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 curls through the city. However, several important landmarks are on the other side: St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the colorful Trastevere neighborhood. Even if those last sites are slightly farther afield, Rome has one of the most compact and walkable city centers 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 of a city map.
Much of the historic core of Rome does not fall under easy or distinct neighborhood classifications. Instead, when describing a location, the frame of reference is the name of the nearest large monument or square, like St. Peter’s or Piazza di Spagna. Street numbers usually run consecutively, with odd numbers on one side of the street, evens on the other. However, in centro, the numbers sometimes run up one side and then run back down on the other side (so #50 could be potentially opposite #308).
Vatican City & 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; the popes have lived here for 7 centuries. If you plan to spend most of your time exploring Vatican City sights, or if you just want to stay outside the city center, Prati, a middle-class neighborhood east of the Vatican, has a smattering of affordable hotels and shopping streets, as well as 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, as well as countless hotels and AirBnB rentals. The only way to explore it is by foot. Its heart is elegant Piazza Navona, built over Emperor Domitian’s stadium and bustling with overpriced sidewalk cafes and restaurants, street artists, musicians, and milling crowds. The nearby area around the ancient Roman Pantheon is abuzz with crowds, a cafe scene, and nightlife. South of Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the lively square of Campo de’ Fiori, home to the famous produce market. West of Via Arenula lies the old Jewish Ghetto, where restaurants far outnumber 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—and, in Monti, a handful of very good restaurants. Closer to the Colosseum, many restaurants here are tour-bus traps. Just beyond the Circus Maximus, the Aventine Hill is now a posh residential quarter with great city views. For more of a neighborhood feel, stay in Monti (Rome’s oldest rione, or quarter) or Celio, respectively located north and south of the Colosseum. Both also have good dining, and Monti especially has plenty of nightlife.
Tridente & The Spanish Steps—The most upscale part of Rome, full of expensive hotels, designer boutiques, and chic restaurants, lies north of Rome’s center. It’s often called the Tridente, because Via di Ripetta, Via del Corso, and Via del Babuino form a trident leading down from Piazza del Popolo. The star here is unquestionably Piazza di Spagna, which attracts Romans and tourists alike (though mostly the latter) to linger at its celebrated Spanish Steps (just don’t eat lunch on the steps!). Some of Rome’s most high-end shopping streets fan out from here, including Via Condotti.
Via Veneto & Piazza Barberini—In the 1950s and early 1960s, the tree-lined boulevard Via Veneto was the swinging place to be, the haunt of la Dolce Vita celebrities and paparazzi. Luxury hotels, cafes, and restaurants still cluster here, although the restaurants are mostly overpriced tourist traps. To the south, Via Veneto ends at Piazza Barberini and the magnificent Palazzo Barberini, begun in 1623 by Carlo Maderno and later completed by Bernini and Borromini.
Villa Borghese & Parioli—Parioli is Rome’s most elegant residential section, a setting for excellent restaurants, hotels, museums, and public parks. Bordered by the green spaces of the Villa Borghese to the south and the Villa Glori and Villa Ada to the north, Parioli (and just to its south, Pinciano) is one of the city’s safest districts, but it’s not exactly central. It’s not the best base if you plan to depend on public transportation.
Around Stazione Termini—For many visitors, their first glimpse of Rome is the main train station and adjoining Piazza della Repubblica. There are a lot of affordable hotels in this area; while they may lack charm, the location is convenient, near the city’s transportation hub and not far from ancient Rome. Hotels on the Via Marsala side often occupy floors of a palazzo (palace), with clean and decent, sometimes even charming, rooms. Traffic and noise are worse on the streets to the left of the station. The once-seedy neighborhoods on either side of Termini (Esquilino and Tiburtino) have slowly been cleaning up, but caution is always advisable.
Trastevere—In a Roman shift of the Latin Trans Tiber, Trastevere means “across the Tiber.” Since the 1970s, when expats and other bohemians discovered it, this once-medieval working-class district has been gentrified and is now most definitely on the tourist map. Yet Trastevere retains its colorful appeal, with dance clubs, offbeat shops, pubs, and little trattorie and wine bars. Trastevere has places to stay—mostly rather quaint rentals and Airbnb’s—and excellent restaurants and bars, too. The area centers on the ancient churches of Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Testaccio & Southern Rome—Once home to slaughterhouses and Rome’s port on the Tiber, the working-class neighborhood of Testaccio was built around one strange feature: A huge compacted mound of broken amphorae and terracotta roof tiles, begun under Emperor Nero in a.d. 55 and added to over the centuries. Houses were built around the mound; caves were dug into its mass to store wine and foodstuffs. Now known for its authentic Roman restaurants, Testaccio is also one of Rome’s liveliest areas after dark. Stay here if you want a taste of a real Roman neighborhood, but bear in mind that you’re a bus, tram, or subway ride from most touristic sights.
The Appian Way—Farther south and east, the 2,300-year-old Via Appia Antica road once extended from Rome to Brindisi on the southeast coast. This is one of the most historically rich areas of Rome, great for a day trip, but not a convenient place to stay. Its most famous sights are the Catacombs, the graveyards of early Christians and patrician families.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.