Rome – Top 20 – Must See, Must Do, Must Eat!

Time to take a break from the Money Matters series – we need a little fun and wanderlust sprinkled into the mix for good measure. Last May, I went to Rome for four days and fell truly, madly, deeply in LOVE with the Eternal City. While I shared my time in Rome over four splendid blog posts – here, here, here and here – I wanted to give you the quick‘n’dirty Stiletto’s Guide to Rome featuring my top 20 favorite things to do, see, eat in this fabulous city.

If you (or anyone you know) is planning on visiting Rome anytime soon – please, please, please prioritize these things when in Rome:

1. Colosseum

I know – this one is completely obvious – but don’t let the long lines and crowds deter you from visiting this ridiculous historical landmark. Buy your tickets online here and make sure you get the two day open pass with access to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It is $18 dollars per person (cheaper for students and those under 25) and it is worth every penny. You skip all of the crazy lines to get tickets, but you do have to go through a security screening line. Depending on the time of day, this can be a little crazy so start your day early with this one (or save it for later in the afternoon when the crowds have subsided).

I didn’t take any tours in the Colosseum but I did have my handy Rick Steves’ Walking Tour – which are my absolute fave when traveling around Europe – mostly for the dad jokes which are both lame and excellent all at once. Plus they are free, informative (yes, I am nerdy like that) and cheesy as hell – the perfect combo.

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Front and center

2. The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill

The Roman Forum takes a couple of hours so make sure you save enough time for all of these amazing ruins. There is an audio guide available at the entrance, included in the ticket, so make sure you grab one of those (unless you are going the Rick Steves route)! Don’t miss out on all of the temples and save some time for Palatine Hill at the end – we made the unfortunate mistake of going too late in the day and only got a little time to explore Palatine Hill before getting shooed out by park rangers.

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Views over the Roman Forum

3. Ponte Sant’Angelo and Castel Sant’Angelo

The angel bridge and angel castle are definitely worth a visit – if you have time, go in to explore the castle itself – some fun facts: it was constructed to be Emporer Hadrien’s tomb but has also been used as a papal palace and a prison. The bridge is stunning, crossing the Tiber with various angels all along its path. It was featured in “Roman Holiday” – the location of the barge party Audrey Hepburn attended incognito.

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4. The Vatican Museums

The Vatican museums are incredibly huge and overwhelming – we had a few hours here one evening (they are open on certain late nights in the summer months) but three hours was more than sufficient. It is well worth the time and energy to visit – the golden halls, the extensive collections, the gardens… definitely worth it. Again, this is one that you should get tickets to in advance – it will save you time and lines.

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5. St Peter’s Basilica

As with many worthwhile sites in Rome, you definitely need to budget line time for this one. Entry to the Vatican is free, however there are some areas that you have to pay for (like climbing up to the top of the dome – totally worth it!). Word to the tired tootsies out there – it is 551 steps to the top but the views are priceless so power through.

There is a treasury, grottoes and of course, the Basilica itself – budget about 2-3 hours total here… not including line time! There is quite a bit of security to get through before they let you in AND make sure you bring a scarf/shawl to cover your shoulders – no shoulders, no skirts above your knees! (God doesn’t want to see all that!)

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Climbing the stairs to the top!
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The view from the top of the Basilica.

6. Sistine Chapel

We hit this bad boy at the end of our first full day in Rome – after an entire evening exploring the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is actually located in the Vatican Museum (at the very end) so make sure you leave adequate time to enjoy the majesty of this particular room – I kinda wished it was at the beginning because so many rooms in the Vatican are so overwhelmingly jaw-dropping that you get to the Sistine Chapel and you’re like… this is nice. It is all relative, right? Expect crowds, wait for someone to leave one of the benches, grab a seat and listen to all of the audio tour stops that tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the chapel and more. And you can’t take pictures… and they will yell at you if you try… trust me.

7. Pantheon

The Pantheon is one of bazillion old buildings in Rome but it is by far one of the best preserved – even though it has a hole in the ceiling. While the rotunda and interior are impressive, I found the entryway (portico) even more striking – the large granite columns weighing over 100 tons and well over 50 feet tall were carried into Rome (around 110AD…. So not on trucks) to construct the Pantheon – pretty incredible. There may be a little bit of a line but it moves quickly … so grab a granite from Tazza D’oro across the piazza.

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8. Jewish Ghetto

This was one of my favorite neighborhoods of Rome – the history, the small winded streets, the lack of crowds – it was divine. I definitely recommend downloading an audio walking tour to really immerse yourself in the history and culture of the Jewish ghetto (which was the first of its kind). As always, you can’t go wrong with Rick Steves.

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Make sure you sample some of the local fare – in particular the fried artichokes (carcofi) that can only be famously prepared by Italian Jewish grandmothers! For a fantastic restaurant – try Piperno – in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto – it has a beautiful outside terrace in a quiet inner courtyard.

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9. Spanish Steps

You gotta do this… unfortunately, they were completely under renovation when I was there… guess, I will have to go back… such a shame.

10. Row Boats at the Villa Borghese

The Villa Borghese is one of the largest parks in Rome and it is stunning – but the real treat is the little lake that has beautiful Roman temples scattered around it. Since I was in Rome with my main man (who at the time was not my main man… so was hidden from the public eye), I made him row me around the Lago and take beautiful pictures… he did… and now he’s my man… funny how that worked out. So grab your fave girl or guy and row like little love birds around the lake. But don’t forget to wander around the Villa Borghese gardens a bit too – it makes all of the crowds around some of the big-ticket sites seem miles and miles away.

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11. Trevi Fountain – by day and by night

Speaking of crowds – holy Trevi Fountain. It was incredibly, incredibly difficult to take a picture of the fountain without a million people/cameras/electrical wires in the view… so best of luck to you. Make sure you go through the ritual coin toss into the fountain – from your right hand over your left shoulder – one coin to return to Rome in the future, two coins for a new romance, three coins for marriage. Or so they say…but that fountain collects well over $1 million dollars a year in coins so you tell me who is really getting lucky here…

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12. Knights of Malta keyhole

This was a bit out of the way, but if you want to get a pretty incredible view of St Peter’s – this is the place to be. Bring a fancy camera because getting a shot through a keyhole with an iPhone is a bit of a challenge. Prepare to stand in line for a few minutes and wait your turn to see the hedge lined path that leads to one of the most famous views of Rome.

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Peeking through the keyhole

This was the sight:

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So hard to capture with just an iPhone… so this one is courtesy of National Geographic.

13. Cacio e pepe

Any decent restaurant in Rome will have cacio e pepe (the literal translation of which is cheese and pepper) on the menu… the trick is to find the best one! I tried two that were AMAZING – Goose (near the Vatican) and Amadeo (near the Colosseum). Make sure it is made with bucatini – and leave room for dessert… you will want the tiramisu for sure.

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14. Gelato di San Crispino

I am pretty sure that we ate gelato at least three times a day… but this was by far, my favorite: Gelato di San Crispino. There is one near the Trevi fountain – we stopped here for breakfast (I wasn’t kidding about three times a day). They had a honey gelato that was to die for…. like I would literally die for it.

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15. Walking tour of Trastevere

Wandering around the Trastevere neighborhood is delightful. There are fewer crowds, picturesque piazzas, colorful markets and historic sites around every corner. The Campo de Fiori market is a great place to start but make sure you walk along the Via del Moro, hit the Piazza di Santa Maria, check out the Villa Farnesina and explore the Basilica di Santa Cecilia.

16. Aperitivo

Aperitivo is the Italian equivalent of a happy hour buffet extravaganza. You don’t get a discount on your cocktail but you get free food… and sometimes you get A LOT of it. So shell out your euros for a worthwhile cause (cocktail) because the benefits come in the form of a full buffet. Try Gusto – not far from the Tiber river.

17. Pincian Hill

This is one of the seven hills of Rome and overlooks the Piazza del Popolo – the gateway to another one of Rome’s beautiful parks with fantastic views of the city and its many church domes.

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Passeggiata del Pincio

18. Rooftop Bar for a sunset drink

No joke – this was the view from the rooftop bar of our hotel at the Hotel Colosseum. A lot of the hotels have intimate rooftop bars for sipping a icy Aperol spritz before dinner. Enjoy!

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19. Rose Garden (Roseto) – Aventino Hill

The roses here were in full bloom at the end of May but I am sure they keep them alive and well for the spring and summer months. Just a short walk down from the Knights of Malta Keyhole – on the way to the Roman Forum!

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Roseta

20. Granita con crema at Tazza D’Oro

One of my most favorite things is a granita con crema – sweetened espresso shaved ice with whipped cream – and this one is the best in the city. It has been around since 1944 and can be found right near the Pantheon – so grab one before getting in line!

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Granita con crema!

In short – get to Rome as soon as humanly possible. It is divine and you will not be disappointed!

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