Rome is one of those cities that most of us grew up learning about in history class and many of us dream of visiting. There are so many truly iconic monuments and historical sites to see that it’s easy to spend all your time running along the tourist trail, checking off the “must-sees” one by one.
To be honest, that’s pretty much how I spent my three days in Rome. And for a first-time visitor to this iconic city, I think that’s the best way to go. You wouldn’t go to Rome and skip the Colosseum, the Forum or the Trevi Fountain, would you? Aside from slipping down a hidden street for gelato or a freshly-made pasta dish, I was on a mission. Armed with my tourist map, a list of TripAdvisor recommendations, and the free Rick Steves audioguide tours for Rome, I set out to see all the key sites in this incredible ancient city.
The Colosseum was that structure in Rome that made my inner teenager scream (silently) with excitement. Oh my gosh!!! There it is!! Much like Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum is synonymous with the city of Rome. The exterior on its own is incredible, but if you’ve come all the way to Rome, I strongly encourage you to pay the entry fee and go inside.
The full Colosseum ticket also includes entry to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill for 12 Euros, which I thought was a great value. Tickets are valid for two days and can be purchased online or at the ticket office. Because I visited Rome in late November (which I highly recommend doing if you can manage it), the lines weren’t too long. I was able to purchase my ticket and enter the Colosseum within about 20 minutes. In the summertime, however, you could wait in line for a couple of hours, so it may be worthwhile to pay the extra couple of euros to buy your ticket in advance online.
Rather than paying extra for an audioguide or a live guided tour of the Colosseum, it’s a good idea to download the fantastic and free Rick Steves audioguide to this historic structure before you go. This audioguide was my favorite of all of the Rick Steves Italy tours, and all of them are well done. Going without any kind of guide may leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. The structure is impressive but not self-explanatory, and the signage is minimal.
As soon as I had finished exploring the amazing Colosseum, I walked down the street to the entrance gate for The Forum. There was a short line outside the gate, but since I already had my combined ticket from the Colosseum, I didn’t have to wait long to enter. Another great Rick Steves audioguide provided a helpful narration to my exploration of these amazing ruins.
By the way, I am not receiving any kickbacks from Rick Steves! The audioguides are free and added so much to my experience of these sites. Like the Colosseum, the signs at the Forum are minimal, so it certainly helps to have some additional guidance.
The main entrance is the same for both The Forum and Palatine Hill. When I had finished wandering through the ruins in the Forum, I followed the signs for Palatine Hill, which overlooks the Forum. I enjoyed getting a perspective from the viewing platform located above the ruins.
Palatine Hill is home to a small museum that shows an interesting artistic film that illustrates the area’s role in the story of Rome, from the ancient past to the present day. The film plays alternately in Italian and English, so stick around for the English version if the Italian one is showing when you arrive. The museum also includes the most important excavations from the surrounding area.
Palatine Hill has its own set of interesting ruins and history. A series of Roman rulers built their palaces here, including Emperor Augustus, Nero and Domitian. Parts of those palaces are still visible today.
There’s so much to see at the Vatican that you could easily spend a full day there. I broke my visit into two days, spending one morning touring the Vatican Museum and another visiting St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican Museum
The Vatican Museum is best known for the Sistine Chapel, which truly is amazing, but there’s much more to see than I had imagined. Once you purchase your ticket, signs will guide you along the “visit route.” It is possible to purchase an audioguide for the museum, which I didn’t do, but it may be worthwhile to you if you’re interested in a more extensive description on the art than what is shown on the signage.
I found it fascinating to see the detailed ornamentation and painted murals covering what seemed like every inch of the Vatican. The place is incredible. But I’ll be honest, I was more focused on getting to the Sistine Chapel, which is the last stop on the posted visit route. (If you’re in a hurry, you can skip most of the museum’s rooms and go straight to the chapel.) By the way, Rick Steves also offers an excellent Sistine Chapel audioguide!
When I finally entered the fabled chapel, I was more than a little surprised. You know that image we’ve seen in all the history books of God and Adam reaching toward each other? That image that we always associate with the Sistine Chapel? I don’t know about you, but I always assumed that that painting covered the entire ceiling. Well, that’s not so!
The famous painting is just one panel in the center of nine total panels that line the center of the ceiling. Unless you look closely, you might even miss it. I don’t have a photo to share, because a “no photos” policy is strictly enforced in the chapel. Probably because the Vatican would like the public to continue believing that Adam and God painting is larger than it actually is…
Though it wasn’t what I had pictured, the Sistine Chapel is still truly amazing and exciting to see. Go and experience it for yourself!
St. Peter’s Basilica
There’s no getting around it…you’ll have to stand in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. I was shocked that the line stretched nearly around the entire perimeter of the arched courtyard, even in mid-November. I thought, “Forget it…I’ll come back.” But when I returned early the next day, the line was even longer. Bring headphones or reading material and be prepared to wait.
Entrance to St. Peter’s is free, but appropriate clothing is required and each visitor must go through a metal detector and security check, which makes the line take longer. Don’t go in a tank top and flip-flops, or you’ll be waiting in line just to be turned away at the door.
Another tip…if you’d like to climb the stairs to the top of the dome for a view of city, bring cash. The cost is currently eight euros, and credit cards are not accepted. I had all of three euros in my wallet when I visited St. Peter’s, so I had to skip the dome. It was disappointing and really rather silly on my part. Don’t make the same mistake.
Once inside the sanctuary, I listened to yet another Rick Steves audioguide (thank you, Rick!) as I explored the absolutely gorgeous and massive church.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I was surprised when I happened upon the Pantheon. From the outside, it looks like it could be just another church or government building sandwiched between other structures in the busy Piazza della Rotunda. On the inside, though, it’s another story.
The Pantheon is an opulent circular building capped by a round dome. Along the walls are statues, tombs (the painter Raphael is buried here) and small chapels. Walking through the beautiful space, it’s hard to believe that this building was constructed by the emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. It’s one of the best preserved of all ancient Roman buildings partly because it has been in continuous use since construction. It’s currently serving as a Roman Catholic church. Admission is free.
The Trevi Fountain was unveiled in early November 2015 after extensive, $2.4 million restoration project. I was lucky enough to see it just a couple of weeks later in all its freshly patched and polished glory. The giant fountain is 85 feet tall and about 65 feet wide, so it definitely makes a statement.
The fountain was surrounded by tourists and selfie sticks, but the area surrounding the fountain has terraced seating, so it was still possible to take a few photos without baseball caps and sunburnt shoulders getting in the way! The square surrounding the Trevi Fountain is filled with cafes and gelato shops, so if you don’t mind muscling through the crowds, it could be a nice place to grab some refreshments and admire the view.
The Spanish Steps, finished in 1725, connect the Piazza de Spagna with the Trinita dei Monti church. They were first made famous in the U.S. with the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. (If you have not seen this movie, please rent it now.) The Spanish Steps have since been featured in numerous films and songs.
I had hoped to sit on the Spanish Steps, eat gelato and watch the people pass through the beautiful Piazza de Spagna. Alas, the steps were rudely sequestered behind a set of high metal fencing. I stood with several other visitors, peeking through the fencing in dismay.
Hopefully you’ll have better luck during your visit to Rome. Please have a cup of gelato on the Spanish Steps and think of me!
Victor Emmanuelle II Monument
Located down the street from my hostel was the huge monument known as the Altare della Patria or Vitor Emmanuelle II Monument, a tribute to the first king of the unified Italy. A new structure by Roman standards, the monument was finished in 1911. The monument includes a museum and a terrace overlooking the city. It’s definitely worth a look.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was located just down the street from my hostel (about 5 blocks from the main train station), and it was one of the most beautiful churches I saw in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore is a “Papal major basilica,” meaning that its one of the four highest-ranking Roman Catholic churches.
The interior is truly sunning, with mosaic tile floors and gilded mosaics on the walls, plus sculptures and paintings throughout. The mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore are some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary. You’ll certainly find beautiful churches throughout Europe, but this one is truly unique and worth visiting.
At some point during your visit to Rome, take some time to cross the Ponte Sisto bridge over the Tiber River from the city’s main historic area to the neighborhood of Trastevere. This medieval neighborhood is more residential and a little grittier, with an active nightlife, some beautiful churches and more of a local atmosphere.
The beautiful Piazza di Santa Maria is a central square you won’t want to miss. With a fountain in the center and cafes along the edges, the square welcomes visitors to the Basilica di Santa Maria. Stepping inside the church is a little like finding a collection of sparkling jewels inside a brown cardboard box. The exterior is rather unassuming; the interior is breathtaking.
The basilica is known for its gold Cavallini mosaics depicting Christ’s birth, and they truly are amazing. The church originated on this spot in the 3rd century but has existed in its current form since the 12th century.
From the Piazza di Santa Maria, head toward the Piazza di Santa Cecelia. I was disappointed to find that the church in this piazza, Basilica di Santa Maria, was locked when I visited. The story behind the church is so intriguingly fantastical, though, that it would definitely be worth seeing. The Basilica di Santa Cecelia was built on top of Saint Cecelia’s home. According to legend, she was decapitated in the year 230 but continued to survive for three days. When her tomb was opened in 1599, her body was supposedly unscathed.
In addition to seeing these churches, you’ll enjoy wandering around Trastevere and visiting Gianacolo Hill for great views of Rome. I actually got rather lost in this neighborhood and ended up wandering around for longer than I had planned. It’s a good idea to bring a reliable map!
Mouth of Truth
Way back in 1994, a movie called Only You was released starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. The film is about a literature teacher who goes to Italy to find her true love. I owned this movie on VHS tape, and I must have watched it 75 times before VHS became extinct.
In one of the key scenes, the two main characters visit this very same relic…”The Mouth of Truth” (Bocca della Verita). Incidentally, the characters in this scene were reenacting a scene also featured in Roman Holiday.
According to medieval legend, if someone told a lie with his hand in the sculpture’s mouth, the hand would be bitten off. The sculpture is thought to be a remnant from a first century Roman fountain, or possibly even a manhole cover. It’s located in the front of the tiny church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It took me a while to find the church, but it is located in the main part of Rome and is noted on most maps.
You, too, can have your photo taken with the famous Mouth of Truth. Just pay the small “photo fee” of a couple of Euros — and don’t tell a lie!
Keats-Shelley House Museum
I started college as an English major and have always been interested in classic literature, so when I realized that the house where John Keats died was located in Rome, I made a point of visiting. Because the Keats-Shelley House is conveniently located right next to the Spanish Steps, I walked right in after seeing that the steps were closed.
The museum is small and dedicated to all the romantic poets. The entry fee is just 5 Euros, and visitors are encouraged to start by watching a short film and then to wander through the upstairs rooms at their leisure. The library contains books by and about the poets as well as letters exchanged between them, locks of their hair and other memorabilia.
I didn’t read every letter, but I did enjoy seeing the tiny bedroom where John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the young age of 25. When someone died at home in those days, all the furniture, linens and other items in the room had to be burned due to a belief that they would cause a spread of disease. Consequently, the furniture in Keats’ bedroom is not original, but the original ceiling tiles and fireplace remain. The house is worth visiting for an hour or so if you’re a literature geek like I am!
Wandering Through Rome
As I always say and continue to believe, some of the best experiences happen when you’re just wandering through a city. Rome is so full of landmarks and important places to visit that I didn’t have much time available for wandering, but I squeezed that in where possible. Don’t miss the chance to wander the city’s streets during the day and at night (on the busier streets, of course!). If I learned anything from Only You, it’s that Rome is a city where magic happens.