Explore Rome: what to do, where to eat and sleep
Though often described as a “living museum”, Rome offers so much more than its staggering stock of artistic treasures – not least its fantastic food. Here’s our guide on what to do in Rome, with picks of where to eat and sleep for all budgets.
Chock-full of ancient monuments and picturesque piazzas, Rome’s historic core must be one of the world’s most seductive. But make time too for the neighbourhoods outside the centre, such as winsome Trastevere, which comes alive after dark; or rough-around-the-edges Testaccio, with its lively market and traditional trattorias.
However long you’ve got to explore the city, you’ll be left wanting more.
4 essential things to do in Rome
Rome’s list of must-sees is longer than most cities’, but its historic centre is very compact, with the highlights reachable on foot.
1. Go back in time to ancient Rome
The granddaddy of all Roman monuments, the Colosseum was built in 72 AD as the venue for bloodthirsty gladiatorial contests. You can pay to see it from the inside, scale its tiers and take a tour of the underground area, but the view from the outside is arguably more stirring (and free). Nearby, the sprawling Roman Forum is littered with the remnants of what was once the heart of the ancient world.
2. Get neck ache at the Pantheon
Once inside this hulking ancient Roman structure, look up and admire its unique oculus. A full 30 feet across, this perfectly round hole in the roof is a feat of ancient Roman engineering.
3. Wander the historic centre
Don’t leave town without sipping a Campari in one of Rome’s picturesque piazzas: Piazza Navona, built on the site of an ancient stadium, hence its oval shape; and Campo de’ Fiori, lined with cafés and with a colourful morning market. Wander east for more must-sees: the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, recently restored to the tune of €2.2 million, and a marvel of gushing water and sculptures of frolicking horses and mythical creatures.
4. Take in the Vatican, the world’s smallest sovereign city state
The Vatican Museums are the world’s richest treasure trove of art, with over nine miles of museums holding many of Italy’s most celebrated artworks. Nearby, St Peter’s Basilica, the largest Catholic church in the world, is a masterpiece designed by the greatest Italian architects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
5 alternative Rome highlights
Escaping the crowds isn’t easy in Rome, but these alternative attractions offer a bit of breathing space.
1. Pay your respects at the Protestant Cemetery
This historic, gorgeously overgrown cemetery, in the Testaccio district, is famous for the graves of Keats and Shelley, but the ordinary gravestones of foreigners who died far from home are just as moving.
2. Explore Nero’s Domus Aurea
A stone’s throw from the Colosseum, the Emperor Nero’s “Golden House” is currently undergoing a €39 million restoration, but it’s still open for guided tours. Guides take you underground to explore what was once a vast, opulent palace covering more than half a square mile.
3. Take in the view from the Aventine Hill
This shady, well-to-do enclave offers some welcome peace and quiet. Head to the Giardino degli Aranci, a garden filled with orange trees, for the knockout view from its terrace. A little further up the road is the Priory of the Knights of Malta; it’s closed to the public, but peek through the keyhole to see a perfectly framed view of St Peter’s.
4. Hit the shops on Via del Governo Vecchio
This serpentine back alley near Piazza Navona holds lots of tempting one-off boutiques, with a clutch of good vintage shops – a reliable hunting ground for Italian leather bags and quirky accessories.
5. Check out Rome’s street art scene
Rome’s street art scene has exploded in recent years, thanks to a council-run initiative that gives artists the freedom to transform formerly downtrodden areas such as Pigneto, Ostiense and Quadraro with bold, colourful murals.
Map of Rome
We've pinned all our favourite Rome destinations on this handy map:
Where to stay in Rome
1. For a fashionable foray: If you have the cash to splash, Portrait Roma is the place: an intimate, 14-suite bolthole with bags of style (it’s owned by the Salvatore Ferragamo fashion house), a panoramic roof terrace, top-notch service and a fantastic location, just down the road from the Spanish Steps.
2. For opulence: Megahotel De Russie sits right by Piazza del Popolo, one of the city’s showpiece squares. It gets everything right, from the understated luxury of its rooms to its gem of a bar, set in a terraced garden that’s perfect for cocktails in summer.
3. For a serious splurge: Residenza Napoleone III, a two-suite residenza in a historic palazzo is a one-off: once host to Emperor Napoleon III, the larger suite is suitably kitted out with Old Masters and antiques, while the roof garden suite has wraparound views of Rome’s rooftops.
On a budget
1. For the bee's knees: Near the main train station and within easy reach of most of the sights, The Beehive is an established budget option. Comfortable rooms, friendly staff, strong eco credentials, a veggie café and a leafy garden combine to make this place the bee’s knees.
2. For a great location: Blue Hostel is not a hostel in the usual sense – the rooms are all private. It's in a great location, just down the street from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and the wood-beamed rooms have a tasteful, boutique-y elegance. You’re well looked after by friendly hosts Ercole and Andrea.
3. For a cosy stay: QuodLibet, in the well-heeled Prati district, a short walk from the Vatican, is a cosy B&B with four comfortable rooms, a sun-trap roof terrace and five-star breakfasts. The delicious aroma of pastries wafting from the bakery downstairs is an additional plus.
Where to eat in Rome
For typical Roman cuisine: Armando al Pantheon serves all the classic Roman classics in a simple, pared-back dining room. To sample Rome’s Jewish cuisine head to the Ghetto area, where bustling Nonna Betta does excellent fried artichokes, among many other Roman Jewish specialities.
For the a perfect pizza: Forno Campo de’ Fiori, in the heart of the action on Campo de’ Fiori, is the place for pizza by the slice, with deliciously light slices topped with fresh ingredients. For a sit-down pizza feast, try Da Remo in Testaccio, a rowdy, old-school joint with deliciously crispy, thin-based pizzas.
For standout gelato: Rome’s not short of gelaterias, but for the real deal head to Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè (near the Circus Maximus, with other locations dotted around town), where the artisanal flavours range from the old-school to the out-there (celery, black sesame). A short walk from the Vatican, Gelateria dei Gracchi makes delicious ices from seasonal ingredients; fruit flavours are the ones to go for here.
Insider Rome travel tips
Get a discount: If you’re planning on doing lots of sightseeing, the Roma Pass (from €28/48 hours) could be a wise investment – it gives you free entry to the first one or two sights you visit (depending which card you go for), plus free use of the public transport system. It allows you to skip the queues too.
Grab a cheap dinner: Do as the Romans do and head to a bar in the early evening for an aperitivo (typically around €10–12) and all-you-can-eat free nibbles. If you’re on a budget a plateful of tasty snacks could easily stand in for dinner.
Save on entrance fees: Time your visit carefully and you could make big savings: on the first Sunday of the month state museums and monuments are free, while the Vatican Museums are free (albeit packed) on the last Sunday of the month.
Day trips from Rome
1. Ostia Antica
Once the port of ancient Rome, this well preserved archeological site is like a mini-Pompeii, but within much easier reach of the city: it’s just a half-hour hop from Piramide metro station in the Testaccio district.
This breezy hill-town, a short train ride from Rome, is blessed with two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Villa Adriana, the remains of Emperor Hadrian’s summer retreat, strewn across scenic countryside; and the Renaissance Villa d’Este, whose terraced gardens hold some five hundred spectacular fountains.
Villa d'Este/Marco Rubino/Shutterstock
When to go to Rome
Rome can be sweltering in high summer, and many restaurants and shops close in August when the locals go on holiday. May, June, September and October are generally warm and sunny, but the sights are consequently more crowded. Winter can be a good time to visit – hotels are cheaper and the city is emptier – though expect a chill in the air from November to February.
How to get there
Rome has two airports: Fiumicino (also called Leonardo da Vinci), which handles most scheduled flights, and Ciampino, served by charter flights and budget European airlines. Trains connect Fiumicino to the main train station, Termini (30min), while the easiest way to get to town from Ciampino is by bus to Termini (45min).
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