Rome is a city to immerse yourself in its history, both before and after Christ. These are 50 things to see and do in the Eternal City.
1. Roman Forum
The center of public life in ancient Rome included the government palaces, the major pagan temples and their statues, the marketplace, and even sexual services. The ruins of the Temple of Saturn, that of Castor and Pollux, that of Vesta and many other vestiges remain standing. To admire the Roman Forum is to transport yourself to the times of Caesar and Augustus.
This great monument of the classical past had a capacity for 50,000 people, an incredible capacity for a 2,000-year-old building. It is overwhelming to enter the Colosseum and imagine the fights of the early Christians against the beasts and the fights to the death between gladiators, while the royalty, the nobility and the people shouted and applauded. It is one of the best preserved pieces of ancient Rome, so it can be admired without many restrictions.
3. Pantheon of Agrippa
Michelangelo said that the design of this building was not human but divine. Surely what most impressed the great Renaissance master was the majestic dome and the almost perfect mathematical relationships between its main dimensions, including those of his famous oculus. Its construction was so impeccable that 2,000 years later it hardly needed reinforcements. Quite the opposite of some of the valuable ruins of the Forum, which seem about to fall.
4. House of the Vestals
The vestals were priestesses who took care that the sacred fire of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was always lit. They had to be beautiful and virgins and they paid with death for the loss of chastity. They had a palace in the Forum, near their place of work, the temple of Vesta. The palace had 50 rooms on three floors and some of the statues of the Vestals are preserved. A mill wheel that the virgins used to grind the wheat with which the mola sauce was made, an offering to the goddess, could also survive to our days.
5. St. Peter’s Square
The great esplanade with its huge obelisk in the center, surrounded by colonnades and with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background, is an icon of Rome and Vatican City. This work by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the most important meeting point for Catholics from all over the world, who flock to it to receive the Pope’s blessing and to wait for the smoke that indicates whether Christianity already has a new pontiff.
6. St. Peter’s Basilica
With its 2.3 hectares of interior surface, it is the largest Christian temple in the world. It was erected on the supposed place where Saint Peter, the first Pope, was buried. Its huge dome is an architectural symbol of Rome. Inside there are artistic jewels such as the Baldachin, the bronze image of Saint Peter, worn by the hands of the parishioners; La Piedad, by Michelangelo; niches with sculptures of the most important saints of Christianity, and innumerable monuments dedicated to Popes, monarchs and characters of the high nobility.
7. Sistine Chapel
We must be grateful that Michelangelo, 66 years old, arthritic and affected by Gout disease, had the will to climb the scaffolding to bequeath us the Last Judgment and other masterpieces that he painted on the walls and vault of the Sistine Chapel . Apart from its artistic value, the chapel is the scene of one of the most important events in Christianity, as it is the meeting place for the conclave that elects the Popes.
8. Vatican Museums
The art collection assembled by the Catholic Church in 2,000 years is immense and much of it is in the Vatican City museums. A short list should include codices and documents from the first millennium of Christianity, such as the Codex Vaticanus, Lorsch’s Codex Aureus, the Virgilian Codices, and the Joshua Scroll.
Sculptures such as the Belvedere Apollo , the Doryphorus , Heracles , Ganymede and the superb panel Children Playing with Nuts . Paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and other immortals. The list would be like Rome, eternal.
9. Swiss Guard
It is made up of about 100 loyal soldiers, willing to give their lives for the Pope and for the high-ranking Catholics. You can see them in Vatican City, with their striking uniforms, the oldest military clothing in use in the world. They are operationally commanded by a colonel, although their protocol commander is the Pope himself. Curiously, they began as Swiss mercenaries hired by the Church to fight in its service. All applicants for guard duty must be single and hold Swiss citizenship.
10. Castel Sant’Angelo
You may already know this castle without having been to Rome, thanks to Dan Brown’s novel, Angels and Demons , or the movie based on it. It was built by Emperor Hadrian to serve as his tomb and has an 800-meter Passetto that connects it with the papal apartments. It was used by the pontiffs to take refuge when they were besieged by the enemy. A beautiful pedestrian bridge over the Tiber River connects it with the historic center of ancient Rome.
11. Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
It integrates the quintet of oldest basilicas in Rome and is the second in hierarchy, after San Pedro. It is one of the 7 stops on the traditional pilgrimage of the Seven Churches. According to Christian tradition, there was a necropolis on his property where Saint Paul was buried. Among his works of greatest artistic value are the Porta Sacra, the mosaics and the medallions. Both the temple and its annexed buildings are outside the Vatican State, although they are owned by the Holy See.
12. Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran
Although it is outside the Vatican, in this temple the Pope exercises his ceremonial authority as Bishop of Rome. The current building is of baroque lines, after the transformation directed in the 17th century by Francesco Borromini. Its striking pavement is in the Cosmatesque style and one of its jewels is the ciborium. It serves as a burial place for 22 Popes. Another formal curiosity is that his canon of honor is always the President of France, who must attend an act in which he assumes office.
13. Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major
The origins of this temple date back to the 4th century, although its structure changed with successive modifications and extensions. Inside, the altars of the Sistine and Pauline chapels and funerary monuments dedicated to various Popes and even a temporary catafalque built for the Spanish king Felipe IV stand out. Other works of value are the frescoes by Guido Reni and Passignano, as well as the religious sculptures by Pietro Bracci and Arnolfo di Cambio.
14. Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls
The first architectural version of this 4th-century temple was built in a house owned by Pope Damasus I. The current building, in paleo-Christian style, has a beautiful candlestick and the choir, pulpit and mosaics also stand out. San Lorenzo is buried in this temple and it is home to the relics of San Esteban.
15. Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
According to tradition, this church was built on the site where Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I the Great, had her palaces. Saint Helena made a famous pilgrimage through the Holy Land, where she would have collected the most important relics of Christianity, which are kept in this basilica. Among these would be pieces of the Cross of Jesus and of the Thieves, Nails of the Cross of Christ, the Crown of Thorns and the Sponge soaked in vinegar. It has a beautiful canopy and frescoes by great artists.
16. Basilica of Saint Sebastian of the Catacombs
This temple was originally erected in the 4th century on top of the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, the 3rd century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred by piercing his body with arrows. In the chapel of the relics a date is preserved that, according to tradition, was one of those used in the martyrdom, as well as the post to which Saint Sebastian was tied for the whipping. Another relic it houses is a stone with footprints attributed to Jesus. The Albani Chapel was built and decorated in the 18th century by various artists, including Carlo Fontana.
17. Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle
This Roman church has a majestic interior in which a central fresco stands out on the main altar about the crucifixion of Saint Andrew on a cross in the shape of an X. The late Baroque façade dates back to the 17th century and has two bodies of Corinthian columns. In the outer niches there are images of saints, works by the sculptor Domenico Guidi. On the inner surface of the vault some frescoes on the life of Mary stand out and its dome is the second highest among the ancient churches of Rome, after San Pedro.
18. Porta Maggiore Underground Basilica
This underground temple from the times of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius was accidentally discovered when its roof collapsed in the middle of excavations carried out in 1917 in the construction of a viaduct. There is speculation as to whether the original use of this architectural relic was pagan or Christian. Its magnificently preserved stucco decorations are surprising.
19. Basilica of Saint John and Saint Paul
The original 4th century church was semi-destroyed by the Visigoths of Alaric I and was later looted by the Normans. It underwent a major restoration in the 18th century, although its current appearance was achieved in the 1950s. It was the burial site of two martyrs named John and Paul, not to be confused with the well-known apostles. San Pablo de la Cruz, an 18th-century priest who founded the Congregation of the Passion, is buried in the church.
20. Campidoglio Square
This square is located at the top of the Capitoline Hill and was designed by Michelangelo, although it was finished after the artist’s death. It has beautiful statues, including an equestrian of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the notary and tribune Nicola Gabrini, better known as Cola di Rienzo, and another of Castor and Pollux. In front of the square are the New Palace and the Palace of the Conservatives.
21. Venice Palace
It is one of the first Renaissance buildings in Rome and one that is indebted to the Colosseum, since part of the stone used in its construction was extracted from the famous amphitheatre, an unfortunate practice for a long time. The name is due to the fact that the Venetian embassy used to be in the building when the Veneto city was an independent republic. It was built by Cardinal Pietro Barbo, future Pope Paul II, it is said that he could watch the horse races that took place on the Via del Corso. In the palace there is currently a museum that exhibits ceramic pieces, tapestries and sculptures.
22. Farnese Palace
This sober three-storey palace was begun by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and finished by Michelangelo. It was commissioned by Cardinal Alejandro Farnesio, the future Pope Paul III, who spared no expense to decorate it. The prelate’s private chamber was painted by Daniele da Volterra and the murals in the Sala de los Festos were the work of Francesco Salviati. Other paintings, such as the frescoes by Annibale Carracci, most notably The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne , were added after Farnese’s death.
23. Colonna Palace
The first part of this palace complex situated on the Quirinal Hill, dates back to the 13th century and is still owned by the famous Colonna family after more than 20 generations. The Colonnas and the Orsinis staged one of the most famous rivalries in the history of Rome. The private palace opens its doors to the public on Saturdays, mainly to admire the art collection made up of frescoes, paintings and sculptures by more than 20 great artists.
24. Barberini Palace
This palace was owned by the influential Barberini family since the 17th century, until it was sold to the Republic after World War II. It was started by Borromini and Maderno, and finished by Bernini. The splendid elliptical staircase below the portico is by Borromini, while the façade of the portico is by Bernini. It is home to the National Gallery of Ancient Art and the Italian Institute of Numismatics, with paintings by Raphael, Tintoretto, El Greco and other great masters.
25. Quirinal Palace
This immense palace with more than 1,200 rooms located on the Quirinal Hill is the official residence of the President of the Republic of Italy. Its Renaissance lines came from the work tables of Carlo Maderno, Domenico Fontana and Ottaviano Mascarino, with later contributions from other great architects, such as Bernini. In its corridors and rooms there are pictures and paintings by various great artists, including Albani, Saraceni and Melozzo da Forli.
26. Montecitorio Palace
It was started by Bernini and completed by Carlo Fontana, and has had various uses throughout its history. It was the seat of the pontifical courts and then of the Government of Rome. Later it housed the Police Directorate until it finally became the seat of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Republic.
27. Chigi Palace
It was built in the 16th century by the wealthy Aldobrandini family, and was acquired in 1659 by the Chigi, a banking family from Siena. It is currently the seat of the Italian executive and the residence of the head of government. One of its most interesting rooms is that of the World Maps, which functions as an antechamber to the Room of the Council of Ministers and contains two globes from the 17th century. In 1770, Mozart conducted a concert at the palace staged for the enjoyment of the Scottish aristocrat Charles Edward Stuart.
28. Palace Spada
It was built in the middle of the 16th century by Bartolomeo Baronino and later modified by Borromini, who incorporated a masterful trompe l’oeil, which with successive columns that decrease in size, makes a gallery of only 8 meters seem 4 times longer. It contains an art gallery with works by Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Brueghel the Elder and other luminaries of art. It is the seat of the Council of State of Italy.
29. Lateran Palace
This palace is located next to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran and is the seat of the Pontifical Museum of Christian Antiquities. It was a papal residence for a millennium, after Emperor Constantine the Great ceded it to the Church in the 4th century. It was abandoned in the wake of the papacy’s move to Avignon and later destroyed by two fires, after which it was demolished and redesigned in its current structure. It contains some valuable mosaics that come from the 9th century.
30. Villa Borghese
It was the largest residential garden in ancient Rome, erected at the beginning of the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, favorite nephew of Pope Paul V. It contains palaces integrated into beautiful gardens with green areas, fountains and ponds. The main building is currently home to the Borghese Gallery, which exhibits valuable works of art, including Raphael’s Entombment of Christ and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love .
31. Villa Julia
It was ordered by Pope Julius III and several artists participated in its design and construction, including Vignola, Ammannati, Vasari and Michelangelo. It has a beautiful nymphaeum and is home to the National Etruscan Museum. This museum exhibits works from the civilization that lived in central Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire. The collection is known mainly for its terracotta, among which the Sarcophagus of the spouses and some statues of Apollo stand out.
32. Villa of the Quintilii
It was a property of the Quintilius brothers built in the 2nd century on the Appian Way, on the outskirts of Ancient Rome. When the ruins of this town were found, they were thought to be part of another city, due to their size. Currently, a museum operates in the archaeological site in which some of its marble friezes and sculptures are exhibited. Several pieces from the villa were sold and are displayed in different museums around the world, such as the Venus Braschi , kept in the Munich Glyptotek.
33. Villa of Livia
Ancient Rome was famous for its residential villas and every important person had at least two, one for regular accommodation and one for rest. Those with the greatest wealth added others for the exclusive use of their wives, relatives and lovers. Livia’s Villa was the residence of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Emperor Augustus, although it is not clear whether she provided it in her dowry or received it from her wealthy husband. The famous Augustus of Prima Porta statue , exhibited in the Vatican Museums, was found in this archaeological site in 1863.
34. Trevi Fountain
This baroque masterpiece is one of the most famous fountains on the planet, mainly because of the rite practiced by almost all the world’s tourists who visit Rome, of throwing coins into its waters to attract fortune. Coins worth one million Euros are taken from the fountain annually, used in social assistance to the needy. The current fountain is the work of Nicola Salvi, after Pope Urban VIII had the luxury of rejecting a project by Bernini. It has extraordinary sculptures, such as La Abundancia , La Salubridad and Neptune taming the Hippocampus .
35. Happy Water Fountain
It owes its name to the intention of Pope Sixtus V when he ordered it, which was to provide water to the surrounding residents. Although in its early days there were no treatment plants, its water was described by the pharmacists of the time as the purest in Rome to drink. It is also called the Fountain of Moses, after the statue of the biblical patriarch pointing to the water that comes out of a rock.
36. Barge Fountain
It is shaped like a barge and was the work of Bernini Sr., who was helped by his talented son Gian Lorenzo. It is located in the Plaza de España and according to tradition it was designed as a result of the arrival of a boat to the place, in the middle of a flood of the Tiber. Very close to the fountain is the stairway leading to the church of Trinita dei Monti.
37. Fountain of the Four Rivers
In the famous novel by Dan Brown, Angels and Demons , Cardinal Baggia drowns in this fountain, although in the film version they preferred that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) rescue him alive. This baroque wonder was designed and carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and represents the 4 most important rivers of antiquity: Nile, Ganges, Danube and Río de la Plata. It has statues of various animals, including a dragon, and its obelisk was brought from Egypt at the time of the empire.
38. Piazza Navona
It is one of the most beautiful and frequented squares in Rome, due to the majestic buildings that surround it and its sculptures and fountains, among which the Four Rivers Square stands out , which is in the center. At the ends are the Fountain of Neptune , designed by Giacomo della Porta; and the Fuente del Moro , which shows a Moor (African) fighting a dolphin, surrounded by tritons. The dolphin and the tritons were put by Giacomo della Porta and the Moor was added by Bernini almost 100 years later. Some of the buildings that surround the square are the church of Santa Inés in Agony, the Pamphili Palace and the church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
39. Largo di Torre Argentina
This square is located in the ancient Field of Mars and contains the remains of the Theater of Pompey, which was the first building in Rome built entirely in marble. It also has the remains of four Roman temples erected between the 2nd and 4th centuries. The Teatro Argentina, located in this square, is one of the oldest opera spaces in Rome.
40. Arch of Titus
This military monument located on the Via Sacra of the Roman Forum celebrates the victory of Emperor Titus over the Jews. It was a source of inspiration for similar buildings, including the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In the staging of the apotheosis of Titus, the emperor is shown on an eagle, a bird of prey that is the symbol of Rome. A winged victory is responsible for putting the crown of laurels on the winner.
41. Arch of Constantine
On July 28, 312, Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, putting an end to the governments of the tetrarchy. In this victory, according to legend, Constantine received the help of the God of the Christians, becoming the first emperor to embrace this faith, although without abandoning the pagan gods from him. To commemorate this triumph, the 21-meter-high arch was erected, located between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.
42. Arch of Septimius Severus
This triumphal arch located in the Forum celebrates the victory of Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta, over the Parthian army. It has sculptures and bas-reliefs on its facades and had its dedications written with letters made of bronze, but these were stolen. A chariot that was driven by the emperor and his sons also disappeared.
43. Baths of Caracalla
These baths, whose imposing ruins remain, were the most luxurious public baths in Rome, built in the 3rd century during the rule of Emperor Caracalla. The slaves who attended them had the obligation to heat the water according to the user’s taste. In 1990 they were the scene of a concert by the Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras) on the occasion of the Italia 90 World Football Championship.
44. Baths of Diocletian
They were the largest thermal baths in the Eternal City, with the capacity to serve more than 3,000 bathers. They had internal marble coatings and mosaic pavements. Many of its bases were used for other buildings, such as the church of Santa María de los Ángeles y de los Mártires. This temple was built by Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Pius IV, to commemorate those subjected to forced labor who died in the construction of the baths in the time of Diocletian.
45. Milvian Bridge
This arch bridge is one of the oldest over the Tiber River. The first bridge with that name was built in the 2nd century BC by the consul Gaius Claudius Nero and 100 years later the consul Marco Emilio Escauro had it demolished, building a new one. For a time, lovers of Rome adopted the curious custom of hanging padlocks on their lampposts, throwing the keys into the river. In 2003 it was illuminated to celebrate the first White Night in Rome.
46. Sisto Bridge
It is believed that the first bridge on the site was built to connect the estates of General Agrippa and Emperor Augustus, good friends whose domains were separated by the Tiber. The beautiful replacement bridge was erected in the 15th century by Pope Sixtus IV. It has 4 arches and in the upper part of the central pillar it has a large hole that serves as a spillway during river floods.
47. Trajan’s Market
It is considered the first shopping mall in history since it was built in the 2nd century for commercial purposes, during the construction of the Trajan Forum. The ruined complex is preserved, which had 6 levels, of which 3 were for grocery stores and the rest for offices, library and other uses. Part of the ruins of the market were refurbished to house the Museum of the Imperial Forums.
48. Theater of Marcellus
Built of stone and not wood as was customary, it was the first permanent theater in Rome. It was named by Emperor Augustus in honor of his favorite nephew and likely successor, Prince Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who died at the age of 19, probably poisoned by the family to remove him from the succession. What remained of the original building was restored in the 20th century to give it its current appearance.
49. Capitoline Museums
They are divided between the New Palace and the Palace of the Conservatives, located in Piazza del Campidoglio. His most important work is the Equestrian Statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius . Other pieces of great value are the Dying Galata , the Capitoline Wolf ; sculptures of Apollo, Eros, Leda and Alexander the Great; and paintings by Caravaggio and Rubens.
50. Spaghetti alla carbonara!
It is only fair that after this long and enchanting walk through pagan and Christian temples and monuments, museums, amphitheaters, villas, forums, squares, baths and bridges, we make a stop for lunch. And nothing better than one of the emblematic dishes of Rome, the delicious Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Surely you will need a good wine and in Italy you have Chiantis, Valpolicellas, Barolos and other exquisite wines to pair with your food.
We hope that you have enjoyed this extensive tour of the Eternal City and that we can see each other soon for another fascinating journey.