Roof top view of Rome historical center at golden hour. City skyline as seen from Castel Sant'Angelo. Rome, Italy
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10 Essential Things to Do in Rome on an Italy Vacation

14 min read
Published on Jan 27, 2018
Aren Bergstrom
By Aren BergstromManaging Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

Rome has a whole lot to recommend itself: beautiful buildings, a warm climate, incredible food, and thousands of years of history to explore. In fact, there are so many things to occupy your time in Rome on an Italy vacation, you may have difficulty paring down your list to the essentials. We’re here to help you out. From visits to famous landmarks to iconic food experiences to strolls through art galleries, we’ve put together 10 essential things to do in Rome. There’s no overarching rule for what belongs on such a list aside from the fact that if you visit Rome and don’t do the following, you’re missing out on an essential Roman experience.

Enter the Colosseum

Rome abounds with iconic sites, but the Colosseum remains the city’s definitive landmark. Completed in 80 A.D., this Roman amphitheatre sits in the heart of downtown and is a great starting point for an exploration of the ancient world. Historically, it was primarily used as an entertainment venue where Roman citizens would watch gladiators fight to the death or individuals face off against dangerous predators like rhinos or tigers. The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire and remains one of the most impressive buildings ever constructed. It showcases the majesty of the empire, as well as its brutality, as it’s impossible to admire the architecture and grandness of the Colosseum without contemplating the death and bloodshed that played out within it. Nevertheless, it is without a doubt one of the world’s great monuments. To skip it on a tour of Italy would be madness.

Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum, Rome's famous landmark

Explore the Roman Forum

The Roman Forum was once the religious and political heart of the empire. Today, it’s a series of fascinating ruins and arches sitting smack dab in the middle of downtown Rome, in Campitelli, not far from the Colosseum. You can stroll through Roman arches and see the ruins of ancient temples, shrines, and government buildings. It’s a bit hard to parse between the ruins, so consider joining a tour when visiting the Roman Forum on your Italy vacation. It’s the best way to discover the identity of the buildings and learn about the intriguing history of the area over the past 2000 years. It’s fascinating to visit the Roman Forum and comprehend how the heart of ancient Rome - and what was once a centre of power in the ancient world - is now a series of stone ruins. It forces you to understand how even the mightiest of empires crumble.

Admire the beauty of the Pantheon

The Pantheon is one of the great architectural achievements of the ancient world. Located in the northwest corner of Pigna, the Pantheon was completed and dedicated during the early years of the 2nd century A.D. by Roman emperor, Hadrian. While it was first a temple dedicated to the "pantheon" of Roman gods, it became a church in the 7th century, a move that helped it survive the ensuing centuries. Aside from the beauty of its Corinthian columns and the sheer size of its dome - which remains the largest unsupported dome in the world - the Pantheon is remarkable for its state of preservation. Most Roman temples were sacked by barbarians during the Fall of the Roman Empire, and others were destroyed by Christian rulers in the following centuries. The temple’s conversion to a church accounts for it not being completely destroyed, but many other Roman structures have faded with time and had their materials break down. Perhaps the Pantheon’s resilience has something to do with it being constructed from Roman concrete, a remarkable material that has mysterious origins; we’re not sure how it was developed, only that it was. Tour the Pantheon, while on your Italy vacation in Rome, to illuminate some of these mysteries and simply admire what a marvel this building is.

Pantheon in Rome, Italy
The Pantheon

Delve into the Catacombs

If you like spooky landmarks that have the capacity to creep you out as you learn about the past, you’ll love the Catacombs in Rome. Starting in the 2nd century A.D., these underground chambers became burial sites for Romans, specifically the Christians and Jews who eschewed cremation and instead chose to bury their dead. As burying bodies in the ground was outlawed within the city walls, the Christians and Jews had to dig their crypts on the outskirts. The Christian Catacombs are the earliest known sites to be excavated. In addition to being burial sites for the poverty-stricken Christians at the time, they were places of worship for the persecuted church. As well, the Christians began to use the catacombs to spread Christian symbols and religious art literally and figuratively underground, as Christianity was persecuted in the Roman Empire until the time of Constantine the Great. The only way to visit the Catacombs is in the company of a guide, which is a good thing, as you wouldn’t want to wander around these dark underground passages on your own even if they let you. You can find guides on site, as tours are included in your admission fees, or you can arrange for a tour with an external company.

Catacombe di San Pancrazio under the basilica in Trastevere, Rome, Italy
Catacombe di San Pancrazio under the basilica in Trastevere

Visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Museums of the Vatican City

Although it’s not technically a part of Rome or Italy, the autonomous state of Vatican City is located within the city borders and is one of the great highlights of Rome on an Italy vacation. As the seat of the Pope and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican has special importance for the world’s over one billion Catholics. Regardless of religious affiliation, the Vatican is one of the world’s great treasure troves; only the Louvre in Paris can compare to its collection of artistic masterworks. When you visit, take a moment to appreciate Piazza San Pietro, or St. Peter's Square, which the great artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, designed in the 17th century. Take a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica to marvel at the world’s largest church and the masterful artworks contained within, including Michelangelo’s Pieta. The bones of St. Peter are also entombed in the church, although they’re not accessible to the public. After admiring St. Peter’s Basilica, head into the Vatican Museums to see countless masterpieces, including works by Raphael such as The School of Athens. A trip to the Vatican Museums culminates in a visit to the Sistine Chapel, where you silently admire the roof and wall frescoes of Michelangelo, including The Last Judgment. It’s a perfect way to cap a day at the Vatican.

See artistic masterworks at the Galleria Borghese

The Vatican is the most essential museum to visit on an Italy vacation in Rome, but there are others that should occupy some of your time, including the Galleria Borghese. The former villa of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Galleria Borghese houses the family’s extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, and antiques. Located in a park just to the northeast of Campo Marzio, the museum is easily accessible and features works by Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, Barocci, and Titian, including his Sacred and Profane Love. Outside the museum, you can also explore the manicured gardens, which have a few temples and neoclassical features dotted throughout.

Throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain

Whether it actually brings you good fortune is up for debate, but a visit to the Trevi Fountain and the prerequisite coin toss is an essential part of exploring Rome on your Italy vacation. Designed by Nicolas Salvi and located in Trevi in the city’s downtown, the 49m wide and 26m tall structure is the city’s largest Baroque fountain and one of the most famous fountains in the world. The fountain is beautiful enough that you’ll want to spend the better part of an hour admiring its sculptures and marveling at the broad array of reactions it inspires in passersby. You can grab a gelato and take a break from the afternoon sun at a café in the Piazza di Trevi. Of course, you also should toss a euro into the waters to take part in a tradition that has lasted well over half a century. Tossing a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand is meant to ensure you return to Rome in the future. According to the 1950s Hollywood romance, Three Coins in the Fountain, tossing two subsequent coins will also guarantee you find new romance and eventually marriage. Regardless of whether that is true, you’ll be engaging with a fun tradition by tossing coins in the fountain and helping out the city’s poor in the process. Every night, the city collects the coins from the fountain and uses them to fund an inner city supermarket that feeds the city’s poorest citizens.

Climb (or Descend) the Spanish Steps

Like me, you might think it’s curious that one of Rome’s most iconic sites is called the Spanish Steps, but there’s no denying that it’s a beautiful staircase in the heart of the city’s cultural centre. Built between 1723 and 1725 and named the Spanish Steps due to it linking the Trinitia dei Monti Church with the square in front of the Spanish Embassy, the Spanish Steps is the most famous staircase in the city and one of the city’s cultural hubs. If you want to take the temperature of downtown Rome, there’s no better place to relax for an hour with a gelato or an espresso and people watch citizens and tourists pass down the massive steps. As well, if you’re an arts lover, you’ll be fascinated by its importance to Romantic poetry. The great poet, John Keats, lived and died in the building located at the base of the staircase on the south side, which now houses a museum exploring Romantic poetry.

Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy
The Spanish Steps

Wander around Trastevere

There are many gorgeous parts of the city, but few are as overwhelmingly Roman as Trastevere, where century-old mansions and fading one-bedroom homes sit side by side in a maze of cobblestoned streets. Located to the south of Vatican City on the west bank of the Tiber River, Trastevere has long been home to some of the most beautiful buildings in Rome. During the times of the Roman Empire, the neighbourhood contained villas owned by the empire’s richest and most powerful individuals, including a garden villa of Julius Caesar himself. In the Middle Ages, the area became more multicultural as its location across the river (its name comes from the Latin for "Beyond the Tiber") caused it to develop a unique, bohemian culture that continues to attract artists, expats, and anyone wanting to soak in the city’s culture to this day. Wander the cobblestoned streets of Trastevere to see the restored Roman mansions and gorgeous churches that line the area. If your wanderings take you into the evening, all the better, as the neighbourhood is home to many of the city’s best restaurants and bars.

Feast on an iconic local dish

You didn’t think we’d forget to talk about Rome’s incredible food scene, did you? As one of the world’s great cities, Rome has plenty more than Italian food to offer. But who are we kidding? When in Rome, you should take every advantage possible to eat the incredible Italian food to be found in the city. If there’s one specific dish that you should try when in Rome, on your Italy vacation, it is carbonara. Developed within the city, this pasta dish consists of egg yolk, a grated hard cheese like Pecorino Romano or parmesan, pancetta (or bacon), and generous amounts of freshly-ground black pepper coated over spaghetti noodles (although other types of long, thin noodles are sometimes used). The dish is simple, creamy, and absolutely delicious.

Spaghetti carbonara with egg, smoked bacon and cheese over a table
Spaghetti carbonara with egg, smoked bacon and cheese

If you want to try a unique dish that’s not pasta and not typically found outside the city, try one of two Roman artichoke styles. Carciofi alla giudia, or Roman-Jewish artichokes, are artichokes that are blanched in lemon water and then deep fried in olive oil. Carciofi all Romana, or Roman artichokes, forgo the deep-frying, instead being braised in white wine, water, and oil. Both styles are utterly Roman and quite the dinner treat. You’ll find abundant ways to occupy yourself walking down the side streets of the Italian capital, whether that’s finding small art galleries in Trastevere displaying incredible modern works by unknown artists, or discovering the perfect pistachio gelato at a street vendor near the Spanish Steps. However, rest assured that if you follow this list, you’re guaranteed to see the essentials in Rome on an Italy vacation. Organize your trip to Rome around such essential highlights and fill in the rest of your days with spontaneous discoveries of what the Eternal City has to offer.

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Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom
Goway - Managing Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

You might say that Aren was destined to become a globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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