The Eternal City.
The City of Fountains.
The Throne of St. Peter.
The Capitol of the World.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims flock to see the seat of one of the worlds greatest civilizations. After all, all roads lead to it.
Cobble stoned, break-your-ankle roads, lined with trattorie and Vespas, limoncello hawkers and leather vendors. Stacked brick walls older than your country weep ivy and wisteria and stone fountains bubble pure, clean waters from the depths of ancient Rome.
For all these reasons -and so many more- we made Rome our destination for a trip with Jimmy’s parents early this summer. 7 whole days to really explore all that this city had to offer- or at least as much as our weary feet would allow.
You may know that I have spent a bit of time in Italy- it was my first European adventure 15-ish years ago and I have since spent nearly 5 months within its borders in the last 10 years. Prior to this trip, only about 7 days had been spent in Rome, with only one trip consisting of more that 2 nights. So this was really a fantastic opportunity to really explore and enjoy the city.
You should also know that I am a prolific trip planner when it comes to Italy. I want to do #allthethings. So we began planning this trip by compiling everything that we wanted to see and do- from word of mouth, books, blogs and my own past experiences.
What follows is the most epic, complete guide to seeing tons and tons (but, of course, not all) of Rome in 5 days. Its a long read so let my give you the highlight of the trip now: Marky Mark Wahlberg made an appearance at the Sunday morning English mass in a small, obscure church we chose at random. I could have left then and there and been happy. But alas, there was so much more to do!
As always with large cities, I suggest doing one big thing in the morning, then spend the afternoon strolling a specific neighborhood or area.
Side note: this post is in no way sponsored. All opinions expressed are my own.
Go on guided strolls.
Most of Rome’s biggest hitters can be seen all throughout your visit: The Pantheon, Trajan’s Column, Piazza Navona, Campo De Fiori, and -of course- Trevi Fountain, as well has hundreds of churches that are each brimming with beautiful artwork. If you see an open door- go into it!
I suggest taking as many of these strolls as you can- especially before and after dinner to enjoy the always-festive atmosphere in the city. However, if you are really concerned about missing something here’s your best bet:
Start at Trevi Fountain, first thing in the morning. I mean it- first thing! After about 8 am, Lizzie McGuire aficionados begin flocking to each get a photo of themselves wishing to meet a tall, Italian stranger. Jimmy’s parents were up at at the Fountain on the first 6am metro and had the place to themselves (and a documentary camera crew) and watched the sun slowly wake up the immaculate white stone.
Next, follow the brown monument signs to the Pantheon, passing Trajan’s Column and Piazza di Pietra aong the way. As one of the best preserved pieces of ancient Rome, the Pantheon’s façade is impressive enough. Dating back to AD 125 (ish) this temple was originally dedicated to all of the gods. However, you would miss its greatest feature if you did not venture inside (opening at 8:30 on weekdays and 9 on Sunday): the incredible oculus in the peak of the shallow dome. Not only is this an architectural and engineering feat of its time, it is also one of the finest surviving examples of Roman architecture. It has taken engineers centuries to understand just how the Romans managed to build a dome of this scale at this time- and there is still some debate today.
You can continue this tour to the nearby Piazza Navona to see Bernini’s masterpiece, Fountain of the Four Rivers. Don’t linger in this piazza for much more than a glass of wine- there are far better places to eat just behind it along Via dei Coronari and Vicolo delle Vacche. Visit at night to see the fountain in lights and then continue down the aforementioned streets to enjoy the restaurants and bars spilling out onto the streets, all accompanied by live music and the smells of excellent food-you won’t be disappointed.
Also in this same area is Campo de Fiori, which is a great morning or early afternoon stop. Peruse through the market stalls, selling bright bushels of flowers, every color liquor and grappa (in carry-on sizes!), olive oils, pates, jams- you name it. We watched a hilarious vendor give a tutorial on a 5eu plastic cooking toy that slices, dices, spiralizes, etc and ended up buying one just for the entertainment. It is now one of my favorite kitchen tools! Having landed here after an early morning at Trevi and the Pantheon, we then sat down for omelets, coffee and fresh OJ (this is a popular student area with a well-known bar, so good-sized -ahem, American/hangover- breakfasts are easier to find!)
Designate most of a day for Ancient Rome.
Not just the points touched above; for the big stuff. You know about the Colosseum, but don’t forget the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus– which is really just the start. All of these can be easily accessed from the same area.
The Roman Forum usually has just a pretty quick security line even during the high season. You will spend more time in line for your ticket, which can also be purchased ahead of time from http://www.coopculture.it/en/ This ticket is a mere 12eu and includes entry to the Forum and the Colosseum, though you will have to wait in a relatively long line to enter the arena. I suggest also booking a tour time, so you can effectively skip the line.
This is the official website for Colosseum tickets! Do not be fooled by many other legit looking sites that will charge you extra commission fees!
This is also the place where you can book your tickets to see the Third Ring (formerly the Roman Nose-Bleed Section) and the Underground (formerly the Roman locker rooms). I highly suggest taking this tour, as you will learn far more than you did from watching Russell Crowe fight off lions and Joaquin Phoenix. But book early! Tickets for these tours go on sale a month ahead of time and sell out quickly!
I somehow managed to get the last tickets for the month of May to take a night tour of the Colosseum Underground. I have previously been inside this great arena on 3 occasions, but I had never had a tour like this. While I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to walk through the Underground corridors, I was in complete awe of the massive dry stacked cornerstones that support this entire structure.
Other tour highlights include a walk on the Colosseum floor (Maximus! Maximus! ….anyone??) which is not open to regular visitors and a reconstruction of the revolutionary elevators that moved fighters and animals (each operated by slave labor). This tour gives you a much deeper appreciation for the engineering of an ancient building that staged sea battles and gladiator fights and welcomed tens of thousands of Roman residents.
We spent the better part of that earlier afternoon meandering through the Roman Forum, bottom to top and back to the bottom. Plan to spend 2-3 hours here. As you enter to the Arc of Titus, go left to meaner up through the massive Cyprus and ancient pine trees until you reach the top of Palatine hill, where you can explore the ruins of the Roman Villas and look out over Circus Maximus (which can me accessed for free when you exit the ticketed Forum area). As you make your way back to the main Forum, don’t miss the look out on top of the hill. Then wind your way down and walk along the base of Palatine Hill, where shop owners used to hawk their wears to visitors entering the city. Spend your time gawking at the remarkable ruins for their beauty, scale and the sheer fact that they are still standing!!
Exit by the massive wall of the Basilica towards the metro- you’ll want to beat a fast exit after all that walking!
If you haven’t had enough -or cursed the Roman cobble stones- yet, you can do some “ancient Rome add-ons”: Hop the metro out to the Lucio Sestio stop and visit Parco degli Aquedotti, where you can admire one of the greatest engineering feats of all time that supplied fresh water from the mountains straight to the sprawling metropolis of ancient Rome. Out here, you can also stroll the Appian Way, which hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens and soldiers have all marched before you as the main artery to the Eternal city.
When you only have 7 days and not a lifetime, it is best to cut some things out. So we opted, instead, for a 2 hour guided tour of the Catacombs beneath Rome. There are many areas of catacomb excavations accessible to the public, but most require a guide- which you will understand when you descend into the pitch black maze of tombs. We booked through Walks of Italy and were all very impressed with our engaging and knowledgeable guide. After meeting us at our apartment, she arranged a taxi to take us to the Santa Priscilla catacombs, where we were the only tour. Highlights included paintings that depict rituals and daily life, one of the earliest depictions of the Virgin Mary as well as markings from the original excavator- so he wouldn’t get lost! From there, we visited the Basilica San Clemente, one of Rome’s “lasagna churches”, so named for their many layers created as Rome rebuild itself-on top of itself. The bottom layer shows evidence of a temple of the mystical cult of Mithras brought by soldiers returning form Persia. The next layer shows a villa of a noble man, public housing, then a 4th century church. The ultimate highlight was following the sound of rushing water into the lowest level, where you can literally see one of the mountain streams that runs under Rome- this one, leading to the Colosseum, where it was used to fill the arena for ancient naval battles.
Sadly, no photos can be taken of the catacombs, but I am certain that no photo would accurately depict the vast, seemingly endless corridors and total darkness of the place.
Side note- near the Colosseum is also the church of St. Peter in Chains, where you can view one on Michelangelo’s spectacular sculptures, the horned Moses. Drop by while you are in the area.
Dedicate another day to tackling Vatican City.
Whether you break it up into two half days or take it all at once, plan on spending plenty of time in Vatican City.
There is so much to talk about here that I have detailed it in its own post! Visit here for all the good on how to make the best of your time in this small nation: Vatican City: How to See it All
Get out of the city.
Seriously, Rome is overwhelming and massive and full of people and you will just need a break. There are a bunch of great day and over-night trips from Rome that can help to break up your trip. Orvieto is a small town just a train ride away, or you can go farther afield, like we did.
View our Day Trip to Positano (including how to get there) here!
Find the lesser known areas.
We spent an afternoon wandering about in one of the outer-lying neighborhoods in Rome. Just a short walk away, you can find yourself across the Tiber River in Trastevere, the medieval center of Rome and home to the old Jewish corridor. This neighborhood is super quaint, with small work shops and eateries lining the streets and -notably- about a hundredth the amount of people as a few blocks north. You will also notice, when searching for great places to eat in Rome, most of them are here. So you know you’re in the right place.
From Trastevere, you can also climb up Monte Giancolo, which affords a beautiful view in all directions of Rome.
And finally, don’t miss the Borghese Gardens.
Another city escape within the city, you can climb up to the Borghese gardens and spend the rest of your day exploring its hidden lakes and castles, taking in its skyline views, renting bikes and eating gelati from street vendors. If you are traveling with kids, this is a must-do. You may get lucky like us and stumble onto a major equestrian event!
If you simply cannot bear to spend a day without some Italian culture (gelato counts…just sayin….) then be sure not to miss the Borghese Galley. I take that back, I demand that you visit. It is my all time favorite museum. After visiting the Vatican Museum, this will museum visit will feel like a day at the spa. Only a certain, small amount of people are permitted inside at a time, so you must book your tickets in advance! It is intimate and chock-a-block full of classics by Italian masters. Particularly, the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s moving sculptures.
This is the official site that does not charge an extra commission. Be sure to bring an ID and email confirmation to pick up the tickets!
There are few words capable of expressing the exquisiteness of these sculptures. Even for the art-averse, they are impressive. The marble looks like flesh, malleable to the fingertip; ropes, taught to the pull; leaves, sheer enough to let in dapples of sunlight. When you look at them, keep in mind that they were sculpted hundreds of years ago – out of stone.
After exploring the park and drying your eyes from the museum, you can stroll back down through the park just in time to catch sunset from the top of the famous Spanish Steps. Not bad for a day of leisurely touring.
If you’re exhausted reading this, well, you should be. There is a lot of Rome and a shame to miss any of it. However it is nearly impossible to do and see it all. Hopefully this list can help you to organize your days and maximize your time. Feel free to ask me some specific questions in the comments below or add your own suggestions! As I said, it is impossible to do it all, so I love hearing others’ ideas!