You might be sensing a theme on this list: ancient Rome for the win. What makes the Pantheon very different from the other Roman sites on this list is that it is not a ruin. It’s a gorgeously preserved, fully operational building. Visiting the Pantheon offers a rare opportunity to see and interact with an ancient Roman building the way the Romans would have done. It was originally built to honor the entire pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses; it’s been a church since the 600s (yes, you read that right, 600, not 1600!). The dome holds a 2000 year old record as the largest concrete dome in the world. A handful of notables are buried here, including the artist Raphael.
4 Trevi Fountain
The Trevi Fountain features gorgeous sculptures of the god Oceanus and his companions, but a lot of tourists seem to turn their backs to it. There’s a persistent legend that if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the fountain you will return to Rome someday. Go on, spare a coin. Spare three. Why not? It’s especially beautiful at night when both the statues and the water are illuminated.
3 Foro Romano
The Foro Romano — the Forum — is right next door to the Colosseum, and again, it will give you a chance to walk where the Romans did. The temples, market stalls and platforms where the Romans heard the news of the day are but shadows of their former selves, but the two triumphal arches are well preserved.
The Colosseum is not the only Roman arena out there in the world; it’s not the best preserved, either — but you’d be foolish to miss it, because the scale of the Colosseum is just incredible. These days, you’re more likely to see vendors and feral cats crawling through the stones than scenes from Gladiator, but standing and looking out over the former playing field, it’s easy to hear the echoes of the Roman crowds.
1 The Vatican
The Vatican is technically its own city-state (the Holy See). If you adhere to Roman Catholicism, the Vatican can be a site of pilgrimage, and you can seek out a group audience with the Pope. If you’re not, there’s still a reason to go: it is one of the best art overdoses you will find anywhere. As you walk through the rooms at the Vatican Museum you’ll see work by Raphael, including his School of Athens, just hanging out. There are tapestries with eyes that seem to follow you; there are maps and ancient Egyptian and Assyrian artifacts. There’s the Sistine Chapel, which is an extravaganza of Michelangelo’s amazing painting. There’s a really fun spiral staircase. At St. Peter’s Basilica, ornate sculpture and painting seems to cover every square inch, and you’ll find more Michelangelo. It’s hard to bond with Michelangelo’s Pieta when it’s behind glass and guarded by soldiers, but considering the damage that has been done to the sculpture in the past, the security measures are understandable. It’s well worth a trip.
There’s a lot to see and do in Rome. Get to it!