AOL PICK from our Editors
One could spend a lifetime doing all the best things to do in Rome and still not feel fully familiar with all the city has to offer. Scratch the surface—literally—and a new palace or temple from millennia ago is discovered. No need to bring a shovel, though. There’s plenty to see just by walking from one destination to the next: an elegant Renaissance palace along a cobbled lane; a tiny square hosting a rowdy game of calico, or soccer, by 10-year-olds. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best things to do in Rome, as well as a couple off-the-radar sites we guarantee will make your mouth drop to the marble floor.
Don’t let the Baroque and neo-classical façade of the San Giovanni in Laterano church fool you. This ecclesiastical complex is old, and therefore has to be on our list of top things to do in Rome. San Giovanni was the original headquarters of the Church and the papal residence from the early 4th century until the pope moved across the Tiber to the Vatican in the 14th century. Until the unification of Italy in 1870, all popes had been crowned in this major basilica. Don’t miss the Lateran Palace, which houses the Scala Santa. Known as the “Holy Steps,” the Scala Santa is a marble staircase that was brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The staircase came from Pontius Pilate’s palace and is said to have been the stairs on which Christ took his last steps before he was condemned to death. Above the steps is the Sancta Sanctorum, “Holy of Holies,” which supposedly housed some of the most precious holy relics in all of Christendom: The heads of apostles, a chunk of wood from the table used during the Last Supper, the Virgin’s veil and even the foreskin of Jesus.
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Come for the great art, stay for the gardens that surround the Villa Borghese. This gallery was founded to house Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s art collection that he’d amassed throughout his life. Today, many of the world’s best-known paintings are housed here: works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Raphael and Domenichino, among many others. Compared to other famous museums—such as the Louvre—the gallery is on the small side, but that means you’ll have plenty of time to explore the large park. This hilly green expanse, dotted with umbrella pines, makes for a great escape from the nearby historical center and is one of the best things to do in Rome.
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A Rome vacation will necessarily be filled with fountains, but the Fontana di Trevi—magically cozied into a small space in the center of the city—is the most jaw dropping. This 250-year-old fountain was designed by Nicola Salvi over a place where “aqua vergine,” or pure water, has flowed for 2,000 years. The water was said to be so pure that the Grand Tourists of centuries past would come here to fill up their tea cups. We don’t recommend drinking it today, though, as it’s not heavily chlorinated. Any visitor is obligated to toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a return to Rome. And the money goes to another good cause: for decades the city didn’t pay attention to thousands of coins. That is, until about a decade ago when a man was busted wading through the water taking the money during the cover of night. Since then, the city has donated the money to the Red Cross. Of course, one of the best things to do in Rome is to enjoy the history that is evident throughout this gorgeous city.
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Set atop a gently sloping hill in the Esquilino neighborhood, this basilica is one of Rome’s most important places of worship. Santa Maria Maggiore was originally built because the Virgin appeared one day in a vision saying a church should rise where the snow fell. Soon after, one August day in the 4th century, it miraculously snowed. Today, the church doesn’t exactly resemble the original design: Over the centuries it has been extended and parts have been remodeled, making it today a mish-mash of architectural styles. The colonnaded triple nave is part of the original 5th century church. The mosaic floor and gothic tomb of Cardinal Rodriguez were done in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance ushered in the church’s gilded coffered ceiling. And the façade was given the ornate treatment in the Baroque era. If you enjoy seeing the different architectural styles from multiple centuries, in one structure no less, stopping by the Santa Maria Maggiore should be on your list of top things to do in Rome.
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We’re not going to mince words: A visitor on a Rome vacation could spend the entire time in this autonomous, farm-sized nation alone. The first thing you’ll see is St. Peter’s grand square, the arms of colonnades—complete with 284 columns—reaching out to embrace each and every visitor. The Basilica of St. Peter’s, the architectural cherry crowning Vatican City, was completed in the early 17th century, exactly 1,300 years after the first St. Peter’s was completed on this site. An all-star team of legendary Renaissance and Baroque architects and artists gave a hand in building the “new” St. Peters, including Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Bernini. Interior highlights that can’t be missed are Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Bernini’s monumental brass “Baldacchino,” a 100-foot tall “canopy” that serves as the focal point of the church. And don’t miss the Vatican Museums. The collection was founded 400 years ago and consists of some of the world’s most well-known art, including frescoes by Raphael, Da Vinci and, of course, Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, one of the best things to do in Rome for those who appreciate inspiring art. The long fresco-bedecked halls, crammed with ancient statuary and centuries-old maps of the then-known world, make for a fascinating and tiring day of gawking at art.
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Neighborhood: Piazza Navona
Perhaps one of the most striking sites in Rome: walk around a corner and bam! There’s the Pantheon, its thick Corinthian columns and oversized pediment jutting out from the dome look like the structure was just dropped there via a time machine. Baroque-era artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini may have snatched all the bronze on the roof for his Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica and plenty of marble was filched for building churches, but the Pantheon is still one of the most striking buildings in Rome. It doesn't matter if you had to trudge through your history classes, or you loved studying Roman mythology, seeing this piece of ancient history is definitely one of the top things to do in Rome. The Pantheon, which means “temple of all gods,” was a pagan temple until it was converted into a church, which is what eventually saved it from being completely destroyed. The spacious inside houses the tombs of a few famous Italians, including the artist Raphael and the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II.
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Neighborhood: Campo de’ Fiori
Public bathing was a favored pastime for ancient Romans. And the Terme di Caracalla was the place in Rome to get naked, wet and sweaty. This 1,800 year-old complex was actually more than just a place to hang out by the pool. Up to 1,600 Romans would sauna and bathe here at the same time on a daily basis. In the 16th century, the blue-blooded Farnese family had most of the marble stripped from the baths to be used to coat their huge palace on Piazza Farnese near Campo de’ Fiori. Today the ruins are one of the best things to do in Rome and make up a tranquil place to stroll for the afternoon.
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Neighborhood: Campo de’ Fiori
During the Middle Ages Rome was a chaotic mess and with not a lot of building happening. The one great exception, though, is this magnificent church, which takes its name from the temple of the pagan god over which it is built. Rome’s only gothic church, the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva offers a lot of gawking for art and architecture buffs. Be sure to peek at the starry-skied ceiling and the Michelangelo sculpture of Christ holding up the cross. There’s also a “Madonna and Child” painted by Renaissance master Fra Angelico. In front of the church is a Bernini-sculpted elephant holding up one of the city’s many obelisks.
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Neighborhood: Campo de’ Fiori
This ruin-studded swath of land was the very center of Roman power for centuries and the symbolic heart of the empire. Temples and court houses and administrative buildings and arches were packed into the Foro Romano, or Roman Forum. After the fall of the empire in the 5th century A.D., the area was mostly used as a quarry for marble, which is why today the patch of land is just marble stumps of its former self. A junkyard of marble. There is still plenty to see, though. Marble arches—such as the arch of Titus that commemorates the 1st century A.D. sacking of Jerusalem—as well as standing columns from various temples, create an atmospheric stroll throughout what once was the center of the known world and one of the top things to do in Rome.
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Neighborhood: Campo de’ Fiori
The Coliseum, one of the most recognized structures on the planet, is also the greatest relic of antiquity. Built in the 1st century A.D., this stadium could hold over 70,000 Romans who would watch men take on each other as well as slaughter ferocious animals. In the first 100 days of the stadium’s inauguration, 5,000 beasts were slaughtered, much to the enjoyment of the masses. Thanks to its ingenious design and the many “vomitoria,” or exits, the Coliseum could be emptied within 10 minutes. All that ended with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and, by the Middle Ages, the Coliseum became a quarry for marble, much of it taken in the 16th century to help cover St. Peter’s Basilica.
Neighborhood: Via Veneto
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This Baroque church gets modest attention because of the Guido Reni painting of St. Michael as well as the Pietro da Cortona canvas “St. Paul’s Sight Being Restored.” But the real reason to visit Santa Maria della Concezione is for what lies underneath: the bones of 4,000 monks, decoratively displayed in several chapels. Despite its morbid sound, this is considered one of the best things to do in Rome. Bones grace the walls and ceiling, all bedecked in an organized, aesthetically pleasing fashion. Ribs have been combined to become chandeliers. Femur bones form a cross. Finger bones form a heart. There are complete skeletons, too, some of whom are still wearing their monks habits. And when you leave, don’t forget to heed the words scrawled on the wall near the door: “What you are, we used to be. What we are, you will be.”
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