From the windy lanes of Trastevere to the monumental beauty of the Trevi Fountain, there are just some things you can’t miss in the eternal city. Rome simply isn’t Rome without the frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the majesty of the Colosseum.
It’s not easy to come up with a list of everything you should see in Rome on your first visit. The city is bursting with awe-inspiring historical treasures. After studying art history there for a year and living there for several more, I’ve come up with a list of the absolute must-sees for your first time in the Italian capital.
For each of Rome’s amazing famous sights, there’s an equal number of amazing secret spots!
Want to see some hidden corners of Rome on your visit, too? I’ve got you covered!
In the same way that Rome isn’t Rome without the Vatican or the Colosseum, she isn’t herself without carbonara and cacio e pepe, either! Want tips on where to get some of the best food in the city? I’ve got you covered, too!
Are you ready to discover everything you should see on your first visit to Rome? Andiamo!
1. St. Peter’s Basilica
Built over the course of 120 years by some of Italy’s most famous architects, including Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world. You can visit the crypts underneath, the church itself, and climb the dome on top.
2. The Vatican Museums
People have been visiting the Vatican Museums since the 16th century, and rightly so. With 54 galleries (called sale in Italian) and thousands of works of art that span the centuries, it’s a true treasure trove for lovers of art and art history. The final sala that visitors pass through is undoubtedly the museum’s most famous: the Sistine Chapel.
Beat The Crowds At The Vatican
There are both early morning and after-hours tours of St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museums! If you want a less crowded visit, go for one of these off-peak tours.
After visiting the Vatican, head over to Trastevere, which is on the same side of the Tiber river. Get lost in the narrow streets, take pictures of laundry drying in the sun, and just enjoy one of Rome’s most picturesque neighborhoods.
Trastevere Food Tip
Trastevere has some great pizza places. Seu Pizza Illuminati, Pizzeria ai Marmi, Dar Poeta, and Ivo a Trastevere are regarded as some of the city’s best pizzerie. Try one to get some of the good stuff!
4. The Colosseum and the Ancient City
The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater that was constructed during the Roman empire. It was commissioned by the emperor Vespasian and opened by his son, Titus, in 80 AD. Famous for gladiatorial matches and animal fights, the Colosseum is the symbol of the eternal city.
A ticket to the Colosseum gets you into the adjacent Palatine Hill. Legend has it that Romulus and Remus, the founders Rome, were raised by a wolf in a cave there, which is the most central of the city’s seven hills. It later became an area inhabited by Rome’s elite, including some of the emperors. You can visit the ruins of many of the remaining structures today, along with the small museum there, and get great views of the Roman forum as well as the Circus Maximus.
The Roman forum was once the hub of the city’s public life, containing a host of temples, basilicas, and other public structures. Visit the forum and then walk down Via dei Fori Imperiali, where you’ll be able to see the fora and markets constructed by different emperors.
Pro Tip For Visiting The Ancient City
Don’t do this part of Rome without a guide! Whether it be a person, a book, or a blog post, the ancient city can be confusing (and can sometimes seem meaningless) if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
Secret Spot In The Ancient City
Ready for a break from the crowds? If you loved the ancient city and want more, head to the Celio hill behind the Colosseum, and visit Le Case Romane del Celio. Twenty rooms decorated with frescoes dating from between the second and fourth centuries unfold beneath the Basilica of Saints John and Paul and culminate in a small gallery displaying objects that were recovered during the excavation of the site. You’ll probably be one of a handful of visitors exploring this underground gem. If you love ancient Rome, don’t miss this secret spot!
5. The Jewish Ghetto
Located in the city center, the Roman Jewish Ghetto was historically home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. You can visit the Jewish Museum of Rome in order to gain an understanding of the history of the area, and see the Synagogue, which is thought to be the largest in Italy. Other sights in the area include the Theater of Marcellus and the Bocca della Verità.
The Roman Jewish Ghetto also has some signature foods, like carciofi alla giudia (grilled artichokes) and pizza ebraica, which is actually a sweet!
6. Piazza Navona
Designed by famous Roman artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Piazza Navona is home to one of the city’s most spectacular fountains. Depicting the great rivers of the time, the four figures represent the Nile, the Ganges, the Rio de la Plata, and the Danube. The church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and the Palazzo Pamphilj (which is the current Brazilian embassy) are also both located in Piazza Navona.
7. Campo de’ Fiori
Campo de’ Fiori was developed around 1456 by Pope Callixtus III. In the morning, the piazza comes alive thanks to its bustling market, and in the evening, it transforms into an evening hot-spot popular with tourists and foreign students. The central statue in the piazza depicts Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.
Secret Spot Near Campo de’ Fiori
Exit the piazza onto via del Pellegrino and turn left at Arco degli Acetari. You’ll end up in a tiny little courtyard that doesn’t have any major sights, but is a great little spot for taking pictures!
Where To Eat Bear Campo de’ Fiori
There are two excellent spots to get pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) in this area. One is in Campo de’ Fiori itself. In the left corner of the piazza, if you’re facing the same way as Giordano Bruno, there’s a sign that says FORNO, which means oven in Italian. Some say that they have the best pizza bianca in the city. They also offer sandwiches and other baked goods.
Just outside of Campo de’ Fiori at Via dei Chiavari 34 is Roscioli Forno, which has the best pizza margherita al taglio that I’ve ever had. Order a few different slices – last time I was there we sampled the margherita, a slice with mushrooms, one with roasted potatoes, and another thick-crusted one with burrata and pesto that was delicious.
Neither of these places have seating, so be prepared to munch your slices standing up.
8. The Pantheon
The first Pantheon in Rome was destroyed by a fire in the same year that the Colosseum opened, 80AD. In 118, the emperor Hadrian commissioned a new Pantheon, which is the structure that you can visit today. The Pantheon is considered to be the best-preserved ancient building in Rome and its dome is the largest unsupported dome in the world. Its oculus is 8 meters across, which is about 25 feet. You can visit the tomb of Raphael inside.
Beat The Crowds At The Pantheon
Despite some discussion about charging admission in the last few years, the Pantheon remains free to visit. For this reason, it’s a very popular sight. If you want to beat the crowd, visit when it opens at 8:30 am.
9. The Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain is the combination of two designs, one by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and one by Nicola Salvi. Completed in 1762, the fountain is an example of Roman baroque architecture. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain backwards over your left shoulder, you’ll return to Rome someday, if you throw two in, you’ll find a Roman romance, and if you throw in three, you’ll get married!
Beat The Crowds At The Trevi Fountain
Visiting the Trevi Fountain at peak times is pretty miserable, if I’m being honest. I highly recommend heading there while the city is still sleeping – around 7am, if you can. You’ll have a much better experience without the crowds! If you’re not a morning person, head there late at night to have a similar, crowd-free visit.
10. The Spanish Steps
Named for the Spanish embassy to the Vatican, which is located in the square below, the Spanish Steps are another Roman icon. They were originally built to connect the church above to the piazza. There’s another famous fountain in the square called La Barcaccia, which was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s father, Pietro.
A recent law was passed that prohibits sitting on the Spanish Steps, so you’ll have to take your pictures standing up! If you want to beat the crowds, head from the Trevi Fountain straight to the Spanish Steps on your early morning tour.
Secret Spot Bear The Spanish Steps
Ready for another hidden corner of Rome? Walk down Via Margutta, which is very close to Piazza di Spagna. Made famous from the film Roman Holiday, Via Margutta has been home to a long line of artists and filmmakers and still has several art galleries on it. You can see a tribute to these artists in the form of a bucket of paint brushes atop a little fountain.
There’s nothing particular to see in Monti, but like Trastevere, it’s a great little neighborhood to wander around and get lost in. Located near the Colosseum, Monti is a hip little area full of second hand shops, cute cafés, and chic restaurants.
Known commonly for its nightlife, Testaccio actually has some of the best food in the eternal city. If you want to try Roman street food, head to the Mercato di Testaccio, which is open from 7am to 3pm every day except Sunday. You can do your shopping and eat at the communal tables in the center of the market. Try supplì, carciofi alla guidia, or any of the other delights that look good to you. Looking for a sit-down meal? Book a table at Flavio al Velavevodetto, Felice a Testaccio, or Da Oio a Casa Mia for some traditional Roman fare.
So, there you have your list of everything you need to see in Rome on your first visit! If you’re spending more than just a few days there, don’t be afraid to explore beyond the city center. Rome is a series of layers, and each one you peel back reveals another treasure.