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Visiting Rome for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do

From the Colosseum and Vatican City to Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps, Rome has much to offer the first-time visitor.
Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

The Eternal City dazzles with ancient ruins, a wealth of art and architecture, and lively historic squares. But Rome can also overwhelm first-time visitors with its vast array of must-see monuments, endless local restaurants, and expanse of atmospheric Italian neighborhoods. If you want to check off as many highlights as possible during your time in Italy’s capital city but aren’t sure where to begin, here are our recommendations for how to make the most of your first trip to Rome.

1. Start with the city’s blockbusters

Tourists visit the Colosseum in Rome.
It's best to plan ahead if you're thinking about touring the Colosseum.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Plan ahead to bypass the long lines.

Rome is home to two of the most famous and visited monuments in the world: the Colosseum and Vatican Museums. Kick off your visit by crossing these two headliners off your list, but book in advance to avoid wasting hours waiting in long lines to enter.

Depending on your schedule (and stamina), you can opt for a skip-the-line express tour of each site to cover the ancient Roman amphitheater or Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in just a couple of hours. Or, take a deeper dive with more extended tours that include the Colosseum (above and below ground), Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill in Rome’s ancient quarter or the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica and Square.

2. Delve into the historic center

People explore Piazza Navona in the sun.
Wander through the historic city with a guide or on your own.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Tour on foot or on wheels.

The heart of Rome is its attraction-dense historic center, where you’ll find A-list sights from the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon to Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. Toss out the map and guidebook and stroll through the centro storico with a guide who can bring these emblematic monuments and squares to life.

Cover more ground in less time by hopping on board a Vespa, a vintage Fiat 500, an Ape Calessino (tuk-tuk), an e-bike, or even a Segway to zip from square to square around this sprawling district. Otherwise, combine walking with wheels on a classic hop-on, hop-off bus tour.

3. Discover lesser-known museums

Galleria Doria Pamphilij in Florence, Italy.
Marvel at the masterpieces in the halls of Galleria Doria Pamphilij.Photo Credit: Suchart Boonyavech / Shutterstock

Take a break from the throngs at the A-list sights.

The crowds in Rome can be relentless, especially if you focus on visiting only the top-tier sights where most tourists cluster. But this cultural capital has plenty of world-class art far from the fray if you know where to look. Spend a few hours marveling at masterpieces in the sumptuous halls of Galleria Doria Pamphilij, at the National Gallery of Ancient Art (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica) in Palazzo Barberini; and in Galleria Spada housed in Palazzo Spada.

Insider tip: Contemporary art fans can get their fill at MAXXI (National Museum of 21st-Century Art).

4. Admire Rome’s beauty

Visitors walk down the Spanish Steps in Rome.
The Spanish Steps are one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Visit the chic Piazza di Spagna shopping district.

Piazza di Spagna beckons with two show-stopping attractions that, together, embody the culture and high life that have earned Rome the name The Great Beauty. The first is the monumental marble staircase known as the Spanish Steps, one of the most photographed landmarks in the city (keep in mind that you can walk and pose on the steps but can’t sit or picnic on them).

The second is the many luxury fashion boutiques that line the square and nearby Via Condotti, sporting iconic names in Italian haute couture like Armani, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, and Prada.

5. Explore the neighborhoods

Visitors pass through the Monti neighborhood in Rome.
Rome consists of a patchwork of unique neighborhoods.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Immerse yourself in local Italian life.

Rome offers more than just world-famous landmarks and museums. This historic city is a patchwork of unique neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character, dining options, shopping scenes, and cityscape.

Take a guided walking tour to discover the charms of bohemian Trastevere’s cobbled lanes and squares, browse the vintage shops and independent boutiques in the chic Monti area, or learn about the history that stretches from ancient Rome to WWII in the former Jewish Ghetto. Many of these quarters are ideal for a food tour that encompasses local markets, landmark delis, bakeries, and restaurants.

Related: 8 Must-See Rome Neighborhoods and How to Visit

6. Browse the markets

Visitors explore a Campo de’ Fiori, a market, in Rome.
Outdoor food markets offer a glimpse into how locals live.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

When in Rome, shop like the Romans do.

Rome has a proud culinary tradition, and its outdoor food markets are the centers of community life. Rub elbows with the locals and see what’s in season with a morning walk through stalls bursting with fresh produce, artisan cheeses, cold cuts, and other specialties in Campo de’ Fiori or the mercati in Trastevere, Testaccio, or Trionfale.

Foodies can opt for a home cooking experience that begins with a market stroll to select ingredients and ends with a hands-on lesson and informal meal in the kitchen of a passionate local cook and host.

7. Venture beneath the city

Visitors explore the Domus Aurea in Rome.
Rome's historic sites extend underneath the city as well.Photo Credit: Tara Van Der Linden Photo / Shutterstock

Discover ancient villas, catacombs, and other underground treasures.

Rome is often described as a lasagna, a rich layering of historical eras that still exist beneath the city streets—if you know where to look. Ancient history buffs can explore buried Roman ruins like the Domus Aurea (Nero’s “Golden Palace”), Domus Romana at Palazzo Valentini, or the Stadium of Domitian beneath today’s Piazza Navona.

Other spectacular underground sites include the underground churches beneath San Clemente and Rome’s many crypts and catacombs.

8. See Rome in her best light

The Vatican during golden hour in Rome.
Glimpses of Rome's long history can be found around every corner.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Stretch your sightseeing from dawn to dusk.

Most visitors to Rome head to the main sights during the midday hours, but Romans know that their city is at its finest in the soft light of early morning or the golden rays of sunset. If you choose early entry or after-hour tours, not only can you extend your sightseeing day to the max (plus enjoy the added benefits of fewer crowds and cooler temperatures), but you’ll also be able to admire the city when it's most photogenic.

Experience the peaceful atmosphere of the Vatican at dawn, the la dolce vita vibe of the historic center at dusk, and the timeless romance of the Colosseum by moonlight.

9. Take in the view

The dome at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The dome summit atop St. Peter’s Basilica offers some of the best views.Photo Credit: Mistervlad / Shutterstock

Admire the skyline from Rome’s high-altitude perches.

With its magnificent domes and cupolas, Rome has one of the most enchanting cityscapes in the world. Pause at its scenic viewpoints to take it all in (and snap a few keepsake photos) at sunset, when the Eternal City is bathed in golden light. The best views can be had from the dome summit atop St. Peter’s Basilica or the rooftop terrace at Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument (Vittoriano), as well as from public overlooks like the Pincio Gardens in Villa Borghese or Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo), high above the rooftops.

10. Get out of town

A cyclist explores the sights around the Appian Way.
Explore the sights around Rome on bike.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Make Rome your jumping-off point to travel the region.

Rome’s delights aren’t confined to its urban center. Just outside the city walls, you can bike along the ancient Appian Way in the Parco dell’Appia Antica, head to the Frascati wine country in Castelli Romani for a winery tour and tasting, see where popes have summered for centuries at Castel Gandolfo, or visit the garden at Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

And transportation doesn’t have to be complicated when heading outside of Rome. Hop on a train and meet your guide directly at your destination for a tour, or opt for a day trip that includes transportation from central Rome.

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