How to Spend One Day in Rome

April 30, 2012 by

Europe, Suggested Itineraries, Things to Do

You might think it’s impossible to see the sights of Rome in just one day – but Italy’s capital is actually very compact and easy to explore. With a bit of planning, a good map, and a decent pair of shoes to cope with all those cobbled streets, you can see many of Rome’s highlights in the space of a day – and this guide will show you how. True, you might wish you had more time to marvel at the many monuments in this museum city of ruined temples, crumbling churches and pretty piazzas, but this will at least give you a taste of the Eternal City, and leave you wanting more.

The centre of Rome is easy to reach regardless of how you arrive at the capital – by air, rail or water. Ciampino Airport is a 35-minute bus or taxi ride from the city, Fiumicino Airport is a 30-minute train journey or 40 minutes away by bus or taxi, Termini Station is within walking distance to the centre, and the cruise port of Civitavecchia is about an hour’s train ride from the first stop in Rome: San Pietro, where our tour begins.

Morning:  Churches, Castles, and Authentic Quarters

St Peter's Basilica

Inside St Peter’s Basilica

Vatican City is the world’s smallest state and home to the Pope. It’s an enormous complex that you could easily spend the whole day exploring – but then you wouldn’t get to see the rest of Rome. Arrive as early as you can – it gets very busy – and head through handsome St Peter’s Square, with its ornate colonnades and Egyptian obelisk, to St Peter’s Basilica. This breathtaking basilica is one of the largest churches in the world with the biggest dome, and was built as a shrine to St Peter who is said to be buried underneath.

As soon as you enter you’ll see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pietà, and you can’t miss Bernini’s huge altar canopy with its bronze spiral columns below Michelangelo’s dome. Crane your neck to admire the dome, or if you want to get up close and personal then ride the elevator and then take the spiral steps to the top where you can enjoy panoramic views across the city.

A visit to the Sistine Chapel is on everyone’s itinerary when in Rome, but to see it you have to purchase a ticket for the Vatican Museums. On the last Sunday of the month entrance is free, but as a consequence the place is heaving. Here you will find one of the greatest art collections in the world, with works by Bernini, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci to collections of Greek, Etruscan and Roman artifacts, plus the papal frescoed apartments. You may spot a Swiss Guard or two in their traditional outfits. The Sistine Chapel is at the end of the line (about a mile’s walk), so if seeing its spectacular ceiling is a priority then don’t linger too long elsewhere, although it will be hard to tear yourself away from the likes of the Raphael’s Rooms.

Read more: A Trip to The Vatican

Ponte Sant' Angelo

Ponte Sant’ Angelo

In keeping with the papal theme, head to Castel Sant’ Angelo, a few minutes away on Lungotevere Vaticano; you can’t miss it. This circular castle was the papal stronghold for 1000 years and constructed as a tomb for Hadrian. Between the castle and the Vatican runs a viaduct known as the passetto; this was an escape route for Popes in times of trouble (as all Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons fans will know). The papal apartments are beautifully frescoed, and the views from the ramparts over the Tiber, the Vatican, and the city will blow you away. Check out Ponte Sant’ Angelo below, a bridge covered in statues of angels designed by Bernini (again, one for Angels and Demons fans).

To visit a truly authentic quarter of Rome, walk for 20 minutes south along the Tiber then turn right at Ponte Sisto – this is Trastevere, the Bohemian heart of Rome, with its medieval, narrow streets and washing lines strung from shuttered windows above. Take a stroll through lanes lined with trattorias and bars towards Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, a cute neighbourhood square and meeting place for Romans.

But it’s the church here that’s the main attraction – the medieval Santa Maria di Trastevere is the oldest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and is a sight to see – the dimly-lit 12th century church is covered in mosaics, paintings and ancient columns. If you feel like grabbing lunch on the run, walk 2 minutes to Vicolo de’ Cinque to Dolce e Salato; this modest bakery has several varieties of delicious take-away pizza slices at low prices, as well as mouth-watering panini and cakes.

Save time and book a Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour or buy Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Tickets

Midday to Mid-afternoon: Piazzas, Fountains and Staircases

Campo de Fiori

Campo de Fiori – photo courtesy of ohbendorf via Flickr

Cross ancient Ponte Sisto over the Tiber towards the historic city centre, and continue straight ahead along Via dei Pettinari. Take a left down Via dei Giubbonari, lined with clothes shops, and you will emerge on Campo de Fiori. This colourful square, surrounded by cafes and restaurants, is dominated by a rather startling statue of philosopher Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in 1600 for heresy – it’s hard to imagine that executions once took place here. You might catch the open-air market, selling flowers, dried herbs and spices, oils, clothes, and fresh produce such as the ubiquitous Roman artichoke.

At the far end of the square take Via dei Baullari and cross Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II – Piazza Navona is just around the corner. But first, step into unassuming San Pantaleo church, with its Ionic columns, in front of you on triangular Piazza di San Pantaleo.  This small church will offer you unexpected sanctuary from the outside world for a few restful minutes. Enjoy the peace and admire the Baroque interior and beautiful ceiling frescoed by Filippo Gherardi.

Take narrow Via della Cuggana behind the church, and 30 seconds later you will gasp with delight when it opens out onto large and elegant Piazza Navona, surrounded by Baroque buildings and the dominant Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone. You will see Fontana di Moro, a fountain with a Bernini sculpture of a moor fighting a dolphin, and in the centre of the rectangular piazza is Bernini’s wonderful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi complete with Egyptian obelisk (another Angels and Demons location). At the far end is Fontana Del Nettuno. If you fancy an ice cream take a seat outside Tre Scalini, a café famous for its tartufo – hand-made chocolate ice cream roll – and take in the sights of artists, souvenir sellers and hustle and bustle. It costs half the price to take the tartufo away, but maybe it’s worth splashing out..?

Head out of the east side of the square and turn right up Corso del Rinascimento, passing Palazzo Madama, home of the Italian Senate, and take a left up Via degli Staderari. You will enter Piazza Sant’Eustachio, where (if you didn’t stop off at Tre Scalini) you might want a break at Sant’Eustachio il Caffé, said to make the best cappuccino in Rome, thanks to its special blend of wood-roasted coffee beans. Stand at the counter with the locals (if you can squeeze in), or pay double and sit outside. And perhaps buy a bag of their special coffee blend while you’re there.

Walk through the piazza and take Via della Palombella – you will suddenly see the terracotta exterior of the Pantheon in front of you. Follow this circular building round to come face to face with this ancient temple, one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings. The Pantheon was originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 AD – it’s difficult to comprehend just how old it is. When you enter the rotunda, now a church, look up – the dome is open to the skies, with the large round oculus said to symbolise the doorway to the heavens.  When it rains, it rains inside the Pantheon, and it’s quite a sight. Piazza della Rotunda is a popular square, and sitting outside one of the cafés or on the steps of the fountain in the centre is a great spot for people-watching.

Pantheon

Pantheon

Trevi Fountain is a 7-minute walk – take Via Dei Pastini, lined with souvenir shops, and through Piazza di Pietra, where the ancient exterior of the Temple of Hadrian stands. Continue straight along Via di Pietra and Via delle Muratte to reach Piazza di Trevi. Yes, you will probably be there along with the rest of Rome, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of the enormous Baroque fountain covered in sculptures of tritons and horses, complete with sparkling aqua-marine water. This has to be the most stunning fountain in Rome, built at the terminus of the aqueduct that supplied water to the capital. Join the tourists in throwing a coin in the fountain to ensure you return to Rome.

The Spanish Steps are 10 minutes away – once on Via Poli turn right on Via del Bufalo, and head straight, along Via di Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Via di Propaganda, and Piazza di Spagna – the Spanish Steps are on your right. This grand and elegant fan-shaped flight of stairs runs between Piazza di Spagna and the church of Trinità dei Monti, and is the widest staircase in Europe. Take a seat; take in the view of the piazza and its Baroque fountain, and Via Condotti beyond with its designer clothes shops. The John Keats museum is next to the steps, and at the top you can find the relaxing Villa Borghese gardens.

Mid-afternoon to Early Evening: Amphitheatres, Arches, and Ancient Monuments

Colosseum

Colosseum

To give your feet a bit of a rest for the last part of the day, jump on the metro to your next destination – the Colosseum. Spagna Station is close to the steps; take line A south for 3 stops to Termini, then take line B south for two stops to Colosseo. Alternatively, take a taxi; there is a rank on Piazza di Spagna.

The first sight of the Colosseum is overwhelming; this enormous ancient amphitheatre was the largest built in the Roman Empire, and was originally used for ‘entertainment’ such as gladiatorial battles, executions and dramas. Buy a combination ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (all open until an hour before sunset), and enter this circular structure, one of the most visited monuments in Rome. Stand on the partly reconstructed floor of the arena and imagine over 50,000 spectators seated around the tiered sections. Walk along the underground passages where animals and gladiators were held before contests.

View of Roman Forum and Palantine Hill from the Colosseum.

View of Roman Forum and Palantine Hill from the Colosseum.

This area is bursting with monuments to Ancient Rome. Outside the Colosseum you will see the Arch of Constantine, a striking triumphal arch which commemorates Constantine’s victory over Maxentius. Across the road, on Via dei Fori Imperiali, is the entrance to the Roman Forum – one sight not to be missed. Standing amongst the ruins of the government buildings, statues and temples of the ancient administrative and social centre of Rome makes you forget – for a while – that you are in the middle of a busy, modern city. This extensive complex will awaken the imagination, perhaps more so than any other spot in Rome. Stroll the ancient streets, passing monuments such as the Temple of Caesar, a temple built on the site of Julius Caesar’s cremation, and the remains of the Temple of Saturn with its portico of columns.

We finish our tour by walking up Palatine Hill, next to the Forum; the most central of Rome’s seven hills. This is one of the most ancient areas of the capital, where, according to legend, Romulus and Remus were found in a cave. This is where Rome was originally built and where the first Romans lived, followed by emperors and affluent citizens. Walk around the ruins of this open-air museum, amongst ancient houses and palaces, and then gaze one more time over the city, taking in the incredible views of the stadium of Circus Maximus, the Roman Forum, and sprawling, wonderful, Ancient Rome.

Head back to Colosseo metro stop; you are just two stops from Termini where you can reach anywhere you need to go – take a train to your airport or cruise port, or grab a taxi from the rank outside.

If you are lucky enough to have more than a day in Rome, there are plenty more sights to see. But you’ve probably realised that.

Read more: Ancient Rome: A Beginner’s Guide or download our Insider’s Guide to Rome

Louise Hanzlik

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One Response to “How to Spend One Day in Rome”

  1. Ally Says:

    Blimey, I’m worn out just reading that! Nice article Louise, that’s been bookmarked in the ‘useful for future trips’ folder!