Things to do in Rome – History, culture and lots of food

Colosseum during day time, one of the recommended things to do in Rome

Rome is an open-air museum. Its monuments, squares, and buildings give us the dimension of what was one of the greatest empires in the world, connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia. To visit these places is to experience one of the most important chapters in the history of humanity.

But visiting Rome is not only a trip to the past. It is an adventure through the flavors of one of the most appreciated cuisines in the world. From classic pastas to contemporary dishes, one can eat very well in the Italian capital. To make the most of your trip and enjoy the best of Italian culture, you should plan a Rome itinerary from 3 to 5 days, and for that, we’ve prepared this essential list of things to do in Rome for your first time in the city.

Eat like a Roman in Osterias and Trattorias 

Italian gastronomy needs no introduction, and your Rome itinerary will be incomplete without a food list to try. The variety of pastas is as great as the sauces, but there are some dishes you can’t miss on your list. Spaghetti Carbonara is one of them. The sauce is made with bacon, pork cheek, eggs, and black pepper. Another classic is Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, which contains olive oil, pork cheek, white wine, tomatoes, pepper, and grated pecorino cheese.

Cacio e Pepe, on the other hand, is a sauce with few items: pecorino cheese, salt, and freshly grated black pepper. Apparently simple, its secret is to harmonize the ingredients so that the sauce has the right consistency. But Romans don’t live on pasta alone; other classic dishes to try in the city are artichoke preparations such as Carciofi alla Romana or Carciofi alla Giudia (the fried version).

Where to eat in Rome?

These and other dishes are easily found in osterias, trattorias, and ristorantes. But there are significant differences between these places. The origin of the osterias dates back to the time of the pilgrims, who stopped at rustic roadside establishments to rest and eat. Simplicity remains the essence of osterias, with few tables, a small menu, and family-owned.

The ristorantes are more refined places, with a well-prepared menu and more formal service. The trattorias have a less formal atmosphere than the ristorantes and a more varied menu than osterias.

Have a walk through Ancient Rome 

To dive into the history of the Roman Empire, you must go through the Colosseum, the Palatine, and the Roman Forum. The first is the main symbol of the city, and the other two formed the administrative and religious center of ancient Rome. Since they are very close, it is possible to visit them using the same ticket. 

Tip: There is no order of entry, but it is important to keep your ticket because the entrance to the Colosseum is separate from the ruins of the Palatine and the Roman Forum. Another difference between them is that the visit to the gladiator arena has to be booked while the other two do not. 

temple of saturn in roman forum, best things to do in Rome
Roman Forum

Just 1 km from the Colosseum, you find the ruins of the Circus Massimo, where sports competitions were held – the most famous of which was the chariot race. Anyone who has seen films about ancient Rome can imagine what these chariots pulled by fast horses looked like. After further excavations, archaeological finds have been uncovered, and the Circus Massimo opened to visitors again in 2016.  

Due to the passage of time and man’s actions, most of the monuments of the Roman Empire are now ruins. One of the exceptions is the Pantheon, considered the most preserved building of Ancient Rome. Built to be a pagan temple, the Pantheon was consecrated as the Basilica of St. Mary and Martyrs in the 7th century. 

Places to visit in Rome’s historic center 

The best way to get to know the historic center is walking and there are plenty of places to visit. Don’t worry about following a pre-established route because naturally, you will get lost attracted by something that was not in the script. Rather establish a starting point and from there, let yourself be carried away by the attractions of the Eternal City

Piazza Navona draws attention to its beauty and size. Its rectangular shape is because it was built on the site of a sports stadium. The square is home to three fountains that are true works of art, surrounded by cafes, restaurants, and stores.

About 400 m from Piazza Navona is the Pantheon, squeezed through the narrow streets of the historic center. Once in the temple, the eye is drawn to the 43-meter diameter dome. In its center, an opening of almost 9 m allows natural light to illuminate the church. When it rains, the water that enters through the roof drains through small holes in the floor.

A 15-minute walk takes you to the Trevi Fountain and from there to the steps of Piazza di Spagna, known as the Spanish Steps, a meeting place for Romans and tourists.

To restore your energy, nothing better than a legitimate handmade Italian pasta. That is the proposal of the traditional Colline Emiliane, which is part of the Michelin Guide.

Between one piazza and another: have a pizza  

In Rome, you can eat pizza in many ways and at any time. It can be a slice (al taglio), the classic round one (tonda), without filling (pizza bianca), etc. The best choice for sharing with friends is the pizza alla pala, with a rectangular shape and rounded edges.

two pizzas on a plate with female hands cutting the pizza with fork and knife

Main types of pizza in Rome

  • Pizza al taglio: Rectangular pizza, displayed on the counter, sold in slices like a take-away. You choose the size of the slice and pay by weight. Cheap and fast option.
  • Pizza tonda: The classic round pizza is made with thin dough and served individually on a plate. It is eaten with a fork and knife.
  • Pizza bianca: pizza without filling, usually only takes a little olive oil, salt and sesame, and sometimes rosemary.
  • Trapizzino: a local invention that won the Romans’ hearts. A mixture of sandwich (tramezzino) and pizza, hence the name Trappizzino. Triangular in shape and filled with traditional sauces from typical Roman dishes.
  • Pizza alla pala: Typical of Rome, this type of pizza is served on a wooden board (pala), with a rectangular shape and rounded edges. The dough resembles flatbread, has a longer fermentation time, and results in a pizza with more height, a crispy crust, and is soft inside. 

Happy Hour in Trastevere 

The university life and the variety of bars and restaurants make Trastevere the most bohemian neighborhood in Rome. By the end of the day, these establishments begin to receive customers for the aperitivo, the name given by Italians to happy hour. But those who think it is only a moment for drinking are wrong.

In most places, you pay for the drink and are entitled to snacks served in a buffet, such as bruschettas, cold cuts, and even small portions of pasta. The food is so plentiful that this promotion is called apericena, a combination of aperitivo and cena (dinner in Italian), and usually runs between 6 pm and 9 pm.

Visit the Vatican

The Vatican is the smallest country in the world and is always present in Rome’s itineraries. Reserve at least one day to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums form a complex with nine museums, several collection rooms, and its main attraction: the Sistine Chapel. 

statue of saint peter in vatican, rome
Statue of Saint Peter

Admission to the Basilica is free, but go early because the line is long. If you are interested, it is worth going up to the dome (paid admission – get the tickets) to see the work designed by Michelangelo at Capela Sistine and, outside, to admire the view of St. Peter’s Square and Rome.

To optimize the visit, research the areas of interest on the museum’s website beforehand, where it is possible to schedule the day and time of the visit or better getting a guided tour.

Take a Food Tour in Rome

pizza al taglio on display in Rome
Pizza al taglio | © Enginkormaz

There is no lack of monuments, museums, archaeological sites, and parks to learn about Roman history and culture. But Roman tradition and customs are also revealed in its cuisine through ingredients, recipes, dishes, places, and ways of tasting them. Taking a food tour in Rome is a different and enjoyable way to experience the local culture.

On the itinerary, you will visit local markets, bars, and restaurants in gastronomic hubs such as the traditional Testaccio and Trastevere neighborhoods. 

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Bike ride at Villa Borghese 

Villa Borghese is a beautiful park in the heart of Rome. More than just a green area, the place houses museums, a theater, cinema, zoo, playground, and other children’s spaces. For art lovers, the highlight is the Galleria Borghese, a museum that concentrates on great masters such as Caravaggio, Raphael, and Bernini.

For those who prefer outdoor activities, cycling through the park is a very enjoyable program. You can rent individual bikes, two-person bikes, motorcycles, and even golf carts to ride through the gardens of Villa Borghese. Along the way, you will find centuries-old trees, fountains, statues, and monuments.

Visiting Rome’s Markets

Markets are part of the routine of the Romans, both to buy fresh goods and taste traditional dishes. 

  • Mercato Centrale Roma is located inside Termini Station, the most important in the city.
  • Mercato Campo di Fiori is a large square where a market operates. You can find a bit of everything there: fresh produce, flowers, spices, meats, and cheeses. 
  • Mercato Testaccio, another option to visit, offers a complete experience: you can buy groceries and eat local cuisine.

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Discovering that Gelato is not ice cream 

hands holding 3 gelatos in front of the Colosseum in Rome
Gelato in Rome | © Roman Drits

Ice cream and gelato are not the same. Although they have common ingredients, there are differences in the preparation. Gelato is produced with artisanal methods, and its flavor is achieved with fresh products, less fat, and no preservatives.

The Italians’ relationship with gelato dates back to the Roman Empire when Gelato was made with shaved ice and fruit. Over time, they added milk to the recipe, but the preparation was still a challenge due to refrigeration. Consequence: the dessert was restricted to royalty. Speaking of royalty, it was at the wedding of Queen Catherine de Medici that gelato achieved international fame.

Since then, the preparation has become more practical and easier. What hasn’t changed is the Italians’ love for gelato. There is even a guide – the Gambero Rosso – which evaluates and highlights the gelaterias that remain faithful to the artisan production.

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Learn how to make pasta and pizza in an Italian cooking class

Taking cooking classes in Rome is a great way to learn about the local culture and discover the secrets of pasta, pizza, gelato, tiramisus, and other delicacies. Courses are offered by restaurants, cooking schools, chefs, and local cooks.

It is also possible to combine cooking classes and gastronomic tours through markets and pizzerias, for example. It is an interesting proposal to find out where the raw materials come from, taste local products (olive oils, vinegar, liqueurs, etc.), and finally, learn how to make a typical Roman pasta or pizza.

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Drink coffee at the bar

espresso in a ceramic cup
Espresso | © nophadon

Italians drink coffee at the bar. As strange as it may sound, that’s exactly what it is: BAR. The same name as drinking establishments, what changes is the concept. Bars that sell coffee open early in the morning and close at the end of the day. The differences do not stop there.

Drinking coffee al banco (at the counter) is much cheaper than al tavolo (at the table). If the customer chooses al banco, he pays first and drinks the coffee later, straight at the counter.

In the second option, al tavalo, the customer sits at the table, orders the coffee first, and then comes the bill.

Discover the Testaccio neighborhood: the Rome of the Romans

To experience a less touristy and more authentic Rome, you should visit the Testaccio neighborhood. From a working-class area to a cultural center, it has undergone many urban changes. The former slaughterhouse is home to a music school, an architecture faculty, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome.

Another deactivated structure has become the Città dell’Altra Economia, a commercial venue that promotes sustainable practices with low environmental impact, including an organic food fair, restaurant, etc. The Mercato Testaccio has also received a facelift, remodeled but preserving its original structure.

Even with all these transformations, the Testaccio neighborhood has not lost its essence and continues to be a good place to visit in Rome, especially for those who want to get a closer feel of the local routine.

Have a panoramic view of Rome from Mount Gianicolo 

Rome landscape, view from Gianicolo Hill in Rome
Rome Landscape | © marcoleoniddi

Monte Gianicolo is not part of the seven hills of Rome, but it provides one of the most beautiful views of the city. It is located in the upper part of Trastevere, so you can include it in your Rome itinerary for this area. It can be reached by bus, by car, or on foot. If you walk from the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, it will take about 15 minutes to get there.

On the way, two places to admire: the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, where it is said that St. Peter was crucified. In the area of Monte Gianicolo, you will find the beautiful Fontana dell’Acqua Paola. From the top of the hill, you have a privileged view of Rome and the Vatican.

Extra: Wineries around Rome: a day trip to Ariccia

Castelli Romani is a region near Rome, a well-known producer of wine, especially Frascati white wine. Being less than 30 km from the Italian capital, it is a great day trip from Rome to visit the wineries on the Strada dei Vini dei Castelli Romani. In all, 16 towns are part of this Wine Route, some with appellation of origin.One of the most visited cities is Ariccia, famous for its porchetta, a suckling pig seasoned with fine herbs and pepper and roasted slowly. To get there, one of the options is to take the train from Termini Station in Rome and get off at Albano Laziale – which is 2 km from Ariccia. This short trip can be made with the buses that leave from Piazza Mazzini.

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