They say all roads lead to Rome, and hopefully the road you are on will eventually wind its way around to the Eternal City as well. A trip to Rome means coming face to face with both ancient history and modern-day European city life, as well as a pinch of some of the tastiest traditional Italian home cooking to fuel your explorations of this living museum.
Rome has defied definition throughout the ages: at once calm and chaotic, ancient and modern, metropolitan and provincial – the face that Rome shows you all depends on where you choose to look.
Day 1: Getting Oriented in Rome
There are so many different ways to orient yourself in Rome. One of the most popular is to hop on (and off) Rome’s open-top hop on bus tour, which takes in the heart of Rome in six languages. You can even get oriented in Rome on a Segway. Or see the city’s nocturnal side on a night-time tour. You can also see a lot of the city on foot: several Rome walking tours concentrate on different eras in Rome’s history, including its Classical period and its medieval and Renaissance years.
After your tour, head over to Piazza Venezia to ogle at the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, known to locals as the “typewriter” or “wedding cake” for its unusual and imposing design, which many a local will tell you is actually an eyesore! Next door, climb up the steps to Campidoglio (Capitol Hill) and admire Michelangelo’s design of the square. Then head behind Campidoglio to dig into Rome’s past at the Roman Forum.
Next up is the Colosseum, one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. For truly impressive views it’s enough to wander around the exterior, but if you really want to see the remains of what ancient Roman spectators saw, buy your tickets on Via di Gregorio VII (just behind the Arch of Constantine) in the Palatine ticket office. You’ll avoid any long lines that have formed in front of the Colosseum itself. Keep your eyes open for the roaming modern-day gladiators who might approach you for a picture – fine if you want to take one with them, but just know that it costs around â‚¬5!
In a city as old as Rome one would expect a few skeletons in the closet – or in this case, in the crypt. You can creep along the eerie underground Roman catacombs several levels below ground and see burial chambers dating back to the Imperial period. You can also peer into the dark heart of Rome on a ghosts and mystery tour (if you have kids, they will love this). A sight often overlooked but well worth a visit is the Domus Aurea, where you can see what remains of the extravagant palace of the Emperor Nero, near the Colosseum (reservations are required).
To keep you going through the day you’ll need nourishment – and luck you’re in one of the world’s great culinary capitals. Hit one of the offbeat districts like the Testaccio or the Jewish Ghetto. For dinner you can take in an evening tour and then dine at a typical local eatery, or cruise the Tiber River and marvel at Rome by night.
Or treat yourself to traditional Roman home-cooking at Da Enzo in Trastevere, on Via dei Vascellari 29 (tel. 06 581 83 55), a small trattoria where you’ll need to book to get a table for either the 8pm or 10pm seating. At Da Enzo it’s an authentic dining experience without high touristy prices, enjoying traditional Roman pasta dishes like amatriciana and carbonara, or the famous and hard-to-find carciofi alla giudea (fried artichoke hearts).
Day 2: Centro Storico – Rome’s Historic Center
Start your second day by heading over to the Pantheon — but before you go in, enjoy a traditional Italian cappuccino for breakfast at La Tazza D’Oro, thought by many Romans to serve the best coffee in the capital. If it’s hot, you might ask for their granita al caffè, a sort of coffee-flavored slushy with homemade whipped cream.
Now you’re ready to step inside the Pantheon and gaze up at that famous hole in the center known as the oculus, which if caught at the right moment lets in an artistic, hazy beam of light just perfect for your photo collection.
Of course, friends and family back home want a souvenir, so instead of any old plastic trinket, head over to Via del Corso for some of the busiest shopping in Rome. Then swing by the Trevi Fountain to throw in a coin or two (according to legend, this ensures you’ll return to Rome someday) then it’s back over to Via del Corso, taking a detour on Via dei Condotti, Rome’s most expensive shopping street. This leads directly to the famous Spanish Steps. If you like to walk, climb the steps and head over to Pincio Hill, where you’ll get a beautiful view of Rome, and then come back down at Piazza del Popolo.
Tired? Maybe just a little? Reward yourself by swinging back over towards the Pantheon area to grab a gelato on the way at Giolitti (Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40), one of Rome’s most famous gelaterie, where you can get a sidewalk table and watch the world go by (your tired feet will thank you!).
Day 2: Drinking & Dining
Just before dinner head over to Piazza Navona, picture-perfect in the evening glow, and indulge in the Italian tradition of an aperitivo (before-dinner drink) at the charming and elegant Bar della Pace (Via della Pace 5). Continue your people-watching at one of the ivy-shaded tables and then dine at Navona Notte (Via del Teatro Pace 44), a delicious neighborhood pizzeria.
Day 3: The Vatican, the World’s Smallest Country
Even though you won’t need your passport to visit 0.2-square mile Vatican City, for a 3-day visit of Rome it’s best to see the Vatican Museums on a guided tour to beat the lines. Along the way you’ll see Castel Sant’Angelo, a former papal refuge with Rome’s most stunning and artistic bridge. Its angels line the way across the river to the Castel. Once outside, trace the wall containing the popes’ secret passageway back to St Peter’s Square and then down Via della Conciliazione to St Peter’s Basilica. Here you can admire the inside and (for a small fee) climb to the top of the cupola (or pay a little extra to take the elevator if you’re worn out). The views from up here are like nothing else in the world, and you can see the Vatican Gardens below.
Got some energy left? Then walk up to the Janiculum Hill (or take a load off and take the 118 electric bus), where you can “ooh and ahh” at the Roman skyline panorama in front of the Fontanta dell’Acqua Paola, known to locals as the “Fontanone” (the big fountain). If you’re here in the summer you might catch an outdoor concert in the evening.
Coming back down into Trastevere, you can have a drink at Friends, a “molto trendy” bar in Piazza Trilussa. And if you want an elegant dinner in a casual atmosphere, meet Romeo over at Spirito di Vino, who, if you’re lucky, will give you a tour of his wine cellar, which sits at the street level of ancient Rome and houses over 1,000 different labels.
Postscript: If you’re looking for more things to do, our complete list of Rome tours and activities should give you a good starting point. And when in Rome… there are some excellent day trips worth checking out. You could spend a whole day in Naples and Pompeii, explore the Tuscan villages of Assisi and Orvieto, or explore the Hellenophile splendor of Hadrian’s villa.