When most people think of Rome they imagine sights and monuments: the Colosseum, Forum, the Vatican and St Peter’s – giant, see-before-you-die sights that are reason enough for a visit. And it’s true that there is perhaps no more monumental city in the world, packed with the relics of well over two thousand years of inhabitation, yet the city is so much more than the sum of these parts.
There’s an unpretentiousness to the city and its inhabitants that belies the historical significance, and marks it out from its rivals further north. It’s almost as if Rome doesn’t have to try too hard, aware that it is simply the most fascinating city in Italy – and arguably the world. You could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface of the best places to visit in Rome.
Central Rome is full of reminders of the glories of the ancient city: most obviously the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine, and of course the Pantheon – the most intact structure of the period – but also the Capitoline Museums and the museums of the Museo Nazionale Romano. Baroque Rome is everywhere you look, in piazzas, church facades, street furniture and fountains, and most notably in St Peter’s Basilica, one of the grandest Baroque creations in Christendom.
Rome is also a city of great art collections, many of them the property of illustrious Roman families and still housed and displayed in their palaces, such as the Galleria Doria-Pamphilj; others are now property of the state and housed in appropriately grand buildings and palaces like the Palazzo Barberini and Galleria Borghese.
But where should you start your tour of Rome? If you’re here for only a day or two it would be a pity not to spend time just exploring the Centro Storico, the warren of streets occupying the hook of land on the east bank of the River Tiber. The churches, palaces and back alleys here are a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history. Directly across the river, on the west bank of the Tiber, is the Vatican, established as an independent sovereign state in 1929.
Between Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the Tiber lie Campo de’ Fiori and the Ghetto, more of a working quarter where cramped streets open out onto small squares flanked by churches. To the east, it merges into the atmospheric streets and scrabbly Roman ruins of the old Jewish Ghetto, a small but thriving neighbourhood.
For many people, the modern centre of Rome is Piazza Venezia – not so much a square as a road junction, flanked on all sides by imposing buildings. The great white bulk of the Vittorio Emanuele monument – The Vittoriano, as it’s known – is one of the key sights in the city, both for its views and for the alternative route it gives to the Piazza del Campidoglio and the unmissable museums on the Capitoline Hill.
Ancient Rome, the area stretching southeast from the Capitoline Hill, has the most concentrated and central grouping of Rome’s ancient glories. An obvious place to start is the Forum, before heading up to the greener heights of the Palatine Hill or continuing on to the Colosseum.
The northern part of Rome’s city centre is sometimes known as the Tridente, due to the trident shape of the roads leading down from the apex of Piazza del Popolo. It comprises some of the busiest streets in the city, with a host of shopping and sights along Via del Corso and up towards Piazza di Spagna, while to the south, the area around the Trevi Fountain is similarly – and unsurprisingly – thronged.
Up above the historic centre, the Quirinale is perhaps the most appealing of the hills that rise up on the eastern side of the centre of Rome and holds some of the city’s most compelling sights, namely the Palazzo del Quirinale, the Palazzo Barberini and a couple of Rome’s most ingenious Baroque churches.
The Esquiline is the highest and largest of the city’s seven hills, once an area of vineyards and olive groves that was one of the most fashionable residential quarters of ancient Rome. These days, as the location of Termini station and the bulk of Rome’s budget hotels, it’s a part of town that most travellers to Rome encounter at some point.
The area south of the Forum and Palatine holds a range of interesting sights, from the Baths of Caracalla – one of the city’s grandest ruins – to the catacombs on ancient Via Appia. Nearby Testaccio, a semi-gentrified working-class enclave known for its daily market and hard-core Roman restaurants, is also one of Rome’s nightlife hubs, now spilling over into nearby Ostiense.
Across the river and outside the city walls, Trastevere remains one of the city’s nicest neighbourhoods for a stroll. Its narrow streets and closeted squares are peaceful in the morning, but lively come the evening, as dozens of trattorias set out tables along the cobblestone streets – and they’re still buzzing late at night, when the bars take over.
Some of the area immediately north of Rome’s city centre is taken up by its most central park, Villa Borghese, which serves as valuable outdoor space for both Romans and tourists, as well as hosting some of the city’s best museums. The neighbourhoods beyond were until recently not of much interest, but the Auditorium complex and brand-new MAXXI museum have inspired fresh interest in the area.
You may find there’s quite enough in Rome to keep you occupied during your stay. But it can be a hot, oppressive city, and if you’re around long enough you really shouldn’t feel any guilt about seeing something of the countryside.
Two of the most popular places to visit on a day-trip are the ancient Roman sites of Ostia Antica and Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. North of the city, the Etruscan sites of Cerveteri and Tarquinia are atmospheric alternatives, and Bracciano has an airy lakeside location. To the south, the Castelli Romani provide the most appealing stretch of countryside close to Rome, and the coastal town of Anzio one of its most accessible beaches.