The historical center of Rome occupies a surface of about 20 square kilometers and is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. The most ancient part of the city develops on a few hills scattered along the banks of the river Tiber. If you want to visit a considerable part of ancient Rome, be prepared to walk for hours and hours.
For your first trip to Rome, I advise you to set aside at least 3 full days. During your visit, you will spot different historical layers for most of the monuments and landmarks: Pre-Roman, Roman, Middle Age, Renaissance, Baroque, and so on.
This virtual itinerary encompasses amazing Rome monuments and landmarks that deserve to be on your Rome bucket list. I’ve ordered them strategically so that if you wish, you can check them all on the same tour.
Rome monuments and landmarks part 1: self-guidedn walking tour from People’s Square to the Circus Maximus
People’s Square | Rome monuments
Piazza del Popolo – People’s Square
You should start from this beautiful Renaissance piazza your tour across Rome’s monuments and landmarks. Access the piazza from the Porta del Popolo (People Square’s arched gate, whose internal facade is a work of the sculptor Bernini) and you’ll enjoy an enchanting view of the twin churches, the Egyptian obelisk, and the Fountain of the Four Lions. The church on the side of the arched gate is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo and holds a collection of Renaissance and Baroque pieces included a painting from Michelangelo and you can access it for free. Once you have explored the monuments of the piazza, you could climb the stairs that bring you to the Pincio Terrace, one of Rome’s panoramic viewpoints.
2. Piazza di Spagna – Spanish Steps
From Piazza del Popolo, walk along Via del Babbuino to reach one of the tourists’ most beloved landmarks in Rome: the Spanish Steps in Piazza Di Spagna. There are a few monuments to check out there, first of all, the monumental staircase from the 18th Century, which starts at the beautiful fountain by Bernini the “Sinking Boat” or Barcaccia, and takes you to the Church of Trinità Dei Monti (16th Century). In the Piazza di Spagna, you can also visit the Spanish Embassy of the Holy See and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which commemorates the lives of the two poets and is the place where John Keats spent his last days.
The Trevi Fountain in Rome | Rome monuments
3. Fontana di Trevi – Trevi Fountain
It will take you 10 minutes to go from the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain. This is the most famous fountain of Rome, and you will find a crowd awaiting you there unless you go there at 6 in the morning. The good news is, the artwork is so impressive that you’ll be able to enjoy it from every point of the tiny square.
There are many interesting facts about the history of the Trevi Fountain. For the love of conciseness, know that there’s water at the Trevi fountain because the Roman commander and architect Agrippa, intimate friend, and supporter of Emperor Augustus, channeled the waters from the spring “Aqua Virgo” outside the city spring in 19 A.D. For centuries, the Trevi Fountain was nothing else than a huge tank. In the 18th Century, Pope Clemente the 13th finished financing (with taxes) the renovation of the fountain: the group of sculptures as we see it today is an artwork of the sculptor Pietro Bracci.
Why is everyone throwing coins inside the fountain? Because a legend says, if you do it (giving your back to the fountain), you’ll have a chance to visit Rome again.
The Altar of the Fatherland, view from the Monte Mario Hill | Best views in Rome
4. Altare della Patria – Altar of the Fatherland
The majestic, bright building which dominates the Venezia Square at the heart of Rome’s historic center was built between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century in honor of the first King of the Unified Italy Vittorio Emanuele the 2nd. The “Vittoriano”, the common name by which the locals call one of the most recent among Rome’s monuments, represents the Italian Risorgimento and the principles at the base of it. The shape resembles a classical temple. If you take one of the 3 elevators (ticket €10) that bring you to the terrace on the rooftop, you will enjoy one of the best views in Rome.
Fun fact about the Altar of the Fatherland: Romans call it “the typewriter”…because of its shape.
5. Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli
This landmark and the next rise on the Capitoline Hill, the place where some important buildings of the royal and republican Rome were located. The Capitoline Hill has two summits, the Arx and the Capitolium, and between them, a small depression is called the Asylum. The Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli is found on the Arx, and you’ll reach it through a wide stair designed by the architect Vignola in the 16th Century.
Before it became a Christian church, the place was the Temple to Juno, one of the three most important deities of the Roman, founded around the 4th Century b.C. The church in the Romanesque style as we see it today was renovated in the 13th Century.
Pilgrims always visited the Aracoeli to ask for miracles and blessings: it was a common habit to climb the staircase on one’s knees and to beg in front of the wooden statue of the “Saint Child”, that had been baptized in the River Jordan. After you have visited the church, which has free access, you can discover some more Rome monuments on the Capitoline Hill.
6. Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill
On the side of the Aracoeli Church, another impressive Renaissance staircase by Vignola and two fountains in the shape of lions, originally belonging to the Temple of Isis in Rome, will welcome you to one of the most fascinating piazzas of the city.
The current disposition of the Campidoglio Square, with the statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, example of correct government at the center, was projected by Michelangelo Buonarruoti during the Renaissance, but the other buildings are way more ancient. The fountain at the bottom of the piazza is known as “Fountain of the Goddess Rome”: the deity is sitting at the center, while the other two sculptures represent the river Tiber and the Nile. The twin staircase brings you to the Senate Palace, which has been the seat of Rome’s government since the 12th Century. The other two buildings overlooking the square host the Capitolini Museums (here you’ll also find the famous bronze statue with the she-wolf nursing Romolo and Remo, mythical founders of Rome).
Rome monuments and landmarks part 2: the most ancient remains and palaces
By now you should know that your exploration of Rome’s historical center will make you tired at the end of the day… Choose your accommodation wisely in one of the cutest areas of Rome near the city center, so you it won’t be too complicated to go from your room to the attractions.
Where to stay in Rome: View from the Campidoglio
7. The Roman Forum
If you follow this itinerary, the first look on the Roman Forum you will have it from the Capitoline Hill. To have even a better bird’s eye view on the ruins, you need to walk along the pedestrian road “Via Dei Fori Imperiali”. This magnificent road runs from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum and functions as a boardwalk from which you can admire both the Roman Forum and the Imperial Forum, with the Colosseum standing majestic at the bottom of the road.
The Roman Forum is an area enclosing some of the most ancient ruins of palaces, temples, and basilicas of Rome. The term “basilica” before the Christian Era addressed a rectangular, covered building that usually had three naves divided by columns and was destined to assemblies, courthouses, trades, and orations. On the Coopculture website, which is the official seller of the tickets to this archeological area of Rome, you’ll be able to book a 1.5 hour guided tour of the site. When you access the site from Via Dei Fori Imperiali or from the entrance in front of the Colosseum, walk on the “Sacred Street”, that cuts the Roman Forum from East to West with a map and look at the different buildings.
8. The Palatine Hill
This is the place where the legendary king Romulus founded Rome, which at the beginning was as small as this hill itself. The research confirmed the existence of a village dating back to the 8th Century b.C, which is the period attributed to the kingdom of Romulus. The basement of one of these archaic houses has been transmitted as the “house of Romulus”, honored and restored through the ages.
A cave on the slope of the Palatine Hill was identified as the site where the Romans celebrated the cult of the god Faunus Lupercus and the most archaic festivities, and where the newborn Romulus ad Remo were found and bred by the she-wolf, as the most popular legend about the foundation recounts. On the Palatine Hill, that you can access with the same ticket as the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, you will also find, among other mansions, the Villa of Emperor Augustus, the Villa of his wife Empress Livia, and the Renaissance Farnese Gardens.
9. The Imperial Forum
Between the 2nd and the 1st Century b.C., following the military wins of Ceasar, Rome had become the capital of an Empire. Ceasar used part of the war’s booty to acquire the land next to the Roman Forum and to build new public spaces. His successors Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Traianus expanded Caesar’s works.
The Forum of Trajan is the best kept of all, with its palaces known as “Markets of Trajan” that today even host exhibitions. The “Trajan’s Column”, on the short side of the Forum of Trajan, hides the tomb of the Emperor and the Empress at its base. The spiral of low relieves running along the surface of the column shows scenes and symbols of the wars against the Dacians.
Both the Imperial Forum and the Roman forums’ were plundered during the Middle Ages, their marbles used to build new buildings outside the historic center, their lustrous floors removed to give space to plantations for the community, while the artistic treasures like sculptures were seized by the papacy during the Renaissance and are now displayed in museums.
Inside the Colosseum | Rome monuments and landmarks
10. The Colosseum
The Colosseum is the most iconic monument in Rome and Italy. The works for the Amphitheatrum Flavium, the name by which it was known in ancient times, started under the Empire of Vespasian (69-79 AD) and ended about 30 years later, on the area which had been previously occupied by the park and lake of deceased Emperor Nero, the Domus Aurea.
The Colosseum reflected the will of the Roman government to give something back to the citizens, letting them take part in the games and brutal shows: access to the entertainment was free and the arena could seat up to 78.000 spectators. The greatness of the building is remarkable even today. The foundations could bear the weight of 100.000 cubic meters of travertine marble and 300 tons of iron connecting the blocks together. The Colosseum has an elliptical shape and develops on 4 levels, a system of gates, stairs, and corridor conceived in a way that all the people could exit the arena in a matter of minutes.
Only if you access the structure you’ll have an idea of how it felt to be inside and observe the battles. The interior is partly collapsed, so you can’t see anymore the bleachers but with a basic ticket, you can freely walk around the perimeter and have a 360 degrees view of the interior. If you’d like to explore the underground and understand how performances were staged, visiting the gladiators’ halls and the elevator used to lift the beasts, you need to get a “Colosseo Full Experience Ticket” (€31). Tip: in case you travel during the torrid Roman summer, consider taking an evening/night tour (6 PM-10 PM), it will be one of the most rewarding things you can do in Rome by night, as the Colosseum is all lit up with warm lights.
11. The Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus used to host cart races and it’s still nowadays one of the most impressive stadiums in the world. The bleachers are mostly covered with soil and grass, now, making it the perfect place to relax for a while before heading to the next stop or for concerts, which usually happen during the Roman summer, or at New Year’s Eve.
The Circus Maximus is a public area where you can spread your towel and have a picnic.
12. The Domus Aurea
Of all the monuments in Rome, the Domus Aurea is the one that influenced immensely the artistic trends of the following centuries. Emperor Nero stands out from in the history of Rome for his kinks and demands. His own supporters, as well as Roman historians and his successors, severely judged his conduct as immoral, his pulses excessive.
Nero looked up to the style of the Hellenic mansions when he conceived the, sumptuous abode, called Domus Aurea, that became the main residence in 66 AD.
The palaces of the new residence had incredibly long porticos, pavilions, a park with different species of wildlife and an artificial lake (the same lake that was drained by Nero’s successor to make room for the Colosseum). The majority of rooms were destined for leisure and banquets.
Nero loved the arts and considered himself an artist: rare polychrome marbles, fountains, and pools with sulfur and marine water, frescoes and bas-relieves were all over the place.
When the Domus Aurea started being unearthed during the 16th Century, artists could admire perfectly preserved Roman painting for the first time, they were amazed, and the genre “grotesque” was born.
This revival current in painting had enormous success throughout Italy and was chosen for the decoration of many Renaissance mansions like the Farnese Palace in Caprarola, a picturesque town near Rome.
Raffaello himself explored the excavation and studied the frescoes for many days.
How can you visit the Domus Aurea?
The remains are underground. Access to a guided itinerary of 220 meters through 32 rooms is possible from the Colle Oppio Park in Via Labicana. Only 25 visitors are admitted at a time and the guided tour is mandatory (€14 plus €6 for the year 2020-2021 to enjoy the exhibition “Raphael and the invention of Grotesque”). Booking your visit in advance on the official website will ensure you find a spot. The Domus Aurea is open only at weekends. If you visit Rome in winter, the temperature inside the Domus Aurea will be about 4 degrees.
Itinerary through Rome monuments and landmarks part 3: walk from Piazza Bocca della Verità to the Vatican
13. The Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of San Clemente is a monument that shows clearly the historical layers of Rome.
At ground level, there’s a cathedral from the 12th Century with three naves and splendid mosaics on the apsis. During the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, three more ancient, underground levels were discovered, the oldest belonging to the era when St. Clemens, the third successor of St. Peter, lived. Immediately under the contemporary layer, an early Christian basilica dating back to the 4th Century hosts the tombs and vestiges of St. Clemens and St. Cyril, with intact frescoes. Below that level, lies a temple dedicated to Mithra, a defensive wall with megalithic blocks, and a freshwater spring. You can visit all the levels with a €10 ticket.
The temple of Hercules Victor in Piazza Bocca della Verità, photo from Wikimedia
14. Piazza bocca della Verità
Here is another piazza with lots of monuments and history in Rome, which was a commercial hub for local and Greek traders. Let’s start with brave kids’ favorite: the Mouth of Truth. This big stone in the shape of a screaming faun, probably once served as a sewer’s hole, is kept under the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a means to judge suspects during trials: they would put one hand in the mouth of the mask: if they were sincere, they would be safe… if they were guilty, the mask would close the mouth, keeping their hand as a tax. The stone is extremely popular among locals, and that’s why you’ll see people in a line to take a photo in front of the Mouth of Truth.
The Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is very ancient. It was founded during the 6th Century on a much older pagan temple dedicated to Hercules. Inside the church, you can clearly see the intersection between Roman and Medieval layers.
15. Temple of Portunus
On one side of Piazza Bocca della Verità, in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, there are two Roman Temples. The Temple of Portunus, the protector of ports and rivers, was probably erected in connection with the near commercial Port Tiberinus. It was converted into a church during the 9th Century, dedicated to Santa Maria Egiziaca, defender of the women of low virtue.
16. Temple of Hercules Victor
On the same side of the Temple of Portunus, a Roman merchant founded the rounded Temple of Hercules Victor, which is the oldest building in marble of Rome. The deity is also known as Hercules Olivarius because he protected the corporation of oil makers.
17. Theater of Marcellus
This is the only theater of ancient Rome you can still admire in the city. The travertine arcades of the building are similar to the ones of the Colosseum, but not so tall. Caesar started the construction and Augustus finished Caesar’s job just in time for the “Centennial Games” of 17 AD. The monument could sit about 15000 spectators and hosted theatrical representations as well as music and poetry competitions. After the Roman Empire had adopted the Christian religion, the Theater of Marcellus was slowly abandoned and became a quarry to extract materials for the new churches.
18. Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome: the monuments that witnessed the death of Caesar
If you’ve enjoyed this itinerary through Rome’s monument and landmarks so far, you should also stop in Largo di Torre Argentina and have a look at the ruins at the center of the square. Here, the ancient layer of the city is even more visible, a few meters lower than ground level. The columns, basement, stones, and walls you see belonged to temples of important deities like Fortuna (the huge head belonging to the votive statue of the goddess is resting inside the Capitoline Museums), and Feronia. The building identified as the Senate Hall is the place where Julius Caesar was murdered in the 44 b.C.
The dome of the Pantheon
19. The Pantheon – the locals’ favorite of all Rome monuments
The Pantheon is the most incredible monument in Rome, less popular than the Colosseum, dearest to locals. It is also the best-preserved among all Rome monuments. It’s got the look we see today from the renovation at the time of Emperor Hadrian, around 120 AD.
The precision of this architecture, perfectly rounded, with identical height and width, will mesmerize you. Get inside and experience the harmony of its design standing near the center of the structure and admiring the solemn coffer ceiling of what still represents one of the biggest domes in the world.
The Pantheon has only one window: a hole at the top of the vault, from which a beam of light gets in and hits different parts of the surface, depending on the time of the day. Artists and kings are buried inside the place, which was born as a temple to all deities, and later declared a Catholic church. The Pantheon is a must-visit landmark in Rome, and the entrance is free, so you have no excuse to skip it!
20. Monuments of the Navona Square
If you love to discover one of the most interesting free things to do in Rome, follow the recommendation of a local and head to the Piazza Navona. This piazza holds a special place in the local’s heart because every Roman has been taken here by their parents as a kid to enjoy the sweets and the carousel. Piazza Navona is also a sublime meeting point, with the marble benches and the three Baroque fountain (the central one was designed by Bernini), with a background of ancient buildings and the fascinating Church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone, that will make you feel like you’re part of a painting.
Want to know some intriguing facts about Piazza Navona?
At the time of the Romans, the piazza was a stadium for athletics, that explains its elongated shape. You can still see the layer with the stadium from Via di Tor Sanguigna. Later in time, for two centuries and until the year 1866, the piazza got flooded with water during each weekend of the month of August to give the citizens a chance to refresh and have fun.
Saint Angel’s bridge and Castle
21. St. Angel’s Castle
The imposing Medieval fortress known as Castel Sant’Angelo awaits you on the other bank of the Tiber, at the end of a charming pedestrian bridge that will seize you and push you to take dozens of photos of the river, of the castle, of the statues with the angels, and of St. Peter’s Dome in the distance. The history of St. Angel’s Castle is complex: from tomb of Emperor Hadrian to fortress where the popes flew under the invaders’ siege, to prison for those who were to be publicly executed.
The castle and the bridge have witnessed brutal murders over the centuries, you wouldn’t guess it because the structure is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who appeared to Pope Gregorio Magno and freed Rome from the plague in 590 AD. The castle is now a museum (adult ticket costs €15).
If you’re following my itinerary through the must-see monuments of Rome, you will reach the Castle from Via del Banco di Santo Spirito and enjoy the best view of the fortress.
22. The Vatican Museums
One of the most popular museums in the world lies in the heart of Rome, enclosed in the Vatican State. The Vatican Museums display a huge part of the artistic treasures and artifacts that the popes have been collecting for centuries. The highlight of the is the frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, while the other numerous exhibitions include the Egyptian collection, the rooms of Raffaello, the Prophane Museum, the collection of geographical maps, the Etruscan Museum, and much more.
The average visit, which aims at the Sistine Chapel and everything on the way, lasts a couple of hours. Booking a ticket on the Vatican Museums’ website is highly recommended if you’re on a tight schedule!
The Cathedral of St. Peter is part of the Vatican State as well. Even if the St. Peter’s Square is spectacular, the interior of the cathedral is just as interesting as the other cathedrals in Rome. If you love to sweat, you can try and climb the 537 to the top of St. Peter’s Dome, from where you will see the best panoramic view on the city center.
I’m sure this tour among Rome monuments and landmarks has left you with a thousand pictures on your camera and sore feet! This is just the beginning though… you should hear something about the best food in Rome and where to eat it so that you can get some a reward for all the time and energy you’ve dedicated to my city 🙂
The historical layers that stand out the most in this itinerary in Rome are the Roman layer and the Baroque layer.
If you’d like to know more about the history of Rome and Italy, you could take a few day trips to the ancient towns near Rome and observe further the Etruscan and the Medieval layers.
Let me know in the comments how many of these Rome monuments you have checked from the list!