Planning a trip to Rome this summer? We’ve got all the best tips from our very own Shoot Concierge Sandra!
Being a Shoot Concierge for Flytographer certainly has its perks. I was reminded of this with flourish when I was asked to head to Europe to work for the summer of 2019. My name is Sandra, and I love reading, organization, and travelling, all of which came in handy as I planned my digital-nomad adventure. Where to begin? Rome of course!
For both my sweetheart and me, Rome was a bucket-list destination, so we dove into research-mode. There are so many iconic things to see and even more little treats to come across! If you are planning a trip to Rome this summer, you might be feeling overwhelmed. But fear not, I am here to help share my top recommendations of things to do in the Eternal City. I have narrowed it down to (a very modest) 20 things to do in Rome.
1. The Colosseum
As the most recognizable historic symbol in Europe, you will naturally gravitate to its grandeur. I recommend visiting this phenomenon twice if you can. First, book a tour to better understand the details and significance of the features and history. I booked a wonderfully informative tour with Walks of Italy. (I loved this tour service so much I booked an additional three more tours with them while in Italy.) Second, visit alone during the early morning hours (sunrise if you can). Having this mammoth structure all to yourself, glowing at the beginning of a new day, is nothing short of enchanting. It will also help immensely to get a nice photo without hundreds of people beside or behind you. We did just that when we had our wonderful Flytographer shoot. We arrived just as the sun bathed the scene in gold light. Our photographer Francesca was able to get amazing shots of us with no one else in sight, which was pure magic.
While you’re there: The less-touristy Monti neighbourhood is in the shadow of the Colosseum. Lively nightlife and populated piazzas offer a glimpse into the energy of modern-day Romans.
2. Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
Included in my above-mentioned tour were these two incredible architectural sites. As our guide was a professional archaeologist working for a local museum, the insights into the ruins were phenomenal. There are literally layers of time that you can step into: the different levels of the roads, dating from the Middle Ages 500 years ago, and then on back to the founding of Rome over 2000 years ago. You’ll also see the pagan temples which were converted into Christian churches and the buildings which were torn apart so that precious materials could be reused for new purposes. View the Forum in amongst the foundations, or climb along the inconspicuous road of Via Monte Tarpeo for a fabulous view from above. Booking tickets to enter in advance is recommended if you would like to avoid long lines.
3. Trevi Fountain
Of all the many incredible fountains to see in Rome, Trevi Fountain cannot be missed. It is a testament to the pride of Rome – its luxurious access to fresh water. You will notice this access to water all over the city yourself. Fresh, cool, clean drinking water is everywhere, flowing from small fountains, which you will be especially thankful for during the summer heat! But don’t drink from Trevi’s well, as it is full of coins. Travellers turn their backs to the fountain and toss a coin over their shoulders into the water to ensure that they will one day return to the city. Trevi Fountain is the largest Baroque fountain in the city, and possibly the most Instagrammed. Therefore, it is essential that you arrive in the early morning. When we visited at 8:00 am, there was already at least 100 people striking poses or tossing coins. To experience some cozy chaos, visit at night when it is lit up. That is, if you are able to get a view behind the masses.
Much of ancient Rome was scavenged in the Middle Ages in order to rebuild a new city, but the Pantheon is incredibly well preserved. That’s because it was one of the survivors when Christians transformed some of the polytheistic temples into their monotheistic churches. The Pantheon now pays homage to many great thinkers and scientists who are laid to rest there, showcasing the change in human perspective over 2000 years. The massive columns flanking the entrance and the humbling dome above may influence a retrospective silence, so take advantage of the shade and sit awhile to admire the architecture. There are no tickets necessary, but of course come early to beat the crowds and avoid a long line.
While you’re there: Are you looking for the iconic works of Michelangelo? Around the corner from the Pantheon is Santa Maria sopra Minerva Basilica, home of his Christ the Redeemer (also known as Risen Christ or Christ Carrying the Cross) sculpture near the altar.
5. Victor Emanuel Monument
This can’t be missed. No, really, it literally cannot be missed, as it is so big you’ll spot it several times throughout your visit. A modern addition to the city to celebrate the first king who unified the nation, its uppermost statues can be seen from all over the city. Likewise, it offers amazing 360-degree views from its accessible rooftop. Walk up its grand staircase and stroll along throughout the building (stopping at the museums within if you like). Go around to the back of the monument to access an elevator that will take you to the very top. It’s worth the entrance fee and the wait in line, in my opinion, to play “Where’s Waldo” with the other distinctive buildings in view.
While you’re there: Beat the heat in the Community Garden right across the street from Victor Emanuel. You may notice this little green oasis when you’re at the top of the monument. It includes decorative and drinking fountains in the accessible, open courtyard at National Museum of Palazzo Venezia. We found that sitting in the shade and listening to the happy birds was a welcome break from the crowds and traffic.
Capitoline Hill is one of the seven hills that Rome was founded on, and the peak earned additional prestige when Michelangelo designed the beautiful Piazza del Campidoglio on top of it. Constructed with its back to the Roman Forum, it purposefully faces towards the Pope’s seat in Vatican City. Michelangelo was, after all, hired by Pope Paul III to make Rome splendid and beautiful. The Renaissance-style, geometric patterned floor is flanked by the Capitoline Museums. Check them out and then pass between massive statues of Castor and Pollux to head down the gently-sloping staircase to your next adventure.
7. Vatican City – Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica
When in Rome, a visit to the independent state of Vatican City is a must. The best advice I can offer for visiting is this: plan ahead in order to not rush. You can book tickets ahead of time online through the Vatican’s official website, but they tend to sell out far in advance. My solution was to book a tour on the date which suited me, as third parties have more tickets available. This tour was one of the additional excursions I booked with Walks of Italy, and the ability to skip the line alone made it worthwhile. If you decide not to take a tour, arriving on a weekday before the museums open to get an early spot in line is strongly advised. (Be wary of anyone offering tickets to get you to the head of the line – it’s a scam.) The advantage of a tour is to learn where the important pieces of art are in a museum that could take weeks to fully appreciate. Don’t rush, but rather wander through human history at your own pace. And set aside lots of time to soak in the incomparable St. Peter’s Basilica and Square. From both the inside and outside, it’s an impressive testament to faith.
While you’re there: Look for Michelangelo’s moving Pieta sculpture, which can be admired in the Basilica.
8. Vatican City – Sistine Chapel
Although Michelangelo was a sculptor by trade and never wanted to paint at all, he was forced to accept the job to paint the Sistine Chapel (to the great fortune of all viewers). It is incredible to think that he did it all by his own hand while lying on his back. You will also be able to view Michelangelo’s Last Judgment painted on the wall behind the altar.
While you’re there: If you’d love the opportunity to be blessed by the Pope while you are there, you’re in luck. There are free tickets available to be booked in advance online, most easily requested through the Vatican’s official website here by finding the “Prefecture of the Papal Household” link on the right side of the page.
9. Spanish Steps
This impressive, wide staircase is perfect if you need a break from shopping in the luxury stores along the streets below. While you sit, admire Pietro Bernini’s fountain at the bottom of the staircase, Fountain of the Boat. When you’re ready to climb to the various levels for lovely views, there are 138 steps, each one worth it for you to be able to say you climbed the iconic Spanish Steps.
10. Piazza Navona
When I came around a narrow side street to view this square, with the water glittering in the sunlight and live musicians singing serenely, it brought an honest tear to my eye. The long oval shape of the piazza shows its previous use as a chariot racetrack built in the 1st century AD. It was redeveloped many times over the decades, and now hosts the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini, complete with ancient obelisk in the centre. Walk the perimeter to admire the architecture of the rest of the space, which includes a palace, church, many shops, and two more fountains. There are, of course, gelato options – a perfect tool for staying cool as you stride around the pools.
11. Circus Maximus
This is another racetrack that can be seen in a more preserved state. The current-day field is a massive green space with sloping hills that lead pedestrians to the centre to fully understand the grandeur that this massive area must have had. It was the first and largest in ancient Rome. There are protected sections of ancient ruins you can admire, and it is all in the shadow of the massive ruins of Palatine Hill.
While you’re there: Love myths? Or Audrey Hepburn movie references? Then you’ll want to visit the Mouth of Truth. Housed in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church next to Circus Maximus, thousands flock to stick their hand in the mouth of Oceanus. This massive marble disk probably had a utilitarian purpose at one time, but the story says that if people stick their hand in its mouth and tell a lie, their hand will be bitten off.
12. Castel Sant’Angelo
This soaring cylindrical structure has played many roles: mausoleum, fortress, castle, and now a museum. It is very much worth a visit to learn about its history and admire its architecture. Additionally, it might be the very best skyline view that we enjoyed. Since it is so well situated near St. Peter’s Basilica and on the banks of the Tiber River, the peek-a-boo windows along the wall and the 360-degree view from the roof make this unmissable.
13. Campo de’ Fiori
You can’t visit an Italian city without exploring one of its outdoor markets. This square has decades of history of selling locally grown and locally made goods. Visit early to find the best produce, or visit in the evening for energetic nightlife. The people-watching you can enjoy at either time of day is illuminating and entertaining.
While you’re there: You will likely notice postcards and watercolour prints of an ivy-covered, orange courtyard, complete with flowers, bikes, or wheelbarrows. This is a real place and very close by. Search for Arco degli Acetari and take a discrete look inside this authentic courtyard. Of course, please be respectful of those who live in this incredibly cute area.
Speaking of postcard-worthy, this trendy Roman neighbourhood has ivy-covered towers and churches, gardens, and narrow cobblestone streets that wind among countless cafes, restaurants, and bars. Be sure to visit the Santa Maria Church, which itself is surrounded by several very well-reviewed restaurants with outdoor seating. Part of the charm is the aperitivo, an afternoon light snack and drink to stimulate the appetite before dinner, and an excellent tool for socialization.
15. Trastevere, Part 2
One of my favourite places that we visited was the Orto Botanico di Roma. With ample space to highlight both local and exotic flora, the garden includes greenhouses, a bamboo forest, a medicinal herbs section, a picture-perfect staircase-fountain in the centre, and ponds and lakes throughout. Nearby, and within view of the top of the garden, is the gorgeous Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, whose water trickles down into a stream within the Orto Botanico. The terrace at the hilltop fountain is gorgeous; we spent several sweet moments sitting and listening to the trickling water while the sun set over the city. Another highly recommended place to watch the sun set is Janiculum Terrace, also nearby in Trastevere.
16. Pyramid of Cestius
You don’t need to go to Egypt to see a bona fide pyramid. Built in 18–12 BC, this is one of Rome’s best-preserved monuments because it was incorporated into the fortified city walls, and therefore maintained beautifully. The original inscriptions can still be seen carved into the marble facade.
While you’re there: Another favourite memory of ours was finding the Cimitero Acattolico, an enclosed non-Catholic cemetery. The tall walls and huge trees immediately block out the sound of the city, so the chirping of birds and cool shade invite you deeper into this calming oasis. Donations are gladly accepted to help the volunteers continue to plant flowers and maintain fountains. Several benches are provided to encourage quiet contemplation. You could also bring a book of your favourite poetry to read after you find the graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
17. Villa Borghese
This amazing hilltop park is so big that you might need to visit it a few times to appreciate all it has to offer. The zoo itself can take a few hours. And definitely look into booking advance tickets for the Galleria – one of the best galleries recommended by locals for its amazing collection. There are several monuments, lakes, and ponds, the most picturesque being the laghetto Temple lake. Rent a darling little rowboat to drift among the many ducks and turtles sharing the water with you. The rolling hills are perfect for soaking up the sun or picnicking, and often there are concerts and other outdoor events to take advantage of when you’re visiting. From Terrazza del Pincio to Villa Medici, this edge of the park shows a gorgeous skyline view of the city. I am so glad we chose this location for the second part of our fabulous Flytographer shoot. We arrived early in the morning so we could have the place all to ourselves. (The terrace here is another lovely place to enjoy a sunset.) After all the walking, museums, and tours, relaxing in this park is a perfect way to balance an action-packed schedule.
18. Jewish Ghetto
Rome’s Jewish citizens faced many trials throughout the city’s history. The strength, community, and culture can be admired in the neighbourhood now right in the heart of the city. Reflected in the architecture and piazzas, visiting and learning about this particular group of Romans is important to understand the complete history of the city.
19. Giardino degli Aranci
Since Rome is famously built on seven hills, there is no shortage of lovely places to enjoy great views. Positioned on the Aventine Hill, this orange grove beside the church of Santa Sabina is a beauty to behold in itself. Additionally, the terrace offers lovely views over the river and beyond. At the far left side of the terrace, you may notice a little door. Take it to stroll along a lush switch-back path down the hill towards the Tiber River.
20. Ostia / Ostia Antica
Whether it is time on the beach or more ancient ruins to admire, this village has lots to offer visitors from Rome. Ostia served as the port of Rome, so there is a lot of history to observe, and it is only a 30-minute train ride away. Similar to Pompeii, the archaeological sites are known for their well-preserved mosaics, frescoes, roads, and buildings. If some time by the sea is what you’re after, find a sunny spot along the Tyrrhenian Sea, and visit the mouth of the Tiber River.
Regardless of where you plan to visit within the city, definitely download the free Audio Europe App by Rick Steves. It has incredible content for Rome, including interviews with Roman tour guides, and it offers amazing audio guides for the top attractions and neighbourhoods. I will admit that we took a few of his recommendations to visit some of these items I have now put on my list.
By far the best thing I did while I was in Rome was my Flytographer photoshoot. I relished planning the route to photograph us in the places we loved most in the city, and I really appreciated having the help of a new local friend, our photographer Francesca. There is something sincerely magical about Rome, and now we have the memories perfectly preserved to remind us forever.