3-5 Day Travel Itinerary: Rome, Italy
Rome. No other city captivates the imagination and the senses in quite the same way. Around every corner there is an ancient historical site. Still, the city pulsates with life. Rome is a robust intermingling of the archaic, the antiquated, and the present day.
With the many sites to see, use this 3 day travel itinerary of Rome (with 2 bonus days) to get centered. The trip planner includes independent walks, a private tour, and several small group tours. At this vacation destination there are opportunities to mix with the locals who are savvy, smart, playful, warm, proud of their city and usually willing to share their favorite places. (And, hopefully the best places to eat!)
A trip to Rome inspires wonder at the greatness that humans are capable of, and at our resiliency. Catholic brides who marry in the Pantheon do so in a church that was once a Roman temple. Historians believe that the Vatican was built upon Nero’s killing grounds. In Piazza Navona, vendors hawk their wares in an first century athletic stadium that is filled with Renaissance and baroque masterpieces.
Romans are great re-cyclers. They are also unbelievably imaginative as evidenced by the grandeur of the churches; their many engineering marvels; the exquisite art painted on buildings, and the sculpture plopped on street corners. You do not have to step foot in a museum to be amazed. With the sheer numbers of iconic sites to visit, it is difficult not to feel a bit overwhelmed.
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Lodging in Rome: Joe and I recommend you pick a hotel within the triangle of land between Piazza di Spagna, the Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Navona. There are many 3 and 4 star hotels in this area that include breakfast. (Important for early morning tours!) From this historic-district location, you can walk to most sites and you will never be far from shops and restaurants.
For Joe and I, this isn’t the place to go 5 star. There is just too much to do. You will likely spend little time at your hotel. Lastly, if you are flying in, try to find lodgings that will arrange for private transfers. The main airport (Fiumicino) is about 45 minutes away. The price of a private car is only a little more than a taxi, and much more convenient than the bus or train. It is an expense that is worth it to Joe and I after a long plane ride.
Clothing in Rome: In general, pack clothes that are conservative and have safety features. Most locals dress something akin to business-casual. To blend in, and visit where you like, men and women should have their knees and shoulders covered. (Churches require this, and there is a church of nearly every corner.) It is also wise to have zippered front-facing pockets as well as RFID purses and wallets to protect valuables. Day bags should be on the small size (many churches and historical sites limit bag size). Finally, sturdy shoes are a must; there are many cobblestones and uneven surfaces.
Tickets and Reservations in Rome: To make the most of your trip it is CRITICAL you reserve tours/tickets months ahead of your visit. In Rome, admission is charged for many attractions including churches. For Colosseum and Vatican visits, book early morning small group tours. Also, be aware, at major sites there may be additional tickets to purchase for specialty exhibits.
Day 1: Walking Tour through Rome's Historic District (Tridente and Centro Storico)
Check-in to your hotel and unpack. Put on your walking shoes, and grab a detailed street map of the historic district. To fully enjoy this walk, get started by early afternoon. Make your way to the Piazza di Spagna, and the adjoining Spanish Steps. This is a great spot to start your Roman adventure.
The Steps were built in the 1700s to link a French church at the top of the hill with a Spanish square at the bottom. The elegant stairs and surrounding neighborhood have been inviting tourists to linger here ever since. It is easy to see why the area was favored by Dickens, Keats, and other wealthy Englishmen who made the square famous.
Climb to the top of the steps for beautiful city views. Pause for photos on the way down. Back in Piazza fill you water bottle in the fountain of a sinking boat. The water comes from an ancient Roman aqueduct. Grab a snack and sit on the steps for a while. Spy the streets leading away from the square. They are filled with high-end clothing, jewelry and art stores. You will see palm trees, outside cafes, and tourists from all over the world.
Take time to acclimate. The walk you are about to embark upon will take you down medieval lanes that are lined with Roman ruins, Renaissance basilicas, and Italian palaces too many to note. To take it all in, aim for a meandering pace. The total distance of the loop you are about to make will be about 2.5 to 3 miles, but give yourself the day (and night) to do it.
Exit the Piazza from the southern side, walking toward the Piazza Mignanelli and the Column of the Immaculate. Go right at the fork in the road onto Via Propaganda. Our next stop, the Trevi Fountain, is only a short distance away. You can use your map, or simply let the crowd pull you along.
Coming from this direction, you will likely enter the Trevi Fountain via a pedestrian lane (Via della Stamperia). Funneling into the multi-level space, you will notice that the luxury shops have morphed into souvenir establishments. Then, the fountain will pull your attention. It dominates the square.
The baroque basin and sculptures date back to 1732 when Nicola Salvi designed Neptune’s chariot being led by Tritons with Seahorses. The water that fills the fountain comes from a 2000 year old aqueduct that originates some 20 kms away. Secure your valuables, and hike around the square taking in the fountain and kaleidoscope of people from a variety of angles.
Leaving the fountain, travel along Via Dell Muratte to the Piazza di Pietra and the Temple of Hadrian. The temple, with its eleven remaining columns has been incorporated into the other buildings lining the square. In an area packed with palatial residences and government buildings, it is fun to see a snippet of Imperial Rome. Also, the piazza is often frequented by talented street musicians and artists.
Find Via Dei Pastini, and travel until you reach the Pantheon. Around 608, Pope Boniface IV turned this ancient Roman temple into a church, thereby sparing it from destruction. Michaelanglo used the building’s dome as inspiration for dome in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Walking between the building’s imposing Corinthian columns, you will pass under massive bronze doors. Look up at what is considered to be Rome’s greatest architectural achievement, a perfectly symmetrical dome. Light streaming in through the oculus illuminates the marble interior. Back outside, explore the fountains, shops, and restaurants that surround the abutting square.
Take your time meandering through the tangled labyrinth of narrow lanes that connect the Pantheon to Piazza Navona. There are bars, specialty shops, monuments, museums, and churches to peek into. Many are cobblestone and traffic-free. If you pass Chiesa S. Luigi dei Francesi (1598-1601) stop in. The National (in Rome) Church of France has a stunning gold interior and 3 Caravaggio paintings.
Piazza Navona is a sophisticated circus of Renaissance and baroque buildings and arts. The old Roman athletic stadium is surrounded by graceful palaces and churches. Sandwiched between these behemoth structures there are restaurants with red-checkered tablecloths and boutiques. The square is home to three of Rome’s most famous fountains; the Fountain of the Four Rivers, Fontana del Moro, and Fontana del Nettuno. Street artisans and musicians fill the spaces in-between.
This ambiance at this piazza is spectacular day and night. The goal of this walk is to arrive here late enough so that after exploring the fountains, palaces, churches and shops you can have dinner outside at a restaurant bordering one of the fountains. Touristy? Hell, yes! And, one of the most romantic evenings you will ever experience. Sit, have a drink, and watch the sky turn one-hundred shades of blue and orange as the sun sets. Enjoy the balloon vendors, the climbing ivy, and the musicians serenading diners for tips.
When you are fat, happy, and have done a little shopping reverse the walk. Take in each site again, under the moon. In the evening, there will be fewer foreigners and more locals out walking with their families. The piazzas and palaces are as stunning under streetlight as the sunlight. When you arrive back at the Spanish Steps, buy a gelato and enjoy the steps communally with the rest of the crowd.
TRAVEL TIP: If you arrive at Piazza Navona too early for dinner you can lengthen the walk by moving on to Campo de Fiori. “Il Campo” is a market by day and an open-air pub by night. It’s busy and colorful and fun to visit any time of day. The market is about 2.2mi away from Piazza Navona via Piazza Adriana.
Day 2: Vatican City and City Tour
Rise early and have a hearty breakfast. Its Vatican day. There is much to see at the vast complex including the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. You can also climb St. Peter’s dome (551 steps), view sacred relics in the Museo Storico Artistico, explore the Tomb of St. Peter, and tour the Vatican Gardens. There are separate charges for each of these activities.
If possible, plan to tour the Vatican on a Tuesday or Thursday (the least crowded days). Keep in mind on Wednesdays the pope has a weekly audience so it’s difficult to access the basilica and dome until afternoon. Finally, on Mondays many of the other museums in Rome are closed, increasing attendance at the Vatican.
To visit the Vatican Museums, Joe and I recommend booking a tour with a company that has a contract to do early entrance tours (Google: early entrance tour), especially if you plan to visit the Sistine Chapel. An early entrance tour Joe and I did began with 20 minutes in the Sistine Chapel (with a number of other visitors). Our group then hurried to the museum’s main entrance to start a general museum tour. This set off a few minutes before the doors opened to the general public, so we were always a little ahead of the crush. At the end of the tour, we did a second viewing of the Sistine Chapel. This time, we were enveloped in such a horde of people it was difficult to keep track of each other (let alone the others in our group!). We realized then what a gift it was to have the early morning time in the Chapel.
The plan Joe and I recommend for first time Vatican visitors is as follows: Start the day with a small group, early entrance tour of the museums that begins in the Sistine Chapel. Next, tour St. Peter’s Basilica. When you are finished, climb the Dome for spectacular views and souvenirs (there is an uncrowded gift shop on the roof). Visit the Museo Storico Artistico to see some exquisite jewels (tends to be less visited), and then have fun strolling around St. Peter’s Square. Takes lots of pictures. The number of masters and the quality of the masterpieces you will see is so exceptional and dense that you will need the photos to help you remember all that you experienced.
Plan on about 6 hours for your Vatican tour. After lunch, it will be late afternoon. To round out the day, Joe and I urge you to consider booking a private tour of the city. There are many companies that will arrange private tours by car, Segway, helicopter and foot. Though more expensive than other types of tours, a private tour allows you to target what you want to see, and cover a large amount of ground in a short period. And, if you shop around, they are not as expensive as you might imagine.
Joe and I once booked an amazing private golf cart tour of Rome. We had a private guide and created our own itinerary. Zooming through the neighborhoods of Rome in an open cart with a local as our guide was tremendously fun. We stopped when wanted, and saw sites we never would have in an organized group tour. After 6 hours on foot at the Vatican, an airy ride through the streets of Rome was a great treat.
The golf cart tour allowed us to get away from the crowds in the main historic district. Here are a few of the places we went on our golf cart tour: a ride around the Vatican walls, St. Angelo’s Bridge (breathtaking) and Castel St. Angelo, Campo de Fiori, Gianicolo Hill and the Fontana dell Acqua Paola, Piazza del Campidoglio, the Colosseum, Jewish Ghetto, Circus Maximus, Aventine Hill and the Orange Garden, Bocca Dell Verita, and many more. Wow!
Tonight: Realistically, you will be doing well if you slump your sweaty, exhausted body into a chair at a restaurant near your hotel. As an alternative, for you night owls, take a cab to the neighborhood of Trastevere and explore the restaurants, bars, and ivy-covered ochre buildings.
Day 3: Ancient Rome and the Ruins
Today’s itinerary starts at the Colosseum. Once again, Joe and I recommend booking a small group, early entrance admission. The Colosseum gets very crowded and has little shade. It is a more relaxing to visit when the crowds are thinner and the sun is not too high. There are varying levels of access when you book tickets. You will need to choose between general, underground, and upper level options.
No matter which level you select, the feeling you get when look out over the amphitheater for the first time cannot be described. It is impossible not to feel awe at the drama and terrible brutality that was played out in this magnificent gladiator arena.
When you are finished at the Colosseum, move on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. These locations are much easier to navigate on your own. However, the sites are spread out and not always well marked. A good quality guide can enrich the experience. For that reason, we recommend purchasing a tour that includes all 3 sites.
In ancient times, Palatine Hill was home to Rome’s emperors and ruling class. Today, you will view the ruins of great palaces and estates. Moving on to the Forum, you will walk through ancient Rome’s downtown. At one time, the area was Rome’s commercial, religious, and government city center. Traveling through this collection of arches and columns with modern-day basilicas and buildings in the distance is a surreal ending to an exciting excursion.
Plan for at least four hours to complete the tour. This afternoon, depending upon your level of energy, we suggest heading to nearby Piazza del Campidoglio.
The Piazza del Campidoglio sits at the top of Capitoline Hill, and is home to the Capitolene museums. A grand cordonata (staircase) leads up to the piazza. Along the way, you will be dwarfed with an impressive line-up of statues and monuments. The piazza itself was designed by Michaelangelo and is revered as one of the most beautiful in Rome.
Reserve this evening for eating, shopping, and perhaps that trip to Trastevere.
Days 4 and 5: Bonus Days
There is still so much to experience. Here are few suggestions, some of which are day trips: Biking through Villa Borghese and touring the Galleria Borghese, visiting the Basilica Di Santa Maria Maggiore (or any of Rome’s churches), taking a bike ride down Via Appia Antica (ancient Rome’s highway), touring the Roman Catacombs (ancient Christian burial grounds), visiting Termi Di Caracalla (ancient Roman baths), or the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s summer palace).
Viaggi sicuri (safe travels)! Laura and Randy
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