Exploring Rome, Ancient and Modern – Things to Do & Travel Guide
Originally published on Saturday, December 10, 2022
I remember not wanting to go to Rome for some reason during my first trip to Italy at 16. Maybe because I wasn’t a huge fan of ancient history. But I also remember getting to the city and falling in love with it. I threw a coin backwards into Trevi Fountain and over a decade later made it back to Rome. Steeped in history and detail, Rome is a place that absolutely must be experienced.
The Essential Sights of Rome
Let’s start out with the very obvious – the Roman Forum. The Colosseum, a famous icon of the eternal city, is included in your ticket. Known as the world’s largest amphitheater at almost 2000 years old, it was completed in 80 AD for gladiator fights and other forms of gruesome entertainment. It’s become a ruin over the years but you can still tour and see how the structure may have been in its heyday. After your visit to the Colosseum, you’ll head over the the Roman Forum, which was the center of political power in ancient Rome.
The Forum is very much in ruin, as you can see, but of course it’s still fascinating to see so many things up close. You can see where emperors stood to give talks, where they worshipped, and even where Julius Caesar was cremated after his murder. There are a few placards around to give descriptions of certain ruins and depictions of what they looked like but honestly they’re a little underwhelming. It’s best to visit the Forum with a guide who can tell you just what you’re looking at and give you some insights on ancient Roman culture. But still the Forum shouldn’t be missed because of its strong importance in both Italian and World history.
You can see more ruins from the later parts of the empire up on Palatine Hill, as well as amazing views over the lower Forum. There’s also a museum up on Palatine Hill but they were closed when I visited – which I found odd considering that the Palatine Hill complex was open. Be sure you don’t miss the House of Augustus and its frescoes on Palatine Hill.
I think it’s a shame to visit Rome without seeing the Forum but if you’re on a very tight budget, you can see the Colosseum and the Forum (not so much Palatine Hill) from many viewpoints. Of course the ticket gives you access to look at everything more closely and to explore the area in the footsteps of the ancient Romans, but it is a possibility you can see everything from a distance. There’s no neat museum that tells you all about life two thousand years ago, or shows you what everything looked like, unfortunately. It’s just the open air ruins.
You absolutely want to buy tickets online in advance. A lot of websites for Rome tickets were down for months before I visited, so I ended up getting my ticket from Tiqets. Note that you need to visit the Colosseum first before moving onto the Forum.
A kind of “Roman Forum in Miniature,” I call it, is the Theatre of Marcus Aurelius. This area has, as suggested, a Roman theatre with a few other ancient Roman structures. It’s open air and you can just walk through it, no ticket required. It in no way replaces the iconic Roman Forum but it’s something else to see that’s absolutely free to walk through.
There are so many other ruins of ancient times to see in Rome, as well. The Circus Maxima doesn’t look like much now but it was actually a hugely popular place for Romans to gather and watch gladiator fights amongst other entertainment. You can pay to see it but you’ll see it just fine from the blockades without having to pay. You can also visit Trajan’s Market, the Baths of Diocletian, and Largo de Argentina, which is where Caesar was famously murdered. The Largo is now a cat sanctuary but I am sad to report I didn’t see any cats when I was there.
Some more complete ancient structures you can visit are the famous Pantheon and Mausoleum of Augustus.
It’s illegal to sit on the Spanish Steps but clearly some people didn’t get the memo.
There are also a few piazzas to visit. Piazza Navona, Piazza Barberini, and Piazza del Popolo are just a few. Of course there’s also Piazza di Spagna with the Spanish Steps (which you’re not supposed to sit on or you can be fined) and Trevi Fountain. You’ll find the latter two especially are very popular and very crowded, but I think everything is worth at least seeing.
You also can’t really visit Rome without seeing the Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II or the impressive Column of Marcus Aurelius. These are some of the most iconic structures. There’s obviously something to see in every corner of Rome but I’ll try not to overwhelm you with too many ideas.
If you have more time, you can go out to the Appian Way to see even more ruins. The Appian Way was a very important road out of and to Rome during ancient times. It’s also here that you can visit some catacombs – more on that below.
Rome has an incredible amount of museums, but I’ve selected the ones I went to and the ones I was interested in visiting here.
Art Museums of Rome
For art, I highly recommend the famous Musei Capitolini. They have a miscellaneous collection of old artwork and ancient wares, as well as a rather large collection of sculpture. Note that there are two buildings and you need to walk through an underground tunnel to get to the second one. The tunnel also has some ancient Roman artefacts and a nice view over the Roman Forum.
You can get tickets at the door but in September, I waited an hour for my ticket so I’d recommend buying them online.
Art lovers must absolutely go to the famous Villa Borghese, which was a Renaissance estate turned art museum. Today it’s actually a small but very prestigious collection of sculpture and some painting, including works by Bernini and Michelangelo. The “gardens” are more of a large park in Rome where you can go to get some fresh air. You absolutely need to get your tickets in advance for the Villa Borghese and I also got mine over Tiqets.
I went to Vatican City when I was 16, which is its own country and, for visitors, extensive art museums. I’m not a huge fan of religious art and didn’t feel like spending more money so I didn’t go on my most recent trip. However I think seeing one of the world’s finest art museums while checking off a new country is a win-win situation if you get to be in Rome for a few days. You probably need to buy your tickets in advance, as well.
A more under-the-radar place to visit in Rome is the Doria Pamphilij Gallery, which fills a beautiful Renaissance palace to the brim with a variety of different paintings and other artworks. With the beautiful decoration, it doesn’t feel much like a museum at all – just some fancy art collector’s house. The artwork mostly dates from the Renaissance to a bit later.
I didn’t get to visit these other two but Rome also hosts a Museum of Ancient Art (in Palazzo Barberini) and Museum of Modern Art. Even more places include the Palazzo Farnese (which is open limited hours) and Palazzo Colonna. So, long story short, if you like art museums then Rome is absolutely the place to be.
Macabre Museums of Rome
Photos were not allowed in any of these places, so unfortunately I don’t have any.
If you want to make some creepy stops, Rome has quite a few. In the city of Rome you can visit the Capuchin Crypt. This was a monastery founded by Capuchin monks in the 16th-17th centuries and the crypt is, of course, where their bodies were kept after they died. In the 19th century some French guy, being French, decided to make art out of the crypt. What you see today is a good museum on the Capuchin monks, ending in the crypt beautifully decorated with bones. There are a few rooms and each one is decorated differently, but all with the bones of the monks. It’s interesting to see what designs our bodies can make. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted but is quite a unique place.
Outside the city you can visit a few catacombs. The one I visited was the Callixto Catacombs, known for being the first burial ground of Christians in Rome. Italy’s ground is composed of a lot of tuffa, or volcanic ash, that’s quite easy to dig through and hardens when it’s exposed to oxygen – which is why a lot of things in Italy are underground. The catacomb tours take you several meters deep and you can see a small portion of where almost half a million bodies are buried. It looks, appropriately enough, like a modern morgue with spaces for the bodies cut into the walls. There are also a few chapels to see and some decorated crypts from the end of the ancient Roman Empire. It’s absolutely unique and amazing at how big and ancient the construction is. The bodies have been moved so you don’t see any bones, but it’s just as fascinating.
The San Sebastian Catacombs are next door if you’d like to visit those, too.
You definitely need to plan ahead if you want to visit the Callixto Catacombs. You can easily take a bus to and from the catacombs but tours only run every so often, so you want to be sure you won’t miss them.
Out of the way but still in the city, you can also add the Catacombs of Priscilla to your list. Additionally you can visit Columbarium of Pomponius Hylas and the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, which has a bone crypt. there’s no shortage of the grotesque in Rome!
Other Museums of Rome
The Castel Sant’Angelo is another icon of Rome but a lot of people skip over visiting the structure. It dates back to ancient Roman times when it was a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian. It evolved over the years to become the defensive castle seen today. It’s an interesting visit and the upper levels have undefeated views of Rome. Additionally there are some very beautiful interiors inside the castle from when it was used as the Pope’s residence. It’s absolutely worth a visit.
One of my favourite places to see in Rome is also not very well known: the Casa Romane del Cielo. This is an early Christian structure that once housed businesses but what makes it exceptional are the surviving frescoes. It’s absolutely covered with them and they date back about 1700 years. Unfortunately photos were not allowed so I don’t have any.
I also really enjoyed the National Etruscan Museum which is dedicated to the Etruscans. It’s filled with artefacts of the Etruscan as well as artwork, and was one of the most informative museums I visited in Rome.
There’s also a few branches of the National Roman Museum and I visited the Palazzo Altemps. The museum itself is mostly sculpture but the palace is also remarkable. It dates to the late Renaissance and isn’t in the most pristine condition but you can still see frescoes and carved ceilings. It’s absolutely gorgeous to visit.
When you think of Rome and Italy, you probably don’t think of John Keats and Percy Shelley. But they did live in Rome with the former dying there in 1906. The Keats-Shelley House is now a museum you can visit in Rome to explore their lives and works. There’s also a Napoleon Museum in Rome.
Churches to Visit in Rome
I’m normally not a huge church person but there are so many amazingly beautiful churches in Italy that I decided to become one. All the churches I visited in Rome were free to visit.
Note that a lot of churches may actually be open during worship hours but I find it a bit disrespectful to pop in and wander around when people are doing mass.
One of my favourite churches to see was Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s one of the oldest churches in Rome and dates back to the 12th century. It has absolutely stunning mosaics (I’m a huge mosaics lover) and the rest of the church has such exquisite attention to detail. It’s absolutely stunning.
If you love mosaics too, you have to visit Basilica di Santa Prassede. Built in the late 8th century, it’s one of the oldest churches in Rome. The apse has beautiful mosaic work and there’s also a chapel on the side that’s filled with mosaics. It’s so beautiful. In these churches you can pay a euro to have a light shine on certain parts of the church and it’s very worth paying to see these mosaics lit up.
Only a few yards away is the beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore which is absolutely huge. It dates to around the 5th century and also has absolutely stunning mosaics from that time period. Over the 1600 years it’s evolved greatly (you’ll notice the exterior is definitely not 5th century) and other styles of artwork have been added in the medieval, Renaissance, and even later eras. You can definitely take a while to see all the artwork the church has to offer.
One of the last churches I’ll mention is Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. This church dates much later, to the 13th-15th centuries, but I liked it particularly for its beautifully colorful interior. It’s so gorgeous. I also recommend a visit to Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains because it has the famous Michelangelo sculpture of the horned Moses.
Some other churches I visited but didn’t absolutely love were Basilica de Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, and Chiesa del Gesu – but these are all very beautiful as well.
Some other ones I was recommended but didn’t visit were Basilica of St Stephan in the Round, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo (this one has Caravaggios), Basilica of San Clemente (for more mosaics), and Archbasilica of San Giovanni. And it’s just a handful of the churches to see in Rome. There are so many more and it probably takes days to explore them all.
I highly recommend a visit to Rome and to properly explore the city, you need to give yourself a few days. Honestly you can spend weeks in Rome and not run out of things to do. If you’re pressed for time, two packed days can give you a taste for Rome, but I do recommend something more along the lines of 4+ days. I spent four full days in Rome and even though I got a lot done, there was a lot I still didn’t get to see. It was also quite a rigorous itinerary.
You’ll be brought all around the city if you do museums and the typical tourist things. With any city, I always recommend getting to know the area, walking around for a few hours, seeing the architecture and what the stores and restaurants are like. I’m no expert but Rome has a lot of lovely areas. Trastevere was quite nice but while I’ve heard it’s “a hidden gem” it was still filled with tourists. I particularly liked Monti which is near the Colosseum but still very local. I personally stayed next to the train station. The area’s a bit less clean than other parts of the city but with all the bus connections, it was a convenient place to stay.
The downside to Rome is that it always seems to be swarming with tourists. It’s always crowded. Historically the city was expansive so there are tourist areas all throughout the city rather than having a central area or square.
There’s not really an “off the beaten patch” place in Rome since all places are pretty discovered. But don’t be discouraged because Rome also has tons of Italians. There are lots of nice eateries, people to meet, tons of shopping for a variety of budgets. There were Italians at almost every restaurant I went to, even the ones near tourist sites. If you really want to explore “local” Rome then I’d recommend going out of the main city areas. But even with all the people, it’s still a wonderful city.
I hope you make it to the Eternal City and when you do, you love it as much as I did.
Tags: europe, italy, rome