This is where la dolce vita originated, after all.
Of course, after more than 2,000 years in existence, there’s enough to explore to keep you busy for years, with decadent pasta and gelato to indulge in, places to shop for everything from handicrafts to haute couture, archeological sites, Baroque churches, villas-turned-museums, and enough art to overload your senses.
Whether you’ve never visited Rome or return often, here are 12 things you absolutely must do.
Admire ancient ruins at the Roman Forum
Entering the huge archeological site of the Roman Forum and strolling through the ruins, you can almost imagine the citizens of Ancient Rome walking the cobblestoned streets in togas and bringing sacrifices to the temples. Of course, it helps to have a guide who can bring the stories to life, or you might mistake Augustus’s house for Livia’s, as there are no signs within the complex indicating what’s what.
The site dates back to around 500 B.C., but was enlarged by Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Domitian, and Trajan. In fact, you’ll see remnants of Imperial Rome extending beyond the limits of the Forum to include Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Titus, and the Circus Maximus, just to name a few.
After visiting the Forum, try your luck with the Bocca della Verità, an ancient stone carving of a bearded man’s face. According to myth, it will bite off the hand of anyone not telling the truth.
Visit the Colosseum
The most internationally recognized symbol of Rome, the Colosseum has a long and bloody history. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. It was the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and is believed to have packed up to 50,000 people inside. Despite centuries of neglect—it was used as a quarry until the eighteenth century—it has remained intact (for the most part).
Today nearly 4 million people visit annually. Buy your tickets in advance or be prepared to wait in a very long line. A combined ticket for the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill grants access to all three sites and lets you skip the line at the Colosseum.
Gaze at the architectural marvel that is the Pantheon
Though the name refers to a temple for all the gods, the Pantheon is actually the burial place of Rome’s kings and other prominent figures, including Raphael. The temple was built between 118 and 128 A.D. on the site of an older temple.
A feat of architectural ingenuity, it was the world’s largest dome until the modern era, has been called the world’s only architecturally perfect building, and is the best-preserved monument of Imperial Rome. Walk inside and look up—the oculus in the dome is open to the sky, letting sunlight filter in.
Transport yourself to Baroque Rome at Piazza Navona
One of the most popular public spaces in Rome, the magnificent, oval-shaped Piazza Navona is lined with restaurants, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and the Museo di Roma inside the Renaissance Palazzo Braschi. The city’s Baroque art is on full display here. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi features exquisitely carved figures representing the world’s four great rivers, and legend has it that the figure with his arms extended is recoiling in horror from the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini, Bernini’s rival.
Wander down the small street next to the church and make your way toward Via della Pace, one of the city’s most picturesque streets. At the end stands the church of Santa Maria della Pace, its white portico gleaming in the sun. Make time to stop for un caffè or a glass of wine at Antico Caffè della Pace, a legendary nineteenth-century haunt still as chic as ever and one of the best places for a classic Italian aperitivo.
Pay your respects to the Vatican and its museums
You could easily spend a whole day exploring the area around the Vatican. Start at the Piazza di San Pietro, which Bernini designed to look like arms extended in an embrace. Besides St. Peter’s Basilica, the absolute must-see is the Vatican Museums, which contain Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Other highlights in the 1,400-room palace include the Raphael Rooms, old master paintings, and antique sculptures.
Just south of Vatican City stands Castel Sant’Angelo, where popes sought solace during sieges. Climb to the top for splendid views of Vatican City and the Tiber. At its base you can see the Ponte Sant’Angelo with Bernini’s exquisitely carved marble angels.
Visit St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica may be a pilgrimage site for Catholics, but even non-believers can appreciate the church’s architectural majesty. The original dates back to 349 A.D., when Constantine had a basilica built over the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope.
That church was razed to make way for the current one, the world’s largest church at 18,000 square yards, which has been standing on this spot since 1626. Inside you’ll find Bernini’s masterful altarpiece—the great bronze baldacchino—and Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Climb the Spanish Steps
Fascinating in its contradictions, the Piazza di Spagna is both democratic and home to the city’s fanciest boutiques on Via dei Condotti, Rome’s legendary shopping street.
Climb the famous steps leading to the Trinità dei Monti church to admire the piazza and Bernini’s ship-shaped fountain from above. If you’re feeling ambitious, climb to the Villa Medici for stunning views of the Centro Storico. Off to the side of the steps, you’ll find the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, one of Rome’s excellent under-the-radar museums.
Trastevere means “across the Tiber,” and once you cross the river, you’ll notice the difference. The vibe is hip and bohemian, and you’ll find plenty of boutiques selling jewelry, perfumes, and handicrafts in a neighborhood where you can stroll aimlessly through the cobblestoned streets flanked by ochre buildings and stumble upon amazing discoveries.
At night, Trastevere buzzes with people hanging out and drinking at the bars that line the streets. It’s easy to wander around and find one that appeals to you, but a good place to start is Freni e Frizioni, which serves a great aperitivo and cocktails with fresh fruit.
Throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain
Any trip to Rome would be incomplete without a visit to the Trevi Fountain. Nicola Salvi’s awe-inspiring Baroque masterpiece features a marble statue of Neptune at the center, surrounded by tritons. Legend has it that anyone who throws a coin in the fountain will return to Rome.
Unfortunately, the gorgeous fountain tends to be overrun by tourists vying for that perfect selfie angle and street hawkers selling cheap souvenirs. Visit early in the morning or late at night, when the crowds disperse. You might just experience a magical moment like in La Dolce Vita when Marcello Mastroianni wades into the fountain after Anita Ekberg.
Admire masterpieces in Galleria Borghese and stroll through Villa Borghese
Nowhere in Rome—or dare we say, the world—will you find such a magnificent collection of Baroque art. The villa itself is a masterpiece, commissioned by seventeenth-century Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his treasures, including Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister as Venus Victrix, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and Caravaggio’s self portrait as Bacchus. Tickets must be reserved in advance for slotted times.
After perusing the villa’s galleries, take a leisurely stroll through the idyllic Villa Borghese park, where orange trees and flowers bloom. Meander south toward Piazza del Popolo. You can take rowboat out on the lake, visit the zoo, see a play at a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or stop by two museums on the park’s edge: the Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.
Get lost in the Centro Storico
One of Rome’s great joys is losing yourself in the narrow cobblestone streets that make up Centro Storico. Starting at Piazza del Popolo, three main roads form a trident leading toward Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum.
Branching off are countless streets and alleyways where you’ll find churches with Baroque art, boutiques selling everything from carved wooden figurines to precious jewelry, private courtyards where the wealthiest Romans live, enticing gelaterias, cafés, and restaurants.
Take your time and do as the Romans do—this is what la dolce vita is all about.
Shop until you drop at the Galleria Alberto Sordi
Take a mid-afternoon break and have coffee at the Illy kiosk at the Galleria Alberto Sordi. The galleria, which dates to 1922 and features stained-glass skylights and mosaic floors, is one of Europe’s most gorgeous places to shop.
Check out stores like La Rinascente (Italy’s Macy’s), Zara, Massimo Dutti, and the Italian mega bookstore La Feltrinelli. For designer boutiques, walk along Via Condotti and the surrounding streets. For vintage and Italian heritage brands, stroll through the Campo Marzio.