Possibly more than anywhere else in the world, Rome is a true mix of old and new. It’s a city that proudly flaunts its ancient history while it continues to evolve. It’s a living and breathing city — which means it’s crowded, dirty, noisy, full of kamikaze scooter drivers, and is a little rough around the edges. It’s also beautiful and its narrow side streets and ancient ruins are certainly romantic and magical — so despite its shortfalls, Rome continues to be many people’s favorite city in the world.
Rome is a major city, so it’s a little on the expensive side. However, there are plenty of ways to visit on a budget — so we recommend budgeting €35-€65/day if you’re on a backpacker’s budget. You can check out our Rome City Price Guide for a more in-depth cost breakdown, but we recommend over-budgeting to be safe.
Rome is a large city with plenty of things to do and see — especially if you’re a history buff. Luckily, a lot of the main sites are fairly close to each other, so you can see a lot in a small amount of time. At the very least, we recommend spending 3 days in Rome, but that will feel rushed. You may want to spend 4-5+ days — but even after spending a week in Rome, you’ll barely have scratched the surface. Rome also has a handful of nice day trips, so keep that in mind as well.
No city is perfect — which is why we like to talk about some of the good and the not-so-good aspects of Rome.
The Atmosphere and History. Rome has more spectacular museums, churches, squares, fountains, and ancient ruins per square foot than just about anywhere else in the world. Everywhere you go, you’ll see something amazing.
Art. Rome certainly has no shortage of art and museums — from contemporary to ancient.
Good Food. You don’t have to spend a fortune to eat well in Rome. All it takes is a little research!
Walking The Streets and Side Streets. Rome has been growing and changing for over 3,000 years so its streets also grew organically — which means lots of little alleys and side streets that are a joy to explore.
The Nightlife. Like much of Southern Europe, Italians eat late and stay up even later. This means that restaurants, bars, and cafés are open late into the night (and then people head to the clubs even later).
Tourist Hoards. Tourists everywhere! Rome attracts millions of visitors each year, so expect to be surrounded by other people wanting to see all the sights. Expect long lines for most attractions — try to book tickets in advance so you can skip the multi-hour lines. Summer is the busiest time of the year, so try visiting in the spring or fall to help escape the crowds.
Pickpockets. Rome is known for being one of the worst cities, if not the worst city, when it comes to pickpockets and other petty theft. It’s the worst at the Termini Station (Rome’s main train station), on the metro, and on buses. Be extra vigilant at all times. If you can, try not to carry anything valuable.
Tourist Restaurants. Rome has a ton of amazing restaurants serving great food at fair prices. It also has just as many crappy restaurants serving overpriced junk to unknowing visitors. Do a little research and try to go a few streets away from the tourist sites and you’ll find plenty of great options.
Dirty. Rome is pretty dirty. I mean, it’s a big city so it shouldn’t be too surprising. But a lot of people are surprised to see trash and graffiti all over the place.
Rome is jam-packed with things to see. Seriously… you can wander around and see most of Rome’s most iconic attractions without ever seeking them out. It would be impossible to list everything here, but we’ve tried to include some of the best/most popular attractions.
The neighborhoods of Centro Storico (the historical center of Rome) and Ancient Rome are the heart of the city and where you’ll find the bulk of Rome’s most iconic sights. This area is also tourist central — so you’ll have to deal with the crowds, tacky street performers, souvenir shops, and outrageously expensive restaurants and gelato. That said, it’s still one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
The Palatine Hill is where Rome was founded in 753 BC and its ruins, which come from multiple generations of rulers, are some of the oldest in the city. It is located on the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome, so it offers excellent views of the city.
Admission: €12. Visit Website
Capitoline Hill and Capitoline Museum
The Capitoline Museum dates back to 1471, which makes it the world’s oldest public museum. It features various works of art pertaining to Ancient Rome. It’s also located at the top of Capitoline Hill, which provides impressive views of the city.
Admission: €11.50 Visit Website
Opened in 80 AD, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built, and it’s a can’t-miss attraction (you won’t be able to miss it because it’s huge).
Tickets cost €12 and we recommend booking online (+€2) so you can skip the long ticket line.
The Pantheon was built in 126 AD to honor the pagan gods. Today, it’s the most well preserved and influential building of ancient Rome — and it contains the largest brick dome in the history of architecture.
Admission is free.
Possibly one of the most important architectural sites in the world, the Roman Forum was ancient Rome’s main square and is now home to multiple ancient ruins.
National Museum of Rome
The National Museum of Rome is made up of multiple branches that are located in multiple buildings throughout the city.
Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine celebrates Constantine I’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It’s located between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, so you’re sure to pass it as you explore.
Church of Saint Peter in Chains (Chiesa di San Pietro Invincoli)
This basilica is best known as the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses.
Church of San Giovanni in Laterano
This church was the first basilica built in Rome, and it was the most important church in Christendom for thousands of years. It continues to be the Pope’s main place of worship.
Imperial Fora (Fori Imperiali)
Once the center of the Roman Republic and of the Roman Empire, the Imperial Fora (or Forums) are ruins that were constructed over a period of one and a half centuries.
Admission: €12 (also includes entrance to Palatino & Colosseum). The Imperial Fora can also be viewed from the street for free.
This is one of Rome’s main squares, and it’s decorated with fountains and mansions. It’s a good place to people watch and check out the works of local artists.
The Church of St. Louis of the French (Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi)
Since 1589, this has been the Church of Rome’s French community. It features many impressive paintings, notably those of Caravaggio.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
This enormous white marble monument was built as a tribute to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king who united Italy. Ride up to the top for great views of the city.
The modern center of Rome is void of many of the iconic ancient ruins and charm that you’ll find throughout the rest of the city… but it does have a lot of hotels and nightlife options.
It’s also home to Rome’s Termini train station, so there is a good chance you’ll pass through this neighborhood. Be aware that the Termini Station and the surrounding area is teeming with pickpockets and other thieves. It’s generally recommended to avoid the area at night.
To the southeast of Termini Station, you’ll find the gritty San Lorenzo neighborhood that is very popular with students (thanks to the universities). Here you’ll find hip bars, restaurants, thrift shops, and all-night parties.
The Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi)
Possibly the most famous fountain in the world, the Trevi Fountain attracts huge crowds at pretty much all hours of the day. People throw in over 3,000 euros worth of coins each day, but don’t try to steal them — it’s a crime (the money goes to charity).
Piazza di Spagna and Spanish Steps
The Piazza di Spagna is located at the bottom of the 135-step Spanish Steps is one of the most famous piazzas in Rome.
Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore)
This massive 5th-century church is perched at the top of the Esquiline Hill.
There isn’t much left of the ancient Jewish ghetto, but the neighborhood is now a quiet place during the day and has a nice food scene at night.
The Great Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Rome (Museo Ebraico)
The Great Synagogue of Rome is the largest in the city, and it also houses the Jewish Museum of Rome. The museum offers information about the long history of Rome’s Jewish population and works of art from the Jewish community.
Admission: €11. Visit Website
The Vatican is the world center of Catholicism, and it packs in a mind-blowing amount of sights, relics, and museums. It also packs in a mind-blowing amount of tourists, so expect long lines.
A strict dress code is enforced in Vatican City. Shorts, short skirts, hats, and bare shoulders are all banned inside many of the sights.
St. Peter’s Basilica
This Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City is considered by many to be Rome’s most iconic church. You can also check out Saint Peter’s tomb, which is located under St. Peter’s Basilica.
Admission to the main area of the church is free. Visit Website
The Vatican Museums contain masterpieces of painting, sculpture and other works of art collected by the popes through the centuries — including the Sistine Chapel. Visit Website
Castel Sant’Angelo and Museo Nazionale Castel Sant’Angelo
This castle was built as a mausoleum but was then converted to a fortress to protect the popes.
Admission: €7. Visit Website
St. Peter’s Square (Piazza di San Pietro)
This monster plaza is located in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, so you basically can’t miss it.
Get lost in the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere and mingle with the locals. This neighborhood is off the tourist path, so it’s one of the best places to go for authentic Italian meals at good prices. The neighborhood also has a solid nightlife and budget restaurant/pub scene thanks to its multiple universities.
The Tiber Island (Isola Tiberina)
The Tiber Island is an island located in Rome’s Tiber River and it’s only about 300 yards long. In addition to the island’s ancient buildings, it also has Rome’s oldest bridge.
This is the second tallest hill in Rome and it offers visitors amazing views of the city.
Located in the northern area of Rome, this neighborhood is where you’ll find Villa Borghese, the iconic Spanish Steps, and the elegant Parioli and Salario neighborhoods.
Galleria Borghese and Villa Borghese
The Galleria Borghese is located on the Villa Borghese and is considered to be the best art gallery in Rome. It also has impressive gardens that are great to stroll through on a nice day.
Admission: €11. Visit Website
National Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Modena)
Do you need a break from Renaissance art? Then you might want to check out Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art — including Monet, Cézanne, Canova, Modigliani, and Van Gogh.
Admission: €8. Visit Website
Get an authentic taste of how real Romans live in the off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods of Aventino and Testaccio. Here you’ll find locals enjoying their days, and it’s home to lots of excellent food.
The Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura)
This is one of four papal basilicas in Rome, and it’s one of the largest churches in the world. Much of this 4th-century church was destroyed by a fire in the 1800s, but it’s been rebuilt to its former glory.
I’m always a fan of walking tours — it’s a great way to learn more about the history of the city, and it’s an easy way to get a “lay of the land” so you know where to come back and visit. Below are a few free tours (the guides work on tips).
There are also plenty of paid tours with professional guides — I rely on TripAdvisor’s walking tour page to find the best-rated tours.
Rome has a bustling and ever-changing food and nightlife scene. We’ll be the first to admit that we here at The Savvy Backpacker aren’t experts in the food scene, so we’ve linked to a few solid sources. TimeOut Rome does a good job of staying on top of the best restaurants and bars. Spotted By Locals: Rome always has good tips for budget-minded travelers.
The good news is that Rome has a good number of hostels, so finding a place to stay shouldn’t really be a problem. The bad news is that hostels in Rome tend to be a bit more expensive than you’d expect (especially since there are so many hostels competing with each other).
Personally, we use HostelWorld to book all our hostels and we’ve listed a few of the best hostels below:
** Female-only hostel
The Metro is a good way to move around the city and it’s pretty simple — it’s also cheap. The bus and tram also work, but the system isn’t as simple or reliable. Luckily, the city is easy to walk because a large number of the sights are grouped together.
Tickets must be purchased before you board the bus, Metro, or tram — get them from tobacco shops, corner stores, newspaper stands, automated ticket machines in the Metro, or ticket windows. Tickets are the same for all modes of transportation. Make sure to validate your ticket.
Rome is packed with things to do… so you’ll want to do a little research before you arrive. We’ve listed a few of our favorite budget-minded guidebooks, websites, and expat blogs that you may want to check out.
Here are some random travel tips we’ve picked up along the way.
Rome and Vatican City become overrun with tourists and pilgrims during Catholic holidays. Hotels also raise their prices.
January 1, January 6, March 17, Good Friday-Easter Monday, April 25, May 1, June 2, August 15, November 1, December 8, December 25, December 26.
You may consider buying a Rome Pass if you plan on seeing a lot of museums. It also lets you bypass the ticket lines — which could easily save you hours of waiting in line.
Looking for cheap souvenirs? Check out Rome’s Flea Markets — This site lists some of the better markets.
Many locals take their vacations during August — which means many small locally-owned restaurants close for 2-3 weeks. There will still be plenty of places open, so it’s not a huge issue. However, August in Rome is hot, so you may want to visit another time of year.
Rome is well known for its pickpockets. You really need to be careful and mindful when you’re in the crowds and on public transportation.
If you’re looking at this article, I’m going to bet you’re getting ready to travel. Check out these helpful articles that we wrote for tips and advice for packing for your trip.
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Photo credit: MollySVH