A lifetime is not long enough to see all Rome has to offer. Start at the beginning of history, with ruins, frescos and churches that have stood the test of time.

Italy is a country blessed with exquisite cities and Rome is the king of them all. There are just too many reasons to fall in love with Rome: the masterpieces around every corner, the scooter-driving Romans, the operatic piazzas, and the cocktail of provinciality and sophistication.

They say a lifetime is not long enough for Rome, there is simply too much to see. So the best plan is to choose selectively and leave the rest for next time. If you like to travel through history, here are the best historical Roman sights in a city packed to the brim with ancient wonders.

The Colosseum is the most extraordinary of all Rome’s monuments. Beyond the structure’s size and solidity, there is a sense of gory history that resonates. It was here that gladiators met in mortal combat, and condemned prisoners fought off hungry lions. Originally used to hold games that lasted 100 days and nights, the Colosseum was abandoned in the 6th Century with the fall of the empire. Since then it has served as a fortress in the Middle Ages, been damaged several times by earthquakes and used as a quarry for travertine and marble. Two thousand or so years from its beginning and the Colosseum is still hauling in crowds. Do not let the lengthy queue scare you off. Pop down to the Palatine ticket office, buy your combined ticket there, and upon returning, march straight in. Since 2010, there is even more reason to visit the Colosseum – its underground passageways (where gladiators and beasts once awaited their fate) are now open to the public. 

Palatine was ancient Rome’s version of California’s Beverly Hills. Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded Rome here in 753 BC, and from 500 BC, Rome’s most affluent citizens set up residence in the area. Upon entering the complex from Via di San Gregorio, head uphill until you come to the first recognisable construction, the stadio, probably used by the emperors for private games and events. Adjoining the stadium to the southeast are the scant remains of the complex built by Septimius Severus, comprising baths and a palace. On the other side of the stadio are the ruins of the huge Domus Augustana, the emperor’s private residence. Today the Palatine is a dreamy place to escape the crowds and have a picnic. It is a moss-green hill shaded by umbrella palms and dotted by imperial ruins.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
A treasure trove of classical art, the light-filled Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme is one of Rome’s finest museums, but receives only a smattering of visitors. The museum houses many gems including sculptures and marble friezes from the 2nd Century BC to the 5th Century AD, but the sensational mosaics and frescoes on the 2nd floor blow everything else away. These include richly coloured frescoes from an Augustanera villa, such as the cubicula (bedrooms) with religious, erotic and theatre subjects, and landscape paintings from the triclinium (dining room).  Make sure to see the garden paintings from Villa Livia, one of the homes of Augustus’ wife Livia Drusilla. Excavated in the 19th Century and displayed in the museum in 1951, these stunning frescoes depict an illusionary garden with all of the plants in full bloom.

Competition is fierce, but the Pantheon is surely ancient Rome’s most astonishing building. Considered the Romans’ most important architectural achievement, it was the largest dome in the world until the 15th Century and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. Its harmonious appearance is due to a precisely calibrated symmetry – its diameter is exactly equal to the Pantheon’s interior height of 43.3m. Light enters through the oculus, an opening in the dome that also served as a symbolic connection between the temple and the gods. (Rainwater also enters but drains away through 22 almost-invisible holes in the sloping marble floor.)

Basilica di San Clemente
Enter the Basilica di San Clemente, look around the 12th-century church and then take steps down to a 4th-century church. Follow the steps down another level and you will walk along an ancient lane to a 1st-century Roman house that also contains a dark, 2nd-century temple to Mithras. Mithraism was a cult popular with the ancient Roman military. According to its mythology, Mithras, a young, handsome god, was ordered to slay a wild bull by the Sun. As the bull died, it gave life, as its blood flow made wheat and other plants to grow. Mithraic temples are always deep and dark, but the cult’s fascination with dank caves does not reflect a sinister undercurrent. Rather, its cave-temples represented the cosmos, because it was created from the earth. Mystical and mysterious, this temple is all the more wonderful because of the journey here, through layers of history.

The article 'Top five ancient wonders in Rome' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.