Italy is undoubtedly my favorite country to visit, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Rome on three separate occasions. Visiting Italy became even more meaningful to me last summer when I had the opportunity to connect with my Italian family in the North (but more on that in a future post).
With each visit to Rome, I’ve become familiar enough with the city to understand how best to maximize time and take in the city’s most iconic sights. If your time in Rome is limited (which it often is because Italy offers so much!), this itinerary will help you make the most of your time exploring.
Day 1: The Vatican and Colosseum/Roman Forum
Knowing that these two sites offer much depth and cultural richness about western civilization in general, you’ll want to allow yourself plenty of time to properly explore and take in what they have to offer. Plan to allow one full day to cover both locations.
Morning: The Vatican
Make time to visit the three main sights within the sprawling Vatican: 1) The Vatican Museum; 2) St. Peter’s Square; and 3) St. Peter’s Basilica. While St Peter’s Square can be easily viewed on your own, I highly suggest signing up for a tour that will take you through both the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. Viator has a myriad of tours that will suit any interest, so browse the catalog and find one that fits your needs. A tour is helpful for two reasons: to skip the (very) long line and to know what you’re looking at. The Vatican Museum—immense and overwhelming—holds a trove of treasures to be explored. A tour guide will highlight the most significant items, and give context to make them interesting. If time allows, venture beneath the Basilica to view the Vatican Grottoes and see the graves of past popes, including Pope John Paul II. Even more fascinating is the level beneath the Grottoes: the Necropolis. Excavated in the 1940s, the Necropolis purportedly contains the remains of the Apostle Peter. While the Grotto is open to the public, the Necropolis can only be seen on special tours.
At the completion of your Vatican tour, you’ll likely be ready for a lunch break. Take a 15-minute walk north on Via Ottoviano to one of two restaurants, either Il Ciociaro or l’Isola della Pizza. These come highly recommended by my Italian family and offer a great sampling of Roman food, including Cacio e Pepe, a Roman staple of al dente pasta mixed with cream and pepper.
Afternoon: The Colosseum & The Roman Forum
After refueling with pasta, make your way across Central Rome to the Colosseum. Plan to take a taxi, which can be done either by asking the restaurant to call you one, or by locating a nearby taxi stand. Alternatively, you can easily take the metro from the nearby Ottaviano station and transfer at Termini to reach the Colosseo stop. Uber currently does not work well in Rome (rides are either very expensive or unavailable).
The Colosseum is one of my favorite sights in all of Rome, simply because of the mind-blowing history of the arena which dates back to 70-80 AD. I suggest booking a tour for a number of reasons: to skip the long line; gain access to areas only tours can go; and learn the historical context to understand what you’re viewing. Most tours will take you to the arena floor, but I suggest opting for a tour that goes underground to the dungeon as well. The dungeon area is where the gladiators (and hungry animals) would wait to enter the arena. Since not as many tour groups go there, it’s less crowded, and incredibly interesting. We recently did the Colosseum Dungeons and Arena tour from 7 Hills Tours with our entire family.
The Roman Forum is across the street from the Colosseum, and was the municipal center of ancient Rome, housing the likes of everyone from Julius Caesar to Constantine the Great. Covering the grounds can be a bit overwhelming, so I’d suggest a tour here as well. Often times, you can find a combination tour that includes both the Colosseum and the Forum, given their proximity near each other. If time is short or you’re exhausted, you can likely get your Forum fix just by viewing it from the street.
Pro Tip: If you’re wanting to head back to your hotel, there is a taxi stand across the street from the Colosseum on the corner of Via Capo d’ Africa and Via Claudia. This would be Southeast from the Colosseum.
Day 2: A Walk in the Piazza
Now that you’ve hit two of Rome’s biggest landmarks, it’s time to meander through and discover the legendary charm and culture of this city on an epic walk through Central Rome.
One of my favorite things to do in any city is to get “lost” and explore it on foot. One can see the changing dynamic of one area to the next when going slowly and taking it all in. Rome is filled with a myriad of winding streets and alleyways that lead to very interesting discoveries, including observing the various Madonnelle that adorn the corners of buildings. If you want added history and context, it’s not a bad idea to add a walking tour and have an official guide. On a previous trip to Rome, we did a city walking tour through Presto Tours, which lasts about three hours. However, you can certainly navigate these Piazzas on your own. I stretched this itinerary out over a day to allow for meandering and exploring of side streets as desired. See my walking map here.
Morning: Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, & The Pantheon
Start your day at the Campo de’ Fiori, which literally translates to ‘field of flowers.’ It still has small produce and flower stands, but used to serve as a central outdoor market in the 1800s (prior to that, it’s where public executions took place!). Though this piazza today is certainly touristy, it’s a nice place to start the day and browse the various stands.
Pro Tip: Any street you’re walking on is fair game for motorcycles and cars, no matter how calm or pedestrian it seems. Stay alert when winding your way through Rome, as it’s easy to let your guard down when you see no cars, and they tend to quickly sneak up behind you when you least expect it. Stay to the sides even if there is no sidewalk.
Once you’ve taken in the Campo de’ Fiori, head North up Via dei Baullari for a short walk over to Piazza Navona, a sprawling piazza that features several famous fountains including Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), located in the center, which features a large Egyptian Obelisk Take in all three of the fountains, then take a cappuccino break at one of the cafes that line the piazza.
Once you’ve re-caffeinated in Piazza Navona, take a short walk north and east to the Pantheon. This ancient structure is quite striking and clearly stands out amongst the residential buildings that surround it. It was created under Emperor Hadrian around 126 AD as a temple to all of the Gods. This building is well preserved, as it has been used continuously throughout its history and was converted to a church in the 7th century.
The Pantheon’s history goes deep, so you’ll want to do some reading before you visit. However, the physical site is not that large, so you can cover the territory relatively quickly. Unlike the Vatican, the door is open and you can walk in and out as you please. However, lines can get long if you’re going during the high season (summer).
After you’ve taken in the Pantheon, it’s a great time to stop for a bite to eat. One of my perennial favorites is La Buvette located on Via Vittoria, very close to the Spanish steps. I always get their truffle pasta, which is fresh fettucine served in a cream sauce with black truffles.
Afternoon: Piazza di Spagna, Trevi Fountain, & Altare della Patria
The grand dame of all Roman pizzas is the Piazza di Spagne, famous for its Spanish steps. Made famous throughout cinema history (including Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn), this iconic piazza is a must-see. It’s also worth the hike to the top for another perspective of Rome.
Once you’ve snapped a few photos at the Spanish steps, wind your way down Via Propaganda to see the iconic Trevi Fountain. According to legend, you are supposed to turn your back to the fountain and toss in a coin over your shoulder, which ensures the good fortune of a return visit to Rome. As a bonus to your good fortune, one can feel good about making a donation, as all of the coins are donated to a local charity.
From the Trevi Fountain, make your way down to Piazza Venezia, which is a major intersection point of the city. Take a look across the street at the National Museum of Palazzo Venezia, and see the balcony where Mussolini gave a speech to declare war on Britain and France in 1940. Once you pass through the Piazza, you’ll see the Altare Della Patria towering in front of you (translates to Altar of the Fatherhood). Often dubbed ”the wedding cake,” this towering building houses a museum of Italian history. However, I find the real attraction to be the view from the top of the steps. It’s worth the hike to the top to get yet another perspective of the Eternal City.
Depending on how much time is left in your day, I suggest hopping in a taxi and riding over to the Piazza del Popolo, another great piazza of the city. Here you can see the magnificent Porta del Popolo, an impressive gate that was enhanced by Bernini. From here, you can also easily enter the Villa Borghese, a beautiful park that is large and winding with many hidden finds (similar to NYC’s Central Park).
For dinner, I recommend heading back over to Via Vittoria for a wonderful meal at Il Gabriello (reservations recommended). If you time it right, you could also catch the sunset at the Spanish Steps nearby.
At this point, you’re likely exhausted from all of the legwork, but hopefully feel like you’ve had a great tasting of what Rome has to offer! Assuming you’ve followed the “rules” and properly tossed your coin into the Trevi Fountain, you’ll hopefully make a return visit. Rome has even more beautiful sites to offer, like this amazing Twilight Trastevere Food Tour that came highly recommended to me and I hope to cover on a future visit.
Where to Stay:
It’s most convenient to stay somewhere in central Rome, as you’ll want to walk around easily.
I lodged here with my family on a recent visit and loved it. It’s a bit of a walk, but the hotel is very nice and the service is fantastic. There is also a rooftop restaurant and bar (reservations recommended for dinner). The rooms were spacious and luxurious.
While not as upscale as the Indigo, this location can’t be beat as it’s just around the corner from the Spanish Steps. Truly a European hotel with all the quirks and charm (i.e. small bathroom), but the price point is usually very reasonable for such a prime location.
While Uber is my usual mode of transportation, the service doesn’t work as practically in Rome, which leaves you at the mercy of taxis. A few tips on getting around:
- If you’re going somewhere on a schedule (i.e. the airport), I typically recommend arranging for a transfer through the hotel. While more expensive, this option guarantees that you’ll have transportation (taxi drivers could decide to strike last minute, or simply not show up).
- Hotels and restaurants are helpful resources and will call you a taxi. Never be afraid to ask them.
- Taxi stands are typically plentiful; keep your eyes open for either a sign or a line of taxis waiting.
- I’ve personally not used the Metro, but have heard from other travelers that it’s safe and reliable.
Now that I’ve shared the tips for a ‘Rome Highlight’ tour over two days, I would be curious to hear other tips or recommendations from those who know Rome. Please weigh in with your suggestions in the comments!