Caesar. Gladiators. The Colosseum. The Vatican. Between Hollywood and the history books, you’ve probably already seen and heard a lot about Rome. But with so much to see and do, where do you start?
Italy’s capital city is a diverse mix of old world charm, ruins, cultural and religious sites and modern day Europe. In Rome, you’ll wander down a maze of cobbled streets, only to find a giant H&M store near to a fountain sculpted so long ago you probably couldn’t guess the date.
It’s all quite magical and unbelievable, but also gritty and real. Here are my tips on what to do on your first trip to Rome:
If you’ve studied classical history in any form, the majestic and slowly crumbling ruins of the ancient city should definitely be top of your must-see list.
Not very familiar with what was going on in the years BC? I suggest doing some research before visiting the more ancient parts of the city, or going on a guided group tour.
A history lesson may not sound like fun on your holiday, but it will give you a better sense of perspective and understanding of who Emperor X was, and why Temple Y is important. Otherwise you’ll feel like you’re looking at disintegrating blocks of stone rather than some of the foundations of modern city life.
While there are various temples and ancient buildings dotted all over Rome, a central place to start when is by exploring the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. This area is filled with old government buildings, public gathering spaces and temples – some almost wholly intact, while others only have a few pillars remaining to show what once stood on that ground.
You can explore on foot, wandering up hills and paths to find more remnants of the city’s past.
Of course, you can’t miss the giant amphitheater right next door. Rome’s iconic Colosseum can be seen from the outside (it’s beautifully lit up at night, if you care to walk around the perimeter) or, if you brave the queues, from inside.
Much of the original floor has fallen away with time, allowing you a glimpse into the rooms below where animals and gladiators were kept before being brought up to the arena floor.
I’m a big fan of long afternoons wandering around just to get a feel for the area – and Rome is no exception.
It’s pretty safe in the more touristy areas in the city center and, thanks to the numerous metro stops, you can head down as many side streets as you like without looking at a map. Got lost? Just find the nearest metro station and get a train back to where you wanted to be.
Of course, if you wander around this particular city, you’re likely to turn a corner and come across the Trevi Fountain or the Pantheon, one of the most well-preserved and famous temples.
Both of these sites are nestled in between a maze of streets and buildings, adding an extra layer of architectural majesty to your explorations.
Ever crossed into another country without realising it? If you step into the ring of saints in the square in front of this famous church, you’re technically in the smallest independently recognised state in the world.
Forming part of the border of the Vatican City, St Peter’s is a beautiful stop on your trip through Rome. If you’re visiting near a holiday like Easter, you’ll see the area in front of the building being set up with chairs for people coming to see the Pope speak at Mass – a surreal experience, whether or not you’re Catholic.
If you want to go further inside the walled city state, you can visit the Vatican Museum, which houses an impressive collection of art and sculptures, and includes the stunning Sistine Chapel.
But be warned: depending on the time of year, you can (literally) queue for hours just to get inside, given the attraction’s popularity, so take a snack and some patience.
Ice cream? Mmm. Frozen yoghurt? Okay. But in my mind, nothing comes close to Italian gelato. The frozen dessert is everywhere in Rome, and for good reason – it is phenomenal.
On my first trip to Italy, I somehow managed to eat a scoop a day. I’ve managed to restrain myself (a bit) since then, but it’s still one of the best things to eat. While standard vanilla or strawberry is great, try testing out scoops of Nutella or Stracciatella gelato too.
When it comes to other food in Rome, there is lots on offer – from upmarket restaurants to quirky street-side cafés. If you’re on a budget, I suggest walking a few streets down from whichever tourist attraction you just left – you can browse the menus on display outside the restaurants and see the prices for the same items reduce as you get a few hundred metres away.
While pasta and pizza may be high on your must-eat list, the Italian versions of these foods are a bit different to how they’re prepared in other countries, but still tasty. They’re generally a bit lighter, with fewer toppings and more simple sauces… and no, you won’t find stuffed pizza crusts or oceans of cheese in the more authentic places.
Want a 360 degree elevated view of all of Rome’s orange and yellow buildings? There’s one available at the Altare della Patria (also called the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II).
This imposing marble monument, topped with twin bronze chariot statues, houses the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, which commemorates those who fell during World War 1.
Guests can also walk along the building’s rooftop and capture the scene from up above. You can reach a viewing deck by taking the many stairs, or pay extra to take the glass elevator to the very top.
With views of the Roman Forum on one side and the roof tops of the city on the other, it’s worth the climb.