Rome, the capital of Italy, is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the entire world. In additional to its vibrant culture and delicious food, the city is known for its landmarks. From ruins from the Roman times, through its medieval churches and popular squares (piazzas), up through modern times, you’ll find that the eternal city is packed full of landmarks. You’re sure to find many places to visit that will engage your love of history, architecture, and more.
During our recent 2-week trip to Italy, we spent 4 days in the city of Rome, where we stayed in an Airbnb apartment very close to Largo di Torre Argentina. We were able to walk to many of the sites listed below. (Follow along on our travels on my Instagram account!)
Ancient Roman Ruins
Historical ruins can be found throughout Italy, but nowhere are they found in sheer quantity and level of preservation as in Rome itself. As the center of the ancient Roman Empire, the area is known for architecture that has stood the test of centuries. The historic center of Rome, including the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill, are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are the most famous landmarks in Rome.
The historic center of Rome, including the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill, are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Roman Colosseum is one of the most famous historical sites in all of Rome. Built between 70-80 AD during the Flavian dynasty, the Colosseum served as the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire. It was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people and was completed under the rule of his successor, Titus. The amphitheater’s grand inauguration was marked by 100 days of gladiatorial games, wild animal hunts, and other spectacles to entertain the Roman citizens.
The Colosseum’s design is a testament to ancient Roman engineering prowess. Standing at about 160 feet tall with a circumference of 1,788 feet, the amphitheater could accommodate approximately 50,000 spectators. Its elliptical shape allowed for unobstructed views of the events unfolding in the arena.
Visitors to the Colosseum can explore its vast interior and learn about its history through informative exhibits. A walk through the underground chambers, where gladiators and animals were once held, provides a glimpse into the arena’s workings. Climbing to the upper levels offers breathtaking views of the Roman Forum and the surrounding area.
The original name of the Colosseum was the Flavian Amphitheatre, not to be confused with a similarly-named structure in Pozzuoli.
You can easily see the Colosseum itself from the city streets of Rome. But if you want to tour it, you’ll need to be an entrance ticket or join a tour. Different tickets and tours allow you access to different parts of the Colosseum, so choose carefully. The arena stage is the area where gladiators fought. The upper level allow you to look down onto the arena stage. And the underground tour lets you see below. (We did the upper level but not the underground tour.)
If you’re interested, read this firsthand account of a tour of the Colosseum and nearby Roman ruins. Munnawar provides lots of details about the tour that he and Angie took, with some great tips on how to make the most of your tour.
The Roman Forum (or Forum Romanum in Latin), located in the heart of ancient Rome, holds a rich historical legacy as the vibrant center of political, social, and religious life in the city.
As the epicenter of Roman civilization, it played a pivotal role in shaping the course of the ancient world until its eventual decline and abandonment in the Middle Ages. Today, the Roman Forum stands as a remarkable archaeological site, offering a glimpse into the remarkable achievements and daily life of ancient Rome. Sites at the complex include the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta where Vestal Virgins oversaw the Eternal Flame, and the temple of Julius Caesar; the Curia, or Senate House; and the Arch of Titus.
Both the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (see below) can be visited on the same ticket that you purchased for the Colosseum.
Palatine Hill is a short walk from the Colosseum. The sprawling archaeological site reveals the once-luxurious palaces of Roman emperors, adorned with intricate mosaics and opulent frescoes.
From the Palatine Hill’s vantage point, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Roman Forum below and the iconic Colosseum in the distance. The serene gardens and hidden nooks make it a tranquil escape from the bustling city below. With every step, you’ll be delving deeper into the fascinating layers of Roman civilization, discovering the legacy of power, prestige, and everyday life that once thrived atop this legendary hill.
As I mentioned above, tickets to the Colosseum also include Palatine Hill and the Forum. What I highly recommend, though, is a guided tour of all three sites. You’ll get much more information about the history of each location from a professional tour guide. We took this tour from Viator and it was excellent. Just be prepared for a lot of walking. We covered 8 miles that day, including our walk from, and back to, our apartment.
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Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch located near the Colosseum in Rome, is located just outside the Colosseum. It can be seen from all sides and does not require an entrance fee.
This grand arch was built in the year 315 to celebrate Emperor Constantine’s triumphant victory in a great battle. If you look closely, you’ll see fascinating carvings telling the heroic story of the battle and other exciting moments from Constantine’s life. What’s even more intriguing is that the arch is made from pieces of older buildings, making it a captivating mix of history.
The Pantheon, located in the heart of Rome, is a must-visit for history and architecture enthusiasts alike. Constructed around 125 AD by Emperor Hadrian, this ancient Roman temple is known for its iconic dome, considered a remarkable architectural achievement even by modern standards. The Pantheon’s main attraction is the large oculus at the center of the dome, which creates a stunning interplay of light and shadow within the building. As one of the best-preserved ancient Roman structures, the Pantheon’s interior features well-preserved marble floors, majestic columns, and intricate details that showcase the grandeur of ancient Roman craftsmanship.
Entrance used to be free, but note that as of July 3, 2023, a paid ticket is required to enter the Pantheon. However, the structure itself can be viewed from the outside from the Piazza della Rotonda. (Be careful climbing the steps before or after hours; I was harshly reprimanded for stepping foot on the lowest stair an hour before opening!)
The Circus Maximus dates back to the 6th century BC, where it witnessed countless chariot races, games, and public events that brought joy and entertainment to the citizens of ancient Rome. Originally, the Circus Maximus was a simple, grassy track used for chariot races. As the Roman Empire flourished, the stadium underwent various expansions and renovations, transforming into a grand amphitheater capable of hosting more than 150,000 spectators. The famous Circus Maximus chariot races were an integral part of Roman culture, and the rivalry between racing factions, known as the “collegia,” would often captivate the entire city.
While the Circus Maximus is no longer used for chariot races or gladiator battles, its historical significance remains intact. Today, the site is a vast public park where visitors can stroll along the original racetrack and immerse themselves in the echoes of ancient Roman festivities. Surrounded by lush greenery, the Circus Maximus offers a peaceful and picturesque setting, making it an ideal spot for a relaxing walk or a leisurely picnic.
Entrance is free, but there is also a virtual tour that costs 12.00 euros. The Circus Maximus is close to the Colosseum and Palatine Hill and is an easy walk between those areas.
Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina is a captivating archeological site nestled in the heart of Rome. This historical square is renowned for its ancient Roman ruins, including four Republican-era temples and the remnants of a grand theater. It’s famously known as the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC.
Largo di Torre Argentina is also famous for its association with cats, as it now serves as a cat sanctuary. You can observe these adorable creatures lounging among the ancient ruins, adding a unique charm to this historical gem. In late June of 2023, a new walkway was opened, allowing visitors to get more up-close to the ruins. You can still see them from the modern-day ground-level sidewalks that surround the site.
Baths of Caracalla
Built during the reign of Emperor Caracalla in the early 3rd century AD, the Baths of Caracalla once offered a majestic retreat for the citizens of Rome. The baths featured a vast array of amenities, including hot and cold pools, saunas, exercise rooms, and even libraries, providing a holistic experience for both body and mind. They are a short walk from the Circus Maximus. Today, as you explore the sprawling ruins, you can marvel at the intricate mosaics, towering columns, and colossal vaulted ceilings that bear witness to the architectural grandeur of ancient Rome.
Known in Italian as Mercati di Traiano Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Trajan’s Market is a fascinating archaeological complex that offers a glimpse into the bustling commercial life of ancient Rome. Built by Emperor Trajan around 100 AD, it is considered one of the world’s earliest known shopping malls. The market was strategically constructed on several levels, seamlessly integrated into the slopes of the Quirinal Hill.
Here, you can explore a maze of well-preserved shops, administrative offices, and storage spaces, all adorned with impressive architectural details. The complex’s multi-level design is a testament to Roman engineering ingenuity, and the historical significance of Trajan’s Market is further amplified by the adjacent Trajan’s Column, celebrating the emperor’s victories. As you wander through the remains of this ancient marketplace, you’ll be transported back in time, imagining the vibrant scenes of traders, shoppers, and everyday life that once animated this remarkable hub of commerce and culture.
The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Peace of Augustus, is an ancient Roman altar. Commissioned by the Senate in 13 BC to commemorate Emperor Augustus’s return from successful military campaigns, it stands as a magnificent testament to the peace and prosperity he brought to the Roman Empire. The Ara Pacis was originally built on the northern edge of Rome, but today it is housed in a modern museum just across the Tiber River from Vatican City. The reliefs on the altar depict scenes of prosperity, divine figures, and allegorical representations of the Pax Romana.
Capitoline Hill, also known as Campidoglio in Italian, has been a significant site since the earliest days of Rome, serving as one of its seven hills and later becoming the political and religious center of the city.
At the summit, you’ll find the splendid Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. The square is adorned with elegant Renaissance buildings, including the Capitoline Museums, which house a vast collection of ancient sculptures, artifacts, and Renaissance masterpieces. A magnificent bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback stands proudly in the center, while the hill’s vantage point provides stunning panoramas of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and other iconic landmarks.
Pyramid of Cestius
The Pyramid of Cestius, an extraordinary ancient Roman tomb, was built around 18-12 BC. It incorporates Egyptian-style architecture, making it a fascinating blend of Roman and Egyptian cultures. Located near the Porta San Paolo in Rome, the pyramid is an intriguing sight to behold, rising majestically amid the modern cityscape. Its shape makes it remarkably different from the other ancient sites.
The Appian Way, an ancient Roman road dating back to 312 BC, offers a captivating journey through history. Flanked by ancient tombs and villas, this well-preserved route takes you on a serene and evocative trip, immersing you in the golden age of the Roman Empire. The Appian Way is about 10 miles long, so you might want to rent a bicycle if you want to see the entire road, or even join a guided e-bike tour.
Castel Sant’Angelo, a majestic fortress perched on the banks of the Tiber River, is a captivating historical landmark in Rome. Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, it later transformed into a papal residence and a military fortress. Today, Castel Sant’Angelo houses a museum, showcasing a fascinating collection of art, weaponry, and historical artifacts. The bridge to the castle is one of the most famous bridges in Italy.
Other City Center Landmarks
There are plenty of sights within Rome’s City Center that are worth seeing, but aren’t ancient buildings from Roman times. Some other main attractions and historic landmarks are noted below.
The Trevi Fountain, a stunning Baroque masterpiece, is a must-see attraction in the heart of Rome. Built in the 18th century, it may be the most famous fountain in the world. Known as Fontana di Trevi in Italian, its grandiose design features a triumphant Neptune surrounded by mythological sea creatures and cascading waterfalls. Tradition holds that tossing a coin into the fountain guarantees your return to Rome, making it a beloved ritual for visitors.
Trevi Fountain is a very popular tourist destination, so during the summer, be prepared for crowds. At certain times of day, it would be almost impossible to get close to it, especially if you want your photo taken in front. Based on recommendations, we rose early and arrived at Trevi at 6:30am. Even that early, there were plenty of people around. But we were able to get right up to the edge of the fountain and to take some beautiful pictures.
Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps
Constructed in the 18th century, the Spanish Steps connect the Piazza di Spagna at the bottom to the Trinità dei Monti Church at the top. My husband and I visited the Spanish Steps in the morning, right after Trevi Fountain, as it’s a short 1.4km walk between the two. We climbed the steps to the top, and of course, took the obligatory pictures of each of us sitting on the steps. There wasn’t anything to do at that hour, but it was nice to again avoid the huge summer crowds.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as the Basilica of St. Mary Major, is an extraordinary Roman Catholic church that stands as one of Rome’s four major basilicas. Dating back to the 5th century, it is one of the oldest churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The basilica’s awe-inspiring architecture features intricate mosaics, ornate chapels, and stunning frescoes that depict biblical stories and Christian symbolism. As you step inside, you’ll be captivated by the grandeur of its gold-decorated ceiling and its richly adorned interior. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is also home to a sacred relic believed to be a fragment of the Holy Crib from Bethlehem, making it a significant pilgrimage site for Christians.
Altare della Patria / Victor Emmanuel II Monument
Altare della Patria, also known as the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, is a magnificent tribute to Italy’s unification and national pride. Situated in Piazza Venezia, this colossal monument was built in the late 19th century to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The monument’s impressive white marble structure features grand staircases, majestic columns, and triumphant statues that exude a sense of grandeur and patriotism.
At its heart lies the Altar of the Fatherland, a symbolic tomb representing the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for Italy. The monument also houses the Museum of Italian Unification, where visitors can explore artifacts and exhibits celebrating the nation’s history. As you ascend to the rooftop terrace, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of Rome, providing a perfect vantage point to appreciate the city’s timeless beauty.
Piazza Navona & Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Piazza Navona is a lively square in Rome, renowned for its Baroque architecture. At its heart stands the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or the Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The fountain’s intricate sculptures represent four major rivers, symbolizing the universality of the Catholic Church. You’ll also find two more beautiful fountains on either end, known as Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) and Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moro).
Around the square you’ll find shopping areas and cafes, as well as entertaining street performers. We found it to be the perfect place for a delicious breakfast as we watched a Charlie Chaplin-esque busker work the crowds.
Piazza del Popolo
Piazza del Popolo, or “People’s Square,” was designed in the 19th century, and it boasts an impressive Egyptian obelisk, twin churches, and elegant fountains that add to its picturesque beauty. The obelisk, known as Flaminio Obelisk, represents Pharoah Sety I and was brought to Rome from the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis. The square sits on the Via del Corso.
Villa Borghese is a sprawling public park that offers a serene escape from the bustling city. Once the private estate of the Borghese family, it now welcomes visitors to stroll along its picturesque paths, lush gardens, and tranquil lakes. The park is home to the Galleria Borghese, an art museum housing an impressive collection of masterpieces by renowned artists such as Bernini, Caravaggio, and Raphael. With its charming landscapes, peaceful atmosphere, and cultural treasures, Villa Borghese provides a perfect setting for leisurely walks, picnics, and cultural exploration, making it a beloved retreat for both locals and travelers seeking a moment of tranquility amidst the Eternal City.
Vatican City, an independent city-state within Rome, serves as the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church. With a size of just over 100 acres, it is the smallest sovereign state in the world by both area and population. The Vatican is home to significant religious and cultural landmarks, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. As the residence of the Pope, it holds immense religious significance for millions of Catholics worldwide, drawing pilgrims and tourists alike to experience its rich history and profound spirituality.
The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel, located within the Vatican Museums, is a true masterpiece of art and a sacred space of profound significance. Its interior boasts remarkable frescoes painted by renowned artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Perugino. The chapel’s most famous masterpiece is Michelangelo’s stunning ceiling, which features scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the iconic “Creation of Adam.”
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps the world’s largest and most important Christian church, is a breathtaking architectural marvel located within Vatican City. Its iconic dome, designed by Michelangelo, dominates the skyline of Rome. The basilica houses numerous works of art, including Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” and the revered tomb of St. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus.
St. Peter’s Basilica is free, but note that the wait in line can exceed two hours. You must purchase tickets to the Vatican Museums in advance. Because of their popularity, the easiest way to see both is to book a guided tour. This will gain you skip-the-line tickets, and provide you with a knowledgeable guide. Note that you can take pictures throughout, except in the Sistine Chapel, where it is completely banned.
Visiting these Famous Rome Landmarks
I can’t stress how helpful guided tours are for visiting many of these historical landmarks, particularly those with long lines like the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica. However, it’s important to know how the tours work. When you book a tour, the tour company doesn’t yet have entrance tickets for you. Depending on the day and time, the tickets may sell out before your tour company can purchase them. As such, it’s not uncommon for tours to get cancelled or rescheduled.
It helps if you can limit your tour bookings to one per day, so if the time changes, you can be flexible. Also, for the Colosseum, you might want to book two tours, a few days apart, so that if the first tour gets cancelled, you have a backup. If it doesn’t get cancelled, you can then cancel the backup yourself, provided you have enough time between the two tours. (Check the cancellation policies to be certain!) This is what we did and it worked out well.
If you’ve been to Rome, you already know how overwhelming all of these Roman landmarks can be. I suggest reading up on them before you visit, deciding which ones are most worth visiting to you, and scheduling your time around them. Don’t try to pack in too much, as it will be overwhelming and become less fun, the more tired you are.
And the most popular tourist attractions may not be the ones that appeal to you the most. Remember, it’s your vacation, and you should plan it in a way that you’ll enjoy it best. Rome is a fantastic city, but our family really enjoyed some of our downtime between tours, such as when we ate at restaurants, shopped for groceries at the local Coop, or strolled through the University of Rome botanical gardens…most of which were unplanned.