Rome for First Time Visitors – The 10 Best Things to See and Do
Simon and I have been travelling for years. So when we told people we’d never been to Rome, many of them were rather surprised! We had both been to Italy many moons ago before we even met, but we were both yet to visit its capital.
I had loved Italy when I visited Florence and Venice as a teenager. I had even sworn to myself that I would one day return to this beautiful country. Unfortunately, with so many places in the world to visit, I had kind off put Italy on the back-burner. But now that we were travelling full time, I decided it was time to revisit the first foreign country that I ever fell in love with.
So we finally made it back to Italy and kicked off our time there with four days in Rome. It was well worth the wait and it’s definitely a place that everyone should try and get to at least once in their life.
Rome is one of the oldest cities in the world. With thousands of years of history, it’s full of Roman ruins, ancient architecture, impressive art and so many stunning sights to check out. As a first time traveller, it’s hard to choose what to see in this huge cosmopolitan city packed full of treasures. But there are some sights that you really shouldn’t miss.
Here are 10 things you really shouldn’t miss out on while in Rome:
1 – Visit the Colosseum
There’s no attraction in Rome that’s more iconic than the mighty Colosseum. A trip to Rome would just not be complete without visiting this world famous amphitheatre.
Built between 70 and 80 AD, it’s estimated that the Colosseum held up to 80,000 spectators at its peak. Roman royalty and citizens alike would flock to the Colosseum to watch gladiator tournaments, wild animal displays, executions and other kinds of gruesome entertainment. A lot of blood was shed on the Colosseum’s floor! It’s a rather surreal feeling to stand inside the amphitheatre while trying to imagine how it would have felt to watch those spectacles, all those years ago.
Some tips for your visit to the Colosseum
Because it’s one of the most visited monuments in Rome, expect the Colosseum to be extremely crowded, especially if you visit during the peak season. However, there are a few ways to avoid the long queues.
- Buy a Skip The Lines ticket online prior to your visit.
- Head to Palatine Hill and Roman Forum first (see below) and buy the ticket there. The ticket is a combined ticket for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The queue is always a lot smaller there.
- Purchase a guided tour online and enter the monument as part of a tour which also skips the lines.
- Buy the Rome City Pass which gives you free access to the Colosseum as well as many other tourist sites in Rome, including the Vatican, you also get to skip the lines!
- Visit early! Start queuing prior to opening time and you will get in before too many others. If you’re a keen photographer, make a list of the shots you want to take and head to those places first. For example, we had trouble getting shots on the ground floor without people in them because we headed there too late in the morning.
2 – Head to the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum
Your Colosseum ticket includes entry to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill which are right next door. So definitely pay them a visit as well.
Palatine Hill is the oldest of the original seven hills of Rome. According to legend, Palatine Hill is where Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus and the site of the first settlement, dating back to the 8th century BC.
The hill stands above and looks down onto the Roman Forum, a large plaza that used to be the marketplace of Rome and the centre of daily life. Today all that remains are the ruins of what used to be very important buildings, shrines and temples.
The Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill are right next to each other and you can walk between them without exiting. As mentioned earlier, you should visit them before the Colosseum if you haven’t got a Skip-the-line ticket, to avoid the long queues at the Colosseum.
3 – Explore the Vatican
Rome is home to the smallest country in the world. That’s right, that would be Vatican City, which you’ll find slap-bang in the middle of Rome. Don’t worry, you don’t need your passport to visit the Vatican but you will need to get there very early! Alternatively, you’ll need to be organised and get yourself a Skip-the-line ticket.
Just like the Colosseum, the Vatican is super busy. But unlike the Colosseum, the Vatican lacks the large open spaces and therefore feels a lot more crowded. Even though we had Skip-the-line tickets and visited late on a Friday afternoon (as recommended by some), we found the crowds at the Vatican to be a lot worse than the Colosseum.
The Vatican is home to world-famous sites, attracting people from all over the world. The Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the famous Sistine Chapel, are all worth facing the crowds for, as long as you’re prepared to be squashed, pushed and prodded for a couple of hours.
The Vatican Museum
With seven kilometres of galleries, the Vatican Museum is huge. It’s home to some seriously impressive paintings and sculptures and if you wanted to see everything there, it would probably take you all day, or even more than a day. We especially loved the Gallery of Maps and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s work is truly mind-blowing!
St Peter’s Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world, and certainly one of the most impressive. Inside, you’ll find more work from Michelangelo as well as Bernini. The entrance to the Basilica is free, but if you feel like climbing the stairs to the top of the basilica’s dome, there is an 8 Euros fee, or 10 Euros if you take the lift. It’s not for claustrophobics but if you’re fine with a few steps and tight spaces, you will get a great view of the city from the top.
St Peter’s Square
St Peter’s Square is the entrance to the Vatican. This square was designed to fit a large number of people for the papal ceremonies. St. Peter’s Basilica stands at the far end of the square and around the square, there are two huge colonnades. The colonnades consist of nearly 280 columns and 145 statues of saints and previous popes. In the centre, an Egyptian obelisk stands tall and is surrounded by two large fountains.
Some tips to avoid the queues at the Vatican
- You can buy a Skip-the-line ticket online prior to your visit. (link getaguide).
- As with the Colosseum, you can decide to pay extra and take a guided tour which will also let you skip the queues.
- If you can, visit the Vatican Museum first thing in the morning one day, and then St. Peter’s Basilica first thing in the morning on the following day. We found St Peters Basilica to be very quiet at 7 am! Being one of the first ones to enter made our visit to the Basilica much more enjoyable than our visit to the Vatican Museum!
4 – Get lost in Rome’s old streets
If we have to be honest, our favourite thing we did in Rome was to simply wander around its streets and enjoy life as a Roman for a few days. Rome is a truly beautiful city, its cobblestone streets have so much character, its old buildings just scream to be photographed and every corner brings you something new and exciting. We spent an entire day just getting lost in those streets.
5 – Toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain
If you love Rome, head to the Trevi Fountain. Once there, toss a coin into the stunningly decorated fountain. According to tradition, throwing a coin over your shoulder and into the fountain’s water will guarantee you’ll return to this beautiful city. The money is collected every day and given to a nearby Catholic charity. While we were there, we watched workers suck up the previous day’s takings with a special vacuum cleaner!
The fountain is definitely a sight to behold and one of the most beautiful fountains we’ve ever seen. Behind it is a large baroque palace which contributes to the charm of the place. Unfortunately, the area around the fountain is usually packed with tourists, so it can be hard to photograph.
6 – Watch people in Piazza Navona
The first time we visited Piazza Navona, it was just after sunrise. The piazza was so quiet, the only people there were a couple of ladies walking their dogs and a group of people doing their morning exercise. It felt so peaceful. As our Airbnb was only 5 minutes from the piazza, we ended up visiting the piazza many times during our stay.
During the day though, the piazza was a totally different experience. The peace was replaced with music and chatter. Tourists, street artists and performers crowded the space. Restaurants were packed with diners and the piazza was full of life. Piazza Navona is the perfect place in Rome for people watching.
7 – Check out the Pantheon
A short walk from the Piazza Navona is the Pantheon. This incredibly well-preserved building has been standing for almost 2,000 years. In fact, it is the best preserved Ancient Roman monument in Rome.
The interior of this stunning building has a truly magnificent dome. Some say the best time to visit the dome is between 11 am and 1 pm when the light spills through the central coffer. However, during that time it is extremely crowded. If you prefer to avoid the crowds, visit first thing in the morning. We arrived in time for opening and were the first ones to enter. For a few minutes, we had the building almost to ourselves. It was amazing! Entrance to the Pantheon is free.
8 – Take a stroll in the Villa Borghese gardens
Once you get tired of the crowds and noise of the city, it’s time to head to the Villa Borghese Gardens. This little oasis in the middle of the big city is the perfect place for a relaxing stroll or to just sit back and enjoy a good book or podcast.
The Borghese Gardens cover just under 200 acres of land and include various walking paths leading you through landscaped gardens containing a variety of trees, flower arrangements, fountains and beautiful bodies of water.
If you love art and have a few hours to spare, visit the Galleria Borghese. Situated in the Borghese Villa complex, the Galleria Borghese is a very important art museum containing plenty of stunning sculptures, fine paintings, and many antiques. Make sure you buy your ticket in advance because only 360 people are allowed into the gallery at the same time.
9 – Enjoy the views from Castel Sant D’Angelo
Castel Sant D’Angelo was originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian. This two-thousand-year-old building has since had several different roles. Beginning as the emperor’s tomb, it then became a fortress, a castle, and finally, a museum. It’s open to the public and you can now climb to the top for some gorgeous views over the city and the river.
10 – Check out Trastevere
The neighbourhood of Trastevere is the 13th rione of Rome. It is packed with narrow cobbled streets and has a real Italian character. Trastevere is trendy and hip but has retained its original charm. Although it is becoming more and more touristy, it is a lot quieter than across the other side of the river.
There are a few piazzas and churches to check out but visiting Trastevere is more about enjoying the atmosphere of the neighbourhood rather than taking in any particular sights. You’ll find local shops, cafes, restaurants, flowers everywhere, all with real Italian flair. On Sunday at lunchtime, locals flock to the neighbourhood, sipping cappuccinos and catching up with friends over lunch.
How to get from Rome airport to the city?
There are two airports in Rome, Ciampino or Fiumicino. The cheapest way to get into Rome from both airports is by bus which will take you directly to Rome’s Termini station (€6 per person). From there, you can hop on a local bus or take the metro to your hotel.
Another option from Fiumicino is by train, the Leonardo Express, which will also take you to Termini Station for €14 one way.
The easiest option is by taxi. Taxis have a flat rate of €30 from Ciampino airport and €48 from Fiumicino airport to anywhere in the centre of Rome.
How to get around in Rome?
The best way to get around Rome is easy and cheap. WALK! Rome is a great city to discover on foot. Our Airbnb was located right next to the Campo di Fiori, so we walked everywhere. The only time we didn’t was on our way from the airport and then to the train station at the end of our visit.
If you don’t like walking or can’t, then Rome has a good local bus system that’s easy to use and pretty cheap. It covers the whole city and runs 24 hours a day. Although the buses are quite frequent, they are not always on time, so you’ll need to be patient.
Rome also has the metro called the Metropolitana. There are two metro lines, line A the red line and line B, the blue line. They cover some of the major sites such as the Colosseum, Spanish Steps and the Vatican Museum, although some stations are currently closed for renovation.
There are also many taxis in Rome and they also have Uber. Bear in mind though that in Rome Uber seems to be more expensive than normal taxis.
One weird (and annoying) thing to remember about taxis in Italy is that if you call for one, they will turn the meter on when they accept the fare. So if they are coming from a reasonable distance away, they may arrive with several Euros on the meter! It seems absurd but that’s the way it is.
To avoid those extra costs, it’s best to head to one of the taxi ranks. You shouldn’t have a problem finding one in the centre of town. Also note that taxis aren’t supposed to pick up passengers who hail them down on the street, although some will.
Where to stay in Rome?
Unfortunately, Rome is not a cheap place to visit! Hotels can be rather pricey in this big city and if you want a good location, you can expect to pay a lot more for it.
We decided to use an Airbnb during our time there and we’d recommend using Airbnb in Rome. Although Airbnb apartments in Rome were still over our budget, they were a lot more affordable and we managed to get a (small) apartment in a decent location for a lot less than a hotel. The other advantage of our Airbnb was that we had a full kitchen, so we could at least make some of our meals at home.
Other Accommodation in Rome
If you are not using Airbnb, use the search box below find a hotel in Rome:
Where to eat in Rome?
Food in Rome is fantastic, so don’t even think about visiting while on a diet!
Here are some of the places we loved:
Pizza E Mozzarella (32 Via del Pie’ di Marmo): They served the best pizzas in town! They have take-away slices and it’s a great place to have a cheap lunch!
Mimi e Coco (Via del Governo Vecchio 72): A great place for authentic Italian food and great wine!
Il Goccetto (Via Dei Banchi Vecchi 14): A lovely Enoteca with a huge selection of wine available by the glass and lovely antipasto and cheese platters to accompany them! It’s a great place for an easy dinner.
Mastro Ciccia (Via del Governo Vecchio 76): Amazing Roman food close to Piazza Navona. The staff were friendly and the service was great.
Gelateria dei Gracchi (Via dei Gracchi, 272): You can’t visit Italy without having gelato and this gelateria makes some lovely gelato indeed!
How long should you stay in Rome?
We spent four days in Rome and it was about the right amount of time for us. Of course, four days is not enough to see everything the city has to offer, but it’s enough time to see all of the major attractions, especially if you manage your time effectively.