What are the Top Ten Sites to Visit in Rome?
The list of what to see in Rome is immense. Packed with tourist attractions and world famous sites, when you’re on a tight schedule it can be hard to find the time to see it all. From world renowned and bustling tourist hubs like the Colosseum, to the relatively obscure Villa dei Quintili and far more beyond, Rome simply has so much to explore!
So if you’re planning to visit the Eternal City and want to make the most of your trip, then our selection of Rome’s top tourist attractions could be just the thing. We’ve put together an expert guide highlighting what to see in Rome, with our top ten places to visit as well as throwing in a few additional sites that didn’t quite make the cut but shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
1. Ostia Antica
Let’s be honest, when you were thinking of what to see in Rome, Ostia Antica probably wasn’t the first site you came across. Yet this underrated gem is one of Rome’s best tourist attractions. Ostia contains the amazingly well preserved remains of Rome’s ancient port – it’s quiet, fascinating and just brilliant to explore.
Today, visitors can view a great many ruins from the ancient town, including a well preserved Roman theatre, the Baths of Neptune, the forum and even Ostia Synagogue, which is the oldest known synagogue site in Europe. There is a small museum on site which has a number of artefacts and further information on the history of Ostia Antica.
Now the Colosseum, that crops up on every list of sites to see in Rome there ever was. And with good reason. Once the largest amphitheatre of the Empire, where gladiators, criminals and lions alike fought for their lives, the Colosseum is an absolute must for any tour of Rome, despite crowds and cheap costumes...
In particular, it is now possible to tour the underground hallways and corridors where the gladiators of ancient Rome would prepare to fight and ponder their mortality. Also recently opened are the higher areas of the structure, from where you can take in views of the Roman Forum. There is a museum within the Colosseum with a wealth of interesting artifacts and information and audio guides are available in a number of languages.
Of all the places to visit in Rome, Villa dei Quintili is one of the most forgotten. Yet this ancient villa, once home to Emperor Commodus (the baddie in Gladiator), is captivating. It remains in good nick all-in-all, and you can even see Commodus’ private gladiatorial training arena (not that it did him much good in the film…)
Today, far from the intrigues and plots of ancient Rome, this ancient villa stands as a slightly more serene place; indeed it has survived in an extremely good state of preservation. The original baths are still clearly discernible, as are several of its buildings.
4. San Clemente
Ever heard of Mithras? If things had gone differently you might be worshipping the guy. A popular Roman deity, there were Mithraeum across the Empire. One example is under the beautiful San Clemente. The church itself is a beautifully frescoed twelfth century historic basilica but it's what lies underneath which is a real highlight.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when San Clemente was excavated, it was discovered to have been built over both a fourth century church and a third century Temple of Mithras. The former site is extremely well preserved and lined with faded frescos, whilst only one of the rooms of the Ancient Roman Temple of Mithras remains. There are also ruins of some Roman houses.
There’s loads to see in the depths of this church, so when considering the most fascinating locations to explore in the Eternal City, definitely check this out.
Let’s face it, the Palatine Hill was the Primrose Hill of its day – where all those who wanted to see and be seen had a pad. Today it’s among the most visited of Rome’s tourist attractions and houses some of the city’s most impressive ancient sites.
Amongst the buildings excavated are two of the grandest palaces of the emperors, the Domus Augustana and the Palace of Septimius Severus. Beyond these famous imperial homes, there are several other fascinating remains within the site, including a large stadium. Don’t miss the small museum and the houses of Augustus and Livia.
6. Roman Forum
One of the most famous places to visit in Rome, the Forum was the centre of Roman life. Today it lacks its former grandeur and needs a bit of imagination to really get the idea – until the oft-touted Roman theme park is built of course – but it does have loads to see.
However, it's fair to say that no visit to Rome is complete without a stroll around the Forum and it's a must see for anyone visiting the city. There are a large number of historic buildings or their remains in the Forum, some of the notable ones include the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Septimius Severus and Arch of Titus. There are free tours you can join and these are often worthwhile.
You can’t come to Rome without visiting the Vatican Museums which are rightfully placed among the top sights in Rome. From frescoes by Raphael and the sarcophagus of the Junius Bassus to the famed Sistine Chapel, they house a comprehensive collection of artwork and historical pieces from throughout history.
From the exemplary collection of classical statues in the Pio-Clementine Museum to the beautiful frescos by Raphael in the Raphael Rooms, the Museums have an extensive array of pieces from many historic periods. However, the star attraction of the Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Probably the last of the exhibitions one sees on the tour, the Sistine Chapel is the magnificent creation of Michelangelo, who created it from 1508 to 1512.
Eerie, creepy yet fascinating at the same time, Rome plays host to a number of tucked-away Christian catacombs. The largest crypt belongs to that of San Callisto, which holds half a million bodies and offers tourist a glimpse of the macabre. San Callisto is just one of the many catacombs of Rome, five of which are regularly open to the public.
The most famous residents of the Catacombs are a number of popes of the third century, but not St. Callixtus after whom the catacombs are named. Instead, this pope was responsible for part of the construction and expansion of the Catacombs of San Callisto. When considering what to see in Rome, this is certainly one for your left-field list.
If all roads lead to Rome then this was the ancient world’s biggest superhighway and is a key entry on any list of what to see in the city. Not only was it Rome’s most prominent artery, it was also the burial place of choice for many of Rome’s citizens and today you can see a host of tombs and public buildings.
Among the impressive monuments on the ancient highway are the Circus of Maxentius, the Villa dei Quintili and the Baths of Caracalla. With such a clear route to so many incredible monuments, Appia Antica offers tourists a great way to explore the road’s history, which is so inextricably intertwined with that of Rome.
Probably the best way to travel along the road is by public transport. Indeed, it is closed to private traffic on Sundays and on holidays.
10. Hadrian’s Villa
The private residence of one of Rome’s most famous Emperors, it turns out he liked building villas as well as walls. Nowadays the remains of Hadrian’s Villa are a bit of a trek and may not often feature among the top places to visit in Rome. But if you put in the effort, you won’t be disappointed. For Hadrian’s Villa is perhaps the best-preserved Roman villa complex in the world.
Covering almost 250 acres and consisting of over 30 buildings, Hadrian’s Villa includes a large colonnaded swimming pool, libraries, the Palestra and the famous Maritime Theatre. Most intriguing of all are the remains of the Emperor’s small island retreat – including his personal toilet – which served as Hadrian’s private escape from the stress of Imperial life.
Be warned, to fully explore Hadrian’s Villa will take you at least three hours and can be quite physically strenuous in the summer heat, so make sure you take plenty to drink.
Best of the Rest: Rome's Other Tourist Attractions You Must Not Miss
Originally the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian, Castel Sant Angelo looms large over the Tiber making it one of the most striking sites to see in Rome. Today, Castel Sant Angelo houses a museum which tells the story of its history, from the Roman remains of the Mausoleum of Hadrian to remnants of the fortified castle, the original prison cells and the papal apartments.Read more
This relatively new ancient site contains the remains of a Roman era house dating to the imperial era and probably belonging to the wealthier elements of Roman society. Visitors can explore the structure itself, the various chambers, living areas, bathrooms, kitchens, mosaics and even decorative wall frescoes - with the additional option of seeing it all brought back to life through a virtual journey. Visitors can also explore a range of virtual reconstructions, interactive displays and films.Read more
While loads of people walk past this as they wander around the Forum, few tourists take the time to consider the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II when deciding what to see in Rome. This huge monument in fact celebrates the first king to rule a unified Italy and is pretty darn impressive. Inside there is a small museum about Italian unification and visitors can also go to the top for great views.Read more
Alright, if the sun is shining you might not want to be inside, that’s fair enough. But at the first sign of the merest hint of a drop of rain, head for the Musei Capitolini, one of the top sights in Rome. Located near the Forum, it contains a huge wealth of artefacts and exhibits from the ancient, medieval and renaissance worlds.Read more
The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in the world. Though definitely one for your list of places to visit in Rome, the truth is that it doesn’t really take all that long and you have to remind yourself that you’re looking at a 2,000 year-old building to really understand the magnificence of what you’re viewing.Read more
The Pyramid of Cestius is cool. A mini pyramid just sitting in Italy’s capital, where it really has no right to be. You have to give it to Gaius Cestius, who wasn’t one of Rome’s leading lights by any stretch, yet he will be remembered. Doesn’t take long to see but a great site and among the lesser known places to visit in Rome.Read more
Built by Michelangelo from the surviving structure of the ancient Baths of Diocletian this site has all the ingredients you need for a great place to visit. The sheer scale of this 16th century church gives a good indication of the size of the original baths. One of the more interesting yet underrated tourist attractions in Rome.Read more
There aren’t many people who come to Rome without visiting St Peter’s Basilica – it is one of the first things people tell you if you ask them what to see in Rome. The church itself is magnificent and inside you can view a wealth of historical art as well as the tombs of many Popes.Read more
A relative newcomer to the list of sites to see in Rome, the Ara Pacis Museum displays the Emperor Augustus’s Altar of Peace. Constructed in 9BC it signified the peace which Augustus had brought to the Empire. It’s an amazing site which is extremely well preserved and thoroughly enthralling.Read more
Everyone goes to the Spanish Steps – walk up them, walk down them, sit on them, take a picture or two and generally just soak up the atmosphere. A focal point for Rome’s tourists, they are a staple of any list of things to see in Rome. They don’t do much though – they just sit there being sat on.Read more