Rome is on almost every Metrópolette’s bucket list as an iconic cool urban world-class city. Rome is a city that must be more than visited; it must be conquered and made your own. The way to make this city your own is to make sure you know what the things to do in Rome are. And don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path!
Accomplishing the goal of becoming Rome savvy without breaking the bank is often the worry as we set out with our hearts set on a fabulous Roman Holiday.
(By the way Roman Holiday is a 1953 classic movie where a princess sets out to see Rome on her own. Images from the movie are now found on postcards in every Roman souvenir shop. Lately I’ve been quite taken up with all things Mid Century Modern, so when I saw the cool postcard of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn careening Roman streets on a Vesper I snapped it up to turn into some pop art for my living room)
Before starting out to Rome it’s almost overwhelming how to decide what to do. The traditional list of things to do in Rome is long. Then when you start talking to locals you discover there’s this whole other lesser-known list of incredible sites. No trip to Rome happens without the obligatory trip to the Coliseum of course and then there’s the Vatican tour.
- Book your tour of the coliseum and of the Vatican museums ahead of time as these are super busy attractions and you want to avoid the lineups.
- Don’t buy fancy tour guide tours, these are on the internet and pop up in your Google search looking very official, but run from 65 to 150 Euros a person. We rented the head phone audio guide at the coliseum and got the full download of the history of it… As for the Vatican, the official Vatican site offers tours for 35 Euros each. We did that and we weren’t disappointed.
Lesser-known things to do in Rome include:
- The Villa Borghese Gardens
- Visiting the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome
- Ostia Antica (especially if you’re craving a resort-like day)
We rather stumbled on Ostia Antica as we had become desperate for a dip in the sea to cool down from our usual 90 + degree days! We discovered that there is an ancient abandoned and preserved city port at the coast a short and cheap(!) train ride away. Determined to taste the Mediterranean sea on our list of things to do in Rome, we took the short bus ride from the last train station at Ostia and got off at beach number 8… and we were very pleased about our find!
An entrance fee of 15 Euros each bought us access to a delicious looking swimming pool, tasty cheap eats and the chance to sit on the beach and swim in the sea. We enjoyed our few hours at the beach, then continued checking other things to do in Rome off our bucket list – such as to see the ruins in Ostica Antica.
The coolest thing I learned at the ruins was that there was a community bath house, very large, decorated with gorgeous mosaics of Roman Gods where the people bathed and exercised. 2000 years ago they were going to their local community rec centre!
Next, there are the Seven Pilgrim churches known to be ancient and significant that could be incredible and free additions to your list of things to do in Rome. You don’t need to be a church goer or a Catholic to be awed by the history, and the art you will see in these. We didn’t see them all but did see 4 and 2 stood out for me. One is St. Peter in Chains where you will see a massive sculpture of Moses by Michalangelo. The second is St. Clement (pictured below), a site with 2000 years of history starting with the original pagan temple later built on to be a Basilica of the 4th century and then again built over to become a basilica of the 11th century.
The Villa Borghese Gardens are my third recommendation of off the beaten path things to do in Rome. This is like the Central Park of Rome, plus it has an amazing collection of renaissance and older art in the museum. This site needs a minimum of half your day, and could easily stretch to the whole day. Rent a tandem bike and explore… then use your pre-booked ticket to access the museum. The most interesting thing I learned here was that Napoleon’s sister Paolina married into the Borghese family and was instrumental in a cheap sell off of some of the most important works of art to France which are now seen in the Louvre. She was apparently scandalous to Roman society especially after posing nude for a sculpture of herself, hidden away in her time and now on display at the Villa Borghese.
Of course in addition to these things to do in Rome, there are the usual big hitters that you can’t miss: the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona or the Spanish Steps. I didn’t buy the usual guidebooks but pulled from the internet the must do things and then filled in the finer details from our Airbnb hosts. By the way we probably had the most charming Airbnb experience ever with Giovanni and Tiziano and their little dog Etorre. The Roman Holiday did indeed make Rome ours, and we didn’t have to spend like royals!