Rome, the Eternal City, is a beacon for history, architecture, food, fashion, and culture lovers alike. There is something in Rome to please essentially any traveler, so there’s no wonder that Rome is often the first Italian destination for most tourists. More than 4 million people visit Rome each year, which makes it very easy to become lost in crowds at the most famous sites in the city. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to experience Rome relatively crowd-free!
Where to Stay
Rome is quite a large city, so it can be overwhelming to figure out the best place to stay. I chose to stay in the Jewish Quarter of the city, which is just across the river from the famous Trastevere neighborhood, one of the more interesting in Rome.
The Hotel Monte Cenci was the perfect hotel- the staff were incredible, the rooms were clean (and air conditioned, a luxury in the summer!), and the rooftop garden was the absolute perfect place to indulge in a lovely breakfast each morning. Further, the hotel was only a few minutes’ walk from excellent restaurants in Trastevere, as well as many of Rome’s most famous attractions. The most basic room in Hotel Monte Cenci is stunning, but the fanciest room even has a private balcony from which you can enjoy a lovely glass of wine.
If you’re looking for another hotel in Rome, I recommend staying in a similar area, as it’s far less touristy (at least outwardly) than the areas surrounding some of the larger tourist attractions. This general area is an excellent base for exploring Rome without placing yourself directly in the center of the tourists overwhelming the very center of the city.
What to see in Rome:
There are a million things to see in Rome, so how could you possible know where to start? Okay, maybe not an actual million, but the list is really quite long. These are my picks for the best places to see in Rome, especially for first-timers without limitless time:
Vatican and the Vatican Museum
One of the most-visited places in Rome isn’t even “in” Rome! You don’t need your passport to cross these international borders, however, only a good game-plan to beat the crowds. Vatican is the Pope’s city nestled within Rome sitting on top of the supposed location of St. Peter’s tomb.
The large majority of Vatican is actually closed to visitors, but the small portion that is available to visit is absolutely incredible. The Vatican Museum boasts one of the most incredible art collections in the world, including the Sistine Chapel, home of the Michelangelo’s fresco masterpiece on the ceiling. To visit the Vatican, I would recommend booking on to a tour- not only for the information, but also for the crowd-control expertise. There are thousands upon thousands of people in the museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, so having a local expert to navigate through the space is key, especially because you get the historical background as well.
I chose Context Travel for my tour of Vatican because they guarantee small tour group sizes and local expert guides. My tour of Vatican with our guide was really incredible, so while the tour ticket price may be higher than some competitors, I think that the experience Context provides is truly unparalleled.
After your tour of the museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, I encourage you to climb to the top of the Dome on the Basilica. The views from the top are the best you’ll find in the city. There’s an elevator that brings you about 2/3 of the way there, so it’s not nearly as bad as some other cathedrals in Europe.
The Castel Sant’Angelo was originally built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his own mausoleum, but was later taken over by the Catholic church for use as a castle and prison beginning in the 14th century. The Castel Sant’Angelo is perfectly lovely to explore on your own, but I recommend first participating in the guided tours of the Secret Castle before exploring the rest of the public rooms on your own.
The Secret Castle tour (provided by the museum itself) gives you behind-the-scenes access to parts of the castle that you’d never normally see, plus the historical context to inform the rest of your own visit. Most importantly for me (and any The Da Vinci Code fans) is the access to the secret passage between the Castel Sant’Angelo and Vatican that the tour gives you- at least until the Vatican gates which are still shut for public access.
The Secret Castle tours are currently available daily at 10:00 am and 4:00 pm in English. You can purchase your tickets to the museum and for the tour at the same time at the ticket desk at the castle- no need to buy “skip the line” access tickets from the street hawkers, this is one of the attractions in Rome that doesn’t get the long lines you’ll see elsewhere.
The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
I group the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill together because they’re all in the same general area, and they’re generally visited together. I would argue that a visit to one is not complete without the others, as together, they present a more complete image of the life and history of Ancient Rome.
Like with the Vatican, these are some of the sites that are most-visited by tourists, and are the most overwhelming to visit independently. Because none of these sites provide particularly detailed information for the guide-free visitors, I opted to book the Roma Antica tour with Context Travel. Because of the small group size that Context offers, as well as a guaranteed expert on the topic at hand, I knew I would have a good experience visiting the most important archeological sites in Rome- and I was right! Our Context guide was clearly an expert, and with only 4 people on the tour (my mom and I plus a mother/son pair), we were able to ask all of the questions we wanted without holding anyone up. We were also able to sneak through the giant 50-person tour groups with relative ease, and with no headsets!
The Colosseum is one of the most incredible archeological sites that I’ve ever seen. It’s truly amazing to consider the events that occurred there, the number of spectators the stadium could hold, and its history during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. There are so many hidden secrets within the magnificent arches of this ancient amphitheater, it’s truly worth exploring.
The Roman Forum was the piece of Roman antiquity I was most excited to see, as it was truly the heart of life in this ancient city. There are so many incredible pieces of history throughout the Forum to explore that create a unique picture of what life may have been like.
Palatine Hill was the piece of Roman antiquity that I had very little knowledge of prior to my visit, but was the most surprised by! Many skip Palatine Hill thinking there isn’t much to see- but there’s arguably more to see in this area than high-traffic areas of Rome. It was the site of most of the imperial palaces of the Roman empire, the remains of which are still available for exploration. This is the part of the Roman archeological sites where it would truly benefit to have a guide, as many of the ruins are indistinguishable from the next until you’ve had someone explain the structure- afterwards, the history truly comes alive!
This is a little-known archeological site situated next to the Colosseum that deserves some more attention. Domus Aurea is the lavish palace of Roman Emperor Nero. The palace itself didn’t last long, because after Nero’s suicide, the Romans hoped to promptly forget about Nero and his corruption and extravagance. Much of the palace is still un-excavated, but the part that is available to visit is meant to be an unparalleled experience in Rome. Note that the site is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, so you must plan your visit around its limited hours.
Built in ancient Rome and completed by Hadrian, the Pantheon was built as a temple to all of the Gods (hence, the name). It’s one of the most well-preserved Roman temples, and that’s largely due to the fact that it was taken over by the Catholic church in the 7th century, and has been used since as a place of Catholic worship. The temple features extraordinary Corinthian columns and marble that give us excellent insight into how many of Rome’s other temples may have been decorated before falling into disrepair. Now, the Pantheon also holds the tombs of Raphael, the important Renaissance artist, as well as the Italian royal tombs.
The Pantheon’s audio guide is a great way to experience the temple. I recommend downloading the Official Pantheon App to use your own device as an audio guide in the space. Otherwise, you can rent an audio guide on a phone from the shop desk inside the temple.
Piazza Trilussa isn’t so much a site in Rome as it as a meeting point of people from all over the city and world. On summer nights, you’ll find live musicians set up in the piazza and locals sitting on the steps under the fountain enjoying the atmosphere and each others’ company. This is the perfect place to grab a bottle of wine or cup of gelato before or after dinner to soak up some local culture and relax the way that Romans do!
Where to eat in Rome:
When visiting Rome, it’s easy to think that the trip will be one excellent culinary experience after the other and that’s largely the case. Italian cuisine is some of the best in the world, but it’s important to find the local eateries rather than those geared towards tourists to have enjoyable meals.
Dar Poeta is easily one of the best pizza places I’ve ever been to, including those in Naples! It’s a tiny little restaurant in a side street in Trastevere, and is clearly a local’s spot despite some of the tourists mixed into the crowd. This may be because the prices at Dar Poeta are incredible in comparison to some of the (worse quality) pizza found around Rome- expect to spend less than €10 for dinner. The tables are packed pretty close together, but for me, that’s part of the special ambience of this low-key restaurant.
Osteria da Zi Umberto is easily one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at- ever. It’s almost impossible to get a table without a reservation (I ended up waiting for 3 hours on my last night in Rome, worth it), so I would recommend calling ahead if you can. This is the kind of restaurant where you’ll want an antipasti, primi piatti, and secondi piatti, just to try everything. Oh, and dessert, obviously.
Ristorante Piperno is supposedly one of the longest-running restaurants in Rome, opening in 1860. It’s located right next to the Hotel Monte Cenci, which is how I initially stumbled upon it- it was a convenient option for jet-lagged travelers whose beds were right next door. Fortunately, Piperno did not disappoint! The food was really excellent, and the atmosphere was great. We were told we were lucky to get a table without a reservation, so it’s best to book ahead if you’re looking to try it out.
Terrazza Caffarelli is a café located on top of the Musei Capitolini. The restaurant itself is fine, the food is pretty good, the service is lack-luster, but the real reason to visit is the view. Even if you go only for a photo op, or to have a glass of wine, I recommend the trek to this rooftop which is generally unknown by the herds of tourists below.
As I recommend in all major cities, if one of these restaurants doesn’t strike your fancy, wander the side streets to find an alternative! Any restaurant in Rome with menus posted in 10 different languages, photos of pizza outside the restaurant, or waiters begging you to come inside won’t have good food. Look for the places like Osteria da Zi Umberto with a line of Romans out the door- those are the spots you want to wait for!
Interested in visiting Rome, but don’t know where to start? Book a travel consultation with me, and I’ll help you to plan your perfect trip from A to Z!
Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book using the link on my website, I’ll be paid a percentage of your booking fee at absolutely no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my blog by using these links! As always, all opinions are my own, and all recommendations are based on my own personal experience. This post was not sponsored by any hotel or hotel group.