The Eternal City was born for the Silver Screen. Its wealth of history, vibrant art and stunning skyline make it the perfect backdrop for films, whether they’re ecclesiastical dramas in the Vatican or Roman epics in the shadows of the Forum

Here are some of the best films set in Rome to get you excited for your next trip (or just pass a Friday night).

Roman Holiday, 1953

Before there was Notting Hill (1999), there was Roman Holiday. This timeless love story between princess and pauper is one of the few films in our list to be shot entirely on location. Audrey Hepburn bagged an Oscar for her turn as a European princess who sneaks away from her holders to explore Rome. Gregory Peck is the shrewd journalist who shows her the highlights of the city with the ulterior motive of getting an insider scoop. But it is Rome that is the true star as the couple eat gelato by the Spanish Steps, dance the night away near Castello Sant’Angelo and speed by Piazza Venezia on a vespa. You can hardly blame them for inevitably falling in love with such a stylish city as backdrop. A viewing of this will have you wanting to pack your bag for a Roman Holiday a presto.

Location scout

Like Gregory Peck, you can try your own luck at the Bocca della Verità – the ancient manhole that is said to bite your hand off if you’re telling lies. From here, it’s a short walk across the Tiber to Trastevere, one of Rome’s top hoods for eating. For a more active way to relive the film, consider joining one of the many vespa tours that whizz around the city.

Gladiator, 2000

Russell Crowe battling another actor dressed as gladiator in the Colosseum.
Gladiator will get you excited to learn more about Roman history. © Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

None of Ridley Scott’s blockbuster was actually filmed in Rome (where Malta steps in for the ancient city) but it remains one of the best recent films at resurrecting the Roman Empire on screen. Russell Crowe is a general that falls from grace under the reign of the devious emperor Commodus (a deliciously evil turn by Joaquin Phoenix) and seeks revenge for the murder of his family in this life or the next. It may have a fair few anachronisms, but there’s a real reverence for the ancient world in all its grandeur, best encapsulated by Oliver Reed’s aged gladiator who conjures up the glory of the Colosseum in a whispered monologue. All in all, it is an excellent primer before your trip for re-introducing yourself to the politics, violence and spectacle of Ancient Rome.

Location scout

All of Ancient Rome’s best sights are situated a short walk from each other. History buffs should head early to the Colosseum where Gladiator’s cinematic climax plays out. But don’t miss the Capitoline Museums for the best Roman antiquities including a bust of the real life Commodus. The real thing bears little relation to the film’s depiction, but he did meet a similarly sticky end at the hands of a professional fighter, Narcissus, who strangled him to death in the bath.

La Dolce Vita, 1960

Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain.
Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain is one of the most famous images of Rome. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps the most famous Italian film of all time, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita has been lauded by critics for 60 years. The film charts Marcello Mastroianni’s writer across one philandering week in Rome. Like the seven hills Rome was founded on, the episodic film is split into seven parts, which could represent the Deadly Sins, the days of the week or something completely different – it is this enigma that has continually brought viewers back for more. The most famous part of the movie though is the iconic Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain in the dead of night. The film is a stylish romp through 1960s Rome shining a light on the nightclubs and intellectual circles of the capital during this swinging period. It also gave the world the word "paparazzi" after an intrusive journalist supporting-character.

Location scout

For the best way to enjoy the Trevi Fountain, take a leaf out of nocturnal Loren’s book. Avoid the day and early evening when the lines of tourists can be disheartening and come in the middle of the night. Stay till last orders at Harry’s Bar (also featured in the film) and then it’s a short meander to an empty(ish) fountain magically illuminated at night.

La Grande Bellezza, 2013

A couple dance on a green lawn.
La Grande Bellezza © Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

A great companion piece to La Dolce Vita (and arguably a sequel of sorts), this Oscar winner follows yet another writer as he meanders through the city. Unlike Peck and Mastroianni’s incarnations though, Toni Servillo plays a seasoned socialite who, on his 65th birthday, sees past the decadent nightclubs and parties and seeks hidden beauty in other parts of Rome through nocturnal wanders. Often cited as a love letter to the city, viewers will be transported to Rome as Servillo strolls by the Tiber through the Capitoline Museums and Piazza Navona.

Location scout

The film helps put one of the most unique views of St Peter’s Basilica on the map. First head to Testaccio and climb the Aventine Hill to the Giardino degli Aranci for a spectacular panorama of the city. Then head next door and peak through the keyhole at the Maltese Embassy to see for yourself this wonderful view of the cathedral, perfectly framed by the keyhole and line of pine trees beyond.

The Two Popes, 2019

Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis in The Two Popes with the Sistine Chapel in the background
The Sistine Chapel gets a starring role in one pivotal scene in 'The Two Popes' © Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

The Two Popes is where Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins quite frankly act their socks off as the respective Popes Francis and Benedict. This Netflix-produced film is a great insight into Vatican politics and lifts a lid on these popes’ very different approaches to the job. Securing filming rights in the Vatican is notoriously difficult, so the filmmakers decamped to CineCittà the main film studio in Italy, to build amazing replicas of the Vatican buildings. The real-life Castel Gandolfo, a former papal summer retreat, is used in the film. Regardless of the authenticity of the film locations, The Two Popes is essential viewing if you want to explore the spiritual side of the city.

Location scout

If you are a film buff, a tour of the Cinecittà studios just outside Rome are well worth your time. It was not only used for Italian filmmaking, but big name Hollywood epics like Cleopatra (1963) were shot here. The studios were even referenced in Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood (2019). If you are interested in seeing the real side of The Two Popes, explore the Vatican Museums on a late tour for a more ethereal view of these gorgeous rooms.

You might also like:

What travel looks like in Italy in 2020  
London watchlist: films to see before your trip  
Tokyo watchlist: films to see before your trip  

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