This guide to Rome is essential to truly understand the city. The Eternal City is one of the most magical places I know. I’ve lived there. I’d have never left if I could have stayed. It can be intimidating, though, and it can be hard to decide where to begin planning a visit, especially a short one. There are massive guidebooks and millions of websites dedicated to this city. How can a person figure out what’s important and what’s hype? Here, in this Quick City Guide to Rome, I will condense all of it for you into basic tips, top sights, my favorite places, shopping spots and food. Be warned, these are MY opinions.
How do I know all of this? I write and guide for Rick Steves. Rick is a master of making a selection of the best things to see and do, and I’ll boil it down further. Grab a copy of his Rome book for the best in-depth information.
Guide to Rome Quick Facts
Population: 2.8 million, fourth largest in Europe, similar to Chicago
Size by Foot: It takes about 45 minutes to walk across the main heart of the city, Vatican city to Termini station
Colors & Symbols: Gold and Burgundy, the She-Wolf, SPQR
Rioni: Rome is divided into 22 districts, each with a different character. Look for the number on street signs and the district symbol on trash cans and other city property.
Bus and Metro: Tickets are 1.50 each for 1 metro ride or 90 minutes of bus. Tickets (biglietti- beel-YEH-tee) for sale at tobacco shops, newsstands and metro stations, not on board. Bus #64 famously winds its way from Termini station to the Vatican, through the heart of Rome.
Taxi: Most short, in-city rides cost 8-12 Euro for up to four people. To FCO airport costs 48 Euro for up to four people. Taxis are the easiest and most efficient way to get around the city.
Tour Guides are Awesome (I am Biased)
Looking to maximize your time? Hiring a great guide is the best way to get the most out of your visit. The mesmerizing Francesca Caruso ([email protected]) is a dear friend and the mother of all tour guides. You’d be lucky to get her, but you can try. She can suggest an excellent colleague if she’s busy.
If you’re an enthusiastic Catholic, you may be interested in Mountain Butorac, The Catholic Traveler, who is as sincere as he is enthusiastic. While not an official tour guide, he organizes one day pilgrimages, an interesting concept that nobody else is offering.
I would suggest avoiding big tour companies like City Wonders, Dark Rome, The Roman Guy and Viator. Spend the money for your own guide, it’s worth it. Support your local independent tour guide!
Quick Tips for Top Sights
Colosseum, Forum and Palatine
The ancient heart of the city is the top sight to see in Rome. For those with little time or interest in ancient history, a simple walk from Piazza Venezia, down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, around the Colosseum and to the Circus Maximus will visually cover the heart. That stroll, taking in all of the great buildings from a distance, could be enough to satisfy some visitors while skipping the crowds. Do you need to go in? That depends on your interest level, the weather and the crowds you find when you arrive. If you do go, a good guidebook or a tour will help you get the most out of the visit. Rick Steves Audio Tours offers free downloads for these sights.
- There are several ticket offices around the Forum, one near the Colosseum and one near Via Cavour. They are usually not as crowded as the one inside the Colosseum and offer the same services, so pick up your tickets ahead.
- The Colosseum is currently offering spooky night visits that can be reserved in advance.
- The Imperial Forums have two different evening light shows that tell the story of Rome. This is a cool, and I mean temperature, way to see the Forum come back to life (15 Euro, http://www.viaggioneifori.it/en/)
Do you really have to go to the Vatican Museum? It isn’t pleasant, I’ll be honest. The crowds are noisy, sweaty and getting to be unsafe in size, in my opinion. But I get it, nobody would understand if you went all the way to Rome and didn’t see the Sistine Chapel. Sadly, there is no magic bullet here, unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars for an “After-Hours Tour”.
- Go mid-week and make reservations in advance. Lunchtime can be decent.
- If you’re not interested in the Papal Audience on Wednesday morning, the museum can often be pretty quiet then.
- If you don’t mind getting up early, the museum offers a buffet breakfast that gets you in before the waiting hoards. This is a system similar to the breakfast inside Disneyland- you buy the breakfast for the privilege of being the first in the door, and run as soon as they will let you go in the galleries to get a jump on everyone else. It’s a little expensive, but the setting is lovely.
- Skip the guided tour. Audioguides or guidebooks are better here because you can go at your own pace and select your visit based on the conditions of the day. Trying to stay with a big tour group can also be stressful in a crowd.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
This one is easy. Go early. The basilica opens at 7am most days, and tour groups are not allowed until much later. Get there as close to 7 as you can. Between 7 and 8 it is just you, priests, nuns and a few sleepy faithful.
You can see the Pope on Sunday at noon when he reads a message from a window high above Piazza San Pietro. No tickets are necessary, just show up and bring binoculars. He gives his regular audience on Wednesdays at 10.
- Tickets for the Wednesday papal audience can be scored through your home parish (if you’re Catholic) or through the Pontifical North American College in Rome, located near the Trevi Fountain. No tickets? Go anyway, someone usually has extras.
- Although the tickets say the audience begins at 10, the Pope starts his lap around the crowd in the Popemobile earlier, especially in warmer weather. Arrive by 8:30 at the latest.
- The best place to get up close to the Pope is often from the worst seat. The Popemobile makes a loop around the crowd before the audience begins, grab a spot at the barriers on the side or back for maximum photo opportunities.
This art gallery is a blockbuster sight that many haven’t heard of. Located at the edge of the Villa Borghese public park, this villa houses perhaps the single greatest collection of Baroque art anywhere. Every inch is crammed with masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael and more. If I were to pick for you, I’d choose this over the Vatican Museum in a heartbeat. If it ain’t Baroque…
- Reserve tickets ahead. You won’t get in otherwise.
- You only have two hours, use them wisely. Everyone starts their visit at the entrance. Skip the ground floor and go upstairs to start. When the crowds have dissipated, go back down to enjoy the masterpieces.
- Don’t just look at the sculptures, walk around them. They were made to be seen from different angles to reveal their stories.
Sarah’s Favorite Offbeat Sights
This newer sight is one of my favorites for understanding the layers of Rome. Under a Baroque city office building, the ruins of a Roman noble home were found. An audio-visual light show recreates the rooms as they may have been, and then takes you on to a WWII bunker with a display on Trajan’s Column. At 90 minutes, it’s a little long and drawn out, but a good experience overall. Tickets can be reserved in advance, but I find that reservations are fairly easy to get the day before. If nothing else, take the Italian language tour–they are always available.
My other favorite underground sites can be found HERE.
The history of the city of Rome is not limited to Popes and Emperors, it’s also found in the homes of the Roman nobility that controlled the city for centuries. Many of the famous families–Barberini, Farnese, Borghese–fell on hard times and lost their family homes and art collections. The Doria Pamphilij family still exists and still owns a palace on Via del Corso filled with family treasures. The audioguide tells family stories as you wander through halls of masterpieces randomly hung, their gilded frames marked with the artist’s name written in Sharpie. I get a kick out of how weirdly homey it feels.
I bet you thought I’d suggest the Capitoline Museums for sculpture, no? That is a beautiful museum, but too obvious. Instead, I’d send you to poor Palazzo Massimo, near the train station. Nobody thinks to go to this museum, even if the collection is priceless and would attract huge crowds elsewhere. It’s got ancient sculpture, fresco, coins, jewelry, you name it. Go pay this museum some attention. It’s lonely.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
There are as many churches in Roma as there are banks in Milano, or so the saying goes. There is no end to the many churches you could choose to visit. My top pick is Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is considered to be possibly the oldest church in Rome, built beginning in the 300’s. It’s a neighborhood church, with an active parish. The interior is lovely, with golden Byzantine mosaics, but the thing I like best is the soulful feeling it gives me. It has an intimate, time worn, well loved feeling. Head to the left aisle, where locals stop to write prayers on scraps of paper, leaving them in front of a saint.
The catacombs are the ancient tombs of early Christians on the outskirts of Rome, and there are multiple sites. To see them, you’ll need to take a cab or bus from the city center. This is not a thing for everyone. Don’t like graveyards? It’s not for you. If you don’t like to be underground without doors and windows, don’t go. If you’re not into tight spaces, forget it. For everyone else, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano offers the best visit. Just off the romantic Appian Way, this particular site combines a typical catacomb experience with an underground Roman cemetery and a lovely church on top. The groups are smaller here and the tour guides are usually good. (Bus 118 from the Colosseum)
If I could truly design a perfect day for you, it would be a wander. Start at one end of town, perhaps Piazza del Popolo, and just walk. Stop in to any church with a door open. Light candles for family members, even if you’re not religious. Find a local bar and order a coffee, try and talk with the elderly regulars. Sit on a bench and watch kids play soccer. Poke into shops. Check out ruins and do your best time traveling. Watch the sunrise or the sunset. Get a gelato, ideally at the great classic Giolitti. Remember, you can have as much gelato as you like as long as you don’t have the same flavor twice. That’s an order. That’s a real Roman day.
Rome is a city for enjoying outdoors. Stroll the streets, enjoy the sights and sounds. The Villa Borghese park rents rickshaw style bikes with an electric assist motor. Whiz through the park at terrifying speed for a great thrill.
There are many options for finding a cityscape perch, depending on your energy level.
The Villa Borghese park has a view terrace, just above Piazza del Popolo. This view faces west over St. Peter’s and is therefore a great bet for sunset.
Perched over the Trastevere neighborhood, this is one of my favorites, with a stellar view of the Pantheon dome. Arrive at the park just before noon and you’ll get to hear the cannons mark midday with a boom. Bus 870 runs from Largo Fiorentini in the center of Rome to the hill.
All Romans deride the huge white monument at the center of their city, calling it the “dentures” or “wedding cake”. An elevator was put on the back of it some years ago and the top has become a great spot for a 360 degree view from the heart of the city- a view that does not include the monument you’re standing on. (Piazza Venezia, 9:30-19:30, 7 Euro)
Dome of St. Peter’s
For those who must to climb to the top of the tallest thing (and you know who you are), the view from the cupola at St. Peter’s can’t be beat. Choose from taking 551 steps all the way up, or pay slightly more for the elevator to the base of the dome and skip 200 steps. The stair to the tippy top winds up between the inner and outer shell of the dome, making it a little tight for tall or wide climbers. The truly lazy can skip climbing all the way to the top and enjoy the terrace views and coffee shop at the top of the elevator. (San Pietro, line forms to the right as you face the facade, 8:00-18:00, 6 Euro, 8 with elevator)
Shopping Hot Spots
Via Del Corso to Piazza di Spagna
While full of predictable chain department stores and top-end boutiques, this is the place for the biggest evening passagiata in the city. Anyone want to buy me a Valentino dress? No? I’d settle for a Fendi handbag.
Campo dei Fiori
The market food stalls of my youth have given way to touristy junk, but it’s still fun. Streets radiating off the Campo have inexpensive shops for funky finds. Stop at the Forno for a slice of pizza bianca while you shop.
Hippy, arty, occasionally stinky but always cool. A great place to find handmade jewelry, artsy objects and rip-off Prada bags.
Porta Portese Market
The full spectrum of humanity makes a show on Sundays at the Porta Portese Flea Market. Antique books, stolen car stereos, heaps of used clothing line the street for as far as the eye can see. This was my favorite Sunday tradition in college, and it hasn’t changed. Again, this is not a tourist market, it can feel gritty, but maybe that’s why I love it.
This isn’t really special anymore since they have opened them in many cities as well as the US…but still, it’s cool. The Eataly in Rome is huge. A paradise for foodies, this grocery store/food mecca fills an old train station near the Pyramide metro stop. The restaurant is good, but if you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, the groceries are impeccable. Warning: window shopping is impossible here. You will eat.
Trattoria der Pallaro
If I were to send you to one place for dinner in Rome, this is it. It’s not cool or trendy. Der Pallaro is something from another time, another Rome that I am sad to see disappear– I want you to see it before it’s gone. Paola Fazi has been feeding Rome for more than 50 years, and she’s been feeding me since 1995. The dining room looks like your elderly aunt’s basement, with knotty pine paneled walls and framed prints so old that the paper has yellowed. There’s no menu here, and the meal is pretty much the same, although she changes it up depending on time of year, time of day, or how much she likes you. She’s a real character, giving kisses and hugs to regulars in her usual towel turban. At 25 Euro per person, it’s also the best value in the city. You’ll leave stuffed. (Largo Pallaro, next to San Andrea della Valle)
For a country literally awash in fabulous produce, Italy makes terrible salads. It’s always the same boring pile of lettuce topped with shredded carrots, radicchio and tomatoes, occasionally corn, dressed with boring olive oil. Snore. This salad restaurant lives up to its name “The Rich Salad”, offering more than 50 variations. Their locations are in perfect sightseeing areas, near Piazza Navona and another near Saint Peter’s. Inexpensive, fresh, great outdoor seating. Winner. (Just off Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle next to San Andrea della Valle, or on Piazza Risorgimento)
I found this on the advice of a friend, I needed a place for an affordable meal near the Spanish Steps. No easy task. Tucked into a quiet courtyard covered in wisteria, this restaurant feels like an oasis apart from the madness. It’s allegedly the oldest restaurant in Rome, or one of them. Not too touristy, not too expensive, good, solid Roman food. (Via della Croce 81)
Dino and Tony
This place is not on the tourist map, it’s just off of it, a few blocks away from the Vatican Museum. Similar to Der Pallaro, Dino and Tony are loudmouth brothers who like to bicker and tease their diners. They serve a parade of different bites. I like their pizza. Mostly they make me laugh. (Via Leone IV, 60)
This is no special secret, Tre Scalini is famous and woefully touristy. You must go, though, because it’s TRADITION. They serve Tartufo- a big scoop of dark chocolate gelato rolled in chocolate chunks, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It’s ridiculously overpriced, DO NOT sit down at the cafe to eat it unless you’ve got big bucks to burn. Take it away and sit in Piazza Navona. This is classic Rome.
Best Neighborhoods to Stay In
Monti- Chic and artsy as well as superbly located between the train station and the Colosseum. Bonus: great restaurants all around, super convenient.
Campo dei Fiori- If you can find a place here, it’s the bees knees. Very centrally located and full of Roman charm. Bummer: noisy bars abound, can get a little out of control.
Trastevere- A little funky village within Rome, you won’t believe you are in the center of a metropolis. Loads of character. Bummer/Bonus: not very central and lacking in good bus lines.
Sarah’s Favorite Hotels
Hotel Aberdeen– Close to Piazza della Repubblica, this simple hotel is run by the lovely Annamaria and her relatives. I’ve been staying here for almost two decades, it’s like a home away from home.
Hotel San Carlo- Another simple choice, the location is almost unbeatable, right at the Spanish Steps. It’s a small, affordable haven in an otherwise pricey zone with a roof terrace. The owners are extremely kind and helpful.
Need more info or advice? Comment here or on my Facebook page. Buon Viaggio!