Rome is for sure my favourite European city. As a history geek, I love the centuries-old monuments. And the splendour of the churches keeps impressing me. Rome is just one big open-air museum full of history, culture and delicious food. Over the years I have been to Rome so many times. I love to come here and introduce friends to the Italian capital. These are the 10 must-see places I always bring them!
# 1 The Colosseum
I think only few people haven’t heard of the Roman Colosseum. The age-old theater is actually called Amphitheatrum Flavium. It was named after the family name of the builder Emperor Vespasian and his successor Titus. So why is it caled Colosseum? Nope, not because of the size of the structure. It is because there was a huge statue next to the Colosseum, which was called the Colossus of Nero. Not that the dimensions are not colossal: a ground area of 188 by 156 meters, a perimeter of 527 meters, a facade of 48.50 meters, 50,000 seats and 76 entrances numbered with Roman numerals. Nice detail: the numbers are still visible above the XXIII-LIV entrances.
Tip: buy your ticket online to skip the lines. Don’t feel like relying on these sites? I always buy my combo tickets at the Forum Romanum where the queues are minimal.
#2 Forum Romanum
Next to the Colosseum is this old Forum. It was the old political and religious center of Rome. It may take some imagination – or online research for reconstructions – to imagine what it must have looked like in the past. Over the centuries, the forum has decayed. Only the monuments that were later reused as a church are well preserved. And so is the 23 meters high Arch of Septimus Severus! Emperor Septimus Severus dedicated the Arch to his two sons Caracalla and Geta, who together inherited the emperor’s throne. Caracalla had his brother murdered to seize full power and then erased all traces from his brother. Including on this triumphal arch.
Do you want to see more of the ancient Forum? Just cross the Via Dei Fori Imperialli – the road from the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia. The road is actually on top of the ruins of the Forum and on the other side of it are other parts of the imperial forums.
Tip: don’t forget to visit the Palatine hill next to the Forum. Your combo ticket is also valid for these antiquities. On the Palatine – one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was founded – are the ruins of the old city palaces. You also get a good view of the Forum from here!
#3 Piazza Venezia
Make sure to visit the Piazza Venezia. I can tell you more about this huge square than you probably want to know. During the Rome visit with my high school, I had to guide my class around on this square! A short summary: the square got its place in history in the fascist era of Italy. At that time, Mussolini established his offices at Palazzo Venezia, the palace after which the square is named. The Italian dictator would often use the balcony of the palace to show himself to the people in the piazza and to give his famous speeches.
It’s hard to miss the gigantic Monument of Victor Emanuel II, also known as ll Vittoriano and Altare Della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland). For the construction of this enormous 81-meter-high building, part of the medieval area had to be demolished which the Roman people weren’t so happy about. The design of the monument is not exactly subtle. I can quite well understand the local nickname “sugar cake”. The monument has two museums. If you want to see a beautiful view of the city from the top, you have to buy a ticket for it.
I think this is one of the most beautiful monuments in Rome. It is especially the architecture that fascinates me. The famous dome has an opening (the oculus) with a diameter of 8.7 meters. This opening is not just a fake one. You’ll see the proof of that when it’s raining. The floor is slightly curved to drain the rainwater. The opening is a unique solution for keeping the building “flexible” during earthquakes.
Some background? Pantheon literally means ‘dedicated to all gods’. Roman emperor Marcus Agrippa built the temple as a place of worship for the Roman gods. You will see his name on the facade. The Catholic Church later turned the temple into a church and it still is. This is also why the temple has managed to defy the centuries so well. Only the bronze parts of the ceiling did not survive. The Church melted them down to for Bernini’s design of the canopy in St Peter’s.
Tip: next to the Pantheon is the Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of my favorites in Rome. It is one of my favourites in Rome. It is one of the few churches in Gothic style and the deep blue ceiling with stars is unique. In front of the church is a cute elephant with an obelisk on its back. The designer of the elephant? None other than the famous Bernini.
#5 Piazza Navona
Speaking of Bernini’s designs: you should definitely visit Piazza Navona near the Pantheon. The shape of the square still clearly tells this was once a stadium. After the fall of the Roman Empire, houses were built on the edges and the middle part was turned into a square. A few centuries later, the famous architect Bernini built an impressive fountain here. The fountain in the middle is the Fontana dei Quattro fiumi (translated: the four-stream fountain). The fountain gets its name from the four statues on the fountain that depict the four most important rivers of that era (Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata).
Nice detail: opposite the fountain is a church designed by a great rival of Bernini. Legends say that Bernini included some false nodges in his design. One of the images is turning its back to the church and another one is turning away dramatically. However, Bernini designed his fountain before his rival built the church.
#6 De Vaticaanse musea
The Vatican is actually a country within a country. The Vatican was once one of the most powerfull countries in the world, but today Vatican City is one of the smallest countries. With perhaps the largest number of art treasures! A visit to the Vatican museums is therefore absolutely a must on your first trip to Rome.
The size of the museums and the number of artworks is impressive. My favourites? The Galleria Delle Carte geografiche (translated: the map gallery) with beautiful map paintings on all walls, the Sala Rotonda with a ceiling like the Pantheon and the papal apartments with the murals of Raphael. Of course, the Sistine Chapel with the world-famous wall and ceiling paintings by Michelangelo is an obvious highlight as well.
Tip: let your eyes stray from all art to the museum building itself. It’s beautiful!
# 7 The Saint Peter’s Basilica
The most famous church in the world is of course Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The size of the church and St. Peter’s Square in front it is just huge. Did you know that the square itself is 240 meters wide and 360 meters long and has more than 300 columns? The basilica not only impresses with its size but especially with all the art. Almost every surface of the church is decorated with statues, paintings, texts, mosaic, and marble.
The higlight of the basilica is the dome. It was designed by Bernini. The 136 meters high dome is too high to be well seen from the ground. But if you buy tickets to climb the roof of St Peter’s, you first end up in the dome itself. From there you can see the tiny visitors below in the church. It is the right place to really feel the grandeur of the monument.
Tip: do not forget that this tourist attraction is still a church and adjust your clothing accordingly. Otherwise you will definitely be denied entrance to the basilica. As the church is still in use, it is sometimes closed to the public. So make sure to check this before your visit.
Extra tip: do you want to see the pope? If he is not travelling, he will usually give his blessing every Sunday on the people on St. Peter’s Square. If you want to attend a service in Sint Pieter, you must reserve your tickets well in advance. I did this once with my family and it was a unique experience.
# 8 Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are a point of rest for your feet. It is a great place to sit down for some people watching. What is so Spanish about them? At the bottom of the stairs is Piazza di Spagna, named after the Spanish embassy there. At the bottom of the stairs is a fountain: the Fontana Della Barcaccia (translated: Fountain of the leaking boat). The fountain has the shape of a small boat and would be a reference to when Rome was flooded by the Tiber river. It’s a design by the famous architect Bernini.
Update: the Spanish Steps are no longer a convenient rest point along your city walk. Recently Rome has placed a fine on sitting on the Spanish Steps. Yes, really.
# 9 Villa and Galleria Borghese
The Villa Borghese public park is point of rest in hectic Rome. It has green gardens, museums and pavilions. The most famous museum is the Borghese Gallery, one of the highlights of Rome for art lovers. The museum building was once built by the wealthy noble Borghese family. Now it shows works by Rafael and Caravaggio. But the highlights of the collection are the two man-sized sculptures by Bernini. I love how they are full of energy and movement in stead of the usual more static design of statues.
# 10 The Trevi Fountain
Throw a coin in this fountain to guarentee a return trip to Rome, as the legend says. The huge fountain is 26 meters high and 22 meters wide. And no, you will not find it in the middle of a beautiful square as usual. It is built against the back side or an old palazzo! The fountain is not some decoration for this palace, but it was a main source of water for the people. The legend about the coin makes people throw about € 3.000 into the fountain each day. The fountain is regularly emptied; the proceeds then go to the charity.