What to Do in Rome: A Complete Guide

The next stop on my Ultimate Europe trip was Rome. Like Athens, Rome is so full of history where you can see ancient ruins and modern buildings intertwined as you explore throughout the city. Rome was my introduction to Italy and I’m telling you, the Italians have it figured out. Good food, good coffee, and great wine. I spent about a week in Italy going from Rome to Florence where I took a day trip out to Cinque Terre. Then from Florence we made our way to Venice for a few days before continuing up into Austria. Rome was the biggest Italian City that I visited of course and it also seemed to be the one with the most historic structures and the most religious buildings. It can be difficult to decide what to do in Rome because there are so many options!

I only had three days in the city so I hit most of the highlights, but also explored a little for myself and found some hidden gems. I think one of my favorite things though was finding a new gelato shop on every corner. When you visit Italy a healthy diet consists of gelato three times a day. Plus lots of pizza and pasta. I loved the food, history, and the people of Rome were amazing. I think the only issue I ran into was the public transportation system was a little more difficult to navigate than other European cities. With so many options for things to do I’ve put together a guide of everything I think you should see on your visit to the Eternal City.

Colosseum

The gorgeous Colosseum with the sun rising behind it. This stop is a must on the what to do in Rome guide.
The iconic Colosseum.

This was one of my favorite historic venues to visit. Be sure and save plenty of time to explore around the outside as well as the inside! This place is huge and it only took them twelve years to build it. The complex gives you such an interesting perspective into life back then. I wish I could have done a tour of the lower level where they would keep prisoners or the animals. You can see it from the stands, but I think it would have been awesome to see that part up close.

A view of the dungeon of the Colosseum from the arena floor.
The dungeon of the Colosseum.

There are artifacts from that time around the outside of the Colosseum stands where you can read different plaques full of information so make sure your tour gives you some free time for that. You also get a wonderful view of the Arch of Constantine outside the Colosseum from the right side of the venue from where you enter. I definitely recommend taking a guided tour plus the tour of the lower level and you can find both here.

The Arch of Constantine is located right outside of the Colosseum.
The Arch of Constantine, right outside the Colosseum.

Villa Borghese

A beautiful view of the rooftops of Rome from the park above the Spanish steps. If you ever wonder what to do in Rome then start walking. You never know what you'll find.
A view from Villa Borghese where you can see the dome of St. Peter’s.

I love exploring city parks when I go somewhere new and if you are wondering what to do in Rome or any other city, you can always take a walk and explore. This park is massive and one easy way to find it is by going up the Spanish Steps, make a left, and continue walking until you reach the outskirts of the park that will be on your right. There are public water fountains all through the park where you can refill your water bottle. We saw restaurants and cute little cafés that would make for the best spot to people watch. There were also many perfect places to take a picnic and enjoy a nice day. My recommendation is to search for overlooks throughout the park that give you wonderful views of the city.

Pantheon

The Pantheon on a beautiful, sunny day. This must be included in the what to do in Rome itinerary.
The line in front of the Pantheon looks long, but you get through it quickly.

This was a building that I could just stare at for days. Thinking about how it was constructed so long ago and the engineering that it took is SO impressive. I work at an electrical engineering office so I deal with construction all day every day. I studied this building in an art history class during college and it is recognized as an architectural and engineering wonder as well as an incredibly important building for modern day history and religion.

The building is perfectly proportioned where the height is exactly equal to the diameter of the dome and at the very top is the oculus. This is just a large open hole at the top that is the one source of light. The crazy thing is that even today the dome is the largest unsupported one in the world. When you go inside you can see many works of art as well as the tomb of the artist Raphael. When I visited Rome entry was free, but you did have to wait in line. It moved very quickly though. There has been discussion about adding an entry fee, so you should check the website here before you go.

Roman Forum

Plants have overgrown many ruins at the Roman Forum. The Forum is a must-see in Rome.
Partial ruins at the Roman Forum.

While you are near the Colosseum, stop by the Roman Forum. There are even combination tours that you can take! This tour is best if you have a good imagination (one thing I struggle with) so it’s important that you get a good guide who an paint a vivid picture for you. Many of the buildings are reduced to ruins, but there are a couple, that are still partially standing.

The Forum was essentially the gathering place for Ancient Rome. It was the center of all the action. At this point it is 27 feet below the street level of modern Rome. The city just kept building on top of itself over time. That is why you see the door so much higher in the photo above. When the church was rebuilt, they built on top of other structures which have been excavated now. It’s such an interesting adventure to imagine what the lives of the Ancient Romans were like.

Trastevre

If you are looking for what to do in Rome, then venturing over into the Trastevre neighborhood is a must. You get this view as you cross over the Tiber River from downtown.
The river walk by the Tiber River is a great place for a pre- or post-dinner walk in Trastevre.

If you like to explore unique neighborhoods then this is a must. The narrow cobblestone streets, the greenery draped across them, and the river running right beside this quaint neighborhood make it a fairy tale scene. Not that you’ve ever heard that expression before… But this really is one of the most adorable places to explore and the best place to find a reasonable restaurant in the city. It is a short walk from the city over a bridge spanning the Tiber River. If you time it correctly you can catch the sun setting over the river and it will take your breath away for sure. During the summer they also have pop up shops and restaurants along the river walk. It’s a great place for a before or after dinner walk.

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain with it's intricate statues.
The intricate Trevi Fountain.

The Trevi Fountain is the one location that I would recommend going to either very early or very late. It was absolutely packed when we went in the middle of the day. So much so that you could barely move through the crowd. Taking pictures was a nightmare. The fountain itself is incredible though. It is so much bigger in real life than what pictures can convey. If you’re superstitious throw a coin in and supposedly you’ll return to Rome, but make sure you use your right hand and toss over your left shoulder. The myth goes on to say if you throw in two coins, you’ll meet an attractive Italian and three coins you will marry them. The money collected by the city goes to the charity Caritas Romas which supports the homeless community in Rome.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

If you make a short drive right outside of Rome, you’ll find catacombs which were the burial sites for early Christians. The drive is short, but it feels like you were transported to a different world. You go from a bustling city to rolling fields with beautiful trees and flowers in no time. The catacombs are underground and have multiple levels with long narrow aisles where the walls have been carved out with spaces stacked to bury people.

It is surprising how small the tombs are and they used to be covered in marble, but that was recycled long ago. You will still find the frescoes on the walls at least in St. Callixtus’. You aren’t allowed to take photos underground, so I just have some of the surrounding area above ground and the ruins of a circus that you pass on the way out of Rome. Most people think of Paris when they hear catacombs, but Rome is also a great place to see this piece of religious history. Check out their website here for hours and ticket information.

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls)

St. Paul's Basilica is one of the four papal basilicas of Rome. If you are looking for what to do in Rome, then definitely go explore these churches.
The courtyard in front of the Basilica of St. Paul.

St. Paul’s is not quite as well-known as St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, but that does not mean it is not as grand. It is still one of the four major basilicas in Rome. I visited this church the day before we went to Vatican City, so at the time I thought it was huge. Originally built in four AD, the building burned in the 1800s and was rebuilt. Fun fact: Russia sent beautiful marble to help the Italians rebuild.

If you are a Christian it’s incredible to see not only this church, but all the churches of Europe and feel the connection with such an ancient part of our religious history. Even if you aren’t a Christian, it’s amazing to see the art, architecture, and history that are parts of these structures. It is so different from churches in the United States. One of the most interesting parts of visiting is the tomb of St. Paul is under the main altar, so you can see exactly where St. Paul is buried. There are headsets for self-guided tours that you can purchase at the entrance to the Basilica.

Vatican City

This sculpture contained in the Vatican Collections is a masterpiece.
Sculpture in the Vatican Collections.

St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Collections. These are the things I think about when I reminisce on the half-day I spent in Vatican City. You may be tired of hearing this, but this is another place where you will want to take a guided tour. With all that history it would take you years to look up all the interesting information by yourself. The Vatican Collections contain masterpieces of art that Popes throughout history have commissioned or purchased.

Pieces in the Vatican collection and even the floor is part of the collection. Vatican City is a must-see when it comes to what to do in Rome.
All art in the Vatican Collections.

We visited the collections first which then led into the Sistine Chapel which was painted by Michelangelo. You are not supposed to take photos in the Sistine Chapel and it was not quite the experience I was hoping for. When you enter the room it is already packed and they herd you through like cattle. The ceiling was absolutely gorgeous, but it was difficult to appreciate and enjoy while we were packed in like sardines. The last place we visited was St. Peter’s Basilica and I cannot explain how large this church is. I thought St. Paul’s was huge, and St. Peter’s was noticeably much larger. The intricate details and artwork could keep you enthralled there for days, but I only had about 30 minutes to enjoy everything there. The courtyard outside is almost equally as impressive. Find tours for Vatican City here.

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument/Altare de la Patria (Alter of the Fatherland)

The white marble monument of Vittorio Emanuele II has been compared to a wedding cake.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument otherwise known as the wedding cake.

I stumbled onto this building while exploring the city on my own and had to take pictures because it was so grand. When I found it, I had no idea what it was or what it was used for. While researching this monument I found out that many Romans aren’t very fond of this monument built for the first Italian king, Vittorio Emanuele II. It houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a small art gallery and museum documenting Italian unification. The most popular attraction within the building is the glass-walled elevator that takes you to 360-degree views on top of the monument.

I hope this guide of what to do in Rome comes in handy for your travels.

One last suggestion that is probably common sense: eat all the gelato.

Gelato is around every corner in Rome or any Italian City really. When you are looking for what to do in Rome, trying all the gelato should be number one on the list.
Gelato from a little shop down the street from my hotel.

In case you missed my previous articles about my Ultimate Europe trip, check out my article on Athens and Greek food you can’t miss. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest and stay up to date!

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