Rome is basically a massive open-air museum; there is no denying that. But where should you go when you want to experience another type of museum? i.e. the ones with walls and a roof? If you plan and prepare accordingly, you can go to many of Rome’s museums for free!
The best place to start is the Vatican Museum. The museums in the Vatican are hands down the best museums in Rome, and they’re technically in another country! These museums are located inside Vatican City and are a very popular place for most tourists. The Vatican Museums display works that have been meticulously collected by the popes for centuries. Some of these works are the best pieces of art in the world. Did you know that the Vatican Museums are the sixth most visited art museums in the world, with over 6 million visitors in 2013? I didn’t either, but I’m pretty sure I ran into all 6 million of them when I visited. At the Vatican Museums, you can see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the Prima Porta Augustus, the Laocoön, and thousands more things. A visit to the museums can take all day, so it’s best to arrive early in the morning in order to maximize your time there. It is crucial that you purchase tickets in advance to enter the Vatican Museums. Otherwise, the line will be excruciatingly long – sometimes several hours! A ticket will guarantee that you can get in to the museums relatively expediently so that you can see the most as possible.
The Colosseum is the most visited site in Rome, as it is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Visitors to this historic monument can go inside and even climb up to one of the levels to imagine the Colosseum as it once was. Throughout the years, some of the pillars and decorations have crumbled and are now displayed in the Colosseum’s museum. An incredible thing about the Colosseum is that you can enter it and the Forum on the same ticket! It is helpful to purchase an audio guide for your tour around the Colosseum since there aren’t a lot of defining things to see. With an audio guide, you can gain a better understanding of what you’re looking at. After all, you’ve gone all the way to Rome, so you might as well understand what’s in front of you! Tickets to the newly renovated Colosseum and Forum can be purchased here.
The Forum is Rome’s largest open-air museum. For years the Forum was the center of the modern civilized world. The Roman Empire’s Senate met in the Forum and it was the dazzling showpiece of ancient Rome. At times, navigating the ruins can be extremely difficult because there aren’t a lot of structures left. I was eight years old when I went to the Forum for the first time. It was the most boring thing I had ever done. Thankfully I gave it another try when I was 19 and appreciated it so much more! But it’s still worth visiting.
The Forum was essentially the government capitol of Rome. Gladiatorial processions, victory marches, criminal trials, and public speeches were all held within the Forum. Rome’s oldest and most important structures were located here. Unfortunately, in the 8th century, a large portion of the Forum’s buildings was torn down and the stones were used to build feudal castles around the area. Today, the Forum looks nothing like it once did, but it’s easy to imagine what once stood there. Every visitor to Rome should go there. The best way to see and truly understand the importance of the Forum is to purchase a transparent book. These can be purchased from street vendors around Rome and at some bookstores. The books have transparent overlays that show what the ruins looked like in ancient Rome and can help really bring the Forum to life.
The Galleria Borghese is an art gallery located in the Villa Borghese in Rome. Cardinal Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V. initially began the gallery. The gallery encompasses 22 rooms and has thousands of works of art. These works include intricate mosaics and sculptures, as well as paintings. The entire villa and gardens are now a museum that belongs to the Italian state. Tickets start at €15 and can be purchased online here.
Palazzi dei Conservatori
Palazzo dei Conservatori is the Capitoline Museums that contain both art and archaeological works. The museums sit on top of Capitoline Hill in Rome, one of the seven hills upon which Rome was founded. Surprise, surprise, we get the English word ‘capitol’ from the Capitoline Hill. Michelangelo designed the plan for the museums and they were implemented over the next 400 years. Michelangelo was a busy guy, even though its reported that he didn’t want to do half of the things he was commissioned to do. Pope Sixtus IV donated a number of bronze statues to the museum to start its collection. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to include a wide variety of different historical items. The museum itself was officially opened in 1734 and is considered to be the first museum in the world where the public could visit and more people than just the owners could enjoy the art. Tickets to the Capitoline Museums only cost €7,50 to enter both halls.
Maxxi is Rome’s new museum that houses contemporary art and architecture. The museum certainly looks contemporary and has a wealth of flowing curves and bright spaces. Its design was created as part of an international design competition and wasn’t completed until 2010. The museum has many permanent collections, as well as some commissions and competitions for young artists. Quite a few of the museum’s pieces are obtained on loan, and there is always some thing new to see there. Regular priced tickets start at €15 and can be purchased online here.
National Roman Museum
The National Roman Museum at Palazzo Altemps houses a variety of important collections of sculptures and art that once belonged to Roman nobility. A very unique feature about this museum is that the statues are arranged in a manner that was considered aesthetically pleasing to old Roman nobility. The National Roman Museum has buildings spread throughout the city but the one at Palazzo Altemps is the best and largest. Most of its exhibits focus on the early history of Rome and focuses on archaeological findings from that time period.
Castel Sant’Angelo is a huge castle situated down the street from Vatican City on the banks of the Tiber. It is actually the mausoleum of Hadrian and his family, and it used to be the tallest building in Rome. Over the years, the popes gradually began to use this as a fortress, castle, and now finally as a museum. Sadly, many of the artifacts from Hadrian’s tomb have been lost over the years as the building was transformed into a military fortress in the 5th century. The museum today is divided into four sections. There is an abundance of history contained in the castle but has fewer visitors than the more popular Vatican Museums. If you are looking for a museum that still has a bunch of history but fewer people, then Castel Sant’Angelo is the place for you!
Victor Emmanuel Monument
Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, or the Victor Emmanuel Monument, is a glaring contrast in Rome’s skyline. It was built in 1925 as a way to honor Victor Emmanuel, who was the first king who ruled over a unified Italy. Visitors can go inside and see the eternal flame dedicated to the Unknown Soldier. Additionally, there is even an elevator that takes visitors to the top for 360 ̇ views of Rome. The monument itself is very controversial because in order to build it, they had to destroy a large area of the Capitoline Hill and medieval buildings. Nevertheless, the Victor Emmanuel is an important piece of Rome that will endure for years to come.
Rome’s catacombs are a glimpse into the underworld. There are 13 known Christian catacombs and six Jewish ones in the city. The catacombs are located outside the walls of Rome because in the second century, there were strict prohibitions that prevented the dead from being buried inside of Rome’s walls. After Christianity became the main religion in Rome, these catacombs were largely forgotten about until the 16th century. Some of the bones in the catacombs have been rearranged to form eerie reminders about the past. In order to go inside the catacombs, you have to take a guided tour. They’re located about seven stories underground and have many dangerous shafts. Interestingly, the catacombs are still considered holy places and proper dress needs to be adhered. Purchase tickets for €15 at the door. If you want to visit one of the less popular catacombs, it may be wise to purchase ahead of time here.
Rome is a city that should be explored to its fullest. Unfortunately sometimes you can’t spend a lot of time in Rome. Be sure to check out my guide to seeing Rome in 48 hours if you’re pressed for time!