Rome, Italy is one of the great cities of the world. With its history spanning thousands of years, its monumental architecture, fabulous piazzas, colorful markets and character-filled streets, it's truly dazzling at every turn. But if you're embarking on a trip to Rome, you need a strategy. Otherwise, you risk getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to see in the Eternal City.
We've listed here a range of Rome's top tourist attractions, from its most famous Roman ruins to its most majestic churches, high-caliber art museums, charming piazzas and buzzing food markets. You will probably need several visits to Rome to see everything on this list—plus all the places we didn't have space for—but you have to start somewhere!
Dedicated by Emperor Vespasian in AD 80, the Colosseum (so-named for a colossal statue of Emperor Nero that once stood on the site) once held up to 50,000 people and was the scene of countless deadly gladiatorial and wild animal fights. The ancient amphitheater is now the symbol of Rome, and a requisite stop on most tourist itineraries. Buy your tickets in advance to avoid waiting in a long, slow-moving line.
Adjacent to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum is a huge complex of ruined temples, basilicas, and arches. It was the ceremonial, legal, social, and business center of ancient Rome, and wandering its iconic ruins is an essential part of any Rome visit. Your ticket to the Colosseum is good for 2 days and included admission to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill (see below).
Many visitors to the Colosseum and Forum don't make the climb up to the Palatine Hill, and they're missing out. This was the high-rent district of ancient Rome, where emperors, senators, and other wealthy nobles built their homes. Though it's difficult to make sense of the many layers of ruins, it's rarely very crowded up here, and there is plenty of shade among the ruins.
It's one of the most important churches in all Christendom and the second largest church in the world. And regardless of your faith, St. Peter's Basilica is majestic and awe-inspiring, from its grand exterior to the soaring ceiling and ornate decoration of its interiors. You can limit your visit to the interior of the basilica, or see the underground tombs of the popes or climb the dome (or take the elevator part-way) for an unforgettable view of Rome.
The sheer vastness of the art and antiquities collection of the Popes, coupled with the sheer volume of people who come every day to see it means you'll need to devote at least half a day just to hit the highlights. From ancient Roman and Egyptian sculptures and artifacts to works by some of the greatest painters in Western art, the collections are mind-boggling. The Raphael Rooms in the Papal apartments are a must-see as is, of course, the Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling and wall frescoes by Michelangelo depicting stories from the Old Testament.
Even when it's overrun with tourists and souvenir vendors, which is most of the time, Piazza Navona is one of the most stunningly beautiful piazzas, or squares (though this one is an oval shape) in Rome, and one of its largest. The entire piazza is a pedestrian area, and it's lined with touristy restaurants and shops, plus the 17th-century church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. In the center of the piazza is Bernini's famous Fountain of the Four Rivers.
Note that while Piazza Navona is beautiful for a daytime or evening stroll, we don't recommend dining here—instead find someplace more authentic off the piazza.
There's nothing quite like exiting the narrow medieval streets of Rome's centro storico and stumbling upon the Pantheon, one of the world's best-preserved ancient buildings. The round building was the "temple to all gods" for the ancient Romans. It's been a church since the 7th century AD, which is one reason why it has managed to stay standing all these years. The only source of natural light in the cylinder-shaped, domed building is the 7.8-meter oculus, or round skylight at the top. The Piazza della Rotunda, the piazza on which the Pantheon sits, is one of the prettiest in Rome.
They're not particularly old or even that important historically, but the elegant Spanish Steps remain a draw for visitors to Rome, who photograph and climb the 138 steps, take a drink of water from the 18th-century Fontana della Barcaccia, and enjoy a gelato while window shopping—or dropping some serious cash—in the designer shops lining the streets around the steps. In the springtime, the steps are decked out with colorful azaleas, and make for an even better photo op.
Rome's most famous fountain was completed in 1762 and is a grand example of high baroque public sculpture. The gleaming white marble fountain depicts sea god Neptune surrounded by mermen, seahorses, and cascading pools. It's photo-op central, and in an effort to control the dense crowds gathered in front of the fountain, guards now keep people moving along. You'll still have time to toss a coin over your should (said to guarantee a return trip to Rome) and take a picture, but don't expect to sit and eat a gelato in front of the rushing waters.
Set on top of the Capitoline Hill, one of the famous 7 hills of Rome, the Capitoline Museums house archaeological treasures from antiquity, as well as paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Established by Pope Clement XII in 1741, the Capitoline Museums were the first in the world opened to the public. Some of its most famous pieces include fragments and a bust from a colossal statue of Constantine, a gigantic equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and an ancient sculpture of twins Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf.
Rome's top museum for art lovers requires advance reservations, as attendance is limited and via timed entry. So plan ahead to visit this world-class collection of art and antiquities, including masterful sculptures from Bernini, and paintings from Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, and other giants of the Renaissance and Baroque.
The Galleria Borghese is within the grounds of the Villa Borghese, a vast public park that was once the private playgrounds of the popes. The park has a lake with boat rentals, plus playgrounds, picnic areas and in the summertime, kids' amusement rides and pony rides.
It's certainly one of Rome's most unusual sights: An above-ground "cemetery" where the crypts, walls, and even the chandeliers are decorated entirely with the bones—skulls and all—of more than 3,500 Capuchin friars. Eerie? Yes, but there's also something thoughtful and peaceful about the space. You'll pass through the crypts after visiting a comprehensive museum on the history of the Capuchin Order. The crypts are considered a holy place, so there's no talking or photography permitted, and visitors need to dress as they would to enter one of Rome's churches.
Campo de' Fiori is a piazza in Rome's centro storico and is the site of a colorful daily market (closed Sundays), with vendors selling fruit and vegetables, souvenirs and flowers. It's one of Rome's best-known outdoor markets and a real, if slightly touristy, slice of Roman life. The market is in full-swing by 8 AM, with most vendors closing up between noon and 1 PM.
Campo de' Fiori is lined with bars and restaurants and in the evening, it is a nightlife hub.
Not an attraction but a neighborhood across the Tiber River from the centro storico, Trastevere is rightly described as a "real Roman neighborhood." It's narrow cobblestone streets are a delight to explore, and it's one of Rome's best areas for dining and nightlife. Two important churches, Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, date to the early first millennium. The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, lined with restaurants and bars, functions as the living room of the neighborhood.
Once a grand race course clad in marble and stone, the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) was pilfered over the centuries and now bears little resemblance to its majestic past. Now a vast oval field where outdoor rock concerts occur far more frequently than chariot races, it is still worth seeing, if only to take in the size of the course, which could seat as many as 300,000 people. It's free to walk around, and you can sit here and have a picnic, though there's not much shade to be found. An archaeological area at the southeast end of the circus offers some insights into its past grandeur.
Baths of Caracalla
Completed in 216 AD, the massive complex of the Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla) could hold up to 1,600 bathers simultaneously, who soaked in hot, cold and tepid pools, and exercised in the gymnasium. Nobles, freemen and slaves alike were admitted to the baths and mingled together there. The Baths of Caracalla were richly decorated with mosaics, sculptures, and frescoes though today only fragments of the mosaics remain. Today the site impresses visitors with its sheer size, and the genius of the engineering and design that kept the giant bathing complex operating for hundreds of years.
The Museo Nazionale, or National Museum of Rome, is actually four different museums run by the same entity: The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, the Palazzo Altemps, Baths of Diocletian and the Crypta Balbi. The Palazzo Massimo contains a huge collection of Roman sculpture, coins, frescoes, and inscriptions, while the Palazzo Altemps is a more intimate collection of Roman works. The Baths of Diocletian were once Rome's largest—the Renaissance church built on top of them was designed by Michelangelo. Finally. the Crypta Balbi museum examines the development of a city block, from ancient Roman to medieval times. Your admission ticket gains you entrance to all four museums within a 3-day period.
Like the majority of churches in Rome, the Basilica di San Clemente was built on top of a pagan site of worship. It's one of the best places in the city for understanding the complex "layering" of Rome, and of how buildings developed on top of other buildings. While the church itself is ornately beautiful, the real attraction here is the underground, self-guided tour, which includes a 2nd-century Mithraeum, where worshipers would ritually slaughter bulls, an early Roman house. an underground river, and some of the oldest Christian frescoes in Rome.
This highly-recommended site often falls off many tourists' radar, and that's too bad. Trajan's Markets were a multi-level, arcaded shopping complex—basically the world's first mall—with individual shops that sold everything from food to clothing to housewares. The Museum of the Imperial Forums presents the history and development of the markets and adjacent forums, and you can walk through the ancient market arcades, which are usually free of crowds.
Piazza del Popolo
One of Italy's largest piazzas, this grand space centers around an Egyptian obelisk and is anchored by three churches. The most important one, Santa Maria del Popolo, is on the north end of the piazza and contains works by Bernini, Raphael, and Caravaggio. Above the piazza, the Pincio Hill offers sweeping views of the city and behind it, elegant Villa Borghese park spreads out for acres. Piazza del Popolo is a rare Roman piazza in that it is not lined with cafes and restaurants, though there are many in the vicinity.
Built as the mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, this massive, round building near St. Peter's was subsequently used as a fortress, a prison and as private apartments for the Popes—its history is especially entwined with the infamous Borgia family. The tour begins on the 6th-floor terrace, which is famous from Puccini's opera, Tosca, and offers terrific views of Rome, then winds on a circular route down to the lower levels of the castle.
National Etruscan Museum/Villa Giulia
In an elegant palace built by the Borgias, the National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia houses an exceptional collection of artifacts, most of it from tombs, of the Etruscan peoples, the pre-Roman civilization that dominated central Italy prior to Roman conquest. Though much is known about the Etruscans, as many questions remain, and this museum will surely pique visitors' interest in this mysterious, advanced culture, which left a rich record of tomb carvings, weapons, jewelry, and household items.
The Jewish Ghetto
Though it is now a charming neighborhood and a great place to sample traditional Roman-Jewish fare, the Roman Ghetto has a grim past. The walled neighborhood was established by Papal Bull in 1555, and all Rome's Jewish population were required to live in the swampy, disease-prone district near the Tiber. The ghetto was abolished in 1882 but in the waning years of WWII, Nazis deported most of the area's Jews to concentration camps—only a handful returned to Rome.
The Catacombs & the Appian Way
Plan at least a half-day of exploring this fascinating area on the outskirts of Rome. The Via Appia Antica is the most famous of Rome's roads and it is lined with the tombs of ancient Romans, from the massive Tomb of Cecilia Metella to those with humble portrait busts of their occupants. There are miles and miles of Christian catacombs along the Appian Way, but only three areas are open to the public, the catacombs of Saint Domitilla, Saint Callixtus, and Saint Sebastian. You probably only need to see one set of catacombs, so choose the one that works best for your interests and schedule.
Despite its name, this art museum in the magnificent Barberini palace has mostly works from the Renaissance onwards, including important paintings from Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio and other names you'd recognize from art history class. The palace itself, as well as the famous fountain out front, were designed by Bernini. Admission to Palazzo Barberini also includes entrance to its sister museum, Galleria Corsini, housed in a handsome 16th-century palace.