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Fascinating history! Hands down it's my favorite site in Rome along with the nearby Imperial Fora. The first time I went I did not take a tour, but the second time I did and I would highly recommend it. It's very hard to make sense of all the ruins without one. At minimum I think there are now audio tours on the internet you can download. It's so amazing to be able to stand next to the remains of Julius Caesar's cremation altar. I got goose bumps!
It is a complete and total nightmare to get here! Both times I have been the lines were unbelievable. There is no AC so it felt like a suana as I weeded my way through the crowds of the Vatican Museums on my way to the chapel. But once you get there, all I can say is WOW... It really takes your breath away! Highlights of the rest of the Vatican Museums include the Raphael rooms and The Collection of Modern Religious Art, which contains works by Picasso and Gauguin, among others.
Climb to the top of Capitoline Hill for great views of the forum and an excellent museum. The Piazza del Campidoglio at the top, as well as the architecture of the museum building, were designed by Michelangelo. The highlight of the museum is the enormous bronze sculpture of Marcus Aurelius on his horse (the real one is inside the museum, the one in the piazza is a copy).
Probably my favorite art museum in the world. Beautiful art in a gorgeous setting. The Bernini sculptures are mind-blowing. It is wonderful to be able to view such amazing art in a 17th-century villa. The gardens are beautiful as well (see below). The Borghese Gallery requires advance reservations. You can make a reservation through their website. You will then be given a reservation with a specific timed entry for your visit. You have a maximum of two hours to see the museum. A bit of prior planning is required, but this museum is definitely worth the extra trouble.
My favorite place to hang out in Rome. Lovely piazza with Bernini's spectacular Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. The piazza owes its long oval shape to ancient Roman ruins. Under the buildings are the remains of the Circus Domitianus (Domitian's stadium), where races were held in ancient times. Yes, there are lots of tourists, but there are lots of locals that congregate here as well. At one end of the piazza is Tre Scalini, a famous cafe that has sinful Tartufo (truffle) ice cream. To eat a meal at one of the outdoor cafes here is expensive and the food is not the best in Rome, but it's a small price to pay to watch the world go by in such a great setting.
Come inside from the grand courtyard to see what has to be the most ornately decorated church anywhere. As soon as you walk in to your right is Michelangelo's famous Pieta sculpture behind thick glass smudged with fingerprints. Downstairs are tombs of the popes. Walk up the steps to Michelangelo's dome for a spectacular photo of Rome.
This is one of the best preserved buildings that survives from ancient Roman times. It owes its good shape to the fact that early on it was converted to a Christian church. The dome was an architectural feat in its time. The building itself was designed by the Emporor Hadrian, who was also an architect. The artist Raphael is buried here.
One minute you are walking through a maze of narrow alleys, then you turn the corner and BAM- there's this enormous fountain. Try to come at night if you can, when the fountain is lit up it's a magical place to be. This really is a must, because if you toss a coin into the fountain over your shoulder it will ensure your return to Rome. I've done it every time I've gone so far and it's worked.
One of the oldest markets in Rome. By day there are stalls here selling fruit, vegetables and flowers. By night it can't be beat for atmosphere with all the bars and restaurants. You would never guess from the convivial feeling that executions used to be held here (though the statue of Giordano Bruno, a philosopher that was convicted of heresy and put to death, is a reminder)! Also check out Piazza Farnese nearby, with its Renaissance palace, charming church, and two fountains made from bathtubs that were taken from the ancient Baths of Caracalla.
This piazza with its twin baroque churches is a great place to stop for a quick drink. There are two historic (if pricey) cafes opposite one another, Rosati and Canova. The piazza is also home to the ancient church of Santa Maria del Popolo as well as an Egyptian obelisk dating from around 1200 B.C. (it was brought to Rome by the Emporor Augustus). From the square, walk up to the Pincio Terrace for what is my favorite view in Rome of the churches below and rooftops in the distance.
You probably can't come to Rome without visiting the Colosseum. It's a sight to behold from the outside. That being said, I am torn whether or not to recommend waiting in line and paying money to get inside. The inside, while interesting, is a bit of a letdown compared to the outside. Some of the tours of the Roman Forum begin here and include a bit about the Colosseum as well as admission inside. One thing I can tell you for sure though, avoid the men dressed like gladiators around the outside of the Colosseum like the plague! They will hound you to get your photo taken with them and then harrass you for money. Steer clear!
Old neighborhood on the other side of the Tiber from most of Rome's attractons. There are several wonderful old churches, but the main thing to do here is just wander the cobblestone streets. The restaurants and bars are great here and are filled with many more locals than tourists.
This would be my pick for a very close day or half-day trip from Rome. It's the ruins of an old Roman port city that fell into decline and eventually silted up, preserving the site. It's a great substitute for those that don't have the time to make the trip to Pompeii. It is also very easy to get to by public transportation, you can just take the metro and then transfer to a commuter train that takes you right there.
An ancient bridge that spans the Tiber, it's now for pedestrians only. There are great views from the bridge, but the bridge itself is a sight. It's decorated with ten Bernini angel statues that span the length. They were the last work he was commissioned to do, and some were completed after his death by his pupils. It's the perfect place to cross the Tiber on your way to the Vatican or Castel Sant'Angelo.
You need to pass through the gardens to get to the Borghese Gallery, so this one may be a no-brainer. However, even if you don't have the time or interest to go to the Borghese Gallery, the gardens are a beautiful public space. It's the second largest park in Rome, and is landscaped in the fashion of an English garden.
This is my favorite quirky site. Located in the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, La Bocca della Verita is a round marble medallion whose name means "mouth of truth". Legend has it that anyone that puts their hand inside is obligated to tell the truth or the mouth will bite it off. This medallion was featured in the movie "Roman Holiday". It's where Gregory Peck sticks his hand in and pretends to have lost it while Audrey Hepburn shrieks her head off.
Supposedly the best gelato in Rome. Did I think so? I enjoyed it immensely, but honestly I can't think of a time when I had gelato in Rome anywhere that I didn't enjoy. There are a couple of locations, I went to the one near Trastevere. The other location is by the Trevi Fountain.
Another gelato place with a great reputation. This one is very central to sightseeing, it is a stone's throw away from the Pantheon.
This elegant wine bar is near Termini Station and is about the only reason I can think of to go to that neighborhood. It's on Via Cernaia near the intersection of V Goito. There is also a wine shop by the same name on V Goito that has been there since 1821 and is Rome's oldest. They have a great selection of wines and will ship anywhere.
One of the main high-end shopping streets in Rome. There are lots of boutiques and historic buildings along this long, narrow street. Start at the Spanish Steps and work your way down. If you don't want to shop here or go to the nearby Piazza del Popolo, I don't think there is a need to see the Spanish Steps. Not much to look at by Rome's standards, crowded with swarms of people, and chances are the Trinita dei Monti church at the top will be covered with scaffolding.