Going Behind, Beneath & Beyond Rome’s Top Attractions
Rome, it is often said, is just one big museum or archaeological site. The task of choosing what attractions to visit can overwhelm before you even step foot in the city. And the number of different lists of must see places often does not help making a choice any easier. With my suggestions, I add a twist to some of the more popular sights for those visitors to the ‘eternal city’ who want to do more than just tick off a list of attractions.
The information on this page was last checked and/or updated on 4 November 2021.
Sunset on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, once called the Pons Aelius – the Bridge of Hadrian, that crosses the Tiber River in Rome.
There are probably as many lists online with recommendations for what to see in Rome as there are places to visit. Some of these try to offer something different, but in the end most come down to much the same list, whether it is the Colosseum or the holy grail of gelato. Do we really need another list?
Some people start frothing at the mouth at the very idea of a ‘Top Ten List’. While I agree with some of their reasons, my problem with lists is that they tend to focus on single attractions; as if that site is isolated from its physical surroundings. And what tends to happen is that people chase around Rome desperately trying to get to all ten sites to avoid any awkward situations when asked about what they did (or didn’t do).
So what is my twist?
The list below is a compilation of a number of different lists – a top ten of top tens if you like. But for each, with more detail for the top five, I suggest going behind, beyond and beneath the star attraction to make the usual unusual. Going off the beaten track to find some decorated balcony in a quaint back street is all very well. But a lot of people do want to see the Colosseum. There is a reason why this iconic, ancient landmark is the most recommended site in Rome. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see popular tourist attractions. In many cases, however, there is more to see than the obvious.
Go behind the Trevi Fountain, go beyond the Roman Forum, go beneath the Vatican City – you will be glad you did.
1. The Colosseum
Rome’s most popular site. The Colosseum is at the top of most people’s list of places to visit in Rome. And with good reason. You have to really dislike archaeology and/or the ancient Romans not to want to see it for yourself.
The largest amphitheatre built by the Romans, the Colosseum could seat between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators.
Not only is this the best preserved of all the Roman amphitheatres, it was the most grandiose amphitheatre when it was built – and was never bettered in any other arena constructed subsequently. Understandably then, the Colosseum is not only the most iconic image of Rome but perhaps of all Roman archaeology. And going inside to see the seating levels, the arena and the now exposed subterranean tunnels lives up to most expectations. I have to confess, I thought the arena itself was going to be bigger – not that it is disappointing!
There are a number opportunities for guided tours of the Colosseum, during the day or the evening – a Night-Time Tour of the Colosseum is definitely on my bucket list. However you choose to visit, take some time to go behind the Colosseum (from the entrance) and see the remains of the Ludus Magnus, now below street level and partially excavated. Here you will see about half of what was the practice arena and the barracks of the gladiators that performed in the Colosseum. In the buildings above the unexposed part, there is an excellent coffee shop – much less crowded as most visitors to the Colosseum skip this side.
Tips for Tickets & Guided Tours of the Colosseum
As this is the most visited attraction in Rome, at busy periods you can wait up to two hours in the queue. Most tickets for the Colosseum include the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. The best ticket to take to avoid the queues at the Colosseum is one where you get skip-the-line and hosted entry to the archaeological sites.
For not much more, you can get a Guided Tour of the Colosseum, as well as the Forum and Palatine Hill. But perhaps the best option in my opinion is the VIP Tour of the Colosseum. On this tour you get to enter the arena through the gladiators’ gate – not available with a regular ticket. The tour also includes a tour of the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill.
2. The Trevi Fountain
Throwing a few coins into the pool of the Trevi Fountain is said to ensure a return to Rome. Whether you do want to return or not, the slightly over-the-top fountain is a popular spot to have your photograph taken. And a picturesque one it is, day or night.
Trevi Fountain: a Baroque façade for an ancient fountain.
The wonderful sculptures that make up the fountain act out the Taming of the Waters. Behind the Baroque fountain, figuratively and literally, is a Roman story, remains of which can still be seen today. Bas reliefs on the Palazzo Poli illustrate these origins.
Today Trevi Fountain is supplied by the Aqua Vergine, which is a 15th century restoration of a Roman aqueduct – the Aqua Virgo, constructed in 19 BC. Not much of the ancient aqueduct survives, but a few travertine arches can be seen behind the fountains on via del Nazzareno (red markers on the map above). And across the streets from the arches is the round-headed inspection duct of the Aqua Vergine in the wall. An inscription on the architrave dating to 46 AD tells how Claudius had to rebuild a portion of the aqueduct because Caligula had taken the stone to build an amphitheatre.
Another feature of the ancient aqueduct that supplied Rome can be seen in the basement on the nearby Trevi Cinema. Recent excavations have not only uncovered the remains of an early apartment block, but also structures that contained a large distribution tank (that held 150,000 litres of water) supplied by the Aqua Virgo. These archaeological remains, 9 metres beneath the fountain, are open to the public: Visit the Archaeological Site at Trevi Fountain.
Read more About the Archaeology Behind the Trevi Fountain.
Guided Tours of the Trevi Fountain
As the Trevi Fountain is a public fountain, there is no cost to visit the fountains.
Trevi Fountain is included on a number of tours that visit the highlights of Rome. A number of specific tours visit the main piazzas and fountains of Rome, obviously including the Trevi Fountains. At first glance the following three may look the same, except for the price. As always, look at the details, to see what sights are included on the itinerary and what is the maximum number of people taken on the tour.
3. The Pantheon
Completed in 125 AD by Emperor Hadrian, the Pantheon has stood for 1889 years. Until 1958 the temple’s domed roof had the largest concrete span in the World. Initially a temple, to all Roman gods, the reason it has stood the test of time is because it was converted into a church, as well as the quality of its construction.
The Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotunda, Rome.
As it is free to enter, and as there are many great cafés around the square, this is a popular and wonderful spot to sit and soak up the atmosphere on a sunny day. At the centre of the square in front of the Pantheon is a Baroque fountain. The centrepiece of that fountain is an obelisk – and Egyptian obelisk dedicated to Ramses II from a temple that once stood in Heliopolis. Just behind the Pantheon in the Piazza della Minerva is another Egyptian obelisk, with a beautiful Baroque pedestal created by the famous sculpture Bernini.
There are more Egyptian obelisks standing in Rome than there are in all of Egypt. These were great trophies for the Roman Emperors, who had to go to great lengths to have them brought from Egypt. A few centuries later they also served the political needs of a few Popes, who had them re-erected in various squares around Rome – where they stand today.
Guided Tours that Include the Pantheon
As one of the iconic sites of Rome, the Pantheon is included on most general Walking Tours of Rome. But for those with an interest in Baroque art and architecture, the Best of Baroque Rome Walking Tour is a must. There is even a guided tour of the Obelisks in Rome.
4. Roman Forum
As archaeological sites in Rome go, you do not get more historic and significant than the Roman Forum. Even for the Romans, when it was rebuilt after a fire towards the end of the 3rd century CE, the Forum was revered for its historical significance.
Looking over the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill to white marble Victor Emmanuel II Monument.
Entry to the Forum (included in most tickets for the Colosseum) gives you access to two other important archaeological areas in the centre of Rome: the Via Sacra and the Palatine Hill. Wondering between the three areas is easy. The Roman Forum is, however, cut off from other equally interesting sites that are often overlooked.
The Via dei Fori Imperiali, which was built by Mussolini in 1932/3 for his Fascist military parades through ancient Rome, separates what is now called the Roman Forum from the Imperial Forums. These include Trajan’s Forum – with the spectacular Trajan’s Column and Augustus’ Fourm.
Guided Tours that Include the Roman Forum
As the Roman Forum looks like just another jumble of rocks to many, it really does help to have a good map or to have a guided tour of the Roman Forum. Truly, it makes all the difference. Most tours of the Colosseum include the Roman Forum, so check the details to find the right one for you.
One experience that does stick out is the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and Evening Light Show. With this ticket you get to explore the archaeological site at your own pace, then watch a light show tell the story of history of Ancient Rome and Julius Caesar.
5. Vatican City
Given that the Vatican City is the centre of the Catholic world many visitors to Rome come to experience the famous setting that is St Peter’s Square (which also has an Egyptian obelisk – the longest standing Egyptian obelisk in Rome) and St Peter’s Basilica. Of course, there is also the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s amazing painted ceiling. The Vatican also has very important collections of art and artefacts of many kinds; Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Hebrew Lapidary, 15th century tapestries to name a few.
The Gallery of Busts, Vatican Museum.
Beneath the Vatican is another aspect of Ancient Rome that should not be missed. And one that has recently reopened to the public – the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis. The Via Triumphalis was an important road that lead into the centre of Rome. As the land on which the Vatican now stands was outside the ancient city’s limits, it was here that the dead were buried in purpose built necropolises. These were discovered in the 1950s, and after many years of excavation and renovation in December 2013 the Vatican opened the necropolis beneath St Peter’s to the public, with state-of-the-art multimedia displays and new walkways that enable visitors to walk above the remains of the excavated burial chambers.
Walkways and digital displays allow visitors to make sense of the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis that lies beneath the Vatican. Photograph © Sailko/Wikipedia
Guided Tours of the Vatican that Include the Roman Necropolis
There are 100s of tours and ticket types for the Vatican – it really is hard to single out one or two. If it is the museum and the vast and diverse art collections you want to see, perhaps the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel Small Group Tour is one to consider.
In that list of many options, there is one Necropolis and St. Peter’s Basilica Guided Tour.
6. Baths of Caracalla
At the start of the Via Appia, a walkable distance from the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, are the spectacular remains of the second of the large Imperial public baths in Rome, built by Emperor Caracalla between 211 and 216 AD. The first were those built by Trajan, bits of which can be seen in the park opposite the Colosseum. With some additions and various restorations, Caracalla’s baths continued to be used until the 6th century.
I was immediately struck by how how high some of the walls of the baths are. They still manage to give a good idea of how vast this complex was. Not to be missed are the underground tunnels, in which there is a Mithraic temple. Such is the evocative setting, these ruins are used as a backdrop for open-air concerts, a tradition started by Mussolini.
Tips for Guided Tours of the Baths of Caracalla
Information about getting into the mithraeum at the Baths of Caracalla is confusing, to say the least. The best way to get to see the mithraeum is to take a Private Tour of the Baths of Caracalla and get your guide to arrange this for you.
Otherwise, there is the option of a Small-Group Tour of the Baths of Caracalla.
7. Capitoline Museums
The story of the collections of the Musei Capitolini begins in 1471, making these the oldest public museums in the modern World. Now the two museums, Palazzo dei Conservatori and Plazzo Nuovo on the Piazza del Campidoglio, have over 1,300 objects, amongst which are some of the most iconic artefacts and sculptures of ancient Rome, as well as Greek and Etruscan pieces. In the piazza between the museums is a statue of a mounted rider, a replica of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the original of which is on the museums. The Palazzo dei Conservatori was built above the Temple of Jupiter, the foundations of which can be seen on the first floor (and jutting out to the rear of the building). Michaelangelo is largely responsible for the architectural setting of piazza, in fact this is the first planned piazza in Rome.
This equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius stands in the piazza between the Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo, which house the Capitoline Museum.
Guided Tours of the Capitoline Museums
8. Ara Pacis Augustae
On the banks of the Tiber, in a very modern building, is the reconstruction of the Altar of Augustan Peace – Rome’s most famous example of Augustan monumental sculpture. The altar was commissioned to honour Augustus’s military victories in Spain and Gaul, and the peace he brought to the Roman Empire. Below the floor on which the altar now stands is a museum with displays about the recovery of the monument at its original position. Opposite the altar is a deteriorating circular mound of ancient concrete and tufa. There is no public access, but it was here that Augustus was laid to rest in 14 AD. This is Augustus’s Mausoleum.
The reconstructed Ara Pacis monument inaugurated on 30 January 9 BCE. Photograph © Rabax63/Wikipedia
Guided Tours that Include the Ara Pacis
9. Hadrian’s Mausoleum
Once the tallest building in Rome, this cylindrical mausoleum is the final resting place of Emperor Hadrian. His ashes were placed here a year after his death, as were the remains of a number of Emperors that reigned after him. The picturesque approach to the mausoleum across the Pons Aelius over the Tiber River was also built under Hadrian’s command, but the statues of angels for which the bridge is well known are later Baroque additions.
Castel Sant’Angelo, as Hadrian’s Mausoleum is known today, viewed from the Ponte Sant’Angelo that crosses the Tiber River.
In the 14th century the mausoleum was converted into a Papal Castle. Castel Sant’Angelo is now a museum of Medieval and Renaissance art, with an extensive collection of weapons. The Castel is still linked to the Vatican by the passeto, a 13th century passage, built on a 9th century wall, that provided an escape route between the Vatican and the papal palace … More Information & Ticket Tips for the Castel Sant’Angelo.
10. Catacombs of Callixtus
Of the many catacombs in Rome open to visitors, the Catacombe di San Callisto is the largest (the arcades cover an area of 15 hectares and 19 kilometres long) and the most popular on the Appian Way. Both Christian and Pagan tombs can be visited. There are some fine examples of early Christian frescoes – dating to as far back as the first century AD – that are well preserved and well worth seeing.
One of a number of frescoes in the Catacomb of Callixtus along the Appian Way. This one is said to depict the Eucharist.
The popularity of this site is due to the fact that between the 2nd and 4th centuries sixteen Popes were laid to rest. This is just one of a number of tombs and catacombs along the Via Appia Antica (now a designated archaeological Park), many of which are in walking distance of each other. Also, within the city is the Capuchin Crypt – within a few small chapels beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini are the mummified remains and bones of some 4,000 individuals.