The First Timer’s Guide to Building a Rome Bucket List
Rome is big. Like, REALLY BIG. I see articles all over the internet telling people how to tackle Italy’s capital in a day. Yeah, right. I mean, if all you have is a day excursion from a cruise port then so be it. Pick the most important things off of your inevitably long Rome bucket list and tackle it. However, if you’re planning a full-fledged trip to Italy and think you can pack the must-see sites into one day, think again. You need at least 2 full days in Rome to squeeze in JUST the top sites. Even for that to be possible, you’ll need to do plenty of advance planning by purchasing skip the line tickets before you arrive and planning your activities in a way you don’t back track.
Three days in Rome is much more realistic, both physically and mentally. The reality is, you could spend a week in Rome and still have things to do. The city is like a living history book, a course rather, and working your way through it takes time. That is, unless you really don’t care about the history and just want to check buildings off of your bucket list. In that case, one day is still going to be pretty hard depending on what you want to see. Regardless, here are top bucket list activities in Rome and why you should visit them if it’s your first time in the Eternal City.
Start your Rome bucket list with a monument that is not only an architectural marvel, but a historical one too. The current Pantheon is believed to have been completed in (approximately) 126 AD after the original structure was destroyed by a fire. Although originally built to honor all gods, as its name “Pantheon” suggests in Greek, it was converted to a church, St. Mary of the Martyrs in 609 AD. It operates as a working church to this day.
It’s one of the most well preserved Roman monuments and, every week, thousands of tourists from around the world flock to step inside and take a look up into the Oculus. The dome itself is approximately 142 diameters matching also its height. There are 5 rings of coffers, 28 in each ring, that decrease in size leading up to the magnificent 30 foot Oculus. The giant opening is the main source of light in the Pantheon and remains uncovered as it has for all of time. The dome of the Pantheon continues to hold its position as the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the entire world. You just have to see it to believe it.
There is a man you’ll hear quite a bit about in Rome. Many works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini are on display throughout the city. Perhaps the most beautiful, and absolutely the most notable, is his Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona. The Fountain of Four Rivers was designed for Pope Innocent X in 1651 and built around a tall Egyptian obelisk.
The work of art features the four great rivers of the world as acknowledged in their day – the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de la Plata – along with the god of each of those rivers. The dramatically sculpted gods are surrounded by plants and even sea creatures that add water effects. Along with this must see for your your Rome bucket list, are two other fountains in Piazza Navona. On the south end of the piazza is Fontana del Moro (see photograph), a sculpture by Giacomo della Porta with a later addition of a Moor wrestling a dolphin by Bernini. On the northern end of the piazza stands Fountain of Neptune, also by Giacomo della Porta.
Ensure a return to Rome by throwing a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain. At least, that’s the case according to an old legend. The Trevi Fountain, Fontana di Trevi in Italian, is perhaps the most widely known fountain in the world. It is also the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. Originally, the Trevi was built for a very practical purpose; to supply water to the citizens of Rome.
The purpose and aesthetics of the fountain evolved over the years with Baroque style redesigns. Today, the water is no longer potable but the fountain remains as influential as ever to the city. It’s a public masterpiece that continuously draws visitors from around the world. Each day, thousands of wishful tourists toss their euros into the waters. They are later retrieved and donated to charity. Whether or not tossing your coin into the Trevi Fountain actually means you’ll make it back to the city, visiting the work of art definitely belongs on your Rome bucket list.
There are 135 steps that lead from the Piazza de Spagna to the Trinitá dei Monti Church, originally built and used by the French. While they are “just steps,” they are also significant to Rome. Financed by the French, this grand set of stairs was built in the 1700’s to link the Trinitá Dei Monti to Piazza di Spagna (named for the Spanish Embassy) to the Holy See.
As you can see, the steps are extremely popular. In addition to the many tourists who come to see or climb the historic steps, they often serve as a meeting place. During the day, you can almost always expect a crowd. If you’d like a chance to visit the steps in a more calm environment or the opportunity to photograph this landmark more clearly, you can try visiting early in the morning.
Rome is the perfect place to add luxury window shopping to your bucket list. Via Condotti begins adjacent to the Spanish Steps on the other side of the Fountain of the Boat, an early 1600’s work by Gian Bernini’s father, Pietro. Via Condotti is to Rome what 5th Avenue is to New York, iconic and luxurious. Affordable? Not so much. However, even if your pocketbook can’t handle one of the fashion industry’s finest streets, there’s no harm in taking a peak in a few of the many stores you might not find at home.
Vatican City – St. Peter’s Basilica & Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel
Your Rome bucket list would be disastrously incomplete without a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel so go ahead and plan a half day to visit Vatican City. The Basilica is built upon the tomb of St. Peter, one of Christ’s 12 apostles, so there is deep historical and religious significance. However, there are a number of other reasons St. Peter’s Basilica is a must see. The Pieta, Michelangelo’s only signed work, Bernini’s triumphant 96 foot solid bronze baldacchino, and a trip up one of the largest domes in the world, also designed by Michelangelo, are reason enough to visit.
Although entrance to the Basilica is free, the line to get in can be upwards of 3 hours so I highly recommend purchasing a skip the line. We booked an early morning Vatican tour to beat the heat and avoid the queues. Worth. Every. Penny. This tour covers the Vatican Museum, viewing of the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (only accessible through the museum), and skip the line access into St. Peter’s Basilica. Save yourself several valuable hours and book it here. Also, don’t forget to cover your knees and shoulders. Hats and large bags are not permitted.
Another ancient monument that provides a clear view into Roman culture in its earlier days. Made of stone and concrete, this amphitheater could once seat more than 50,000 spectators. The entertainment, dark as it may be, a frequent highlight to Romans with social and economical rank. It is here, they would gather for fights among gladiators who were often slaves or prisoners. Occasionally, exotic beasts were used in fights as well as executions. Exceptional gladiators were sometimes granted freedom after a successful “career”. Eventually, even free men voluntarily began signing up for the brutality in hopes of gaining “gold” and glory.
Because of the long lines to enter the Colosseum, you should purchase a ticket online to save time. An online ticket will include the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill as well. If you love history, I highly recommend the Underground Tour. This will allow you to tour areas not accessible to the general public and provide a little more in depth information. It’s more expensive but well worth it, in my opinion, and also still includes Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.
Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
Just a few minutes walk form the Colosseum, you can explore Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum is significant to Ancient Rome as it was the location of business, religious, and governmental meetings and gatherings. Palatine Hill overlooks the Roman Forum and provides a different peak into Ancient Rome. The hill, once a neighborhood for the wealthy, features many fruit trees, gardens and remnants of old palatial homes.
Entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum should be included with your ticket to the Colosseum. You can purchase just the entry and explore on your own, purchase tickets that include an audioguide, or purchase a guided tour. Either way, be sure to purchase in advance or you will find yourself waiting in long lines. If you opt for the self-guided option, allow at least an hour or two in addition to your time at the Colosseum. The area is MUCH larger than it seems.
Escape the chaos of the busy, urban atmosphere that encompasses most of Rome. Villa Borghese is one of the largest public parks in Rome and offers nearly 150 acres of gardens, temples, and a can’t miss museum full of priceless antiquities and fine art from the likes of Gian Bernini, Raphael, and Caravaggio. The lush and quiet escape was once a private park and art collection belonging to a cardinal, Scipione Borghese, and his family.
Since the museum limits visitors to prevent overcrowding, you must book an entry ticket in advance with a specific day and time slot. It is important to note that the museum is not open on Mondays. Entrance to the gardens is always free.
San Pietro in Vincola
One of the highlights of your trip to Rome will most certainly be viewing Michelangelo’s most renowned works, Moses. You can find Moses in the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincola meaning Saint Peter in Chains. The basilica was originally commissioned to house and guard the chains believed to have held Saint Peter while he was in Jerusalem. You can view these chains within a beautiful reliquary at the main altar.