First visit to Rome? You’re in luck. You’ll find it easy to see a lot, no matter how limited your time is. It’s good to plan ahead, but ambling aimlessly is also a joy: at times it can seem like there’s an ancient wonder around every corner. Just don’t stress about trying to see everything: for Rome,non basta una vita (‘a lifetime is not enough’).
If you don’t mind walking, the best way to see Rome’s sights is mainly on foot. Sights are concentrated in certain areas, so you can spend one day in Ancient Rome, one day in the Vatican, and so on.
Highlights of Ancient Rome
Start where it all began, in the well-preserved imperial heart of Rome. Blow your mind at the Colosseum, which lies beside the ruined Roman Forum, the social and political hub of the empire. Nearby are the splendid Capitoline Museums, packed with classical and Renaissance art, and the Palatine, which was ancient Rome’s Beverley Hills, home to the rich and powerful, overlooking the ancient chariot-racing track Circo Massimo. To skip the often lengthy queues, book ahead online at coopculture.it for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine, which are all covered by a single ticket.
A tour of the Centro Storico
Only a short walk, and you’re in Rome’s historic centre. All of the main sights here are free and easy to visit in a meandering wander, stopping for lunch, a coffee or ice cream for an energy burst. Don’t miss the Pantheon, a magnificently preserved ancient Roman temple, with a circular hole in the huge domed roof open to the heavens. A couple of streets away is the splendid Piazza Navona, Rome’s elegant showcase square. A short amble further and you’re at the foaming, massive Trevi Fountain, and the baroque Spanish Steps, a grand stairway that’s perfect for taking a perch and watching the world go by. Close by, the Piazza del Popolo is an impressive oval-shaped square complete with an Egyptian obelisk, home to some wonderful Caravaggio masterpieces in the Santa Maria del Popolo church.
The glories of the Vatican
St Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s grandest church, the seat of Catholicism, and a vast art-filled exercise in awe. The Vatican Museums proffer miles of cultural wealth, with the highlights being the Michelangelo-decorated Sistine Chapel, and a suite of rooms decorated by Raphael. Close to the Vatican is the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo, built as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum and later turned into a fortress.
Local colour in Trastevere
This vivacious neighbourhood bursts with charisma, home to ochre- and orange-coloured, ivy-hung buildings and medieval churches that glitter with mosaics. Trastevere buzzes with life in the evening – come here for restaurants on cobbled lanes and bars whose conviviality flows out over the narrow streets.
Where (and what) to eat
You can eat well in Rome, whatever your budget, just try to skirt the tourist trap places around major sights. Avoid places where waiters hang around outside to lure you in, and look for places in backstreets around the main tourist sights rather than plumping for the nearest place. If in doubt, try one of our recommendations.
Some of Rome’s best meals are to be had in family-run trattorias like Cacio e Pepe near the Vatican, Armando al Pantheon in the historic centre, or Da Augusto in Trastevere. These places have been the same since time began, serving up traditional Roman dishes such as amatriciana (pasta with bacon and tomato), cacio e pepe (with cheese and pepper) or carbonara (with bacon and egg). The heartland of Roman cuisine is Testaccio, just across the Tiber River from Trastevere, with recommendations including Flavio Al Velavevodetto. For traditional Roman-Jewish cuisine, featuring dishes such as deep-fried artichoke, head for the Ghetto neighbourhood, to Nonna Betta or Piperno.
Another classic Roman experience is pizza, served up in no-nonsense interiors by brusque waiters on a mission, with paper-thin crusts laden with fresh, hot toppings. Favourite pizzerias include Da Ivo in Trastevere, Pizzeria Montecarlo in the historic centre, and Da Remo in Testaccio. For lunch on the run, Rome’s many pizza al taglio (‘by the slice’) joint, such as Forno di Campo de’Fiori, Roscioli, and Pizzarium, serve up some of the city’s most delicious fast food.
Where to stay
There’s masses of choice of accommodation in Rome, from exclusive five-star designer townhouse hotels, to spartan rooms in convents, so you can take your pick. It pays, however, to book well in advance, especially for popular places.
To have everything on your doorstep and feel the Roman romance, it’s best to choose somewhere in the historic centre. Here major sites and hoards of bars and restaurants are within walking distance, or a short hop on a bus or metro. The best areas to search are around Piazza Navona, the Pantheon or Campo de’Fiori. Another great area to check out is the cool bohemian district of Monti, as short walk from the Colosseum and Termini station, and full of bijou restaurants, wine bars and shops.
If you’re on a tight budget, the Termini area around Rome’s main station has some cheaper sleeps. It’s full of 19th-century buildings and feels a bit run down in places, but is convenient for the station.
From Rome’s main international airport, known as Fiumicino or Leonardo Da Vinci, the fastest way to reach the city is on the Leonardo Express train to Termini station (30 minutes, €14). From budget-airline hub Ciampino airport, the best option is to take one of the dedicated airport bus services (45 minutes; around €6). Taxis have fixed-price fares from Fiumicino (45 to 60 minutes depending on traffic; €48) and Ciampino (approximately 30 minutes; €30).
Rome’s metro, buses and trams are an efficient and fairly cheap way of getting around the city, but can be busy in the rush hours (9-10am and 4-7pm).
Packing: Take some comfortable shoes, but also pack something smart as Romans love to look good and most people dress up when going out in the evening.
Tipping: Locals usually just leave a couple of euros or some loose change when paying the bill at the end of a meal. Taxi drivers and bartenders don’t expect tips.
Timing: Be aware that in the summer months it gets extremely hot, so avoid outdoor sightseeing during the hottest part of the day. That said, lunchtime can be a good time to find major sights a little less busy, if you can cope with the heat.