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20 Best Things to See and Do in Rome: First Time Traveler’s Guide to Rome

Last Updated on September 24, 2022

Of all of the places we have visited, Rome seems to have a special place in our hearts. Rome’s rich history, culture, and food always draw us back. To date, we have been to Rome three times, and each time, there’s something new to explore!

Since we love Rome so much, we’ve created a travel guide to Rome, specifically for first-time travelers to Rome! We have included the top things to do in Rome, tips for visiting Rome, where to say in Rome, and where to eat in Rome. We hope this guide can help you plan your trip to Rome so you can see all of the best things to do in Rome, in addition to some more unique things to do in the city.

Tip: For those planning on doing EVERYTHING in Rome, consider getting the Roma Pass, it gets you in to almost everywhere! Or consider getting the Omnia Card if you want specific tours!

Contents:

Fun Facts About Rome 

Throughout the city, you will likely see an image of a wolf with two children and the letters SPQR. These are symbols of Roman history. The she-wolf image represents the legend of how Rome came to be. Twins, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a she-wolf until Romulus killed his brother and founded the city of Rome.  Check out the full story here! SPQR means Senātus Populusque Rōmānus or the Senate and People of Rome. This symbol is a reminder of the government of ancient Rome.

If you’re a first time visitor to Rome, our comprehensive guide you help you explore the riches of this beautiful city.

Your Guide to Visiting Rome for the First Time

Planning Your Trip to Rome

If you’re planning a trip to Rome, it’s important to determine how much time you’ll have in the city. For a trip to Rome, plan to do a few activities a day so you have enough time to enjoy what you’re seeing each day. Whether you have a week or two-days in Rome, you will be able to fill up your days with plenty of activities!

Are you looking to experience Rome like a local? Book a personalized tour by a local guide!

Getting Around Rome

Rome doesn’t have a perfect public transit system because of the narrow, historic streets, so buses aren’t standard. There is a metro system; however, because of so many ancient ruins below the modern city, the metro system is limited compared to other cities like London or Paris. But it will still get you to where you need to go!

If you love to walk, you could walk everywhere if you feel up to the challenge! The streets can be confusing, and they are mostly cobblestone. So wear comfortable walking shoes and get ready to use your sense of direction! Hop on and hop off bus tours are available throughout the city!

Where to Stay in Rome

Of all of our stays in Rome, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Hotel San Pio. You can read our full review of our stay at Hotel San Pio.

Where to Eat in Rome

Rome is full of so many amazing places to eat! Italy is internationally known for pasta, wine, gelato, and pizza, so it’s only appropriate that you try them all while you’re visiting Rome. Here is a list of our favorite Restaurants in Rome!  If you want to see every flavor of gelato you could possibly try, visit Della Palma. It has over 100 flavors of gelato! Trastevere is a neighborhood in Rome worth visiting if you’re a foodie. Use this Trastevere food guide so you don’t miss any of the good stuff!

First Time Traveler Tips for Rome

Only Order Cappuccino in the Morning

Don’t make the mistake of ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon. True Italians enjoy theirs in the morning!

Unique Things to Do in Rome: Tour the City at Night or at Sunrise. 

Rome is just as beautiful at night and sunrise as it is during the day! Visit the top tourist stops at off-peak times of the day. The lighting gives everything a different feel and perspective! This was one of our favorite experiences and tours in Rome! 

Must Have Experiences in Rome

Learn Some Basic Italian Phrases. 

When visiting a country that speaks a different language, you should try to learn some basic phrases to help you maneuver the city. It also shows you’re making the effort to immerse yourself. Traveling is a learning experience so seize the opportunity!

Hello: Ciao (informal); Salve (formal)

Goodbye: Ciao (informal); Arrivederci (formal)

Good morning: Buongiorno

Good evening: Buonasera

Goodnight: Buonanotte (use this when you’re going to bed)

Please: Per favore

Thank you: Grazie

You’re welcome: Prego

Excuse me (passing through a crowd): Permesso

Don’t Be Surprised with Crowds.

You’re in Rome, it’s going to be busy. Especially at the tourist hotspots. If you want to avoid larger crowds, visit Rome during the offseason/shoulder season, between October and April.

Drink all the Wine and Eat Everything

Take advantage of the foodie and wine tours!

Eat like a local by enjoying aperitivo in the evening. This social event is like America’s version of happy hour or the Spanish tapas. It includes drinks and appetizer style dishes, but as a small meal! Of course, eat the pasta and eat the pizza, but typically Italians like their meals to be multiple courses. Starting with appetizers, then a carb dish, followed by the protein and dessert. Ordering just pasta is a very touristy thing to do! It seems like a lot of food, but Italian restaurants won’t push you out, they want you to have a meal as an experience. If you’re unsure of what kind of wine to drink, get the house wine. It’s always different and delicious! Check out where to eat in Rome on our post!

Tips for Visiting Rome
Tips for Visiting Rome

Get Ready To Walk

Getting around Rome is easiest by walking, so pack good walking shoes! Rome does have a metro system; however, it’s very limited on where it can go because of ancient excavation. If you do use it, it’s very easy and cheap! And riding the subway in any foreign city is a must have experience!

Tips for Visiting Rome

Speaking of Walking, Pedestrians Don’t Have the Right of Way

If you’re going to cross the street, be in a state of grace. People in Rome are fearless drivers, so be cautious of crossing the road, they won’t hit you, but they won’t slow down for you!

If you haven’t had enough of Roman history and culture yet after visiting the highlights of Rome, there a few places off the beaten path worth seeing. Rome is full of so many things to see, so don’t sell yourself short and only visit the highlights. Here’s our list of alternative things to do in Rome, so travel off the beaten path with us!

Top Things to Do in Rome: Your Rome Bucket List

Walk Through History at Roman Colosseum and Forum

The Roman Colosseum and Forum are one of the most visited sites in Rome, so if you’re visiting for the first time, GO! Constructed in the first century by Flavian emperors, the Colosseum seated 50000-80000 spectators for animal hunts, executions, and battles. Over time, the structure was damaged, looted, and repurposed. Today, we can only see the supporting three-walled structures of the Colosseum. Thanks to restoration and preservation efforts, we can visit and enjoy Roman history in front of us! To visit the Colosseum and Forum, book a tour!

First Time Traveler's Guide to Rome
Roman Colosseum
First Time Traveler's Guide to Rome
First Time Traveler's Guide to Rome

The Forum was ancient Rome’s city center. The Forum was a hub for commerce, politics, and daily life in ancient Rome. When you visit, you can see the site where Julius Cesar was cremated, the Temple of Vestal Virgins, the Arch of Titus, Temple of Saturn, and the list goes on! Interestingly when you visit the Forum, you can tell that the modern city was built over the ancient structures in layers because it is lower than the rest of the city. When you visit, try to have a tour guide or audio guide to walk you through the Forum. There is so much to see and learn!

First Time Traveler's Guide to Rome
The House of Vestal Virgins

Take the Trek up to Palentine Hill

If you want to see the view in the photos below, go to the top of the Palentine Hill, accessible from the Forum. You will see beautiful gardens and a panoramic view of the Forum.

First Time Traveler's Guide to Rome
The Roman Forum from Palatine Hill
Visiting Rome for the First Time
The Roman Forum from Palatine Hill
Visiting Rome for the First Time

If you want another great view of the Forum, like the one below, go to Via del Campidoglio right next to the Campidoglio square.

Visiting Rome for the First Time
The Best View of the Roman Forum

Feel Close to Locals at Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is one of the nicest squares in Rome. Full of restaurants, shops, and street artists, Piazza Navona is a relaxing part of the city if you want to see what it’s like to live in Rome.

TIP: Many of the top things to do in Rome are sights and locations, so consider booking a walking to get the most of sightseeing in Rome!

Alternative Things to do in Rome
The Obelisk and Bernini’s Fountain at Piazza Navona

Another one of the many obelisks in Rome is located at Piazza Navona. The fountain by Bernini features four figures, each representing the largest river on each continent. It includes the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing the Americas.

Alternative Things to do in Rome
Piazza Navona

Throw a Coin in Trevi Fountain

This baroque style fountain pours water from an ancient Roman aqueduct. During the 17th century, there was artistic competition, which led to the Pope commissioning the construction of Trevi because the former fountain wasn’t dramatic enough. The fountain itself physically appears to sit lower into the group compared to the surrounding buildings. This is because it was constructed to use the natural water pressure from the aqueducts for the fountain without the use of pumps. Traditionally, people throw a coin from their right hand over their left shoulder to ensure they will return to Rome one day.

To visit Trevi, you don’t need a tour or tickets, simply walk there and look around! It’s a public space for everyone to enjoy. Beware though, pickpockets are very common in this area, in addition to people trying to sell photos in front of Trevi. Rome recently passed a law that you cannot sit on the edge of any fountain in the city, so don’t try and take a seat!

Visiting Rome for the First Time
Trevi Fountain

Be Awed by the Pantheon

The Pantheon, constructed in the 2nd century AD, was a Roman temple. Over time, it came under Catholic rule becoming a church. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved Roman monuments. The dome in the Pantheon is an engineering masterpiece given its weight, age, and size.  Since this is a place of worship, it is free and open to the public to visit. It is very close to Trevi Fountain so you can easily see both in one day!

Visiting Rome for the First Time
The Pantheon

Stroll Up the Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps get its name from their location in the Spanish Square of Rome. The steps were constructed in the 18th century by Francesco De Sanctis as a way to connect the church at the top of the hill to the Spanish square below. These steps are featured in movies and are an iconic sight in Rome.

Visiting Rome for the First Time
The Spanish Steps

The water flowing from the fountain at the base of the steps is fresh and safe to drink! Just like the rest of the public fountains throughout Rome.

Visiting Rome for the First Time
The Fountain Below the Spanish Steps

The Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica

Whether you are religious or not, visiting the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica is a must. Here, you will not only be in another country, but you see world-renowned art and experience centuries of history. If you’re going to visit, definitely book ahead of time or with a tour group. Lines are very long, so give this visit a full day on your itinerary. If you want to get beautiful photos of the outside of  Saint Peter’s Basilica, visit early in the morning. There are almost no crowds and the lighting is beautiful. In addition to Saint Peter’s Basilica, there are many other beautiful churches of Rome worth visiting!

If you want to see the Pope, check out the Papal calendar for services.

Saint Peter’s Basilica
The Obelisk at Vatican City

Outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica is an obelisk and Bernini’s statues, as seen in the photo above. You will see obelisks throughout Rome because of ancient Rome’s fascination with Egypt. Both Roman and Egyptian obelisks can found throughout the city. The one in Saint Peter’s square is from Egypt.

Top Things to Do in Rome
Top Things to Do in Rome

Inside the Basilica, you will be in awe. The size alone is breathtaking. You could spend all day looking around inside at the sculptures and artworks. Of all of the things to view, visit the statue of Saint Peter, Bernini’s baldachin altarpiece, and Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Top Things to Do in Rome
Top Things to Do in Rome
Top Things to Do in Rome

When visiting the Vatican museum, you will see Michelangelo’s, Sistine Chapel. Photos are not allowed in the Chapel, but take the time to take in the beautiful ceiling piece. In the museum, you will see Raphael’s School of Athens featuring Socrates and Aristotle, pictured below.

School of Athens the Vatican museum
School of Athens by Raphael

If you’re on a tour simply going through at your leisure, ask about this exhibit featuring gold jewelry and pieces. It’s amazing artistry and unlike another ancient gold work display!

Top Things to Do in Rome

Less-Visited Places to Visit in Rome

Circus Maximus and Palatine

Circus Maximus and the Palatine hill are a short walk from the Colosseum. Circus Maximus was a chariot racing stadium for ancient Romans, housing 150,000 people. Today, it’s a public park. Visiting the ruins and seeing it’s size makes your imagination wander about how amazing this site would have been in ancient Rome. The Palatine Hill is another ancient site in Rome right. The Imperial palaces were located here! There are lots of ruins to explore and a small museum! Admission to Palatine Hill also includes the Colosseum and Forum! And it’s right down the road!

Visiting these sites are great because they’re different things to do in Rome if you’ve already seen the Forum and Colosseum!

Alternative Things to do in Rome
Circus Maximus
Alternative Things to do in Rome
Circus Maximus
Off the Beaten Path Rome
Circus Maximus

Baths of Caracalla 

The Baths of Caracalla are a hidden gem of ancient Roman ruins. The baths are where the Romans would go to bathe, shower, swim, and exercise. It was basically our equivalent of a modern rec center. Many of the original mosaics are still intact! The size of the ruins is remarkable, which really shows how amazing this place would have been thousands of years ago. The best part of visiting the Baths is that they’re not busy and you can get an audioguide. This ended up being one of our favorite off the beaten path things to do in Rome!

Off the Beaten Path Rome
Off the Beaten Path Rome
Off the Beaten Path Rome
What was “the swimming pool” at the Baths of Caracalla
Off the Beaten Path Rome
Off the Beaten Path Rome
Different Things to do in Rome
Different Things to Do in Rome

The “Wedding Cake”

If you’re downtown, you probably won’t miss the sight of this elaborate building! Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, or as locals call it, the “wedding cake”, is a monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. Its construction destroyed most of the Capitoline Hill and a medieval neighborhood. You can visit a museum inside, view the tomb of the unknown soldier, and get great panoramic views of the city!

Different Things to Do in Rome
It Looks Like a Wedding Cake Doesn’t It?

Trajan’s Column

If you’re already visiting the “Wedding Cake”, take a look across the street. Across the street from the Wedding Cake is Trajan’s Column, an ancient Roman structure representing Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. It is unclear whether the piece is commemorative or propaganda. Its size and detailed imagery are interesting to look at! If you’re walking by, definitely take a look! Trajan’s column made our list because even though it might be on the well-traveled path, it’s easy to walk right by!

Different Things to Do in Rome
Trajan’s Column

Mouth of Truth

The Mouth of Truth is a marble mask sculpture that stands along the wall of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church. This attraction has gained fame from the movie, Roman Holiday! Today, people stick their hand in the mouth. The mask weighs about 1300 kg and likely is of the face of the sea god Oceanus. Historians aren’t quite sure of its original purpose.

Torre Argentina- A Cat Sanctuary

A group of very lucky cats thrives where Julius Caesar was betrayed in Rome! Largo di Torre Argentina, an archeological site of four Republican victory-temples, was uncovered from below the modern city. And today, hundreds of cats have made there home here. The archeological site, like many in Rome, are nestled among the modern buildings. Torre Argentina is located at the corner of Via Florida & Via di Torre Argentina. Don’t worry, volunteers take care of the cats and their health!

If you’re looking for a short, two-day itinerary for Rome, check out this post!

Aventine Hill and the Keyhole

When weaving through the narrow streets of Rome, you might not notice that the city is pretty flat. Rome actually only has 7 hills. Aventine Hill is noted for its beautiful rose gardens in the spring. And throughout the year you can get stunning panoramic views of the city by visiting The Orange Trees Garden or the Savello Park.

On the top of the Aventine Hill, if you look inside a keyhole, you’ll see a telescoping image of the Saint Peter’s Basilica Dome! This off-the-beaten-path attraction is something special that photographs can’t seem to catch! The Culture Trip has a great post about the Aventine Keyhole meaning and history!

You can find the Aventine Keyhole at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, 4, 00153 Roma RM, Italy

The Bridge and Castel Sant’Angelo

The Mausoleum of Hadrian, also known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is a towering castle in Rome, Italy. Compared to other buildings in Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo stands out with its cylindrical shape and striking position along the Tiber River. The castle was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum and was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle. Today, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a museum where you can see Roman art and sculpture.

If you walk across the bridge, you can get beautiful photos of the Castel framed by the bridge.

Visit the Other Major Churches of Rome

Since the Vatican is located in the heart of Rome, Rome is top destination for spiritual pilgrimages and viewing some of the most beautiful Catholic churches in Europe. Rome is home to four major basilicas including Saint Peter’s. These basilicas including Saint Mary Major and Saint John Lateran feature beautiful artwork, sculpture, and relics of Christ. Read more about visiting some of these stunning churches in our guide to Rome’s churches.

Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitol Square)

During your visit to round don’t miss out on visiting one of Rome’s beautiful town squares designed by the famous Michelangelo. The Square is located on the summit of Capatoline hill. This hill is an epicenter for sculpture and Roman palaces. To get to the square you’ll climb up a slow rising staircase. Looking up at the staircase from the bottom like there is no steps at all. Once you get to the Square take a look around at the different sculptures including the Nile and the statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Campo di Fiori Market

Just south of Piazza Navona, you’ll find Campo di Fiori. During the day, you’ll find the square nestled under an array of umbrellas for the daily market. If you’re looking to do some local shopping, stop by the market!

Find Rome’s Obelisks

I don’t know about you guys but when you think about the ancient civilizations you learned about in history class, sometimes you think about them as being completely different eras and being completely separate. But if you look at a global timeline ancient Rome and ancient Egypt existed at the exact same time.

So thinking about it, it makes sense that Rome is actually home to Ancient Egyptian obelisks. And even more interestingly, Rome is home to the most obelisks in the world. Eight ancient Egyptian obelisks were taken from Egypt after the Roman conquest. It’s really interesting that this conquest resulted in culturally significant items being transported back home instead of them being destroyed. Ancient Romans were clearly fascinated by obelisks that they had more of the manufacturered in Egypt. The fascination even continues all the way into the 19th century were more obelisks were constructed around the city. Make sure to check out this list of all the lists and brown and see if you can find them. 

More Things to Do in Rome

More about Visiting Italy

Who’s ready to go visit ROME?

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Pam & Kathrine

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