The bulk of what you’ll want to visit—ancient, Renaissance, and baroque Rome (as well as the train station)—lies on the east side of the Tiber River (Fiume Tevere), which meanders through town. However, several important landmarks are on the other side: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, the Castel Sant’Angelo, and the colorful Trastevere neighborhood. With the exception of those last sights, it’s fair to say that Rome has the most compact and walkable city center in Europe.
That doesn’t mean you won’t get lost from time to time (most newcomers do). Arm yourself with a detailed street map of Rome (or a smartphone with a hefty data plan). Most hotels hand out a pretty good version. And know that street address in Rome can be frustrating. Numbers usually run consecutively, with odd numbers on one side of the street and evens on the other. However, in the old districts the numbers sometimes run up one side and then run back in the opposite direction on the other side. Therefore, no. 50 could be opposite no. 308.
Finally, remember that much of the historic core of Rome does not fall under easy or distinct neighborhood classifications. Instead, most people’s frame of reference, when describing a location within the centro, is the name of the nearest large monument or square, like St. Peter’s or Piazza di Spagna.
The Neighborhoods in Brief
Where should you stay and where are the major attractions? Read on.
Vatican City & the Prati — Vatican City is technically a sovereign state, although in practice it is just another part of Rome. The Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s, and the Vatican Gardens take up most of the land area, and the popes have lived here for 6 centuries. The neighborhood north of the Vatican—called “Borgo Pio”—contains some good hotels (and several bad ones), but it is removed from the more happening scene of ancient and Renaissance Rome and getting to and from those areas can be time-consuming. Borgo Pio is also rather dull at night and contains few, if any, of Rome’s finest restaurants. The white-collar Prati district, a middle-class suburb just east of the Vatican, is possibly a better choice, thanks to its smattering of affordable hotels, its shopping streets, and the fact that it boasts some excellent places to eat.
Centro Storico & the Pantheon — One of the most desirable (and busiest) areas of Rome, the Centro Storico (“Historic Center”) is a maze of narrow streets and cobbled alleys dating from the Middle Ages, and filled with churches and palaces built during the Renaissance and baroque eras. The only way to explore it is on foot. Its heart is Piazza Navona, built over Emperor Domitian’s stadium and bustling with sidewalk cafes, palazzi, street artists, musicians, and pickpockets.
Rivaling Piazza Navona—in general activity, the cafe scene, and the nightlife—is the area around the Pantheon, which remains from ancient Roman times and is surrounded by a district built much later. South of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and centered on Piazza Farnese and the square of Campo de’ Fiori, many buildings in this area were constructed in Renaissance times as private homes. West of Via Arenula lies one of the city’s most intriguing districts, the old Jewish Ghetto, where the increasingly fashionable dining options far outnumber the hotels.
Ancient Rome, Monti & Celio — Although no longer the heart of the city, this is where Rome began, with the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Imperial Forums, and Circus Maximus. This area offers only a few hotels—most of them inexpensive to moderate in price—and not a lot of great restaurants. Many restaurant owners have their eyes on the cash register and the tour-bus crowd, as passengers are often herded in and out of these restaurants so fast that they don’t know whether the food is any good. Just beyond the Circus Maximus is the Aventine Hill, south of the Palatine and close to the Tiber, now a leafy and rather posh residential quarter—with great city views. You will get much more of a neighborhood feel if you stay in Monti (Rome’s oldest rione, or quarter) or Celio. Both also have good dining, aimed at locals as well as visitors, and Monti, especially, has plenty of life from aperitivo o’clock and into the wee hours of the night.
Tridente & the Spanish Steps — The northern part of Rome’s center is sometimes known as the Tridente on account of the trident shape of the roads leading down from the apex of Piazza del Popolo—Via di Ripetta, Via del Corso, and Via del Babuino. The star here is unquestionably Piazza di Spagna, which attracts Romans and tourists alike to idly sit on its celebrated Spanish Steps. Some of Rome’s most upscale shopping streets fan out from here, including Via Condotti. In fact, this is the most upscale part of Rome, full of expensive hotels, designer boutiques, and chic restaurants.
Via Veneto & Piazza Barberini — In the 1950s and early 1960s, Via Veneto was the swinging place to be, celebrities of the Dolce Vita paraded along the tree-lined boulevard to the delight of the paparazzi. The street is still the site of luxury hotels, cafes, and restaurants, although it’s no longer as happening and the restaurants are mostly overpriced and overcrowded tourist traps.
To the south, Via Veneto comes to an end at Piazza Barberini, and the magnificent Palazzo Barberini, begun in 1623 by Carlo Maderno and later completed by Bernini and Borromini.
Villa Borghese & Parioli — We would call Parioli an area for connoisseurs, attracting those who shun the Spanish Steps and the overly commercialized Via Veneto. It is, in short, Rome’s most elegant residential section, a setting for some of the city’s finest restaurants, hotels, museums, and public parks. Geographically, Parioli is in fact framed by the green spaces of the Villa Borghese to the south and the Villa Glori and Villa Ada to the north. It lies adjacent to Prati but across the Tiber to the east; it’s considered one of the safest districts in the city. All that being said, Parioli is not exactly central, so it can be a hassle as a base if you’re dependent on public transportation.
Around Stazione Termini — The main train station, Stazione Termini, adjoins Piazza della Repubblica, and is for many visitors their first introduction to Rome. Much of the area is seedy and filled with gas fumes from all the buses and cars, plus a fair share of weirdos. If you stay here, you might not get typical Rome charm, but you’ll have a lot of affordable options and a convenient location, near the transportation hub of the city and not far from ancient Rome. There is a fair amount to see here, including the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the artifacts at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, and the Baths of Diocletian.
The neighborhoods on either side of Termini (Esquilino and Tiburtino) have been slowly cleaning up, and some streets are now attractive. Most budget hotels on the Via Marsala side of the station occupy a floor or more of a palazzo (palace); many of their entryways are drab, although upstairs they are often charming or at least clean and livable. In the area to the left of the station as you exit, the streets are wider, the traffic is heavier, and the noise level is higher. The area requires you to take just a little caution late at night.
Trastevere — In a Roman adaptation of the Latin "Trans Tiber", Trastevere means “across the Tiber.” For visitors arriving in Rome decades ago, it might as well have meant Siberia. All that has changed. This once medieval working-class district has been gentrified and is now overrun with visitors from all over the world. It started to transform in the 1970s when expats and other bohemians discovered its rough charm. Since then, Trastevere has been filling up with tour buses, dance clubs, offbeat shops, sidewalk vendors, pubs, and little trattorie with menus printed in English. There are even places to stay—mostly rather quaint rentals and AirBnB's—but as of yet it hasn’t burgeoned into a major hotel district. There are some excellent restaurants and bars here as well.
Testaccio & Southern Rome — In a.d. 55, Emperor Nero ordered that Rome’s thousands of broken amphorae and terra-cotta roof tiles be stacked in a pile to the east of the Tiber, just west of today’s Ostiense Railway Station. Over the centuries, the mound grew to a height of around 61m (200 ft.) and then was compacted to form the centerpiece for one of the city’s most unusual working-class neighborhoods, Testaccio. Houses were built on the perimeter of the terra-cotta mound, and caves were dug into its mass to store wine and foodstuffs. Once home to slaughterhouses and Rome’s former port on the Tiber, Testaccio is now known for its authentic Roman restaurants. It’s also one of Rome’s liveliest areas after dark.
Further south and east, the Via Appia Antica is a 2,300-year-old road that has witnessed much of the history of the ancient world. By 190 b.c., it extended from Rome to Brindisi on the southeast coast. Its most famous sights are the Catacombs, the graveyards of early Christians and patrician families (despite what it says in “Quo Vadis,” they weren’t used as a place for Christians to hide while fleeing persecution). This is one of the most historically rich areas of Rome, great for a daytrip but not a good place to stay.