After spending four delightful days visiting the Amalfi Coast and experiencing an amazing boat tour from Sorrento to Positano, our schedule took us next to Rome, Italy. We caught a train from Sant’Agnello to Naples and then changed trains from Naples to Rome.
Discovering things to do in Rome—Start with a place to stay
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If you are using your hotel reward points to book your stay in Rome, you have a few options with the Hilton Honors Program.
It was early in the day when we arrived in Rome with our girls. We took a chance on being able to check-in early at the Hilton Garden Inn. We didn’t want a repeat of a morning in Florence where transportation luck was not on our side and we ended up pulling our luggage behind us through the piazza around the Duomo. Not cool.
Not a fun way to travel, trust me. And a sure way to stick out like a sore thumb as a tourist.
Fortunately, as we arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn, both of our rooms were ready. While this hotel was a little further away from the center of Rome and the main tourist sites, the appealing feature was the option for two adjoining rooms in a cool configuration.
We accessed the rooms through one main door that opened into a small foyer with our two separate rooms off of the foyer. Private. Clever.
We happily dropped off our luggage [affiliate], freshened up a bit, and unloaded our backpacks.
I made sure my backpack was set with my camera insert, Canon 6d Mark II, and an extra battery. Rome was sure to be a photographer’s dream.
Chris and I both added snacks to our backpack.
When you are traveling, whether with young kids, babies, teens, OR adults, it is best to be prepared with snacks you all enjoy as well as with snacks that provide energy and protein.
I am also a big fan of Built Bars and pack them whenever I travel now.
Bonus * Use Code SJTRAVELS at checkout for 10% off your Built Bar purchase.
We boarded the metro train close to the hotel. Amazingly, it dropped us off right in front of the Colosseum and the Forum. Perfect.
Understanding the metro system is one of things to do in Rome for a smooth visit. As I am directionally challenged, I am grateful my husband understands it!
While you are thinking about it, make sure you have an external battery or portable charger to keep your phone [affiliates] charged and working all day long as you site see, take pictures, listen to audio tours, and map yourself to different locations. It will be a lifesaver.
I’m serious. Don’t leave home without one.
We grabbed a quick lunch from street vendors as we came out of the metro station and then began a “bucket list day” of exploration.
It is a thrilling moment when you take in the grandeur of the Colosseum, the ruins and architecture of the Forum and Palatine Hill, along with the hustle and bustle of tourists mingled with Italians. Enjoy the moment!
Discover things to do in Rome with the versatile Roma Pass
You will want to purchase Roma Passes (Check the website for a map of the tourist infopoints where passes can be purchased).
The passes are valid from the FIRST validation for access to museums, archaeological sites, experiences and local public transport.
You can buy a 48-hour pass or a 72-hour pass, depending on the length of your stay (passes are non-refundable and are valid from the moment of first use not purchase date).
Be sure to check the website for all of the requirements. These passes allow you free or discounted access to plenty of popular tourist sites which are surely on your list of things to do in Rome.
You may not get a chance to see everything, so plan your days and schedules with the sites that are most important to you. If you have lots of things to do in Rome on your bucket list, the Roma Pass will help you to see many of them.
“The 72 hour pass allows free entry to the first 2 museums and/or archaeological sites of your choice. Free admission includes the exhibition held in the museum. From the 3rd museum/site onwards it is necessary to go to the ticket office to purchase a reduced ticket.”Roma Pass website
Note * You will still need to make a reservation to visit some of the locations included in the Roma Pass, ie., the Colosseum, Foro Romano and Palatino.
Another Note * If you visit the Forum and think that you can come back and visit Palatine Hill (the Roma Pass does not include the museum) think again. These two archeological areas must be visited with your entrance to the Forum.
I highly recommend that you check the Roma Pass FAQ page to find answers to all of your questions.
When taking pictures is on your list of things to do in Rome…
Photographing many of the popular tourist sites in Rome will often require you to look past the many tourists and just accept that you will have very few shots without tourists in them.
At times, your patience may be rewarded as you wait for tourists to clear your line of vision.
Whatever your skill level with a camera, be prepared for some amazing shots.
Canon Powershot G1 – This camera is great if you leave the camera in AUTO mode and work well with a point and shoot.
Canon T8i – You are just learning photography skills and may wish to switch back and forth between Auto, Aperture Priority, or Manual Mode. This is a great entry level DSLR.
Canon 6d Mark II – A great camera for advanced photographers who are comfortable with shooting in Manual Mode. You’ll get some outstanding shots with this DSLR.
Smart Phone – Cameras on your phone nowadays are amazing. If this is your picture-taking device, you will surely capture some amazing images. I usually “tourist” with my DSLR around my neck and my Smart Phone in hand! And yes, I probably don’t “blend in” that well.
You may even wish to arrive early in the morning for the best photo opportunities.
Visit the Colosseum
When looking for things to do in Rome, I imagine the Colosseum will be at the top of your list.
Standing as THE largest amphitheater in the world today as well as the largest amphitheater ever built, the oval-shaped Colosseum sits in the heart of Rome, just to the east of the Roman Forum.
It has a rich yet sometimes gruesome history as it was the site of many animal hunts and executions as well as gladiatorial contests, dramatic re-enactments, and public spectacles. It had the ability to seat between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators.
Substantial damage was done by earthquakes and then stone-robbers and scavengers over the years.
As you walk through the halls and porticos to view the amphitheater floor, imagine life many years ago and those who have walked the same steps.
One of the most famous sites in the world is the Roman Forum. Millions of tourists flock to the Forum each year. This site is at the top of many bucket lists as one of the best things to do in Rome.
Anciently, the Roman Forum was located at the very center of Rome and was the site of many religious, social, and political activities.
The entire open-air Forum is rectangular shaped and sits between Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill. As you tour the Forum, you will find that the grounds are home to many impressive monuments and temples.
The Forum functioned as the location for many elections, a trade center, educational events, social gatherings, criminal trials, political rallies, religious ceremonies, and public speeches.
Here’s a quick overview of the sites within the Forum
- Arch of Titus
- Basilica of Constantine
- Via Sacra
- Temple of Antoninus
- Temple of Vesta
- House of Vestal Virgins
- Main Square
- Temple of Julius Caesar
- Curia (Senate House)
- Arch of Septimius Severus
- Temple of Saturn & Column of Phocas
- Palatine Hill
To reach Palatine Hill, especially with the Roma Pass, you need to use the access point closest to the Arch of Titus with the Forum grounds.
Often considered to be the birthplace of Rome, Palatine Hill was a highly sought after location by the upper class where they could build beautiful palaces. Palatine Hill offers a stunning overlook of the Forum as well as the Colosseum.
The hill is covered in ruins of majestic buildings built anciently for high Roman society. Of particular interest, you may wish to make a point of visiting a few notable areas:
- Domus Flavia – Emperor Domition commissioned the building of this palace in 81 B.C as both a public and official residence.
- Hippodrome of Domitian – It is unknown whether this stadium was built as a garden or for holding races. It was given the appearance of a Roman circus.
- House of Livia – Though considered to be a modestly built house among the palaces of Palatine Hill, the House of Livia is one of the best preserved buildings on the hill. You can see glimpses of the mosaics and frescoes that decorated the home’s ceilings and walls.
- Farnese Gardens – These gardens were among the first botanical gardens to be fashioned in Europe. The Farnese Gardens sit atop the ruins of the Palace of Tiberius.
- House of Augustus – This two-story private residence of Octavian Augustus features colorful frescoes still preserved today.
- Palatine Museum – Entrance to the museum is not included in your Roma Pass. The museum is exceptional as it contains discoveries of sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, and other significant objects found on Palatine Hill over the years.
The Pantheon has a long and storied history within the Eternal City. It stands today as “the best” preserved temple from Ancient Rome and is an architectural wonder that has been often imitated (check out the library Thomas Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia).
Once thought to have been built as a pagan temple to all gods, it now serves as Christian church known as Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres or Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.
As you enter the Pantheon, please be respectful of those who have come to worship and pray as this is a functioning church.
While much of Roman architecture shows signs of being scavenged from once grand buildings (even the Colosseum was scavenged for material to build other structures), the Pantheon with its columns and triangular gable have stood as a symbol of Roman greatness throughout the years.
As our family entered the Pantheon through the portico and the massive columns in front, we were astounded by the interior—the dimensions formed a perfect circle—with the only light source being the oculus (small open window) at the top of the dome.
Throughout your exploration of Rome, you will encounter a number of obelisks. In fact, you will find 13 obelisks in Rome. There are 5 Roman obelisks and 8 Egyptian ones, some dating back over 3,000 years, scattered throughout the historic center of Rome.
Finding them all could be on you list of things to do in Rome!
These rectangular stone pillars with tapered tops were typically installed to commemorate a particular event or individual; some were brought to Rome after victories in Egypt..
Let’s just state this now: If you wish to take pictures at the Trevi Fountain without other tourists filling your photographs, you may need to arrive at the first light of day or have a lot of patience. For some of you who aren’t “morning people”, that may be a monumental feat in and of itself!
The fountain is a wonder and one of the most popular tourist sites in all of the city. It should definitely be on your list of things to do in Rome!
The Trevi Fountain is located in Piazza di Trevi, not too far from the Pantheon.
The fountain features the sea god Oceanus driving a shell-shaped chariot rising above the water and being drawn by seahorses with Tritons (half men and half mermen) guiding it. The statues of Abundance and Salubrity (promoting health and well-being) surround the fountain.
The backdrop to Trevi Fountain is the Palazzo Poli, a palace that houses important collections today.
Depending on your current relationship status, you may or may not wish to throw more than one coin into the fountain. What happens when you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain?
According to tradition, if you toss one coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to the Rome (yes, please). If you two toss two coins into the fountain, you will return and fall in love. Three coins tossed means that you will return to Rome, fall in love, and get married.
If you are looking for love and marriage, it will be one of the things to do in Rome that you won’t want to overlook. <wink>!
It is suggested that 3,000 euros in coins are thrown into the fountain every day!
The Spanish Steps
If you have ever seen “Roman Holiday” featuring the famous Spanish Steps of Rome, you know that these steps are a popular tourist draw. Visiting the steps is on the bucket list of things to do in Rome for everyone.
The 135 travertine steps link the Piazza di Spagna at the base of the steps to the Trinità dei Monti church at the top and welcome millions of tourists any time of the day or night.
If you have climbed all 135 steps you might agree that this is THE LONGEST STAIRCASE IN EUROPE <gasp>!
A few notable features when you visit to the Spanish Steps and are looking for more things to do in Rome:
- Barcaccia – A beautiful fountain in the shape of a sinking barge. It was designed after the Tiber River flooded in 1598 where the rising waters actually pushed boats into the very spot where the fountain now sits. It was designed to look as though it was semi-submerged.
- Casina Rossa – The “little red house” on the right of the steps where John Keats (an English poet) lived
- Trinità dei Monti Church – Don’t forget to look up as you enter the church to view the frescoes by Daniele di Volterra
- Sallustian Obelisk – This obelisk at the top of the staircase looks over a panoramic view of Rome.
- Via Condotti – A high fashion shopping area that begins in the square and continues to Largo Goldoni.
Did you know that if you sit, lay down, or cause the steps to become dirty, you can be fined up to 400 euros (though I have seen many people sitting on the steps)? The Spanish Steps are closely guarded by police officers to prevent violations.
While not so pretty as some of the other castles you may have visited in Europe, Castel Sant’Angelo serves more as a fortification. It is also the designated hidden papal escape route with the elevated Passetto di Borgo passageway from Vatican City directly to the castle.
On two occasions it served as a means of escape for popes in danger.
If you have time for a slow morning, which I highly recommend if your schedule of things to do in Rome keeps you on the go go go, begin your day at the fruit and vegetable market of Campo De’ Fiore.
If you happen to be following along with the Rick Steves Walking Tours, this market happens to be the first stop of the Heart of Rome tour.
There are many markets in Rome, especially if you are looking for fresh fruits and vegetables, souvenirs and mementos, clothing, or just a fun spot for people-watching.
The best markets in Rome have been around for centuries. Visiting one or all of them adds a spark of history to the modern markets of today. You can find everything from antiques to zucchini if you know where to look.
Porta Portese in Trastevere – A flea market with a little bit of everything. Open Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm.
Mercato di Campagna Amica – A farm-to-table type produce market near Circus Maximus (an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium also used as a large entertainment venue). Open Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 am to 7 pm.
Borghetto Flaminio – A posh second-hand flea market just north of Piazza del Popolo. Open Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm.
Mercato Monti – Monti is for the “hip” cool-kid crowd. You’ll find a little bit of everything from handcrafted fashions, vintage clothing, jewelry, and designer sunglasses. Open Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm.
Fontanella Borghese Market – Not too far from the Spanish Steps, this market caters to collectors looking for out-of-print art books, vintage prints, or an antique map. Monday to Saturday from 7 am to 1 pm
Mercato dell’Unità – Found north of the Vatican, this market is great if you are looking for a bite to eat or fixin’s for an upscale picnic. Open Monday to Saturday from 7 am to 6 pm.
Mercato Trionfale – A large indoor market close to the Vatican Museum frequented by locals more than tourists. You’ll find everything from fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, and fish. It is Rome’s biggest and busiest with over 300 stalls. Open Monday to Saturday from 8 am to 1:30 pm.
Nuovo Mercato Esquilino – This busy market near Termini Station offers goods and international foods. Open Monday to Friday from 5 am to 3 pm and Saturday from 5 am to 5 pm.
And if you are looking for artwork to commemorate your trip to Rome, you will find artists throughout the city painting and perhaps willing to haggle a bit.
St. Peter’s Square and the Cathedral
Vatican City, an enclave (territory within a larger territory) in Rome, is home to St. Peter’s Square. The square is a large piazza outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. There is a definite awe for the magnificent structures.
The piazza is framed by a large colonnade made up of 284 columns and 88 pilasters. Much of the square is cordoned off with barricades. If you wish to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, you will need to go through the metal detectors (hidden between many of the columns).
It is free to enter St. Peter’s Basilica but you may be asked to check you backpacks and large bags at the entrance.
Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel
My #1 tip when planning things to do in Rome is to plan for a day at the Vatican Museum and GET YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE! I can’t emphasize that enough.
When we were planning our things to do in Rome, we hadn’t pinned down the exact date that we wanted to visit the museum.
If you purchase your tickets in advance, you will not have to stand in line but can be one of the cool kids who can go to the front of the line. Standing in the museum line took forever.
And once you enter the museum it will be wall-to-wall people in some places. Literally. You may even feel herded through doorways half the size of the hallways.
Interesting things to notice:
- Be sure to look down at the amazing floor mosaics
- Enjoy the famous sculptures and works of art by renowned artists: Giotto, Lippi, Bellini, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Perugino, Raphael, and Caravaggio to name a few
- Tour the gardens
- Be in awe of the Sistine Chapel. Need I say more than Michelangelo painted the ceiling and altar wall? There were signs asking people to be quiet, but as we sat and listened to our audio tour through our headphones, every couple of minutes a voice would sound over the loud speaker and yell, “SILENCE!” Seemed so funny to us that it was so loud. We were fortunate to have some bench seating along the wall as we listened to our audio tour. I didn’t take a single picture. You will be asked not to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. I wanted to. I didn’t. My youngest was indignant that I even gave it a consideration
- Tour the Egyptian Collection
- Take pictures with this awesome spiral staircase. Try to imagine your photos without all the people…except, of course, your people
Pronounced Trest-avery, this picturesque neighborhood is located across from the old Jewish Ghetto. Pass over the oldest bridge in Rome. The Fabricio Bridge spans the Tiber River and is located south of the Vatican.
This neighborhood is noteworthy as the home to several important Romans who built villas here. Think Julius Caesar! The neighborhood has a charming ambiance with many narrow and winding streets to explore.
Cross back over the Fabricio Bridge from Trastevere to the old Jewish Ghetto. You can wander through the Temple of Apollo Ruins that are nestled within the Jewish Quarter. The ruins are free to visit and totally worth a visit. These ruins are next to the Theater of Marcellus and the Porticus Octaviae.
One of my favorite things in Rome was sitting in the Jewish Ghetto. I just sat and watched, mesmerized. I watched as the neighbors joined friends in the piazza to talk and laugh and connect.
It had probably been happening this way for hundreds of years. Men dressed up for the evening sitting on one side of the piazza to talk and their wives claimed a bench on the other side. And every so often a man would wander over to the women and begin a conversation.
We sat on part of the women’s bench, (before we realized it was “their” spot) and when we stood to leave, their spots were quickly reclaimed. No unkindness. No “would you please move?” They just waited.
Driving a car and parking in Rome
Having witnessed a number of traffic jams as a pedestrian with roads blocked off left and right, I would never suggest that renting a car in Rome would be a good idea.
Rome has one of the most congested city centers, thus, driving in Rome can be intense and unpredictable at times.
Fortunately, Rome is designed to be a walkable city with many opportunities for local transit.
Even in the traffic jam moments, taking local transit such as a bus won’t get you too far. If you are able to walk to your next destination, enjoy the beauty of Rome and add a few more steps to your pedometer.
Here’s an example of some creative parking. They totally could have parallel parked.
Beware of the ZTL areas if you do rent a car.
Along with several other major Italian cities, Rome has instituted a ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato), a traffic-camera-surveyed area where you cannot drive without either having a resident’s pass or registering your car with the police as a tourist.
ZTL zones in Rome are designed to reduce traffic congestion, and if you drive through a zone without a permit, you will be fined as much as $136 USD. If your hotel lies within a ZTL zone and you have to drive there to park and unload your luggage, you are exempt from a fine, but you must first ask your hotel to send your license number to the traffic police in order to avoid a citation.
Don’t make the mistake of entering a ZTL zone even if you see other cars entering. Tickets are issued immediately and automatically, so as soon as your car crosses the ZTL boundary a ticket will be forwarded to your home address. You won’t have the opportunity to explain to an actual person that you didn’t understand the traffic laws.Driving in Rome
Places to Eat
If you are looking for gelato, and who isn’t, you can pretty much find gelato shops all over Rome. Google Gelato and Rome on TripAdvisor for some fantastic options. Eating gelato at least once a day should be at the top of your list of things to do in Rome.
One of our tips for finding authentic places to dine is looking at least five blocks away from the main tourist areas.
As for restaurants away from the tourists spots, you might enjoy these quiet and quaint places.
La Bruschetta E – located at Via Sardegna 39, 00187 Rome Italy
Pizzeria Porta Castello – located at Largo di Porta Castello 27, 00193 Rome Italy
Mattarello Parioli – located at Viale Liegi 64 Junction Piazza Ungheria, 00198 Rome Italy. This restaurant was located right next to the Hilton Garden Inn where we were staying. Convenient. Obviously, they are used to American patrons and felt the need to include this note on their menu:
“Pasta with chicken and pizza with fruit are not Italian food. Please don’t ask us to cook these for you.”
When you need something quick and convenient? While not our first choice for a meal, the Vatican Museum Cafeteria is a handy option when you are visiting the museum during the lunch hour. Pop on down to the cafeteria. It is a perfectly acceptable choice.
Caffetteria Ristaurante Le Terrazze – another convenient option if you happen to be touring the Castel Sant’Angelo located at Lungotevere Castello 50 Castel Sant’Angelo, 00193 Rome. It is a charming terrace cafe that offers magnificent views and a classic ambiance.
Audio tours are awesome things to do in Rome
Interested in touring many of the major sites in Rome with a tour guide? Let me suggest adding the FREE Rick Steves Audio Walking Tour Guides to your list of things to do in Rome. There are currently ten tours available for Rome, Italy when you download the Rick Steves Audio Europe App.
These self-guided walking tours of many of the major European tourist sites offer a wealth of knowledge on the history and culture of an area. I highly recommend them.
These tours are one of the many amazing things to do in Rome…and all over Europe.
Hopefully, GyPSy Guide audio tours will branch out to European cities someday!
Day trips should also be added to your list of things to do in Rome
There are day trips and overnight excursions galore from Rome; Here are some of my favorite ones (so far):
- Lake Como (including Bellagio and Varenna)
- Vienna (including Murano and Burano)
- Amalfi Coast and Positano
Getting to the airport
Be sure to arrange for transport to the airport a couple of days prior to your departure. When you arrive in the hotel lobby with your bags in tow at the specified time, your driver should be there as well. No waiting!
Give yourself ample time to reach the airport, check in, pass through security, and go through customs. International flights always need more time.
If you happen to be randomly selected and get the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass (as I did), you will have to go through extra security screening at some point before being allowed to board your flight. If you are traveling with others, expedite this extra screening by emptying all of your pockets, removing your jacket, and giving your backpack or bags to your traveling companions.
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Final Thoughts on the Best Things to Do in Rome
I loved the Eternal City along with all of the amazing things to do in Rome. It is a feast for your eyes. You won’t likely be able to see all that Rome has to offer, but hopefully you have some “must do and see” sites on your itinerary.
And if you have the chance, spend a little time exploring outside of the city as well. While there are plenty of things to do in Rome, you may also enjoy the slower pace and fewer tourists found in quaint towns outside the city.