Most of the Italy itineraries I create for clients – for even the most beyond the obvious travelers – include a few days in Rome. After all, Italy’s famous attractions are famous for a reason. Use the recommendations below for what to see and do in Rome as a guide for your first visit to Italy, or use it as a template, then add or subtract sights based on your own interests and the amount of time you have.
General Rome Travel Tips
Rome is built on seven hills, so bring good walking shoes, acquaint yourself with Rome’s public transportation systems, and make sure you have a map. It’s worth staying in the historical center so that you don’t spend a lot of time getting in and out of the city. Absolutely do not rent a car to get around Rome: the traffic, the parking, and the city’s limited traffic zones will add nothing but stress to your visit. If you must get from A to B within Rome by car, take a taxi. And finally, take advice on the best places for lunch, dinner, gelato and coffee from Katie Parla or Elizabeth Minchilli or Tavole Romane. You could live in Rome a lifetime and not see everything, however the main sights below can be visited in a few days.
Visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica
If you book one guided tour on your entire trip to Italy, make it a tour of the Vatican. Here’s the reason: if you allocate just one minute for each work of art inside the Vatican museums, you’d need fifty days to get through the entire place. (More interesting facts in this great infographic about the Vatican and the Pope). And, don’t visit the Vatican museums on free Sundays – or at least know what to expect. Finally, although it’s a separate entrance and a separate ticket, and likely not included as part of your guided tour, I recommend going to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica to see the views over Rome. Want to see the Pope? Just check the Pope’s schedule online to see whether he’ll be in town, and arrive early to get through security. If you want to get a bit beyond the obvious, there are a few more things you might want to see.
Visit the Colosseum and the Forum
Don’t visit the Colosseum and the Forum on the same day as you visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica or your brain will hurt from information overload. Buy skip-the-line Colosseum tickets online ahead of time, which are valid at any point within a 2 day window and include the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill (you cannot buy separate tickets to each attraction). When you arrive at the Colosseum, pick up a headset for an audio guided tour; or do it yourself using written materials you brought with you; or book a tour with an actual guide to have a person bring things to life and answer your questions. Booking a guided tour is a great way to see areas of the Colosseum that require special access like the Underground and the Third Ring. The nearby Basilica of San Clemente is also a worthwhile stop.
Balance the museums with a do-it-yourself walking tour of quick sights
Here are three walking routes that take you, in a logical order, to additional famous sights in Rome. If you arrive in Rome mid-afternoon, following one of these routes is a great way to start your Rome visit: fresh air and sunshine will help you get over jet lag, and you don’t need to book any of these sights ahead of time, thought you should plot them on a map and double check opening hours where relevant.
- Start at the Trevi Fountain, and with your back to the fountain, throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand: it means you’ll return. Then head to the Spanish Steps for some great people-watching. Walk over to the Via del Corso for some name brand shopping or window shopping, and head up to Piazza del Popolo, recently voted Rome’s favorite tourist spot.
- Start at the Campo de’ Fiori market in the morning (any morning except Sunday) and peruse the stalls, making a note of what’s in season so you know what to order for dinner that night. Then head to Piazza Navona to admire the fountains and absorb the vibe, but don’t sit in one of the touristy restaurants on the square. Instead head to nearby hidden gem, the Chiostro del Bramante, for coffee or a snack or lunch. Then visit the Pantheon, where you can pick up a headseat for a guided audio tour. Time for a gelato break! Then if it’s a bright day, pop in to the nearby Church of Sant’Ignazio to see its amazing trompe l’oeil ceiling.
- Start from the Colosseum, and make a little detour to the Mouth of Truth, also stopping to peek into the gorgeous church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Walk up to the Campidoglio Square which was designed by Michelangelo and admire the famous statue of Romulus and Remus. (If you still have the energy, the art and archaeology inside the Capitoline museums is spectacular, but this is not a quick stop.) Take a coffee break at a nearby coffee shop with views, or take the glass elevator to the top of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, also known as the Altare della Patria, for some spectacular views over Rome. Back down at ground level, walk past the ruins of the Largo di Torre Argentina – see whether you can spot any stray cats from the cat sanctuary.
Once you add stops for coffee and gelato, allow for some shopping time, maybe a cooking course, and a (recommended!) rest before a pre-dinner drink and then a meal at the Roman dinner time of about 9 pm, this becomes a busy three-day Rome itinerary. But don’t try to do everything listed here if you are visiting Rome with kids – here are my tips for that. And if you have more time (or just a lot of energy): consider adding the Borghese Gallery (advance reservations highly recommended), the MAXXI and the MACRO modern art museums, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Catacombs, or the Baths of Caracalla.
If you’re not sure which activity to put on which day, or want someone else to unscramble everything and put the pieces back into logical order for your specific trip, I’d love to plan this trip for you. Read about some of my deliriously happy clients, and see my Italy travel planning services. Contact me at madeline at italybeyondtheobvious dot com.
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