The top 10 things to do in Rome

Eloise Barker, for British Airways Holidays

Title photography by Federico Tocchella

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March 2019

There are a mind-melting array of things to do in Rome, which has a history so long it will make your head spin. A city of hills and history, fountains and ruins: discover our top ten activities, and do Rome like a Roman.

1) Visit the Colosseum

Step off the Metro at Colosseo and it’s right there in front of you: enormous and almost suspiciously well-preserved – the Roman Colosseum, the biggest amphitheatre ever built. Oval – not circular – in shape (look it up on Google Maps), it once staged deadly gladiatorial combats for up to 80,000 baying spectators. Going inside is a must on any Rome holiday. The Colosseum has several areas you shouldn’t miss, including the panoramic upper levels of the stands, the arena floor, and the hypogeum (where wild animals were kept before being lifted up to arena level). There are a few ways to visit – go on a tour and your guide will describe in eager detail all the gory stories behind the stone ruins. Many Colosseum tickets include access to the Roman Forum, and you should allow enough time to walk this amazing archaeological park, once the commercial epicentre of the city – with law courts, temples, shrines and basilicas – now skeletal shadows of their former selves, with cracked columns and a moraine-scattering of masonry. For access to all of Rome’s best sights with just one ticket, book the Omnia Vatican and Rome Pass Card.

In the know: It was here in the Forum that Marc Anthony addressed the Roman people on the death of Julius Caesar (Friends, Romans, countrymen – lend me your ears!) – keep your own ears out for imitations by enthusiastic fellow tourists.

Get priority access to the Colosseum

Right there in front of you: enormous and almost suspiciously well-preserved – the Roman Colosseum, the biggest amphitheatre ever built

  • Looking inside the oval-shapped Colosseum. © CALIN-ANDREI STAN.

    Are you not entertained?

    Live out your Russell Crowe in 'Gladiator' fantasy. Book priority access to the Roman Colosseum with British Airways and get access to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. You'll tour in a small group, so you can get your great gladiator questions answered.

    Book Colosseum tickets

2) The Vatican

To visit the Vatican, including the Vatican Museums, you have to actually leave Italy. But don’t dig your passport out of the hotel safe just yet – though Vatican City is a recognised city state, you won’t need to face border patrols. You will, however, need to queue along the viale Vaticano and go through security – so arrive early. Once inside, you shouldn’t miss the formidable art collection: follow signs to the Pinacoteca – a treasure trove of Da Vinci, Raphael and Caravaggio canvases (look out for famous sculptures, too, like one of Laocoon wrestling some fearsome serpents). When you’re ready, get ushered into the Sistine Chapel. In this extraordinary sacred space, let the art do the talking. The guards ensure that everyone keeps to an awed silence as they stare up at Michelangelo’s spectacular painted ceiling – featuring depictions of the nine books of Genesis, including the creation of Adam right in the middle – grab one of the handy mirrors to save yourself a crick in the neck.

In the know: Imagine Michelangelo himself crouched up here on his home-made scaffolding with paint dripping into his eyes: it took four years for him to complete his upside-down masterpiece; he even wrote a poem complaining about how hard it was.

Get early access to the Sistine Chapel and book Vatican tickets

3) St Peter’s Basilica

You don’t need to enter Vatican City to visit St Peter’s Basilica, the sacred building that sits at the epicentre of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s the largest church in the world, but its still nearly dwarfed by the enormous colonnades that flank it and encircle the enormous St Peter’s Square. If you were looking for an audience with the Pope, you would have the best chance here. Many people make special pilgrimages to this spot from all over the world. It’s free to enter the cathedral, though there’s often a queue – and there’s a charge if you want to be adventurous and climb the cramped staircase up into its capacious dome. Don’t miss a chance to poke around the grottos, where many of the past Popes have been buried – it’s said that Saint Peter himself is buried below the High Altar.

In the know: Keep your eyes peeled for a cluster of people examining a statue of Mary just to the right of the church entrance – it’s Michelangelo’s famous Pietà.

Book a tour of The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica

4) The Pantheon

Behold, the Pantheon, Rome – evidence that Rome’s ancient engineers really might have been a bunch of geniuses. Just walk through the enormous open door of this church (which was once a Roman temple) and look up. You’ll see a gigantic freestanding dome soaring above you. The walls are a massive 6.4 metres thick in places, and an oculus in the roof provides the only source of light. The Pantheon was the largest freestanding dome in the world for 1,000 years – right up until 1496, and never fails to impress; its echoing, cloche-like interior giving a real feeling of space. It’s now a church – meaning its name, of Greek origin and meaning ‘for all the Gods’, is a little less fitting than it used to be.

In the know: It’s totally free to enter the Pantheon, and those lucky enough to visit in March might be able to see an interesting optical effect. At midday during the March equinox a shaft of light illuminates the church entrance from the oculus, Indiana Jones style. But the building, with its gleaming skylight and domed perfection, is enough to floor most visitors on its own – no optical illusions required.

Visit the Pantheon on the Hop-on Hop-off Bus

  • The Swiss Guard in all their glory, outside St Peter's Basilica. © Wayne Perry / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Standing in stripes

    The Pontifical Swiss Guard are the Pope's official bodyguards. If you think their outfits look a little… jester-like, you're not wrong. The guard wear traditional ceremonial garb which reflects their Renaissance origin. The force was founded in 1506.

    Holidays in Rome
  • A surprisingly quiet moment: the magical Trevi fountain at sunrise. © nicola forenza.

    Chasing waterfalls

    Go to the Trevi fountain early in the morning and you might get it all to yourself.

    Flights to Rome
  • The decorated ceiling of The Sistine Chapel. © Boris Karpinski / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Must-see ceiling

    Book early access tickets to the Vatican and you'll be whisked directly past the queue and into the Sistine Chapel. Once you've had your fill, you can explore the Pinoteca at your leisure.

    Skip the Vatican queue

5) Trevi Fountain

Is this one of the world’s grandest fountains? The famous Trevi Fountain, a Baroque tangle of gods, animals and waterjets, was built when Pope Urban VIII declared that the current fountain that stood in Piazza di Trevi wasn’t dramatic enough. The Trevi Fountain was duly built by the architect Nicola Salvi, who died before it was finished in 1762. Fully restored in 2015, it now shines as brilliantly as ever – and the blue pool at its feet glimmers with a reserve of coins tossed in by tourists. The legend goes that if you throw a coin (tossed over your left shoulder with your right hand) and it lands in the fountain, then you will one day return to Rome. The jettisoned change is all scooped up at the end of the day to help the local homeless – so be generous.

In the know: It’s busy here in the day but, much like the Colosseum, it’s also worth dropping in on the Trevi Fountain at night, when clever up-lighting transforms the scene. Book a panoramic tour of Rome by night – ending up at the fountain for an atmospheric dinner. The Trevi Fountain is totally free to visit, so go as many times as you like.

Tour Rome by night

6) Galleria Borghese and Borghese Gardens

The beautiful Villa Borghese is famous for its wonderful art gallery, Galleria Borghese. Its original owner, the rather cultured and powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese, was a patron of the famous sculptor Bernini, which means his gallery is stuffed full with some of the artists’ best pieces. Bernini liked to sculpt scenes from the more risqué pages of Ovid: you can’t miss his version of Apollo and Daphne, where Daphne is midway through transforming into a laurel tree. It’s a subject that’s pretty tricky for the average sculptor to pull off, but Bernini’s version is beautiful. Among the paintings, there are some brooding Caravaggios, some Titians and some Raphaels. The gallery has an entrance fee, and you’ll be given an entry timeslot. Book in advance to secure your place.

In the know: Out in the park, English-style gardens – a little more disordered than ‘French style’ – provide tumbling scenery, sinuous pathways and bite-sized lawns. It’s the perfect setting for an impromptu picnic, so pack the ciabatta.

Skip the line at the Borghese Gallery

7) Aventine and Palatine Hill

Rome was famously built on seven hills and two of them are especially worth a visit: Aventine and Palatine. Climb Aventine hill for a view of Rome like no other. Walk up Via di Porta Lavernale, up to Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. In this unassuming square you’ll see a strange queue of people taking turns to bend in front of a closed door. Wait your turn, look through the keyhole, and you can see a unique view of St Peter’s Basilica, framed by the dark green topiary of the Santa Maria del Priorato formal gardens.

Access to Palatine Hill is often included in your Colosseum ticket but, even though it sits directly above the Roman Forum, it’s by far the lesser-visited site. Palatine Hill was once the Upper East Side of the Roman Republic; many of the richest Romans had their villas here. The House of Livia is famous for wonderful frescoes (tickets sold separately), and you can see the ruins of palaces once belonging to emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Domitian.

In the know: Palatine Hill is a lovely place to relax. There’s ample shade, free water fountains – plus you can take really good photographs of the Colosseum and the Forum whilst you’re up here.

Get access to the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill

  • St Peter’s Square with the famous basilica in the background. © Pavel Kavalenkau.


    Containing a 25m Egyptian obelisk, and surrounded by a colonnade that's four columns deep, St Peter's Square is an impressive sight. It was designed so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope, and get his blessing. See the square as part of your trip to the Vatican.

    Book your Rome Pass

8) Spanish Steps

Rome’s Spanish Steps is one of its most popular areas. This wide, baroque staircase acts as the city’s biggest park bench, and hundreds flock here to flop down and chat in the sun. The steps face west and by noon they become like hot pizza stones. Hide behind the biggest sunglasses you own and spend a half hour in the afternoon people-watching from your perch. The area around the foot of the Spanish Steps is Rome’s designer shopping hub, so all manner of glamorous types might be out and about comparing their purchases, fresh from a spin in Chanel, Loewe or Gucci.

In the know: Like yourself a bit of Romantic poetry? You might want to pay your respects at the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. This quiet apartment, a series of little rooms sitting above the Spanish Steps is where the young poet John Keats died of tuberculosis. He was just 25. You can also visit his famous tomb, in the Protestant cemetery of the Testaccio district.

Swing by the Spanish Steps on the hop-on hop-off bus

9) Castel Sant’Angelo

The towering Castel Sant’Angelo looks like a large fortress, but it was originally built as a mausoleum. At one time it held the ashes of all the Roman emperors from Hadrian to Caracalla before it was ransacked by marauding Visigoths in the 5th century. The building became a military fortress – and eventually housed Papal apartments (the castle is actually linked to St Peter’s basilica by a long, fortified corridor) – and finally it was a prison. It certainly still looks like a forbidding place, with its round tower peeking out from above thick, red-brick walls. The building houses a museum which covers every corner of its long history and is fairly inexpensive to enter.

In the know: Even if you don’t enter the castle you should at least walk along the bridge in front of it, the Ponte Sant'Angelo, which is guarded by ten angels. Each individual angel statue has been carved with exquisite care – again by none other than our famous (and very busy) Bernini.

10) Trastevere

Trastevere is a district of Rome, rather than a specific sight. Formerly Rome’s working-class district, it’s known as a slightly quieter area, set on the other side of the Tiber River. What it lacks in sights, it makes up for with a huddle of wine bars and trattorias. Reward yourself after you’ve ticked off the main sights in Rome with this undemanding stretch of the city. Trastevere is reached by crossing the cobbled Ponto Sisto bridge, and most people wend their way to Piazza Santa Maria, which acts as the area’s social hub. The church itself, one of the oldest in the city, is definitely worth a visit for its trove of 13th century mosaics. Then there are the quiet gardens of Villa Farnesina and Rome’s Botanical Garden for afters.

In the know: On your way back from Trastevere, cross onto Isola Tiberina – the only island in the Tiber. It’s a very atmospheric place for a stroll.

See Trastevere on a walking and bus tour

Where to stay

The St. Regis Rome

Following a magnificent refurbishment at the end of 2018, the St. Regis Rome has reached giddy new heights of excellence. There’s both butler and limo service, a beautiful lobby bar, and a nightly ‘Champagne sabering’ – where everyone gets a glass of bubbly after an unconventional uncorking. It’s the perfect hotel if you’re really pushing the boat out.

Book The St. Regis Rome

The Pantheon Iconic Rome

This centrally-located five star hotel has chic interiors equipped with mod-cons ( including USB ports and much mood lighting). Its sixth floor terrace is a total suntrap in summer. Up here you can lounge on wicker sofas and look out at the massive dome of the top of the Pantheon, a huge hump above the roofs, just a street away.

Book The Pantheon Iconic Rome

Hotel Vilòn

Hotel Vilòn is a boutique hotel near the Spanish Steps with a handful of elegantly decorated guest rooms. Set in a former school, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting any work done when the rooms look out over the dreamy Palazzo Borghese gardens. The on-site Adelaide Restaurant and the hotel bar detain would-be sightseers with tempting menus – try the artichoke heart starter.

Book Hotel Vilòn