After covering Italy quite extensively over the years, including writing our Italy Travel Planner, it’s clear that we love to get off the beaten path in this incredible country. However, its capital city is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible places in the world. Pardon the cheesy pun, but there really is no place like Rome.
Yes, it’s chaotic. And yes, it’s bustling, hot, dusty, loud and very, very sassy, but Rome’s irreverent character is what makes her so unique. With so much to see and do in Rome, a visit can also be overwhelming.
Thankfully, regular contributor Debi Lander from ByLanderSea is here to tell us how to plan amazing adventures in Rome, including how to visit its most popular sites—and a few secrets—along the way.
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Why should you visit Rome?
Rome, the eternal city sits at the heart of the Mediterranean, a must for any world traveler. The Italian capital is packed with more than anyone can possibly see in one trip. I’ve visited four times, and have still missed some of Rome’s must-see spots.
Big, gritty, and with crazy traffic, Rome remains nonetheless glorious. I suggest you vary your itinerary to include days touring religious and ancient sites with shopping and slow dining periods. It’s easy to overload on art and artifacts.
What to see in Vatican City
No trip to Rome is complete without a day, preferably two, in Vatican City. Trust me, you’ll find it worthwhile to get up very early to wait in line before St. Peter’s massive bronze doors open. (Official website here).
Arriving first also gives you the chance to see the embracing arms of the colonnade as Bernini designed them. You can self-tour here, saving the guided tour expense for the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums.
Entering the sanctuary you’ll feel the vastness of St. Peter’s Basilica, an expanse that cannot be appreciated when it is full of tourists. Make your first stop Michelangelo’s Pieta, a Carrara marble masterpiece created when he was only 25. The exquisite sculpture, now behind glass, looks like it was carved from creamy butter. It will take your breath away.
Then, visit St. Peter himself—that is, the 13th-century statue whose toe everyone rubs. Stroll over to the Baldacchino, Bernini’s extravagant canopy over the tomb of St. Peter. Be sure to look down toward the lower recesses and above at the 445-foot high golden dome.
You could spend hours inside the Vatican, but I suggest the elevator to the roof. You’ll still have to climb stairs if you want to reach the walkway around the top of the dome, but you will find the view and the memory unforgettable.
Of course, stop to take plenty of photos of the saints on the rooftop—usually only seen from below. You can also catch views of the Vatican Gardens from the roof. (Sadly, I have never had enough time to visit them.)
If you are very lucky and plan far ahead, you may garner one of the cherished spots on the Scavi Tour. This Rome adventure goes way below the church foundation, through ancient catacombs, finishing at the gravesite of St. Peter. It is one of the most outstanding tours I have ever taken—anywhere.
To apply for tickets—only 250 are available each day: visit this link
Take another day and sign up for a skip the lines type tour of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums with a guide. You may again have to wait, but the chapel ceiling is like no other. Study some of the many available art or guidebooks ahead of time, to better understand and appreciate the symbolism and special effects in the frescos.
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The Vatican Museums, reached by spectacular double helix staircase, contain the Raphael Rooms, fabulous paintings; more artworks and unbelievable amounts of jewel-encrusted crosses and altarpieces. The Gallery of Maps grabbed my attention, as did the Borgia apartment and hallway ceiling. The day’s Vatican visit becomes a marathon, try to pace yourself and by all means, wear your most comfortable shoes.
Visit the Borghese Museum
In the middle of the beautiful Villa Borghese park nestles one of Rome’s best art galleries, the Borghese Gallery (Galleria Borghese). You must reserve a ticket well in advance as a maximum of 360 people are admitted at a time for two-hour visits.
I also suggest purchasing the excellent audio tour. Follow along, and you’ll move through the exhibits at just the right pace.
Formerly the private collection of a wealthy cardinal, the highlights include some of Bernini’s most magnificent masterpieces (such as Apollo and Daphne), the famous Sleeping Hermaphrodite statue, and paintings by Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio.
The sheerness in some of the sculpture appears paper-thin. In one piece, you see a man’s hand placed on a woman’s flesh and literally feel the squeeze. Don’t miss this museum.
Save time: Purchase Borghese Galleria passes before leaving home, including skip-the-line tickets.
The five-star Baglioni Hotel Regina is a stone’s throw from the Villa Borghese. Donn and Alan stayed here on their first trip to Rome and still rave about it.
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Explore the Colosseum and Forum
One of the most famous Rome attractions, you don’t really have to go inside the Colosseum to appreciate the ancient amphitheater. I prefer it at dusk and after. The illumination’s lovely glow highlights the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian tiers.
If you go inside the Coliseum, a tour is likely the best way to maneuver around the underground cages for animals, cells for gladiators and tunnels to the arena center. Climb to the spectator section and feel the excitement of the crowd. The arena could hold 55,000 people who were seated according to their rank.
The Roman Forum lies scattered with ancient ruins, and they can get hot and dry. Unfortunately, visitors have abused this area over the centuries, so you will see more intact columns at other ancient sites. But, this is Rome, so a stroll and a peek seem necessary.
A day trip to Ostia Antica (via a short train ride) will provide fewer crowds and better-preserved excavations. For over 600 years Ostia was Rome’s main port and a busy trading hub.
Enjoy the view from Capitoline Hill
The big building on Capitoline Hill is often referred to as the wedding cake. The Victor Emmanuel Monument, with its massive marble staircase, was inaugurated in 1911 and honors the first King of unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.
I finally made it to the top on my 2016 visit, and am happy to report; it was worth the climb. An elevator takes you to viewing platforms near the top statues. The panoramic vista of ancient Rome in the afternoon sunlight proved memorable.
When you come down, walk around to the Capitoline Museums at Plaza Nuovo. As you approach, you’ll encounter a collection of photo-worthy classical sculptures there since 1471. This area is free of charge, and its views are delightful.
If you have time, go into the museums: two palaces designed by Michelangelo that house more paintings, artifacts and Greek and Roman sculptures.
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The Pantheon: Rome sightseeing at its best
The Pantheon’s huge dome with an oculus in the center became an engineering marvel when completed in 125 AD. It still is today! The building is a temple to all the gods and the best-preserved ancient architecture in Rome.
You’ll approach the front with a massive pedimented portico, but to appreciate the size of the dome, you must go inside. Nearby is a butcher shop that serves scrumptious pork, cut right off the pig. Try some.
A lesser-known church nearby boasts a ceiling nearly on par with the Sistine ‘s. Find the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Via del Caravita) and enter. Funds to build the dome were lacking, so the painter used the tromp l’oeil effect to create one.
His fresco figures depict the life of St. Ignatius in vivid 3-D- without special glasses. Utterly amazing! This is a hidden gem in Rome shared by mu guide from ContextTravel.
Trevi Fountain: a crowded Rome attraction that’s still worth seeing
Everyone throws coins in the Trevi Fountain, securing a wish to return. The fountain, completed in 1762, features Neptune and other nymphs. A restoration project funded by Fendi (the fashion house) completed in 2015 has left a sparkling jewel.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8a.m. – 9a.m. the fountain is closed to the public for cleaning and coin removal (about $1.26 million annually, distributed to the needy). The area swarms with congestion, so beware of pickpockets. For some reasons, tourists become negligent here and sadly suffer the consequences.
Visit Castle Sant’Angelo at sunrise
Castle Sant’Angelo, an ancient fortress, is best seen just before or at sunrise, in my opinion. The reward comes from glowing views of the Tiber River and illuminated angel statuary. If you are a Dan Brown fan (Angels and Demons), you must go inside; otherwise, I might skip the interior.
Look out and see the hidden walkway that runs from the Vatican to the Castle. Angels and Demons fans will also want to visit Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small church, to gaze upon the statue of St. Theresa in Ecstasy.
Smile at Bocca della Verità: a Rome oddity
If you are traveling with grandchildren, stop at Bocca della Verità, the Mouth of Truth. It’s nothing more than a medieval drain cover with a face, but fun.
You put your hand in the mouth and if you’re a truthful person, nothing happens, if you’re a liar, the monstrous face with gobble up your hand. The children in line in front of me were quite nervous!
Other Churches to Visit in Rome
St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterno) is a massive and impressive cathedral. A mother church, it was the first building for public worship in Rome and in the entire Christian world. Of course, over the centuries much has been added and renovated; the cloisters are quite delightful.
Continue on to an adjoining building, the Lateran or Apostolic Palace, to see the Holy Staircase leading to the Sancta Sanctorum—or Holy of Holies. The staircase, where pilgrims climb on their knees, is said to be stained with Christ’s blood. The chapel was used as the pope’s private chapel until the 14th century.
St. Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) is best known as the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. The church is different because it is much simpler.
It was built during the fifth century to house the relics of Saint Peter’s chains when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. Look down into the altar recess to see the box containing the chains.
More to see in Rome
Santa Maria Maggiore—contains some fabulous fifth-century gold mosaics, many elaborate chapels, tombs, statues and a marble belltower.
The Spanish Steps—are shaped like a crooked bowtie and are always crowded. I found them somewhat disappointing.
The Appian Way and Catacombs—some people love these, I guess I’m glad I explored, but wouldn’t repeat the out of the way tour.
Concerts: Look for signs outside of churches announcing performances. I have gone to a few excellent ones that were free or very inexpensive.
How to Eat Like a Local in Rome
Italian food offers one of the best reasons to go to Italy. Sidewalk bistros and restaurants in Rome are the way to go, you can linger for hours, and no waiter will shoo you away.
Fresh seasonal vegetables are paired with seafood, meat and pasta. Torta de Ricotta reigns as a favorite dessert in Rome.
Morning coffee (Italians like their tiny cups of espresso) is consumed while standing at a café bar. Your hotel may offer a full breakfast, but Italians generally don’t eat a big meal in the morning.
The water is excellent and safe to drink at most fountains. Wine is served frequently with lunch and dinner with dry, white wine the typical local variety. Of course, there are excellent reds and other varieties depending on how much you want to spend. Beer is also popular, as is Campari.
Make an overnight visit to Viterbo, Italy
I made an outstanding day-trip to Viterbo into an overnight trip and was glad I did. The walled-off old town of Viterbo, once the papal seat, contains some impressively preserved buildings and churches, in addition to the Papal Palace.
You’ll find many beautiful Renaissance gardens in surrounding areas, but Bormarzo, Monster Gardens, created between 1520-1580, contains fantastic stone creatures and allegorical monsters. The grandchildren will adore this place. (You’ll need to hire a taxi to reach Bormarzo from Viterbo.)
Rome grows on you the more you explore its endless wonders. Try to soak it all in as you meander the side streets, browse the fantastic fresh markets, and savor a slow meal at a sidewalk café. I suspect you’ll want to return again.
More beautiful cities in Italy to visit
In addition to Rome, consider adding these beautiful Italian cities to your boomer travel itinerary:
- Explore Florence, where Renaissance Italy began.
- Venice travel tips for the first time visitor.
- Experiencing Bologna, especially the food!
- Go behind the walls in Lucca, a worthy addition to a Northern Italy road trip.
- Escape the crowds with a visit to Turin.