Rome is one of my all-time favorite cities. I’ve always said that Italy is the home of my heart…and Rome is where I’d choose to live if I put down roots here.
But planning trips to a city the size of Rome—and one with its embarrassment of riches in history, culture, art, food, and more—can be daunting. I’ve visited several times over the years, often only for a couple days, and have a lot of tips that can help you put together the most awesome Rome itinerary possible.
Planning a trip to Italy? Here are some more resources for your itinerary!
And boy I have a lot for you below! I’ve organized it as clearly as possible, but this post is really in-depth so here’s what to expect.
How this post is laid out:
- Why Rome?
- How to plan your visit
- Where to stay
- What to see and do in Rome
- Rome at night, as well as sunrise and sunset
- Where to eat and drink
I get this question a lot, and find it baffling because I love the city so much. But for many people visiting Italy I suppose it is logical…some places are so famous that it’s easy to assume that they can never live up to expectations. For me Rome definitely does, though.
The Eternal City is so chock-full of ancient history, architecture and engineering, amazing art, delicious food, interesting culture, and so much more. It’s full of fountains and charming details, intricately carved details on doorways, friendly people, and sunny piazzas. It has ENERGY.
It’s astounding to me how Romans just…get up every morning, have a coffee, walk past the Colosseum on the way to work. Crazy and cool.
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How to plan your visit
First, some transportation thoughts…if you arrive at Fiumicino, also called Leonardo Da Vinci, airport (the main one), there’s a metro line on the Leonardo Express train that takes you from the airport to Roma Termini (the main train station). It’s usually about $15-20 one-way and is the perfect way to get to your hotel or nearby.
You could also take a taxi from the ranks at the airport…fares are capped (but over $50, so not cheap…for 2-3 people it might work out though).
In terms of getting around once you’re in the city, you’ll want to go on foot for a lot of the sights recommended below. Your other main options would be taxis or various modes of public transportation (of which there are many, but for most tourists it’s a little more complex). The main thing—DO NOT DRIVE IN ROME!!!
I’ve already laid down some of my best and most detailed tips for traveling in Italy here so definitely take a look! From how to use the train system, to avoiding extra fees at cafes (and lots of other food ones, natch), to social etiquette, there’s a ton that can help make your trip awesome.
Where to stay
There are tons of great options all around Rome. I’ve been partial to the Piazza Barberini area for simple centrality (my last couple stays were only a day or two).
But if you’re there for a longer stay then I’d look at a cute Airbnb or boutique hotel in one of the cool neighborhoods…a few to try would be Trastevere, Monti, Parione, or Testaccio. One other consideration is to stay near Roma Termini, the main train station (so you could always catch a “Termini” bus around the city and end up close to home).
On my last visit I stayed at the lovely boutique Barberini Dream, a few steps from Piazza Barberini. It’s just a few rooms, but each with interesting decor and some nice welcoming touches (like an espresso machine).
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What to do in Rome
There are so many ways to fit together an itinerary in Rome, depending on what things sound the coolest and how much time you have. To start with, here is a map of all the locations mentioned in the post below, and you can start to get a sense of how things can be grouped together.
Orange are the sights (yellow are skippable in my opinion), blue are food and drinks. You can also view it live here
Just remember that if you’re actually doing more than just rolling up to snap a pic, you’ll need to take into account walking times, waiting in line time, and actual time spent within a destination. So realistically only 2 to 3 major sights in a day if you’re having to wait in line (e.g. you can do Vatican Museum and St. Peters as deeper visits, but then probably go lighter on the rest of your day).
That said, definitely consider booking tickets ahead if there are places you really want to make sure you see. Then in most cases you’d be able to skip the line, and also don’t end up with a bummer surprise like it not being open or the line being too long.
I have roughly (and unscientifically) bucketed the sites below by the ancient, the religious, the secular. I’m not going to go SUPER in-depth for each spot because…honestly we’d be here all day. But I’ll try to give a good brief overview, as to me the background and history are really what makes me want to see them. I’ve also noted a few sites that I would skip.
The ancient sites
Rome is one of those cities where you just feel the weight of its history…it’s a palpable thing. Here are a few of the must-sees and my faves.
The Pantheon really is a marvel, thought to be the most complete Roman structure left on earth. The original Pantheon was built in the 20s BCE, and the current structure in the 100s AD. It is the oldest building in the world that’s still in use (source). And this is one of the most popular historic sites in Rome, with good reason.
It’s a marvel of engineering even today, and was the largest concrete structure in the world until the 20th century which is…BANANAS. Surprisingly (to me) was also the largest dome in the world until the 1400s, when Florence’s famous Duomo overtook it.
Fun fact: it’s still a functioning church (since the 600s, when it was the first pagan temple to be consecrated as a Catholic church). It now houses the tombs of Raphael (the artist, not the ninja turtle), and several Italian kings. It’s free to enter but the lines can be long so try and go during off-times. Check opening days and hours here.
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While you won’t be able to get inside, I highly recommend visiting the Pantheon around sunrise…you’ll have it all to yourself and can soak in these beautiful views. There’s a magic here early in the morning.
Pro tip: Check the opening times for Caffé Sant’Eustachio, which is only a 2-minute walk away and had amazing coffee and pastries (more on that in the food section).
This pic isn’t the actual Pantheon, it’s just around the corner (basically you turn left here and the Pantheon comes into view) but I have so many memories of this view and walk from my study abroad summer, and it’s emblematic of how much just HISTORY is on every corner.
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The Roman Forum & Palatine Hill
Cost: See website, probably €16-18 (count as one admission with Colosseum too, valid for two days)
The Roman Forum (or Via dei Fori Imperiali) sits in a large area between the Colosseum, the Capitoline Hill, and the famous Palatine Hill. In ancient Rome, it was the empire’s center of political, religious, and commercial life, but its history goes way further back before Rome was a dominating empire. Building on this site dates back to the 7th century BCE, even a couple hundred years before the Roman Republic was really established.
Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome and most ancient areas, and has some great panoramic views over the Forum, Colosseum, and Circus Maximus.
Check out the website for opening days and times, how to get your tickets online, costs, and more.
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Cost: See website, probably €16-18 (count as one admission with Palatine Hill too, valid for two days)
The Colosseum is honestly unbelievable. It’s the biggest amphitheater ever built, and a couple thousand years later still awes. This building has also really lived a full life, from gladiators to sea battles to being a cemetery to a magical garden. I just fell down this rabbit hole about its fascinating history YOU’RE WELCOME.
It’s clearly one of the must-sees in Rome…at very least to walk around the outside and marvel, but I do believe you need to tour the inside at least once in your life. For me it’s been a couple decades and I’d really love to do it again. Something I learned recently is that you can avoid the long ticket line at the Colosseum and instead get yours from the Palatine Hill/Forum. It’s a combo ticket and just a 5-minute walk away, MUCH shorter line, and then skip ahead and scan your ticket at the Colosseum!
While I hadn’t done it myself, I’ve heard amazing things about doing a nighttime tour of the Colosseum, so you might look into that for a unique experience.
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Arches of Titus and Constantine
Cost: free to view
Just a few steps from the Colosseum, you’ll see the last great monument of Imperial Rome (around 315 AD)—the Arch of Constantine. I’ve always had a soft spot for the arch for some reason, it’s just so detailed and dramatic! It was quite the piece of political propaganda for Constantine…it’s got inscriptions, hunts, barbarians, gods, coronations, and more.
Nearby the Arch of Titus is a bit older (80s AD) and has among other things a depiction of the sacking of Jerusalem ten years prior. If you’re near the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, you definitely need to take a few minutes to study these arches.
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Cost: free on the outside; I think €15 to enter (and more for a tour)
Honestly it was hard to figure out whether it was “ancient” or “religious”…like so much of Rome, it’s built on top of an ancient site (built by Emperor Hadrian as his mausoleum) and one of the most important monuments of Rome. Later used as a fortress, then a private residence and hideout for popes.
Regardless of how I classify it, I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the castle, and yet have never actually been inside. From what I hear you’re not missing much with the tour, but that the views from the rooftop terrace are awesome. Check the official website for opening times and costs.
Even just outside it’s pretty awesome though, and a big part of that is the Ponte degli Angeli (bridge of angels), which manages to be both delicate and majestic. It’s usually packed with tourists snapping photos, so if you want it all to yourself I recommend an early morning visit.
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It’s also one of my favorite places in Rome to watch the sunset (as is St. Peter’s, only a few steps away)…grab a mini bottle of champagne from one of the drink vendors, pull up a spot, and bask. More on that below.
Tiber Island / Isola Tiberina
The Tiber River cuts right through Rome, a beating heart of the city. And this tiny island smack dab in the middle is definitely a cool side of the city’s ancient history to spend a few minutes exploring. Plus, it’s a lovely little connection point between Trastevere and the Jewish Ghetto, with some truly delicious food and drink on the island itself.
The island has some fascinating origin legends, serving as a place of isolation for plague victims (and for criminals) in the past. Around 300 BCE a temple to Aesculapius was built in response to a terrible plague, to honor the god of medicine and healing…the thinking was by placing it on the island, the temple couldn’t be influenced by the plague.
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Fast forward 100 years and a basilica (now San Bartolomeo) was built over the ruins of the temple, and even a hospital in the 1500s in keeping with the healing theme. It’s a really nice place to stroll through, particularly going to or from Trastevere. Make sure to walk along the river paths so you can get up close and personal.
Skip: Bocca della Verita
Cost: €2 I think
Unless you’re, like, the world’s biggest Roman Holiday fan, it’s just not worth standing in line for this.
The religious sites
Okay, let’s move on to the truly religions sites, and while there are hundreds, I’m just here to talk about one…St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum.
The Vatican Museum & St. Peter’s Basilica
Cost: entering the basilica is free; Vatican Museum is €17 (or €21 to buy online & skip the line)
Bearing the highest dome in the world, St. Peter’s is visible from almost anywhere in Rome, and one of the most famous sites to visit. A church has existed on this site since AD 300 during the reign of Constantine the Great, and according to Catholic tradition the basilica rests on the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle.
Even just coming to see the outside area is worth it, if you’re strapped for time, and you can explore the courtyard looking for the beautiful “four winds” bas reliefs. It’s especially beautiful at sunset, as you can see below.
But I would really recommend trying to get into the basilica to walk around…yes, the line can be awful and annoying (mixed opinions on whether very early morning is good but worth a try…maybe late in the day?). I’m not sure this is the official site but it can help with the details of opening days and times.
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Like I said above, you really should try to go inside if you have the time. The fingerprints of several famous Renaissance artists (particularly Michelangelo) are all over the design, architecture, and art throughout the church.
You can gaze at Michelangelo’s gorgeous Pieta statue (now behind bulletproof glass), stand on the spot where Charlemagne was crowned emperor (or crowned himself, depending on who you ask) and imagine your own coronation, marvel at Bernini’s baldachin (an awesome bronze canopy of sorts), and more. You can also ascend to the top of the dome, take a tour, or a tour of the necropolis below (all for extra cost).
Want St. Peter’s courtyard all to yourself to get good pics and an upclose look?? Early in the morning and late in the evening are your best bet. I had bad luck on timing last time because they were hosting a saint-ing (not the real word, but they were bestowing sainthood and so they had tons of chairs and such set up outside so I couldn’t get any closer).
Important note: Men and women must both have covered knees and shoulders, so plan ahead.
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Okay now let’s talk about visiting the Vatican Museum (which I don’t have any pics of, I haven’t been in years). The Vatican is the smallest sovereign country in the world (so not technically a part of Italy), and the Vatican Museums are spread across 1,400 rooms. It is quite overwhelming, and contains artifacts and artwork from over 3,000 years of human history.
It’s an entirely different line and entrance, which means that if you want to do St. Peter’s and the Vatican Museum can become an entire day. I STRONGLY recommend booking online ahead of time so you can skip the line! Or consider doing a guided tour of both, which can help simplify the logistics and waiting times both, and maybe add depth (if you care enough about both).
You’ll never be able to really explore the whole Vatican Museum all at once due to its size, so you need a plan on what you want to cover. Some of the coolest parts of the Vatican museums include the Gallery of the Maps (including 40 stunning maps lining the walls), art from artists such as Giotto, Raphael and more, and the insane antiquities from the Gregorian Egyptian Museum. And of course, the famous Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s stunning frescoes (located in the Apostolic Palace).
Check the official website for opening times and costs, and here are some additional tips on what to see. The Sistine Chapel is free to see if you’ve purchased a Vatican Museum ticket, so if someone tries to sell you a ticket it’s a scam. Also there is no “skip the line” access for the Sistine Chapel (though there is for the Vatican Museums).
The secular sites and a few other things to do
This is somewhat of a grab-bag, but lots of beautiful piazzas, fountains, and architecture. Not to mention wandering, meandering, and people watching.
Cost: Free, unless you toss a coin in
While the current fountain itself isn’t ancient (it’s the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, from the 1700s), it was founded at the end of an aqueduct constructed in 19 BC to bring water to Rome. It is one of the most iconic symbols of Rome and definitely a must-see.
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Legend has it that if you throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand, with your back to the fountain, it ensures you’ll return to Rome (a second supposedly guarantees love, and a third marriage). I’ve always thrown the one coin without fail…with the exception of my last trip! I’m hopeful for a return nonetheless 🙂
The crowds here can be quite nuts, so watch out for pickpockets, and while the colors can really shine during the day, consider visiting early morning or late night to avoid the crowds.
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Victor Emmanuel II National Monument / Altar of the Fatherland
Cost: I believe it’s free, but it’s €7 to take the elevator to the top
Often called the “wedding cake” building, this marble monster is named after Vittorio Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. It was definitely polarizing to locals when built, many of whom thought it ugly, but I’ve always found it quite majestic.
From the outside it has all sorts of intricate details that I love photographing, and as you’ll see in the pics below, the white marble really shines in the early morning light (whereas midday can be quite harsh lighting).
I wouldn’t say it’s a “must” on your itinerary to go inside the monument unless you have tons of time, but you certainly can. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is inside (nice, but again, not a must), and the view from the top is supposed to be great. But make sure you get a glimpse of the outside regardless.
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Piazza del Popolo (& maybe Villa Borghese)
Cost: the piazza itself is free
Piazza del Popolo is…honestly kind of a weird grab bag of things, and I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list. However, if you have some extra time and are in the area, it can provide some cool pics and great views.
Some people come to see Santa Maria del Popolo, a basilica featuring two famous canvases by Caravaggio among other things. Others, in undertaking a self-guided homage path from Dan Brown’s book Angels & Demons (which is why I initially visited MANY years ago).
Others just enjoy the weird and alluring combination of geometric paving, churches, modernity, and awesome sculptures like the angry fish below. I definitely fall in the latter group, and am only here to climb the hill toward Villa Borghese and look down on it all (see my more detailed instructions on how to find the staircase in this post, toward the bottom).
Campo dei Fiori
Rome has sooooo many cute squares and many bustling markets. So honestly it’s hard to go wrong. But I do have a soft spot for the iconic Campo dei Fiori, which is a bright and crowded market of fruits, veggies, flowers, and more during the day. It totally changes tones at night, with a hoppin’ bar scene, so stopping by twice can be nice.
Wander the market and enjoy the vibe, snap a few pics, and maybe stop in at the historic bakery Forno Campo de’Fiori for a slice of pizza al taglio (more on that in the food section).
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Largo di Torre Argentina (the cats!!)
Cost: I believe it’s free to enter but do consider a donation
Seriously-ancient ruins and lots of kitty cats??? What’s not to love?! This unassuming little pocket of ruins in the midst of regular buildings is actually the remains of four of Rome’s oldest temples as well as the Theatre and Curia of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.
It’s also a cat sanctuary home to a couple hundred of Rome’s 100,000 to 300,000 (depending on who you ask) stray cats. I absolutely love the juxtaposition of cats indolently lounging on really important ancient ruins, and sashaying around like they own the place. Because they absolutely do, they’re CATS.
I also learned a new Italian word in this article, “gattare” meaning the cat ladies…as an avowed gattara myself, I ADORE this.
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Skippable: Piazza Navona (except at sunrise)
GASP! I know. Don’t get me wrong, honestly I think you’d be nuts not to at least swing by and take a gander at the famous Bernini fountains. I am a sucker for the Fountain of Four Rivers. But honestly Piazza Navona is generally insanely crowded with tourists, studded with pickpockets and hustlers, and ringed with terrible overpriced restaurants.
And Rome has a lot of fountains and piazzas, so it’s not like missing one kills you. However, it’s only a couple minutes’ walk from the Trevi Fountain and Pantheon, so I’d just say time it right…if you’re willing to get up early you can have it all to yourself as evidenced by the first two pics below.
Skippable: Piazza Barberini
Don’t get me wrong, I love this fountain. But it’s not worth going out of your way for if you’re short on time.
Skip: Spanish Steps
Cost: free, unless you sit on the steps and incur a €400 fine…
One of the most overrated, crowded things in Rome and generally a letdown. Sure, walk past if you want, but it’s definitely not worth going out of your way to visit. And there’s now a €400 fine for sitting on the steps (as of August 2019), just the same as getting in the Trevi Fountain.
I really don’t get the appeal here when there’s so much more to see and do in Rome. If you’re charmed by the idea of sitting on the steps with locals, devouring a gelato or panini while people watching, then consider the steps in front of the Fontana del Ponte Sisto in Piazza Triussa instead.
Take your time…meander, sit, enjoy, people watch
Even if you only have a short time in Rome, if you ONLY check off famous sites I think you’re doing it wrong. Because one of the best things to do in Rome is just wander the smaller streets and alleys, which are packed with charm and all sorts of fun little details and snapshots of daily life.
Get lost in the maze-like little streets, keeping your eyes peeled for beautiful small fountains, ornate door knockers, quietly pretty churches, and intricate little mosaics in the pavement.
Stop every few hours at small sidewalk cafes for a coffee and pastry, check out little bakeries for fresh focaccia, or chill with a glass of wine and snacks. People watch. Pretend you’re Roman.
One I happened on in my last visit was Via Giulia, a lovely respite from the hustle of Rome that’s lined with churches, fancy houses, and delightful little details. The neighborhoods of Monti and Trastevere are great for this type of aimless walking as well.
Trastevere has gone from a barely-known neighborhood to one of the first you’ll get recommended to you. It’s definitely worth a walk-through, including the charming Piazza di Santa Maria. Try climbing Janiculum Hill for views of the city.
It’s hard to go wrong in Rome, but stick to residential areas versus the more business-type areas (which don’t tend to have the same photogenic feel).
Walk along the Tiber
Winding sinuously through the heart of the city, the Tiber is an experience in and of itself. Even when it’s not the fastest path between famous sites, I definitely think you should spend some time walking along the river at ground level, as well as taking the steps down to the really cool walking/biking path below.
Fun fact: You’ll see SPQR stamped on things all over the city (manhole covers, lamp posts, etc.). It’s an acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates to “The People and Senate of Rome.” It was the emblem of the Roman empire two thousand years ago and is ubiquitous even today.
Consider a food tour
Cost: varies depending on what you want
I am an avowed fan of local food tours, in any kind of foodie destination (see Istanbul, Asheville). I did a walking food tour with The Roman Guy in Rome on my last visit, and honestly it was just okay but not my vibe at all.
I would definitely recommend looking at a food tour, and just use a different tour operator next time…preferably just a simple local one-on-one kind of thing. I would look at With Locals to find something that suits you.
Rome at night is magical
It truly is a magical experience at night, and you should make sure to get out and explore—forget jet lag! Grab a gelato and people watch in piazzas, find a rooftop bar for an apertivo, get some dinner in the Jewish Ghetto, enjoy the lit-up reflections of the Castel Sant’Angelo on the water. The Trevi Fountain shines differently.
Neighborhoods like Trastevere, Testaccio, and Pigneto are also especially great at night as well, so maybe pick one for the evening and make a dinner reservation.
There are also a number of special nighttime tours you can take, such as the Colosseum and Catacombs, and St. Peter’s/Vatican City (on Friday evenings).
Where to watch sunrise and sunset
Similarly, Rome is enchanting both at sunrise and at sunset. I’ve written a whole separate post on when to catch the best light at different sites, and the golds and pinks of early morning or evening feature heavily. That’s because midday light can be quite harsh and unflattering.
Plus, in the early morning especially you can have even the most crowded tourist attraction to yourself. I haven’t been able to watch a TRUE sunrise (I imagine that would entail getting up high), but I think the pearly-pink light of dawn was gorgeous at the Pantheon (and I literally had it to myself), and loved the early morning light off the Vittorio Emmanuel monument. I bet Castel Sant’Angelo would be beautiful as well.
For sunset, one of my absolute favorite spots is the Ponte degli Angeli at the Castel Sant’Angelo, and then walking over to St. Peter’s Basilica as the sunset deepens. You can actually go to the top of the Castel, but I like the view from the bridge as it feels more intimate.
You also can look at getting up high for sunsets, and there are dozens of options. If you can time it right, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica would be amazing. Spots like Terrazza del Pincio and Terrazza Viale del Belvedere above the Piazza del Popolo provide good more birds-eye views. And honestly there are so many great rooftop bars. Just plan ahead and stake out a spot early.
Where to eat & drink in Rome
Ohhhhh the food in Rome is so good!! But you have to do a little research and planning to make sure you don’t end up at tourist traps with mediocre food. I want to spend even more time exploring the foodie side of the city, but here’s a starter list for you…
Coffee, pastries, breakfast, & lunch/snacks
One morning I stopped in at Bar La Licata in the Monti neighborhood (between the Forum and Colosseum) for some coffee and an almond croissant. They’re also known for their more American breakfasts and brunches as well, if you’re in the mood for that.
Another great one that many people recommend is Roscioli Caffè Pasticceria, where I grabbed coffee and pastries with a friend (who was also randomly in Rome and we RANDOMLY ran into each other…what are the odds?!). It’s definitely a local institution.
And then there’s Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè, tucked on a square between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. This historic cafe has been roasting beans and making their own coffee blend for decades (I picked up some of their pods for my Nespresso!). I has delicious coffee and amazing pastries…and is quite popular, so I recommend an early visit!
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Food that Rome is known for
First off, if you want somewhere good and authentic, all Romans know you need to make reservations for dinner! ESPECIALLY on the weekends. I learned this the hard way. Sure, you can get in to a crappy tourist restaurant, but that’s not what we’re here for. So plan a bit ahead, and either call or stop in to get a reservation.
One of the best tips I can give you is to find out what the local or regional specialties are, and focus on those. Just because you’re in Italy, doesn’t mean all Italian food is equally good everywhere. It’s like thinking you can find great Memphis BBQ or lobster rolls just anywhere you find them on a menu in the U.S.
Some of the local specialties in the Rome and Lazio area are:
- Pasta carbonara
- Cacio e pepe pasta
- Baccala alla Romana (a fried salted cod)
- Pizza bianca (focaccia with simply olive oil, salt, and maybe a bit of cheese)
- Pizza al taglio…just pizza by the slice, easy to find all over Rome
- Suppli (fried rice balls with fillings)
- Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style artichokes)
Speaking of pizza al taglio, stop by the historic bakery Forno Campo de’Fiori for a slice, some suppli, or other baked goods.
On my last visit I was only there one night, and (after not making reservations and walking around forever) I ended up at Ditirambo Roma over in the Campo dei Fiori area and it was quite good. But lesson learned, make a reservation!
There were two pizza places I was wanting to visit, that sounded amazing…sadly I got to neither but in case you’re interested they were The Pizzarium and La Pizza del Teatro.
A few tips for finding good gelato…a good places makes theirs fresh and from real ingredients (not powders). So first, look at the colors and particularly the fruit flavors. If they’re super bright or neon, it’s not good. Lemon should be a super pale yellow, banana should be beige.
Also, plastic containers are a no-go, gelato piled up in a mound above the container edges…and if a place has dozens of flavors, it’s a good sign it’s not made super fresh.
One place that everyone recommends is Gelateria del Teatro (original location on Via dei Coronari, and a newer, smaller location along the Lungotevere). They have amazing ingredients and fascinating flavors…I think I had the pear-caramel and the rosemary, honey, and lemon (but can’t remember for sure).
Yeahhhh I know that was a lot…but like I said at the outset, Rome definitely has a ton to offer. Was I lying??? 🙂 Hopefully it’s inspired you on your own itinerary. Hit me up in the comments with any questions!
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