The key places to visit in Rome

If you're planning a holiday to Rome don't miss the city's key sights for a chance to enjoy almost 3,000 years of history, art, architecture and culture.

By Jan Richardson

Published 5 May 2024

Coliseum at sunset, Rome, Italy

Rome, capital of Italy and its Lazio region, offers the intrepid traveller almost 3,000 years of history, art, architecture and culture.

Around every corner is something of interest, historic or otherwise. If ancient Roman archaeology is up your street, you will be in seventh heaven among the ruins of the forum, with its magnificent amphitheatre a reminder of the former days of empire.

The approach to the Vatican City is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

As you aim for St Peter’s Basilica from the direction of the River Tiber, a long avenue, Via della Conciliazione, flanked by tall buildings, ice cream vendors and bookstalls leads you towards the semi-circular colonnade whose arms extend to you a warm, welcoming embrace.

From here on in you are entering a world of serene reverence, a world of historical intrigue, of breath-taking architecture, of magnificent art and religious culture. A good idea when visiting the Vatican City is to pre-book a tour to avoid the extremely long queues that accumulate, particularly in high season. On entering through the side door you will find yourself in the foyer of the sprawling Vatican museums, both indoor and outdoor.

The long galleries, in which you can see countless examples of art, sculpture, frescoes and masterpieces by famous Italian artists, inevitably lead you to Michelangelo’s celebrated Sistine Chapel; its beautiful frescoes painted with astounding perspective and an agility difficult for the layman to imagine.

Threading through the many corridors and twists and turns of the museum, admiring the works of art as you go, you eventually arrive inside St Peter’s Basilica, whose expansive history will soon reveal itself through the richness of its sculptures, furnishings and paintings.

If you feel particularly energetic and not prone to claustrophobia or vertigo, you might wish to climb up to the top of the dome and look down into the basilica below at the tiny dot-like people – or look upwards at yet more remarkable ceiling frescoes in the dome.

Finally, exit the basilica into the bright sunshine once more, in search of the Swiss Guard in their distinctive red, yellow and blue costumes with their red-plumed helmets. Ultimately gaze up at the eminent balcony from which the Pope gives his Easter address.

Although it is not possible to visit the current papal apartments, you may well have already seen the rooms of several former popes on your way round the museums.

Who could see Rome and not wish to walk in the steps of the ancients, to feel their presence and to be astounded at their inventiveness and sophistication?

Even though the once splendid edifices which once graced the area are now in ruins, a visit to the Roman Forum and its magnificent Colosseum nearby will certainly not disappoint - and surely has to be an essential item on your to-do list.

Probably the best access to the forum is from the Via dei Fori Imperiali: an entry ticket purchased here will cover entrance fees to the Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, valid for a two-day period.

The first part of the forum is on the flat, so you may wander at ease amongst the grassy ruins of the old marketplace of Rome and imagine its people busy with their daily lives.

From here you begin to climb up to the Palatine Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome and the site of the original settlement from the time of Romulus, Rome’s founder.

In later decades the Palatine Hill became the preferred ‘des-res’ district, where the wealthy and great chose to dwell: Caligula himself had his palace built up on the Palatine.

Take heed though, the sun will be higher in the sky by the time you reach this area, so take plenty of fluid and wear a sunhat.

After seeing as much as you want to see up there on the hill, make your way down towards the Colosseum on an easier path, the Via Sacra, passing the grand triumphal Arch of Titus, erected to commemorate his conquest of Judea, which ended the Jewish Wars in the first century.

The queues for the Colosseum are usually extremely long -you will be glad of the fact that your ticket allows you entry without queuing. Climb up one of the huge sides of the amphitheatre and sit awhile.

Imagine the gladiator fights, the wild animals and the slaves battling for survival, the never-ending wait for the emperor’s whim to spare a life, or take it away.

Wander through the labyrinthine foundations of the arena; see the cells and the now-empty cages. Ponder at the historical enormity of this extraordinary building, its atmosphere today much more light-hearted than in millennia gone by.

From the Vatican City, retrace your steps down the Via della Conciliazione and make your way across the river at the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele. Take the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

You might like to stop for a browse around the Piazza Navona with its beautiful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Bernini’s historic Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Perhaps you would like to view the works of the local artists set out in the square, before settling down in one of the bars or cafes for a drink and a bite to eat.

Piazza Navona is more rectangular than square: it was constructed on the site of the first century Stadium of Domitian, originally known as the Circus Agonalis.In this distinctive area, you will find the famous Tre Scalini restaurant, the oldest cafe restaurant in Rome, renowned for its food and delicious Italian ice creams, gelati, which you simply must sample.

When in Rome, and all that! Moving on from Piazza Navona, head for the Pantheon, the most preserved and important building of ancient Rome.

Dedicated originally to the pagan gods and formerly bearing the statue of a god in each of its alcoves, the temple was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa under the Emperor Augustus and finally reconstructed by the emperor Hadrian.

Nowadays it is used as a church, St Mary of the Martyrs, Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, with little of its pagan statuary remaining.

It is famed for its incredible architecture; a collonaded Corinthian temple facade leads into the world’s largest unsupported dome, which houses the oculus, or the ‘eye’ of the Pantheon – a hole in the roof, typical of the ancient Roman architecture of its day.

Inside the Pantheon are the tombs of Raphael, as well as numerous Italian kings and poets.

In front of the building stands the beautiful Fountain of the Pantheon, designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575 and sculpted out of marble by Leonardo Sormani.

Here you can also find the obelisk of Ramses II, set on a central plinth with four dolphins around its base.

Re-visit the Pantheon at night – an experience not to be missed. Perhaps book a table at one of the restaurants in the Pantheon square, Piazza della Rotonda, and dine in style, serenaded by an Italian tenor, under the guardianship of the Pantheon, cosily illuminated to set your romantic scene.

A few streets away from the Pantheon, in the Quirinale district, passing more remnants of ancient Rome along the way in the most unlikely of places, you will eventually arrive at the beautiful Trevi Fountain.

Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Pietro Bracci, the fountain seems to spring out unexpectedly from the buildings surrounding it, dominating the tiny Piazza di Trevi.

With its superbly sculpted marble statuary, the Trevi is undoubtedly the most famous of all Rome’s fountains.

Built against the wall of the Palazzo Poli, the fountain represents the sea, with the sea-god Neptune riding a shell-shaped chariot drawn by two seahorses guided by a triton.

One of the seahorses is depicted as well-mannered, while the other is clearly misbehaving - to reflect the ever-changing moods of the sea.

The water flows over sculpted rocks into a semi-circular pool and, being at the end of an ancient aqueduct, the Aqua Vigo, constructed in 19BC by Agrippa, the Trevi fountain services many Roman fountains in the historic centre, including the Fountain of the Four Rivers, the Fountain of the Old Boat and the Tortoise Fountain.

It is said that if you throw a coin backwards over your shoulder into the fountain, you will surely return to Rome.

A mile and a half away from the Trevi fountain are the Spanish Steps, Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti.

As the name suggests it is a set of steps, 138 in all, arranged in curved flights, straight flights and viewing balconies, connecting the Piazza di Spagna, at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti at the top, where the church Trinità dei Monti is located.

In the square below the steps you find the Fountain of the Old Boat, Fontana della Barcaccia, one of the fountains serviced by Trevi water.

A good idea, unless you are feeling energetic enough to both ascend and descend the steps, is to access them from the top and walk down.

But first, pause at the top, where a myriad of local artists are only too eager to show you their works in the hope of a successful sale, and view the magnificent vista that opens out below you – a photo opportunity if ever there was one.

Linger a while on the way down too and savour the sight of the lively piazza below. Straight ahead from the bottom of the steps, if you are feeling in need of some retail therapy, you can take a walk down the Via dei Condotti for the best shopping in Rome!

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