that needs no introduction, there’s a reason why la città eterna has charmed travelers for centuries. Here are the highlights of a visit to Rome.

A huge ancient amphitheatre with crowds of people in front of it
The Colosseum is one of the great highlights of Ancient Rome © Ronald Paras / EyeEm / Getty Images

1. Marvel at the Colosseum

Rome’s tenacity is best illustrated in its ancient monuments, remarkably intact nearly 2000 years on. Debuting in 80 AD, the behemoth 50,000-seat Colosseum famously hosted frenzied spectators who would watch gladiators facing off against each other or wild animals. No photograph can prepare you for the thrill of seeing it for the first time. More than any other monument, this iconic amphitheater symbolizes the power and drama of ancient Rome, and still today, it’s an electrifying sight. The amphitheater dominates as the top tourist attraction in the city; book tickets in advance to bypass the lines. 

Ancient ruins viewed from above with a large building in the background with a bronze sculpture of horses on top
Palatine Hill offers superb views over the Forum © Mila Atkovska / Shutterstock

2. Wander through the Roman Forum

Near the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, a bustling stretch of markets and temples in its heyday. It encompasses must-see sights like the Arco di Settimio Severo and the Tempio di Saturno. To walk through the tumbledown remains is to retrace the footsteps of the great figures of Roman history – people like Julius Caesar, Augustus and Pompey. And while the ruins can be confusing, it remains a stirring experience to stand in what was once the heart of the Roman Empire.

3. Enjoy the views from Palatino (Palatine Hill)

Rome's seven hills offer some superb vantage points. Palatine Hill, where Romulus allegedly founded the city in 753 BCE, is one of the best. It's a gorgeous green expanse of evocative ruins, towering pine trees and stunning views that rise above the Roman Forum. It's a truly haunting spot, and as you walk the gravel paths, you can almost sense the ghosts in the air.

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A wide staircase leads to a white church. Pink flowers line the steps
There are great views over Rome from the top of the Spanish Steps © Belenos / Shutterstock

4. People watch from the Spanish Steps

Piazza di Spagna cradles Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia and gives rise to the sweeping Trinita di Monti staircase, or Spanish Steps. This is one of the city's icons and a top people-watching spot. In the springtime, when some of its 135 steps are draped in azaleas, it's a particularly lovely place to linger. 

A large number of tourists take photos, throw coins and walk around Trevi Fountain in Rome.
Toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain and wish for a return trip to Rome © L. Toshio Kishiyama / Moment Select / Getty

5. Make a wish at the Trevi Fountain

A stop at Rome's largest and most famous water feature, the flashy Trevi Fountain, is a traditional rite of passage for visitors. Every day crowds gather to toss coins into the fountain's water to ensure that one day they'll return to the Eternal City. The fountain, designed by Nicola Salvi in the 18th century, is a gloriously over-the-top rococo affair depicting wild horses, mythical figures and cascading rock falls. It's an unforgettable sight any time of the day but is particularly spellbinding after dark when it's all lit up.

A square lined with grand buildings. A freestanding obelisk surrounded by fountains is the centerpiece
Piazza Navona hums with street vendors and artists © Brian Kinney / Shutterstock

6. Stroll through Piazza Navona

For sheer heart-stopping beauty, nowhere in Rome can top Piazza Navona. Set atop an ancient Roman arena in the heart of the historical center, the piazza is the very picture of elegant baroque styling with its three ornamental fountains, domed church and handsome palazzi (mansions). Adding to the spectacle are the ringside cafes and ever-present street artists.

A huge domed roof with a large central hole that light shines through
Head inside the Pantheon to truly appreciate its vast structure © TTstudio / Shutterstock

7. Admire the architecture of the Pantheon

The Pantheon, a 2000-year-old temple-turned-church, is the best preserved of Rome's ancient monuments and a truly extraordinary building. Its giant columned portico and thick-set walls impress, but it’s only when you get inside that you get the full measure of the place. It’s vast, and you’ll feel very small as you look up at the record-breaking dome soaring above your head. Adding to the effect are the shafts of light that stream through the central oculus (the circular opening at the dome’s apex), illuminating the royal tombs set into the marble-clad interior.

A large room with people admiring art. There's a huge marble sculpture in the center of the room
Book ahead for a visit to Museo e Galleria Borghese © Evgenii Iaroshevskii / Shutterstock

8. Book a visit to the Museo e Galleria Borghese

A great gallery that you may have never heard of, the Museo e Galleria Borghese houses some of Rome’s most spectacular works of art. You’ll need to book ahead, but it’s a small price to pay for the chance to see a series of sensational baroque sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as well as a celebrated statue by Canova and paintings by the likes of Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian. And when you’ve finished, the surrounding Villa Borghese park is the perfect place to digest what you’ve just seen.

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The sun sets over a river, with the skyline dominated by a huge domed building
You could spend days admiring the art in the Vatican Museums © Michael Abid / 500px

9. Explore St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums

Founded in the 1500s, the Vatican Museums easily brandish one of the largest and most significant art collections on the planet. Its works – garnered throughout the centuries from the Papacy and Catholic Church – hail from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond. With over 20,000 pieces on display and over nine miles of museum, it’s utterly impossible to see it all. Few of Rome's artistic highlights are as overpowering as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. After basking in all the beauty, head to St Peter’s Basilica. The opulent basilica reigns as the largest in the world and boasts three artistic icons of Italy: Michaelangelo’s Pietà, the dome, and Bernini’s bronze canopy over the papal altar. 

A room with a black-and-white tiled floor is lined with marble sculptures
The Capitoline is the world's oldest public museum © Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock

10. Immerse yourself in classical art at the Capitoline Museums

In ancient times, the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill) was home to Rome’s two most important temples. Nowadays, the main reason to make the short, steep climb to the top is to admire the views over the Roman Forum and visit the Capitoline Museums on Piazza del Campidoglio, itself one of Rome's most beautiful squares. As the world’s oldest public museums, these hold some fantastic classical statuary, including the celebrated Lupa Capitolina (Capitoline Wolf) and some truly wonderful paintings by big-name baroque artists.

A series of outside tables full of diners lining a cobbled street
Trastevere is the perfect place for a meal and a night out in Rome © Massimo Salesi / Shutterstock

11. Dine like the locals

Eating out is one of Rome's great pleasures, and the combination of romantic alfresco settings and superlative food guarantees good times. For contemporary fine dining and five-star wine, there are any number of refined restaurants, but for a truly Roman meal, head to a boisterous pizzeria or convivial neighborhood trattoria. That's where the locals go to indulge their passion for thin, crispy pizzas, humble pasta dishes, and cool white wines from the nearby Castelli Romani hills. Head for the picture-perfect neighborhood of Trastevere. Over the river from the historic center, its medieval lanes, hidden piazzas and pastel-hued palazzi harbor hundreds of bars, cafes, trattorias and restaurants catering to a nightly crowd of up-for-it Romans and besotted visitors. To finish off, what could be better than a gelato followed by a shot of world-beating coffee?

A group of people shop for items at Mercato Monti in Rome
Pick up some one-of-a-kind Roman pieces from any of the city's artisan shops © Alexandra Bruzzese / Lonely Planet

12. Shop your way through the city

Rome has a vast and diverse array of specialist shops, fashion boutiques and artisans' workshops, with a particularly impressive portfolio of food, clothing and accessory boutiques. Many of these businesses are family-owned, having been passed down through the generations. Others have grown from their modest origins into global brands known for their classic designs and quality workmanship. The Tridente neighborhood is the queen of Rome shopping, with beautiful boutiques along and around Via del Corso. Foodie shoppers are well catered for in Testaccio, home to a covered daily market and one of Rome's most celebrated and best-stocked delis. The area west of Piazza Navona is packed with small shops and indie boutiques selling everything from designer fashions to vintage clothes, hand-crafted accessories and collectible antiques.

A straight paved path with ruins to one side
Exploring the Via Appia Antica on a sunny day is a real treat © Jannis Tobias Werner / Shutterstock

13. Roam along Via Appia Antica

The first great superhighway of the Roman world, Via Appia Antica, to the south of Rome, is a gorgeous place to be on a clear, sunny morning. Running through lush green fields and strewn with piles of greying ruins, it's the very picture of pastoral Italian beauty. But the bucolic scenery belies its bloody past. It was here that Spartacus and 6000 of his slave army were crucified, and it was here that the ancients came to bury their dead: well-to-do Romans in elaborate mausoleums, the early Christians in the catacombs. 

Introducing Rome

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This article was first published September 2015 and updated July 2021

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