Best Things to Do in Rome ~ A Guide for First Time Visitors in the ‘Eternal City’

Everything you’ve heard about Rome is true – the ‘Eternal City’ is an agonisingly seductive, if not demanding, temptress that will rouse your senses and test your patience in equal measures.

Ben Holbrook Rome travel guide

Words & photos by your Negroni-gulping guide, Ben Holbrook.

Try as you might to resist, you will end up falling in love with Rome’s decadent dome-skewed skyline and glory fading ruins, with the dirty, potholed, scooter-humming streets.

You will end up admiring the arrogance and vanity of the locals, and you will find yourself lusting after the feeling you can only achieve while caressing a creamy gelato or intense caffè in a piazza at dusk.

Even in the rain and cold (and snow!), I was enchanted at every turn. This is, after all, la dolce vita, albeit a modern, slightly decaying version.

But with the best part of 3,000 years of historical and cultural heritage to discover, it’s normal to feel more than a little overwhelmed when planning your first (or even second) visit to Rome. And that’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide – to offer travel tips tailored specifically for first time visitors in Rome based on my various personal encounters and the things I’ve learned from locals along the way.

From advice on the best way to visit the Vatican City, Roman Forum and Colosseum to tips on where to eat & drink the best pizza, pasta, gelato, wine and coffee in Rome, these are what I believe to be the best things to see, do and eat in Rome. Andiamo!


Things to Do, See and Eat in Rome for First Time Visitors

Rome is a vast and imposing city, a living museum that’s home to a ridiculous array of UNECO World Heritage Sites. But the good news is that many of Rome’s famous attractions are squeezed into the Centro Storico (Historic Centre), which you can explore entirely on foot (with a decent pair of shoes on at least).

In fact, my advice in a nutshell would be: simply head to the Centro Storico as early as possible in the day, visit the sites with the shortest lines and stop off for as much pizza, pasta, coffee and ice cream as you can possibly manage in between.

Rome's iconic Altare della Patria in the rain. By Ben Holbrook.

Rome’s iconic Altare della Patria is every bit as impressive in the rain.

1. First Things First – Cultivate a Rome State of Mind

Gelato in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

When in Rome…

You can’t really go wrong in Rome, but you need to approach it with the right mentality. It’s important to decide what you want from your time in Rome on a personal level – for me it was to avoid suffering from museum fatigue and to dedicate as much of my time to eating/drinking as possible.

Let go of the idea of ‘ticking boxes’ and accept that, no matter how determined you are or how much time you have, you aren’t going to be able to see and do all of Rome, not even if you move to the city for a year or two.

So relax, slow down, have that extra scoop of gelato, linger over your coffee a little while longer, steal another kiss. After all, when in Rome…

2. Start Your Day the Italian Way – With Caffè

Antico Caffè Greco - the oldest coffee shop in Rome, Italy

Antico Caffè Greco – the oldest coffee shop in Rome.

Prendiamo un caffè?” (Shall we grab a coffee?) – you’ll hear this everywhere in Rome. The ritual of drinking coffee is so ingrained in Italian culture that it would be a sin to start a day without taking part. Whether it’s first thing in the morning, pre-lunch, post-lunch or mid-afternoon, Italians guzzle coffee all day, every day, and I recommend doing the same.

Survival Tips for Ordering Coffee in Rome

Observe Italy’s unwritten coffee drinking laws: The Italians will only drink milk with their coffee (think cappuccinos, lattes and machiatos) in the morning. For the rest of the day it’s strictly ‘caffè’ (espresso). Baristas will roll their eyes (and even laugh) if you order coffee with milk after lunch time (but no one really cares, so don’t worry too much).

Go for coffee, not breakfast: With lunch being the most important meal in Italy, breakfast is little more than a cappuccino or latte with a sweet little ‘cornetto’ pastry, a sort of miniature croissant, so be sure to eat a good breakfast at your hotel/apartment if you’re used to eating well in the mornings).

Drink your coffee quickly at the bar: Italians drink a ridiculous amount of coffee, but they drink it little and often. The idea is to stand at the bar to drink your coffee (quickly) without causing a fuss, and to do this as often as possible. Be warned that you will be charged a lot more (double or even triple) for sitting on a terrace or inside a café.

Order like the locals: In Italy you simply ask for ‘un caffè’, which is an espresso, a short and intense shot of coffee. Be aware that the Italians don’t really do ‘caffè doppio’ (double espressos), so you’ll be giving off tourist vibes just as soon as you order one. Not that it really matters.

Where to drink coffee in Rome

You’ll see bars (bars in Rome/Italy are coffee bars, not bar bars) on every street and you rarely need to walk far to get your fix. You’ll find that the coffee is almost always good (or at least better than you’re used to back home), so you don’t need to go to a “speciality coffee shop” to find skilled baristas in Rome. In short: don’t stress too much about where you go.

 An artist painting at Antico Caffè Greco - Rome's oldest cafe.

An artist at work in Antico Caffè Greco.

Saying that, if you want to treat yourself then I highly recommend paying a visit to Antico Caffè Greco. It’s the oldest cafe in Rome and has been an important meeting point for writers, artists and politicians since 1760. The waiters wear full tails and dickie bows, and the space itself is lavished with crimson fabrics and gleaming marble furnishings.

It’s bloody expensive at around €7/8 for a coffee (normally you’ll pay around €1 or €2) but it really is quite the experience – a true taste of living Roman history. Also, it’s conveniently located at the bottom of the famous Spanish Steps (more about these below), making it a good place to immerse yourself in the city on your first day.

Other legendary coffee shops in Rome include: Gelateria Giolitti near the Pantheon, and Caffè Sant’Eustachio (recommended to me by a local) which is located ideally between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon.

3. Tour Vatican City: The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica

Tour Vatican City: The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's BasilicaVatican City is a nation-state, the smallest country in the world. There’s a lot to see.

Located within Rome, it covers about 100 acres and is governed entirely by the Pope. I’m not entirely sure why it exists, but the fact that it has its own mint to print its own money, and is exempt from paying tax, makes me think it has something to do with cold, hard cash – especially when you consider it receives around five million paying visitors a year. At €16 per person, the Vatican generates around €80/£70 million tax free a year (as well as what ever they make from souvenirs). Not a bad little earner.

Vatican City is important because it houses:

The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel

Tour Vatican City: The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's Basilica

The Raphael Rooms.

These 1400 rooms and hallways contain 3,000 years’ worth of art (frescoes, sculptures, tapestries and more). The most famous are the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s masterful frescoes in The Sistine Chapel, which depict nine stories from the Book of Genesis. Whether you’re religious or not, this really is a very special experience.

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica main dome

St. Peter’s Basilica main dome.

The finale of the show is the hulking church of St. Peter’s, which is one of the largest in the world. Not only is it home to St.Peter’s (one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles) crypt, but it also harbours Michelangelo’s iconic ‘Pietà’ sculpture, which depicts the body of Jesus being held by his mother Mary after his crucifixion.

It is the only piece of work that Michelangelo ever signed. Today it is housed behind bulletproof glass after a deranged geologist took a hammer to it while screaming that he was Jesus.

Survival Tips for Visiting Rome’s Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica main dome Take a tour and skip the line (essential!): Visiting the Vatican can be quite a tumultuous experience. Some 25,000 people visit every day and I found it to be total pandemonium (even in February!).

I strongly suggest making the most of your time by joining a tour so you can benefit from skip-the-line entry (the lines to get in were insane and I can’t imagine standing there for hours in the blistering sun (or rain as was the case on our visit) to get in.

Our guide Lindy was amazing and brought the place to life with colourful stories and fascinating information about the various spaces and art, especially related to Raphael and Michelangelo.

You can book the same 3-hour tour of the Vatican that we did here (I highly recommend it).

St. Peter’s Basilica

“I’m looking for guidance. Somebody said you might be able to help.”

The Vatican museums are free on the last Sunday of each month: If you don’t have the time to enter then be sure to visit the iconic St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro) to get a sense of the Vatican’s scale and cultural importance. From here you can also see the Pope’s Sunday Angelus and Wednesday morning prayers (when he’s in town at least).

Nearest Metro: Ottaviano

4. Steal a Kiss in Piazza Navona

Steal a Kiss in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Piazza Navona is Rome’s most romantic piazza.

When I think of Rome, the first thing that springs to mind is the piazzas (squares). They’re everywhere, filled with trickling water fountains and ornate churches.

By day you’ll find them filled with people either licking ice creams or sucking face. At night you’ll find the locals enjoying their passeggiata, a gentle stroll alone or with loved ones – typically dressed to the nines.

As night falls, students gather to share bottles of Peroni, and local lotharios don their finest, unleashing themselves on anything that moves – ciao bella!

Piazza Navona in Rome - by Ben Holbrook.

Kiss me quick.

Of all the piazzas in Rome, Piazza Navona is one of the most romantic, especially at night. The Fountain of the Four Rivers and Baroque buildings make it feel like something out of an old film.

Grab an Aperol spritz, Negroni or Prosecco on one of the café terraces and soak it all in. This is what Rome’s all about.

Italian Police in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

“How’re the wife and bambinos?”

Other piazzas in Rome worth a visit include, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, Piazza Santa Maria and the emblematic Campo de’ Fiori.

Nearest Metro: Senato

5. Battle Your Way Through the Colosseum

Colosseum Rome by Ben Holbrook

The battle-scarred Colosseum.

One of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, Rome’s Colosseum was built between 72 A.D and 80 A.D and held crowds of up to 65,000 people. It was built by tens of thousands of slaves and is the largest amphitheatre ever erected. Of course, this is the most obvious tourist attraction in Rome, but it’s one you won’t want to miss.

The Colosseum was all about entertainment. Morning “shows” typically revolved around the executions of convicted criminals, army deserters, rebels, traitors, slaves and Christians. Most would be nailed to a cross and burned alive, but many were thrown to wild animals (Damnatio ad bestias – Latin for “condemnation by beasts”). In other words, they were fed to crocodiles, wolves, bears, lions and tigers. Oftentimes, if the condemned knew they were going to be, quite literally, fed to the wolves, they would commit suicide.

Midday shows saw gladiators and other trained “bestiarii” (beast slayers) would take to the stage to perform staged hunts. It was common for up to 10,000 animals to be slaughtered in a single day, which led to the near extinction of animals like rhinos and hippos, and the actual extinction of the North African Elephant. Sad but true.

Evening shows, as we all know, saw the grand finale – gladiator against gladiator. Gladiators were usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals, but they were treated relatively well as their ‘owners’ would benefit greatly from their success. Apparently there were female gladiators as well and male.

Fun Fact: Experts believe that the Romans used to flood the Colosseum and stage ‘naumachia’ shows (navy ship battles). The condemned prisoners would fight each other from ships – to the death. In fact I’ve heard some crazy stories about the Romans back in the day. Apparently, in their constant bid to blend justice/punishment with entertainment, one ingenious group of gentlemen trained giraffes to rape female criminals.

Survival Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

Take a tour and skip the line: Again, the lines to get into the Colosseum are beyond ridiculous and you won’t want to waste half a day just standing around. Seriously, invest a few extra euros in a skip-the-line tour ticket and preserve your sanity.

You’ll also get a better feel for the fascinating and horrific stories that this gargantuan death gauntlet beholds. The ticket also includes your visit and tour of the Roman Forum. Talking of which…

Nearest Metro: Colosseo

6. Roam the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Entering the Roman Forum.

Located just next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, which I believe is the most fascinating ruin in Rome.

The Forum was an important market, the social and political hub of the Roman Empire. It’s filled with grandiose relics, including temples, churches and crumbling pillars. When you picture Roman ruins in your mind’s eye, this is more than likely the scene that you envisage.

We spent hours exploring it and I could have easily gone back for more the next day. I just couldn’t fathom that I was standing on a site dating back to the 7th century BC. If only the walls could speak.

Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

The view over the Roman Forum and Colosseum from Palatine Hill.

Overlooking the Forum is Palatine Hill, which is where the rich and important Romans resided in their palaces. It’s often described as the ‘Beverly Hills of Rome’, but I think that evokes all sorts of unsuitable connotations.

It is said that it was here that Romulus killed his twin brother Remus and founded the city in 753 BC. The views over the Forum and Rome’s skyline blew my mind. This is not to be missed.

Fun Fact: The word “palace” comes from El Monte Palatino (Palatine Hill), where Augustus and his chums built their palaces.

Survival Tips for Visiting the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Visit the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill after visiting the Colosseum – your skip-the-line Colosseum tour ticket will include the entry and a guided tour).

Nearest Metro: Colosseo

7. Eat Your Way Through Vibrant Trastevere

Trastevere working-class neighbourhood in, Rome - by Ben Holbrook

Local vibes in Trastevere.

Stroll across the River Taber to the village-like rioni (neighbourhood) of Trastevere and take a break from the thronging Centro Storico. This historically working-class area was once home to the majority of the city’s immigrant population and, as so often happens, it quickly became one of the most interesting and diverse places to eat. 

Trastevere working-class neighbourhood in, Rome - by Ben Holbrook

Local life in Rome's quiet Trastevere neighbourhood - by Ben Holbrook.

Ciao regazzo!

By day, its ochre and bottle-green streets hum along with the gentle rumble of locals popping in and out of delicatessens, cafés, market stalls and butchers.

By night its ivy-choked walls harbour some of the finest watering-holes in Rome, attracting students, revellers and carousers from all parts of the city.

Survival Tips for Exploring Trastevere

Eating suppli on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour

Eating Rome’s famous suppli on Eating Italy’s ‘Trastevere for Foodies’ food tour.

Eating porchetta on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour in Rome.

Perfect porchetta on the ‘Trastevere for Foodies’ food tour in Rome.

We didn’t have much time on our last visit to Rome (2.5 days) and we really wanted to see/eat the best of Trastevere, so we joined Eating Italy’s fantastic ‘Trastevere for Foodies‘ food tour.

With our fellow food-loving guide Sebastiana leading the way, our little group spent four glorious hours getting to know this workaday nook of the city, eating all the right things in all the right places.

Market moments on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour.

Market moments on Eating Italy’s ‘Trastevere for Foodies’ food tour.

Market moments on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour - by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.com

Market moments on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour - by Ben Holbrook from DriftwoodJournals.comWe nibbled on Roman cheese at the Polica family’s ancient Antica Caciara delicatessen, we ate Rome’s famous ‘suppli’ street food (a sort of fried ball of risotto) and the most succulent porchetta I’ve ever had.

We met traders at the local market, stopped off for gelato, indulged in Italian wine and pasta at a trattoria and finished our feast with traditional biscotti at a backstreet bakery.

Enjoying gourmet gelato on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour.

Enjoying gourmet gelato on Eating Italy’s ‘Trastevere for Foodies’ food tour.

 on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour in Rome.

 on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour in Rome.

The best biscotti in Rome.

Eating biscotti on Eating Italy's 'Trastevere for Foodies' food tour in Rome.

Beautiful biscotti. And ‘ugly nipples’ (I may be wrong – this was post vino).

It was definitely one of the highlights from our trip and I highly recommend it. There are three tours starting at 10:45am, 11:30am and 12:15pm (Mon to Sat), so it’s easy to make it work nicely with your itinerary.

Make it Happen: Visit the Eating Italy Food Tours website for more info and to book your spot. 

Nearest Metro: Trastevere (Mastai)

8. Ponder the Meaning of Life at the Pantheon

The Pantheon in Rome - by Ben Holbrook.

The third incarnation of the Pantheon.

One of Rome’s most famous landmarks, the Pantheon (from the Greek for “honour all Gods”) is the best-preserved monument from Ancient Rome.

Its exact age is unknown, but it is known that this is the third incarnation of the building. The first was built in around 27 BC but burned down. The second was built in the 1st century AD and also burned down. The third (this one) was built in 125 AD and has survived five fires and being struck by lighting. Kind of puts your puny, short-lived little life into perspective really.

With a diameter of some 140 feet, the Pantheon’s dome is actually larger than St. Peter’s dome, and it remains the single largest unreinforced, concrete dome in the world.

Fun Fact: The 16 granite columns that guard the facade were quarried in Egypt, dragged 100km to the Nile, placed on barges and shipped up the river, then transferred to bigger boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

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