Top 10 Things To Do In Rome - Recommended By A Local

By Alessandro Costetti, a curious photographer, nature enthusiast who switched the gothic grandeur of London for the art, architecture and culture of Rome’s ancient magic.
Edited by Holly Stark

Surrounded by a skyline of domes, arches and obelisks and enriched with history and culture, you'll find plenty of great things to do in Rome. From wandering through its towering basilicas, ancient ruins and underground catacombs to exploring quaint streets, glistening waters of the river Tiber, opulent palaces and vibrant museums, there’s something stunning to see on every corner. Rome’s attractions are accessible on foot, by bus (however unreliable they may be) and via the underground metro (most recommended), which connects many areas of the city. Rome is a series of layers; a web of connections. In the same building, you can witness architecture, art and culture from the Roman Empire, Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. With nearly 3,000 years of globally influential art, a vast and impressive collection of sculpture, fountains, mosaics and paintings on display, you won’t be stuck for what to do in Rome as you peel back the layers of different eras. The charm of the city lies in the intermingling of land and water, the beautiful piazzas, ornate aqueducts, grand palaces and fusion food scene. Here’s your bespoke top 10 things to do in Rome guide to kickstart your trip.

Check out the Appia Antica

The Appian Way, also known as “the Queen of the long roads” is one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic. It connected Rome to Brindisi, in southeast Italy. Named after Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor, and completed as the first section of military road to the south in 312 BC during the Samnite Wars, many parts of the beautiful original road have been preserved. Via Appia contains the longest stretch of straight road in Europe, totaling 39 miles, and along the road you can rent a bike and head to the many catacombs, scattered churches, large, leafy parks or Roman ruins. Along the Appian Way, you can find the Catacombs of San Callisto and Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Roman baths of Capo di Bove and various basilicas and tombs. Now part of a natural reserve and archaeological park, the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica makes a lovely day out, and a sweet pause from the hustle and bustle of busy Rome streets. It’s possible to follow the Appia on foot for about 10 miles from its beginning near the Baths of Caracalla. As one of the less-frequented places to visit in Rome, the ancient road is an amazing must-see Rome attraction steeped in a tumultuous history.

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See Free Caravaggio Art at San Luigi dei Francesi

Considered revolutionary and brilliant, Italian painter Caravaggio was commissioned to create a solution to decorating the typically gloomy church interior of the chapel within San Luigi dei Francesi. Inside the The Contarelli Chapel within the church are three huge Caravaggio canvases, installed around 1600. Regarded as some of Caravaggio’s most well-known works, the huge paintings depict, on the left, The Calling of St. Matthew, the most striking of the three, illustrating Caravaggio's mastery of light and shadow to create mood and drama; on the right The Martyrdom of St. Matthew; and in the center, over the altar, St. Matthew and the Angel. The paintings caused a sensation, and became the talk of Rome with their dramatic yet realistic approach to the familiar story from the Gospels. Caravaggio was commended for his realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with dramatic use of lighting, which had a formative influence on Baroque art. The canvases are free to see and the San Luigi dei Francesi; a beautiful, architecturally stunning structure, is free to pop into. Well worth a visit for anyone wondering what to do in Rome for free.

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Visit the Fascinating EUR District

EUR is a neighbourhood built during the Fascist era and many buildings were designed according to the architectural current which developed in Italy in the 1930s. Eerily dreamlike and ephemeral, or nightmare-like and fleeting (depending on how you consider it,) with pure white buildings, piazzas and historic sights, EUR was designed to direct the expansion of the city towards the south-west and the sea, and to be a new city centre for Rome. The planned exhibition never took place due to World War II. Now, whether you sense a utopia or dystopia in EUR, the neighbourhood is home to many interesting sights. The Museo della Civiltà Romana is a true hidden gem and one of the often overlooked places to visit in Rome; home to a model of the ancient city. 

The Museo della Civiltà Romana

 

To see it, you'll have to be there before 1pm, and it’s closed on Mondays.The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, or so-called “square Colosseum” is a simple, ethereal building, and most spectacular on a sunny day with a clear blue sky. Built in marble and similar to the Colosseum, the palace has a series of superimposed loggias, shown on the front as six rows of nine arches each. These numbers are said to be an allusion to the name of Fascist dictator: “Benito” having six letters and “Mussolini” having nine. The area is also home to The Palazzo dei Congressi, plus museums like the Ethnographic Museum, Museo delle Civilta, and the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, Museo Nazionale delle Arti e Tradizioni Popolari, as well as the Eurosky tower and the St. Peter and Paul Basilica.

Zig-zag through the Labyrinth of Streets in Trastevere

Take a trip across the Tiber river to Trastevere; an enchanting, antiquated neighbourhood and colourful bohemian area, with centuries-old working-class roots. Trastevere has become one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Rome by shaking off some of its past without sacrificing its sense of identity and community. The district is home to a buzzing nightlife, and is known for traditional and innovative trattorias, craft breweries and artisan shops, as well as simple, budget places to stay. Trastevere has, at its heart, some of the best things to do in Rome at night, and some of the best Rome activities to dive into during the day too. Head towards Piazza di Santa Maria, take Via del Moro, and discover great spots for shopping in Rome; with many boutiques and cafes lining the cobbled side streets, where crumbling buildings and faded paintwork meet. Check out the 12th-century Basilica di Santa Maria; step inside and awaken to glittering Cavallini mosaics. With vibrant religious shrines and leafy green plants brightening up the streets, washing strung up and graffiti covering the shutters of closed bars, Trastevere is a beautiful, authentic Italian neighbourhood to explore for those seeking the true essence of Rome.

Change your Perspective, Borromini Style, at Palazzo Spada

Swiss architect and designer Borromini created a full scale optical illusion at Palazzo Spada. A seemingly unnecessary choice, the forced perspective gallery offers a glimpse at Borromini’s genius, and is one of the most fun, yet least frequented places to visit in Rome. Columns and arches appear to stretch on for 35 metres or more, but in reality, they are less than 9 metres long. The master architect added in this trick; a forced perspective in the internal courtyard, with a statue at the end appearing large, but standing at a mere 60cm, or 23 inches, high. The ceiling at the end of the columns is actually so low that an average-sized adult wouldn’t be able to stand under it. Borromini was often described as ‘neurotic,’ and in 1667 he stabbed himself in the neck with his own sword. He died with many unfinished works, but The Perspective presents a chance to understand the innermost workings of his mind and art. The Galleria Spada displays a great collection of art and sculpture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; a Rome must-see for any architecture or art lover, the Palazzo Spada is free on the first Sunday of every month.

Don a Good Pair of Walking Shoes and Weave the City Streets

The best way to see Rome is to don a good pair of walking shoes, grab a walking route guide (an invaluable item) and set off. Italy’s capital is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city with endless art, architecture and culture on display. Check out the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum; a stretching ruin of architectural fragments and intermittent archaeological excavations, and the Colosseum; evoking the power of the former Roman Empire. As the icon of Rome, completed in the year 80, and considered the greatest amphitheatre, the Colosseum is undoubtedly one of the top 10 things to do in Rome. Next to it, and often overlooked, stands the Basilica di San Clemente; a remarkable temple that, archaeologically, records the history of Rome from the beginning of Christianity up until the Middle Ages. As one of the more unique and unusual things to do in Rome, the Basilica is a hidden gem well worth a visit. Wander through the Vatican City, home to St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Museums, which house masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Head to the incredible Pantheon; dedicated to the Gods of ancient Roman times and a Rome attraction not to be missed. Stay hydrated, get your comfy shoes on and soak up the sights of the city.

Visit the Bright and Beautiful Protestant Cemetery and Pyramid of Caius Cestius

Another Rome hidden gem, the Protestant Cemetery is one of the finest green spaces in Rome; a peaceful oasis of plants, trees and tombs next to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Often known as the Cimitero Acattolico, or non-Catholic cemetery, this lovely spot houses the graves of poets Shelley and Keats, many influential painters, authors, philosophers and scientists. With Protestant and eastern Orthodox graves, other faiths that are represented include Islam, Jewish Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Confucianism. A charming spot far removed from the chaos and noise of busy Rome streets, you can take a rest under the shade of towering cypress trees, admire the parks budding flowers and soak up the peaceful spot where life and death meet. Although entry to the Protestant Cemetery is free, donations towards the graveyard's upkeep are welcomed. The rear of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius can be seen from the cemetery; a unique Egyptian-style pyramid at the heart of Rome alluding to the life of wealthy Caius Cestius Epulone. The concrete pyramid was built as a tomb just before 12 B.C; the year of Caius Cestius Epulone’s death. It was constructed shortly after the empire’s conquest of Egypt. Wondering what to do in Rome? Head off-the-beaten path to the cemetery sanctuary, and combine the Protestant Cemetery with via Appia Antica (Appian Way.)

 

Eat Pizza by the Slice at Roscioli and Drink Wine at Cul de Sac

If you're close to Campo de' Fiori piazza, stop by Antico Forno Roscioli; a bakery serving freshly baked, traditional, crispy Roman pizza with generous toppings, pizza alla romana and focaccia romana. You can see the bakers at work, crafting huge, long pizzas at lightning speed. The pizza is incredible and one of the most popular and best places to eat in Rome with a few seats and counter space to eat at. Or take your food out and continue wandering the city streets. With lots of other cakes and pastries, tarts and flans to try too, your appetite will be well and truly satisfied. Pair your night of traditional Italian food with great wine. Wine is one of the biggest attractions of the country and trying out different wines and regional specialities is a must-do when in Rome. Sip on a red at Cul de Sac; a former wine and oils shop dating to 1900. The bar is an oblong shape with a marble counter reminiscent of the older shop space. Scattered with wooden benches and fisherman’s nets, the space has an authentic atmosphere and is home to around 1,500 wines for every occasion.

Enjoy the Decadent Charm of Garbatella

Garbatella is a local neighbourhood with a maze of courtyards, gardens, squares, stairs, balconies and fountains. Originally a working class neighbourhood, Garbatella presents the feeling of being in a small village; with its colourful flowers, majestic trees and beautiful villas and gardens. Garbatella is off-the-beaten track; a charming urban experiment with soul; created in the 1920s to accommodate the working class of the Ostiense industrial district and to host people who had to leave their downtown houses due to Mussolini’s demolitions and changes in the city centre. The small low-rise houses of the neighbourhood are built with a refinement and preciousness that other Roman suburbs don’t have. It’s one of the more unusual places to visit in Rome, but well worth it for the street art and eclectic, noble architecture influenced by Borromini, the Futurist movement and Art Deco. A space to recover from the chaotic metropolis, Garbatella is a must-visit with a relaxed pace, pocket-sized parks, a good nightlife, traditional restaurants and great wineries where the life of the neighborhood is well underway.

Soak Up the Skyline of Domes, Rooftops and Obelisks from Castel Sant'Angelo

Head to the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo, constructed as a tomb for the emperor Hadrian, it was converted into a papal fortress in the 6th century. A former church, castle and prison, now the Castel houses the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant'Angelo; paintings, sculpture, military memorabilia, medieval firearms and vintage illustrations of the Renaissance. The view from the top is incredible, especially at night; you can't find a better view of Vatican City than this; an enchanting place to see the sunset on Rome red roof-tops, domes with the Tiber river glistening below and surrounded by the old city centre. Enjoy a warm cup of coffee in the cafe and soak up the stunning city skyline at dusk.

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