There’s No Place Like Rome: A First-Time Visitor’s Guide

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“There's no place like Rome.”

That was the motto of my first trip to Italy, back in 2005. That trip was a one-week performance tour with my university marching band to not only the Eternal City, but also to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. But it was really Rome that all of us were looking forward to.

Most Americans begin learning about Rome as early as elementary school. We learn about gladiator fights in the Colosseum, the various emperors who ruled from Palatine Hill, and the thousands (yes, THOUSANDS) of years of history that this Italian city has to offer.

We don't have cities like this in America.

Piazza Navona

To me, Rome was always a city that I saw as being both romantic and edgy, modern yet historic, beautiful yet rough around the edges.

And you know what? It is. It's all of these things and more.

But, seeing as our band had so many places to visit in just one week, we were left with only about two days to explore Italy's capital. So how do you possibly choose what to see with so little time in Rome?

Well, you could do as I did and just hop on the metro and see what happens. Some friends and I took a day to just wander around the city, armed with only a guidebook and a vague sense of direction. This was incredibly fun, of course, but we probably would have been able to see more if we'd gone in with some sort of plan.

Victor Emmanuel II Monument

If 2005-me could have asked present-day-me what to do and see during that short amount of time in Rome, here's what I would have told her.

Must-dos on your first trip to Rome

Check out the Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy
Trevi Fountain

Despite the crowds and annoying vendors who will try to trick you into buying roses or stupid toys, the Trevi Fountain is still very much worth visiting. The fountain itself is beautiful, and it's a great place to go and people-watch.

Also, be sure bring some coins with you to throw in. There are many versions of how and how many coins you should throw… One coin is supposed to ensure you a return visit to Rome, while three coins over your left shoulder (which I did) is supposed to bring you good luck. Throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain is so popular that thousands of euros are thrown in each day.

Eat everything

Pasta, pizza, gelato, wine… You can't possibly go to Italy and NOT have them all. It would be a sin.

Go to the Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica
Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Speaking of sins, even if you're not Catholic, a visit to Vatican City is a must when in Rome. This sovereign city-state is home to the pope and the Catholic Church, and also the most ornate church I've ever visited — St. Peter's Basilica.

You may want to stroll through the Vatican museums (even if just to see the Sistine Chapel), hear a Mass inside St. Peter's, or perhaps climb a few hundred steps to the top of the dome of St. Peter's for a fantastic view out over Rome. Before you go, try to catch a glimpse of a Swiss Guard, and send a postcard from the Vatican City post office — the stamps and postmarks are worth it!

St. Peter's Square
Atop St. Peter's

RELATED: Why You Should Book a Tour of the Vatican

Tour the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

Roman Forum

It's free to walk through the ruins of the Roman Forum, and I would suggest doing it differently than I did the first time. I strolled through the ruins at dusk, with absolutely no clue what I was looking at. Sure, the ruins were cool-looking, but I would try to be at least a little more prepared next time, or maybe even hire a guide. I also missed Palatine Hill, which I regret.

Visit the Colosseum

Inside the Roman Colosseum
Inside the Roman Colosseum

The Colosseum is an incredible feat of engineering, and you should definitely make time to get inside if you can. (I didn't make it inside during my first trip to Rome, but did manage to visit on a behind-the-scenes tour on my second trip!) From the inside, you can see not only the stadium-style seating, but also the underground portion where gladiators and wild animals would have waited to go an compete in the arena.

Don't skip the Pantheon

Pantheon Rome

I skipped the Pantheon because I couldn't find it. This is a stupid excuse, and I was sure to visit on my second trip to Rome. While many other ancient structures in Rome have been renovated or left to crumble, the Pantheon has been left largely as-in. Meaning it looks today just as it did a thousand years ago. And that's pretty cool.

Climb the Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps in Rome

This isn't necessarily a “must” in my book, but the Spanish Steps are one of Rome's most well-known tourist spots. And, if it's your first time in Rome, chances are you'll want to hit all of those top spots. If you have to leave one thing off the list, however, this one could be it. Steps are steps, after all.

I'm aware that most of the things on my list are usually deemed as being very “touristy” in Rome. Things like touring the Colosseum and throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain, for example. But you know what? I don't really care. When I visit a big, historic city for the first time, I WANT to see all the touristy spots. I want to wander around with my camera and try to understand what all the hype is about.

It's not everyone's travel style, but it's definitely mine.

Vatican City, Rome, Italy
In Vatican City on my first trip to Rome in 2005!

So help me out. What are some of the other “must-sees” in Rome that you'd recommend to first-time visitors?

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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38 Comments on “There’s No Place Like Rome: A First-Time Visitor’s Guide

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  1. You can’t travel to Rome and not see all of the things that city is known for! I have not had the pleasure of traveling to Rome but I’m sure I would have some more “touristy” things to add.

      I agree! I mean, it’s all those “touristy” things that draw people to Rome to begin with, right?

      What are some of the other things you’d add to your Rome list?

    The Pantheon was arguably my favorite spot in Rome…you should probably look for it again the next time you’re there 😉

      I most certainly will! I was really kicking myself that I missed it the first time around.

    I love this place..This coming holiday vacation our whole family where going to visit Rome..So i AM REALLY EXCITED..

    Hi Amanda,
    It’s nice to know you and your blog!
    I have never been to Rome,so I really don’t have any “must sees”. I think like for Paris, Rome has its well -trodden path where everyone and his brother ends up on a first stay. I mention Paris because it is my “big neighbor”. I live in the Paris burbs.

    I hope to return here soon to enjoy more of your posts.

      I think you’re right about Rome and Paris both having that “well-trodden path.” But, the way I look at it, it wouldn’t be so well-trodden for no reason!

      Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll come again.

    I love your list of must sees! When I get to Rome I will definitely make sure I see and do all of your suggestions especially the gelato and wine suggestion! Can’t be in Rome and not enjoy these 🙂

      Thanks, Debbie! Hopefully you’ll get to enjoy Rome someday! It’s high on my list of place I want to return to.

      And yes, wine and gelato are a MUST in Italy!

    Oh, the Colosseum. It was awesome, but SO much smaller than I had expected!

      I guess I didn’t really go in with any preconceived notions about how big the Colosseum was. I mean, I knew basically nothing about Rome before going… I didn’t even realize that the Colosseum was RIGHT downtown on a busy street! But, yeah, it’s not exactly quite as huge as photos sometimes make it out to be.

    I spent my study abroad in Rome and it was amazing. I’m constantly dreaming of going back. I’d definitely recommend that visitors take a stroll through the Trastevere neighborhood just across the river. It’s one of my favorites! And you can’t go wrong with the major tourist attractions, they’re spectacular!

      Jealoussss! I image living in Rome would be interesting. I feel like it’s a big enough city that there are plenty of places you could go to get away from the tourist crowds if you wanted to.

      I’ve heard great things about the Trastevere neighborhood, so I’ll have to remember to check it out next time.

    I absolutely love Rome. It’s somewhere that I actually think I could live for a while. The only place in your list that I haven’t been is the Pyramid of Cestius. Will have to check it out next time I go.

      I really want to go back and spend more than just a couple of days there.

      And I’m not sure the Pyramid is something you can visit. It sits where an old crossroads used to be — the two major roads in and out of Rome met at this spot. We just drove by it, though. But it was strange to see a pyramid in Rome!

    Did you know that they reinvest the daily thousands of euros thrown in the Trevi fountain into local homeless shelters? Throw a penny, make a wish and help someone 🙂

      Yes, I have heard that! Which is actually really great. It makes me feel a lot better about throwing a couple euros in.

    Awesome post, Amanda! I honestly haven’t had a whole lot of flattering things about Rome, but this makes me want to go so badly.

      If you’re not into busy, touristy cities, you’ll probably hate Rome. But if you love history and old buildings within busy cities, then you’ll love it! I don’t necessarily love big cities, but I really enjoyed myself in Rome.

      I always hear a lot of things about girls getting harassed by Italian men in Rome. But, other than a few catcalls, I don’t remember it being an issue for me and my friends. Then again, perhaps we were just oblivious…

    […] [4] Rome is such an interesting place to visit.  I have been there three times, each time a short visit and I feel like I barely scraped the surface of this amazing city.  I definitely want to spend more time there. I am loving the re-cap that Amanda of A Dangerous Business wrote this week on this intriguing location.  Check out “There’s no place like Rome.” […]

    Rome is on my list and has been an option during several trip-planning episodes, but I keep finding other places. For a while it was the prospect of the long train ride, but with Ali I fly more. A few times I just found other places that interested me more at the time. I have spent a fair amount of time in northern Italy in fact.

    Rome is still on my list and hopefully next year will be the year. I’m totally into the touristy things. I liked the movie Roman Holiday so may spend a day just following the movie.

      Sounds like it’s about time to actually fit Rome into the plan! And I’m happy to hear of someone else who’s totally into the touristy things. 🙂 I think using “Roman Holiday” as a guide would be a great, fun idea!

    Oohh Perfect timing! We are going to Rome over Thanksgiving and this piece has me so excited! We usually do like to wander around a little aimlessly in new cities, but we’re thinking we really do have to see the major sites. Good to know which ones you recommend!

      Exciting!!! I hope you guys enjoy Rome. You’ll have to report back on which sites you enjoyed! Hopefully my tips prove helpful.

    Rome was one of my first solo trips. I went In December when all the tourists were gone and literally just walked around eating all day.

    It was perfect.

      It sounds perfect. 🙂 I was there in late November, and I think that had something to do with me enjoying it so much. There were tourists, yes, but not hordes.

    I don’t have that much to add except maybe something like Piazza di Spagna or the very elegant residential neighborhoods! I’m going to Rome on Thursday with my American cousin.. what did u like best?

      Oooo, have fun!! I think my favorite honestly was St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Climbing to the top of the dome and getting that bird’s-eye view of Rome was amazing.

    Wow these pictures made me want to travel abroad even more!!!

    I definitely agree with you- I absolutely love getting lost in a new city with only a map in hand, but I do my best to hit the major tourist sites that I’ve been hearing about my whole life. I’ve done a lot of traveling recently, but Rome is still my favorite!

      Rome is one of those cities that I think it’s difficult not to fall in love with!

    […] [4] Rome is such an interesting place to visit.  I have been there three times, each time a short visit and I feel like I barely scraped the surface of this amazing city.  I definitely want to spend more time there. I am loving the re-cap that Amanda of A Dangerous Business wrote this week on this intriguing location.  Check out “There’s no place like Rome.” […]

    On the gelato in Rome: Maybe this is lame, but that was one of my favorite things. My Godddd, so many different kinds and they were all so good! I was on an extreme budget (living in a nature preserve outside the city) during my time there, so days that included that delicious treat were rare and deeply appreciated haha.

      Yessss. Gelato in Italy is delicious – and dangerous!

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