Spend one hour in the Eternal City and you’ll quickly realize just how much there is to see and do. Roman ruins, paintings, churches, museums, gardens, and parks all ply for your devoted attention. But if you only have a few days—or even a week—the thought of sifting through it all to separate the very best from the so-so can be overwhelming. Lucky for you, we’ve narrowed down the attractions in Rome to a list of the very best that you won’t want to miss.
The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
When the Colosseum was built in 81 CE, the emperors behind the plan certainly didn’t expect that it would survive as an icon of Rome for the subsequent (nearly) 2000 years. It would be impossible to visit the city without having at least a look at the greatest and bloodiest arena on earth. Buy a ticket inside and you’ll get the other top-two ancient attractions included in the price: the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. The Roman Forum sprawls out in all its crumbled glory below the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. Because the Forum was once the bustling center of the capital of the world, sorting out temples from basilicas can be a challenge. Come armed with some sense of what the truncated columns belong to, otherwise the grounds look like a series of misplaced of rocks. The elegant ruins of the Palace of the Caesars can prove to be equally enigmatic to the imagination, though the sheer scale of the ancient buildings are obvious and impressive. The Palatine has great views over the ancient center in one direction and the Circus Maximus in the other.
If it’s views you’re looking for, head to Janiculum Hill. Janiculum is a short bus ride up from Rome’s center or a pleasant walk up from Trastevere or the Vatican. Walking is the way to go in good weather. Stairs give way to street then to more stairs, and as you climb the view of the city between the trees unlaces itself into the distance. The terra cotta roofs of Trastevere and beyond are best seen from Piazza Garibaldi. Also beautiful is seeing how Rome sits tucked between the Apennine Mountains to the west and the Alban Hills to the south.
This museum near Termini Station exhibits some of the best art pieces of the ancient world—without the exhaustion of the Vatican Museums. The two bronze statues are admirable not only for their beauty but also for their rarity. The Boxer of Quirinal haunts with his hollow eyes and wounds that once dripped copper. In the same room, the bronze Hellenistic Ruler stands in his proud, naked glory. The best room is upstairs where the frescoes found in the Villa of Livia are on display. This whimsical fresco cycle takes up the four walls and shows off just some of the style and elegance that surrounded Augustus’s wife.
The Pantheon occupies a strange spot, physically and temporally. Coming at it from the medieval twisting streets of Rome’s historic center, the Pantheon’s facade and its enormous pillars always manage to take the breath away. It was built as a pagan temple in 110 CE for all the gods but was changed into a church when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. The spirits of the pagans haven’t been scared away and seem to still reside under the occulus always open to the Roman sky.
No trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the famous Spanish Steps. Fight the crowds to take a seat and enjoy the view of people frothing down the luxurious Via Condotti. The Spanish Steps is the ideal people-watching spot and also a great place to catch some sun—though of course, if it’s the middle of summer, catching sun on the steps probably won’t sound like a good idea. If you’re feeling energetic, head up the stairs to snap some memorable pictures of Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums
Just as iconic as the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums are among the most visited places in Rome. Approaching the basilica from St. Peter’s Square (designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini), you become immediately aware of the architectural power and elegance of this Renaissance masterpiece. There’s usually a line to get inside, but it’s always worth it when you’re there among the amazing harmony of marble, light and space. The Vatican Museums are equally crowded, and so a reservation is highly recommended. The works of sculpture, painting, and tapestry within are some of the most praised in the world. The Sistine Chapel is surely the highlight, but don’t skip Raphael’s frescoes or the classic Roman statues like the tortured Laocoön.
Villa Borghese Gallery
Located in the luxurious Villa Borghese park, the Villa Borghese Gallery houses some of the most beautiful and accessible art in Rome. Go there for statues by the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It’s easy to bask in their presence and admire the hand that so steadily carved such lifelike stone. Also on show are paintings by Caravaggio and Titian, among others. The best thing about the Villa Borghese Gallery is that there’s no chance of getting tired out of art pieces, because there’s the perfect amount—not too many or too few—to see. Before going, be sure to call in a reservation several days in advance.